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When an Abortionist Dies

Dr. Spencer, 1889–1969: Last Trip to Ashland

One month, to the date, before his death last Tuesday, I was privileged to meet the legendary Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer. The trip to Ashland, which was more in the nature of a pilgrimage than a quest for an interview, had come about through the good graces of Dr. Nathan H. Rappaport. A chance to meet Spencer, and through the entree of another abortionist, was an unusual opportunity. Arrangements were made and carried out on a day’s notice. Rappaport drove us to the Pennsylvania coal country in his Citroen. The other passengers were Carol Kahn, a reporter for Medical World News, and her husband, Ira.

We were a high-spirited group, Carol, Ira, and I, and we must have sorely taxed the ego of our friend during the four-hour drive to the little town near Pottsville, pumping him as we did for details of Spencer’s life. It was a journey to Ashland that, I expect, was quite different from the more than 30,000 other journeys that travelers had made to this village, travelers with a secret, urgent mission.

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Spencer, I knew, was back in business again, at the age of 79. The justifiedly famous doctor had reopened his clinic on Centre Street and was now charging the incredible sum of $200, a concession, as he later told us, to the higher cost of drugs and supplies. At $200, Spencer’s price was still hard to believe, well under the going rate for such things. He was still unique in American history.

I tried to recall during our journey just when it was that Dr. Spencer of Ashland had first come into my consciousness. It was, I determined, about 12 years ago. A friend, a painter, had called one day to report that she was pregnant and desperate and did I know of anyone. The only abortionist I had heard of was one another friend, a model, had told me about. She had been taken to him blindfolded and he had charged her $1000. The model had not seen her doctor’s face without his mask and she did not know his real name. The painter, however, was able to make better arrangements. She called back to say that she had gotten wind of a Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania, who was supposed to be great, kind, and medically responsible, and who did abortions for practically nothing because he believed in them. A week later my painter friend came over to see me. Spencer in Ashland was a reality. He was, she reported with wonder, a kindly old man. His clinic was spotless. He had a nurse and an attendant. She had slept over at the clinic and had met some other girls who were in a similar plight. The next day, when she departed, he had given her an assortment of pills to ward off infection and build up her strength. He seemed concerned about her, downright fatherly. He didn’t make her think she had done something wrong. The operation hadn’t caused her much pain, and, the biggest wonder of all, it was only $50.

And so it was that Spencer went into my telephone book, under “A” for abortionist. I am poor at remembering telephone numbers, but Spencer’s old number is still in my memory. It was Ashland 404. I was an aspiring actress in those days, and much taken with Tennessee Williams. I remember once passing along the Spencer number to another friend and saying in my best “Summer and Smoke” voice, “Really, I think of it as the telephone number of God.” Young acting students are all over-dramatic, but there was good cause for such intense language when talking about Spencer. Spencer meant deliverance, it was as simple as that. Going to Spencer meant taking an alternative that the culture was doing its damnedest to hide or distort. The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best. And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind. Knowing about Spencer in Ashland was one irrefutable piece in the logic which led one to the conclusion that the culture was capable of the big lie.

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As the years passed, Spencer’s name would come up from time to time. The price had gone from $50 to $100. Some people remembered when it had been $25, or even $10. There were long stretches when the doctor in Ashland would go into retirement, and there were stories of treks to Ashland only to find the clinic boarded up and silent. There was, we heard, a death on his operating table from a reaction to the anesthesia. There was a trial and there was, miraculously, an acquittal. We heard misinformation, too. Spencer had become an abortionist, the rumor went, because his own daughter had died on the operating table of an abortionist-butcher. This story was untrue, unfortunately popularized in a bad novel based loosely on the life of Spencer by a lady novelist with one of those awkward three-name combinations. Maybe the lady meant it symbolically. Spencer’s real-life daughter, better information had it, was alive and well, and so was his son. Other information I absorbed about Spencer, I was later to learn, was quite accurate. He was a committed atheist and free-thinker who often pressed his literature into the hands of the girls along with the antibiotics and vitamin pills. He had gotten into abortion work during the ’20s through the supplication of the miners’ wives in the Pennsylvania coal country, and his work for the miners — he was a pioneer in the technique of bronchoscopy — won him a heavy workmen’s compensation caseload, and, some said, the protection of the United Mine Workers during the years when the protection of the mine workers was something that counted.

Ashland, Pennsylvania. Principal products: coal, homemade wine, and abortions. The sort of Americana that always evaded the Saturday Evening Post. The town of Ashland is in some parts as narrow as the width of two streets. One of those streets is Centre Street, which is also a state highway. For some romantic reason I’d pictured Spencer’s clinic as a rambling, gabled mansion with a front porch. It was, instead, a very ordinary three-story, brick-face structure, flat, characterless, and attached on both side to similar-looking units. Diagonally across from it was the local movie theatre, which bore the legend, “We Burn Coal.” Most of the private homes and business in Ashland resist installing oil burners, and show their defiance with a printed placard.

Spencer’s home was on South 9th Street, just a few blocks from the clinic. It was a little house with a storm door and no lawn. There was a Christmas wreath in the window. The hour was late when we rang the bell. Spencer’s wife, a tall, big-boned woman, greeted us and led us past the formal parlor to a back room: Spencer’s study.

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And there he was, a tiny wisp of a man, frail, dry as dust, with sharp, thin features and bright eyes. He was wearing a suit of some dark material and it hung on him loosely. Rappaport had told us that Spencer had more or less stopped eating this last year, convinced that his health was irrevocably failing. There were signs of his eating habits about: two opened packages of pistachio nuts. He sat in a rocker, with what looked like a bear rug slung over his knees. He hardly looked capable of the energy required to attend to three or four abortions a day, which was his current schedule. (In his heyday, he had handled 10 to 11 patients.)

We were introduced, and we gravely paid our respects to his reputation, which I think pleased him. The interests of the man were evident in his study. Books of every description, some still in their mail-order wrappings, lined the walls and were stacked on tables, fighting for space with the mementoes of his travels: large chunks of mineral rock, strange and beautiful Indian masks, a blow gun, and a fine collection of rifles. “Douglas likes to go boar hunting. Show them your boar-hunting pictures,” Rappaport said, and Spencer got up and obliged. The snapshots showed the tiny figure with a big, red hunter’s cap on his head, standing in a group with four or five other hunters, towering men, each with his rifle proudly stuck in the ground. Behind the hunting party, 11 large black boars were strung up in a neat row, quite dead. Dr. R. D. Spencer was, he informed us, firmly against gun registration.

Carol or Ira called attention to the microscopes. Several of them were about the room, some with camera attachments and light boxes, and one which Spencer himself had designed. Spencer’s training had been in pathology. Happy to show us the microscopes, he went to one of his cabinets and pulled out some slides. As we took turns at the microscope, intently viewing the various specimens of single-celled life that Spencer had prepared, the man grew increasingly more animated. He was entertaining his guests, and thoroughly enjoying it, and we in turn were thoroughly charmed and engaged, so much so that our friend Rappaport withdrew somewhat testily to the front parlor to converse with Mrs. Spencer.

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Warming to his audience, Spencer brought out further treasures. “This,” he announced of one exhibit, “is the life history of a fly.” And it was, from an insignificant speck to the insect as we know it. “Do you know what this is?” he queried, showing us a small, clear plastic block with something red and curled imprisoned in the center. It was, he told us, the embryo of a pig. We passed it from had to hand, marveling at its tiny perfection, examining it more closely under one of the microscopes. Spencer showed us another red, curled specimen in plastic. “A human embryo,” he announced. “Less than four weeks old.” Unbelievable, but there it was, tiny, more intricate than the pig, with a spot for the eye and the definite tracing of a spinal column. In all, he showed us three tiny human embryos, none more than a thumbnail long, but the third larger and more developed than the first. The only human embryos I had ever seen were those in a big picture layout in Life Magazine. These were in my hand, three-dimensional and real. I took the largest human one and compared it with the pig. A sentence from biology class popped into my head. “Well, ontogeny certainly does recapitulate phylogeny, doesn’t it?”

We were gripped by the human embryos and would have liked to see more, if there were any, but Spencer was digging in his cabinet for other exhibits. He showed us something pitch-black ad vaguely cloth-like in a glass slide. “I’ll give you a hint about this one,” he said, playing a game. “It’s animal and mineral and indigenous to the region.” We were stumped. “Carbon?” I ventured. “That’s the mineral part of it,” he admitted. “Well, a fossilized animal in coal?” I tried again. “This is a piece of a miner’s lung,” he stated simply. “The miner died, obviously.”

We didn’t leave Spencer’s house until close to 1 a.m., and we returned the next day. “He’s been expecting you all morning,” his wife said as she brought us to the rear study. We had thought, Carol and I, that we had better make a stab at a proper interview this time, particularly since Carol’s magazine was paying for her part of the trip. She set up her tape recorder and I reluctantly brought out my notebook. It seemed unfair to ruin a social visit. Spencer apparently though so, too. It was hard to keep him to the subject and several exasperated looks were exchanged among us as our host got involved in anecdote after anecdote, complex stories involving his diagnostic skills, but not at all about abortion.

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Trying our best to pin him down to his very first abortion, we discovered that there really was no such thing as a first abortion, a conscious decision to break the law, with trumpets. He had gotten requests from some local women, and he had obliged. “But why,” I persisted, “did you oblige? Most other doctors don’t. Why were you different? Why did you do abortions for women?” He rocked back and forth in his chair. “Because,” he said slowly, “I could see their point of view.”

For Carol, he attempted to describe his medical procedure. After using the packing method for a couple of years, one day he got a circular in the mail for Leunbach paste, manufactured in Germany. “By golly, it worked,” he told us. Later, when the Leunbach was taken off the market, he began manufacturing his own product in his laboratory, a mild soft-soap solution, which he used to dilate the cervix and loosen the conceptus in the first stage of his procedure. The following day he would complete the curettage. Spencer refined his own technique and he stuck with it for 40 years. The newer methods didn’t interest him.

Spencer told us that he was following with keen interest the recent attempts to liberalize abortion laws in several states. He himself had written Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania. “I told him that most of our laws are from the English,” he said spiritedly, “so why don’t we go to work and copy the one they just passed?” He talked about his letter-writing with the righteousness of an American Legionnaire or a Rotarian, which was not surprising, since he later told us that he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Legion and had been an active Rotarian all his life. His father had been the district attorney of the neighboring country. Did that explain his remarkable record of longevity in a career which is usually marked by the law crashing down on the practitioner’s head? “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been here since 1919. I daresay I’ve helped out half the town. Even on the abortion end, there is probably one of my patients related to a family in half of the town. I think most of the town would stand up for me.”

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It was 4 p.m. and beginning to snow, and Rappaport was urging us to get going. We said our goodbyes reluctantly. “Please come back and visit again soon,” Spencer urged. I had noticed that among his vast collection of books was a Writer’s Market ’69. Had he been thinking of publishing something, I inquired. Spencer smiled wistfully. Did he want an article about him in a major magazine, with a picture, I pushed. He allowed as how once the New York Times had been interested, but his lawyer had thought that the time wasn’t right. He still had an indictment hanging over his head. References to Spencer had appeared in print, but usually he was “the legendary Dr. S.” Time Magazine, as far as I knew, was the only mass circulation magazine to print his name in full. I told him I thought the time couldn’t be more right for publicity. The idea seemed to appeal to him. Punctiliously he gave me the address and telephone number of his lawyer in Pottsville, and then, special privilege, his own private unlisted number at the house. “We’ll do it for your 80th birthday,” I promised. He had told us that his birth date was March 16, and he was going to celebrate by shutting the clinic for a month and taking his wife on a trip around the world.

Last week I got a call from Dr. Rappaport. Spencer had died that morning at 5 a.m. ❖

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James Brown: Knocking ‘em Dead in Bed-Stuy

An hour and a half before show time they queue up in front of the Brevoort. The posters are stuck up everywhere, in the bars, the luncheonettes, even in the Shabazz Restaurant. Two weeks ago the Apollo, then a weekend in Akron, Ohio, and now four-a-day for two days in Brooklyn. This is the show, this is the kid, the man of the hour, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Mr. “Night Train”… James Brown and the James Brown Show. Now, tonight, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The lines are long because the kids don’t leave. They come for the first show at 2 p.m. and sit on through, fortified by popcorn and pop, waiting to love James Brown again, waiting for him to love them, waiting for him to do it again, do it to the mike, do it to them.

The cops are out, with their beat-up wooden horses, black and white cops coralling the black folk behind the barricades while the white manager, all business, counts the line and counts his house and says, “Twenty-five more, I can let in 25 more.” This is high finance, man. The white manager at the Apollo wrote James Brown a letter saying thank you for breaking all previous records, and this manager is counting the receipts, at $3 a head, thinking maybe he’ll be writing James Brown a letter, too. Ben Bart, the old pro, white manager of James Brown, is watching those receipts, too. Forty-five people on the show payroll, his cut, and a liveried chauffeur divided into a guaranteed $15,000 for two days comes to what?

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Last Show

Saturday night, midnight, the last show. The crowd is good-natured, waiting to get in. Young men and women, all spiffed up, on dates. The married couples, sedate and satisfied, this evening at least. The boys without dates in shades and caps. The girls in big hair-dos and pants. And all those ladies still with the juice in them and without husbands … in pairs, in threes.

Inside, there’s a lot of show. The Apollo formula. Give ’em a bad old movie, a couple of old cartoons, it doesn’t matter what. The movie screen is half-obscured by the big band anyway. The movie heroine smiles, and her mouth is filled by the raised kettle drum on stage. The crowd moves around, greeting friends, getting more buttered popcorn.

At last, the screen goes dark. Red and blue spotlights slowly circle and cross. The drums roll, the audience hushes. Five brownskin gals, the tall, light one in the center Chinese maybe, come wriggling and writhing on stage, in cute little bare, two-piece, sequined, tasseled outfits, weaving, undulating, backs to the audience, twitching their asses, slithery sliding, pulling at their bikini bottoms, pulsating their long-stockinged stems. The girls carry orange-painted suitcases, marked J.B. This is the James Brown traveling show, doing the New York black subway circuit.

An emcee on a makeshift stand announces the acts. The amplification is bad, the lights dim. Everything is red-blue-brown and cozy. A male singer comes on, belts a little, does a desultory pelvic grind, and for his finale, grabs the mike and pitches headlong into the pit. A moment of oooos, and he is lifted, limp, back on stage for his danceaway exit. “Dear, is that James Brown?” asks a woman. “Naaaaw,” comes the anguished answer.

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Scampers Away

The brownskin gals do some more slithering, in between acts and during the acts. The audio gets worse. The spotlight operator in the balcony, white — cigar in his mouth, charges the gals and manages to miss most of the exits and entrances. There is Miss Ella Mae, 275 pounds of shaking momma, in furbelows and frills, singing “All of me, why not take all of me,” and the tall, lanky comic in coveralls doing the cornpone a bit, scampering away from Ella Mae’s outstretched arms. There is the straight girl singer with the powerhouse voice, the Imitation Supremes, the hoary black vaude dialogue done on countless stages countless times (“Judge yer Honor, how come you let that gal go free when she was walkin’ stark naked through town?” — “Madam D.A., she tole me she been married 10 years and had 10 children so I figured she ain’t never had time to git dressed.”)

And then it is time. The music swells. The girls, now in white bikinis, move to new positions, high, high above the stage on shaky platforms. The emcee’s voice comes through clouded, a throwaway … “Needs no introduction … ‘Hullabaloo,’ ‘Shindig’ … you’ve all heard his records … JAMES BROWN.”

And there he is. The Star. Moving down stage, fast, grabbing the mike, singing, all in one gesture. Moving his feet in neat, cocoa-butter suede boots. Slim, dark, diminutive … mop of curly black hair … smart gray suit. That’s James Brown? He’s — little. The voice is ordinary, the lyrics indistinguishable, the beat uninspired. Three young men, part of his act, in lighter gray suits, not as sharp, are moving, too. Everyone on stage is moving, James Brown faster than anyone, but stationary, in front of the mike. This is the kid the whole show is built around? A slight … short … boy … with a big head of hair and a slim-line gray suit wit a custom-tailored jacket that he flips ever so coolly now and then to reveal — a flash of salmon-flowered lining. That’s all there is to James Brown?

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Body Releases

Suddenly he dips. His body, like a puppet on a string, releases. The legs slide out — incredible. James Brown can dance! The body gyrates. The arms gyrate. The arms churn. The hips swivel. The feet in the cocoa-butter boots slide together, as if on ice. (From Augusta, Georgia, he was going to be a bantam-weight boxer.) The crowd cheers. James Brown is warming up. Without a stop he goes into a routine with the boys. Fancy dancing, high strut, puttin’ on the ritz, brushing off the slim gray suit, a little brush, a little whisk (James Brown’s daddy used to be a hoofer). A breakaway into the new song, “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — the one they’re pushing, the one they hope will make the top of the charts. (When James Brown toured the South this summer, he sang this song in Mississippi, and the Poor People’s Corporation of Natchez made him up a special white leather tote bag, with his initials, J.B., in gold, and they say he carries it with him wherever he goes.)

James Brown singing a love song. Yeah. The audience is with him now. He’s going to do it soon, “Love you, I wanna love you,” he pleads. Ooohyeah, you can love me, baby. “Love you,” he pleads, and then with a shiver — with one tremulous movement — he lifts up the microphone — and throws himself down on top of it … The audience gasps. The women. The kids. The undulating white bikini brownskin babies. James Brown is pleading to let him love. Talking to the head of the microphone. Kneeling. Wailing. “I want to love you.” Sobbing. Pushing the unresponsive microphone. Begging. Shaking. — He can’t go on. One of the male dancers goes over and talks to him gently. Then lifts him up. He continues his song. — But it’s too much for him! He shivers, throws the microphone down again! “Love you.” They’re getting worried. They raise him up. They prop him up on both sides. They dance a little. More incredible sliding. Then James Brown wants to — “Shake. I want to shake your hand.” The audience surges forward. “Let me shake your hand,” he chants, and the hands are already there, outstretched. Teenage hands, middle-aged women’s hands, men’s hands, reaching up toward the stage. The ushers form a human chain, trying to hold the crowd back. On stage, his boys try to hold James Brown. He breaks loose! They grab him! They take a hold of his arms! He reaches toward the hands! With a dancer holding onto him from each side. James Brown’s arms are thrust toward the clasping hands. From one end of the stage to the other, his men push his arms toward the crowd and pull them back.

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James Brown back at the microphone, still in one piece, singing about making love again, “All night long, two o’clock, three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock,” getting worked up again. The dancers calm him, hold him by the jacket. But — he’s — got — to — do — it. He wrenches out of the jacket — flash of salmon flowers — and does it to the mike again! Down on the floor, kneeling, pushing, berating the head of the mike. The crowd is hysterical, pressing forward. From the rear of the orchestra, from the balcony. A revival! A holy, holy, orgiastic Gospel finish. They bring a black cape and cover him gently. They pick him up and guide him into the wings — but no, they can’t hold him! He stamps his feet — and shivers — and throws off the black cape — and runs back to the prostrate mike. “Love me.” Another cape. A white one, is passed up and put around him. They almost have him off now, folks — but he trembles, breaks free — kneeling, murmurs inaudibly to the microphone. They straighten him up and put on a red cape. He is exhausted. They guide his faltering steps. But James Brown still doesn’t want to go. Not yet. The crowd, the people, the love. He must give something more … his clothing! He rips off his tie and throws it into the pit. He starts to rip — bodily they carry him from the stage. What a finish! Nothing like it since Jackie Wilson used to lie down stage front and kiss all the ladies, one at a time. The mantle has fallen on James Brown. The apotheosis of the ethnic thing. Four-a-day on the black subway circuit. The short, skinny kid with the big head. Dynamite. James Brown. ■

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Ping-Pong Madness

So, the West Side Club is about to close and the ping-pong players are going crazy. What are Abass and Alex and Wally and George and Marty and Steve and Phil and the three Johns going to do? Where will they hang out? Where will they practice? And what will happen to the Women’s League that plays on Sundays? Welcome to the marginal world of table tennis. As soon as the players find a home with good light and space, straight wood floors, and two or three rows of Butterfly tables, the rent goes up, the nets come down, and the place closes.

The rear of the West Side Club, a billiard parlor on Eleventh Avenue and 50th Street, has been the Manhattan hub ever since two desperate enthusiasts persuaded the owners to install eight tables. The players had fled their former home in Chelsea after a shooting, on the pool hall side. West Side drew one of the most intense and least well-known sports subcultures in the city: world-class athletes from Nigeria, Guyana, Indonesia, China, Romania, the Dominican Republic— and some native New Yorkers— who excel at a game that most Americans have a hard time thinking of as a real sport.

Forget the duffer’s serve, return, slam you played in summer camp, or on the wobbly table your parents kept in the finished basement. Come down some night (before it’s too late) and watch the pros. Behold the swoop and reach as the bright orange ball is thwacked across the net. Follow the spin. Admire the footwork. Applaud the speed-of-light reflexes, the agility, and the cunning.

Ping-pong was recognized by the Olympics in 1988, the same year they let in tennis. In Europe and Asia, clubs and leagues are part of the social fabric in every town and city, but somehow the sport never caught on in the States, except as a kids’ game for fool-around recreation. The sport has had its boomlets of national interest, but nobody could ever figure out how to make money from it.

Ask Marty Reisman. In 1951, 21-year-old Marty from the Lower East Side became the U.S. champion. A born showman, he went on the road playing exhibition matches at halftime during basketball games. When that petered out, he scrounged a living through a time-honored hustle: spotting the suckers a fistful of points in private matches. “Sometimes for $200,” he told me the other night. “But a $5 bet was also a big deal in those days.” Marty is a fixture at the West Side Club; his own club on West 96th Street closed 20 years ago.

A second boomlet for the sport kicked off in the spring of 1971, as Nixon and Kissinger pursued their back-channel opening to the People’s Republic of China. During the initiative, the Chinese confounded the president and his national security adviser by inviting the U.S. table-tennis team to Beijing. The exhibitions were capped by a gala reception at the Great Hall of the People— a scene memorialized, sort of, in Forrest Gump. In real life, the world was entranced by the sight of goodwill ambassadors from two hostile superpowers meeting across a six-inch net. Political journalists had a good time dubbing the American athletes’ visit “ping-pong diplomacy.” Kissinger himself gamely posed with a racquet.

George Brathwaite was on the U.S. team that played in Beijing. He often quotes the saying, “It is equally important to make your opponent miss,” that the Chinese players told him was uttered by Chairman Mao. George is from Guyana. He is a regular at West Side, a vice president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association, and one of my coaches. George remembers the media coverage and the thousands of spectators when the Chinese team paid us a return visit in 1972. “And then it died down,” he says sadly, “while the rest of the world moved ahead. Germany has more clubs today than we have members of the USTTA.”

Everybody has a theory as to why Americans never caught ping-pong fever. Brathwaite thinks it’s because the sport was never integrated into the school system the way it was in Europe and Asia. Another West Sider says that the gap between the recreationals and the professionals widened into a chasm during the ’60s when the new equipment— inverted sponge skins on the paddles to replace the old-fashioned hard-rubber or sandpaper covers; a harder, speedier ball— didn’t percolate down to the basement players.

This is true. When I came to the West Side after not having a racquet in my hand for 20 years, Abass Ekun, the Nigerian superstar and the first of my coaches, started at stage one by correcting my grip. (There’s the European “shake hands” grip, the Asian grip, where only one side of the paddle is used, and a couple of other variations, but mine wasn’t one of them.) When it looked like I was going to stick around, Abass stripped my store-bought paddle and glued it with $60 worth of Sriver-FX skins. As played today, ping-pong is a game of spin; the sponge layers help grab the ball, adding control. Oh yes, the ball. Abiy Eshetu, an Ethiopian player, clued me in to something he’d thought was too obvious to mention: all balls are not created equal, and the best ones aren’t necessarily white. Three-star Nittaku attack balls, made in Japan and usually orange, are more durable, more perfectly spherical, and more reliable in action.

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My immersion into the ping-pong subculture came with my urgent desire to pay for an hour’s lesson. Because of the pitiful economics of the sport, most of the top-rated players, unwilling or unable to apply their competitive skills to the normal work world, have to coach for a living. The facts of life result in a clean fiduciary relationship with no ambiguity or misunderstandings. I don’t mind that I’m a walking $20 bill in a T-shirt and glasses. Where else could I work up a sweat with a superb athlete while redistributing the wealth to New York’s Third World economy in a micro, trickle-down way?

Every coach has something fresh to offer, and a different style of conveying knowledge. As the one who pays, I’ve felt entitled to a measure of promiscuity, even if the element of guilt is never absent. These days my main man is Alex Perez, who came here from the Dominican Republic two years ago. Alex doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but he taught me a backhand sidespin serve that’s a lulu. Alex also took my footwork problems to heart after watching me nearly sprain an ankle. Nike doesn’t bother to make a table-tennis shoe, although it is standard gear in Europe and Asia. This summer Alex came back from the U.S. Open in Florida (that’s the Table Tennis Open, need I say) with lightweight Japanese shoes that improved my footwork on the spot. Now we’re working on topspin loop returns.

Alex and Abass and the other West Siders who travel by van to the rated tournaments in other cities are competing for something like $400 in the Open Singles. Subtract food, lodging, and the tournament’s entry fee, and they’re lucky to break even, although their ratings might go up a notch. Table-tennis ratings are modeled on chess ratings, for some obscure reason. When Abass beat the esteemed Shao Yu, New York’s top-rated Chinese player, at a recent tournament, his rating jumped to 2550. I’m unrated, natch, but if I went the tournament route I’d be in the under-1000 class.

Not all tournaments are rated. The Chinatown tournament, held three times a year on Mott Street, isn’t rated. It offers groceries from local merchants as prizes. It’s a great family scene, with toddlers running around like at the old Chinese opera. Shao Yu’s name is the only one written in English on the scoreboard, because he is such a famous draw. Catharina Tjiook of my Women’s League won in two Mott Street divisions this summer; she came away with giant cases of Ginseng Ale and Tung-i Lemon Iced Tea.

After a year of lessons I summoned my nerve to come to the West Side on a Sunday afternoon and try out for the Women’s League, which Catharina, an Indonesian champion, founded eight years ago. Five league players represented New York in women’s ping-pong at the Gay Games in Amsterdam last year, but they got eliminated early. Tjiook’s mission is to involve more women, lesbian and straight, in the sport. She spends her own money on trophies for her seasonal competitions, and she brought in Monica Golubovic as her official league coach. Monica was a star on the national Romanian team before she defected. When she arrived in New York with her husband and
baby, she was horrified to find that top-rated players had to practice in billiard parlors. It wasn’t that way under the Ceau¸sescu regime.

Catharina sized up my game and placed me in the Intermediate Division, Monica overcame my resistance to the backspin chop, and I finished the season ranking eighth out of 14 in the singles and third in the doubles, so I got a trophy. Hooray! This year I expect to do better, wherever we end up playing.

Which leads me to some further theories about why ping-pong doesn’t have a serious rep in the States. Its onomatopoeic alliteration makes it sound like a sissy dilettante’s game, while “table tennis,” the preferred alternative, reminds some people of miniature golf. And since it consists of so many lightning moves executed in close quarters, it doesn’t lend itself readily to a huge spectator crowd. It’s aerobic, but is it telegenic?

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I don’t see any deus ex machina on the horizon to rescue ping-pong from its present obscurity; the players just want a convenient venue to play in that attracts the pros. Coach Min Shili, who used to be at the West Side, has opened Champion— eight tables, good lighting— one flight up on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. I’ve played there twice already with Maria, my doubles partner. Coach Hui Yuan Liu has seven tables in Flushing. The duffer venues are three tables on East 86th Street and four on West 26th, in billiard parlors. But I’m used to the best.

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This Precious Right

Some of us remember exactly where we were on January 22, 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision came down. Sarah Weddington, in Austin, took an urgent call from a Washington reporter. Stunned by the enormous breadth of the Supreme Court ruling, Roe’s lead counsel, a few years out of law school, exclaimed that it was “a great victory for women in Texas.” Norma McCorvey, her hard-luck plaintiff, read the news in Dallas. Two decades away from her religious conversion, she pridefully boasted to her female lover, “How would you like to meet Jane Roe?”

Madeline Schwenk, a Chicago housewife and mother of three children, repaired to a Magic Pan and got smashed on crepes and champagne. Arrested the previous May, Schwenk was awaiting trial with six friends for performing illegal abortions in “Jane,” the feminist underground service. “I was laughing and crying,” she recalls. “Roe meant I wouldn’t be going to jail.” At Mother Courage, the feminist restaurant in Greenwich Village, we uncorked some bottles and had a party.

“The future looked so bright,” recalls Camille Gargiso, then a student at City College. “Everything seemed possible after the Roe decision.”

And so here it is, 25 years later, and Roe‘s affirmation of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, as significant to justice and equality as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, is still being hotly debated and systematically chipped away at, the voodoo doll of right-wing religious fanatics waving their cynical “family values” banner, while the uneven march toward human equality remains unfinished business for the 21st century.

My abortions, numbering three, were in the pre-Roe ’60s; that is, they were secret criminal acts driven by desperation and a reckless trust in the unknown. One image will suffice: a solitary young woman with not enough money in her pocket clutches a scrap of paper. She is in a Spanish-speaking city, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and she does not know the language. When the gringa finds the shuttered house she is looking for she pounds on the door and cries, for this address is her last hope. A window opens and slams shut. Somebody opens the door. Ten minutes later she breathes deeply into the anesthetic, her life becomes her own again, and she will never learn her savior’s name.

In September 1968, after the third of my secret trips, I walked into a meeting of Women’s Liberation in New York and listened to women in blue jeans speak openly and bravely of their attempts to end an unwanted pregnancy. Not every story concluded, as mine had, with an expert practitioner and a sound medical success. That transforming evening, the kind that makes you a feminist forever, was repeated in public at the Washington Square Methodist Church on March 21, 1969. The sponsoring group was called Redstockings, and my report on the speak-out appeared on page 1 of The Village Voice.

The feminist campaign to legalize abortion was built around a simple, breathtaking principle: “A woman has a right to control her own body.” It was a slogan first employed by Patricia Maginnis, whose illegal referral service in California was a pioneer. Simultaneously with the feminist mobilization, a cautious movement of concerned doctors, lawyers, and clergy coalesced into NARAL, then called National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws. But it was the young feminists’ creative juggernaut of impudent actions that set the campaign afire. Public speak-outs. Disruptions of legislative hearings. Mass rallies and marches. “KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY UTERUS.” “FREE ABORTION ON DEMAND.” Counseling hot lines and referral services not only flouted the law, but a few of the “Jane” women in Chicago actually became trained practitioners, ably performing low-cost abortions themselves. Elsewhere, small groups experimented with “menstrual extraction,” a technique developed in Los Angeles by Lorraine Rothman and Carole Downer that could clean out the uterus in the first month of conception with a small plastic cannula, drip pot, and syringe.

On the legal front the most innovative approach began with Nancy Stearns, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. In October 1959 Stearns filed a class action suit in federal district court that sought to overturn New York’s antiabortion statutes on behalf of the state’s women. (Her coattorneys were Diane Schulder and Flo Kennedy.) Feminists in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Michigan quickly adopted the class action strategy, gathering thousands of named plaintiffs and engaging the media by conducting public depositions and courthouse rallies.

Numerous political strategies were employed during the four hectic years prior to Roe, and no one could say at the outset which approach would triumph. With hindsight, I believe a combination of strategies led to the Court’s decision. The Clergy Consultation Service begun by Howard Moody at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village added tremendous moral stature to the illegal referral networks. The lobby-the-state-legislature approach favored by Larry Lader of NARAL achieved some early, impressive victories–until elected representatives learned the hard way that a vote for abortion rights could end a politician’s career.

In April 1970 New York became the second state, after Hawaii, to go legal. Two weeks later Alaska came through. Voters going to the polls in Washington State that November overwhelmingly endorsed a proabortion referendum. Initially proposed as a humanitarian health-care issue, Referendum 20 gathered its energy and positive force after Seattle Women’s Liberation reframed the campaign as “Abortion Is a Woman’s Right.” Barbara Winslow, a historian, believes the wire coat hanger signifying a botched illegal abortion first appeared on placards in Washington State.

Roe in Texas, Sarah Weddington’s case, was an early starter, a single-plaintiff suit filed in March 1970 and later amended to be a class action. The idea began percolating at the University of Texas in Austin when the Women’s Liberation Birth Control Center proposed to sue the state for driving its activists into illegal work. Linda Coffee, the Dallas lawyer Weddington brought in as cocounsel, gave the Texas statutes a close reading and scotched that first plan. In order to have “legal standing,” the plaintiff, in Coffee’s opinion, needed to be a pregnant woman who had tried unsuccessfully to get an abortion via a legal route. A friend of hers who handled adoptions came up with McCorvey. Four months pregnant and living the hippie life on the streets when she met the two lawyers at a Dallas pizza parlor, Norma “Pixie” McCorvey, age 21, had brought two unwanted children into the world already. She was too far gone for a first-trimester termination, the standard recourse on the illegal circuit.

Along with Doe in Georgia, another single-plaintiff suit, Roe moved swiftly through the appellate process, faring better than the multiple-plaintiff class actions, which were foundering on the shoals of “legal standing,” just as Linda Coffee had predicted. The lower courts did not look favorably on a mixed bag of claimants–women who had been unable to secure abortions, women who had resorted to illegal abortions, women who were not pregnant but were claiming the right to obtain an abortion at some future time.

In 1972 the Women’s Rights Law Reporter compiled a list of suits in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Many were slowly climbing the appellate ladder. In addition to the outright feminist cases with their thousands of named plaintiffs, the Reporter noted the appeals of doctors convicted of performing illegal abortions, the challenges by doctors claiming their medical, humanitarian, and privacy rights to perform abortions, and the suits by referral services run by clergy and some YWCAs claiming their moral and humanitarian right to function within the law.

Faced with a cornucopia of diverse cases clamoring for review, the Supreme Court could pick with care. Judicially speaking, the Roe and Doe suits were uncomplicated, clean. Each rested on one unfortunate pregnant woman with limited resources and a hard-luck story who had tried but failed to obtain a medical remedy under her state’s laws. (The Georgia law was considered more liberal than the one in Texas, but a hospital quota system hadn’t helped “Mary Doe.”)

If Justice William O. Douglas had gotten his way, the Roe decision would have come 13 months earlier than it did, after Sarah Weddington’s first go-round on the oral arguments in December 1971. Douglas had the votes and was itching to write the majority opinion, but Chief Justice Warren Burger threw the assignment to Harry Blackmun, a slow writer who did not relish charting new paths for the law. Blackmun asked for more time. Roe and Doe were held over and reargued in the next calendar term. An additional year of the national groundswell not only stiffened Blackmun’s spine, it tipped Lewis Powell, a new Nixon appointee, into the affirmative column. At the eleventh hour the Chief joined the majority, making the monumental decision 7 to 2.

Roe was astonishing news, even though it was eclipsed in the headlines by the death of Lyndon Baines Johnson. A militant four-year campaign had altered public perceptions to such an extent that a medical procedure the law had defined as a crime for more than a century was transformed by court dictum into a woman’s constitutional right.

Precious rights do not come like diamonds with guarantees of “Forever.” Few celebrants of Roe could have imagined the next quarter-century of constant vigilance and depressing retreat. The defensive actions required to maintain reproductive freedom have worn down many of the original militants, while younger women often take their given rights for granted. A personal stake in the outcome breathes urgency into any political struggle. Hey there, my sisters of reproductive age, the next century’s battle is yours.