More people brought their food to the register. It was the same: a small fist waving cash, a young face beaming. Each diner got an early present, courtesy of the kid in black.
When pressed, the kid said the money was supposed to have bought him a PlayStation 4, but that was OK: He already had a version of the game system.
Word spread. A physician whose own child was in the hospital wept when the kid bought her meal. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged the kid. Then she hugged him some more.
The guys who fly the life-flight helicopter trooped down to the cafeteria and made the kid an offer: Hey, buddy, want to see our chopper? The kid thought about it. No, he told them, I have things to do here.
A child who’d had brain surgery came down. At the sight of the kid, his face lit like a star. For a moment, they shared that bond that only children know, that secret link that fades as we grow older.
And so it went. When the kid ran out of cash, his dad ponied up additional money; others dug into their pockets, or hit the ATM, then gave their money to the kid. By 12:30, the kid had spent about $500, fed maybe 100 people.
Then he was gone, a walking reminder that not all gifts come colorfully wrapped.
The kid in black is Jerry Hatcher Jr., 8, of Kennesaw, a third grader at Blackwell Elementary in Cobb County. Jerry apparently likes to stay busy. Earlier this week, he visited a retirement home in Smyrna and gave residents plants to brighten their rooms.
But that wasn’t enough. “He said, ‘I want to do something bigger,’” said his mom, Jenny Hatcher. Then he remembered Scottish Rite. Jerry had spent time there this summer, visiting his younger brother, Javier, who had undergone a serious lung operation.
Maybe he could buy meals for people at the hospital? His dad, Jerry Sr., answered with a question of his own: Do you want to give up a PlayStation to buy meals for strangers? The kid didn’t hesitate.
Jerry Jr. wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday afternoon. He had a role in his church’s Christmas play that evening — he was a shepherd, watching over his flock by night — and didn’t have time to talk.
But Jerry had already made his point: The best gifts are those you give. Two thousand years ago, three men bearing gifts shared that message.
On Christmas Eve in Atlanta, so did the kid in black.