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Smokerlyzer: Professional Control 1

Smokerlyzer: Professional Control 1 is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.


I’m back to the grindstone looking for ways to make money. After the good money that came from a short-term gig, I am looking there now, hoping to spend only half of the month working to stay in the black.

Los Angeles is full of for-profit pseudo-medical ventures, runoff from Hollywood’s search for eternal youth and shining beauty. I first encounter this varied and strange world of cutting edge science and snake oil during grad school when I obtain a prescription for the fad weight loss drug Fen-Phen, which helps me drop 20 pounds one summer. The ads are all over the LA Weekly, which is the entertainment schedule for the city. I call the number, and am given an address. 

The facility is a small room in a strip mall at the difficult intersection of La Cienega, San Vicente, and Burton Way. It takes forever to access it and park in one of the woeful three parking spots outside of six different stores in the strip. Accessing it is stressful and I consider giving up.

Once inside I am weighted and have my blood pressure taken by a Nurse Practitioner, and then am given the drugs, $59 for 1 month’s worth, and some light pieces of advice about weight loss. After that I go in every week to be weighed and have my blood pressure taken again. At one point they caution me against losing weight too quickly. 

The drug gives me a slight rush and does completely ruin my appetite. I take it to far and lose too much too fast, but then three months later there’s a lawsuit against the makers of Fen-Phen after evidence that it causes heart valve damage. I stop taking it. It says that there’s a chance to have damage even after 90 days of use. I try not to think about it.

Now I think about it as I see ads in the LA Weekly for class action suits. I respond to one, schedule an ECG, and never show up because I’m hanging out with a crush during my appointment time.

What could be better for my heart?

Los Angeles also has legitimate medical research, it’s a powerful medical city. Looking for opportunity, I take a peek into this world. I consider donating my eggs, but the process seems too invasive for the money being paid, which is around ten thousand dollars, but up to thirty-five thousand dollars if I donate as an Ashkenazi Jew. It involves being on supplemental hormones for years, and I decide against the cascade of unforeseen consequences and instead head online to find more options. 

Now solidly into the Craigslist age, I scour the listings looking for medical or psychological volunteers. Thus begins my short career as a test subject. I participate in two studies. 

The first is a study on cigarette smoking and mood. The study is being conducted by psychologists associated somehow with UCLA. They are looking for non-smokers to make up the control group. I like the idea of being paid for my good choices in life, and I call in to qualify for the study. I am met with a push button response system.

“Do you smoke? If so, press one. If not, press two.”

I press two. Does marijuana count as smoking?

“Have you ever been a cigarette smoker, by this we mean smoking more than one cigarette every year. If so, press one. If not, press two.”

I press two. I have smoked drags off of cigarettes before, at parties, but I have never smoked an entire cigarette in my life. I’ve smoked clove cigarettes, and even at times smoked an entire pack of them within a year, but I’m a stickler for semantics and I want to be a part of this test.

“Are you between the ages of eighteen and forty-five? If so, press one. If not, press two.” 

I press one.

“Are you currently suffering from any mental illness being controlled by psychiatric medication? If so, press one. If not, press two.”

I press two. That question sounds so impersonal through this mechanism.

 “Would you describe yourself as suffering from depression or anxiety? If so, press one. If not, press two.”

I hesitate before pressing two.

“Congratulations! You’ve qualified for our study on cigarettes and mood! Please leave your name and number after the tone and a representative will get back to you shortly.”

It’s so easy to qualify for this study that I don’t realize how difficult it might have been.

I happen to fall down the perfect pachinko route to qualification for this candidacy, but so often, later, I call the automated system and give them the answers I think they are looking for, only to be coldly told in a pre-recorded voice that I “do not qualify for any studies we are conducting at this time, however we have stored your information in our system and will contact you in the future if you match the requirements for a study”.

Often, even after qualifying I never hear from a study, and wonder if I’ve just given my name and phone number to an elaborate marketing scheme. This time, though, a representative calls back within two hours and set up my initial meeting. She introduces herself as Candy and tells me details about the study. 

I don’t hear much other than that I will be taking a Smokerlyzer test to test me for Carbon Monoxide. I’m increasingly worried about whether my weed smoking will register me as a smoker on their test.

Westwood is one of my least favorite parts of Los Angeles. It could be that I went to USC, and there’s a rivalry between USC and UCLA. USC is in South Central, with no fun student-friendly activities located near it, rather it traverses gang territory. UCLA is located in posh Westwood next to posh Brentwood, with many student-targeted activities near it. Perhaps my distaste for the neighborhood is jealousy over the student residents’ privileged college recreational activities. Or it could also just be that it’s very hard to park in Westwood.

I drive onto the UCLA campus and park near one of the buildings in the psychology department. I take my parking ticket with me to have it validated. I’m a little concerned that my car will be towed in the meantime, but try not to think about it. 

The building reminds me of the buildings in my hometown. It is newer, and not made from stone, but it is trying to look like it is old and Ivy League, and does a good job calling that feeling forth in me. I feel that weird mixture of history, ancestry, and opportunity that is old money academia.

On the third floor I meet Candy, the young Asian American who will conduct my intake. 

I have the parking ticket in my hand and ask her to validate it before we begin. She does, with a rubber stamp she has nearby. Once she’s stamped it she realizes that she hasn’t changed the date for the day, as it’s one of those stamps that has a dial on the side to move three different wheels corresponding to month, day, and year. She changes the date and stamps it again. I’m concerned that the parking attendant will think I’ve been a fraud and voice that, but she waves that away and launches into a description of the study.

“This is a two week study, during which you will be paged 5 times a day. You have to respond to each page within thirty minutes. You also have to come in two more times to take a Smokerlyzer test, does that work for you?”

“Sure.” I say, calculating the gas money it will cost to get there three times against the hundred and twenty dollars that the study pays.

“We’re going to do the Smokerlyzer test now, okay? Usually people blow between a one and four, four point zero or higher is considered a smoker. In Los Angeles, we all blow higher on the Smokerlyzer test than we do anywhere else in the country. Most people average between one and two, but Angelenos average between two and three.”

She takes out a small device that looks like a Breathalyzer for measuring blood alcohol content, yet says “Smokerlyzer” on it. It’s a chunk of plastic with an LCD screen hooked up to a tube. She hands it to me. She pushes the button while I place the tube into my mouth.

I blow a two point two on the Smokerlyzer. I’m relieved. I didn’t smoke any weed for two days before this test.

“Wow, it’s crazy to think living in Los Angeles means I have more carbon monoxide in my system, like, all the time.” I ruminate.

She nods sadly as she makes a copy of my ID on a small desktop copier. “People who live here for long periods of time suffer higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. Also people who are born here develop lungs that are more efficient at processing oxygen, a lot like people who live at high altitudes.” She says.

“Wow.” 

I’ve not thought much about the air quality in Los Angeles since I moved here in the early 1990’s. I lived in Claremont then, and more than once had trouble making out the crossing signal from the other side of the street. It’s gotten cleaner since then. I’ve been moving further and further west, now living in Venice with my friend Aaron. After the marriage I took the first offer I could find, but wanted to move westward anyway. I don’t like the cooler weather, but I do like the cleaner air, scrubbed by the seaside winds.

I fill out paperwork, mostly non-disclosure agreements and liability forms, and am issued a pager and a few handouts with instructions and mood spectrums – little scales from one to ten that have frowny faces at the one and happy faces at the ten, and slow grade between the two for the rest of the numbers. 

“The study will work like this – we will send you pages at random times during the day. You have twenty minutes to respond to the page after you receive it. When you respond, indicate ‘n/a’ for the first question, which will ask how long it’s been since you smoked a cigarette. The rest of the questions are about your mood, whether you are happy, satisfied, anxious, restless, tired, hungry, et cetera. When you respond to the page, just put the number of the question, and then a number from one to ten, where ten is enthusiastic agreement and one is vehement disagreement.”

I sign the release papers for the physical equipment and take the pager from her, and I’m off to enjoy my life. I receive five pages a day for the next week and answer them diligently. It forces me to get in touch with my mood. I realize I can’t really get in touch with it, I don’t really know how I feel. Maybe it’s all the weed I smoke, or maybe it’s that I am hyper-analytical. I do my best, and always seem to give high middling answers to all of the questions.

I’m sure I appear a very stable control.

The next time I go into the office, I’ve smoked weed the day before, and am nervous about the Smokerlyzer test. If I fail now, I’ll have done a week’s worth of work for nothing. The doors in “The Psych Ward”, as I’ve come to call it, are all demarcated with small, brown signs with cream writing that look like desk placards. As I’m walking down the hall, the adhesive goes on one of them and it clatters to the tile floor. I walk over and pick it up. It says “Ward Physician”. I chuckle, and put it in my purse.

The same psychology doctorate, Candy, takes my Smokerlyzer test. I blow a two point eight.

“Huh.” She says, looking at it. “That’s high. That’s a big jump for a week.” She enters the number into my file and looks over the papers, which are printouts of my pages. I’m nervous that she will discount me for the test, but she says “Everything came in well, I’ll see you next week.” 

As I’m leaving, I lean back into the door and ask her “So, what about marijuana? What does that do to people’s results on this Smokerlyzer test? Does that have carbon monoxide in it too?”

“I really don’t know the answer to that actually.” She says this in the singsong SoCal way that indicates she isn’t interested and won’t find any answer for me, either. She’s already pulling someone else’s file. I go home.

Again, the week goes by and I dutifully answer all the pages I get. Not much changes. I start to just randomly pick numbers between six and eight and enter those in for every answer, rather than really tuning in to where my mood is at the moment. Wonder how many people participating are doing the same. I wonder what they can really tell from tests like this. I’m motivated by the money, not by getting it right. Do they really have a large enough sample size to glean something from the data they are collecting?

I’m sure I’ll never know.

For the third Smokerlyzer, I get high the morning I go into UCLA. I am incredibly anxious, as I’ve now already spent the money that I’m making on this test, and if I fail the last Smokerlyzer I will not be paid, and what’s worse I’ll have spent money on gas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I know it’s a stupid thing to do, but I do it anyway, betting on luck.

The Psych Ward seems always empty to me, and I wonder what goes on in the rest of these rooms. Candy greets me again.

I blow a three point nine on the Smokerlyzer. The lab girl doesn’t know what to make of it. She has me blow a few more times, and it’s all within the same range, but none hit four. Eventually she says “Well, I guess that you still technically qualify, though there’s no way that you could have gotten that high of a score without having smoked a cigarette-“

I interrupt her “I did not smoke any cigarettes.”

“Well what were you doing, then, sucking on tailpipes?” she says, in disbelief.

“In a manner of speaking, I mean, it’s Los Angeles right?” I shrug. My heart is beating and I wonder if she can hear my voice shaking. She can’t.

She laughs. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s so scary to see this result though, I didn’t realize just how bad the air is here until working with you.”

I nod, surprised and relieved that Candy buys my story. I return the pager, and she pays me one hundred and twenty dollars in cash. Say goodbye to the Psych Ward, and am glad to leave Westwood knowing I have no immediate reason to come back. I drive to The Medicine Man and buy a quarter ounce of weed for a hundred and twenty dollars.

…to be continued…


(If you liked “Professional Control” please buy a copy of my first book, Down and Out in California, or support me on Patreon for a free copy)


Other excerpts from Down and Out in California:

San Pedro

The Most Interesting Client In The World

Hold For Sound


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