Back in September 11, 2001 I rolled out of my bed and literally went to class in my pajamas with no idea what was about to happen. The professor was late, and myself and my classmates spent the first few minutes just looking at each other as we waited for her. When she came into the room, she pulled a television in with her and as she plugged it in and turned it on, it was almost as if my heart had stopped. I was hours away from my family, and because we were north of NYC and my family were all south of the city, phones were mostly cut off or not working, so despite being somewhere that I lived at the time (my college) I felt like I was all alone, despite knowing I was with people I knew, and trusted, I felt like I was a come from away. It took over a day to get through to someone in my family and when I finally spoke to them I felt a little bit better. My family were all okay, safe, though rattled. Some of my friend's families weren't so safe, and once I learned that, I was a mess. A local high school nearby my hometown had a number of students in it that lost at least one family member, many lost at least one parent. It was rough for a while, but I stayed by their sides (despite being far away) as best as I can. I still talk to a few of them and will continue to stay by their sides always.
September 11, 2019, 18 years later, I rolled out of my bed, got dressed, and went to the Dunkin Donuts to collect the coffee and donuts I had ordered earlier. Once I picked those up, I stopped at a local Ambulance Corps and dropped one set off. The young woman who answered the door when I knocked looked almost like she was going to cry, despite smiling widely as I handed her the coffee and munchkins. She seemed happy that the Ambulance Corps been thought of in a way of thanks, and it felt good to give them thanks for all they do to keep us safe and healthy every day. Then after that, I went to a local Police Station and the local Fire House to do the same thing as I’d done at the Ambulance Corps.
All three places asked me who I was, and at each place, I replied, "Someone who appreciates what you do every day to keep us safe and healthy. I'm someone that wants to pay it forward." I didn't do this because I wanted attention, I did this because THEY deserve attention. They deserve thanks. They deserve more than coffee and munchkins, but that's a start. These are the people who risk their lives every day to help us, to keep us safe, just like the first responders and recovery people did on 9/11/01 and the days following. And I wanted to be sure they knew that they were appreciated for everything they do to keep our community safe.
As I rode in train to New York City, I thought about all the lives who’ve changed mine. I thought about how important and special it was to me to do what I could for other people. If I could be like the people from Newfoundland, if I could change the lives of others a little bit at a time, for the better, then I could maybe change the world for the better too. I also thought about the day, about what the day means to me and what if could mean to others. I also found myself thinking about how every day should mean the chance to help others and not just 9/11. As the train pulled into Penn Station, I decided I was going to do something random, something nice, for someone else every day.
Once in the city, I got to meet my friend Jeanette, a survivor of the attacks back in 2001, for lunch. I don’t get to see her too much, so when she found out I was coming into the city, we made it a point to connect, if only for a little bit on her lunch break at work. I love every time I see her or talk to her because she’s the type of person to raise someone up, to help them stay afloat, not to tear them down. She’s a special person and one I’d do anything I can for, and one of the people that helped me to choose to follow Kevin’s Pay-It-Forward movement this year and every year after this one. Jeanette is the type of person to give all she can to others, she even leaves work early on Tuesdays to go volunteer and the 9/11 Memorial Museum and tells those who come to the museum stories of people, of the artifacts, of whatever area in the museum she is assigned to at that time. For a lot of people who lived through it, it is a hard thing to do, but yet, she still does it. That shows how strong a person she is, and how caring too, because she sees how important it is for others to know what happened. Jeanette is the type of person I’ve always wanted to be like, strong, brave, helpful, kind, caring, and more. Sure, I have some of those qualities, but not all, not yet. Jeanette, to me, is strength, loyalty, bravery and the ways she’s helped myself and others are innumerable. And so one of the people I pay it forward for, is her.
After lunch Jeanette had to go back to work and I walked up the block to the Schoenfeld Theatre to start in my journey to help Kevin Tuerff (the real Kevin T, for those of you who know the show) pay it forward in other ways. A few days ago he asked me, as I’d be at the matinee of Come From Away, if I’d do him a favor and try to find four people to give seats to the “You Are Here” Documentary later in the evening. It wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do as most people I spoke to had already had plans, but I did find one person, a man who was sat next to me at the matinee. His name is Andy, and he and I had the privilege of going backstage with the one and only Chad Kimball. Chad showed us what it looked like backstage, showed us the Newfoundland flags hanging up in the wings, even let us hold one of the Codfish! We got to take pictures with him and he even gave me a hug, which only cemented my desire to do even more good today and every day. Chad didn’t have to do that, he didn’t have to do any of that, but he did anyway, and what’s more, he ASKED to. Now, as a theatre person for as long as I can remember, and despite knowing people who’ve been on Broadway, I’ve NEVER been backstage before, till 9/11/19. And the fact that it was Come From Away and Chad Kimball that helped me to get there, it makes it even more special to me. So for Kevin, Andy, Chad, as well as the rest of the casts and crews of CFA I also will spend the rest of my life, paying it forward.
When we left through the stage door again Andy and I had met Petrina, Alex, Geno and Julie, as well as Chad, and he was grinning so wide that I’d been able to do this for him. He thanked me repeatedly and I made plans to meet Andy at the movie theatre and we parted ways for a few hours. I took the time to give out a few gift cards to some of the homeless/poor people on the streets so they could at least have a meal. I purchased a number of five dollar gift cards and between the matinee and the documentary and then again after the documentary I kept giving them out to those who looked like they needed it. Each of them thanked me, and the looks of gratitude on their faces made me feel good, that I could do a small thing for them. Again, I didn’t do it for the thanks, I did it to pay it forward, to help those around me.
Once I’d given out three gift cards, I stopped for dinner myself on the way to the documentary You Are Here. Once I got there, I waited for Andy, only to find that he was not actually at the theatre I was in, but at the one across the street! So we parted ways and he walked over there and we both set to see the amazing documentary of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland over September 11-16, 2001. The documentary focuses on what happened when the Plane People landed at Gander and what happened in the five days that followed. There were 7,000 people dropped into a town which only held 9,000, but they didn’t argue, they didn’t complain, they just helped out of the goodness of their hearts. The Newfoundlanders took care of those who’d been displaced, they gave them food, water, clothing, shelter too, but as Mayor Claude Elliott said, “most importantly they needed love.” The documentary tells all those who were able to watch it, what happened in Gander and that it isn’t a story of what happened on 9/11 exactly, but that it’s a 9/12 story, which tells what happened in the aftermath of what happened on 9/11. It also shows a positive outlook on such a negative time in the world. It’s the spirit of taking care of others, and they certainly did that. The actions of the Newfoundlanders on those days is the reason Kevin Tuerff started his Pay-It-Forward movement and I understand why and how it will change the world around me, and I will do this every year from now on.
The best part of going to the theatre I was at wasn’t having to walk up many levels of broken escalators, it was actually getting to meet Nick and Diane Marson and Oz (constable of Gander) and Lisa Fudge (Oz’s daughter and Commander Gander). Yes, I’ve interviewed Nick and Diane, but never got to meet them face to face, and meeting the four made me feel almost starstruck. Not because they’re famous, not because people play them in five different companies all around the world, but because they have done something so special that it changed my life, and so meeting them was more than life changing to me.
Many things that Nick and Diane told me in the almost two hours we were doing the phone interview (editorial linked below) hit me and made me think, and a few still give me goosebumps when I think of them. One of those things that Nick and Diane told me in their interview was that 9/11 and the days following were “kind of unnerving. It was unsettling. It wasn’t just a normal day at the office. We were taken off of life’s treadmill and put down into a piece of heaven with angels looking after us. Five days later, we were placed back on the treadmill again.” And I completely understand that statement, because as I watched the documentary, I couldn’t stop thinking about that as an idea. I felt the unsettled feeling on September 11th and the week plus following that when I was up in college, and though I never got to see their angels eighteen years ago, I’ve been able to meet some of them now (mostly over the internet other than Oz and Lisa Fudge). Back in college I remember, as I think back to those days, that I honestly was feeling like I was back on a treadmill again after a few days. We had to keep going, we couldn’t just stop the treadmill or we’d fall off, and I think that’s exactly the feeling that Nick, Diane and others felt in those days as well. And as I watched the documentary I found myself thinking repeatedly about that statement and how it still gave me the chills months after I’d heard it first from their mouths.
After the documentary, I stayed back and spoke with them for a few minutes, but as the group was breaking up for them to go eat, I decided to try to go back to the Schoenfeld to see if I could catch some of the cast at the Stage Door again, and I managed to catch Astrid (who took a photo with me and even gave me a hug!) and was able to see David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers of Come From Away, as well. I even got to say goodnight to Jeanette and her niece too, which was a nice surprise. As that broke up as well, I headed back to Penn Station to head home, and as I did so, I gave out three more gift cards to those who looked like they needed it. Each thanked me too. Once I got to Penn Station, I handed out two more, to two police officers as a thanks for all they do.
I got on the train to go home and thought back on my day, on all the people whose lives I made just a little bit better even just for that day. And I smiled and realized I not just liked how it felt to help others, but I loved it. I liked giving those in need even a little something that could help them. I liked being able to help others, and I realized that every day, I couldn’t finish the day without helping someone in some way. Even a smile or the kind gesture of opening the door for someone could change their mood, and change their lives. And from now until forever, I plan on paying it forward, and I would like to thank a few people for that.
Thank you to: Kevin Tuerff, Jeanette Gutierrez, Nick and Diane Marson, Oz and Lisa Fudge, Chad Kimball, Diane Davis, Andy, Geno Carr, Alex Finke, Astrid Van Wieren, Petrina Bromley, Julie Reiber and everyone who’s lives touched me today and every day.
A special thank you goes out to some very special people who perished on 9/11, Kevin O’Roarke (the son of Hannah O’Roarke in the musical) and Kenneth William Basnicki (husband to Maureen Basnicki). You did not die in vain. This I promise you. Your lives had meaning, and you will always mean something to me, and to others, and it’s for you, your families, and those who knew you and others who were there, that I pay it forward. Thank you for all you do, thanks for all you did, and thank you for making a difference in the world around you. I will pay it forward, every day, for the rest of my life, for you.