Her name is Gail. She’s the bartender at the Cork and Well situated near Gate 19 at Toronto Pearson Airport.
She loves her job.
It’s the guy sitting next to me who asks the question that really makes her character shine.
“So what’s with the 3 hats beside the TV?” he asks, pointing to 3 ball caps lying on a small wooden ledge above the bar, beside the TV.
She smiles as she passes him his beer and says, “There’s a real story behind each one,” she teases and goes off to serve another customer.
When she comes back she says to the man who asked the question, “So, you want the story?”
“Can I guess first?” I ask.
“Sure,” she replies. “But you won’t get it right.”
I don’t get it right.
Turns out, players from each team did not give her the caps. She bought each one.
She points to the Maple Leaf’s ball cap, the one on the outer left of the three. “Well, how could I not have this one?” she asks us. “This is their city. It’s only right.”
She points to the Boston Bruins cap on the far right. “The Bruins are my team,” she says. “They’re my screen saver on my phone. I gotta have their cap on my ledge.”
And then she carefully picks up the black middle cap with a yellow No. 10 above the peak.
“This one is special,” she says. And she puts it on backwards to show the hashtag sewn in yellow thread on the band across the back. #StrazStrong
“Ahh,” I say nodding my head. “Humboldt. Nice.”
The guy beside me nods his head too. “Nice.”
Gail places her hands on either side of the cap and adjusts it just right.
“The day after it happened, I put out a sign on my counter and told people that every tip I got that day was going to help the survivors and the families.
She earned over $500, all of which she sent along.
Since then, she’s done various different things to support the StrazFoundation, including buy only green and yellow napkins for the bar, use only green pens, tell people the story, and write condolence cards to the 16 families who lost their loved ones.
She’s even asked celebrities such as Canadian football legend John Hufnagle who happened to sit at the bar one day and ask a similar question about the hats.
She’s got 16 different celebrities to sign and has been in touch with the Humboldt Bronco’s team administrator to get the cards sent out.
She tells us all this, and more, about her admiration and support of the team in between serving customers who pop in and out of the bar. Our connecting flight to Ottawa has been delayed. We’ve got time.
As I’m getting ready to leave, Gail is standing on the far side of the bar, talking to another staff member. I wave and call out a thank you. She calls me over and tells me excitedly, “I’ve got one more story I gotta share.”
Excitedly, she talks about her friend who is 76 and not well. “She’s got breast cancer and just had a mastectomy, She’s not in great shape but she’s feisty so I like to help her as much as I can so she doesn’t do too much.”
One day while she was over visiting her friend, she hears her call her from the bedroom. Come quick. She rushed into the bedroom and somehow her friend has fallen and wedged herself between the dresser and her bed.
“I can’t really get to her and pull her out without causing her pain,” Gail says. I’m panicking. Don’t know what to do. She’s crying. Can’t get up. I gotta do something.”
That’s when she remembers her hero, Ryan Straschnitzki, one of 13 survivors from the crash that took 16 young lives.
“I ask myself, ‘what would Ryan do?’ and then I remember what he’s been learning and practicing. Crawling.”
She tells her friend to roll onto her hands and knees and start crawling.
At this point we’ve both got tears in our eyes and I have to go.
“Thank you for sharing your stories. You’re very inspiring,” I tell her.
“Thanks for listening.”
She smiles, open her arms and says, “we gotta hug.”
And so we do. Two virtual strangers standing heart to heart in the memory of #StrazStrong.