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!”