Corndawg in the Hospital
He’s trying to figure out how much time remains until he’ll be released from his extended captivity, currently confined within the boundaries of one long, tired hospital corridor. A jaded hospital guard with slicked-back hair is leaning back in his chair, keeping a watchful eye on us to make sure we don’t help Corndawg escape. The place is air-tight– sealed on each end with heavy card-access-only doors, and filled in the middle with crumpled Doritos bags, goofy nurses dancing lurid, grotesque dances, and a pungent locker room odor.
“If you think about it, it really starts to drive you nuts,” says Corndawg. “I’ll just be lying in bed and thinking, ‘Why am I here? This is a place for sick people. This whole place was built to help sick people… but I’m not sick, and that’s why I’m here… wait, why am I here?’” Corndawg is here, in this cinder block Glendale medical center, because he’s participating in a medical research study for some giant pharmaceutical corporation, trying out a new cholesterol pill. He’s here because he’s trading his body for money in the name of medical research, and it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. They give him one 5-milligram pill and then he stays under constant observation for nine days while they make detailed notes on the side effects. And then he walks out with $2,300 in his pocket.
Since 2004, Corny has completed eight of these studies– and it’s at least partially how he funds his free-wheeling lifestyle. He talks to my roommate Liz, who’s smuggled him in some fresh carrot juice from Yum Yum Donuts, about where the best places to visit in Portugal and Spain are. In the past year alone, Corndawg’s been back and forth across the U.S. (often traveling on motorcycle with little more than his laptop, guitar, and trusty airbrush gun), down to Argentina, and overseas to Spain, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic. “It provides a nice cushion for an artist’s life,” he says of his intermittent medical studies. “It’s nice to not have to hitchhike or hop trains, when you can say, ‘Oh, I have an extra thousand bucks– I’ll buy a plane ticket.’”
Aside from the stuffy sterile surroundings, the conditions of Corndawg’s nine-day imprisonment aren’t so bad. He has his laptop and cell phone and he’s been watching the second and third seasons of “Lost” in back-to-back marathon sessions. Once an hour he’s allowed a brief respite from the fluorescent lighting– a few moments of fresh air on a secluded hospital balcony. Corndawg recommends avoiding the longer studies, however. In an 18 day study he once partook in, the effects of confinement began to set in quickly. Without and meaningful human interaction, he sunk into a deep depression and slept 12 hours a day (actually, I probably should have asked if those feelings might have been related to the medication they’d had him on). Exercise
“Lie as much as possible on your screening tests,” he says– it’s a surefire way to guarantee eligibility. “Just answer ‘no’ to every question: ‘Have you ever fainted?’ ‘Oh, never!’ and then play dumb if they confront you about it later.” He also warns against radioactive tracers. “Those stay in your system for 30 years.” Likewise, he mentions, it’s not a hot idea to undergo the spinal tap tests. A couple brazen girls on the floor are undergoing double spinal tap tests, which require them to lay completely still for 48 hours straight. “It’s gruesome. They got up today and they were just stumbling around, on the verge of passing out.” But, he notes, they’re getting paid $500 a day.
Over the course of our conversation, Corndawg draws alternate analogies for his medical trials: at times he calls them a prison, but the next minute they become a vacation: “Sometimes I’ll fly out to a distant city, planning my trip around a medical study, and it ends up paying for itself.” That seemingly contradictory coupling accesses the heart of capitalism– his studies are just another way of exchanging time and personal risk for wealth and freedom. Corndawg’s willingness to bring it to such romantic extremes is either valiant or ludicrous, but it seems to be working out pretty well for him.