Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Battle for Valedictorian Must Have Been Brutal - Dispatches from my 17th Day as an Escort at a Women's Clinic

(Escort names have been changed to protect their anonymity. Opinions below are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the leaders who run our team. In other words, if you have an issue with something I've written, talk to me. Absolutely feel free to share. Links to previous entries in this series: Start here with Day 1. Day 2. Day 3. Day 4. Day 5. Day 6. Day 7. Day 8. Days 9/10/11. Day 12. Day 13.  Day 14. Days 15/16. )

"All you Deathscorts have Ph.Ds from the Academy of Satan!"

DeeDee claps her hands. "Great! I was looking to add some stuff to my CV!"

I'm excited about it too, but a tad concerned about that Mammon dude who set up my student loans.

It's early for the protesters to be targeting us but they've got pretty good numbers out here today, faces both old and new. Right now I'm feeling pretty smart about having chosen to wear insulating gear under my clothes, a decision I'll be decidedly less smug about by 10am when the chill breeze has departed and the sun is blazing down through cloudless skies. Given the weather-related misery of the past few months it's a welcome change, but also one that makes me wish I were elsewhere taking advantage of it. Such is life.

The morning is rife with challenging situations. A family has shown up, Mom and Dad with two small children in tow, which is an issue because kids aren't allowed in the waiting room. This is not to be confused with the infant that one of the protesters has brought - yes, an infant - who is repeatedly walked in front of the blaring loudspeakers. The family's shaky command of English doesn't help and Mom's choli/pavada combination incites the protesters to zero in on her for worshipping a 'false god.' After he drops his wife off I direct the father to the diner down the street and, when he returns an hour or so later, to the library across the street. Given our language difficulties and the incessant blare of the protesters' amps we have to rely on pantomime, but it's good enough.

We also have a companion who is Very Angry about the shame-bombs being hurled around and wants to have some intense theological debates with the protesters. That's fine - anything that distracts them from incoming patients is a boon - but her temper is simmering at a low boil and the last thing we want is for someone to lose it. Compounding matters is her chain smoking, which directs plumes into my face no matter where she's standing. It's a reminder of how ubiquitous smoking used to be, and how a night out in a bar would leave you and your clothes smelling like an overflowing ashtray the next morning. The unwanted trip down Memory Lane intensifies as she's joined by another companion who bums a cigarette and fire up. This one is uninterested in chatter but her presence acts as a calming influence. Instead of arguing with the protesters they chat with one another. More smoke is UGH, but it's better than someone taking a swing at one of them.

Our new academic achievement - GO FIGHTING BRIMSTONERS! -  turns out to be one of many connections we have to Satan. During the course of the morning it's also revealed that we're:

a) Satan's puppets;
b) Satan's messengers;
c) Satan's disciples;
d) Satan's children.

The latter is an extremely tough thing for me to hear, as it means I'm going to have to buy a whole bunch more presents for all my new siblings at Christmas. Perhaps I'll be able to find a better paying job with my shiny new doctorate.

* * *

"So, what do you think about the country of Saudi Arabia?"

Oh, joy. Alex is back in town.

It's been the better part of a year since we've crossed paths and on my end he hasn't been missed. Taking full advantage of our vanquished buffer zone he's set up shop a few feet away, allowing himself access to both patients heading in and myself. Again, oh joy.

I know I'm being led by his line of questioning but we're in a bit of an intake lull and I'm happy for the distraction from the twinge that's developed in my lower back. "It's a place with a lot of issues, to say the least."

He nods. "Okay, and how do you feel about the way they treat women?"

I can see the glint off the hook, but bite anyway. "It's shameful. Awful."

He dons a savage grin. "Then what do you think about Hillary Clinton taking millions in donations from Saudi Arabia?"

Ye gods, Hillary Clinton. Of all the things I might have imagined I'd be discussing outside the clinic this morning - her? I briefly consider calling his bullshit - the donations were to her A+ rated charitable foundation and not her campaign - but facts are a devalued currency around these parts.

"I think if you're looking for perfection in any political candidate you're going to end up disappointed. How can you question her character when compared to Trump's lack thereof?"

He shakes his head. "I didn't vote for Trump."

Well, knock me over with a protester's sign containing grammatical errors (like Luis'). "You didn't vote?"

"I voted for Cruz."

They'v finally managed to leave me speechless. I mean, I understand his platform, such as it was, pandered to the hard-core Talibangelicals, but the dude got clobbered in the primaries. Ted Cruz. Hoo.

I get to return the favor in short order. We've been bouncing around on different subjects for a while before veering into theological debate centering on my objection to his brethren trying to force their religion views on others. There's no way to win this debate but again, anything that distracts them from patients until the last second is a worthy endeavor.

He shifts to a new line of questioning but doesn't bother to hide the verbal bear trap lurking ahead. "So you're an atheist, right?"

I shrug. "I guess, if you need to hang a label on it."

"Well, don't you tell others they shouldn't worship God? Try to get them to stop?"

"No." When he gives me an odd look I raise my palms skyward. "I don't care who or what you worship, as long as you don't try to impose your ideals and rules on others." Since my hands are already up, I wave my fingers around. "You know, like this."

Alex seems a bit nonplussed. "Most of the atheists I meet are much more militant."

Am I supposed to apologize for that? Be meaner? Mock his deity of choice? His issue to deal with, not mine. My immediate concern is the couple being escorted past the raucously cawing Mean Girls and for being in place so Janine and I can form a Runner-proof wall. Judging by her muttered complaints, we do okay.

* * *

"We didn't do it, okay? Leave us alone!"

Somehow, in the midst of all their yelling, the protesters missed this. 

In general we don't encounter too many traffic jams at the front door. On Saturday mornings we mostly handle input, getting patients and companions inside. We escort a decent number back out after they've finished their visit, but often the majority are still in the clinic by the time the circus outside packs up for the day. 

This time, though, things are a little wonky. We've got a goodly amount of protesters - somewhere north of a dozen - and in addition to escorts bringing in patients from the south and a car idling in the no-park zone in front of the entrance, a couple is coming back out of the clinic under a full head of steam. The woman - young, eyes red, biting her lower lip - has a two-step lead on a guy who is either her boyfriend or sibling. They came in with an older woman, no doubt somebody's mother, and all three had choice words for the protesters on the way past. In fact the guy stopped to do some finger-pointing, with the tension level escalating enough that DeeDee intervened to gently but firmly urge him to go inside.

Now, though, they don't want any part of them. I have to believe his blurted words went unheard because otherwise they would have pounced like sharks on a wounded fish instead of letting them head north up the sidewalk, unmolested. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but the protesters are still focused on patients heading in, and I don't have time to keep watching as I usher the new arrivals through the door amid a cacophony of screaming, both amplified and not.

We're often accused of being out here to collect a paycheck, of getting more money based on how many people we escort in. There's not a shred of truth in that, and we're not going to chase someone down the sidewalk and try to convince them to go back in. If they choose to go through with the procedure, that's fine. If they decide that they'd rather have the baby instead, that's fine too. All that matters to us is that they get to make that choice.

About twenty minutes later the couple returns. Whether they're just back to pick up the mother or to stay for whatever brought her here, we don't know. It's just our job to get them through the front door.

* * *

"Because you deathscorts are disciples of Satan, and Satan is a murderer!"

Is he?

There's a guy I've never seen before on the amp, starting his spiel at around 10:30am. This is where they usually slot those new to preaching, and their skill level is a mixed bag at best. This kid still has acne on the side of his face and we've already managed to derail him from lecturing us about knowing how difficult it is to be a father, given that his ringless fingers indicate that he's likely childless. Gamely soldiering on, he shifts to this new angle.  

After about fifteen seconds I have to interrupt him. "Who did Satan kill?"

He pauses and looks at me, blinking rapidly. "What?"

"I asked who Satan killed. I get it, he's the Father of Lies, in charge of Hell, all that. But who did he actually murder?"

Silence draws out as he struggles to answer. After a good fifteen seconds or so Alex leaps in with a rescue attempt. "Judas. He murdered with Judas."

I'm not a Bible scholar, but that doesn't sound right. "I'm pretty sure that isn't true. Judas didn't kill anyone I'm aware of. Just took his money for info, right?"

Alex combines an exasperated sigh with a shake of his head. "No, Satan entered Judas and that led to Jesus' murder."

DeeDee, who works with lawyers, lets out a healthy snort. "That's a bit of a stretch," I say. "You can do better than that. Who has Satan murdered?"

There's a good deal of muttering, but no answers. Not even Job's family, which I figured was a gimmie. I get why they might be having issues, since it's much easier to find examples of God engaging in wholesale murder and genocide than it is to pin something on his former right-hand man.. More awkward silence ensues until a couple emerges from the clinic and the protesters launch into their vitriol with what feels like a sense of relief.

Good to know my daddy/professor/dispatcher/puppetmaster might not be so bad after all.

* * *

"Why are they like this? Why are they saying these things to me?"

Jesus would probably like to hear some answers about that as well, methinks.

The woman asking these questions is not a patient, companion, or escort. Well-dressed and coiffed, she's made the mistake of passing near the clinic on her way to Saturday morning services at the synagogue up the street. The protesters, bored and restless during one of the intake lulls that sometimes mark the late morning, seize on the opportunity to tell her how wrong her choice of worship is. 

Loudly. Vehemently. Derisively.

She's flanked by two of our escorts, who were wise and experienced enough to know exactly what she was going to face. With any luck she'll make a complaint to the town at some point, but for now she spares the shouters a single, incredulous backwards glance after running their gauntlet. There's laughter and smiles among the protesters. The joy of weaponizing the word of Jesus, perhaps.

Not long after that a young man in a yarmulke hurries along on the other side of the street. The mushrooms and the red-tape folks - three young people in hoodies with duct tape over their mouths - don't bother him, but Parker spies him and starts shouting at him in Hebrew. The guy keeps moving as a smirking Parker turns back to find me watching.

"What?" he says, all innocence. "I said 'Jesus is Lord.'"

"Yeah. I know what anti-Semitism is."

His eyes narrow as he smiles and I get the sense he knew this was coming. "What's wrong with that? Jesus was a Jew."

I drop an eye-roll that would make my twelve-year-old daughter proud. "That's true, but he's not the god they worship, which you're well aware of. You're taunting him. Don't be disingenuous and pretend it's otherwise."

That earns me a sour twist of the lips, a dismissing wave, and the ever-popular "You're fake news." Taunting appears to be high up on their agenda today, with anyone who isn't one of them a target of Alex's instead.

"You run around here handing out cheap rosaries of blue plastic made in Taiwan and you think you're properly spreading the word of Jesus? You stand across the street with your picture of Jesus, oh you love him so much, you keep it covered with plastic so it won't get wet in the rain, but do you come over here and use your voice? No! And you people, you put tape over your mouths. How can you spread the word of Jesus with tape over your mouths? If someone got raped would you just stand there in silence? Maybe you would, because you don't really know and love Jesus!"

It's a hell of a rant. I have no idea if the barbs find a home - the Mushrooms stay silent, the red-tape people stick with their creepy staring thing, and The Runner is always muttering under her breath anyway. The protesters' attitude that their choice of worship is vastly superior to all other forms seems to be embracing the sin of pride with both arms and some leg action as well, but they've always been remarkably skilled at ignoring things that don't fit their stance.

Later Luis crosses the street with his giant sign featuring the ten commandments (one side in Spanish, the other in English complete with grammatical errors) and stands in front of the red-tape kids. He's joined by Alex and after a one-sided conversation the others remove their tape and appear to open a dialogue. It goes on for a while, which makes escorting patients out that much easier, thank you very much. If they wanted to do this for the whole shift every Saturday we'd be fine with it.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. It's time for Luis' to take another loud and unhinged turn on the mike (number two of the day! Uncool!). As he's getting into place Alex sidles up next to me, mentions that he's praying for my soul.

I nod. "Good luck with that. How's things go with your new friends? Seemed like a civil discussion."

He lets out a long sigh. "They're good people with good intentions, but they don't know how to properly follow Jesus Christ." Whatever else he tries to say is lost as Luis begins screaming on his speaker at a truly ear-splitting level, standing as close to the doors as he can while calling those inside murderers.

* * *

Silence has been a rare commodity this morning and I'm basking in a moment of quiet as Mutton Chops gets ready to take the mike. The day has begun to warm up - I performed an act of contortion in order to strip my sweatshirt off without removing my vest that was worthy of stage and screen - yet he's still bundled up in a winter parka and fur-lined hat. Parker is behind him, standing in the street like the protesters do. A Corvette pulls even with him and stops, giving the engine a little rev. It would be fun to take poetic license and say the driver was the absolute personification of a mid-life crisis, but the truth is I can't really see him. With a throaty growl the car leaps away, tires chirping against the asphalt. Parker turns in my general direction, a big smile on his face.

"A thumbs-up, that's nice. So far today that's five middle fingers and one thumbs-up, but at least we're on the board." He seems pleased.

I'm pleased as well. May that approval ratio hold true. I crack my own smile as Mutton Chops starts to drone.

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