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Runneth to the Cup

Opinion: "These are the reflections that roll through one’s mind while sitting with nine other grown adults waiting at the lab to embark on a task you’d only do on a dare as a kid. You never forget your first drug test."

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What a shame that the archaeological record is incapable of reflecting the most essential part of our culture in 2014. With sticky food wrappers and neon cell phone cases there's just too much other flotsam to confuse future interpreters. Should Richmond meet a sudden demise via an Afton Mountain ash cloud, no one will ever know that the key to who we are economically is to be found in the drug-screening labs.

Who knew how oddly braided two elements of the Reagan era would become in 21st-century Richmond? Trickle-down economics left us parched, so decades later while we skitter along from job to arid job we can be counted on to "just say no" to drugs if only to trickle clean on our drug screenings. Street drugs? We can't afford them, don't have time between our multiple jobs to do them, and they compete with the only benefit of the modern workplace — the caffeine high of that little, single-cup, flavored-coffee machine in the break room. Why crack when you can Keurig?

Although that isn't the only reason to say no. The back-to-the-farm movement and organic revolution have taught us that what we put in our bodies matters. What we couldn't have imagined in the '80s is that we'd become such a simple people concerned more about germs, cycle of life and chain of contact than jail time. The specter of Monsanto-tainted weed and extended unemployment scare me more than the Drug Enforcement Administration and a fried brain ever could. All I had to say to my kids about drugs was: "You do not know what's in there. Could be snot."

And that was the end of that.

These are the reflections that roll through one's mind while sitting with nine other grown adults waiting at the lab to embark on a task you'd only do on a dare as a kid. You never forget your first drug test. When I went to do mine, everyone in the office was worried that their cold meds, prescription back pills and vitamins would show up. It was the '90s. None of us had ever been drug tested. We all splashed clean. Again — it was the '90s. Why would we need drugs? Full-time jobs, insurance and 401(k)s, oceans of office supplies, mileage reimbursement and professional expenses — that's a high you just can't get today.

Last week, while a perfect cross-section of Richmond gathered in the lab waiting room, I almost hoped that the noble bee creatures of the next galaxy over would fly in, encase our little testing lab in an alien honey bubble and study our subconscious minds and surprisingly full bladders. Other than the jury deliberation rooms and DMVs across the city, it was one of the most honest groups of Richmonders you could find. Culturally mixed, gender, age, you name it. But we all were there for two reasons, united — employment and release.

The health care workers were obvious. Scrubs and Crocs helped, but the bored expressions gave them away too. I sometimes wonder why they haven't invented a little drug-testing station in hospitals and other health care facilities. It's easy enough to make it part of the nursing schedule. Take vitals of patients, log in medical charts, give meds, squat in corner for your drug test, do rounds. Most of the people I work with wouldn't even notice. I know I wouldn't. Health care pays well but there's too much to do to leave work to pee in a cup.

The underpaid and underappreciated are the next largest group in the waiting room. The opposite of health care workers, they're smiling ear to ear, so glad for the brief, midweek break. Giddy women in T-shirts in the corner are planning an afternoon of window shopping and a walk. They work in a remote county and have been given the whole afternoon off. I'd tell the alien bee creatures to notice that they were planning free activities and still as happy as they could be. I just want to hug them. Across from them sits a man who has his company's name on his shirt, a company notoriously less than generous to its employees. He's taking a nap with a smile on his face.

The last group is the well-dressed. We've all just come from our interviews. Things are looking good for us on getting these jobs. We should be the giddy ones. Instead we all seem numb. Laid off because of work-force reduction three times, I know you can't take it personally when more than a thousand people are laid off with you. But you do. The man beside me looks to be a large-equipment operator, and across from us appear to be two middle or upper managers, only the aliens would know for sure. It seems like we're sending each other good-luck glances. Or maybe those are because the pee urges are getting strong.

None of us is on a cell phone. The quiet is nice. The minor inconvenience of aiming urine into a cup on command because one's employer doesn't trust you is a small price to pay for respite. There is a water cooler and air conditioning. The only fretful one is the lab tech. There's a one-technician-to-10-urinary-tracts ratio. She's efficient and friendly, but how can you do all that work by yourself with no chance of an afternoon off to go get drug tested for a break? Maybe the good bee creatures from outer space will take her along one afternoon. S

Alane Miles is a hospice chaplain and host of "Death Club Radio" on WRIR-FM 97.3.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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