I realize that part of what makes The Magic at the Aramingo Diner so much fun is that, until now, there haven't been names and faces attached to the many customers who unknowingly took part in the redcent pay-it-forward extravaganza at the diner that has now made national headlines.
(The charming story, which I broke on this blog, has gone semi-viral: MSNBC picked it, as did the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and multiple other bloggers and twitterers, confirming my belief that this story is irresistible.)
So I hope that my identifying Chanthy Koam and Orlando Munuz as participants in the scheme (though not the originators) won't destroy the sneaky magic of this tale for anyone. It's just that this couple is so adorable and sweet, I've got to introduce them to you.
Chanthy is a 26-year-old accountant who lives near LaSalle University. She contacted me after reading my blog to say that she and her fiancé, Orlando Munez, also 26, were the first recipients of the day’s pay-it-forward favor at the 52-year-old landmark Port Richmond restaurant at 3356 Aramingo Ave.
Chathy, Orlando and Orlando’s little boy were eating breakfast in the Aramingo’s dining room when Chanthy noticed that the people sitting directly across from them – a couple in their 30s – kept staring at them.
We've all had that experience at one time or another, right? Some stranger stares at us and we're thinking, what, is there a pigeon on my head? Egg on my face? What?
In Chanthy and Orlando's case, I imagine the stranger was thinking, "That couple is so cute, it's unfair to the rest of us."
Anyway, says Chanthy, who was getting unnerved by the couple but didn't confront them, “I was like, why do they keep looking over here?”
She found out when she and Orlando went to pay for the eggs, sausages, pancakes, home fries and coffee they’d consumed. The staring couple, the waitress told them, had picked up Chanthy and Orlando’s tab.
“They told her to tell us, ‘Merry Christmas’," says Chanthy.
“I was in shock! I didn’t know whether to cry or smile. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ I never imagined a total stranger would do something so nice, a simple thing like pick up a check.”
It wasn’t the amount of the check that touched her, says Chanthy, it was the gesture. With all the bad things you hear in the news, she says, it felt great to be part of something good.
Right away, Chanthy told Orlando, “We have to do this for someone else so they can feel the same way.”
So she asked the waitress to let her and Orlando pick up the check of the people who’d been sitting to her left -a mom and her two sons, who seemed to have some physical disabilities.
“We said, ‘Wish them Merry Christmas for us' and we left,” Chanthy says. "It made us feel so happy because we knew she'd feel the way we did."
Chanthy and Orlando didn’t know, until they read my blog, that they were on the front end of a pay-it-forward chain that went on for hours (an Aramingo manager told me it continued for two hours; other news outlets have said it stretched on for five), in which about 20 patrons picked up tabs
But she and Orlando have vowed to make an annual Christmas tradition out of paying-it-forward at a diner.
“It gives you that nice holiday feeling,” she says.
So does 1) knowing you were one who decided to keep the initial wonderful gesture going, and 2) deciding not to assume the worst when a stranger stares at you.
When my phone rings here at the Daily News, nine times out of ten the caller begins the conversation with, “Yeah, so what happened was…”.
Because this is Philly, the caller doesn’t say, “My name is Bob” – or Mary – “and I wonder if I could have a moment of your time?” Philadelphians are too direct for that. They just say, “Yeah, so what happened was…”, and then tumble into a tale they think oughta be shared with a wider audience. I love getting these calls (even the ones where it becomes clear, after 30 seconds, where the caller sowed the seeds of his own misery), because they give me chance to connect with fellow citizens in a way that no other job allows. Well, okay, no other job for which I’m remotely qualified.
That’s why my blog is titled “So What Happened Was…”. To me, it’s the quintessentially Philly way of saying, “Once upon a time.” When I hear it, I know a good story is coming. And I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Ronnie Polaneczky has been an award-winning columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News since 1999, offering a front-steps perspective on every aspect of city life, from the sublime to the stupid. In her past life, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlantic City Magazine, associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine and a fulltime freelancer published in Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Reader's Digest, Men's Health, MarieClaire and others. She lives with her husband, daughter and various pets in the city's Fairmount section, where she dreams of one day singing The National Anthem at an Eagles game. In addition to her column and blog, you can enjoy Ronnie's musings in podcast form here.