A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in Florida, she got a pass for a two free movie tickets for some film. I can’t even remember which one. It was one of those free movie events hosted by a radio station. We expected it to be pretty similar to any of the million previous times we had been to the movies together.
The people there all seemed to know each other. Many of them had done this free-movie thing before, and did it regularly. We had a long conversation with the local king and queen bee of free movie going, who knew everyone else and all the tricks on how to get free movie passes. They were also insiders, and right before the movie started a representative of the event came out and pulled the two of them inside for some kind of private consultation.
We went to see a movie. We found a community. A secret, hidden community, not because they were trying to hide, but because there would be no reason or anyone who hadn’t peered through the shroud to assume they existed. To put it another way, I already knew there was probably a local taxidermy club. I know about taxidermy, and although I have no idea what those people or that community are like, I am at least vaguely aware of its probable existence. But the free-movie community was wholly unexpected. Not surprising, I suppose, but at the same time mind-blowing. It made me wonder how many of these unimagined but fully extant communities are out there, two inches to the left of where we live our lives.
I found another one today.
I discovered that you can make some money by donating plasma. Not bad money, too, for the amount of time it takes. So…I have now donated plasma! The website for the company with the local office has a lot of copy and imagery about saving lives and being a hero. They also have a rewards program. Donating one of your bodily fluids for use in medical procedures gives you points that you can spend on Target gift cards and discounts for Taco Time. If you donate enough, you can become a gold member. I don’t know what that means.
When I got there, I checked in with the receptionist. She was very excited that this was my first time. I asked if it was mostly regulars. She told me it was.
I showed them my IDs and read a booklet and then watched a video that had all of the same information in the booklet. I heard at least four times that although they test your blood prior to every donation, they ask that you not use this facility as a way to test if you have an STD or communicable disease. They didn’t actually say “There are clinics for that, dammit! Don’t waste our time!” But someone clearly wanted to.
Then I went through a series of medical screening questions and tests with two separate but equally awesome women. The first was bubbly, and about ten feet tall She told me about the time she was in a trailer that was hit by a tornado. Fortunately, she didn’t die. The second woman was gruffer at first, but once I showed some empathy for the tedium of her situation she warmed up. We talked about how she could barely watch medical shows because of all the inaccuracies. I mentioned how I knew that defibrillators are used entirely wrong on television, and she burst out laughing and told me I was smart. I related how as a former chef I hate to watch people cook and eat on TV. The pizza is always cold.
While I was waiting for my physical two other people waited with me. The first was a pink-haired girl who was very impatient. Last time she came in she had a bruise on her arm, and they told her they couldn’t take her plasma until it healed. Now she had to wait for the technicians to check out her arm. She’d been there for 20 minutes and kept pacing back and forth and calling her husband to complain.
The other person waiting there had been told that he answered a screening question wrong, and therefore had to wait. He was annoyed and nervous.
“I’ve come here so many times,” he said. “They should know I don’t do drugs.” I told him that was rough. Then he asked in a hushed tone, “They won’t, like, care if there’s marijuana in my blood, will they? Do you think?”
I told him they stuff I read only mentioned heroin and cocaine, and besides marijuana is legal in Washington now anyway. He shhed me to keep my voice down, because an Authority Figure was walking by.
Once all this was done, the defibrillator nurse took me out to the extraction room. They didn’t call it that. They didn’t call it anything. I got priority because I was a first-timer. A VIP, you might say.
I went and sat in a curved blue bed in a large room full of curved blue beds. Almost all of them were full. I expected a bunch of quiet people, checking their phones and pretending everyone next to them didn’t exist. The kind you find in patient waiting rooms all across the country. I was very, very wrong.
Many of these people knew each other, and knew the technicians. There was life and energy and conversations. One of the technicians got excited when he saw one of the donors, and ran up to ask how her sister was doing. They talked for several minutes.
The woman that got me into bed was very nice, and clearly genuinely pleased to meet me. If anything it felt like a new neighbor moving in. She explained the process would take an hour, and how this machine would take out my blood, filter out the plasma, and return my red blood cells along with saline and an anti-coagulant. But it felt an awful lot like she was bringing me a tupperware full of cookies that she baked herself. You know, just to say “Hi! Welcome to the plasma center!”
A woman had a seizure nearby, and both the staff and the donors got very worried. It all worked out, though. Apparently she has seizures fairly regularly, and she always warns everyone right before she’s about to have one. To the best of my knowledge, she’s just fine, and once it was over everyone settled back down into their comfortable routine.
Soon enough, pink-hair and marijuana guy were seated right near me, and we struck up a conversation. They were in much better moods now that they were done with the waiting process. Pink-hair explained that her husband and kids were waiting in the car, and that’s why she was impatient.
She’d been coming here since this facility opened and knew all sorts of little tricks. She and marijuana-guy had never talked before, but they’d seen each other. Pink-hair’s husband thought marijuana guy was Samoan. He said he wasn’t, and she laughed and described the shocked look her husband would surely have when she told him he was wrong. When she left, she told both both of us it was nice to meet us, and that she’d see us around. She assumed I’d be back.
I also struck up a conversation with the woman on my left. She explained the equipment I was hooked up to, and what all of the tubes did and what the meters indicated. She wasn’t a technician, just a donor. And, by the end of that hour, kind of a friend. She and pink-hair knew each other and were clearly friendly.
Yesterday I knew that I would give plasma today, if nothing went wrong. I knew I’d get some money for it, and be entered into a reward program. I had no idea I’d find this weird little community I would never have imagined if I hadn’t seen it myself. I’m definitely going to keep giving plasma for the foreseeable future, but will I become part of this community? Will I make new friends, through a strange, hidden group whose only tie to each other is the extraction of the liquid medium of their blood? Will I, in fact, become one of the Plasma People?
We’ll just have to see.