My Day Job

A conversation last week where my wife Karen works:

Jim, Karen’s co-worker: “How’s Slaid?”
Karen: “He’s in jail.”
Jim: “For what?”
Karen: “Drugs.”
Jim: (Shocked) “What drug?”
Karen: “Anti-fungal.” Karen has a good poker face, and Jim is now rather confused.

No, I’m not in the callaboose. This is my “day job.” Every real musician has a day job, right? Have you heard those Austin musician jokes? What do you call an Austin musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. How do you improve the aerodynamics of an Austin musician’s car? Take the Pizza Delivery sign off the roof. And there’s another one I can’t remember where the punch line is, “his other day job.”

I’ve worked lots of menial jobs since I was 16. Janitor, warehouse rat, rope-tow operator, film developer, groundskeeper, meter reader, yes, pizza delivery guy, and, lately, day laborer. I made a living for a while doing music, and then I moved to Austin. It became apparent rather quickly that I needed a day job again. Day labor’s not much fun. I need a day job where I can make phone calls to book gigs and set up radio interviews. I need to take a few months off here and there to do tours. I need time to read, charge the old creative batteries. I found the perfect day job at Pharmaco.

I take drugs for a living. I’m a human guinea pig. A lab rat. A medical research volunteer. Pharmaco International pays me to stay in their facility for about $100 a day. Some studies only last a couple of days. Some are comprised of several weekend stays. Right now I’m in the middle of a long term study. 22 days. We are in the facility for the entire time, except for a few 20 minute walks around the building for fresh air. No visitors. No outside food. Hospital type meals are provided, along with newspapers, movies, pay phones and a clip board that tells us where to be and when for certain “procedures.”

Procedures always include dosing and blood draws. And, depending on the study, everything from electrocardiograms, vital signs, heparin lock insertions, sonograms, x-rays and physicals, to urine collections, fecal collections (the dreaded “bucket study”), blood sugar tests, lung capacity tests, and biopsies. These are some of the things I’ve experienced over the last few years at Pharmaco. I tend to avoid the studies that involve brain wave monitoring, laryngeal scopes, radiation or induced vomiting.

I fear I’m sounding over dramatic. Pharmaco is really very boring. The vast majority of our time here is spent just passing time, watching the clock, waiting till we can be with our loved ones again and sleep in our own bed and breath fresh air and eat real food. You get to know the other people in you study. Sometimes there are female subjects; the guys act goofy and flirt. The pros tell war stories: The time when one guy went berserk and they stopped the dosing and sent everyone home. The legendary three-month study (for $10,000). You always hear about the guy who died (because he was doing two studies at once). I heard last night that the guys in the black shirt study were all having nightmares.

I’ve never been in jail (although my college English professor recommended it, for life experience), but I’ve talked to fellow research subjects who have. And they confirm that there are a lot of similarities. We are sternly warned to be on time for our procedures and meals. We all have a number and a colored shirt corresponding to the particular study we’re in. I’m “navy blue 358” this time. Of course I don’t save up cigarettes for currency or dig at my dorm room wall with my spoon or worry when I drop my soap in the shower. But, looking out the window at those people on the outside, in “the world,” or watching as my wife brings a new book to the office downstairs, there’s a real feeling of disconnection. Karen said she cried all the way home after blowing kisses to me through the glass and mouthing “I miss you’s” to me from the parking lot. She had brought the dogs to see me, too. Moxie, the black lab, the bird dog, was able to figure out what Karen was pointing up at, and when our eyes met, he wouldn’t take his off mine. Huddie, on the other hand, will only look at your finger if you point at something. (And I always thought she was the smart one.)

I’ve met a wide range of people in here. In fact, studies are one of the few places I actually meet new people these days. (I’ve met all the musicians in town by now.) There are a lot of college kids of course, but they’re mostly upperclassmen and grad students. There are always some musicians or artists who need a little cash. Robert Rodriguez, the hot young film director (El Mariachi, Desperado), did a study to pay for his first film (and actually wrote it in here). Some regular working folks come in for weekend studies for a little extra cash. Then there are the professionals. This is their only source of income. They travel, do studies in other cities, even other countries. Some people just can’t handle a regular day job.

We’re all healthy in here, physically at least. We do Phase One drug research. The big pharmaceutical companies have to jump through a lot of government hoops to get their drugs on the market, and my day job comes right after they’re finished with the rats and monkeys. There, I’m being over dramatic again. Fact is, lots of studies are for drugs already on the market, but coming out in a new form (the ‘caplet’ gave us a lot of work here). The FDA just needs to know exactly how quickly the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream in healthy subjects. I’ve seen Tylenol studies in here. I’ve done a morphine study (24 hour time release pill). I’ve seen alcohol interaction studies (I was a back-up in a heart med + Everclear combination dose. Nobody threw up, so I went home.) The only scary studies are when they tell you that the drug has not been tested in humans before. I’ve done a few of those.

Let’s see how many drug studies I can remember: I’ve done drugs for bedwetting, menopause, diabetes, irregular heartbeat, cholesterol, dermatitis, asthma. The most interesting study was for a fluorocarbon gas that is injected into the bloodstream which makes your blood fluoresce on a sonogram so that a doctor can see if the heart is getting enough oxygen. I got to watch my glowing heart beat on live video. Cool.

The drug I’m on now is a powerful new anti fungal for treating people with depressed immune systems (AIDS patients, chemotherapy patients). I get a one hour IV dose every morning before breakfast. The bad thing about this study is that the drug irritates the vein where it is injected, and I need a new heparin lock inserted every couple of days. A paramedic punctures a vein with a needle then slides a catheter into the vein. A valve at the end of the catheter keeps you from bleeding all over the place (I bled all over my jeans yesterday when the valve slipped off unexpectedly). It’s not my favorite procedure. When the study is done I will have had 9 or 10 hep-locks, and my arms will be sore and bruised. Kinetics days aren’t much fun either. Every study has at least one Kinetics day. That’s the day they chart the drug going into and out of your bloodstream. The chart is made up of the drug level in your blood at various times throughout the day. This can mean as many as 20 blood draws in one day. But the phlebotomists are pretty good here, and I know my good veins now – the ones with the scars on them.

I used to feel like a loser every time I started a new Pharmaco study. Because I was so desperately broke and unsuccessful as a musician (one critic called me “feckless”). The scary thing is, now I just accept it. I don’t say to myself anymore, “This is the last one I’m going to do. I’m going to start getting good gigs and selling CDs this year.” Now, I’m planning on doing another study in January to pay off the debts that this one won’t cover. Karen got mad at me last week because I didn’t seem to miss her enough. Of course I miss her, but the scary thing is, I haven’t had much trouble settling into this undemanding lifestyle.

Day 21. I’ll be out tomorrow. Got my last dose this morning, had my hep-lock pulled. I looked down at my arms in the shower at they reminded me of that picture of Hank in the Birmingham jail just before he died. He has his shirt off and he’s skin and bone like a dead baby bird you see on the sidewalk. If the picture was in color, he’d probably be blue like a bird too. My arms have lost what little bulk they had after a fall of hanging drywall and filling dumpsters. I’m pale from not being outdoors for three weeks, except for the bruises, like broken egg yolk up and down my forearms. Patches of stubble mingle with the track marks on my best veins. Tomorrow I’ll drive around town and spend the first installment of my compensation paying debts. I should have enough left over for groceries. I’ll have to start cooking and cleaning for myself again. And Pharmaco will stop being my life and become just another conversation piece on the coffee table of my life. Need a day job? Call (512) 462-0492 and ask for the Hotline.

Grant PrettymanComment