I’VE JUMP-STARTED A LOT of cars in my 33 years: a filthy, one-eyed Celica sunken alongside a cypress swamp in Louisiana; a wheezing Volkswagen Rabbit clinging to a mountain guardrail in Colorado; a steamy, decrepit Chevy pickup loitering in my old high school make-out spot back in Arkansas.
But I’d never juggled the positive and negative charges of someone’s car in the middle of a war zone until I became a volunteer escort for patients at the Lovejoy Surgicenter, an abortion clinic in Nob Hill.
Over my left shoulder, a post-surgery patient, groggy from anesthesia, has her head jacked out the passenger-side window of her dead Pontiac, and she’s spewing vomit like it’s silly string. Her boyfriend sits impatiently in the driver’s seat, drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel. To my right, 15 pro-life protesters are seizing on their queasy target, wielding video cameras like ravenous paparazzi, chanting slogans and waving giant signs depicting Jesus and fetuses and blood.
Then there’s me. Cowering under the hood. Sweating. Attempting—and failing—to hide the fact that I’d gone blank in the crossfire. Was it black to red? Red to black? Is the grounding wire supposed to be attached to the hood ornament?
And did somebody really just call me a “whoremonger”?
Yes. Yes, someone did. And the yelling is just getting louder. So, closing my eyes in prayer, I grind the clips into the battery, give the driver an unconvincing thumbs-up and brace myself for the explosion.
When the engine turns over in a violent convulsion, I finally let out a breath.
Yes, this is how I choose to go through my weekend, patrolling the front lines of the abortion debate, a volatile but entertaining morality play performed every Saturday at NW 25th Ave and Lovejoy.
To the outsider, spending prime weekend hours facing a three-hour verbal firing squad might seem a tad, I dunno, sadomasochistic. I wouldn’t disagree. Truth is, though, since moving here a little over a year ago, I’ve been trying to collect the totems of citizenship. Rain jackets. Rubber boots. A rolling IV bag of Stumptown coffee. Anything to be accepted as a real Portlander. All that was standing between me and an honorary pair of Tevas was some altruistic do-goodery. I needed to become a volunteer, but I didn’t want some passive post in the woods counting owls. I craved action. On an afternoon lost amid the shuffling shopping bags of Northwest Portland, I found my calling.
The Lovejoy Surgicenter is a boxy, gray building with all the panache of a cement block. Squatting stubbornly on NW Lovejoy where the otherwise Rockwellian street ascends into the green grandeur of the West Hills, it presents no large sign or neon beacon. Little advertisement announces its purpose, but for a disheveled man, who on weekdays wields a battered slab of cardboard that, in adhesive black letters, reads, “Don’t kill your baby. Give him/her to me.” A reasonable offer, I guess, if the man weren’t obviously homeless.
On Saturday, though, before the sun rises, the sidewalks have been blitzed in a rainbow of murals and chalk drawings by the pro-lifers—complete with colorful indictments like “Death House,” “Murderer,” or, conversely, “Jesus loves you.”
Admittedly, abortion isn’t funny, no matter your view. But the screaming, bird-flipping cast of characters from both sides of the debate clogging this intersection? They’re an entirely different story.
The stars of the show—the pro-life protesters—arrive in vans adorned with magnetized Bible verses. By 8 a.m. they’re erecting mini-billboards and cinching their sandwich boards over their shoulders. An hour later, as the neighborhood becomes engorged with brunch traffic, they’re working themselves into an absolute lather.
“Your fancy cars and big houses won’t save you, Nazi Portland!”
That would be the bellowing lamentation of a man I have come to call “Grizzly Adams,” a flannel-draped young preacher with a bushy beard who expresses his disdain for abortion with the ear-piercing volume of a carnival barker. He’s one of the regulars. Not only does he see demons, but he claims to have the skills necessary to exorcize them back to the fiery pit. He once told me he was a fan of those Underworld movies. You know, the ones about werewolves and vampires battling for supremacy among the undead? Makes sense.
I call his wife “Axl.” In keeping with their religious beliefs—which require women to cover their hair lest they tempt the angels (Seriously. I asked.)—she wears a black bandanna wrapped tightly around her head.
There are others: “Aryan Force One” and his wife, who has given birth to a basketball team’s worth of blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls who all forsake Saturday cartoons for the cause. And, nearby, “Satchmo,” a mustached man who sometimes plays Taps on his trumpet, and his preteen son, whom I’ve dubbed Chris Hansen, Jr, after the TV host of To Catch a Predator, a show for which we both share a secret love.
The rest of the posse spends its shift in various states of reverence: clutching rosaries, circled together in prayer, muttering silently from the Good Book.
And then there’s my “team.” Our unflattering orange vests announce us in stenciled letters as Pro-Choice Escorts. But to the protesters, we’re known as “Death’scorts.”
Like the pro-lifers, we are not without our more colorful members. Our fearless leader, Sara, spends her entire shift covered head-to-toe in heavy-duty rain gear, even when it’s 90 degrees outside. And Richard, who, in his sixties, is the oldest Death’scort, outfits his tiny white fluff ball of a dog in a custom-made escort vest.
Strictly speaking, our job is to keep the peace. Other than the caution “Don’t throw any punches,” we receive no formal training from the clinic. Mostly, we operate on knee-jerk spasms of common sense: Keep the streets clear, make sure the sidewalks remain unclogged and guide patients through the gauntlet of billboards and camcorders, making extra sure their boyfriends don’t attack anybody. We talk to the protesters—a shared loathing of subpar bagels is a favorite topic—but we don’t engage them on the issue. If ever my doctor alerts me to a stress tumor blooming in my skull, I will blame it on these long mornings of intense tongue-biting.
This being Portland, though, we’re buoyed by the support of the motorized contingent: favorable honks from passing Beemers, the doffing of an automated convertible top from a Mercedes, props from the driver of a Porsche.
Not all of our allies scoot by in luxury sedans. My favorite foot soldier is the self-proclaimed witch who speaks in incantations and dusts protesters with salt. The first time she showed up with her cardboard Morton container, Grizzly Adams flipped. “She’s trying to bind us with witchcraft!” he yelled.
“Dude,” I said, walking over and kicking at the white granules with my shoe, “it’s just table salt.”
“See? See!?” Now Grizzly was indignant. He was pointing at me. “The salt is attracting the demons!”
On this, I have to defer to the expert.
Save for an occasional demon sighting, the drama rarely intensifies beyond red-faced debate. There are, however, exceptions: four-letter words fired toward protesters at 35 mph from the passing cars, lobbed rockets of spit, middle fingers jutting from rolled-down windows—and on the rare occasion, physical violence.
An important rule of thumb: Just because someone is sedated doesn’t mean they can’t go all Chuck Norris. Which is exactly what happened when a seemingly comatose patient reacted, shall we say, poorly, to the experience of having her exit from the Surgicenter filmed by the protesters. With no warning other than a phlegmy mumble, the patient sprang from her wheelchair and swung her purse in a crushing arc that would have planted itself right in the face of Aryan Force One’s oldest daughter. I threw myself in the path of the lethal handbag. I’m not spry, but I make a heckuva human shield.
There was a loud pop of leather on bone, then an explosion of mascara tubes, loose change and scratch-off lottery tickets hitting the cement.
I’d done my job. The patient was subdued and the teenager’s dreams of becoming homeschool homecoming queen remained intact. But can you reset the metacarpus with an ugly orange vest?
"Hey." The voice behind me screeched like an F-16 peeling up Lovejoy. I looked. It was Axl. "Thanks, Death’scort."
Death’scort? Me? No thanks… I’d rather be a whoremonger.
Whatever that is.