UNITED STATES—In the landscape of American virtues honesty sticks out like a pickle on a porcupine. Let me share with you a story about honesty and pastrami. The other day a friend said, “Since you’re in the neighborhood, can you pick up a half pastrami sandwich with a side of potato salad? You can have the pickle.”

There were a lot of side details to implementing the order, like guessing the kind of bread (sourdough or hallah). I went for the hallah, heeding the original edict for ‘white bread.’ I could have gotten back on the phone, but I think you should just go so far. Take your hallah or not—I’m not going to dignify the tragedy of not getting the kind of bread you want. If you want tragedy, read Euripides.

Additionally, a half sandwich available only as a dine-in option; that meant ordering the full slab of a pastrami sandwich for $14.63. Then there was the matter of the treat desired: Canter’s bakery offered no key-lime pie, so I went with the carrot cake instead. And I must say, things worked out well all around.

Almost… except that matter of honesty, which has saddled our nation’s myths, one way or another: Geo. Washington, to Honest Abe to Tricky Dick. The carrot cake was a hit, and I heard no complaint about the hallah bread.

We get to the heart of the story—honesty—when it comes time to pay the cashier, who is separate from the person who actually took the order and took the heat when it came to all the specific details of the order, which had to be repeated and ascertained various times. Having just a pastrami sandwich with pastrami alone isn’t such a big deal, but there is an overwhelming force to serve a sandwiching with all the garnish that most customers expect.

Clarifications out of the way and carrot cake in the bag, I handed the cashier a $20 bill. The total came to $8.63. The pastrami sandwich is quite a bit more; it’s a $14 piece of work, and I shouldn’t have been getting a $10 bill back. The honesty kicked in.

I immediately handed the bill back to the cashier. He was indeed grateful: that good pulse was an instant dividend from my honesty. Then the cashier pointed out that the one before the four was scrunched into the dollar sign, so anybody would have read the price as 4 instead of 14. When delivering the sandwich, I told about the mix-up with the cashier.

“When management makes a mistake in my favor,” said my friend. “I always take it.”
That’s pretty good advice. I now consider how my paying full price was a disservice to my friend whose money I should have been watching as carefully as my own. I was going to be reimbursed, so it wasn’t really my money I was being honest with. (Oh, those darn Presbyterian scruples).

What did I get out of Canter’s, beside the pickle, was a quandary and a half. If something doesn’t benefit all, it’s not a benefit. Like my friend said, “Their sandwiches are so overpriced.”

When considering another’s money and well-being as one’s own, I would do things differently next time.

And there’s always a next time when one is patient and bides one time. That is the way with honesty and pastrami.

A final word. Honesty as a thing unto itself it can be almost reckless: as rational beings our act ought to linked to interest. However, there are times when kneejerk honesty yields the warmest result: a pure smile, a cup of coffee, the birth of a friendship. These are not inconsiderable gifts.

Humorist Grady Miller divides his time between Los Angeles and a quandary. He is the author of the comic volumes “Late Bloomer” and “Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood.”