“Searching for Italy” is a 6-part television series that follows Stanley Tucci, an Italian-American actor, as he travels across Italy to discover the secrets and delights of the country’s regional cuisine. In the Naples episode, Tucci describes a custom dating back more than 100 years with roots in the working-class cafés of Naples. A caffé sospeso, a suspended or pending coffee, is a cup paid for in advance as an anonymous act of charity. It started when someone who was having a lucky day ordered a sospeso, paying the cost of two coffees and drinking only one. Either the next client would receive the free cup, or, more likely, it would be reserved for someone a little down on his luck who inquired if a sospeso were available.
It is a small, but benevolent, gesture that can have great power. There is a story in Naples that a woman about to embark on a job interview was standing on line for her coffee when another woman cut in line ahead of her. She was annoyed but when she got up to the counter she was told that the other woman had paid for her coffee. It took the sting out of her annoyance and buoyed her spirits. She had been out of work for 10 months and faced the interview with a renewed sense of hope.
The custom seems to be spreading. In Spain it is known as Café Pendientes and in France it is called Café en Attente. In the United States it goes by the less enchanting expression, “paying it forward.” In a town in Massachusetts, a woman named Eileen went to settle her coffee bill at a local donut shop. She was told that her coffee had been paid for by the previous customer. Eileen was so amazed that she returned to the shop the next morning and paid for two coffees, drinking only one. Her action prompted quite a chain reaction: The next 55 customers decided to do the same thing. The store owner said, “It was infectious, the generosity was unbelievable and it put everyone in such a good mood.”
Even small acts of kindness can have a massive impact on those who receive them. Everyone has had hard times or lonely times and a caffé sospeso honors the solidarity and humanity in all of us. It also demonstrates that people take pleasure knowing that they have helped someone, even when they do it anonymously. Kindness can create a chain of goodwill…one caffé sospeso at a time.