Though Rat, Painter, and Wyoming would rather panhandle for money, they have been donors there off and on for months.
If only Rat hadn't decided to share his home with his two buddies, maybe everything would have been okay. That’s when the trouble started. Ever since then, none of them had been able to get a good night's sleep, and here it was, 4:30 in the morning, and they were being rousted out of bed once again.
“Let’s go!” a man's voice shouted out of the darkness. “Time to move on or I’ll call the cops," he said, beating on the side of the Volkswagen van with a stick as though he was trying to scare off a pack of stray dogs.
It took a long time for the boys to respond. All three of them were hung over and sick, and they’d just fallen asleep an hour or two earlier after having shivered most of the night. “So much for our happy home.” Wyoming groaned.
The battered green van was parked in the lot behind a radiator shop on C Street, just across from City College. Rat had found it about two weeks ago, after one of his alcoholic seizures, when his face was all beat up. The van didn’t run — didn't even have seats — but it was warmer than sleeping on the street, and a helluva lot safer. So one night, Rat just climbed over the fence and made the van his home.
It wasn’t long before the owner of the radiator shop discovered that Rat had been sleeping in the van. But when the man saw Rat’s beat-up face and how sick he was, he agreed to let Rat sleep there. Rat has a certain way about him that makes people like the shop owner want to help him out. Besides his blond, youthful appearance, he has an eager sincerity, like the perfect soldier he once was. In return for letting him sleep in the van, the shop owner asked Rat to wash down the lot once a day, which Rat gladly agreed to do.
Then one night about a week ago, Rat had another one of his alcoholic seizures, right across from City College. He fell down on the curb and put a six-inch gash from his forehead to his cheek. Two other street drunks, Painter and Wyoming, took the trouble to call the paramedics, then waited around long enough to see that Rat made it to the hospital. Later, when Rat got out of the hospital, he ran into Painter and Wyoming on the street; they spent an afternoon drinking together, and when nightfall came, he invited them back to the van. The three of them had been sharing the van ever since.
Perhaps the owner of the radiator shop didn’t like the idea of his lot being turned into a flophouse — both Painter and Wyoming looked older and more desperate than Rat. Or perhaps items like hubcaps and old tires had begun to disappear, and the owner just assumed Rat and his buddies were taking them. The boys never really did find out why he ran them out.
The easiest thing would have been for each of them to go his separate way. It was hard enough for one guy to find a place to sleep: for three guys, it was almost impossible. But they had made a decision to stick together, if they could, because it was just too dangerous being alone. The neighborhood was crazy. Just two nights ago, Rat was walking back to the van by himself. As he passed by the Chinese restaurant at Twelfth and C, some guy called to him out of the darkness. When Rat went over to see what the guy wanted, a voice said. “I ought to kill you for what you done.” The guy punched Rat in the face, reopening the gash from his seizure, then began kicking and beating him. Just before Rat got away, he managed to get a look at the guy’s face. Rat had never seen him before.
The three partners wandered around in the dark for a while before finally regrouping under a street lamp. They might have passed for brothers: each of them was thin and unshaven; each of them was white and under forty; each of them had raggedy clothes, wild hair, and a look of stark dismay on his face.
They turned down Twelfth Avenue, where they found an empty doorway. Somebody had defecated on the steps, and the doorway smelled like urine, but they considered themselves lucky to find the place unoccupied. The cops were sure to hassle them there, but they were too sick to go any farther, and besides, there was no place else to go.
They didn’t get any more sleep that night, though by huddling together, they managed to get warm enough to stop shivering. At dawn, two cops in a patrol car stopped long enough to tell them to move on. As the patrol car idled down the street, its engine lulled them back into their stupor. In a few minutes, the patrol car came back, and this time the cops waited for them to leave. The boys picked themselves up and began walking toward the sun, which was just then coming up over the Salvation Army building.
In the morning hours, the center of activity for the neighborhood is the Alpha Plasma Center on Twelfth between Broadway and C street. The double glass doors are unlocked at 6:00 a.m., it’s warm inside, and there’s a restroom that the security guards will allow people off the street to use if they are regular donors. Though Rat, Painter, and Wyoming would rather panhandle for money than donate plasma, they have been donors there off and on for months. The money didn't amount to much, but sometimes they just had to have a few dollars. Besides, it was nice to keep the restroom privileges.
They stumbled through the front doors of the plasma center, ignoring the Filipino nurses who were scurrying around behind the counter in preparation for the day’s donors. They went directly to the drinking fountain to relieve their cotton mouth, then headed for the restroom to splash a little water on their faces and to empty their bladders.
The restroom smelled like urine, stale cigarettes, and old sweat. Somebody was asleep on the toilet, but the urinal was free. While Wyoming took his turn, he read aloud the advice somebody had scrawled on the wall: “Don’t work for minimum wage!”
Maybe it was just an accident, or maybe it was some joker’s cruel experiment, but there was a shiny new quarter lying in the urinal. When the boys left the restroom, the quarter was still there.
Yesterday the combined income of the three men was fifty-nine cents, which they’d earned by helping a motorist push his stalled car off the road. They already had a bottle that day, so they didn’t really need the money. Today, though, was a different story.
The day before yesterday (or was it three days ago?), a man had given Rat ten dollars, asking only that Rat not spend the money on booze. So Rat had bought a hot dog and waited nearly till dark before finally buying a bottle. When he passed out, somebody stole the change from his pocket.
And now they all needed money.
They stepped up to the reception counter, one by one, gave the nurses their names, then took seats and waited while the nurses found their files and checked their I.D.’s. Usually the wait took more than an hour.
Before long, the reception area began to fill up with street people from all over the neighborhood. Some of them had no intention of giving plasma and just wanted to get warm; but most of them were like Rat, Painter, and Wyoming — people who needed a few dollars, fast.
One of the nurses turned on the P.A. system, and rock music was piped over the loudspeakers. The reception room took on something of a party atmosphere.
“Hey, man, where you been?” one black man said to another.
“Well,” the man replied, lifting his sunglasses but looking out the door, “I been with the brothers.”
The man was offended. “Penitentiary. Thought you knew that. Now you do. Hello.” And he moved on.
A 250-pound barefoot man with a red beard and wearing a sleeveless Harley-Davidson T-shirt sat with his tattooed arms folded across his chest. A half-dozen chairs away, an agitated woman with a crazy look in her eyes suddenly took offense at him. “Why you lookin' at me, you motherfucker?” she said.
At first the biker didn’t pay any attention to her; but when he finally realized she was speaking to him, he looked surprised. He leaned slightly her way, then smiled. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a little deaf. I can’t hear you.”
“Yeah, you can’t even hear, you dumb sonofabitch," the woman said, dismissing him with a wave of the hand. “You’re nothing but a worthless asshole.”
A thin, effeminate man carried a plastic cup of his own urine from the restroom, across the reception area, and placed it on the counter for one of the nurses. The he sat in the front row and wrapped his long arms around himself in a consoling embrace. He began rocking back and forth, like an anxious child, before he finally broke down and began weeping. No one in the room seemed to notice.
A young Indian man with a gentle smile limped into the room. He had long, black hair tied back with a blue bandana, and a white bandage was wrapped below one knee. He was trailed by a ragtag band of followers, including a couple of young Mexicans, a Southeast Asian, and a middle-aged white woman. As he passed through the room, he gave everyone he met a handshake and a warm embrace, as though trying to convince them, or perhaps himself, that there was a bond of goodwill between them all.
The people in the room accepted the gesture gratefully, and after a few minutes, the Indian left, still smiling to himself and still trailed by his band of followers.
A young woman, no older than eighteen, struggled to get her baby stroller through the swinging glass doors. Finally, a man held the door open for her, and she pushed the stroller through, not even glancing at the man who had assisted her. Two children, perhaps two and three years old, followed behind her. Both the woman and her children were barefoot and dirty, and their eyes were dulled by a milky glaze. She went to the counter, gave the nurses her name, then took a seat in the back row. When she sat, her belly bulged out, and it became apparent she was pregnant.
From the time the doors had first been opened, a young black man had been sleeping with his chin on his chest, drooling down his shirt. After a while, another black man nudged him gently. “Hey, wake up. I think maybe they’re calling your name.” The sleeping man looked around briefly but was unable to focus on anything. He smiled vacantly, then nodded back to sleep.
Every new donor at the plasma center is required to undergo a physical examination, which is conducted in a back room by Dr. Andrew Roskos, a small, bow-tied man in his seventies who looks something like Harry Truman.
“Take off your shirt, loosen your belt, and sit on the table,” Dr. Roskos said, peeking over his glasses at the prospective donor’s application pamphlet. There were about twenty questions that had to be asked, and the doctor rattled through them as quickly as possible: “When was the last time you had beer or whiskey? Ever injected drugs or had somebody else inject drugs in your veins? Ever have a male sex partner? Any venereal diseases?” Then the doctor took a rubber mallet, pounded once on each knee and twice on the back of the chest. “Put your clothes back on,” he said. The entire physical didn’t last three minutes.
Out in the reception area. Rat, Wyoming, and Winter were growing restless. Out of boredom, they began talking among themselves and with the other people around them.
“In 1981, I made eighty fucking thousand dollars,” Painter said in a voice that sounded like a dog growling under a gate. “I had the nice house, all the nice cars. Now I gotta sell blood to get eight dollars?”
Next year Painter will be forty. He’s the oldest of the group, and until two years ago, he had his own paint contracting business. He has a thin, pock-marked face and a hawk nose. His eyes are a watery blue.
“I used to have a nice pair of boots,” Wyoming said. He came from Wyoming, by way of the U.S. Navy, and still has a deep, western drawl. “I mean a really nice pair of boots. Somebody stole ’em off my feet while I was sleeping. I went barefoot for three days before some woman gimme these shoes,” and he pointed to his blue-and-yellow running shoes. “I tell ya, the only safe place to sleep around here is the detox center, or the mission.”
“Yeah, but even at the mission you gotta sleep on your back.” Rat said. “Some of those guys will try to take a shot at your backside.”
“That’s the truth,” Wyoming nodded. After a while, the conversation turned to various ways for street people to make a little money. “There’s three guys who hang out down at the waterfront, by the Star of India,’’ Rat said. “They set up a cardboard box and ask people for donations for the homeless. I sat in with them one day when they needed a third guy. The money doesn’t go for the homeless ... well,” he laughed. “I guess it does, because they are the homeless. But mostly that money goes for a little food, a bottle, and a room to drink it in.”
Rat was the most outgoing of the three. While his buddies were too tired and cynical to put much energy into conversation. Rat had an almost compulsive need to talk, to explain his life, which even he knew didn't make any sense. “But I guess what those three guys are doing isn’t much different from some of these missions. When you go there, they feed you beans, rice, and noodles, yet everybody who works there eats steak, pork chops, and chicken. Is that place for the homeless or for the people who run it? They don’t care about the homeless, they just want you to come in, listen to their sermon so they can fill their chapel, and then give you beans.”
The nurses called Rat to the counter and told him he wouldn’t be allowed to give blood because of the fresh purple scab on his face. The news left him depressed, and he started thinking about going out panhandling until his partners were finished giving blood. But then the thought of leaving them made him nervous, too. He didn’t know what to do, so he just sat there.
One by one, the other donors’ names were called, and they were issued into the back room of the plasma center, where there were fifty-two beds arranged in uneven rows. The lights were turned down low, and the atmosphere was almost tranquil — at least compared to the reception area.
The donors looked contented. Not only did they have a comfortable bed to lie on, but, for the moment at least, they were gainfully employed. Over the loudspeaker came Bruce Springsteen's “Hungry Heart.”
The donor on bed thirteen had dozed off with a copy of Helter Skelter on his belly, while his blood trickled through an I.V. tube and into a bottle beside his bed.
The donor on bed thirty-six was reading an article in a tabloid. The headline was: “Ex-PTL Preacher Faces New Pervert Charges.”
The donor on bed eight, an aging surfer, was telling the donor on bed nine about the time he and his surf buddies ran out of gas in Ventura and had to give blood to earn the gas money to get home. But the donor on bed nine, a middle-aged black man. was not amused; he put on a set of earphones and tuned out the surfer.
The five nurses drawing blood from the donors looked like sisters — all young and pretty, all dressed in white. They laughed and chattered among themselves, but with the donors they were aloof and unapproachable. As one of the nurses passed the donor on bed nineteen, a young man with earrings in both his ears, the man leaned off the bed and whispered, “Smile.”
“Why?” the nurse snapped, not even slowing down long enough to look at him.
Another nurse stifled a yawn as she slipped the nail-sized needle into a donor’s vein. “Do you feel all right?” she asked in her thick Filipino accent.
The donor considered the question. “I feel okay,” he replied. “Why? Do some people faint?”
“Sometimes, if they haven’t eaten anything in a while,” the nurse shrugged. “When the bag’s full, say, ‘Bag down,’ and one of the nurses will come get it.”
As the nurse turned to go, she suddenly shrieked and slapped her thigh.
“What was that?” the donor asked.
“Flea,” the nurse said and rolled her eyes in disgust.
Across the room, the disturbed woman who had been cursing the biker in the reception area lay on her back and stared at the ceiling while a nurse tried to find her vein. The blood finally spurted out and began flowing through the I.V. tube and down the inside of the plastic bag. It was as red as any other blood.
The process for taking plasma has several phases: After the first pint of blood has been drawn from the donors, it goes to the lab in the back of the plasma center; there it’s put in a centrifuge, which separates the red blood cells from the white blood cells and plasma; then the red blood cells are returned to the donor, along with an I.V. solution, and the process is repeated a second time.
Dr. Roskos, taking a break from giving physicals, strolled through the aisles like a farmer inspecting his fields.
“How are you today, doctor?” one donor asked.
“Excellent,” Dr. Roskos replied. “My wife is out of town, and the girls are lining up outside my door.”
The donor laughed.
Another donor asked the doctor, “How long will it take for my body to replace the plasma you take?”
The question seemed to befuddle Dr. Roskos. “We don't take as much as you think,” he finally answered.
But the man insisted. “How long will it take to replace what you do take?”
“A matter of days,” Dr. Roskos shrugged. “We only take the protein — two hamburgers and a cup of coffee.”
A donor on table twenty-five smiled as his own blood flowed back into his veins. “Oh, that feels good.” he sighed. “It’s so cooool."
“Bag down!” a donor called out.
“Bag down, here!” another donor echoed.
Donor twenty-five rolled his eyes around the room and nodded with satisfaction. “Whole lotta business goin’ on.” he said.
The pay scale for plasma donations begins at fifteen dollars for the first donation; then goes down to twelve dollars for the second, third, and fourth donations; then ten dollars for the fifth and sixth; and finally, just eight dollars. Donors are allowed to give twice a week.
The donor on bed sixteen, a filthy, foul-smelling man, was the first to finish with the three-hour donation process. After one of the nurses removed the needle from his arm, she signed his donor's pamphlet and told him he could go now. The man practically ran for the cash register to get his eight dollars. But before the cashier would give him his money, she put a drop of indelible ink on one of his fingernails, to make sure he wouldn't be back later in the day trying to donate under a different name.
Wyoming and Painter collected their eight dollars, grumbling among themselves as they passed through the reception area where Rat had been waiting for them. “It don't even amount to minimum wage,” Wyoming growled. “You wait and wait, and when you finally get in there, you gotta wait again.” They went to the restroom to empty their bladders one last time, still moaning about the injustice of it all. Nobody said anything when they saw that the quarter in the urinal was gone.
For the last few weeks, the boys I have been talking about getting A on a bus, going up to the VA hospital in La Jolla, and admitting themselves to the ATP — the alcoholic-treatment program. The program is usually full, but they figured they could at least get on the waiting list. Somehow, though, it never seemed to happen.
One reason they never managed to get on that bus could be that each of them had been through an alcoholic-treatment program before. Wyoming spent a year in a halfway house once and was even sober for three years. Until just two months ago. Rat had held down a full-time mechanic's job at Bob Baker Chevrolet in National City. What put him back on the street this time was coming home and finding his wife with another man. He kicked her out of the house, her father called the police, he got thrown in jail, and when he got out again, he had no place else to go except the street. It seemed to happen that way over and over again, and each time, it was getting harder and harder to hope something might change.
Standing outside the plasma center was a black man in a three-piece suit, handing out brochures for a work-training program. The boys passed him by without even listening to his story. “We can work,” Painter said, “that’s not the problem. The problem is staying sober long enough to do it.”
The boys felt weak and sick to their stomachs, and they needed some place where they could rest for a while till they felt better. They walked up Twelfth Avenue, crossed C Street, and lay down in the sun on the grass at City College. It was only a matter of minutes before the police showed up.
“There’s that blond-headed cop,” Wyoming said, nodding toward the tall, uniformed woman striding up the grassy knoll.
“Yeah, she’s a real pain,” Rat said.
The cop stood outside their circle, staring down at the men. She was twice as large as any of them and had an impressive physique, like a larger-than-life bronze statue. “How we doin' today?” she asked, her voice friendly but firm.
“Pretty good,” Rat replied. “We’re not drinkin’.”
“Did you sober up yesterday?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did,” Rat said.
“Did you spend your four hours at detox?”
“No, ma’am, they kept me for six.”
“Have you thought about the three-day detox program there?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been through it before. Right now they said they're full.”
The cop nodded. “How about you other guys — you been to detox?”
“I was in there night before last,” Wyoming said.
The cop glanced around at the three of them. “Seems like that’s getting to be your second home.”
“First home," Rat corrected her, thinking about the VW van they could no longer claim as home.
“I’d go in that three-day detox program quick, if they had the room.” Wyoming said.
“The trouble is, we been in there so many times, they won’t let us in anymore.” Rat explained, and he pulled a wad of citations and jail-release papers from his front pocket as proof. “Last time I was there, the man said I didn’t need to be in detox; he said I needed to be in the hospital. I’ve been having lots of seizures lately."
The cop turned back to Wyoming. “What’ve you got in your jacket? Lemme see?”
Wyoming opened his jacket to show he wasn’t carrying a bottle.
“We aren’t drinking, ma’am,” Rat said again, this time more earnestly.
“Okay,” the cop sighed, as though she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Finally, she just strolled away.
The boys looked relieved.
“I gotta get my ass up to the VA,” Wyoming said, slowly rising to his feet. The others nodded in agreement and began to follow him. They started toward the trolley stop, but halfway there they changed their minds. They stopped long enough to count the money in their pockets, then headed south, down Twelfth Avenue, toward the liquor store on Broadway.
About ten o’clock, a semi truck pulling a refrigerated trailer rumbled down Broadway and parked just around the comer from the Alpha Plasma Center. After the truck’s engine was turned off, the compressor on the refrigeration unit hummed loudly. A sign on the side of the trailer read: Transmedic.
The truck’s driver, a short Mexican man, got out of the cab and went into the plasma center. A few minutes later he came back, followed by two plasma center employees pushing a cart loaded with eighteen boxes of fresh plasma. One of the men was wearing a T-shirt; it said, “Alpha Spirit — Catch It.”
Each box on the cart contained fifteen one-liter bottles. In the heat of the morning, moisture was condensing on the outside of the boxes.
The men worked quickly at loading the boxes into the refrigerated trailer. When they had emptied the cart, they went back inside the plasma center for a second cartload. And then a third. Altogether they loaded sixty boxes —900 liters of plasma. The refrigeration unit hummed.