It happened every day in parking lots all over Pittsburgh, unnoticed except for those involved in the exchange. It took place unbidden or without prompting, and it is what I liked to call the Aldi Quarter Courtesy. I don’t know if this is just a phenomenon in our area or if it happens in all Aldi’s parking lots, but if you don’t know what I’m talking about read on.

Unlike other grocery stores, to use a shopping cart at Aldi’s, a shopper must go to the train of carts chained together near the entrance of the store, insert a quarter into the slot on the handle on the right, which unlocks the cart from the line of the others. Then you are on your merry shopping way. After making your purchases and unloading them into your car, you return the cart to the row of carts and you get your quarter back.
But that’s not what usually happens.

More often than not, small acts of kindness are repeated over and over as many shoppers choose to “pay it forward” and either give their cart to someone, telling them to keep their quarter or they return the cart and leave the quarter in the slot so that the next person does not have to pay. I even know of one person who likes to take a few dollars in quarters and “seed” the carts’ slots as a gesture of kindness.
It takes no money from Aldi’s pockets as they make no profit from the cart “rental”; it is more an incentive to keep the carts from being left all over the parking lot. Last year a week or so before Christmas, I pulled into the Aldi’s parking lot, and as I got out of my car, a young man came up to his car, which was parked next to mine, and put his groceries into his trunk. When he saw me step out of my car with a quarter in my hand, he said in accented English, “You want cart?”

“Sure,” I said, holding out my quarter.

He waved his hand. “No. No. You keep. My treat. Early Christmas!”

It warmed my heart on a cold December day, and as I was pushing the cart toward the store, I saw two others handing off quarters. After making my purchase and unloading my cart, I looked for someone on whom to bestow the favor of my quarter, but alas, there was no one around. So, I took my cart back to the rack, but I left my quarter in the slot, and I felt a bit like Santa Claus.

With the COVID pandemic, much of what we took for granted or enjoyed has changed. Recently, a friend told me a story of how he was in a local grocery story when he saw a short woman trying to reach an item on the store’s top shelf. A tall man, he kindly reached up, retrieved the item, and put it into the woman’s cart. She snapped at him, “You touched that. I don’t want that now!”

With the coming new year, my wish is that we can return to being human again. Where we can ditch the masks to see smiles again. Where people aren’t afraid to hug each other again. Where bakery clerks can hand a child a cookie without fear of causing a scene. Where a stranger can once again do a good deed without reproach and where the little kindness of giving a quarter at Aldi’s can, once again, can brighten a day, foster kindness and appeal to our better nature.

By Janice Lane Palko