Female Irregularities

Female Irregularities


Artist’s Statement

What was life like in my hometown of San Francisco one hundred years ago? Recently I have been looking through the archives of The San Francisco Chronicle, the daily newspaper that my parents still get delivered in print every morning, in an effort to understand the history of my city. I started out by looking for stories about Chinese people and about Chinatown. Then, while researching the Chinatown herb doctor Wong Woo, I discovered the joy of reading the classifieds. I realized that reading the classifieds from back then offers a startling and delightful glimpse into everyday life and society—a glimpse that is not filtered through the voice of a journalist or an editor.

Did you know that on April 4, 1899, all but two of the numerous classifieds under the “medical” heading advertised abortion services? “A sure safe and speedy cure for all female diseases … A treatment that restores instantly all cases of monthly irregularities (from whatever cause) … A new process for female trouble, no matter from what cause or how long standing… All cases monthly irregularities, from whatever cause, restored in 24 hours or money refunded … Alpeau’s French Pills, a boon to ladies troubled with irregularities. The other two classifieds were for Chinese herb doctors: “Dr. Wong Him, herb doctor, treats all diseases of the human body. 115 Mason st”; “Dr. Wong Woo, herb doctor, 766 Clay; all diseases cured by Chinese herbs.”

All diseases! Did they do herbal abortions as well? Did they cure ailments of the psyche? Or was that something you’d seek out from the spiritualists, clairvoyants, palm readers, and astrologists, whose classifieds also had their own sections? “Mrs. J. J. Whitney, celebrated trance, test medium, life reader, medical clairvoyant; treats all private, chronic, and obscure diseases; diagnosis free; sittings $1. 232 Stockton.”

The personals are also surprising and mysterious. Back then, people often used them to communicate with one specific person, presumably if that person didn’t have a known phone number or address at which to be reached. “Addie—it’s about time we heard from or saw something of you. Stella … A—shall advise you as soon as I receive word. D… Bess—hope you are pleased. I know I should be. Fred … N—hope it’s so; shall never wish you worse luck; can hardly believe it. A.M.” What were they trying to tell each other? What were their relationships to each other?

Reading these classifieds fills my mind with questions and speculations. In this project, I tried to imagine the stories behind them. “Female Irregularities” is a series of interrelated vignettes set in San Francisco at the turn of the century.

Addie—it’s about time we heard from or saw something of you. Stella.

The baby was crying again. Stella rubbed her eyes and rolled wearily out of bed. She lit a match and glanced at her pocket watch. Three in the morning. I shouldn’t have to do this, she thought. Where the hell is Addie?

Stella picked up the baby. It continued to wail. She sniffed the air. It smelled like shit and piss, but this was normal in her tenement building. She inspected the baby’s diaper; it looked clean. “So what’s the problem, little baby?” she asked. She rocked it back and forth, trying to stifle her resentment toward the squirming bundle of need. “It’s not your fault,” she said, “you’re still a baby. Let’s hope your mama comes home soon.”

Dr. Wong Woo, herb doctor, 766 Clay; all diseases cured by Chinese herbs.

When the sun came up, Stella decided to visit Wong Woo, the famous Chinese herb doctor, to see what could be done about the baby’s crying. Stella wasn’t fond of Chinatown. The alleys were so narrow that she was always brushing shoulders with a stranger, and she suspected that the men were leering at her through their small dark eyes.

But she knew many who had been cured by Dr. Wong Woo. Her sister Franny had procured from the man a pungent green salve that alleviated even the most stubborn rashes. And Nonna Isabella drank the doctor’s mushroom tea every morning; she was convinced it was the reason she was still alive and ambulatory at ninety-eight. The doctor could work wonders with his herbal medicines. Stella was sure that some magical plant from the East could treat the baby’s fussiness. So she was infuriated when the doctor refused to help her.

“Baby is healthy,” the doctor said.

“No!” she insisted. “He wakes me up almost every night with his crying. Can’t you give me something that will make it stop? The neighbors will kill me if this goes on.” In truth, the neighbors had never complained. The building was full of crying babies, crying women, screaming men.

“I can give you a tea that helps mothers make more milk,” the doctor suggested.

“He drinks cow’s milk.”

The doctor shook his head. “If you have no milk, he needs wet nurse. Or else he will be too sick even for me to help.”

Stella huffed. “You’re not the only doctor in town, you know.”

The baby cried again as she pushed its beaten-up stroller down the cracked cobblestone street. She knew of other women who used a special syrup to make their babies sleep soundly—and soundlessly—for many hours. She wasn’t sure what the syrup was called, but she wanted it, even if it ended up costing more than a Dr. Wong Woo cure. She would spoon the syrup into the baby’s mouth every time it woke, so it wouldn’t bother anyone until Addie came back. This would be kinder, Stella thought, than letting it cry in her own uncaring arms.

Stella searched all day, going from pharmacy to pharmacy, and no one sold her the syrup. She suspected that it had to be purchased from a less scrupulous vendor, but then how would she know they weren’t unscrupulous enough to sell her something else—a cheap, ineffective tincture—instead of what she wanted?

It was dark by the time she returned home. She swallowed a few bites of dry stale bread and tried to focus on the sewing that she needed to finish by the next day. The baby had been crying for almost an hour, on and off. It refused to drink the sour milk left over from the day before. Stella wondered if her neighbor across the hall, who had a newborn baby and two other children who were not yet weaned, would be willing to nurse Addie’s baby. Stella hardly had any money, but Addie had left her silver bracelet behind. Stella had thought the bracelet was Addie’s way of telling her not to worry, she would be back soon. Now she interpreted it differently. Addie was saying she wouldn’t be back for a while, and Stella would have to make ends meet in the meantime.

Mrs. J. J. Whitney, celebrated trance, test medium, life reader, medical clairvoyant; treats all private, chronic, and obscure diseases; diagnosis free; sittings $1. 232 Stockton.

The next morning, a pawnbroker gave Stella twenty dollars for Addie’s silver bracelet. That was more money than Stella had ever held in her purse at once, and she considered buying herself a nice dress and finding her way to a ball and securing a shipping magnate husband to multiply her riches. The baby would fit nicely in the gutter. But no—surely Addie would be back soon, and if her baby were lost or killed she would be furious.

Stella wasn’t sure why Addie was so attached to the thing. Its father was likely one of the longshoremen whose rough charms Addie had been unable to resist. Stella understood making mistakes, getting in trouble—it had happened to half the girls she knew. Stella herself had had female problems before, nothing that couldn’t be solved with Alpeau’s French Pills and a bit of courage. But Addie was sentimental and a coward. Since childhood, she had gotten attached to things too easily, cried often, refused to eat Christmas ham—a rare treat—when she was told the pig had had a name. She was afraid of blood; Stella didn’t know how she’d survived the birth. And she had gotten so angry at Stella’s suggestion to sell the baby to a barren wife and her heirless husband. “He’s mine! He’s mine!” Addie had cried. “My son,” she called it. So why hadn’t she taken it with her to wherever she’d gone?

Stella went to Mrs. J. J. Whitney in search of answers.

The medium was a stout gray-haired woman of German extraction. Around her neck were several strings of lumpy pearls. Her store smelled herbal, like Dr. Wong Woo’s office.

“Where is my sister?” Stella asked.

Mrs. Whitney closed her eyes. The baby gurgled. “Her name?”

“Adelina Basso.”

“She is somewhere very cold.”

Stella frowned. “San Francisco is quite cold. What else do you see?”

“Is that Miss Adelina’s baby?”


Mrs. Whitney extended her arms. Stella handed her the baby, relieved to be free of its weight. Mrs. Whitney rocked the baby, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. A foul smell filled the air. Stella gagged. The baby cried. “That feels better, doesn’t it?” cooed Mrs. Whitney.

“Why did you do that?” Stella demanded. “I’ll have to walk home with a bundle of shit in my arms for thirty minutes!”

“Oh, it was coming soon anyway,” Mrs. Whitney said. She opened up the baby’s diaper and inspected its waste. “This is not the shit of an orphan. At least one of his parents is alive.”

Stella groaned. “You give me some answers or I’m going to leave the baby here with you.”

“Free baby! I’ll train him to be a witch’s familiar.”


“North. You’ll need to go north to seek your sister. Or … due south. But definitely not East.”

Stella grabbed the baby and left, leaving behind its shit-caked diaper.

As she walked home with the naked baby crying in its rickety stroller, she passed through Chinatown. A girl with pendulous breasts was nursing a child while sitting on the curb. She looked up at Stella and smiled.

Stella looked at the girl. “Are you a wet nurse?” she asked.

“For the right price, I can be anything,” said the girl.

Stella lifted the baby out of the stroller. “Feed it now and I’ll give you five cents.”

The girl laughed. “Everyone says Ah Ying’s milk is very healthy! Five cents is just a sip. A baby needs more than a sip.”

“Eight cents. You people think that’s lucky, don’t you?”

“If five cents is a sip, eight cents is a sip and a half! One dollar for a day’s feeding.”

“If I leave the baby here with you all day, how will I know that you really fed it?”

“You will feel its full belly. I’ll even change its diapers! No extra charge.”

Stella looked at the child that was still suckling from the girl’s teat. It certainly looked healthy; Stella estimated that it was about a year old, and it already had a thick head of hair and strong limbs.

“Alright.” Stella lowered the baby onto the girl’s lap. It latched easily and began to suckle hungrily. “I’ll give you fifty cents now and fifty cents when I come get it tomorrow morning.”

“Come get it by eight o’clock this evening. I can’t keep it overnight.”

Stella fished the coins out of her purse and rushed home, dragging the empty stroller behind her like a rickshaw.

WANTED—First-class Chinese or Japanese cook. Call 2604 Jackson street.

While walking home from his new job, Gee Lee noticed Ah Ying sitting on the curb, nursing a naked towheaded baby. He laughed. “That’s your youngest customer yet, Ah Ying!”

Ah Ying sighed. “I wish I were a man, like you.”

“Marry me?” Gee Lee made this offer every day. As usual, Ah Ying ignored him.

“I wish I were a big strong man with hard knuckles and a revolver. Anyone who tried me would be shot on sight. I would turn Wong Tan to ground meat and serve him to the rats.”

“Next life,” Gee Lee said. “You’ll be a big strong man and I’ll be a woman. I think I’d be a beautiful woman!”

“I would put many babies in you and make you suffer forever and ever.”

Gee Lee chuckled heartily, oblivious to the depths of her sorrow.

Tomorrow he needed to get up early to buy fresh produce; his new employers, the Moores, had a sorry excuse for a vegetable garden. Today’s duck bones could be used for tomorrow’s stew… Gee Lee whistled happily. He enjoyed cooking. And the Moores paid well enough that he could send money to his parents and still save up, maybe even get married in a few years. Ah Ying, he knew, would never be his wife; she was too valuable to Wong Tan. But perhaps some other girl in the house … he didn’t mind an ugly face. All he wanted was a gentle touch, someone happy to see him every day.

That night, as he slept, he dreamt of mirepoix, soup bones, and a smiling bride…


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