Originally written on September 16, 2001
I’m sunburned, my hands are bleeding, I’ll never get the dirt out from my nails, my back is killing me – and I wouldn’t trade the past two days for anything. This has been an overwhelming weekend for me; I’m overwhelmed with sadness, so much so that it requires a supreme effort to do ordinary things like walk my dog or make something for dinner. I’m also overwhelmed with pride at the way this city, and this country, have responded to this horrible week.
I’ve spent the weekend volunteering at one of several donation clearinghouses around the city, specifically the Javits Convention Center location. This location is also a relief center for firefighters and search and rescue personnel, so I had the honor of meeting a great many people working the “front line” of this disaster.
I unpacked dozens of boxes sent from all over the country. Many of the boxes had been signed by the senders; they also wrote “God bless you” and “We love you” and “We shall overcome” on them; it was tough to throw some of those boxes away.
The boxes had all manner of goods in them (one friend suggested that I make a list of the funniest things donated, and I will, as soon as I feel a little more settled.)
We sorted water, Power Bars, canned goods, sweets, cookies, toothpaste, razors, paper goods, etc. etc. etc. Then items were re-boxed and placed on skids for removal, as they were requested. I worked at the food tents; there are also areas for clothing, medical supplies and electrical/digging supplies. I was only at one center, and that one center has enough donated goods to last all emergency workers at least 2 months. (There are three other such centers in NYC, as well as centers in Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey. It’s mind-boggling, how generous people around the country have been.)
If any of you reading are tempted to donate goods, please call the Red Cross instead and make a cash donation, unless you happen to have welding torches or steel-tipped boots hanging around.
It became clear to me early on that there was just way too much “stuff” there, and having been appointed the “co-captain” of the food tent (don’t ask!) I set off to find a way to clear out some of the perishables. After finding out that FEMA had advised the center to try to offload supplies to local shelters, I came across a young man that was looking for donations for Covenant House. I helped him load his truck, and was talking with him, in the middle of traffic on West Street, about what to do next. We both agreed on the best location – a large men’s shelter near Grand Central Station – but I didn’t have easy access to a pickup truck.
As I am lamenting this fact, I hear a shout from several cars over; “I have a truck!” I looked over and there was a man in a pickup truck staring at me. He said again; “I have a truck” – so I crawled across the traffic, pushed all of the cars in the middle of the street back about ten feet, and got this man to pull his truck over to the Javits Center. I asked him if he really wanted to volunteer his truck, since once sucked in, he’d probably be ours for hours and hours, and he said; “Tell me what to do: I’m yours.”
And ours he was – for the next seven hours. We drove supplies to the men’s shelter, came back, loaded up the truck with more supplies, and headed south toward ground zero. We stopped at every police officer on the way and offered water, cookies, Power Bars, etc.
This was the most amazing part of my weekend – we drove all over southern Manhattan and saw, first-hand, a city transformed. Every park has memorials, candles, pictures, people gathered. There is a large fence on Canal Street covered with hundreds of yellow ribbons.
There is a smile on every face for any volunteer.
There are American flags everywhere; people carry them in their hands, stuck in their hats, sticking out of backpacks and back pockets. I was with one of my best friends, Dan, and he nearly caused several riots during the day, one in particular, on West Street and 23rd. We were waiting at a traffic light, and there were a fair number of vehicles waiting for the light. Dan and I and another fellow were sitting in the back of this pickup, and Dan noticed a little girl in an adjacent car carrying a flag. He said, in a voice that started out small and ended up HUGE, “DON’T JUST CARRY THAT FLAG; WAVE IT!”
He stood up in the truck and starting yelling, stamping his feet and waving his arms, encouraging drivers to honk their horns. In a matter of about fifteen seconds, the intersection was a blaring, shouting earthquake, with Dan at the center. I mostly just stared in wonder; the defiance in people’s voices was apparent; the optimism was inspiring, but I was more than a little concerned for Dan, who, I think, was inciting a riot because he was afraid he’d start to cry if he didn’t burn off some energy.
Several times over the weekend, we ended up ferrying firefighters from Ground Zero uptown to their firehouses. On two such trips, the men didn’t say a single word, except to shake our hands and thank us for the ride. They sat, wordless, haunted, some of them crying, all the way uptown. The memory of those silent rides will stay with me, I think, forever, much like the memory of what I saw downtown. There are no words for that, at least, I don’t have them yet.
By my side this weekend were people from all over the country, as well as New Yorkers. There was Chuck, the 32-year-old pickup truck donor from southern Jersey, who had never been in Manhattan in his life; Marilyn, a 57-year-old housewife from New Jersey, whose family thought she was home preparing for the Jewish holidays this week (her husband finally called her cell phone, wondering where she’d gone and she told him that she was tired of watching TV, and that what she was doing was more important than anything else) (!); Richard, from Atlanta, who got into his car and drove to NYC after watching the memorial service on TV on Friday; Lisa, who drove in from Michigan, much like Richard, and so many others.
I love them all, and I’m worried about them all. So many people who, like Dan, need to do something. I’m much sadder tonight than I have been all week…I think I was in shock much of the week, and the reality has started to sink in. I feel that I’ve done something to help, but there are more than 5,000 people missing and feared dead in that unholy hell downtown. Every firefighter and police officer is in mourning.
I love them all, and I’m worried about them all.
OK, forget about waiting. I know I need a laugh…here is the list of the funniest things donated to emergency workers and volunteers:
10. Bath beads
9. Nylon tote bags
8. A dog-eared copy of “A Stranger is Watching” by Mary Higgins Clark
7. A box of flip-flops
6. Tennis balls
5. A case of little toy cars – Chevy Camaros, to be exact
4. Baby diapers
3. Adult diapers
2. Condoms …and the funniest thing donated…
1. Balsamic vinegar