Test Tube Half Empty

NEW YORK—Some of life’s tests you can’t study for: certain computer science exams at Harvard, hearing tests, tests of character. If I had something profound or insightful to add to this list, I would. But all my summer has given me so far is this: also, drug tests.

The package, mailed from the corporate headquarters of the company I’d be interning for, arrived at 11 a.m. on the Saturday prior to my Monday start date. At first, I was annoyed that my mother had woken me up (on the grounds that there exist implicit “do not resuscitate” orders for kids who’ve just returned from college). But then I was grateful: the paperwork enclosed in the package said I had to complete the drug test within 48 hours.

The weekend hours of  “Quest Diagnostics,” my designated testing center: Saturday, 10-12:30. Sunday, Closed. It was already 11:30. I had an hour. I grabbed a water bottle and was off.

I added my name to the unnervingly long sign-in list and greeted the unhappy-looking receptionist. It isn’t easy to be a receptionist at a “Quest Diagnostics” in Queens, NY.  Sure, it’s not the hardest job in the world—that’s what those Alaskan king crab fishermen on “Deadliest Catch” do. But “Quest Diagnostics’ receptionist” in Queens is up there.

It’s not so much the daily interaction with parolees and little snot-makers carrying who-knows-what kinds of communicable diseases that makes it hard.

It’s having to pronounce the names.

New York City’s largest borough is also the most ethnically diverse place on earth. This makes for an excellent variety of cuisines, from “Mama’s Empanadas” to “Knish Nosh” to the less clever but no less descriptive “Himalayan Yak Restaurant.” It also makes it fun to ride the subway and smile/frown/raise your eyebrows as you pretend to understand whatever language the old men across from you are speaking.

But Queens’s diversity also makes for a complicated variety of spellings and pronunciations. The receptionist seemed apprehensive every time she looked down at the sign-in sheet, full of alien consonant combinations and intimidating lengths. At 12:15 she tried mine: “Moglinski?” Close enough. I rose to hand in my paperwork, channeling Michael Parzen as I thought: “Let’s get this over with.”

“You’ll have four minutes to fill the cup to the line,” said the nurse who administered my test. He handed me a small key and told me to put my belongings in the metal lockbox on the counter.

“Are you ready to go?” It seemed a little soon to be talking about such intimate bodily functions, but I told him yes.

That turned out to be the wrong answer. I couldn’t produce a large enough sample. “Of course, contraction of the involuntary sphincter is part of the autonomic nervous system’s response to stress,” my neuro-anatomist mother would later say. Yes—of course. At the time, though, all I could think was “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m going to fail.”

I made myself decent and opened the bathroom door to ask the nurse if the pathetic volume would be enough.

He laughed. “THAT? Nope.”

“Oh my god, I’m going to fail, aren’t I?”

“Well, you have one minute left, try to go!”