Sunday, January 29, 2017

It's the Hat, Right? - Dispatches from my Second Day as a Clinic Escort

(all names changed to protect the anonymity of the escorts)


Hinton doesn't like my hat.

It's been almost two months since my first session (which can be found here) as an escort at a privately-run women's clinic. The gap between engagements wasn't my choice. The place being closed for Christmas and New Year's was a factor, but over thirty - THIRTY - new volunteers attended a training class in early December and as of right now all slots are filled three months out. I am sure the founders, who used to do it all themselves, find this the kind of problem that's okay to have.

With the clinic having an extremely busy schedule today the hope from our leader DeeDee is that some or all of the usual protesters went to the Anti Choice March in DC. Early on that looks to be the case. Alas, before long they start to show up. Some of the regulars are missing, including the majority of the amp-equipped ones, but we do have Hinton cranking away on his speaker in their stead.

It's only my second time doing this but so many of these protesters seem like they were built from a kit with interchangeable parts - unshaven; overweight; grimy baseball cap; loose-fitting sweatpants; tattered Bible for brandishing. Hinton makes the stereotype a fact. Right now he's focusing on me as I cover the front door while DeeDee and two escorts are helping a weak, disoriented woman get to her car. Evidently I'm going to burn in a LAKE OF FIRE, which sounds downright lovely given the chill breeze of the gray, overcast January morning.

He's ranting at me but I notice that he keeps looking up at my hat, which appears to be incensing him. For context:

Blame it on my slightly insane but incredibly awesome wife, who stayed up until 4am the night before knitting something large enough to fit my medicine ball of a head. I'm aware it clashes with my escort vest but sometimes fashion must be sacrificed for good causes.

I can tell Hinton wants to snatch the thing right off my head and send it to eternal damnation. He's angry but staying on topic, promising me that I'm going to suffer countless agonies unless I repent and stop encouraging this wickedness.

Then I smile, and he loses it.

That's a factory-installed default, I think. Luis has it, to be sure, and by the way Mutton Chops explodes into a spittle-flecked rage all over his mike it would appear that having their sermons/diatribes/rants met with any sort of amusement is enough to set them off. My partner returns while he vents his fury and we walk off, leaving him unsure where to pursue me or to remain in his prime spot right outside the buffer zone. The opportunity to shame women proves more important as he stays put.

* * *

"I don't agree with her decision."

I'm walking an older woman back to her car to feed the meter. We're not allowed to perform that kindness. At best guess I put her in her late sixties, maybe early seventies, looking a little bit like Ruby Dee and dressed as if for Sunday Mass. Our pace is hers, slow and deliberate. My arm is out for support, just in case, but she doesn't take it.

"I don't agree with her decision," she repeats, before adding, "but I support her." Her mouth is set in a firm line as she nods. "I'm here for her, no matter what."

I'm not sure if she's saying that for my benefit or just to reassure herself, but either way I'm choked up. Daughter, granddaughter, whomever it is she's being a companion to, she loves her enough to put aside her own beliefs to be there in her time of need. I'm searching for something to say as we move along, something apt, falling short, trying again. I'm supposed to be a man of letters, a scribe, possessing a lyrical soul. Why are words failing me?

We reach her car, deposit quarters, begin to head back. About halfway there I say, "She's very lucky to have you."

My erstwhile companion nods. "She is, but I'm luckier to have her."

* * *

"Do you know what she said to me?"

I'm working the north side of the clinic with Janine, a first timer. We're about halfway through the shift and DeeDee is showing a bit of faith in me by pairing us together, as the other two escorts have worlds more experience. It's colder over here as the chill wind blows through a vacant lot, not protected by buildings like the southern approach is. Only one protester chooses to stand out on this side, a quiet woman armed with pamphlets. Her I don't mind too much: she approaches people but leaves them alone if they wave her off.

No need for me to as what 'she' Janine means. There are four or five female protesters out here today, but there's no doubt she's referring to The Runner. 

"She said that she has daughters at home around my age who think the same way I do." Janine considers for a moment. "Can you imagine that household?"

I should be ashamed at the wave of gleeful schadenfreude that splashes over me at the thought. Given her brand-new Mercedes convertible and stylish Uggs - how does she run so quickly in them? - it seems likely that The Runner comes from money and privilege. Perhaps she gets embarrassed arguing with her children in front of the maid. Who knows?

"She also told me I was breaking the law by blocking her. DeeDee said that's a lie."

It is. It's one of The Runner's latest tactics, crying foul in her reasonable, unexcited voice. She has some sort of lawsuit going against either us or the clinic. Maybe both. It's believed to be meritless but given that a Muslim Ban was put through via an executive order that was not vetted by any government agency less than a day ago, nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The more she focuses on crabbing at us means the less filth she spews at the patients, so it's a fair trade off. We move with arms out, spread with a flourish as if we're showing our remodeled kitchen to friends. She hates it.

Maybe her daughters will join us out here one day. We have plenty of vests.

* * *

"I mean, seriously, what is WRONG with you people? Why don't you go do some good instead of being assholes?"

There's a guy screaming in Hinton's face and for the life of me, I have no idea what to do. 

DeeDee has pulled me back into the buffer zone by the clinic's front door. She and Frankie, another escort, are inside. There's a patient coming out who will need assistance getting across the street to her car, which makes this an all-hands-on-deck sort of thing. The Runner is circling, sensing an opportunity to pounce. I'm mirroring her movements, determined to be in her way when the patient emerges. 

The Runner doesn't like me, it seems. She chats up other escorts, or tries to. Last time my wife was leading she wished her a Happy Hanukkah, although my wife isn't Jewish. She probes, here and there, trying to find common ground, perhaps somehow believing that if they make a connection she can turn them from their wicked, misguided ways. In a way she's different than most of the other protesters, in that her prattle is that of redemption rather than damnation. It's still evil, cruel, and judgmental, no matter how pretty a ribbon you tie it up with. 

"I mean it, you fat fuck! Why don't you get lost?" The guy is someone's companion, well-built, mid-thirties, wearing a fashionable top designed to look like long johns. Hinton said something to him as he came out to feed the meter and the man - let's call him Dwayne - Dwayne must have already been simmering at a low boil. He's about two inches away from Hinton's face, jabbing a finger. They're of similar height but Hinton is smaller now, cringing away. There's fear in his eyes, the threat of violence he hadn't anticipated this morning while selecting Bible verses to intone at women's backs. 

I'm frozen in place. While I have no objection to Dwayne tossing Hinton out into the street in a moral sense, anything that would bring the police here is not beneficial for us. Plus I wonder if he can be heard upstairs. The last thing those women need is another source of disquiet.

Dwayne's on the move now, bouncing from one protester to another, screaming at them, cursing them. They want no part of this and shrink away, hiding behind their posters. He ends up back in front of Hinton, who opens his mouth to speak before thinking better of it.

DeeDee bursts through the door as Dwayne begins to wind up again. She yells, only once. "Hey!" When Dwayne turns she steps forward and says in a low, urgent voice, "This. Is. Not. Helping." Dwayne starts to counter but stops as she shakes her head. "No. I have a woman in a very fragile state who needs to go home and you are not helping her by doing this. Do you understand?"

Dwayne, to his credit, flicks off his rage switch with admirable speed. Nodding, he steps aside as DeeDee radios in and our patient comes out, weak and wobbly. I run out and stop traffic as the others bring her across, The Runner nipping at their heels. As I guide them into the back seat of the vehicle my hips bounce against the quarter panel, boxing The Runner out.

"It's against the law to block me," she says.

I don't answer as I shut the door.

* * *

Number of people who honk and give us thumbs-up as they drive by today: eleven.

* * *

"Yeah, that would be great if you could."

I've just asked a couple if they want us to escort them past the protesters. Mid-to-late twenties, white, well-dressed. He's got that puffy coat that's all the rage this year, while she's in a Burberry I know isn't cheap. The rock on her engagement ring is hard to miss. They look shell-shocked as they consider the gauntlet before them. I don't have the heart to tell them that it's not as bad as it could be.

After my last post someone asked me about the racial breakdown of incoming patients. I hadn't really noticed, to be honest, but as I watch today I see all races, all colors. Mostly what I see is women being harassed at a difficult time in their lives by those who consider themselves worthy of judgment. No race or color excluded there, either. Anti-choicers are more than happy to tell you what you're supposed to think and do, crying that every birth is sacred while supporting a party taking away every social assistance program possible. It's an argument I'd like love to engage in with the protesters but I know the rules.

We get the couple through. I'm surprised Hinton doesn't hit them with Matthew 19:23-26, but I guess he's very specific with his Biblical cherry-picking.

* * *

"What did you say? What the fuck did you say?"

I'm standing in the middle of Engle Street. We're escorting a mother and daughter and The Runner is doing her best to get punched in the face. When she appeared at the car and started her spiel about how Jesus needs her baby and so on the mother said, "Thanks, but we've already made our choice."

For most people that would be a sign to back off, but The Runner doesn't. She never does, as she doesn't respect anyone's wishes but her own. Even if told to go away she'll continue to keep talking, almost as if her horrible, judgmental comments are macros that can't be stopped once begun. "No, thank yous" won't keep her from thrusting forth her gewgaws, which range from bright green rosaries to keychains with little plastic representations of foetuses. Pamphlets and business cards, too. I've never read any. 

The Runner ignores the threat and starts offering help at the 'Pregnancy Crisis' center. Last time there was a creepy windowless van parked across the street that they tried to lure people into, but she's vague about where she wants them to go today. Somewhere 'over there.'

Mom isn't going to be distracted, ignoring my gentle suggestion that we keep moving. "What did you say, bitch? Did you just say it's not our choice?"

The Runner shifts gears. "I said that's it's not your choice, Mom, it's your daughter's choice, and it's a choice she needs to make without other people telling her what to do."

I shouldn't be stunned by the utter hypocrisy and lack of self -awareness - especially not while standing in the middle of a busy road - but my jaw does indeed drop. Mom's eyes narrow and for a second I half-expect to see a fist fly. The moment passes and Mom shakes her head. "You don't know my daughter and you don't know me. Get the fuck away from us."

The Runner doesn't, of course, starting up again as we get moving. The red light that's kept us from honking horns has changed and we get across before the cars arrive, shrouded by The Runner's patter.

"It's an assembly line in there, you're just going to be part of a machine and no baby should be murdered that way."

"God will love you and your baby, it's no place for you inside, no good mom would ever go in there."

"If you do this you'll be buried in guilt your entire life, it'll never stop, you'll have nightmares unless you turn to Jesus, it's not too late."

Then, as we reach the door, she unleashes one that's new to me and perhaps one of the creepiest things I've ever heard a person utter:

"You're such a pretty girl, your baby would be so beautiful, don't you want to have a beautiful baby?"

Mom looks back, face screwed up with disgust, and shakes her head. As the door closes I look down at The Runner, no doubt bearing the same expression. 

After rearranging her props she mutters at me, "You blocked me and you know that's against the law, right?" A car pulls up, slows, then pulls to the curb fifty feet up the street. She takes off.

I get there first.