"Oh, shit, I thought you were one of them. Yeah, you can absolutely walk me past those people."
And with that, she takes my arm.
Much like Dante from Clerks I'm not even supposed to be here today, but my wife has something she needs to do during the time I was scheduled to escort next weekend. Someone was kind enough to swap slots so it's me shivering out here on this blustery March morning instead of her. We're running both light and heavy - there's two women along as observers, but one of the escorts hasn't shown. This puts a bit more pressure on Dee Dee, the team leader, but nothing she can't handle.
It feels a bit odd to be walking along like I'm heading into Prom, but I'd give someone a piggyback ride if needed. We talk about the weather (cold), if the nearby diner is any good(don't know), who dyes her hair (she does), anything to help deflect from the vicious verbal assaults coming from the gathered throng today.
"YOU'RE A MURDERER! DON'T BE A MURDERER! WHY ARE YOU A MURDERER?"
"ARE YOU GOING TO ASK TO SEE THE PIECES OF YOUR BABY AFTERWARDS?"
"YOU'RE A BAD PERSON AND YOU'LL CARRY THE SHAME OF THIS DAY FOREVER!"
"HOW IS JESUS GOING TO FORGIVE YOU?"
We reach the door and she disengages her arm. "Thanks," she says as she slips through, and as I walk past guys muttering 'Homo' and 'Faggot' under their breath (never straight to my face, though) I wonder a bit about her initial assessment of me. My wife had linked me to an article this week that interviewed a couple of men doing clinic escorting. It was a few years old and a couple of the guys pissed me off . One said he felt like he had to because his girlfriend did it and he felt like he needed to be there to protect her.
Another said that although he wasn't supposed to engage with the protesters he did so anyway because he liked having 'deep philosophical discussions' with them. Nice that he could make escorting about him rather than the actual goal of helping women get past frothing, rabid haters.
Anyway, there was one guy who worried about what he must look like approaching patients. He was like me, apparently - tall, medium build, knocking on the gates of fifty - and wondered if that was the last thing some women might want to see at a time like this. The hope is that the bright pink vest that identifies me as a clinic volunteer is a dead giveaway but then again, this is not exactly an easy moment in their lives. The option of hanging back and letting them approach me is not much of an option, thanks to the fucking Runner. If I can I let my partner take the lead - it's my third time doing this but I've yet to have another male out here with me, although our group has plenty - I do. Today I'm with another first-timer who is making it look like she's been doing this for years. So I'll keep doing what I can and being used to the initial mistrust.
Dee Dee comes out soon afterward, concerned about the linked arms. Once she realizes it was patient initiated and that I was fine with it, she smiles. Next time I'll bring a corsage.
* * *
"You have hate in your heart, you know. Why else would you be doing this?"
Robert is new to me and a bit unsettling. He's saying this to Winger, my partner, who is taking the news about what's clogging her aorta with a faintly amused smile. Winger spent four years as a volunteer EMT in the bowels of one of New Jersey's most dangerous cities, the sort of place where she'd have to get approval from a gang's hierarchy before being allowed to help someone bleeding out on the street. There may be a lot of things in her heart, but hate likely isn't one of them.
"You too," he says, focusing on me. "Such hate. Why so angry? Why do you want to help murderers?"
Robert's eyes glint with malevolent intelligence. He knows we're not supposed to engage and he's baiting us, trying to get a rise. Although this is my first time around him I later learn he's loathed by members of the escort family, a shifty and sneaky provocateur.
There's a lot of things I want to say to him, believe me, but I cross my arms and settle for a grim smile. He was on speaker for a while playing fast and loose with both the Bible and actual scientific facts, rolling with some very broad interpretations as springboards for his vitriol.
"I can see it in your eyes, the hate. You need to get it out of your heart, get away from this place."
As I have mirrored sunglasses on he can't tell what color my eyes are, much less what's supposed to be oozing out of them. I laugh for a second, our Swiss Army Knife for their taunts, and finally break my silence as I spot a car pulling up with the slow roll that signifies someone looking for the clinic.
"I'm not allowed to interact with you. So fuck off."
It's not satisfying, but I'm not here to trade one-ups with the broken.
* * *
" . . . de muerte."
My Spanish is super rusty, but I know what that bit means. I can't make out the rest of what the guy in the hat is muttering at me as I head away from the clinic's front door. He's another regular I've somehow missed my first two times - Alex, or Hinton, or something like that, forgive my lack of journalistic attention to detail but I want to know as little about these people as possible - yet proving to be just as odious as any of them. His hat looks like something you'd see on a kid - spotted with felt ridges that make it look like a stegosaurus is perched on his head - but I'm once again clad in my giant pink pussy hat so who am I to judge?
" . . . fruita de muerte."
I report what I've heard to Winger, who is fluent in Spanish. Given the number of times I've been marked as gay or effeminate today being called 'Fruit of Death' seems eminently plausible. What's a gay death fruit, anyway? Pomegranate? Kiwi? Mango? Winger's not convinced.
"It could be 'desfruta de muerte,' which means that you enjoy death." She shrugs, smiling. Earlier we discovered that we're both former rugby players and broke out the Haka when there were no patients around. I can only imagine what Hinton and crew thought about that.
But what do they expect from the Fruit of Death?
* * *
"YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO IN THERE! BLACK BABIES ARE BEING KILLED IN THERE! THIS IS AMERICA! THIS IS NOT AFRICA!"
Despite whatever religious trappings they may drape themselves in, the majority of the protesters make no effort to hide their misogynistic and racist values. Despite people of all colors heading into the clinic this particular rant is focusing on black babies. I have no idea why. The shouter mentions that 'they' killed Jesus, and I don't know if he means the clinic, the escorts, or the black babies. All seem implausible.
"You shouldn't kill your baby!"
A woman has come outside for a smoke and is standing in what's left of the buffer zone, doing her best to ignore the shouting. Her head cocks. Even with my limited time as an escort I know what that could mean, and Winger and I start to drift in that direction. She lets out a long plume of smoke, which is snatched away by the stiff breeze.
"I was raped," she says, turning to face him. "You want me to carry my rapist's baby?"
Hinton - I think it's Hinton - is undeterred. "You shouldn't punish the baby for what the father did."
There's a moment of stunned silence.
"You want me to pay to deliver my rapist's baby," the woman says, "and then raise the kid for 18 years? Are you going to pay for that?"
"We have our pregnancy help center here," Hinton says, and indeed the creepy windowless van is parked across the street. "I know a woman, she's a wonderful person, but she can't have children of her own. She'd love to adopt your baby. I know lots of people like her."
Of all the times I bite my tongue today, this will be the hardest. He's full of it. I want to press him for a name and number, call him on his bluff. Perhaps this guy who was just making sure that black women knew this wasn't Africa has a friend anxiously waiting for a chance to adopt a child conceived via rape from a black woman, but color me dubious. Extremely dubious. The urge to call him out on his lie is almost overwhelming.
Escorts don't interact. I stay silent.
She doesn't need me anyway. "Sure you do," she says, her skepticism as thick as the gout of smoke she sends in his direction. "Sure you do."
Then she heads back inside.
* * *
"Why don't you go fuck yourself, okay?"
The protesters like to say that they're doing God's work, spreading Jesus' word and trying to keep these women from entering the clinic and making a horrible mistake. Their true natures and angry vendettas get exposed when someone leaves the clinic. Logically, at that point the protesters have already lost the battle. It's too late to change a mind at that point. Bells can't be unrung. Yet this is when true viciousness surfaces, when their shaming is the most toxic and aggressive. Note that they have no idea why the patients are inside, and many times they're screaming at women who have just come for a pap smear or a regular checkup.
They don't care. Whatever their motivation might be, they let it all hang out.
Sometimes they're not met with silence.
"Seriously, go fuck yourself!" I'm trying to help a woozy, disoriented young woman down the street as her mother turns to scream at one of the mob. I don't turn back to see who it is but he's following, still yelling, further escalating the situation. Not sure which verse of the Bible that's from, but certainly not one about compassion.
"Your car is just up ahead," I say, although honestly I have no idea where it is. The mother is continuing to yell but Winger is doing an excellent job of keeping her moving as well.
"I'm sorry," says the mom, catching up to us, "but when people attack my daughter I'm going to be protective." She looks back as something else is yelled in our direction and counters, "YOU WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT A PISSED OFF GRIZZLY BEAR IS LIKE KEEP WALKING THIS WAY!"
I glance over my shoulder. Robert's there, a ways back yet close enough for me to see his smug smile. He doesn't step our way, though. Just stands there, grinning.
The car turns out to indeed be close, keeping me from being a liar. We get the daughter into the car, wish her good health and good luck. The mom gives us a quick nod before driving off.
In front of the clinic Robert is yelling at someone else.
* * *
"You want to hear what she said to me?"
Of course I do. I had covered the door while Dee Dee handled a situation and come back to find Winger having a conversation with The Runner. At my approach the older woman gives me a guarded look before stepping away, fiddling with her pamphlets and cards. We're not going to be buddies, she and I. Last week my wife had been blessed by The Runner's absence, but as if to make up for it she and her fancy boots had been there as soon as we started our shift. I met her ventured 'good morning' with crossed arms and stony silence.
Winger is yet another escort who is an awesome human being, which is proving to be the norm. As mentioned before, she volunteered as an EMT for years. She also quit a potentially lucrative financial job because of disgust with the industry. Viv, the other escort here today, is an ACLU lawyer. We're booked well into July with people who want to give up their Saturday mornings to be cursed at and called 'deathscorts.'
"She said there was no reason we couldn't be friends." Winger stops and snorts at that. "Then she suggested that we split things 50-50."
"She said we could alternate. You know, I get the first car that comes up, then she gets the next, and so on."
My jaw dangles for a few seconds. "You're not serious."
"I am! And so was she! This seemed completely reasonable to her!" We're both laughing now. I look around for The Runner and spot her on her phone. This would be the theme of the morning, her effectiveness blunted by what seemed like an endless conversation. At first there's concern she's on the phone with her lawyer over a collision with Dee Dee near the poorly-placed valet booth of the restaurant next door, but speculation turns to the theory that she's talking to someone in the waiting room, trying to dissuade them. This is neither confirmed nor denied, but the number of times we have to dance with her is greatly reduced. Even when she's there she seems off her game, her patter breaking as Winger expertly boxes her out.
Suffice to say we do not embrace The Runner's plan.
* * *
It's 11:15am, time to go, but a couple of the shouters are still hanging around. Dee Dee suggests we head inside as if we're leaving and see what happens. Lo and behold, the majority of the protesters pack up as soon as we're inside. Like kites, they need the wind of our opposition. We warm up for a bit while making sure they aren't returning, then shed our vests and close up shop, so to speak. The waiting room is jammed and as we head down the stairs a guy comments, "Wow, you must be well-paid since you're already leaving."
I have no idea how to respond to that, the primary reason being that it makes no sense. The fact we don't get paid enters into it as well. For a moment there's a part of me that wants to stop and quietly set the record straight, but it passes and I head downstairs without a word. There's no need to start an argument.
It's not the sort of thing a Fruit of Death would do.