In a virtual world filled with narcissism, rip-offs and come-ons, the YouTube video "Pay it Forward -- Pittsburgh to Chicago" feels like a much-needed visit to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
The narrated 10-minute video documents the 1,175-mile round trip an anonymous South Hills man -- screen name "friendinpittsburgh" -- made to the Windy City the weekend of April 3-5 for no other reason than to do good deeds for strangers in the hope of having them do the same onto others.
The term "pay it forward" refers to the idea where one person does a good deed for another in the hope that it will be repaid in the form of another good deed for someone else. The good deeds then become an ever-expanding pyramid of charity. The notion was popularized in a 2000 film by that title.
In Chicago, a city he randomly chose, he bought a car battery for an unemployed man, gave another man a ride to pick up a truck 35 miles away, helped dismantle a swing set, lugged construction materials from a demolished bathroom and made a clothing donation to a homeless agency.
He posted the video of his adventure on YouTube a week ago and it's been viewed more than 1,000 times. The video caught the attention of The Windy Citizen, a Chicago-based news Web site, which on Tuesday posted a story about the Good Samaritan from Pittsburgh who they referred to as "Joe," which is not his real name. The 29-year-old, who holds a white-collar job for a small business, requested anonymity for fear his deeds will be misinterpreted as self-aggrandizement.
As of yesterday, The Windy Citizen story had nearly 3,500 hits. Numerous Web sites, including the Chicago Sun-Times, have linked to the upbeat story, starting conversation threads about the need in a troubled world to follow Joe's example of selflessness, kindness and charity.
"Awesome!!" wrote one YouTube poster. "Let's all learn from this and do one pay-it-forward act to keep the momentum going!! Let's make friendinpittsburgh's good deed multiply exponentially!! Send this on to everyone you know!!"
A poster on The Windy Citizen site wrote: "In addition to enjoying hearing the Pittsburgh accent in the video, I enjoyed the guy's Pittsburgh attitude -- some of the nicest people I have ever known are from P-burgh. This guy is cut from that bolt!!"
As for Joe, he couldn't be happier he went through with what he conceded seemed like a crazy idea at the start.
"Positive energy rubs off on other people," he said. "I figured if I posted something and got a couple of hits on YouTube then other people would do good things, pay it forward, and there would be a chain-reaction. I didn't expect anything to this extent.
"I thought maybe it would make a dent. I'm not talking about world peace or anything. I was thinking that maybe some homeless people would get some clothes."
Going to the Craigslist Web site, he scrolled his mouse without looking and then stopped. The cursor was on Chicago, so that's where he decided to go. He posted an ad on Craigslist for Chicago, saying over the weekend he wanted to "help a few people that need help ... All I ask is that you Pay It Forward." He didn't say he was from Pittsburgh.
He received about 150 responses, most of them lauding him for his offer, several seeking money and one thinking he was offering sex. He picked those he thought legitimately needed help. He told no one of his plans, other than to inform his parents that he was spending the weekend in Chicago.
"On the way up, I was really nervous -- nervous that I wasn't coming home. I was going to a whole other city, probably looking like a schmuck. I could have had my car stolen, my money stolen. I was taking a big risk," he said.
He arrived Friday night, got a motel room, and the next morning met the man who needed a battery. His fears were gone.
"He was a super-nice guy. I thought, 'This is going to be easy. These are nice people here.' This is the reason I got this idea, to see a smiling face."
The 54-year-old man who needed a ride to pick up a truck, who asked in a telephone interview to be identified by his first name Mike, said he not only got a ride but gained a friend. He was dumbfounded when he learned Joe was from Pittsburgh with no reason to be in Chicago other than to do good. He said he tried to force Joe to take $20 for gas but he refused.
"He said 'All I want you to do is a good deed for somebody else, to perform for some other stranger a random act of kindness.' I said, 'That's no problem at all.'
"I went through a long period where I kind of just lost faith in humanity, a long span of thinking it was a dog-eat-dog world and people aren't considerate of their fellow man. And then you run into a guy like this and it just restores all the faith you ever thought you lost in humanity. He's 100 percent genuine."
Joe didn't have to wait long to see his pay-it-forward plan pay off -- the day after getting a ride, Mike showed up to help Joe tear down the swing set for a woman neither man knew.
The trip cost Joe $750 and a weekend but he feels he gained much more than he gave because of the positive effect it has already had.
"Hey, who knows, it may start spreading like the butterfly effect, it may start spreading positive energy. We need it."
To view the YouTube video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=nd8m1Kqgbjg.
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.