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It was my first time at Karma Kitchen today. I must've got in at around 1:45PM and the Maitre-D tells me that they're likely to be full for the day. "Really?" I said. "Our last seating is at 2:30PM but unfortunately, as you can see here, we've got 11 tables waiting before you." He was right, of course. Dozens of people were waiting outside in their clusters; it was a bit cold but everyone was down to wait half an hour for their Karma Kitchen experience.
In seemingly futile attempt, I protested: "I've driven 2 hours just to experience this, and I've been trying to come here for over year and a half. I may not be able to come back for a long while. I've heard so much about Karma Kitchen -- I HAVE to get in today. Is there ANYTHING you can do to let me in?"
Listening in to our conversation is a fellow who had just added his name on the waitlist. Zach, as I later found out. Moved by something I said, Zach turns to the Maitre-D and says, "You know what, I'd rather that he gets in before me. Can you make sure of that?"
A little bit confused, I look at him quizically. Seriously? He's just going to give up his spot for me? He doesn't even know me.
"No, no, it's fine, you can go ahead," I said. Much to my surprise, Zach replied, "The theme for the day is compassion and nonviolence, so you can't say no today! You have to go ahead of me." It was a stunning response, and got us chatting a bit about how I'm not used to such experiences. At one point, Zach asked, "Are you not used to getting gifts?" "Well, I guess not," I said after some reflection. "You just need more practice with that, then!"
Right then, he reached for his wallet. What, was he going to give me money now? No. He reach for a card and gave it to me. A "Smile Card." He encouraged me to practice kindness, and explained the pay-it-forward concept.
It was kind of special, I have to say. Even more so because I had earlier seen another person arguing with the Maitre-D about trying to get ahead of someone else in the waitlist. That's the typical pattern, I suppose. But Zach just turned it around by his own example. Soon, all of us outside caught onto the vibe and formed a spontaneous community; instead of getting our separate tables, we all grouped into bunches with random strangers such that most everyone there got a seat.
The food, the ambiance, the volunteers, the conversations -- it was all awesome. In a way, I expected that. What I didn't expect is that my Karma Kitchen experience would begin before I even set foot in the restaurant.
[Zach, if you ever read this, I will definitely pay-forward that Smile Card.]
--Nikhil on Dec 12, 2010