I Peddled My Ass to Science

by J.D. Tuccille

The good people at Penthouse had the excellent taste to buy this article in the early 1990s. Many years have passed, so I feel comfortable posting the piece online for the enjoyment of my readers. If any magazine staffers wish to challenge my decision to reclaim publication rights, feel free to meet me behind the 2-bar-3 tavern on a moonless night.

If you sold your body for sex, you would break the law, and (according to a popular faith) earn a special spot in a very warm place. But, if you sold your body for medical experimentation, now that's different; you would earn a few bucks and aid in the march of progress. Like a hooker, I took money for the use of my body, and when I got poked, it wasn't in any natural orifice. But unlike those street-side entrepreneurs, I didn't run afoul of the law, because I peddled my ass to science.

For me, the real lure of the medical research being conducted at McLean Hospital had less to do with an altruistic dedication to progress than with the $125 check I would receive as a paid experimental subject. When I saw the ad in the Boston Phoenix, I had eaten only potatoes and onions for three days to save cash for the rent. The small one-column advertisement offered good money for participants in marijuana and cocaine research. Twist my arm, I thought. It wasn't as lucrative as some of the other advertised opportunities, but then it didn't require me to self-inject myself with experimental male contraceptives either.

A phone call brought a preparatory packet in the mail. I had to fill out extensive questionnaires on my health and recreational drug histories. Over a decade's worth of an open mind on the subject of drugs left its mark on that questionnaire, and on an addendum concerned with the mixing of intoxicants. "Have you ever used both X and Y at the same time?" it asked. Well, yes I had, and what of it? I'd long ago stopped trying to hide my past habits, but I'd never before put so many of my sins in writing in one place.

Well, if I was a medical prostitute, then Michelle Sholar was an unusual john. Professional, cheerful and about five-feet tall, the experiment's administrator dispelled my morbid Boris Karloff fantasies as she described the experiment in a warm second-floor examination room. The goal was to see if amantadine, a drug used to treat Parkinson's patients, could also be used to treat cocaine dependency. At home, I would take capsules that might be Amantadine or a placebo. After four days, I'd come in, be wired for everything but sound, have tubes shoved in my arms for blood samples, and, provided it also wasn't a placebo, legally snort a line of South America's leading export.

But first, they had to make sure I wouldn't croak on them, or worse, sue. So, while waiting for the doctor, I filled out the "informed consent" papers. I read, I initialed, I signed, I initialed again. The list of cocaine's hazards read like something lifted from the Boston Globe, but without the breathy sense of alarm. Amantadine's litany of unpleasant, but highly unlikely side effects included nausea, insomnia, headaches, and depression. Christ, I'd felt like that every day when I lived in New York. Then the doctor prodded me, whacked my knees and, much to my surprise, presented me with a clean bill of health.

Of course, every good deal has its down side. To avoid nasty surprises, the subjects had to abstain from recreational drugs for six days before and during the taking of the amantadine capsules. That meant that not so much as a casual beer could pass my lips until the experiment was complete. Could I abide by that restriction? Well, I couldn't abide too many more root-vegetable dinners, so temperance and I became wary acquaintances.

Approached by a long ramp that led below ground level, the room where the in-lab segment of the experiment took place was small, old, crowded with equipment and eerie. With its early construction, isolation and bleeping monitors it looked like . . . well . . . a "Kolchak the Night Stalker" set. I liked it.

Michelle Sholar was alone when I arrived, and she set me to filling out yet more questionnaires while she warmed up her computer and monitoring gear.

"What kind of mood are you in now? Are you elated? Are you miserable? Are you high? How does this high compare to past highs?"

"Don't worry too much about that now," Michelle told me. "You'll answer the same questions several times during the experiment."

In preparing me for the experiment itself, the first step was attaching the EEG monitors.

"These things that look like swim caps replace the old-fashioned loose electrodes," Michelle said, pointing at a peg board full of fruit-colored beanies studded with rivets. In fact, they were more like Peter Max-designed aviator caps than swim caps. "The old electrodes weren't just hard to put on," she told me. "They tended to take a little hair with them when they were removed."

I ran my fingers through the rapidly withering crop on my own head and thanked her for the consideration.

With the cap in place, Michelle filled the gap between the electrodes and my scalp with gel squirted from a horse-sized syringe. The cold goop oozed like The Blob and left me wondering how bad the old electrodes could have been after all.

"Don't worry," I was reassured. "It comes out pretty easily with a towel."

Wires were connected to the cap, two EKG electrodes were pasted to my chest, then I was led to the test chamber.

To minimize outside stimuli, the chamber was a small, sound-proof room with a door that belonged on an old bank vault. In the center was a battered easy chair where I quickly sat.

Seated in a cramped chamber, trailing wires, skull cap in place, I suddenly felt the ghost of Jimmy Cagney chuckling over me. "When does the priest come in to administer the last rites?"

"What?" Michelle asked. She was busy trying to insert an IV tube the size of a garden hose into my right arm.

"Last rites. I feel like I'm in the electric chair."

Luckily, she didn't laugh much, since the needle on that IV tube could have been used to spear trout.

Soon, wires and tubes connected, door levered shut, I was alone in the chamber. I closed my eyes and relaxed, waiting for the experiment to begin.

"Jerry," Michelle's voice blared from a speaker. "I'm going to ask you a few questions. What kind of mood are you in now? Are you . . ."

And so on.

Questions answered, I had a few more minutes to relax.

"Jerry, reach out and pull the glass vial to you."

I reached with the hand free of the attached plumbing, and grabbed a flexible metal arm. On the end was a glass test tube partly filled with white powder, with a thin glass straw resting against the side.

"Now, using the snorting device, inhale all of the powder, first into one nostril, then the other."

Some skills never fade. No trace remained when I was done.

"Hmmph. Kind of, sniff, mild," I said.

"Please use the joystick. You don't need to speak."

Whoops. I forgot. By my left hand was a pistol grip apparently borrowed from a video game. I was supposed to pull it back if I felt any of the cocaine's effects, pressing the top button for euphoria or the bottom one for dysphoria -- a two-dollar word meaning "feeling like shit." As the "mild" effect accelerated into a liquid rush, I yanked the stick back and jammed on the top button.

"Jerry, I'm going to run through the questions again."

My answers were noticably different on this run-through. As I spoke, I gritted my teeth, sniffed, and wished for the opportunity to enjoy my high somewhere that didn't so closely resemble Ted Bundy's last vista.

Between bouts of interrogation, there was a seemingly simple hearing test. All I had to do was count the number of tones that differed from a series of background tones. Well, to take the test, I had to keep my eyes shut and my jaws still -- a prodigious task for a man with a snoot full of coke. I struggled to control my errant muscles, but inevitably, a twitch would set in and a newly-autonomous eyelid would fly open or my teeth would grate together as if they were milling corn. Like a hyperactive third-grader, I had to be reminded several times to settle down.

By the final round of questions, my grip on the joystick had loosened and, when I remembered, my button of choice was the lower "dysphoric" one. I had entered that nauseous, jittery come-down stage that requires either another line of coke or a stiff, cushioning drink, and I had neither. I felt . . . ugh.

Michelle appeared to slowly detach me from the equipment. Her hand slid the IV needle from my vein with a sure, steady motion. I rose unsteadily from the easy chair, blinked at the light, and ran fingers through hair caked with "easy-to-remove" gel. A quick scrub with a towel left my locks tangled in a decaying-junky 'do -- an appropriate look for a creature emerging from a subterranean laboratory.

Soon enough, I was in a cab on my way home and, like all flesh peddlers, without so much as a kiss on the lips. The biggest compensation was the knowledge that I had contributed -- not to science, though I hoped that my participation had done some good, but to my bank account. In the end, that check was what it was all about.

Ah, how fortunate I was to have my brush with drug-induced prosperity rest cheek-by- ... well ... tit in Penthouse.

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