Friday, August 27, 2010

Me, Lolita, and the Catholics

I still have more San Francisco pictures to post, but I will get back to those later, because there is something else I have been working on for a while and have finally finished. So here it is!

Twice per month, I volunteer to stand in the rain (or sun, as it’s been lately) and look formidable at the entrance of a Planned Parenthood clinic. I volunteer on days when abortion services are offered. I wear a bright yellow “Volunteer Escort” vest, and if protesters try to take photographs, I shield the patients with a gigantic blue and white umbrella. If protesters step onto the clinic’s property, I warn them that they are trespassing. And that is about where my responsibilities end. I am not a bodyguard. I am not there to argue with the protesters, and frankly, I don’t really care to. I understand that their beliefs mean as much to them as mine do to me. I am simply there to make life easier for the patients.

I like the protesters, for a few reasons. One, they force me to learn patience in the presence of those I strongly disagree with. Two, they are a constant reminder of something I love about this country: freedom of speech, for EVERYONE. (I believe it was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who once said that freedom of speech doesn't mean just protecting the speech that we agree with. It means protecting the speech that we hate.) I also like the protesters because most of them treat me courteously, even though I stand for everything they believe is heartless and immoral. They wish me a good morning when I arrive for my shifts and send me off with a sincere, “God bless you,” when I leave for the day.

Most of the protesters are from local Catholic churches. They stand on the sidewalk (public property) holding rosaries, chanting prayers. Most are retired men and women, or young mothers who bring their small children along to help them hold protest signs. Here are some of the most common signs I see. (I hope you'll all vote for the best one! My personal favorite is Jesus-of-the-1970's-Cosmic-Rays!)

This one is kind of hard to make out, but the sign that reads "We Care" also says "We want to help" at the top and has a bullet list of the following services: Free pregnancy tests. Ultrasounds. Housing. Medicare. Counseling. Adoption.
The sign does not tell who "We" is.

This Planned Parenthood clinic is located in a suburb of Seattle. The majority of the patients are low-income women. About half are mothers who already have at least one toddler in tow. Most of the women are in their twenties, but they look ten or fifteen years older as they smoke cigarettes out on the sidewalk, squinting through weary eyes, telling me their bitter life stories. Sometimes I get more information than most people would want to hear, but because I am who I am, I eagerly drink it all in, greedy for the grittiest details. And the details are definitely gritty.

Since January, I have been keeping a sort of journal of my volunteer experiences. My next few blog posts will probably be excerpts from that journal, starting with this one:

Day 1:
I am the only volunteer who showed up today. There are three protesters on the sidewalk, and one of them has brought her young son. Two of the protesters are Hispanic women in their twenties, and the third is a middle-aged white woman wearing a sun hat with a gigantic fake flower. Rosaries in hand, the women chant. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb…” They have several signs propped up against their SUVs, which read:

Women DO regret abortion.

Abortion: the ultimate child abuse.

Abortion stops a beating heart.

Since I have no one to talk to, I pass the time by reading Lolita as I march back and forth in front of the clinic doors. (Remember my Lolita? Black cover? Title in big flaming orange letters? Deliciously scandalous looking?) The protesters’ chanting is somehow a most beautiful soundtrack for Humbert Humbert adoring the golden hairs of Lolita’s sunshine-browned legs. My smile couldn't get any happier.

Not far away, The Blue Angels are practicing for an upcoming air show. The roar of the planes’ engines intermittently drowns out the protesters’ voices. It causes their chanting to lose synchronization, so that their prayer starts to sound like demonic static. Humbert Humbert approves.

Out in the street, a man who lives in a neighboring house is flying a kite. He is one of the happiest people I have ever seen in my life. He is in his early forties, and can be seen in the middle of that street on almost any weekday morning, wearing a jaunty fedora, flying kites or elaborate paper airplanes. When cars want to pass him, he ignores them, refusing to move, even if they honk. This man is my hero.

Behind me, a young gentleman slams the clinic door closed and walks angrily down the sidewalk toward the protesters, his jeans sagging halfway down his thighs. “Man, those fuckers wouldn’t give me a free STD screening, but they give them to women for free!” he complains to the protesters. (I don’t bother to tell him that Planned Parenthood only gives “free” STD screening to those whose incomes are low enough to warrant state subsidization.) The protesters coo to him sympathetically. They give him some of their pamphlets, which feature Jesus with rays of light emanating from his savior’s heart. “God bless you,” they tell the young man as he stomps away, muttering to himself.

Twenty minutes pass. By now, only the two younger women are left on the sidewalk. Their hatted companion has gone home. The little boy has grown bored of standing with his mother. He grabs the “Abortion stops a beating heart” sign like it's a battle shield and starts running up and down the sidewalk, howling warrior whoops. His mom gets irritated and shuts him inside her SUV. He wails loudly for several minutes, his mouth a gaping black cavern, like when kids yell in a Peanuts cartoon. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaama,” he screams. Mama keeps chanting. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women…” I get tired of the kid’s screaming and look over at her. Only then does she do something about it. She says to him through the open window, “What happened?” then takes him out and holds him as he continues to bawl.

Eventually the women get tired of the heat, and they sit in the SUV with the AC on. Then they leave, and no new protesters come to replace them. And I read fifty more pages of Lolita.


  1. Wow, a day of volunteering there is a lot less eventful than I would have thought.
    I really appreciate that you try to see where the protesters are coming from rather than dismissing them outright just because you disagree. It takes a certain kind of person to do that.

  2. "Humbert Humbert approves."

    My favorite line. Glad I'm not the only one who carries characters over into real life!


  3. Wow. I am so glad you're there for women who want to make a choice about their future, but I'm also impressed at your levelheadedness. It takes a special kind of person to accept that others will disagree with you.

    Also, scandalous literature, oh my! I haven't read Lolita yet, is it any good?