The Art of Paying it Forward, Naples Style

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One day, many years ago, I was driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco and when I reached the toll booth, I was informed by the operator that my toll had already been paid, by the driver of the car in front of me. I was, naturally, surprised and delighted by this random act of kindness. Unlike having a drink bought for me in a bar, it came without any strings attached -- an anonymous gesture of generosity and goodwill.

A simple and small gesture, to be sure, but with an enormous effect -- after all, I still remember it clearly, though it happened more than 15 years ago.

A few years later, I learned about a Neapolitan tradition called the caffè sospeso ("pending" coffee or literally, "suspended coffee") in which someone who was either feeling particularly generous or had experienced some good fortune would order a sospeso, paying for two espressos but only drinking one. Then later, a less-fortunate person who entered and enquired as to whether a "sospeso" was available could have a coffee -- free of charge. This tradition allegedly began approximately a century ago, and while it had grown nearly obsolete in Italy in recent years, it's now experienced a revival and started gaining popularity in other countries around the world, including Spain, France, and the United States, where it's been picked up by a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, an anonymous Tim Horton's customer who paid for 500 coffees for others, and even by the mega-chain Starbucks.

While large chain corporations taking it over somewhat changes the dynamic (the beauty of the original caffè sospeso is that, like my forever-nameless toll-payer, it is anonymous -- the giver offers their gift without needing to announce it or show off, and the receiver gets their coffee with no strings attached and without feeling obligated to somehow repay the favor), it's a beautiful custom and I think it's wonderful that it's started to regain interest.

It's become a worldwide movement, and a few websites, including Suspended Coffees and Coffee Sharing, have been started to track the cafés around the world that participate in this endeavor.

It's even spread beyond coffee, and in Italy ​you can now purchase a "gelato sospeso" (suspended gelato) for an underprivileged child.

What do you think of this tradition? Can you think of other areas where it would work well?