Best Lunch Ever, With Aaron's Last Wish

I had lunch (along with Heidi, Hollis, and Steve from Boston Magazine) with Seth Collins on Friday. We split the bill. Actually, we paid the bill; Seth covered the tip.

I’ve been waiting over a year to have lunch with Seth. Seth’s brother, Aaron Collins, died tragically last year. His last wish to his loved ones was to go out and make someone’s day – specifically a waiter or waitress – by giving an awesome tip. Not 25%.  More like $500.

Seth and his family did exactly that in the days after Aaron’s death, and posted a video of it online as a tribute to Aaron. Then something interesting happened: the video went viral. People started sending money to them to do more of this kind of thing. And so “Aaron’s Last Wish” began: Seth would go to diners, delis, and pizza joints and give out $500 tips to unsuspecting food servers.

This story got some national traction. Money started coming in from everywhere. And for the last 6 months, Seth has been traveling around the country. He’s nearing his goal of doing this in every state in America. I had seen online that he was in New England, so I wasn’t totally surprised to get the email I’d been waiting for: “Neal, I’ll be in Boston for the next few days. Want to join me?” 

The quick details are: We met for lunch at Picco in the South End. After the pizzas and salads, Seth stood to present a tip to Mike McCaw, the real nice guy who was our waiter. He told Mike about Aaron, and explained how his brother wanted us to make Mike’s day like this. Mike seems like such a mensch: genuinely humble, his first response was to share his condolences with Seth. His second response was a promise to do something good and meaningful with this money; his third response was a promise to “pay it forward.”  You can watch the video of the moment here.

I’m pretty addicted to these videos; this is the 84th time Seth has given away a $500 tip. I get a little excitement from watching each time Seth presents another tip to another food server – I’m inspired by each short video on his website; sometimes with laughter, and sometimes with tears.

Each story is similar yet different. Sometimes the waiter or waitress cries; sometimes they have a story about how they really needed this. Sometimes they promise to share the money with everyone else on their shift. But there is one constant: You just know that this is a story that they’re going to share with people in their lives for a long, long time to come. They talk of “paying it forward,” and you have to think that because a total stranger stepped into their lives to bring some light and love, that they (and others witnessing it) are going to be inspired some other day, in some other context, to make somebody else’s day.

And I think that’s the essence of why this is so powerful. There is something so pure about what Seth’s doing in Aaron’s memory. There is no agenda, hidden motive, or anything that’s in it for him. There’s just this simple concept: Is it possible to step into the life of a stranger for a moment and completely transform the direction of his or her day? (There’s no meritocracy here. The $500 is not a reward for good waitressing. In fact, Mike’s best line was, “I wish you guys had been a little more difficult!”)

You hear people speak about “random acts of kindness.”  I remember once talking with Danny Siegel about this (it may even appear in one of his writings). These are acts of kindness, but they aren’t so random. Better:  “crafted and planned acts of kindness, executed spontaneously.”

Look, we didn’t house homeless people, or build a cancer hospital, or bring peace to the Middle East. But who is any of us to say that each tip couldn’t cause a chain reaction? The waiter or waitress, who may have been treated so shabbily a little earlier, now brings an extra smile or joy to someone else in their lives.  Onlookers are inspired to do the same. (I swear the women at the next table were whispering to each other, “Oh, I’ve heard about this guy!”) Those of us watching the videos or hearing Aaron’s story are inspired to pay it forward in different ways, to bring dignity, pleasure, and joy to the people we come into contact with. Who’s to say how far the ripple-effects of these planned acts of kindness extend?

Thanks, Seth. And thanks Aaron. I needed that dose of joy this week, I really did. I’ll do my best to pay it forward to people I come into contact with. And I can’t wait for the next video – and the next time we can have lunch together.