Did Margaret Sanger Like Flowers?

a chapter from Americaa

Nancy, a single woman, as they call the spinsters in our easy day. Trimming a lilac hedge for Nancy. Some kitchen woodwork next, if this goes well.

Something burnt out about Nancy. A divorce, maybe. A weak spot for strong male egos, perhaps. A couple of those and gone is most of the best a woman comes with. And Nashville overflows with that genus.

She returned to her hometown two years back, having spent in Nashville her young woman’s prime. She was trying there for a vocal break. It didn’t come. She stayed on as a backup bird. She doesn’t talk about it, just drops a word or two. But that’s what I figure happened to Nancy. In Nashville, Tennessee.

Back home she found a job at Planned Parenthood. She doesn’t seem to count for much there, an errand girl. Not easy finding work in a small town.

The kitchen woodwork done, she brings up PP, would I fix for that outfit. A cautious proposal. Well, it’s PP, terminating pregnancies. Scraping life.

In the same wise it starts with the PP director, Bridget, the next morning. A short, roundish type, some curves okay.

“We work under a constant threat of a bomb attack, this I want you to know. And I will fully understand, if you choose not…”

Integrity like a rock.

 “Were you bombed before?”

“No, but we have had threats.” The corners of Bridget’s mouth turn up a hair as if tickled by pride. Not that she seems aware of it. I’ll give her a pass on that. For now.

“Where’s the desk with the drawers stuck that you mentioned on the phone?"

Bridget’s eyes lit up with a gleam of fellowship.

The first impression of the place is a conspicuous lack of vivid color. The only two sources emitting in the rainbow spectrum seem to be a tall transparent jar on the reception counter filled with hundreds of individual condoms in attractive pastel colors, and sets of pastel-colored plastic arrows attached to the door frames for intercommunication. Women who work here―and only they do―seem to prefer shades of brown, dark blue, gray, ash. Nor is their wardrobe sharply contoured, rather they’re soft, plum, saggy pieces.

Driving back to my place after work, I realize that I’m thinking of that bar in Greenwich Village into which I almost stormed on seeing a jackpot of women. Two dozen, just babes! I was still fresh in New York, walking on some errand, and out of the blue this. You can’t pass on such an opportunity without getting punished! Luckily, when I got inside but before wasting three bucks on a drink, it began dawning on me that those women were… well, not so appealing. Upon closer inspection, from their pairing up, the body language, and, in a number of cases, the clunky, rough-hewn forms, as if a man had sneaked the cuckoo way into their mothers’ wombs and tossed out the more eye-pleasing plumpness, roundness, softness, replacing them with his gnarliness, burliness, blockiness… In a word, they were lesbians. I found myself in a barroom full of homosexual women. And the interior and patrons’ attire, as well as both barwomen’s, were not unlike those I’d seen today at work in respect of colors. Shades of ash, gray, brown, dusty.

Later that month the director Bridget and her husband Steve, a town councilman, would have me over for dinner at their place. They lived on a defunct farm. Over the meal, a casual question popped up about my plans.

 “Might be heading for the Mormon country,” I answered candidly. “Salt Lake City, Utah throughout, perhaps.”

“Why?” Bridget.

I sensed tension.

“Well, they’re incredible folks, aren’t they? There’re millions of them and yet they practice an actual genuine fellowship. And their conduct. You may deny them that label, but in various respects they’re of the highest Christian sort. Seems…”

… like I might not waste my time over there, was the rest of my intended sentence. But I scratched it, noticing an angrish glimmer in Bridget’s eyes. An innocent mention of the American religion and the woman was about to pop off. And then she did.

“Do you know how they control women? And the young ones? All in the hands of a few decrepit old men!”

For a moment I thought we wouldn’t finish the grub.

Some time later in another town, I watched an archived interview with the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966).

This Mike Wallace, I served him as a busboy at the Oak
Room in the Plaza Hotel, NYC, back in the 1980s. His
fish was barely warm, but he hesitated to tell the waiter.
His lady companion nudged him, tell him, tell him,and he
told the waiter and the waiter brought hot fish. Shouldn't
be happening in the Oak Room, but America began falling
already then.

It reminded me of that Bridget’s outburst. In both cases, a similar button was pushed and a similar anti-religious convulsion sprang up in response. For one, I can’t blame their kind. They make a living under a constant threat of an attack, being painfully aware of the assaults on abortion clinics by religious terrorists throughout the country. In some periods, a bombing or arson would average once a month. In 1998 the religious killed six. So it can get you anti-religious, if somewhat arbitrary.

One morning at the PP, Bridget led me into a room where a gynecological chair’s paper roll holder acted up. That day I stayed longer to fix the bloated carpet in the reception room. About a dozen young women were waiting there for their turn (the physicians arrived after the regular working hours). Students, mall attendants, some high school kids, that’s how they looked. They sank in their seats quiet as kitchen mice, the legs clasped like on a Sunday morning at church. Their wardrobe bright, multihued, rich in texture and color, as young women’s typically is (colors again, huh?).

Did I condemn these young women some of whom might’ve come to do the opposite of what we celebrate as Christmas? My mind was rather turning towards the fundamentals of life, the drives sustaining it, which a person can’t fully control. Otherwise we would’ve ended our run long time ago, wouldn’t we? Heeding reality is the bottom line in attempting to do anything sensible about this worldwide open wound. In more cohesive and cultured communities, especially with strong faith underpinnings, it’s easier to keep a check on those furies. But when people are increasingly left to their individual reasoning, when the time-tested wisdom of the previous generations is vastly suspended, or seriously questioned, many don’t manage. Especially in the gigantic conglomerations, where the unchecked primal impulses roam freely in the supposed guilt-liberated anonymous environs.

I recall the time when the Internet revolution had just started and the campus webmasters used to nab the resident theologians intoxicating themselves with the web porn. In their tech naiveté, the reverends assumed that since no one was peeping over their arm…

In one particular year, I read, there were some 40 abortions per 1000 live births in rustic Idaho. In that same year, the mega-metropolitan New York City managed nearly 800 per 1000. Bright-lighted big cities, metropolises, urban spreads, i.e., applied anonymizers. How could you win without the fear of Higher Authority in them? And if there’s no fear of God, what do you give folks in lieu?

André Malraux in his Anti-Memoirs recalls how he asked a friend priest: Father, you have served your brothers and sisters for half a century, thousands upon thousands of hearts have confessed to you, from that perspective, what will you say about human nature? Ah, Andre, the père sighed, there is no such thing as a grown-up person.

When I waited on tables in New York, we had a staff meeting with an expert on rescuing choking patrons. He said that in many cases suffocation and the resulting death occurred not because a chunk of a meal had already entered the respiratory channels, but because the patron kept munching on. The patron would wheeze, cough, hiss, but wouldn’t stop swallowing, the taste taking precedence over reason. And the next crumb falls into the trachea, kaput.

So even a minor stimulus as pap in the beak can trick a person into kicking the bucket. What chance does one have then with the furies of sexual desire, responsible for the continuation of not just individual life, but of the entire species? In our advanced modern civ, we may have all sorts of the pill and physical protection and smart calendars and such, but our barely submerged reproductive rage will be still scoring on, regardless of the country, the religion, the person’s know-how of life. In place of an antique hanger wire or a jump from a wardrobe, a fertile woman will still face a choice of taking an abortion pill or visiting a scraper or putting it up for adoption. Or keeping it. Unless some magical technological breakthrough will arrive.

And well it may, as in our lifetime we have witnessed a few unthinkable tech leaps. But then again, even that may not be an entirely happy end to the story, because the Church and other religions worthy of their salt are pretty much onto something when―if only implicitly―they propose that control of procreation outside of human will and grasp of body alone may destroy the firmer fabric of human morality.

I spent two weeks on the clinic gig. It was the colors which got me thinking. Color preference, if consistent, is an indication of certain personality traits. The fact may even have more bearing if the tendency is characteristic of a group. Although, when I said that the experience brought up in my mind the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village, I wasn’t implying that I recognized an overrepresentation of lesbians in that particular PP. I did not. Maybe there was a lesbian there, maybe more, maybe none, I wouldn't tell―and hanging around in New York’s Villages gave me a sound background for discerning such traits. And Cynthia, for instance, the PP’s accountant, was a consummate woman in soul and flesh, especially the flesh, she was my favorite.

She was an interesting case. A wife and mother of two, she dressed on the grey side like the rest, and I did not see her babies pics displayed on her desk, the way young American mothers in their offices do. Maybe she didn’t want to “offend,” to hurt the religionists’ in “free choice” feelings. Maybe she was protective of the job, in a small town steady jobs don’t fall from the sky. Or, perhaps, her mother’s instinct tried to protect her little ones in this “psychic” way.

So the lesbian factor in this particular PP had no bearing or no significant one, and I leave it at that. But what I’ll have as my take-home message from this is that there seems to be a certain undersupply of femininity in these abortionist female environs. A state of gender hypotension, if you will. And that might be the factor behind that drop in preferences for vivid color (did Margaret Sanger like flowers?—we may ask). Even with Bridget, the PP director, when I later worked on her farm―it was then when we had that steamy dinner―it struck me how sterile her and her husband’s habitat appeared. Carpetless desert-like floors. Not a plant, a dog, a cat, nor any pet in the house or about, let alone a child. All-around bleakness, not unlike at PP. As if life didn’t press much within both habitants, the way it bosses around us regular folks. As if some underground wind had risen, straightened up to full size and in one angry gust had blown off all colors, all moisture, all chirping from a former farmhouse and its barren grounds.

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Tadeusz Korzeniewski has lived in Poland and then in America half a life in each. He won the Koscielski Prize for writing in Polish, and a NationalEndowment for the Arts fellowship for writing in English. He lives in Seattle.