A smoking skull

HOUDINI Magazine

Erik Houdini

Plasmatic Vampires: Blood and the Fruits of Neoliberalism

When the sharp sting of the 4 am alarm shakes my sleep away, there's an echoing dread that settles— 'Giving Plasma Today.' There's a rhythm to it, a pattern. A 4 am wakeup call leads to a 5:30 am line-up. And believe me, it's no short queue. It snakes long and weary because you must be there early; by sunrise, the place is a hive of desperation. By opening time, the long line stands testament to many like me. Our shadows, intertwined, cast a dark silhouette on the neoliberal system’s façade.

The preparation ritual begins the night before. Forget about sports drinks— if you're in this line, it's the mineral taste of tap water for you. Relentless, unyielding, with a hard, metallic throat-feel; a reminder of the urban reality. Anything less than a gallon, and you might as well bid goodbye to the blood's flow, and consequently, the money’s flow. You see, this game is about fluid dynamics: the swift flow of blood is directly proportional to the brisk flow of cash.

Oh, the shambling. That barren parking lot, shrouded in the early morning's shadowy embrace, was a theatre of its own. Looking around, the landscape was telling. In these areas, you’d be hard-pressed to find a park where families could relax or children could play— at least not within easy walking distance. However, two plasma clinics? They stood sentinel, right across from one another in some cases, strategically embedded in the heart of strip malls. These malls, with their vast expanses of black tar parking lots, mirrored the desolation of their surroundings.

That shambling, the melancholic shuffle of my fellow line-dwellers, resonated with the raw, haunting tune of the downtrodden. Among those advancing, many seemed caught in a far deeper quagmire than I. Over time, you begin to notice. There's no monitoring, no oversight, just a vast gray area where souls tread too often. The weight in their eyes— their pale complexions and gaunt features were telltale signs of over-donation, of desperation pushing the limits of the human body. Vulnerable and overdrawn, their stories seemed written in the weary drag of their feet.

As for me? I wasn't exempt from this grim club. My arms bore the telltale signs, the scars, the tracks. The ceaseless battle to switch arms, to reduce the marks, haunted me just as it did the rest of the shambling cohort. My unemployment, like a specter, shadowed me with every step. Plasma donation became more than a choice; it was a lifeline. Bills, like unwanted visitors, keep coming even if the paychecks don't. But let someone see those needle marks, and instantly, you're labeled. No one ever guesses, "Ah, he's just donating plasma." Each donation came with the scars—accusatory marks that took months to fade.

Inside, the ambiance hits you differently. The “clinic,” if one could even call it that, is unsettling in its sterility. Surreal. Pristine white tiles, ceilings and polished floors to match. Walls punctuated with garish stock photos—blatant propaganda. Slogans like "Donate 2 times a week for 6 weeks to get an extra $50!" or "Be a Hero, Donate Regularly" paired with idyllic snapshots of familial bonds or valorous acts. You've got your “hero” firefighters and the suburban dads— epitomes of societal propaganda, blaring messages about the 'nobility' of donating. It’s laughable. Fewer words mean less than the word "Hero" after the (still ongoing) Covid pandemic. The extraction chamber was a modern-day Frankenstein's laboratory; medieval stone walls and electrical switches replaced by a monochrome palette of polished white with splashes of stock photo pseudo-vibrancy. A commodified space where liquid gold is drawn from the desperate to line the pockets of the indifferent.

I've given blood. That’s a different ballgame, rooted in altruism. But plasma? That’s commerce. There's a reason schools or churches don’t host plasma drives. With plasma, the transaction is transparent. The stark difference? The payment, the $35 you clutch tightly as you exit, knowing it’s a lifeline. You aren’t there for lofty ideals; you're there because rent's due. This isn't about saving someone else’s life; it's about saving your own.

Your smartphone becomes a sanctuary here. An escape from the unsettling hum of machines and the weight of your own thoughts. But I learned the hard way. With a dead phone and nothing but the white void and the infernal rhythm of the machines, one’s mind can spiral into unsettling territories.

Mistakes were inevitable, and perhaps, even predictable given the circumstances. Picture the scene: staff, underpaid and overstressed, wrestling with responsibilities far beyond their pay grade. On inquiring, I discovered the unsettling truth: a measly $13 an hour. This was no ordinary job, no run-of-the-mill 9-to-5. In this role, tasks tiptoed the grotesque boundary between life and commerce. The facility, perpetually awash with the desperate hum of activity, was chronically understaffed. These workers navigated a delicate balance, caught between the needs of donors in line and the machine-bound "customers" awaiting their turn. It was a harrowing symphony— blood for cash, cash for blood.

This macabre dance wasn't merely a transaction; it was a poignant illustration of a broken system. The life essence of the downtrodden, being syphoned to swell the coffers of those seated comfortably atop the socioeconomic pyramid. It was a chilling irony: the impoverished drawing from their peers, a relentless cycle of taking from those with little to give, only to enrich the already affluent. The poor were not just the donors here; they were also the very hands that facilitated the extraction.

Over the weeks and months, as the routine of donation became almost second nature, a chilling insight began to take root. Observing the locations of these “donation” centers, I noticed a predatory pattern: they strategically sprouted in the more deprived areas, akin to wolves settling around the periphery of a wounded herd.

Those at the top reaping the benefits of this sanguineous exchange, while those at the bottom traded in plasma pints and pennies. Recalling one episode where a mistake led to a ballooning blood pouch, I can still hear the rising murmur of panic, the stunned expressions of horrified onlookers. That chilling moment, juxtaposed against the constant hum of machinery, continues to echo in my memories— a stark reminder of the toll of such transactions. The backdrop of this theater? Those droning plasmatic extractors, ever indifferent, standing in stark contrast to the very human drama unfolding before them. It's an image that refuses to fade, a chilling reminder of the risks we took, the prices we paid.

The barren landscape of the parking lot would slowly awaken with the rising sun, but for those of us departing with bandaged arms and a slightly lighter step, the world felt a shade heavier. The $35 would be spent at the local grocery—bread, milk, lunch meat. Basic survival. The journey from the cold vinyl bed of the clinic to the grocery store was a testament to the extreme lengths one might go to in order to simply get by.

We, the donors, the shamblers, our shuffling shadows navigating the grey-blacktop of life under capitalism, find ourselves entwined in this intricate dance, orchestrated by the neoliberal machine. Trading our very essence, drop by precious drop, for the basics to survive another day. A landscape where our desperation becomes a resource, our vitality commodified. With every exit from these centers, $35 richer but unmistakably drained, we are compelled to reflect: Have we invited the Nosferatus into our proverbal home? In this unsettling ballet with modern-day vampires, we must continuously question our role and the price of the dance. How long until the final bow?