Day 3: it must be Wichita… (sorry, I have always wanted to say that). I write this from Departure Gate Nine at La Guardia Airport. My bag is already at the 23kg limit (worrying, given I’ve only been away four days) and I salute the porter at the Warwick Hotel who was able to assess its weight accurately this morning just by hauling it up the steps. (Big tip, there, people. BIG TIP)
Yesterday began at 5.30am, when I got myself “camera ready” for an appearance on WFSB’s Better CT programme. For some reason, every time I see the word “camera ready” on my schedule I read it as “oven ready”. It was a fair representation of my appearance.
As the sun came up we drove two hours from Manhattan to the station, and I waited in the Green Room for my slot. I got talking to a little girl, Ava Carlson, and her family. It took about two minutes to discover that she was there because her friend Charlotte had died in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. With her father, Aaron, she was promoting a project they had set up to encourage small acts of kindness among children; a way, I suspect, to persuade those children affected by that day, that life is not necessarily about men who come into their schools bearing semi-automatic rifles, but mostly about good things, good people, goodness.
The pain of that day is still evidently etched raw on the people of Connecticut. It comes up in conversation abruptly, and often, as if they are still processing it. Ava’s father, I noticed, held his children close reflexively. He and his wife worried aloud whether their project would be seen as hijacking the tragedy. They didn’t even want to answer the producer’s potential question: “how did you feel that day”. “How can we answer that?” Aaron said to me, “given that we came home with our child and other families didn’t?”
He told me of the unexpected things that had resulted: how their home had inadvertently been turned into a distribution centre for gifts that had arrived from well-wishers for the children, hundreds of teddy bears, branded pillow cases. The town is trying to work out how to answer the thousands of letters that have arrived, from all over the world. All of them saying in essence the same thing: we just want you to know you are not alone.
We drove the two hours back to NY, and I signed stock, did an interview, then I got back in the car and headed back to Connecticut for an evening at Mystic’s Oyster Club, for Bank Square Books.
Bank Square Books is one of those independent book stores that the US seems to be holding onto better than the UK. Run by passionate booksellers, and in a picturesque high street, it was devastated during the Hurricane Sandy at the tail end of last year, when flood waters wrecked the floors and warped even those books that sat above the watermark. For a small independent shop already combatting harsh prevailing commercial winds, it could have been devastating. But something amazing happened. The local community turned out in force to help. The landlady offered them the use of an empty apartment to store the undamaged stock. Children transferred the children’s section. Passers-by popped in to help. Neighbours worked in four hours shifts. Annie Philbrick, the co-owner, said it felt like an affirmation of what the store had meant to the community.
It’s hard not to write this without coming across like Jimmy Stewart in a Christmas special. But yesterday reminded me that sometimes the most catastrophic events have unexpected and life-affirming side-effects. There is a sign on a billboard on Highway 95, between NY and Connecticut. We passed it in the morning, and I found myself looking out for it when we went back. It reads: “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”
If you are interested in the Charlotte Bacon Act Of Kindness Award, I know they would love to get support from other schoolchildren, no matter where they’re based. The website is www.newtownkindness.org, and they can be found on facebook under www.facebook.com/NewtownKindness.org.