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The New Underground Railroad

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This year, 125 women have stayed on the foldouts, air mattresses, and guest beds of Haven members, including Jennifer, pictured here.  

The two sides often baffle each other. Guests have been known to giggle at the gay-oriented titles on a host’s bookshelves, complain about the the uncool quality of her CDs, and demand to take cabs rather than the subway because, they think, that is what New Yorkers do. Some exhibit a shocking obliviousness to the situation they’re in: On the night between the first and second stages of her abortion, one patient told her host that she wanted to go out dancing until 2 a.m. “Plus, they all arrive with huge suitcases,” says Haven member Judith Levine. “Before we went back to the clinic, one woman took an hour to do her hair and makeup. She even had a curling iron.”

Of course, the Haven members have their own preconceptions and idiosyncrasies. New hosts often fear that their houseguests will steal from them. (In the history of Haven, there has never been a reported theft.) And some Havenites insist that their guests eat “healthy” food—fresh fish, for instance, or vegetarian—even if they ask for Big Macs and Ding Dongs. Levine worries that she won’t know how to talk to her guests. “I think my nervousness is about the class difference,” she says. Katha Pollitt, the poet and Nation columnist, buys People magazine when she knows she’s about to be called up for Haven duty. “But then I worry: Maybe that’s patronizing. Maybe they’d rather read The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Sometimes, bridging the divide is just impossible: One patient walked into a volunteer’s home, looked around, said she was going out for a smoke, and never came back.

I deal with my own class anxieties by leaping into mom mode. I’ve just finished raising two kids, so I find it easy to bustle around, all chatty and gingerbready and just a little bossy. (Now, honey, no staying up too late. We’ve got to get up bright and early to go to the clinic tomorrow!) I set up my charges with DVDs, hot tea, perfumed soap, big quilts, soft pillows, and a portable phone with a calling card. For an evening, my performance seems to gloss over our differences—for the most part.

Still, problems arise, often at dinnertime. Shauna, a patient I hosted a few months ago, demanded pasta, but her friend Lisa, who came on the bus with her for moral support, wanted chicken.

“KFC ain’t gonna have no spaghetti!” Shauna scolded.

“Let’s go to El Malécon,” I soothed. It’s a cozy Dominican place in my neighborhood, I explained, with pollo and pasta.

Shauna got her spaghetti and Lisa had her chicken, but both went ballistic when they saw other diners eating yucca and fried plantains. “Nasty!” they said repeatedly, and not exactly quietly. I was annoyed with them, mocking my neighbors, but I think the problem wasn’t so much crude manners as raw nerves. On the subway, patients practically clutch me; when we transfer from the 6 to the 7 to the A, they look like they expect to fall down a rabbit hole. They didn’t come here for a vacation, and many are spooked by the city’s gigantism and noise. Plus all the languages. And the weird lady who’s taking them home for the night to God knows where. I try to imagine being an affluent white kid with a problem and being spirited by a black woman to a South Bronx tenement that contains the opposite of my cavernously tidy and quiet life: Fox on TV, lots of people in the house, boom boxes, secondhand smoke. Not to mention those seaweed things in me, the fetal heart attack, and thinking about what’s scheduled for tomorrow.

The seaweed sticks are giving Adeena bad cramps. The only drug she’s allowed is Advil, and it’s not helping. Amid the pain, she’s struggling to stay with the DVD. Ashanti is pregnant. But her boyfriend, who’s trying for an athletic scholarship, isn’t happy about it. He tells her he doesn’t want a baby. Adeena groans. Whether from the movie or the pain, I can’t tell.

Late-term abortion is serious, hard-core. At 24 weeks, a fetus is at the same stage of development as those gruesome images shown on pro-lifers’ protest placards. “The last woman I hosted showed me her sonogram,” says Jennifer, a 26-year-old host who lives in Carroll Gardens. “Then she pointed out that the fetus was a boy. God! I didn’t know what to say.”

Every once in a while, after hosting a guest, I have bad dreams about sick babies. I have to remind myself that my dreams are just dreams, and that they’re less important than my guests’ realities.

I know that, often as not, it’s poverty that has pushed their bellies into the fifth or sixth month. Medicaid in most states won’t cover abortions, and money for the procedure is hard to round up. Ending a seven- or eight-week pregnancy costs about $400. That’s a lot of money to these women. And the price shoots up as the weeks pass and the procedure grows more complex. At 24 weeks, the price is about $2,000 in New York—much cheaper than the $7,000 it costs in New Jersey, but still a virtually insurmountable sum.


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