Clinic business

In ‘Mercy Street,’ Jennifer Haig reminisces about volunteering at a clinic that offered abortions

Here Now‘s Lisa Mullins speaks with Jennifer Haightwhose new novel “Mercy Street” centers on a women’s health clinic in Boston that performs abortions.

Excerpt from the book: “Mercy Street”

By Jennifer Haight


It’s hard to ever know where a story begins. We land in a world entirely inhabited by others, a drama already in progress. By the time we enter, incontinent and screaming like dirty bombs exploding, the climax is a distant memory. Our arrival is not the beginning; it is a consequence.

The starting point is arbitrary. When Claudia reminisces about that winter (as New Englanders can’t help but do), the days coalesce in her memory: the dim light that fades early, the salt trucks slamming down the avenues , a harsh wind that cuts through his coat. She had no idea at the time of the forces aligning, of a chain of events set in motion.

Like everyone else, she was distracted by the snow.

Jennifer Haight. (Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)

The season had arrived late, like a grumpy old man who refused to be pushed around. The first weeks of January were arid and silent, bare sidewalks and short blue afternoons, a blinding brilliance on the harbour, seagulls peering into the slanting winter sun. Then a huge nor’easter roared along the coast, spinning and kicking like a kung fu fighter. A foot of snow fell overnight. Schools have been closed, flights grounded, entire neighborhoods without power. The clinic waiting room was empty, Mercy Street almost impassable.

Three days later, the second storm hit.

Snow and more snow. With each passing week, the sidewalks narrowed. Pedestrians walked in single file, treading carefully. Parking spaces shrank and eventually disappeared, replaced by towering piles of snow.

On a freezing Wednesday morning in mid-February, a crowd gathered outside the clinic, with its back to Mercy Street. Claudia stood at a second-story window in the staff kitchen, counting heads.

“Thirty-six,” she said.

Seen from above, the group looked organized. They stood in concentric circles like the growth rings of a tree. In the center were the professionals – archdiocesan priests in slick nylon pants, a few monks from the Franciscan monastery in New Bedford, the tails of their brown robes peeking out from under their winter coats. In the outer rings were the ordinary people, holding rosaries or carrying signs. They came straight from the church, their foreheads marked with black soot. Like gunshot victims, Claudia thought. That morning, riding the MBTA train to work, she had seen a lot of dirty foreheads. In Boston – still, despite recent events, the most Catholic city in America – Ash Wednesday could not be ignored.

Mary Fahey, the reception nurse, joined her at the window. “For Ash Wednesday, it’s not that impressive. Last year we had twice as many.

Claudia said, “It must be the snow.”

Staff kitchen was small and cluttered, freshly brewed coffee maker. Television was tuned to NECN, the New England Cable Network. Winter was the first story – the snowiest in 364 years, about the time people were complaining about the weather here. Another storm was on its way, a low pressure system forming in the Caribbean. Batten the hatches, guys. This is another monstah nor’eastah. The weatherman, a shovel-faced man in an ill-fitting sports jacket, couldn’t hide his joy.

“Did you count those guys behind?” asked Mary. “Behind Puffy.”

A few prowlers stood at the fringes, staring at cell phones like bored strangers at a bus stop. Whether they were demonstrators or indifferent passers-by, it was impossible to tell.

“No,” Claudia said. “I wasn’t sure about them.”

Thirty-six, she thought, was a considerable number. In their big coats, they could have carried anything. Twelve people worked at the clinic, except for Luis, the security guard, all women, all unarmed.

She studied the foreheads. The meaning of the ritual was a bit murky. The idea, apparently, was to remind worshipers of their mortality – as if anyone could need it. How it all ended was a poorly kept secret. Spoilers were everywhere.

Thirty-six was a considerable number. And anyway, it only took one.

A monstah nor’eastah. That was the accepted usage that year, the agreed nomenclature. In the winter of 2015, in Boston, a storm could not be called violent, nor powerful, nor even nasty. Ash Wednesday marked the season. Another Monster Nor’easter™ was on its way.

Mercy Street is barely a street. It spans a single block southeast of Boston Common, in a part of town once known as the Combat Zone. Long ago this was the city’s red-light district, a dark, crowded neighborhood of taverns and massage parlours, peep shows and skin flicks, 20th-century perversions that now seem as quaint as corsets. Prostitutes strolled past Good Time Charlie’s, hailing men in uniform, sailors on shore leave from the Charlestown Navy Yard.

They’re all gone now, the girls, the sailors. Over the years, the neighborhood has gentrified. Apparently the fight has stopped. After the Navy Yard closed, the dive bars were razed, the crumbling streets repaved. Porn cinemas lasted for a few more years, until the digital age finished them off completely. Now single men stay home to masturbate in front of computers, a victory for technology. There is no longer any reason to leave the house.

Sex left the combat zone. Then the builders arrived. The new constructions were office towers, parking garages, commercial spaces for shops and restaurants, easily accessible by the Chinatown and Downtown Crossing T stops. When they leased the building, the board of directors of the clinic – thousands of miles away in Chicago – had never heard of the combat zone. Completely by chance, they made a poetic choice.

The clinic is a member of Wellways LLC, a small but growing network of addiction treatment centers, drug testing labs, and women’s and mental health clinics, in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. Of these, labs are the real moneymakers. Although technically not-for-profit, Wellways is a major player in the urine business.

Drug addiction and alcoholism, depression and anxiety, accidental pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. These conditions are thought to share a common etiology, failure of virtue. Whatever their diagnosis, all Wellways patients have one thing in common: their problems are seen as, in part or in whole, their fucking fault.

Above the clinic’s front door hangs a wooden sign, painted blue and lemon yellow: WOMEN’S OPTIONS, a name no one uses. In Boston, it is simply known as Mercy Street.

From Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh. Copyright 2022 Jennifer Haigh. Excerpted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.