My first day at the clinic, a man commits suicide by jumping off a building across the street.
It’s a bright but deceptively cold March morning, the sky an unbroken cornflower blue dome. I don’t see him; I’m trying, futilely, to find a sun-warmed patch of sidewalk for my critically under-socked feet, and my back is turned. Soon, the street fills with first responders, and police officers erect a barrier around the sidewalk where the man’s body lies. I stand awkwardly with a few other escorts in my white lab coat, issued by the clinic to help women differentiate us from the protesters. It’s tight over my winter puffer and makes my arms stick out like the Michelin man. While we watch, silent and grim, two protesters sidle up to me, a man and a woman, just close enough for me to hear them but far enough away that it wouldn’t appear to an observer that they’re having a conversation for my benefit. Which, I discover, they are.
“Isn’t it a shame?” the woman says loudly, looking in the direction of the sirens. “Everyone rushes to help this person who’s already dead, but no one comes to help the babies.”
“That’s all they care about, death,” the man answers. “Culture of Death! They love death!” He finally turns to me. “They are escorts of death! Escorts of death!”
“What do you think happened to them,” the woman wonders, “to make them love death so much?”
Across the street, someone covers the body with a white sheet, like in the movies.
One of the more experienced volunteers comes over to rescue me, and gives me a smile-grimace.
“Welcome to escorting,” she says.
We see the same protesters week after week. They drive in from a church almost twenty miles away, but always beat us there, until we begin to speculate that they just sleep outside the clinic the night before. The group is led by Pastor Creep (not pictured), a sixty-ish man with wire-rimmed glasses and, in the winter, a graying beard. He loves to riff on the Holocaust: “Just like the Nazis!” he bellows at Ruby, a fellow escort, and I as we walk a woman and her incredulous friend to the door. “Leading the Jews to the gas chamber. ‘Oh, you’re just going to take a shower!’ But they never came out!”
Miriam, another volunteer and the descendent of Holocaust survivors, checks her watch. “Seven thirty-five,” she says, “and we’re already on the Nazis.”
There’s also the Preacher, a bellower of sermons and Bible arcana who brings his two young sons to hold gruesome, digitally manipulated signs no matter what the weather. He positions himself directly in front of the clinic entrance on the sidewalk so he can shout into the reception area every time the door opens: “Can you hear the babies crying? Crying! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
Once, on a raw, wind-licked January morning, a homeless man without a coat appears across the street from the clinic. He clutches his stomach, bent double in obvious agony. When Beth, a pugnacious older volunteer who comes out every week despite severe back pain and difficulty walking, suggests that the Preacher go assist the man, as a Christian, he answers: “He’s made his choices! At least he got to be born! He’s had his chance.”
The Preacher shares turf with Are You Ready?, a man in his late twenties who carries a collapsible cross on his shoulder with the words are you ready? written in white paint. Are You Ready? has informed us many times that he’s a reformed sinner, a former fornicator and drunkard and thinker of lascivious thoughts. He takes this as a license to lean especially hard on the men who accompany their wives and girlfriends to the clinic, with “Be a man!” or “Man up!”, or, in June, “Happy Father’s Day!”, which backfired on him in a big way as stricken young men practically threw themselves through the clinic doors. Ruby and Ken, one of our few male escorts, and I can’t stop laughing about it for the rest of the morning.
Nothing makes the protesters angrier than seeing us laugh.
Killing with a smile, they roar. Laughter is our only power. When we greet patients with a smile and calmly walk them to the clinic door, unruffled by the screaming and pamphlets thrust into their hands and graphic signs lining the sidewalk, we win a small victory. When a patient smiles back at me, or tries to make a little joke, I feel like throwing a parade. Smiling in the face of unmitigated hostility is both a method of self-preservation and an act of defiance.
On one of these occasions, I greet a patient with what can only be described as the Hugh Grant two-handed wave from Love Actually. As Ruby and I laugh about it afterward, an older protester, a woman I don’t recognize, corners me against the wall, her finger in my face, to tell me that all the babies I have helped kill will dance around me on Judgment Day. I let her talk. This is another strategy: we engage the protesters, encourage them to shame and bully and taunt us, to distract them from the patients.
“And all of those babies will be black!” she adds. Black genocide is a favorite topic among the protesters. Their leaflets on the genocidal elimination of babies of color drive Ruby, the mixed-race daughter of a black woman, cross-eyed with rage. It’s an easy way to demonize everyone involved: to the protesters, the white escorts like me invade minority neighborhoods to kill black babies, and the escorts of color like Ruby are traitors to their race. So are the patients of color seeking abortion. And the green grass grows all around all around and we’re all murderers and racists.
Another protester joins us, a woman I call Message of Love, for her penchant for diatribes like this: “This could be your last hour on earth. You could get hit by that bus. And then you will absolutely burn in hell for eternity! But this is a message of love.” She especially likes me, perhaps because she mistakes my long-suffering silence for contemplation, even tacit approval.
“I know this bothers you, deep down inside,” she says, while the other woman nods. I consider explaining to her that worries about my personal judgment day don’t keep me up at night; that if I die, and discover that the creator of the universe believes that the proper way to worship him is to chase a woman across the street and down the sidewalk waving a pamphlet full of false science at her and calling her a murderer two inches from her face, I will be glad I opted out of such a corrupt system during life. I’ll dance all the way to hell. But I catch myself. I repeat in my head what we always tell our patients: you don’t owe them anything.
Many women feel compelled to explain themselves: I’m just here for a pap smear, or, I’m just here supporting a friend.
“You don’t need to answer them,” I say to the patients over and over again. “Under no circumstances do they deserve to hear intimate details of your medical life. Just ignore them.”
I learn quickly that the most valuable thing I can do as an escort is talk. About anything. Once I identify myself as a volunteer for the clinic and begin walking beside a patient, I talk and talk and talk. If only so when the women reach reception and begin the long wait, they remember my voice, low and encouraging and babbling about the weather, instead of the screams of the protesters, beckoning them to hell.
Sometimes women come in with their families—husbands, young children in strollers and baby carriers. The protesters go after them hard. They see them as depthless wells of guilt ready to be exploited, but this is often wrong: these women, who have already known pregnancy and birth and motherhood in all its bitterness and wonder, are making the decision to abort with no illusions.
If the mothers can’t be swayed, the protesters go after the children.
“How would you feel if Mommy and Daddy had aborted you?” one of the protesters, a man, asks, crouching down to the child’s height. The little boy shies and turns away; his mother, her eyes straight ahead, wraps her arm around him and says nothing.
Another time, it’s an attractive Indian woman and her husband, pushing their sleeping daughter in a stroller. The pastor’s daughter, a pretty blonde woman who we were surprised to discover is also an ADA, is the first one to her; Ruby and I, standing at the corner, aren’t fast enough.
“Please don’t kill your baby,” the pastor’s daughter says as the Preacher and Are You Ready? yell in the background. “God loves that baby as much as the one you already have. There are better options.”
When Ruby and I finally catch up, we can see the woman is crying. She stops in her tracks and faces the pastor’s daughter.
“My baby is dead,” she says. Her voice doesn’t shake. “There is no helping it.”
At that moment, our little section of the street is frozen in time, crystallized, as if by a spell in a fairy tale. Something flashes in the pastor’s daughter’s eyes, a recognition: what I’m doing hurts people. She backs off. By this time, the woman’s husband and the stroller have reached the door, and the woman hurries to catch up.
“Don’t murder your baby!” Are You Ready? shouts as the door swings shut.
The pastor’s daughter walks past us, back to her earlier position.
“Happy?” Ruby asks.
We’re hopeful that this might be a turning point. That things might be different, gentler, for the rest of the day. But of course, we’re wrong. Five minutes later, another woman comes; the pastor’s daughter is at her elbow, calling into her ear: don’t kill your baby.
On Saturdays at the clinic, the whole of the world narrows down to this one block: to the bodega on the corner where we buy tea as a buffer against the cold, to the boxing gym across the street that helps us out in the summer by playing upbeat workout music loudly from its open windows. Every month, I think about quitting and never returning to these places again. I imagine sinking back into the comfortable ignorance of my life before, letting the frustration and anger and helplessness slough off me and disappear. It takes days to get over clinic hangover; I’ve been volunteering for eleven months now and it still hasn’t gotten easier.
I strive for a less martial language to describe my feelings about escorting. I try to discover within me an alphabet of understanding, so I can form words and sentences of, if not optimism, at least patience: this is America. The Constitution protects freedom of speech. But instead I see bowed heads, frightened or tearful eyes, women with their hoods up and headphones in, trying to sneak into the clinic like they’re criminals. The stink of shame hangs over the place like smog, and I am powerless to dissipate it. This is what it is like for women to access medical care in one of the most liberal cities in the country; when I think of this, rage rises up inside me and I choke on it.
One in three women will get an abortion. One in three women will walk by Are You Ready? and the pastor’s daughter outside a clinic. One in three women will be followed across the street, have a flyer shoved into her open car windows, see her children turn away in fear from angry strangers. But hopefully, one in three women will also see someone like me, in an ill-fitting coat, with socks that aren’t warm enough, smiling at her, standing beside her, saying: don’t worry. You’re safe here.
You don’t owe them anything.
Names of volunteers have been changed because, as my mother said when I told her I was going to volunteer at an abortion clinic: “Cait. Those crazy religious people will shoot you.” We don’t even address each other by name when escorting, just to be safe.