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Suffering for the Cause

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"Oh, please, please!" Karen Colbert urges the police officer. "My husband and I came all the way from Atlanta to help, and it's our last day, and I want to go down there so, so bad!"

It's noon, and Karen's inside Bouley Bakery in TriBeCa, which since September 11 has been preparing meals for relief workers around the clock. Volunteering is the layman's ticket to ground zero, and Karen's dead-set on getting there -- so much so that she doesn't realize One Police Plaza, where the officer is heading to set up a feeding station, isn't anywhere near the rubble. Happily, her earnest southern charm turns him to putty. One minute later, she hops into an NYPD van, leaving fifteen other volunteers, who are still salting cauliflower florets, noticeably jealous.

While TV news continues to show clichéd images of Americans chipping in, the reality of volunteering is much more about chopping tomatoes than about handing coffee to an ironworker as the sun glints off the steel ruins. As Karen remarks pointedly before speeding off, "I really thought we'd be serving the food to the men. That's much more romantic."

But landing the "romantic" work is rare and getting rarer as downtown becomes more of a colossal construction project than a disaster site. The relief effort at St. Paul's Chapel, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, is "booked" through November, and Bouley turns walk-ins away, so snagging a gig requires the same New York cunning as hustling Producers tickets once did. The lucky ones end up loading rotten bananas onto a truck, or shaving lard off oblong hunks of raw beef with a blade as blunt as a butter knife.

Six weeks on and the scene is fraught. One volunteer has just been "fired" for not showing up. Another is fed up with coring apples. And a squabble over sliced zucchini between an Israeli and a minister climaxes with the Israeli suddenly huffing: "All religion has done is caused every single war in my country, so why don't you just leave?" The minister stalks out.

Yet there's a gritty camaraderie -- and an air of flirtatiousness -- among the volunteers, which has George from Austin making predictions: "Some people are gonna meet here and find themselves married in a year." Then he meanders off to tear open a few hundred more bags of frozen broccoli.


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