"Well," my supervisor said nonchalantly, "I guess we don't need you to come in for a while not until we call you."
"Oh," I said, not knowing what else to say. "Okay." And I hung up. Later, when I realized the call wasn't coming any time soon, I called back and asked when exactly I should come in.
"Prrrrobably not for the foreseeable future "
I hung up, and the explosions started.
Health care Boom.
Over the next few days, the bleakness of the recession sank in and more bombs went off. The job I had at times loathed now seemed like a far-off land of milk and honey. And things like beer.
Now that land was gone, lost, and there would be no more frills like lunches or bus tickets. I was going to have to tighten my belt and walk places. There were a lot of things I could do without: Cell phones, caviar, trips to the Riviera. I'd already been doing without most of these.
Worse, though, was a feeling that clung to the inside of my stomach: a sense of uselessness. It was a lingering feeling of having been thrown away like an old paper bag, or a dirty condom, like I'd been screwed.
"Well," I thought, "then screw them." I can word process like a motherfucker. I can do a pretty fast 10-key. And I've bagged my own groceries for years. I had skills that someone must need. I thought, "I'll just get another job."
So after a few days of lying around in denial, I looked through the classifieds. This was sobering: It was soon clear that my skills were fairly worthless. I don't "have a SMILE in my voice." I can't operate a press brake. And at one point I thought Excel meant to do real good. Never, in all my searching, did I find the ad I was looking for: "Applicant must have vital liberal arts degree and 5-10 years experience fucking around."
But I wasn't ready to give up. Actually, I couldn't give up. The problem, as I saw it, was one of supply and demand; wherein someone demanded something, I supplied it, and they paid me.
But at a glance, my inventory of demanded goods was low. And I needed money--now.
Then I saw the ad.
"BLOOD PLASMA SHORTAGE At Alpha Plasma Centers we are in constant need of your life-saving plasma $65 in two visits, $115 in four visits in two weeks."
For that kind of money, I'll save whoever's life you want. I could sell myself.
LET IT BLEED
"Have you ever got anyone's blood in an open wound?" Paul asked in a rote, flat voice. I could tell he'd read the questions a million times. Paul was a large, unhappy man with neat hair, and he went on. "Have you ever made love to a primate?" "Have you been in prison--even once--since your last visit?"
My answers were all no.
After running it through the labyrinth of tests and paperwork and questionnaires at the Alpha Plasma Center, I walked into the next room, which was a beehive of fluid extraction. It was white and sterile and filled with Lay-Z-Boys where donors reclined. Each subject had a machine attached to their arm, slowly draining blood. It was like The Matrix, except with magazines. I leaned back in my chair and tried to relax.
Paul came over to my chair. He didn't seem any happier about taking my plasma than reading the questionnaire or about his well-paying job or anything else. When he spoke at all, it was in a loathsome tone that told me, underneath, to shut up and bleed.
Paul put on his blast shield and pulled out a needle that looked more like a metal straw with a clear plastic tube attached. I looked away as he rubbed the iodine on my arm, and felt a slight prick. Looking back, I saw the needle was in and a dark red flow was headed toward the machine. I would later learn it was "a beautiful stick," and I wouldn't fully appreciate it until the following week, when another phlebotomist stabbed me like a turkey roast, leaving a huge bruise and a gaping hole in my arm.
But the big man knew his way around a needle. My blood flowed smooth and red down through the tube, into the machine next to my bed, which spun the plasma out and sent the red blood cells back in. Upon re-entry, they felt like an injection of cold Cherry Kool-Aid.
Not many people smiled around the plasma center. There was a sort of resignation about the place. A few posters on the walls reminded us that our plasma helped Sheri, who lacked antibodies, and Dean, who was burned in a linseed oil fire, and Bryan, who was a hemophiliac. But the truth was we were all there for one reason: Cash.
This wasn't lost on the plasma center management. On Fridays and Saturdays, bed numbers were drawn on the hour. If your bed number was chosen, you got to spin a wheel and could win anywhere from $2 to $10.
On my fourth time at the center, I got to spin the wheel and walked out with ten extra bucks. My toes were tapping.
After a few weeks of this, I thought, "Hey, maybe there was something to this business after all." It's easier than working. You get free grape juice. You help Sheri and Dean. And you walk out with a pocket full of money. This was capitalism at its best.
It was so easy that I started wondering if there weren't other assets I could sell. I had so many things I didn't really need, like plasma, a spare kidney, half a slightly used liver and much, much more. This could be a real business. All told, your body is worth quite a lot of money. In 1992, Jim Hogshire, author of Sell Yourself to Science, estimated a body that's been dead less than fifteen minutes was worth up to $50,000. But today in Egypt, you can get $10,000 for a kidney alone. In Iraq, you can get $20,000, but there's a complicated screening process. In India, you can only get about $1,000. But that's more than you can get here. Hogshire put a slice of liver at $150,000. Others put the full body value today more towards $200,000. There are rumors of a big futures market in organs on its way.
If only it were that easy.
On the internet, I found one site that looked promising: CadaversInc.com, and signed up to sell a kidney and a lung, both big ticket items. But later I found out the site was put up by some Norwegian pranksters, preying on the weak.
I went to eBay to look at rates on harvestable parts, but there was nothing. So I checked their policy, and sure enough, it said, "Humans, the human body, or any human body parts may not be listed on eBay." But I kept looking and eventually, found out that selling organs is illegal in the U.S., even if you're dead. The National Organ Transplant Act, passed in 1984, "Prohibits the purchase or sale of human organs if such transfer affects interstate commerce." As it turns out, there aren't any good organ brokers in Oregon. They're all in California. My organs would need to cross state borders.
Well, the National Organ Transplant Act may have outlawed selling organs, but it didn't say anything about fluids, like blood and plasma and hmmm
THE "OTHER" FLUID
"Sperm donors sought." Here's an interesting fact: A woman's eggs are worth up to $10,000, while one sperm sample is worth $40. This $9,960 gap demonstrates supply and demand at its finest: A global masturbation surplus has pushed semen prices way, way down.
Nonetheless, we'd all be doing it anyway, money or not. And $40 is practically two trips to the plasma center. But alas; like the siren song of an Amway rep, selling your semen isn't quite that easy. There are two sperm banks in town, and the process for being "accepted" at both is grueling. After an initial masturbation and analysis of product, there is such an elaborate battery of tests and screenings that you won't see a dime of your hard-earned money for six months to a year. And after all that, it's taxable, though at what rate I don't know.
More important, though, is the fact that you basically have to be Superman, complete with Supersperm, to qualify as a donor. A normal count is anything over 20 million sperm per milliliter, but donors need at least 80 million. Currently, only about 34 He-Men are actively wanking at the OHSU Andrology Lab. You can read about them on www.fertilityoregon.com/lab/donorlist.htm. They are the chosen few: a software analyst, a bank supervisor, a chiropractor, an undergraduate, an editor, and others. For a couple hundred dollars, women of the world can order their sperm (for pick-up or Fed Ex) and impregnate themselves as they see fit, using the "turkey baster method."
I decided to give it a shot.
The laboratory was clean. You'd never know what went on there. A short woman in a long white coat greeted me in the lobby, and led me back through the office, past the round metal tanks where they store the semen before it gets shipped out and made into people.
In a back room, I sat down and filled out a questionnaire about my health, which was fine, then read through my "Semen Donor Consent" form that waived all my rights to "any child or children produced from using my semen." The short woman came back and gave me a run-down of the procedure. But she also warned me guardedly, and a little sadly, that laws were changing and that, although it's unlikely, it was possible that sometime in the future my $40 kids might come looking for me. I might want to "keep this in mind," she said. That didn't exactly set the mood.
With the paperwork in order, I retired to the collection room--alone at last. There was a little lamp for mood lighting, some lotion and some Penthouses. I vaguely recalled being somewhere, in a bathroom, sometime in my teens. But not withstanding the attractive women of Penthouse, it was still hard to get in the mood with the nurses outside yelling about their lunch plans. And it wasn't like they didn't know. Outside was an enormous red "doctor-is-in" light over the door that went on when I locked it. I tried to think about all the money I could make, which was exciting. But then I remembered it's taxable.
A few days later I got the call. My sperm count was too low for the program. Only 43 million per milliliter. That sounded like a lot to me, but it just wasn't enough.
BODY FOR SALE OR RENT
A few weeks in, selling myself wasn't going so well. Plasma wasn't paying the bills. The wig market was flooded with cheap Asian hair. I couldn't find anyone to buy my drug-free urine. My sperm was too weak. And selling any organs would have meant a trip to Iraq, or worse--Mexico. The body-parts bonanza I'd hoped for just wasn't happening.
So, I thought, maybe I could rent it instead.
"Watch TV and GET PAID." "Drink Alcohol, $1500." "Safe Sex Research, $850." "Smoke Marijuana, $2,680."
This was more like it. Easy street. Just listen to these "unsolicited" comments from ConfidentialReport.com: "You get paid in large cash chunks ($550), and no skill is required," says Jim in Oklahoma. "It's the best way in America to receive money, easy and fast," says Harold in Minnesota. "It was like a paid vacation. I got $975.00," says Tony in California.
The "National Research Group" is a shadowy organization that compiles lists of places where you can subject yourself to medical and consumer studies in exchange for cash. Apparently there are untold fortunes out there just waiting to be had, if you know where to look. And the only way to know this, according to the NRG, is to order the "Confidential Report" that they publish.
"Finding this is a dream come true! Getting paid to relax and even travel if I want. Money back guarantee. Who needs it? Wow!" says Elias in Miami.
I ordered the book right way. It turned out to be a glorified pamphlet, and for my $24, I also got the chance to order similar books, like the Greatest Secrete in the World, and The Fantasy Black Book, which tells how you can "Party With Beautiful Women Make $1000's!" Needless to say, the whole thing turned out to be completely worthless. Of the five or so places listed in the book for Portland, one was disconnected, another was under new ownership and the rest blew me off. The Confidential Report, it seemed, was a test in stupidity conducted by the National Research Group.
But I knew there were ways to make money renting yourself to science. So I called drug-testing guru Bob Helms for advice. Helms is editor of GuineaPig Zero, "an occupational jobzine for people who are used as medical or pharmaceutical research subjects." He wasn't very encouraging.
"In Portland," the 44-year-old anarchist told me, "as far as I know. there aren't going to be a lot of 'Phase I' studies." These, he said, pay several thousand dollars in exchange for being the first human beings to try a drug. They're the limousines of professional lab rats. Since testing drugs on prisoners was outlawed in the 1970s, drug companies have had to rely on people like Helms, and I hoped, myself, to make sure their new drugs are safe.
"You're more likely," Helms said, "to find annoying, painful studies that pay you much less. They'll give you, like, $100 and you'll spend all afternoon earning it, and it will be something painful. But you might get lucky."
Even that didn't sound so bad. But in some places, like Philadelphia, where Helms resides, you can actually make a decent living guinea pigging. Helms has been in over 50 tests for heart medicines, anti-fungal medicines, anti-inflammatories, and much more. He's only passed out once, and says you should choose your studies wisely. And don't do psychiatrics.
But I was up for almost anything, and $100 for a little pain sounded fine. So I started calling, and soon found that Helms was right. There are no decent-paying tests in the area. There were some bad ones on the OHSU website, which wasn't even listed in the Confidential Report. I ran down their list of studies, but one by one they fell away. I wasn't quite fat enough for the "healthy overweight men" study. I didn't have an overactive bladder. And all my glands were working. I didn't have any marketable disabilities.
I was, however, a perfect control subject, and there were a number of possibilities along these lines at OHSU. For weeks, I called these people who supposedly needed volunteers and got put on list after list. Balance disorders. Inner ears. Post-traumatic stress. I would test them all. I was willing, able, available. I was ideal.
But this wasn't to be. Sadly, the underworld economy in Portland just isn't there like it is in, say India or China where a lot of this research is moving. Because despite my getting on every list for every test I possibly could, for one reason or another, they all kept getting put off. A lab was under construction. An "unexpected visitor" showed up. Not one single person called me back to advance their field of medicine, no matter how often I checked in. It was like dealing with some backwater Soviet bureaucracy and not knowing who to bribe, even if I could have afforded it. In the end, not one single measly $25 study materialized.
That was about the end of my career. Looking down at my pathetic, unsellable body, I wondered briefly what else I could put on the market. But there wasn't much left. Maybe, I thought, I should move to Philadelphia. Or else I could just try selling myself on Burnside.
Then a darker thought crept in and took shape, and after a while I couldn't ignore it any more: Maybe, after all, it was time to start looking for a job.