Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Trucker Deserved It

Epona told me this story while we worked together and over the course of some hikes we took. I have long since lost touch with her and so reproduce this story at my peril, for the story is not mine, nor is it mine to share by any right. But the story left a lasting impression, colored my experiences and restored my faith, somewhat, in humanity. So I share it anyway, throwing caution to the wind. The following is my best recollection, embellished, and somewhat fictional.

Once upon a time, before the ubiquitousness of mobile phones, there was a magical bus service pseudonymously called Magenta Hare that transported people from Seattle clear down to Los Angeles and back again stopping for a sweat lodge in Oregon, stops for nature walks, visiting vistas and having a generally fantastic party all the while. The bus did its magic trick in the late evening while everyone was taking a potty break.

It transformed into a variety of sleeping spaces – a group space, the luggage racks become private singe sleepers and there’s two double beds, at least. Yes, it was a “hippie” bus, meaning it was communal and very social. They were still going strong after some rough transitions back in the day and have some hostels as well as “adventure travel” excursions. What I wanted to emphasize as clearly as possible was that the real life business of this outfit was not culpable for the events that transpired. There’s definitely things they could have done, as a travel business, that would have prevented what happened to one of their passengers. Perhaps they have since tightened their policy regarding stops, mid-journey, to include a fail-safe passenger check for the “buddy system”.

Epona was riding the Magenta Hare from Seattle to Los Angeles. The bus makes stops along the way for food, the restroom and for the transformation into sleeper bus. The driver had asked each passenger to find a “buddy”, yes, grown adults using the buddy system, I know right? Epona was feeling anti-social and made the fateful decision to refrain from getting a buddy. She was the only one. She also didn’t check in with the driver – a more important and ultimately fatal decision. At a truck stop in Oregon, the MH pulled in and disgorged its passengers into the florescence and diesel fumes. The line for the women’s restroom was, of course, ridiculously long and she waited, then she waited some more. By the time she finished with the restroom and made it back to the parking lot the bus had left and she was stranded.

Looking around the truck stop she noticed there were virtually no women. The line for the bathroom had been populated by the ladies riding the bus. Only the clerk behind the counter shared her gender, the rest of the truck stop inhabitants were, surprise, male truckers. She approached the clerk and told her what had happened. All of Epona’s belongings were still on the bus, she literally had nothing but the clothes on her back. The clerk was sympathetic but wasn’t sure she could help. She gave Epona some change to use the payphone. Unable to contact the bus headquarters, she decided on a radical course of action. She would hitch a ride to San Francisco with a trucker. As she realized this was a dangerous proposition she took the precaution of making herself look as unattractive as possible by messing up her hair and applying greasy dirt to her face. She then set out to talk to some truckers. Just as she was walking out, the clerk hailed her and gave Epona her phone number. She said, “Good luck, honey. Be careful and call me when you get to San Francisco. If I don’t hear from you in a day or two I’ll go to the police.” Epona gave the clerk her information. 

After several uncomfortable conversations with very lonely men she found a guy who seemed nice enough and was heading all the way down I-5 to San Francisco. They got in his cab and started driving and as they drove they talked. The spoke of traveling and places they’d like to visit. He told her he was married. She began to let down her guard. They spoke more freely and Epona began to think that everything was going to be fine. She even told him that once they got to San Francisco she’d be able to pay him something for the ride. She thought that maybe she had even made a new friend. It was about then that the truck driver pulled the rig off of the freeway to an underpass so that the truck was underneath I-5 and could not be seen from the road. He told her he just had to jump out for a second and he’d be right back. Epona began to worry.

Epona was not a small girl, nor was she what you’d call obese by any measure. She was close to six feet tall and solid. When the trucker got back in the cab his demeanor was changed. He turned to her and said, “So, how about some lovin’?” Epona was shocked and regretted every letting her guard down. The trucker tried to grab her head and shove her down onto his lap. She resisted. They struggled. She screamed but no one could hear her. Then he reached into a glove-box and pulled out a gun. He told her to take her clothes off. She moved away to the opposite side of the cab, petrified. He began telling her how this could be so easy and how it could all be over quickly, almost pleading with her. He was waving the gun at her and she boldly made her move. She slapped the gun out of his hand and it landed on the passenger side floor. They both dove for it. Epona was doubled over reaching for the gun while the truck driver was stretched over her back, on top of her, grasping at it. His head was smashed up against her left ear. Epona managed to grab the gun. She pointed it at her own face, tilted it just a bit to the left and pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang. She did not know what happened and thought maybe she had missed and the trucker was just waiting for her to let up so he could get the gun back. Then she felt something warm, something liquid, running down her back and the side of her face. She pushed him off her and got out of the truck without looking at the truck driver. She ran up to the freeway and tried flagging down cars for nearly an hour. Eventually a police car showed up. She told them her story but they didn’t believe her. They brought her down to the station. After taking samples and interrogating her she remembered. With her one phone call she called the clerk at the truck stop who verified her story for the police. Finally they let her clean off the blood.

When she finally made it to San Francisco on a greyhound she managed to make it to the magic bus headquarters and tell her story to the drivers. They felt terrible, especially the one who accidentally left her at the truck stop.

A Side of Appendix to Naked Lunch

I need to give you the pseudonym of a gene to use in this story. I’m pretty sure the gene in question was not c-fos, c-jun or NGFI-A, only M-dawg knows. Let’s call M-dawg’s pet gene Dict-Factor 5, like it’s some German industrial punk band at the turn of the millennia. That’s too long so we’ll use DF5 which is too much like def con 5. “Dict” is for Addiction because that’s where this is all going. Colloquially, one might say, “Ugh, look at that poor guy, he’s so dict.” or “Don’t shoot that! You’ll get totally dict.”

Twang, oh Clio, of the brilliance of deadheads turned molecular biologists, of the advanced degrees, of the data and the publishing, and of the painstaking cell-line cultivation. Tell, oh muse, how the VA, beleaguered scapegoat, stopped re-filling the liquid nitrogen in the cryogenic canister which stored the life’s work of M-dawg and changed the course of history.

I felt REALLY bad because my concern for the mechanism by which the doomed canister was filled amounted to nothing. It was an intractable problem involving multiple grants and grant granting organizations with a confusing array of services and an even more confusing array of answers to the question: is there any money left in that grant? Who, exactly, fills the canister? The VA just comes along and fills it?!? For free?!? Really? Wow. No they don’t. And when their contract or whatever runs out they sure as hell don’t let you know, “Hey! person in the lab, we are only filling this one more time” or “this is the last time we fill this bitch” or “pay us so we can continue to keep your cell-lines alive.” What happens is you casually point to the canister one day and say “So when was the last time they filled that?” And you all look and find it is at room temperature and the beings within that magical microcosmic fairy land have been lost, FOREVER. Yeah, I felt horrid and angry at myself for not untangling the convoluted mess of funding mechanisms. I felt terrible for my friend, inspiration and post-doc hero M-dawg.

It was not long after this tragic episode that, very much in the mood to science the shit out of something, M-dawg struck intellectual gold which differs from real gold only in its financial value and insofar as intellectual gold is more dazzling. He was an avid reader who annually read Mary Shelly’s famous book every halloween to keep things in perspective. In his work he practiced rigorous intellectually honesty. He had recently completed William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” for fun and came to me with the proposal for a special experiment. Specifically the inspiration for the following experiments was found in the Appendix to Naked Lunch where Burroughs writes,

“A few points, it seems to me, have received insufficient attention: the metabolic incompatibility between morphine and alcohol has been observed, but no one, so far as I know, has advanced an explanation. If a morphine addict drinks alcohol he experiences no agreeable or euphoric sensations. There is a feeling of slowly mounting discomfort… If an alcoholic becomes addicted to morphine, morphine invariably and completely displaces alcohol. I have known several alcoholics who began using morphine. They were able to tolerate large doses of morphine immediately (1 grain to a shot) without ill effects, and in a matter of days stopped taking alcohol. The reverse never occurs. The morphine addict can not tolerate alcohol when he is using morphine or suffering morphine withdrawal. The ability to tolerate alcohol is a sure sign of disintoxication. In consequence alcohol can never be substituted for morphine directly. Of course a disintoxicated addict may start drinking and become an alcoholic.”

M-dawg put it succinctly as: “A morphine addict is never an alcoholic and an alcoholic is never a morphine addict”. We should have created the AMAINAAAAAINAMA support group then and there but neuroscience was afoot. Burroughs had been looking at the phenomena systemically and suspected metabolism and the liver as the locus of the dis-preference but we went looking in the brain. M-dawg designed the experiment to use the expression of the DF5 gene in the amygdala as the indicator for addiction, or more specifically a possible indicator of “agreeable or euphoric sensations”. This might seem like a stretch because how do you know when a rat is feeling agreeable or euphoric and how does DF5 expression in the amygdala play a role in addiction? The former part of the question is easier to answer and more visceral or confirmed through behavioral observations. The answer to the later part of the question is beyond me. M-dawg suspected the signal of the expression of DF5 in the amygdala would confirm Burroughs’ observation and bring to light some of the gene expression and neuroscience involved in addiction. There were four groups: Morphine (MG), Alcohol (AG), Morphine & Alcohol (MAG), and the control group. Each group had a ridiculous but affordable ‘n’ of 2 male rats. Day one was almost typical. The drug was injected intraperitoneally (I.P.) and normal .9% saline solution for control. I considered myself, by this point, pretty competent with the animals (rats, mice, gerbils) and rats were especially easy to work with due to their size and temperament. But when I went to give the I.P. injections they put up quite a fuss. Normally, I could just hold the rat in my left, heavily gloved, hand and give the injection with my right, a skill that took several months to master. Not on Day one of this trial though, they were feisty. I managed to not get bit and only to resorted to the plastic conical restraint a few times. The MG group, which was injected first were squirmy and deeply upset with me before and after the injection similar to the other groups. The nth rat is always the most difficult, the first the easiest, when the animals can observe their group mates being injected. I noticed this with turkey slaughtering once. The last turkey is always the hardest to catch so we can safely say animals are conscious of their own mortality in some way.

Day two was a horrifying epiphany. The rats are kept in their own room, their cages fill movable walls much like a library with moveable shelving units. As I walked in the door, the way the units were arranged allowed me to clearly see all four groups. There was nothing in the control or the MAG to indicate they had even been given anything, they looked bored as usual. The AG looked sluggish but nothing too extraordinary. The MG, however, had pressed their faces up against the transparent plastic cage and had been desperately following me with their eyes from the moment I set foot in the room, they stared fixedly at me, their bodies rigid, tense with expectation. As I administered the day’s injections only the behavor of the MG stood out. When I opened their cage they seemed to relax and moved toward my gloved hand. I petted them a little as was my habit and they seemed relaxed. When I picked one up he leaned his head back and spread open his fore and hind legs, relaxing on his back and completely exposing his furry belly. This had never happened to me before and I was astounded and shocked. I immediately resolved never to get addicted to morphine. I gave all the injections. It went on for at least 7 days. Close to that. After they were sacrificed and their brains sectioned we did the immunohistochemistry. It was the first time I had ever seen an experiment so elegant and simple in design go perfectly according to the hypothesis. The MAG showed no signal indicating DF5 expression while both MG and AG groups showed the amygdala was ablaze with DF5 expression! Somehow Alcohol and Morphine canceled out the expression of the gene. But what this means exactly is still quite open. Does DF5 indicate cell structure changes during addiction, or is it just a very good marker for addiction. Or is it connected more closely with drug induced feelings of agreeableness and euphoria? We got a strong signal, data never seems that clean, but there it was.