Week 39: Volunteer

I haven’t been a very charitable person thus far in my life.  I’d like to give back more, but in the same way that I need to clean my computer screen, it’s been a little too easy to put it on the back burner.  Sometimes I can convince myself that I’m doing good by not doing evil, or that I’ll give back more when I’m older or when I’m in a better position in life, but that’s all poppycock.  The fact is I’m a privileged person who too often can be only concerned with my well-being and those very close to me.  It’s not exactly my favorite quality.

Admitting that it took a blog prompt to finally entice me to embrace volunteering is not something I’d like to shout off roof tops, or, say, post on the World Wide Web, but I think it’s important to note.  I simply do not have the activist gene in my body, but I hope that doesn’t mean I’m inherently averse to giving back.  Though I’ve volunteered for school and for college applications in the past, it’s never been without an ulterior motive.  Neither am I devoid of one now, since I do have to write about something this week, so I electronically send in my application to New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer organization.

As part of the sign-up process, all volunteers are asked to attend an orientation session.  Arthur, a sprightly 73-year-old man, runs the session and explains all of the different opportunities available to us as New York Cares volunteers.  He’s been regularly giving back to the community for the last twenty years, ever since he ate at a meal service when he was down on his luck and swore that were he ever able to extricate himself out of his situation, he’d spend the rest of his life volunteering.  I find it amazing that people like Arthur actually exist in the real world.

After detailing his inspirational life story, Arthur says that New York Cares can cover all of our volunteering desires, no matter our reasons for being here.  He points his laser pointer at a woman in the front row and asks her why she wants to volunteer.  She starts to mention her passion for eradicating hunger before Arthur pivots the laser pointer in my direction, specifically at my chest.  I don’t look down.

ny cares sign

“You, in the green shirt.”  I consider asking him to describe the shade of green, but I figure that question will explicate me further.  “Why do you want to volunteer?” Arthur asks.

I have a brief moment of panic: that familiar break of sweat when averting my eyes in English class didn’t work, and it became crystal clear that I hadn’t read whatever Dickens novel we were assigned this month.  As I begin to answer Arthur, I just hope whatever comes out my mouth makes a modicum of sense, but I’ll settle for a complete sentence.

“Uhh, I was just, you know…interested in finding volunteer opportunities.”

Arthur nods and moves on – it’s difficult to add anything to the most generic reply I could have mustered.  I’m ashamed of the true reason I’m here, that I’m volunteering so I can write about it, because I don’t want to appear apathetic or self-serving, but perhaps my reluctance in saying it aloud proves that I am those things.  Otherwise, why conceal the truth?

A couple hours after the orientation ends, I receive an email saying that I am officially part of New York Cares.  I quickly sign up for two projects: helping with the annual coat drive and working a meal service on the Lower East Side.  I picked these two in particular because they were convenient and just about the only two projects left – after my group was inducted into New York Cares, there was a mad rush to choose projects, and many of the opportunities that had been available in the morning were all filled up by the afternoon.

coat drive people

The annual coat drive, which takes place every winter, is on the last day of accepting donations when I visit the makeshift warehouse on the basement level of an office building across from Madison Square Garden.  I take the elevator down with two other newbie volunteers who appear to be similarly confused and nervous, though I might be the only one concerned with the state of hand sanitizing at the coat drive.  When we arrive at work site, the floor is mostly bare except for large pyramids of plastic bags filled with coats in each corner.  Some twenty volunteers, who I assume have worked here before, are already hard at work.

My fellow newbies and I gather around our team leader Tim who sends us to another knowledgeable volunteer who explains the different tasks and assigns us accordingly.  Beyond a quick “thanks for coming,” there’s no formal introduction or glad-handing.  Arthur’s exuberance during the orientation gave me the impression that each project would be a celebration of our charity and willingness to donate our time, but in reality, there’s too much work for self-congratulatory nonsense.

About half of the thirty people volunteering are tasked with separating the pile of coats into men’s, women’s, kids’, and infant sizes, while the other half bags coats in groups of five and keeps tally.  I am assigned the latter task and take my place behind the kids’ table.  The metaphor doesn’t strike me until long after I leave because the coats start piling up immediately and never stop for the three hours I’m there.

sign and bags

Once my fellow newbies and I get the hang of the assembly line nature of this project, a subsonic hum falls over the warehouse floor as conversation gives way to silent concentration.  I try to chat up the volunteers next to me, a wide-eyed freshman studying at Pace University and his mother, but anytime I ask or answer a question, I lose count of my coats and have to start over.  For the record, I’m also not good at simultaneously rubbing my belly and tapping my head.

The service elevator we use to transport coat bags upstairs breaks within the first hour, but there is no big announcement in an attempt to avoid any disruption of our workflow.  I only find out when I realize that my conversation partner has been MIA for the past twenty minutes because he’s stuck on it.  This means the cart we use to transport the coats has to hold many more bags than it currently does so that sorting won’t cease while the servicemen fix the elevator.  I do my part by deflating the bags before placing them in the cart by sitting on them, squeezing my thighs together, and rocking back and forth.  It looks like a drunk toddler attempting Channing Tatum’s Pony dance in Magic Mike.  When the Pace freshman returns and begins to emulate my style, I’m tempted to mouth “sorry” to everyone within a twenty-feet radius.

By the second hour of tallying coats and ThighMastering, my mind wanders.  A chance encounter with a badass leather jacket – complete with fringe – leads to daydreaming about thrift shopping, which leads to imagining life stories for certain volunteers, which leads to whistling “Wrecking Ball” ad nauseam that surely delights my neighbors.  By the third and final hour, my hunger pangs are too intense to ignore and I spend a good half hour planning an itinerary for finding a lunch place in Midtown.  By the time I’ve weighed several pros and cons for Chipotle, team leader Tim calls out to end today’s session.  He congratulates us on counting and sorting 3,500 coats and reminds us of upcoming opportunities to help out again.  There are no formal goodbyes or gold stars handed out – we file out as aimlessly as we walked in.

green bags

I thought that volunteering without an express purpose would feel more rewarding, but I didn’t notice any tangible difference between working the coat drive and completing service hours for high school.  I wonder if good work is still good if one has an ulterior motive.  Volunteering simply to help others seems more genuine than volunteering to fill a quota of hours or a weekly prompt on a blog.  But it’s also true that I would not have worked the coat drive without this arbitrary reason to show up.  I hope that I feel more fulfilled when I arrive at the meal service at the church on the Lower East Side two days later.

There are seven volunteers and I helping out today, including team leader Helaine who directs me to the bathroom to wash up before handing me a plastic apron and latex gloves.  The eight of us assist a group of five men and women who actually run the operation – we’re just the special guest stars, so to speak.  They host a meal service seven days a week, whereas New York Cares only sends volunteers on Tuesdays.  I’m planning to mostly stay out of their way.  The woman in charge speaks very little and silently places a cutting board, knife, and carton of tomatoes in front of me.  I solve the puzzle and start chopping.


I sincerely enjoy busy work in certain situations; when I’m meeting ten different people for the first time, having a common task fills those awkward pauses in small talk with some purpose.  Our team leader has a daughter working in the theatre world, so we chat about that.  Two other young women have traveled to New York from the Netherlands to study child psychology and pick my brain about planning a trip to DC.  Another woman is planning a trip to Europe over the summer and gives some good tips for finding cheap airfare.  In the midst of easy conversation, I don’t concern myself with the question of volunteering selflessly – I just dice the tomatoes.

However, the conversation may have been too lively because I have about ten tomatoes left as everyone else cleans up their stations.  They stand around my station, politely waiting and fighting their impulse to push me aside because they could chop so much faster.  I’m tempted to mention my skills honed while working the kitchen of my church festival, lest this performance give them the wrong impression, but the proof’s in the pudding, as they say.  I rush to finish the last of the tomatoes, managing not to cut myself (a true victory), and we take a short break before the meal service officially opens.

At a quarter to eleven, the volunteers and I take our place on the meal line.  I am assigned bread duty and tasked with asking each person if they would like a roll or bagel and doling each out accordingly.  At eleven o’ clock sharp, the doors open and an unceasing flood of people travel the line until we close up shop at noon.


On the subway ride to the Lower East Side that morning, I saw two near-fights break out, less than gentle pushing and jostling for position, and a general aura of grouchiness that must have been sparked by whatever that smell was.  It’s that nasty side of New York that used to scare me in movies I watched as a kid, but I refreshingly haven’t seen much of it since I moved here.  There were petty arguments at the meal service too – one person who wanted to take up a seat for the whole hour and another who didn’t want to throw out his trash – but the overwhelmingly grateful people who stood in line made up for the few squabbles.  The social component and instant gratification in seeing our volunteer efforts at work helped me to ignore all of the concerns I had at the coat drive and just enjoy being there.

I’ll have to make volunteering a larger part of my life before I see a major impact; two days of volunteer work only helped me realize how lax I’d been in giving back to my community.  When I consider the tenets of masculinity, I put philanthropy and altruism high on that list, and I can’t help but feel shady for hiding my ulterior motive for volunteering.  But I’m beginning to believe that showing up was the key, and whatever impetus gets me to that meal line is good enough.  I can dice it any number of ways, but the tomato is still going to find its way to the salad.  I promise to be faster this time.


It was so easy to delude myself in thinking I was a charitable member of society by donating a can of peas once every year or believing that my inaction is beneficial because I’m not causing any harm.  It took someone like altruistic Arthur to help me realize how long I had shirked my responsibilities to my community.  I’ve only begun to make giving back more of a priority, but it only took an hour of volunteering to cement its place high atop the man scale.  4.67.