Sunday, March 17, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 345: Biomythography - Note 87, Painful Relationships, Part I

Painful Relationships, Part I

In the spring of 1989, I was working at a full-time writing gig for the University Publications of America, which was in downtown Frederick. I walked to the UPA offices on bright, crisp mornings. Window panes reflected sunbeams down from the upper stories of the brick buildings along my way. The air was cool. The streets were paved. The sidewalks led my way unevenly, their cobblestones at weird angles beneath my shoes.

As with most other small cities in America, Frederick's facades had cracked. Half the residents had fled. And literally, building fronts (although usually the sides) had fractured. Some downtown streets, long ago damaged by Hurricane Agnes, had been left unrepaired for decades. A few buildings on my path remained boarded and windowless on their bottom floors.

The town was poor but somehow, it remained cheery. The streets remained clean. The people I passed on my stroll smiled at me each morning. I waved. We traded comments about the spring weather. And eventually, after enough years, our optimism about our surroundings turned out to be justified.

The downtown revival was a decade away from starting, though. At the time of my UPA job, the city was desperate for money and I was, too. I was lucky to have the gig but my salary barely paid the rent for my multi-room apartment. It didn't let me build up my savings. All the math I did told me I was headed into more debt, even beyond my weighty college loans. I needed car repairs right away.

At the end of one of my many morning walks, I picked up the newspaper. Three copies of the Frederick News-Post and one of the Washington Post were delivered to our offices every day. Since I arrived second earliest, I often picked them off the floor behind the transom.

I marched to the front desk and leaned against the corner of it. There, I flapped open the News-Post. Next to me on a shelf by the desk sat sections of the Frederick News-Post from the day before. I could see the classified section on top. Plenty of the editorial staff had been scanning the classifieds for side jobs. I had, too.
Not the paper I was reading but a paper I was writing for.

Do you have two weeks of vacation? read one of the ads. A pharmaceutical company was willing to pay young men to leave their families, a week at a time, for a two-week drug trial. You had to stay on their premises, which was a bit like a hospital. On the other hand, they would feed you. I'd been looking at the same deal for three days.

It was right for me. Sure, it would be a harsh way to use vacation time. But I didn't have much choice.  
I copied down the information.


Somewhere in my notebooks are journal entries from the experience. At the time, I believed I would look through my records to relive the horrors of being an experimental subject. But why would I do that when the memories are so vivid? Besides, since then I've been spoiled by searches through local computer files and online archives. My forays into my paper notes have diminished. By a lot.

Fortunately, I used my journal notes right away to compose a piece for The New Paper in Frederick. I no longer remember what title I gave the article but I know it was not the one the editors decided on. They made it, "Confessions of a Voluntary Guinea Pig." (My paper records were good for this much; I found a copy of the printed article.) Even decades later, the title seems hokey. Did it pull in readers? Probably. But it didn't match my intent or tone.

The editors made me research a side story. It was less fun and they printed it in bigger type, like an ad. They chopped up the prose I'd written for the main Confessions, much to the detriment of the coherency of it, but I know they had to fit my prose into their January 3 edition. They cut their articles to fit, like all editors. My submission excited them but it was also bigger than they found comfortable.

For the first week of January, The New Paper paid me more than usual. I think it was $95 for the pair of stories.

As I re-read my article, I discovered I had forgotten a few things about my time in the experiment:

  • We had to shave our chests. All the men objected to this until threatened with lack of pay.
  • We weren't allowed to eat meat or have caffeine in any form, not even in chewing gum. The company running the experiment checked on it.
  • One guy had abnormal ECG readings and a heart block before the experiment. We teased him. Eventually, he dropped out.
  • After the doses began, we laughed at one another for having heart blocks induced by the medicine.
  • Toward the end, the technicians woke us up to draw blood every two hours.
  • Lack of sleep and hematomas made us lose our sense of humor. We weren't joking at the finish.

Most of all, though, I learned a stranger lesson than I wrote about for the newspaper.

(to be continued)

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