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Ah, the joys of the life of the artist-phlebotomist

Life's a bitch if you're an artist.

Not that life isn't a bitch if you're something other than an artist; it's just a different kind. It is not my purpose to shortchange any other kinds of bitch lives out there. For example, what must it be like to work at Wal-Mart? Stocking shelf after shelf beneath those bright fluorescent lights while some pimply midlevel manager, who's been waiting forever for you to finally get down on your knees to stock that lowest shelf, sidles up under the guise of authority and rubs his flaccid member up and down your cotton-blend shoulder, all the while telling you to straighten out those shelves. That third can down's a little hinky. I mean, that's got to be some kind of a bitch life, too. But it's beyond my purview here.

And did you know that those guys who dress up as lizards and stand on the corner of Speedway Boulevard and Whatever make $10.48 an hour? Of course, I'm not sure whether they're provided with the dope required to make it possible for them to stand out there in the wind and the rain while making a total asshole of themselves. I really ought to check into that. It might not be a bad gig.

But back to artists. I expect brilliant ones have it easier, but I'm just an average one. I can paint a little and do some writing. I've got a real-live agent in San Francisco who doesn't charge photocopying or stamp fees and is kind of, sort of, positive she can sell my novel, which she loves except for a few teeny, tiny things. Then there's the Tucson Weekly, a wonderful gig if there ever was one--but still, when it comes to consistent shekels in these difficult economic times, art's kind of a boner.

So I panicked and bolted into the medical profession. I took a 13-week course in phlebotomy. How hard could it be? I've known junkies who can hit a vein at 20 paces, and they're jonesing like crazy, shaking and salivating all over the place.

I finished the course. Got a job.

So the other morning, I walk into a hospital room with an order to draw the blood of one Mr. Smith (not his real name). It's 6 a.m., and the room is dark and smelling of piss, yeast, farts and some unidentifiable eau de hospitale that puts you off your food like nothing else and smells exactly the same at every facility I visit. I look at the tests ordered: medication levels, infection, organ function, hydration. Mr. Smith's got all kinds of problems, mostly because he's old.

But nowadays, you're not allowed to die. You have to hang around, pretending everything's fine, while taking high-priced medication, which must be strictly regulated. If you don't have enough, you trough. If there's too much, you spike. Either one is bad. Some of these medications react badly with all of the other medications, including the ones meant to keep you happy so that you either don't notice, or don't care, about the fact that you're not only dying, but living in a room that smells like Godzilla's diaper.

Mr. Smith's not in his bed. I look under it, around it and then finally call his name. "Mr. Smith! It's Catherine from the lab," I say. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

No Mr. Smith. I'm about to give up. Occasionally, just to annoy people like me, these people actually do die. But I heard a tiny voice coming from the bathroom. "Helloooo," he says. "Is anybody out there?"

"Yes, Mr. Smith. I've come to draw your blood. We have to get your medication levels today."

"Helloooo. In here," he says. "I've got it."

"Got what, Mr. Smith?"

"This, this. I've got it," he says, and as I open the bathroom door slowly, I see a phantom, just an afterthought of a man, really, sitting on the can, all bones, sinew and gown. He's handing me a hatful of shit.

That's what the plastic things you shit into in the hospital are called. Hats. "They've been bothering me about this for three days. Why can't they just leave a person alone?"

"I don't know," I say.

"Do you want something else?"

I tell him, "No, Mr. Smith. This will do."

I leave it on the nurses' station counter on my way out. I think about sticking a little sign on a toothpick in it: "Mr. Smith sends his regards." But I don't. That would be unprofessional.

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