A Wednesday in July, found me once again at Cass Social Services, Detroit. I had already decided to say “yes” to any opportunity offered. As usual, assignments are always vague. Recyclable paper sorting sounded simple enough. Separate white from color, remove staples, clips, rubber bands, metal; cardboard and note pads had their own place, away from the action. Go.
At first, frantic sorting at the front end resulted in nothing to do down the way. As the loads came faster, the questions rolled.White on one side, printed on the other, which bin? Manila folders – color or cardboard? We’re all uncertain. Nobody wants to make judgment calls. Stop.
Readjustments are necessary, as is accepting redirection from seasoned volunteers. Don’t run the conveyor belt, our advisor advises. Place your bins on the belt, not under the table. Depends on how much ink covers the surface. Logo printed letterhead – white. Full-color picture checks – color. Use the ledges to gather clips and bands. Go.
Out of necessity, voluntary role fulfillment begins. The step-ups absorb additional duties, identifying gaps. One paid particular attention to empty space on the conveyor belt, reacting by a step-away and back with another full box, and another. Our little piles of clips and bands began to overflow the little ledges we set them on. Soon, another volunteer appears collecting our collections and carrying them away. I love the evolution of teams.
Of course, there is confidentiality involved. I doubt there would be any documents to shred if there wasn’t. The pace is steady. Occasionally comments float by. “Handwritten formal correspondence!” “Typewriter carbon-paper copies!” “Pre-rolodex index cards!” “Gregg shorthand!” Oddities and treasures some of us remember; others need further explanation.
“I can’t shred this,” someone says, displaying an ornamental parchment. It is a beautiful baptism certificate. She frets over its importance and sets it aside, before drawing more items from the same folder. “Birth certificates, marriage license, divorce papers, will, death certificate,” she ticks, and we pause. This is someone’s entire legal life. It doesn’t seem right, destroying a paper life, but the all-inclusiveness suggests that none of these documents are needed anymore. They are sorted into the appropriate bins, headed to the shredder.
In less than an hour, we have conquered the separation. The shredder is still shredding, operated by other volunteers from our group, and we are recruited to a new task. Moving cardboard from the almost-up-to-the-warehouse-ceiling tall pile of broken down boxes closer to the strapper which will compress them into bulk bundles. A line forms at the pile, and for a few minutes, we pardon-me and excuse-me past each other carrying as many as possible.
Someone suggests we split up into pilers and movers. The pilers will position small loads on the outstretched arms of movers, who will move them to their destination. There are still jam-ups, but the mountain is moving faster. A few minutes more, and another solution arrives via a team youth. With an observant tilted head, she theorizes we could still do better by employing the Fireman’s bucket brigade. She is correct and within another few minutes, another task was complete.
Together, the shredders, strappers, pilers and movers move along to the Green Room. The Green Room may have been the hardest task. At least, it seemed that way to me. We’d already been standing and moving and bending and reaching for two hours. Still, we collectively strapped our tired feet to elliptical machines and stationary bikes, and pedaled. The point of the Green Room is twofold. A way to provide exercise equipment to shelter seekers and temporary residents, each piece is also attached to a power generator. Credits are issued for energy generated here, helping defray operation costs. Following a few rounds of “I’m not generating, anything! Are you generating anything?”
A quartet of young men joined the effort on the other wall, pedaling wildly, competitively announcing wattage as it rose. We balked because our machines still showed no observable results. Slowly, not collectively but individually, not all at once but eventually, each slid from our seats to allow others the opportunity to add to gains that would presumably be more significant than ours.
The Green Room was also where my ideals evoked my internal green Hulk anger.
(* We were actually generating a legitimate watt or two as a group, just not significantly: individually or quartet comparatively.)
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