A friend of my father’s saw more action than he had hoped for on the front line in World War II. There was an artillery attack one night and during the barrage he jumped into the nearest foxhole; or what he presumed to be a foxhole.
As it turned out, he had slipped into a latrine, a literal shit-hole.
He lived to tell the tale.
After my father told me this story I vowed never to find myself in a position where such intimate relation with human waste would be my salvation and my liberation. That was the goal anyway.
A decade or so after hearing the life-altering tale, I graduated from college with a degree in biology. I got a job at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, on the upper east side of Manhattan; one of the world’s most technologically advanced research centers. I was working in a lab studying enzyme levels associated with colon cancer.
My plan was to spend a year working and playing before entering graduate school. This period was meant to be a break between major stints of student life, a chance to bank some cash, and an opportunity to acquire relevant technical skills. Finally, since I wanted to attend a top notch graduate program, I absolutely had to get a top notch letter of recommendation, anything less would have indicated near-failure. If something went wrong, no matter the cause, I would have had to find another job, get a good letter, and, in my school application, explain, without over-explaining, why I fucked up at Sloan Kettering. This would have been cumbersome, at best, and more likely, a career killer.
At this point in my life getting an advanced degree, especially a PhD, meant everything to me. No one in my family had reached this status; this represented prestige and upward social mobility. And I wanted to study environmental microbiology, to make the world a better place.
The head of the lab, Dr. Balis, was a difficult and irascible man. Although his official title was biochemist, he seemed more like a fisherman to me. His true specialty was gouging unsuspected subordinates with unbearable social hooks, watching them squirm. He had a way of looking at you over the top of his glasses frame, glaring silently until you crumpled.
This was the guy who was going to write that letter of recommendation. I needed him more than he needed me, and we both knew it.
One day, about a month after I started, he summoned me away from my bench, to his office.
There he gave me an unmarked cardboard container about the size of a shoebox and he told me to bring it down to our sister lab at the NYU Medical Center, about two miles away.
I agreed and asked him what I was to be delivering.
“Radioactively labeled samples.”
“I see. Then will there be a courier service?”
“Yes. You, in fact, are the courier. Take these.” He handed me two subway tokens—this was in the chaotic days before we had Metrocards. “There is not enough money in the budget for both your salary and a formal courier.”
“But surely I can’t take this on the subway.”
“Of course you can. It’s only carbon 14.” Let me interject here and note that while carbon 14 is one of the more benign radioactive isotopes, it is nonetheless highly regulated and can be quite harmful to anyone coming into inappropriate contact with it.
I am reminded of his trivialization of such unnecessary exposure when i heard our national leader, when considering a gang of hooded cross-burners, tell us that some of them are good people. This is bullshit; just as there are no good klansmen, there is no safe radiation.
This willingness to cut corners, and the concurrent trivializing of such an unnecessary danger was, for me, a crash course in professorial arrogance; it was obvious that he knew better than everyone. I understood right away why so many people resented academics.
He noted my continued skepticism and, as if to mollify me, took out a large Bloomingdales bag. “Put it in this. You will have no problem.”
I reminded myself that I entered into this relationship with full knowledge of its asymmetrical power dynamic, and I knew I had to do almost anything that he asked of me.
“Just be careful not to tell anyone about this.”
The ride to NYU went smoothly, but I felt terrible. What if there was an accident or if someone stole my package?
I had to do this about six more times. Each time I dreaded it. I felt soiled and diminished by the experience, reduced to the status of a supplicant in bondage, and a menace to society. I was willfully doing the bidding of a reprehensible tyrant, all for a precarious piece of paper that could potentially determine my future.
It wasn’t lost on me that I was functioning in the middle of a paradox. My aim was to get the credentials to do good things for the environment. Yet, in order to do so I was required to place myself in a position where I could very well be be doing horrible things to the environment. This was not healthy for my soul.
During this period of my life I was dating a lot. I was a young, healthy, active guy, with a big appetite for experience and the knowledge that, hopefully next year, I would be working my balls to death at grad school, too tired to date. I needed to feel vital there and then.
“So, what did you do today?” The lovely, innocent female would say, peering at me over her coffee in the exact opposite way that Dr. Balis would scowl over his glasses. If the date took place on the day of a radioactive subway trip I would clam up. I wasn’t able to tell the truth—that I was putting untold numbers of people in potential danger, contaminating entire subway cars, and possibly causing the evacuation of the whole East Side of Manhattan. This was a constraint that made casual conversation very difficult and took on a life of its own as strained chatting morphed into sullen, clipped exchanges. More than one relationship ended because of this unnecessary social impediment. I was turning into a real asshole.
I seriously thought about quitting. Fuck Dr. Balis and his letter of recommendation. Then I got a promotion.
The Institute was attached to a cancer hospital and our lab was on a list for organ donation. One of the perks of this promotion was no more jaunts down to NYU. Instead, I was often sent to the morgue to retrieve fresh colons, which I would habitually watch being pulled from lukewarm corpses. The colons were packed on ice and transported in a bucket to the lab. There I would slit them open with razors, and carefully clean them out before delivering them to the researchers for enzyme analysis. Now, it’s important to note these weren’t the colons of active people eating a well-balanced diet. They were from people who had spent their last weeks in bed, on a hospital diet, and they were impacted with pasty stool that smeared onto everything.
Despite the unpleasant trappings of this task, I liked it much better than schlepping radioactive isotopes on the 6 train. It seemed to me to have brought a breath of fresh air and a ray of sunshine into my day. I liked it so much and felt so good about myself that on dates, when asked about my day I would enthusiastically proclaim, “I went to the morgue, got a fresh colon from the pathologist, took it back to the lab and cleaned all the shit out of it!” Then I’d order another round of drinks.
I guess that I shouldn’t have been surprised when my date would not share my passion for my work. How could she have known that this was so much better than my other task, as she studied my fingernails for any brown build-up? Nonetheless, more than one relationship moved wildly forward. It had to have been due to my newly positive attitude, which was directly related to my liberation from having to take those radioactive subway trips. Life was good, work was rewarding.
I learned to compartmentalize. Some other needy schmuck was now ferrying the isotopes on the subway and the public remained at risk, but it wasn’t me. My guilt was no longer due to my action, but to my inaction—by not calling Dr. Balis out for his outrageous behavior.
I had to do a lot of self-medicating to enable myself not to feel any longer like such a total asshole. I succeeded some of the time; I believe that the suitable term of art to use is that I was living a “half-assed” existence.
This semi-rationalization was the emotional bandage that got me through the rest of the year at Sloan Kettering. Although Dr. Balis did write a good letter on my behalf, and I did get into the graduate school of my choice, I retain a shamed and dirtied feeling about taking the Carbon 14 isotope on the subway. What partially saved, cleansed, and freed me was my intimate relationship with human waste.
As I look back, I understand that I willingly entered into a relationship of unequals. My needs required me to accept restrictions on my better impulses, and I found myself giving in to extortion in order to save myself from being blackballed. I didn’t have to compromise, no—I was compromised.