Blood Money

I spent the whole fuckin' movie trying to pump out a pint of my plasma, and every time the nurse passed by I'm begging for another Gatorade shot because by now my melon was long gone. I knew I was going to pass out. I knew this was the day, I could feel it. They give you your plasma to carry up to the counter when you're done, and I knew I was a dead man so I wanted to get my cash and get out of there so I could go pass out in my car.

The lady says, "Oh, my cash drawer's empty, I've got to go back to the vault." I'm just hanging on to the counter, breaking out in this cold sweat, with a stomachache, feeling like I'm going to shit myself. Kind of an ecstasy/trauma thing--"Oh boy, this is good, but real bad."

Meanwhile, this woman comes up next to me, and she's in her late 40s, early 50s, and I'm thinking, "Oh, that's sad." And all of a sudden she just hits the floor, passes out, drops her bag and everything.

Now I'm holding on for dear life, and everybody comes over to help her and I'm thinking, "I guess I gotta try and help them help her." So I try to help pick her up, and I'm so limp, and the minute we get her in this chair I'm like, "Here we go." Everything was getting black and I remember saying, "I'm next," and I totally hit the floor.

Reg: Giving plasma, it's like being in a club; you know you've sunk as low as you can, but you can always come back. I've got a place where I belong! And you can justify it--I gave plasma! I saved lives, you son of a bitch--I'm a hero! But trust me, doing it is way different than hearing about it.

So I decided I'd better do it.
On a crisp Saturday morning, I arrive at the already-bustling Norman Biomedical Center--which is in a strip mall behind Kinko's in Tempe--write my name on the "New Donor" list and wait. I sit with folks who appear to be college students, college professors, young couples, retirees, the heavily tattooed and those who carry bedrolls (and not deodorant). What is the motivation for us to be here? Without being too presumptuous, I'd guess money. We all watch that Mel Gibson movie where half of his face has melted. We all seem to be into it.

But the place isn't bad, and when I get called up to sign some more papers and have a mug shot taken for the records, the lady is real friendly. Even the notorious finger prick--to test total protein and hematocrit--is virtually painless.

There is an old guy on the list before me. They call his name, but turn him down because he is over 69. He is miffed and walks out muttering, shoving his wallet into his lime-green polyester pants. It must be quite depressing when you reach the point where even your plasma is old and in the way.

Before I see couch and needle, I have to do things. Read and sign consent forms, take an HIV test, pee in a cup, answer questions, get my knees hit with a hammer. I pass all of this, then wait some more. They've got posters on the walls of Keane-eyed little kids, thanking me for saving their lives. People are chatting; regulars trade quips with the staff. Nobody is passing out. But of course, over beers, this sort of scenario doesn't make for enthralling storytelling.

And then I'm on the couch. They choose my left arm, swab me down with iodine, stick the thing in; I see dark-red blood course through a tube. I am immediately aroused.

Not really. I clench and unclench my fist and keep watching scarred-up Mel as the plasmapheresis machine begins its magical job of separating plasma from red blood cells and pumping the latter back into my veins.

On one side of me, there is a college-looking guy reading a manual on paramedic-lifesaving techniques; on the other side is a man clutching a lighter and unlit cigarette; and directly across there is a fellow with a Brian Jones haircut, who looks to be about my age, cradling a large teddy bear. The Mel Gibson thing ends and a movie called Mo' Money begins. I take out my copy of Netfa Enzig's excellent I Was Kidnaped by Idi Amin and settle back, pumping.

And that's it.
In about an hour, I've filled my bag with 850 milliliters of plasma the shade of washed-out Strega, and I still feel spry and chipper. No bad taste in my mouth, no dizziness. A lady in white removes my needle and wraps up the little hole in the crook of my elbow while telling me that I can donate no more than twice in any seven-day period, when my next day can be and how much I will get paid. I guess they expect you'll be coming back.

As I pocket the money, it begins to dawn on me that beyond the 25 bucks I made, beyond a couple free movies, beyond even the 40 column inches I'll milk from this experience, my plasma is going to do some good. Reg and Chad be damned. I walk out the door with my head held proud. I saved lives, you son of a bitch--I'm a hero!

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