It was a few days after September 11, 2001. I had been voluntarily unemployed and planned to stay that way until my unemployment insurance ran out. Because there were reports that the attack would cause a recession, I figured it would be in my best interest to go out and start applying for something with benefits.
Several weeks later, as luck would have it, I got a response to my application at a local police department and went in for an interview. Because it was a low-paying administrative job, I had intentionally dumbed-down my resume, hoping to make myself look more interesting in person.
Not long after that, a detective called me and requested that I report the next day for a polygraph.
I had never taken a lie detector test, and had only seen them in the movies, with the nervous, off-the- paper, needle-twitching-device going berserk whenever the accused was fibbing. So I felt a little nervous about it, but not nearly as nervous as I should have been, I later learned.
The night before the test, I tried in vain to resist reviewing my sins of the past, which numbered in the upper digits of infinity. I wondered exactly what they’d want me to admit. Would they make inquiries into my sexual orientation? I thought about all the reckless things I did when I was in high school. My only chargeable offenses were drunk driving, vandalism, weed smoking, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, all of which went uncaught, but what else should I prepare for?
At the police station the next day, before he started asking me questions I didn’t want to answer, Detective Palmer shut me in a conference room, leaving me alone to fill out a 22-page volume of questions. Most of my written answers I had never told family or even my closest of friends.
I could feel sweat dripping down my armpits. There were dozens of questions, asked several times but with different wording, attempting to trip me up about my drug and alcohol use, gambling, and financial status.
I had a tough time with the questions. Did taking office supplies really count as stealing, and wasn’t a laser printer just an office supply? What about using the photocopier for my income tax returns? At least I didn’t take it home.
Another question was: How many times have you smoked marijuana?
Who writes for these people, I wondered. Are they kidding me with this shit? Did they think I kept a reefer diary? A narcotic spreadsheet, maybe? How many times? What did that mean? What constituted a time? Did one hit constitute a time, or did a whole joint constitute a time? When I was in high school, no one ever smoked their own joint. It was passed around. If I had half a dozen bong hits at one party but hours apart, was that one time or six? Should I wait for Detective Palmer to come back in to illuminate? And what kind of idiot was I going to look like if I asked him for clarification?
I decided to estimate. I probably toasted one with friends every weekend through high school. As the worst case scenario, let’s say the group of us hit on 3 joints every weekend. I didn’t smoke on summer break. 52 weeks minus 12 weeks equals 40 weeks times 3 J’s times three years. I had to do the math longhand, but the answer was 360 times. That seemed excessive, so I rounded down to 200. But what about college? Fuck it, I thought. I am never going to get this job. I should just get up and leave.
Detective Palmer came back in the room before I had gotten to the end of the book. He told me to take my time and went away again.
Great, I thought. Not only am I a degenerate, but I’m also a slow degenerate. Sweat poured off of me. I finished it as quickly as I could, trying not to read too much into the questions. Then I started reviewing it, but before I could finish, Detective Palmer came back in and sat down.
Earlier he had told me, “As long as you tell the truth about everything, you will pass the polygraph. All you have to do is not lie.” This gave me little to no comfort.
He slowly scanned each page. I was thinking, Would it be bad form to ask to have a ceiling fan installed in here or request some Gatorade? My electrolytes are dimming.
“How many times have you used cocaine?” Detective Palmer asked me, pinching his chin.
“Twice,” I admitted, just as I had on paper.
“And when was the last time you used cocaine?” he continued.
“Probably around twenty or twenty-one years ago.”
“When you used cocaine, how did you use it? Did you snort it or shoot it?”
Honestly, I thought, why is he asking me this? Was this going to be on the final? Wasn’t it enough to admit I had done it?
A cokehead lesbian friend of mine once told me if I didn’t like the taste or the feel of snorting coke, I could get the same buzz if I inserted it rectally. I never liked cocaine, and at that minute, I was so relieved that it would have been a lie to say I had shoved it up my ass.
“Snorted it,” I said.
For some reason, he looked pleased.
Just as the questionnaire had asked the same questions several times in different ways, so did Detective Palmer. For example, at one point he asked me the value of the things I stole in the past 10 years, then later on asked me the total value of everything I ever stole. This, I guess, should have included those sixty-some rolls of Lifesavers I tricked out of a faulty vending machine at the library where I once worked. And was that stealing, or was it just a good value? After all, I had paid a quarter for those rolls of Lifesavers. Was it my fault the vending machine wasn’t foolproof? This was a 30-year-old theft I recalled the night before when I was trying not to remember bad things I’d done.
After reviewing every question in the 22-page book, Detective Palmer decided to go through it one more time for good measure.
“So you smoked marijuana 200 times,” he said.
“Well, you know it’s hard to say. When I was a kid, the group I hung out with, that’s what we just did. It’s hard to put a number to it, it was so long ago.” I tried to emphasize the fact that it was ancient history. That should count for something, right?
“Well,” the detective continued, “would you say you smoked it two times a week for several years, or one time a week, or more?”
“Sometimes more than twice a week,” I admitted, refraining from adding the Clintonesque addendum, depending on what your definition of what a “time” is.
“So let’s say you did it three times a week,” he suggested, rounding back up. “For how long?”
He knew that I smoked dope more than two hundred times. He’d been interviewing applicants for, oh, let’s say, three times a week for the past fifteen years.
“All through high school, and then I tapered off during college,” I said.
“So would you say two hundred and fifty times over a period of maybe, five years?”
I could feel the sweat running down my neck now. Great. Nothing like visible signs of dishonesty to insure my unemployment for the next fifty years.
I delayed my answer, trying to do the math in my head and compare it to what I wrote down.
“I’m not sure,” I finally said.
“Does three hundred times sound like a more accurate number than the two hundred you put down on your answer?” he probed.
What was this, a flea market? He was trying to jack my number up. I should have been riding it down. Instead of a job, I was going to be leaving with poor-quality tube socks.
“I guess so, now that I do the math.”
“Well, that’s why we go over this with you, because sometimes a person won’t go back and think about the span of time involved,” said Palmer. “This will make it easier for you while you take the test. So three hundred times sounds good?”
I knew that every time this man blinked, he saw a different junkie, as if he was clicking through a Viewmaster. Blink. Hello, Keith Richards! Blink. It’s John Belushi! Blink. Lookie, it’s James Taylor! Blink. Looks too old, but is that River Phoenix?
The tide of sweat started to recede a few minutes later, while he covered debt, gambling, and arrest history. He made notes in the 22-page workbook as we conversed.
Then he said, “It says here you don’t drink alcohol.”
“That’s correct,” I told him.
“You don’t drink any alcohol at all, or you just have a cocktail now and then?”
I said, “I don’t consume alcohol at all.”
Now I was being grilled for the bad things I didn’t do. Am I on Candid Camera? Is Alan Funt, Jr., behind the wall?
This seemed to perplex him. How could I, this Timothy Leary job applicant, have snorted coke, sometimes took Percocet just for the euphoria, and smoked bales of marijuana, not also imbibe in the legal intoxicants?
“Did you ever drink alcohol?”
Here we go, I thought. I decided just to purge. “Yes, when I was younger I drank a lot. From the time I was fourteen up until I was twenty-eight. Heavier when I was in my twenties.” And you would have too, if you’d lived with the dickhead I’d spent my twenties with.
“So you quit when you were twenty-eight?” Palmer asked.
“Did you go into rehab or join AA?” He asked that as if those were my only choices. What, like I couldn’t have become a Mormon?
Detective Palmer was getting on my nerves. I was beginning to wonder if these were legitimate questions, or if this was all for his personal entertainment. After the interview was over, would he and a bunch of other officers head down to Mr. Donut and recite excerpts from my 22-page Dissertation of Sins? “Get a load of this one!” And they would all laugh and say, things like, “Oh, yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s hire Charlie Manson.”
“I didn’t do either. I just stopped. I changed my routine and instead of going home after work, I went to the gym.” I was proud of that and wasn’t embarrassed to admit it.
“Very admirable,” said Palmer, genuinely.
Wouldn’t kill you to put a few dents in the treadmill, either, I wanted to say, but held my tongue. I had no reason to be hostile; the man was just doing his job.
Finally, he closed the book, stood up and said, “Okay, are you ready for the test?”
I stood and looked at my shirt. You could see through it, it was so wet. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I told him.
“Just relax and tell the truth, and you’ll be fine.”
We walked into the next room where there was a desk, a chair with arms, and a personal computer. Palmer hooked me up. He strapped two belts on me: one over my chest, the other over my abdomen. There was also a blood pressure cuff snugly in place on my upper arm and a gizmo clipped to my finger. I was told to sit up straight with my feet on the floor and put my arms on the armrests of the hard chair. His desk was behind me, so I didn’t look at him when I answered. I looked at a blank white wall. I felt as if I was seated in the electric chair. Where is my pastor? Where’s my stone crab claw dinner?
Blink. I’m not Janis Joplin; I’m Susan Hayward. I want to live! I want to live!
The room was silent while he booted the computer. He told me my answers would all be yes or no. He then started the program and had me answer “yes” to a couple of questions that I knew weren’t true, I guess to gauge the meter. That’s it: just relax and lie.
The interrogation then began and went on for the next forty minutes. I felt like a dumpling, curdling in chicken stew. Most of the questions that Palmer asked me began with, “Other than we discussed.”
“Other than we discussed, were there any other times when you took things from your employer?”
“No,” I answered honestly.
“Other than we discussed, were there other times that you used cocaine?”
Instinctively, I almost said no, but at that second I remembered a time when a friend brought some cocaine to a party, and we did a line in my mother’s bathroom. Fortunately again, not rectally.
“I just remembered another time,” I said.
“Just answer yes or no,” he reminded me.
“Yes,” I answered. I figured I was finished then. There was a long pause.
“Other than the ways we discussed, were there other methods you used to ingest the cocaine?” Palmer asked.
I was immediately paranoid. Had that cokehead lesbian been interviewed during my background investigation and told him I took opioids up the butt?
“No” I muttered, but I was flustered, and I felt myself turn red. If the needle flew off the Richter scale, it was then. I knew that was going to be his lead punch line at the Mr. Donut meeting.
After it was over and he unplugged me, Palmer asked me about the third time I had done cocaine, and I told him I really didn’t remember it until right when the question was asked.
“It’s okay,” he asked. “You were still honest and told the truth.” He released me and promised someone would call me the following day with the results.
I went out to my car and breathed a sigh of relief and wondered if I had any Percocet left in the cabinet at home, or if I had finished them during my last migraine. I could use the euphoria, but I was late for another interview elsewhere.
Just hours earlier, I thought that being a working for a police department would be fun as hell. I’d get to rub elbows with motorcycle cops and the SWAT team. Maybe some of them would let me play with their Tasers. I thought I had certainly earned it during that three-hour Spanish Inquisition, but realistically, I never expected to get the call I got the next day from the interviewing captain, offering me the job.
“I passed the polygraph?” I asked, thinking that this was some kind of cruel joke and that maybe she was calling on a speaker phone from Mr. Donut.
“Well, Detective Palmer said there was a little inconsistency in a couple of the questions, but not enough to disqualify you,” she informed me, and she asked me when I could start.
I thought for a moment. “You know, I was wondering if I could have until the end of the week to let you know.”
“We really need to know as soon as possible,” she said, “because we don’t want this position to get held up in a possible post-9-11 hiring freeze.”
I sighed and said, “Well as long as you promise me the job won’t be as stressful as the polygraph.”
She laughed and said, “Hell, no one here has a job more stressful than that, even when they’re being shot at.”
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