"You'd better man up, buddy."
I stop. My eyes flick to my right, hidden behind the type of sunglasses usually found on guys driving in their mid-life crisis mobiles. They're comfortable, they wrap around, and I don't think anyone is mistaking my F150 for a Porsche Cayenne, so I'm fine with wearing them. The guy who addressed me might not be slovenly but he's well acquainted with the look, probably lives in an apartment right next door to it. He's holding some sort of protest sign - pictures, words, nothing I've paid any attention to. It didn't take long for me to start filtering things out.
There are a lot of ways I want to react to this advice offered to me during my first hour as an escort at a women's health clinic. It's not Planned Parenthood, but judging by the number of cars that pull up with out-of-state plates they're either efficient, reasonably priced, or conveniently located. In any case, the volume of patients also attracts a bevy of protesters, like my new friend here.
I could ask him what he meant by his comment, although I'm pretty sure I already know. I'm supposed to be home being waited on hand and foot by a female, not here doing Satan's work. Maybe I should yell back at him, use my size to let him be intimidated for once. Perhaps flicking his greasy ballcap off his head would serve as a warning that I'm not to be trifled with.
I do none of these things. All are verboten. As an escort the things I can't do are pretty clear-cut. Don't engage in discussion with the protesters. Don't make eye-contact. Don't initiate physical contact. And so I settle for tilting my head a bit as if to say, "Sorry, didn't catch that."
There's a moment or two of silence before I move on.
* * *
"Excuse me, you're in the buffer zone. You know you can't be here."
Our team leader today is Lexi. That's not her real name, but it'll do for now. If you tossed a green cap on her and gave her a sword she'd be able to pass as Link from Zelda for Halloween. Lexi works in a law office that specializes in immigration rights. Before that she was in Cairo working for human rights. She has about zero fucks to give about the protesters and they don't scare her a bit. It would be difficult not to be impressed by her, so why would I even try?
"I don't hear you. You don't exist to me." It's my friend from before, pushing boundaries. The buffer forms a semicircle of 8 feet by the front door of the clinic. The town thought it was a good idea after the protesters started using a huge wooden cross to physically block the door a while back. Parker, the selectively deaf protester, is pushing his luck because the new restaurant next door put in pavers and wouldn't allow the line to be repainted. He knows where the zone is and that he's in it, but he's trying to jam Lexi's buttons.
I stand by, observing. Given rein I might make passive-aggressive remarks about how he should tie his shoelaces before he gets out of the buffer zone, but for once I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Lexi politely asks him to move again and when he waves a hand at her, she steps back and takes his picture.
"Yeah, I want you to take my picture. Go ahead."
"Parker, I'm going to have to call the police if you don't respect the buffer."
"Yeah, I want you to call the police! Go ahead!"
Still operating with unflappable calm, Lexi reaches to the mic trigger on her earpiece. It provides her with a direct link to the security guard inside, a guy in a Blackwater polo sporting a large handgun. She tells him to call the cops - or does she? I can't be sure she's hit the trigger but it proves moot as Parker moves away, muttering under his breath. Later he and another large guy will walk on either side of Lexi, trying to intimidate her.
It doesn't work. Zero fucks to give.
* * *
I pause and take off my glasses. The woman sitting in the car is wide-eyed and confused, and I'm pretty sure she didn't get a word of what I'd said. She looks over my shoulder, across the street at the front of the clinic. One of the protesters is orating through a personal amplifier.
"I'm sorry. I'm with the clinic." I tap the words on my neon-green vest to hammer that point home. Would you like us to walk you through them to the door?"
She gives me a blank look again and I'm afraid that I've somehow screwed up my first attempt at greeting arriving patients. Then her brow smooths out and she gives me an uncertain smile. "Dios mio, yes." She nods to her companion - nobody is supposed to come alone - and as they exit the car my co-escorts and I fall into flanking position.
The clinic is located on a one-way main street in Englewood, and there's no parking lot available. Given the modest exterior the place can be a bit difficult to spot, and I find myself leaning on the expertise of my co-escorts in spotting the likely patients. As the day goes on it gets a bit easier, but that initial look of mistrust is almost always present despite our vests. Given what these women are facing, it's hardly surprising.
"Please don't murder your baby." "You're going to burn in hell, sinner." "God will judge you." All these and more pelt them as we usher them through, and being able to offer only physical protection feels hideously inadequate. Most duck through the door quickly, eager to put a more solid barrier between themselves and those shouting at them.
Some pause and offer thanks. Each time it happens I get choked up. Luckily sunglasses are useful for more than just keeping light out.
* * *
"MUFFLESCRUUFLLE SCEEEFREED you sir! YES YOU!"
Luis is yelling at me, as best as I can tell.
Short and stout, clad in a sweatshirt emblazoned with anti-abortion slogans, Luis has decided to focus his amplified attack at me. I'm about 20 feet away and despite his volume I can't understand much of what he's saying. My wife, who has been doing this for 2.5 years and is a team leader as well, had warned about the likelihood of me being targeted for being male. Indeed that seems to be the gist of Luis' assault, but I really can't make out any details. The overmodulation and feedback of his mini-amp have more or less rendered him unintelligible, and his increased spluttering isn't helping at all. Still, there's something familiar about it. Just can't figure it out -
Wait. I have it. He sounds like Miss Othmar. The teacher from the Peanuts cartoons. MWAH MWAH MWAH.
I lose it and start cracking up, which turns out to get right under Luis' skin. He increases in volume and speed but not clarity. Shaking my head, I turn away. Sometimes we have weapons we're unaware of, it seems.
* * *
"I call them the Mushrooms."
I'm with Lexi at the front door, and my quizzical expression prompts a head jerk from her toward the far side of the street. Moments ago it had been empty sidewalk in front of the library, but now there's a half-dozen elderly Koreans nodding their bowed heads in unison.
"Where'd they come from?"
"Exactly!" Lexi flashes a smile. "They just pop up like mushrooms, quiet and unobtrusive. Stand there praying like that for about an hour or so, then they vanish again."
I watch them for a few moments. "That's all they do?"
"They never say anything or bother any of the patients," she says with a nod before pointing a little further down the street. "There's a group of white Catholics who sometimes gather there and do the same thing, but they never mingle. It's weird."
Parker chooses that moment to start braying again on his speaker, and I sigh. "I don't agree with their protest, but I respect the way they handle it. If God is infallible then they're trusting in their God to handle the situation Himself. Better than this lot of cherry-picking hypocrites." It's not likely I was overheard, but my comment would have fallen on deaf ears anyway.
Later I look for them but they're nowhere to be seen.
* * *
"Why don't you let these people do what they need to do?"
The speaker is sitting in a Mustang convertible with the top down, a gutsy move considering the chill wind and sub-40 degree temperature. His healthy mane of silver hair fans out as he jabs a finger at Parker and The Preacher.
"You're not doing God's will. You're just yelling at people making a tough decision. Does that make you feel important?"
The protesters don't like this at all, having to deal with someone who is permitted to speak to them. Luis rushes over and the three of them began to mount an attack of their own, but they're thwarted as their foe cranks his radio, drowning them out. It's the opening riff from 'Crazy Train' and for a moment I consider believing in a higher power.
The protesters are nonplussed, uncertain what to do. He flips them off and peels out. They yell as they choke on his exhaust, then Parker turns his amp back toward the clinic, hoping his voice can be heard. I'm told that inside it sounds like more of Miss Othmar unless the door is open.
Mr. 'Stang reappears a few minutes later and the scene replays. He points at us and shoots us a thumbs-up before roaring off. Parker glares at me as I struggle to keep a smile off my face.
* * *
"My daughter is sixteen and she just took her SATs. If you go in that door you're never going to know the joy of seeing your child take her SATs in sixteen years!"
The Preacher is much clearer and more composed over his speaker than Parker and Luis, but his selling points are pretty scattershot. He holds a sign that says INNOCENT BLOOD SPILLED HERE when he's not speaking, but given the devotion of the others he's kind of a piker. After 90 minutes he's gone, one less amped zealot to deal with. At one point there were four, taking shifts like acts in the most unappealing play ever. When Parker finally shambles off with the final speaker the silence is stunning.
* * *
"Only a mother with serious mental problems would ever come here, but Jesus loves you and only though him can you be saved."
The Runner. Ye gods, The Runner.
My wife warned me about her, Lexi warned me about her, all the other escorts warned me about her. There was early elation when she appeared to be a no-show, but then one of the escorts growled and said, "Shit. There she is."
I look up to see a tiny white woman, about my age or perhaps a little older, climbing out of a late-model Mercedes. She's dressed sensibly and sporting a floppy sunhat, rolled down Uggs. A soccer mom late for her Bikram class, maybe.
She proves to be the most repulsive person I encounter all day. She's probably got a spot in the all-time top ten as well.
They call her The Runner because she has no qualms about rushing over to arriving cars and accosting patients as they park. Her calm, quiet voice can't mask her judgmental, shaming words.
"There's something seriously wrong with you, Mom, but you can find salvation through Jesus." She says this the first time she darts in front of me and attempts to press a card into a patient's hand. I learn from that mistake and do my best to anticipate her movements. Easier said than done.
"It's not too late!" She says this to the women leaving the clinic, some of them woozy, bent over with discomfort, and not interested in her confusing claim. Requests that she leave them alone do nothing to interrupt her patter. She goes after their companions as well, doing her best to shame and humiliate them, following them all the way to their cars if we don't run interference.
"God loves all children, and he'll love yours."
The woman she's speaking to is a graduate of Lexi's School of Zero Fucks, and she stops and glares at her. "Bitch, the egg is on the outside of my tube. Ain't gonna be no baby no matter what."
Scientific truths hold no power in The Runner's world.. "God will love him or her anyway."
"We have an alternate solution right across the street, we can give you a sonogram and you can see your baby." I could not make this up. There is a Sprinter-type van parked across the street, emblazoned with a dove and a lot of promises that are unlikely to be kept. She implores them to go over there instead of the clinic and get in the van.
The windowless van.
Not surprisingly, nobody takes her up on her offer. This doesn't deter her in the least.
"You're blocking me."
Indeed, I am. By the end of the shift I've gotten her movement pattern down and, since we're working in a trio, am able to get in front and set a pick. She stumbles to a halt and I see the tiniest bit of vexation on her face, just for a second. I would be lying if I say it doesn't make me smile.
* * *
"Have a good weekend!"
I start as a couple of the departing protesters say this to me without a trace of sarcasm. I shoot a look at my co-escort, who shrugs.
"Remember the Looney Tunes with Wile E Coyote and the Sheepdog? They punched time cards together, spent the day trying to outwit one another, then were friends again when they punched out. That's kind of what it is here, I think."
I do remember Punching the Clock, starring Ralph E Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. And I understand exactly what she means.
I don't agree with her, though. I respect their 1st Amendment right to assemble, but I abhor their message. Maybe they're so consumed with righteous indignation that they have to use this as an outlet, but to me it seems like small, sad people trying to make themselves feel big and powerful. They've chosen targets who can't or won't fight back. They're shaming women at a horribly traumatic moment in their lives. Instead of doing something constructive - Habitat for Humanity, food pantries, etc. - they choose instead to make other people's lives miserable. I don't want to have a beer with them afterwards. I'm sure they don't like me either and never want to see me again.
Too bad. See you next month. I'll be the guy in the sunglasses.