By Mr. T

It used to be easy to stand on principle, to refuse to kowtow to the corporate giants. I was a professional freelance writer. I worked for myself. I had it knocked. Corporations might rule the world, but not mine. I would never kiss ass. Never attend a company picnic. Never submit to a drug test. Pee in a cup and beg to be kept on past 50? As long as my needs remained simple and I could take care of my wife and children, I was free.

Then last fall my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Three days later her stinking boss–may his cheeks bloat with pus and burst in a desolate place–fired her. Suddenly my freedom was less important than health insurance and a steady paycheck. Because the company she’d worked for was small, her guaranteed insurance would last only nine months. Corporate workers might not enjoy much security, but they’re paid better than their counterparts in small business, and they get more benefits. They’re all paid better than I am.

But I dallied. Then an array of new bills arrived–for nutritional supplements, the nutritionist, pharmaceuticals.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve had plenty of other jobs, from construction worker to circus janitor. I’d never worked in an office, but a professional freelance writer has choices. Public relations, for example, or newspapers. Newspaper publishers are just cranks with money. They have a reputation for tolerating eccentricity. They’re corporate, but not too corporate. Newspapers were the way to go, I decided. And one was hiring.

All the job books recommend doing research on the company where you plan to apply. (I ought to know, since I wrote a chapter of one of those books, telling job seekers to do exactly that.) But I was in a hurry. All I knew was what a friend had told me: a suburban newspaper was looking for someone. Until I stepped inside its brown pyramidal building and walked past the indoor garden in the climate-controlled lobby, I’d never seen the paper. I picked one up. It looked like a newspaper. I checked the masthead and saw the slogan “To fear God, tell the truth, and make money.”

Not exactly “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but there was nothing in it with which I could disagree. And given the new building, the indoor waterfall, the faux gas lamps, I could tell that the company was fulfilling at least the third part of the motto.

I gave my name to the receptionist and was issued a name tag in ten seconds flat. A few minutes later I was called upstairs.

The interview was just what interviews are supposed to be–a pleasant conversation with a couple of nice guys wearing ties. After some chitchat, I was asked if I’d have any trouble wearing a tie to work. Of course not. Could I work under a boss? No problem. Could we schedule you for a drug test?

Until then I’d willed a friendly, confident look onto my face. But I couldn’t stop a stupid grin. “Well, I’ve never done that before,” I said.

“It’s not as hard as it sounds,” one of the guys assured me. “You don’t have to study for it.”

We laughed. They scheduled me for a second interview and a drug test the following Monday, gave me a company handbook, and sent me on my way.

Actually I was going to have to study for the test. I don’t smoke much, but I’d taken a hit or two about a week before. I knew that traces of THC can be found in urine for several weeks. And I knew that a nonsmoker who’s been in the same room as a smoker can come up positive. Since going on chemotherapy, Mrs. T had been smoking a lot of pot. She said it got rid of that slimy feeling. I was often in the room.

So I had a problem. I had a copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Urine Test, which lists an address to write to for packets of certified drug-free powdered urine. But the book was written ten years ago. Hoffman also recommended filling a drainage bag or condom with clean urine and wearing it strapped to your crotch, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the job that bad. I called a friend who works for a company that displays a sign reading “Don’t even think about working here if you won’t take a drug test.” How’d she beat the test? She hadn’t. “They just put up a sign,” she said.

The friend who’d recommended applying for the job phoned and asked how the interview had gone. He was surprised that a newspaper was asking for a urine test, but he had an answer to my dilemma: buy some detox tea.

I didn’t like the idea. Though I could wind up with a job that paid good money, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. I was fearing God or something.

“Drink the tea,” he ordered.

That phrase was stuck in my mind all that weekend, like a bad tune you can’t get rid of. “Precious and few are the moments we two have shared–drink the tea!” I resisted. Necessity had forced me to the wall before. Nobody was putting a gun to my head.

Mrs. T read the company handbook, pointing to the paid vacations, the health insurance, the paid sick days. She found an extra, unexpected benefit–free obituaries in the paper for me and my family.

Well, I reasoned, you can’t reside in the cracks of society all your life. The big institutions get you one way or another. If I entered the rat race to the grave maybe I’d win.

Mrs. T felt responsible, so she went to the health food store that Sunday to buy the tea. When she told the guy what she was looking for he ducked down behind the counter. “We don’t keep this stuff on the shelves,” he explained.

She brought home a box of Detoxify Brand FAST FLUSH Cleansing Herbal Tea. It’s made in the USA by a company in Lake Bluff, Illinois, and cost more than $20 with tax. The box promised “CITRUS Flavor” and “Works in 2 hours!” It came with a “DOUBLE MONEY BACK GUARANTEE!”

“Drink the tea,” said the voice in my head.

Until I started boiling water on Monday morning, I hadn’t really noticed “MAKES 1 GALLON.” Drink a gallon of tea in two hours? I never drank a gallon of anything in two hours.

It wasn’t bad at first, but after about a half hour the sweetish citrus flavor began to cloy. And then it hit me. My system began flushing fast, all right. Every action produced a reaction. I drank the tea. I peed the pee. Cup to bowl, bowl to cup–it all blended together.

After another half hour I started talking to myself. “I can’t go on,” I said out loud.

“You can’t stop now,” answered a voice in my head.

I was only on the second quart.

The newspaper building was a 45-minute to one-hour drive away. Better bring a cup to pee in, said the voice. While driving on the highway? What are you, nuts? Yes. Drink the tea.

Flushing those impurities was whacking me out. I was stoned on tea. The stuff was lukewarm, so I turned on the stove underneath the pot. I laughed at the bubbling brew. This must be what it’s like to be high on life, I said. In a moment of lucidity I decided to get high on a real drug as soon as I could. There were two more quarts in the pot.

I swear I could feel the tea squeezing my organs like accordions. I thought about Paul Newman eating hard-boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke. I thought about Chinese water torture.

Then I wasn’t thinking anymore. I stopped flushing the toilet. Such a waste of water. No time for the tank to refill.

With the last cup in front of me on the table I was as grim and determined as I’ve ever been. I knew the drive would be uncomfortable. The second interview wouldn’t go well. I probably wouldn’t get the job (I didn’t). I didn’t care.

I took a B-complex vitamin and the two capsules of Creatine Monohydrate Supplement supplied with the tea (the capsules restore urine’s golden glow–they thought of everything). I would drink to the last drop. I’d studied hard. I’d pass the test. This could be the beginning of a new life. At least I was starting fresh.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fast Flush box photograph by B.B. Grunt.