Labor History: September 11, a volunteer's story

Labor Notes #271, October 2001

The media reports of New Yorkers coming together are certainly true, and in some ways this has been a really inspirational time. I was lucky enough to volunteer both Wednesday and Thursday nights.

After a friend and I waited on line for over an hour at the Javitz Center, we arrived at the volunteer registration table just as my declaration of “good communication and people skills” came in handy. (I’d been so regretting that I couldn’t put a check mark next to “welder” or “medic.”)

They needed a shift change in the registration ranks, and so we spent the next few hours signing in people as they came in from around the city, around the country, as they poured in to try and help.

I’ll never forget it. In two hours I registered maybe a hundred people, all wanting desperately to help. Many, many, too many to count, were construction workers from New Jersey and Connecticut. Huge busloads of hardhats came in while we were waiting on line outside the Center, and the thousands of folks on line cheered and cheered for them.

As part of registering new volunteers, I had to ask for photo ID, and I’ve never seen so many union cards in my life! Others were particularly inspirational too--Canadians who’d hopped a bus down, a Mexican national with a Mexican ID. (My crisis Spanish kicked into overdrive, or else maybe he’s still wandering the streets, trying to follow my halting directions!)

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At one point a firefighter handed me his driver’s license from North Carolina. He’d hopped in his car and driven up, knowing he had to be back at work the next day. His hands were trembling as he gave me his papers. So was the voice of the New Yorker who came in after him, saying, “That firefighter from North Carolina, where’d he go? I want to tell him he can sleep at my place tonight.”

Other guys were in tears. I successfully held back my own, though certain folks nearly had me bawling--the Arab Americans who came in, and the guy whose only form of ID was his parole paper.
Some had lost co-workers in the rubble; most were just moved by what they saw on TV.

It was really extraordinary, and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to help out, and feel restored and nurtured in the process of helping. But, of course, I don’t think that this amazing resiliency and compassion for strangers are unique to New Yorkers or Americans or anyone. I’m just so grateful that concern for others, and determination to carry on, seem as much a part of the human condition as hatred and distrust.

Jo Cagan
National Writers Union/UAW 1981

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #367, October 2009. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.