At nine in the morning on any Saturday, my neighborhood is quiet. I can hear the traffic from the major intersections, but no cars come down my street. All the hookers left the streets at dawn. The cops made their rounds long ago, to quiet down the late-night partyers. The pit-bull puppy from down the street that’s already mean because his owner thinks it’s tough to have a growling dog at his side, even he, is still sleeping. I am left alone to walk the few blocks to the plasma center. The sound of each step echoes in the silence and makes me think about the current state of my life. I’m thirty years old but most people place me around forty-five. It’s the prematurely grey hair – or maybe it’s the drug abuse and alcoholism, from my younger years, starting to show on my face. I still indulge, but not at the reckless level of days gone by; now I smoke and drink with all the respectability of a married father of two. Each wrinkle or bag under my eyes tells a story like a line on the inside of a tree tells its age. I live with my wife’s family and have two kids but no job. I start to think that leaving my temp job wasn’t the best plan.
It wasn’t much of a life, but it was easy. Easy has never been my goal. But after a while of being hooked on cheap wages and ordinary life, I became comfortable, too comfortable. I knew it was time to leave. I found my first excuse and walked out. I’m happier when I struggle. When I have to pick up odd jobs to pay the bills, or pawn a record to buy a bottle of wine for Mia and me to drink after the kids go to bed, it’s the role I am best suited for. The life I am happiest in.
I walk past the empty cars that line the street. At night, I would be looking behind each one, to see if there was a crackhead waiting to break my skull open with a pipe, just for the loose change in my pockets, but in the early light of day, this street was as safe as any other in the city. The cars themselves amazed me. Beautiful classic Impalas, brand-new Cadillacs and all, sitting in front of houses with boarded-up windows and eviction notices, nailed to the doors. I tried to criticize their priorities, but then quickly remembered choices I myself have made, and realized that I belonged in this neighborhood. I was with my people.
As I left the side streets and hit a main road, I saw the life of the city that had vacated my street. Cars roared by as I walked on the outside of the wide sidewalks to get as far away from the fumes as I could. A bus slowed down just enough, to gas me with the thick black exhaust that pumped from its tailpipe- like a new form of the steam engine. The plasma center shared a parking lot with a gas station. I crossed the street, against the light, and hit the parking lot on a run, to avoid the last car coming on the outside lane. As I walked up to the building, I had to stop every few feet, to let cars go by. I missed the calming emptiness of my street.
The building was one-story brown brick. The type of building that no one ever noticed. It looked obsolete. Useless. Depleted. I pushed open the glass door and walked into the lobby. The floor looked like the tiles found in a bathroom in a Mexican restaurant. A faded blue, with obvious signs of overuse. I walked up to the counter, to ask a woman sitting behind a computer screen how to donate. Without looking up from the screen, she pointed at a clipboard that read “New Donors” and then went back to typing. I signed in and took a seat in the lobby.
There were about thirty people waiting. They sat in folding chairs, with worn-out padding. In the front of the room, a flat-screen TV played “The Princess Bride,” without any volume. Most people still stared at the movie, and a few even read the subtitles out loud. The lobby looked like every jail I had ever spent the night in. Crackheads with chapped lips walked up and down the aisles, talking to themselves incoherently. Old men fell asleep in the corners, and every time a name was announced, the lucky next donor would run up to the counter while everyone else looked at them with resentment.
For the first half-hour, I watched as people were called up, and then were taken through a door at the back of the room. Nobody called my name. A fat black man in his mid-twenties sat down next to me. We were both too large for the small folding chairs, which gave us no other choice, than to touch. Our shoulders pushed together, and neither of us wanted to lean, so we both held our ground.
“Damn. This shit takes too long,” he said after rubbing shoulders with me for fifteen minutes.
“Is it always this busy?”
“Mostly. Is this your first time?”
“Oh, shit. We got a virgin!” he laughed loudly. One of the employees behind the desk yelled, “Shut up, Tony.”
“I was just messing with the new guy. He knows I was playing. Don’t you?”
“My name’s Tony, in case you didn’t hear,” he laughed again and stuck out his hand.
I usually don’t like to shake hands, but I had already spent a quarter of an hour, pretending to be conjoined twins with Tony. I grabbed his hand and said, “Austin.”
“What do you do, Austin?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Written anything I might have read?”
“No. How about you, what do you do when you’re not bleeding?”
“I’m a record producer. Maybe you’ve heard of me. You ever hear anyone talking about Big Tony?”
“Sure you have. Big Tony?”
“Well, you need to get out more. I’m famous. I’ve worked with Puffy, Tech Nine and did a show with Snoop last week. I told you, famous motherfucker.”
“I didn’t know Snoop was in town.”
“He wasn’t. Flew me out to Cali. We smoked blunts all weekend, and then the show got canceled, otherwise I’d show you some videos.”
“That’s alright. I can imagine.”
“Austin,” the woman behind the computer screen yelled. She was an older woman with dyed brown hair that looked too vibrant for her face. Years of overexposure to fluorescent lighting had left her looking like a faded Polaroid copy of her younger self.
I got up from my seat quickly, glad to leave Tony behind. Before I got to the desk, I could hear him asking another donor if they had ever heard of “Big Tony.”
“Fill out this form and bring it back when you’re finished.”
I took the clipboard that held the form, and grabbed a pen, shaped like a flower from a pot on the counter. The purple pen appeared to be in full bloom which made it difficult to see around while writing. I found another open seat away from Tony, and started filling in the questionnaire. Most of it was standard medical information about allergies and history of drug abuse, but a few of the questions threw me off.
Have you ever had a sexual relationship with another man since 1974?
Have you ever had sex for money, since 1974?
Have you ever visited the Congo, since 1974?
Well, no but it made me wonder if there was a gay man from the Congo having sex for money every day until the end of 1973, when he gave it up as some sort of New Year’s resolution- would he be able to donate plasma?
I gave up and moved on to the rest of the questionnaire. I lied on a few minor details to make sure that I wasn’t turned away. Just little stuff, not all of my gay sex in the Congo during the mid-eighties, but little stuff. I said that I had never had any piercings, but I have had several. Most were taken out due to infections, or by angry ex-girlfriends with quick hands. I lied about my asthma, because I was pretty sure you couldn’t contract asthma from a plasma transplant. I slipped by on the sex for money thing; I have had sex with prostitutes, but I was dating them and not paying them, so I don’t think that counts.
I finished the questionnaire, and returned it to the woman who refused to look up.
“Here’s my form.”
It had become almost a challenge for me to get her to make eye contact.
“We will call you in to see the physician when he’s ready.”
I tried to dip my head into her line of sight, but she never would look at me. Her grey eyes reflected the light from the computer screen, but were otherwise void of all animation. I admired her commitment.
Someone had taken my seat that I was using to avoid Tony, but luckily a skinny woman had taken the seat next to him. I sat on the other side of her because it was the only seat left open. The woman must have been in her late teens, but looked to have packed a lot of experience into those years. She divided her attention between Tony and her cell phone. She had stringy blonde hair, that hadn’t seen a brush in days. Makeup that hadn’t been washed off from the previous night, or maybe the previous week. The dark circles from the makeup made her look like every poster girl for domestic violence that I had seen in welfare offices. Meth was an obvious part of her life, and she made little effort to hide that fact. She wore a white tank top, pocked with burn holes, that was so loose every time she leaned over to scratch her leg or pick up her phone when she dropped it, that she flashed half of the room. The men in the room started to notice one by one, and soon “The Princess Bride” was not the main attraction.
“Fuck,” the skinny woman said loudly while she furiously attempted to make her phone work.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Tony asked, pretending to be very concerned.
“My goddamn phone died,” she said and pushed herself quickly back into the chair, hitting me with her boney elbow and then pushing off of me, to get out of her chair. She ran to the front desk.
“Do you have a phone I can use?” The woman behind the desk pointed at a sign over her shoulder that read, “Donors May Not Use Phone.” The skinny woman looked defeated, and sat back down, slamming into me once again.
“Waiting for an important call?” Tony asked.
“Yea. Fucking phone always dies when I need it.”
“Can’t depend on technology. It fails at the worst times. Once, when I was doing some DJ work for George Clinton…” Tony took the opportunity to tell another story of his greatness. She just looked pissed, and never once even pretended to pay attention, which didn’t seem to bother Tony.
Person after Person was called to the front desk, and each would disappear behind the door like every other person before them. The lobby filled, and emptied, three times, and my two new friends were gone, long before my name was called again.
“Austin.” I stood and walked up to the desk. “The physician is ready to see you now.”
Another woman led me back to the office. There was a keypad next to the door. The woman used it to unlock the door, but made sure to stand, so I couldn’t see the code. She stuck her head in the door, and said, “Austin Harrington.”
The Doctor had short red hair, and pale skin, to match. He dressed the part of a physician. A long white lab coat. Stethoscope around his neck. I looked for a leather doctor’s bag, underneath a coat rack with a trench coat, umbrella, and fedora displayed proudly, but he must have left them at home. “Name?”
“Okay, well, the first thing you need to get used to around here is when people ask for your name. You need to say your full name, and the last four digits of your social security number. So let’s try again. Name?”
“Austin C. Harrington, 2525.”
“Good. Have you ever donated plasma before?”
“I have, but it was a long time ago.”
“No, down in Tulsa.”
“Why would anyone ever go to Oklahoma? If you don’t mind me asking. I have family down there. It’s a horrible place.”
“I don’t mind at all. It was horrible, but it happened to be where my first college was located.”
“First college? How many schools have you been to?”
“Five or six. Graduated from a couple.”
“I guess that happens if you go long enough,” he laughed. As we talked, he put a stack of paper into a binder, one piece at a time. It was exhausting to watch. I wanted to reach over, and do it for him. By this point, I had been waiting for more than two hours, and I was starting to give up hope of ever seeing any cash.
“Does it always take this long?”
“No, the first donation takes the longest. We tell people to expect to be here for six hours, but today, we aren’t really that busy, so you might get out in four.”
“I’d hate to see this place when you’re busy.”
“Yea, you would. Let’s get started. I am going to ask you some questions. I know they are the same questions from the form you filled out earlier, but you might as well get used to that. We ask them every time you come.”
“Have you lived or traveled to the Congo since 1974?”
“Have you paid for sex or exchanged drugs for sex since 1974?”
“Have you been in jail for more than a 24-hour period, in the last six months?”
“Have you had sex with another man, since 1974?”
“No. Does that mean that gay people can’t donate plasma?”
“Yes, unfortunately it does.”
“Because of HIV/AIDS.”
“You do know that straight people get AIDS too?”
“Of course I do. But the way this company runs their business, is not up to me. So for now, this is the way we do things.”
Even now, that moment stays with me. I wanted to walk out, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I needed the money. I could tell the Doctor hated saying it. Hated asking the question. His annoyance didn’t make the statement any better, but at least I wasn’t the only one in the room who had sold his integrity-plus, I assumed gay people would just lie like I had, about everything else.
The questions went on, and eventually I had to submit to a urine test and a physical. The urine test had me a little worried, but the Doctor assured me that they didn’t check for drugs, but that it was only for a protein count. I guess you can take as many needles as you want, but one dick and you’re out the door.
After the physical, I moved on to the prescreening process. It involved my being taken into a tiny room and being asked the exact same questions I had been asked before. Only this time, they took my blood pressure and temperature. Because my heart rate was above one hundred beats per minute, they made me return to the lobby for an additional fifteen minutes. I went back to the prescreening room. The same woman from the front desk who had refused to make eye contact with me, was waiting. She told me to close my eyes and to think of a calm lake. This irritated me even more than the lack of eye contact, but she refused to check my pulse until I submitted. My pulse was down to ninety-two beats per minute, so I was approved.
A security guard led me down a long corridor, that opened into a large room, full of all the missing people from the lobby. The front of the room had people sitting in chairs, waiting to be hooked up to the plasma machines. Throughout the rest of the room, high school nurse-style cots were set up, to hold the donors. Each person lay back, next to a large white machine that sucked blood from their arms, drained the plasma, and returned the blood. It was a scene from a strange sci-fi movie. I sat in the corner of the waiting area, and waited once again. Phlebotomists raced about in white lab coats, and jammed large needles into impoverished arms. Some people squirmed. Others closed their eyes, and bit their lips. The old pros just watched TV or read their books, never blinking, as the needle pierced their skin.
Bottles of plasma hung at the bottom of each machine. They looked like jars of milky piss. I started to read a poster next to me that explained that plasma is something in your blood, used to fight infections, and boost immune systems. The poster called me a hero. I was in a room full of heroes. People taking time to save the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. Looking around the room, it was hard to imagine the less fortunate. There were men and women still in their work clothes, bleeding, for a few extra dollars. I started to feel guilty for even being there. These were the people who were really fighting, to survive this life. They didn’t have family to catch them every time they fell, like I had, and I fell a lot. They were working two or three jobs just to make it, and I had just quit a job, because they told me not to read at work. I was selfish. I understood that now, but it didn’t change the fact that I needed money. If it was by choice, or by pure circumstance, I was one of them and there was no denying that.
When I saw Tony, I felt a little better. He was telling more stories to his corner of the room. This was another man like me. A man who thought he was better than he really was, but who would probably never be able to admit that fact. As much as I wanted to despise Tony and his stories, I couldn’t. On some level, I knew we were the same.
“Austin.” A tall, thin man said my name, and I walked up to the counter. “Full name and last four digits?”
“Austin C. Harrington, 2525.”
“Did they explain what we are going to be doing here today?”
“Okay, well we are just going to hook you up to the machine, take your plasma, put your blood back, and then you sit back in the chairs until we pay you. Got it?”
“Right, I guess.”
I followed him, through the rows of donors losing blood. Gallons of red blood flowed around me, and each person looked as though the life was being drained out of them. I watched as people rolled their arms from left to right, in an unlikely attempt to form a comfortable bond with their needles. Large, tough-looking men grimaced, as they were stuck with shiny silver spikes, and small, fragile-looking women fought back tears, as their handlers searched for a vein with several stabs.
I spent a lot of my younger years around heavy drugs. I never shot up, but I watched it on a daily basis. I saw people shoot up between their toes, and on one strange occasion under their balls only to finish, they smiled at me and said, “wherever there’s a vein.” But to be in a room full of people being stabbed with needles made me uneasy. Junkies I can handle, but volunteering for a needle with no high at the end seemed against nature somehow.
I rested on my cot, waiting for my needle jockey. The movie had switched to one of the Home Alone’s, but I couldn’t pinpoint which one.
Within a few minutes, the same thin man came back to set the needle. He carried a chart, and once again, asked me for my name and last four digits. I replied, and he checked it against his file before setting up the machine. The machine itself, looked like a science experiment from the 1950’s. It had hoses jetting out in nearly every direction, flashing lights, and made a loud beeping noise, as if something was wrong.
I watched as the thin man wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm, swabbed my vein with iodine and prepped the needle for insertion. While sticking people, the workers wore clear face shields, just in case any blood decided to spray from an open vein. This did not inspire great levels of confidence. I started to look around for blood stains on the cots and on the floor. Nothing was visible, but the room had a feeling of being just a little too clean. I assumed that they kept the bleeders locked up in the back room, to keep the other donors calm. No reason to lose all the plasma sacks sitting in the waiting room just because someone was spraying blood around the room like a dismembered Samurai. After all, they had a business to run.
The thin man approached me with the needle, and asked if I was ready. I wasn’t afraid of needles, I never have been, but something about this room freaked me out. Still, I agreed. He walked to my arm slowly, lined the needle up carefully, and slid the tip into my vein. The initial bite made me wince slightly, but after that it was bearable. He applied several strips of tape, to keep the needle from falling out, and then walked on to stab someone else.
I bled for nearly an hour before it was all over. When I was finished, I walked back to the empty chairs, and waited to get paid. That first trip landed me twenty dollars. I walked back home, and the neighborhood had come alive. People were sitting on porches, smoking, and drinking. Dogs barked at me, and cars abandoned their parking spots.
When I got home, I found a letter in the mailbox, saying that my unemployment benefits had been denied. I hadn’t been expecting to get anything, but had applied just in case. The temp agency I had gone through fought my claim, because they said I violated the attendance policy of the company. They were right. I guess I did. So there wasn’t much to argue with. I walked in and kissed Mia, then took the letter, and threw it in the trash. I watched my kids play, and thought, at least the twenty dollars would feed us tonight. Tomorrow, I would find another way.