Her doctor must have adjusted Mary’s meds. That is, she was more chipper this morning than she has been these past few months. Mary is one of the more reliable protesters outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and she comes with a whole backstory. A retired nun (whatever that is), her Catholic beliefs inform her position on abortion in general and our clinic in particular. It’s practically a full-time job.
She’s out there whenever I’m on duty, which is about once a month. The clinic is secretly quite fond of Mary, but because we’re on opposite sides, we can’t show it. She never does any harm to anyone, and once you get past the shouting of phrases like “look at the ultrasound pictures” and “we can help you,” screeched at the closed heavy door of the clinic, she’s really rather gentle. And we’re concerned for her wellbeing, the staff, security, and the sidewalk escorts like me. When she was treated recently for cancer, we quietly passed the news around to explain her irregular schedule.
But today, she was in top form, energetically yelling after the patients coming and going from the clinic, handing out her Rosaries and disinformation cards. We don’t normally speak to one another, the escorts and the protesters, even the regulars. We know them by name because security runs a make on those who hang around and briefs us about who they are. And everyone notices a newcomer.
There was a newcomer today, a young man, underdressed for the weather, without hat or gloves, and his jacket partially unzipped, as if to expose his broad chest. You could tell right away that he wasn’t a pro at this because he couldn’t manage his stance and kept shifting about, not really knowing what to do with himself. Out of the five total protesters today — a cold, cloudy February day — three were women and two, men. At some point, the women started pestering him like his mother to put on a hat.
When she’s feeling her oats, Mary stands fairly close and leans in at the entranceway line, but a bit off to one side. The escorts have been trained to keep an eye on the street and manage the door, but stay out of the way.
The young man stood next to Mary, more toward the center of the supposedly open lane. I thought for a moment about summoning security. It’s really their job to manage physical interactions on the street. But instead I said, “Don’t block the door” and added “please” after realizing it sounded harsh. He moved away, but kept trying to catch my eye. I wasn’t having any of it. I looked over and past him.
Normally, my mental trick for dealing with protesters is to pretend they’re flamingos — big, pink, skinny-legged, curved-necked, pointy-headed birds — squawking away in their flamingo language about flamingo concerns. And that keeps me from hearing too closely the things they are actually saying. My job is to keep an eye out for patients. After years of doing this, I can usually pick them out of the crowd, although some have developed quite sophisticated evasion tactics, last-minute darts toward the clinic door. I like to sidle over there first to hold it open for them. I keep a running patter to cover what the protesters are saying, things like, “Welcome! How ya doin’? Nice day! Step right in! Security’s on the right!” But we try not to engage with the protesters.
Today, however, I spoke to one, against the rules and my better judgment, and thus acknowledged his existence.
And wouldn’t you know it, a half hour later, when some of the protesting troupe had begun to break for the day, Mary hobbled over my way, coming within a couple of feet, and, with an impish little smile, said, “If you want one (indicating her Rosaries), I could just drop it here.” She knows we can’t take things from anyone. For a moment, I caught her watery blue eyes.
Because she was watching closely, I just gave a tiny shake of the head and blinked slowly. She knows the rules. She’s been around a long time. We had never spoken.
I wonder, though, at the source of her high spirits. Possibly, they could have come from a fresh infusion of Jesus’s love. Or perhaps she was acknowledging my humanity because I spoke, however abruptly, to one of hers. But as a betting man, I’d say it’s more likely due to an alteration in her blend of pharmaceuticals.