The FBI, Online Brokerages, And The Hiring Of ‘Potheads’

This almost-two-years-old story about the FBI’s claim that it could not find hackers–AKA ‘cybersecurity experts’–to hire because they smoke marijuana (and thus would fail their pre-employment drug tests) reminds me of a story from the days of the Internet gold rush, as demand for programmers, system administrators, and the like meant the instant hiring and satisfaction of salary requests with little regard for the background of the applicant other than their technical credentials.

The background to this story, as described in a previous post, is as follows:

As the summer of 1997 ended, I found myself, within the confines of New York City, a nomad. A break-up with my girlfriend meant I had to find new accommodations, and it had resulted in my moving thrice in three months. Finally I settled on the Lower East Side, renting a room in an apartment still under construction. I was broke; the moving had cost me; I had lost apartment deposits and spent too much money eating out, drinking beer, whiling away my time in bars playing pool. My meager summer employment hadn’t kept pace with my reckless expenditures and I found myself skimping, saving, borrowing money from friends, just to get by and pay rent. Even more problematically, my doctoral oral examinations awaited; I had an ambitious reading list–in philosophy of language, logic, and science–to get through.

As the fall semester began, I found myself caught, willy-nilly, in a form of monastic discipline. I had wasted enough time over the summer; I had to buckle down now. I had two section of Introductory Philosophy to teach, a long list of journal articles to get through, and very little money to spend. So I did what all abstainers do: I enforced a routine. I tried to wake up at the same time everyday, avoided my old haunts, and kept my nose to the wheel.

Well, it worked. I passed my oral exams (I was told I had earned ‘a distinction.’) But I was still broke. I needed work, and would have to take a semester–the coming spring of 1998–off from graduate school. So, I typed up a CV, detailed my previous experience as a C programmer and a UNIX system administrator, and faxed it to a dozen or so head-hunters in New York City. By the end of the day, I had received several call-backs. The next morning, I spoke to one of the agencies, and was directed to an interview with an online brokerage for the position of a UNIX system administrator (to take care of their battery of SUN servers that powered their website.) I interviewed, made my salary demands known, and waited for a call. It soon came, informing me I was hired. But I had to take a drug test first.

I had smoked pot several times over the past summer, but from September onward, I had abstained. You see, folks who smoke marijuana can make reasoned decisions about whether they think indulgence in it may interfere with personal and professional projects of importance. I wanted to concentrate on my teaching and exam preparation; simple abstinence seemed like a good way to facilitate that process.  And now, it seemed my abstinence would also help me pass the drug test my employer wanted me to undertake.

There was one problem though: the drug test was not the usual ‘piss-in-a-bottle’ test; instead it tested hair samples. I found this out on the day I went for the test. Surprised at not being handed a bottle, I dutifully raised my arms for clippings to be taken from my armpits. This did not bode well, for I had learned that traces of marijuana can be found in hair samples for months longer than in urine samples.  A day later, I received a phone call from the Human Resources Department. The conversation went as follows:

Administrative Lady: Mr. Chopra, we want to let you know that you tested positive for marijuana in your drug test.

Me: Oh, really?

Administrative Lady: We would like you to know that at XXX, we have a drug-free workplace.

Me: Uh-huh

Administrative Lady: Can you please come in as soon as possible to fill out your remaining forms?

Me: Sure.

And that was it. I had failed the drug test, but I was still hired. I was a UNIX system administrator; I ‘knew’ Solaris; I was in a possession of a ‘rare’ skill. What were they going to do? Go find another system administrator, back into the madness of trying to find someone qualified, in competition with other brokerages and Wall Street employers? Fat chance. I was in.

Six months later, I quit. I had saved enough money to float my graduate school boat for a while. And I continued to abstain from pot till the day I defended my doctoral thesis, on January 6, 2000. Then, I celebrated.

Cigarettes and the Killing (of Time)

In Cigarettes are Sublime (Duke University Press, 1993) Richard Klein writes:

The cigarette kills time, chronometric time, the stark mechanical measure of mortality….The series of moments the clock records is not only a succession of “nows” but a memento mori diminishing the number of seconds that remain before death. But the cigarette interrupts and reverses the decline, accomplishes a little revolution in time by seeming to install, however briefly, a time outside itself….Smoking cigarettes…is permanently linked to the idea of suspending the passage of ordinary time and instituting some other, more penetrating one, in conditions of luxuriating indifference and resignation toward which a poetic sensibility feels irresistible attraction….The moment of taking a cigarette allows one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience, a space and time of heightened attention that gives rise to a feeling of transcendence, evoked through the ritual of fire, smoke, cinder connecting hand, lungs, breath and mouth. It procures a little rush of infinity that alters perspectives , however  slightly, and permits, albeit briefly, an ecstatic standing outside of oneself.

Klein’s book, as the passages excerpted above may lead us to surmise, is entertainingly whimsical in terms of the claims it makes on behalf of cigarettes. As someone who smoked the damn things on and off, for almost twenty years before giving them up, I can testify to their power to influence the nature of temporal experience, perhaps by virtue of that powerful alkaloid, nicotine, that they send coursing into our lungs and bloodstream, perhaps by virtue of the visual entertainment the bluish-gray smoke we inhale and exhale provides.

In 1993, the year Klein’s book was published, I rented, for a month, a room in an under-renovation building in Newark. I shared the top floor with another tenant; the staircase that ran up to our rooms lacked a banister, so a climb up to my lodgings always provided a little frisson of daring adventure (especially when the building was, late at night, unlit and dark, and I was not eager to awaken my notoriously cranky landlord.)

It was August, and my room lacked a fan or an air-conditioner. I was too broke to buy either, and resigned myself to trying to sleep–on the couch that served as bed–with an open window as the only source of cooling air.  Sleep, in that stifling room, that miserable building, that desolate neighborhood, did not come easily. I had no internet connection with which to while away the time, no phone line with which to call friends. (And who would have wanted to talk to an insomniac in the middle of the night anyway?)

But I had cigarettes. So night after night, once I had had dinner and done all the reading I could, I would sit by my open window, lighting and smoking one cigarette after the other, idly watching my exhaled smoke drift out of my room, sneaking up along the walls of the building and finally dissipating outside in the warm. humid night.

Sleep came late; the only reason I had stopped caring about its exact hour was because I had cigarettes for company.

A Smoking Career, Suspended

A New York Times article that wonders, ‘Why Smokers Still Smoke‘ set me to thinking: Why did I smoke? For as long as I did?

I smoked my first cigarette in my teen years. My father smoked, as did many of the men–all Air Force pilots–that I idolized. There was glamour and masculinity written all over the act. I loved the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with Old Spice cologne.

Buying cigarettes was easy; the shops that sold them cared little for ID’ing their customers. Disguising the smell wasn’t, so I took refuge in sucking on mints and chewing betelnuts. But I got caught–by my mother. It didn’t stop me, of course. I still smoked the occasional cigarette in high school, and then in university, began smoking every day. My consumption hovered at the half-a-dozen a day for those years, sometimes rising to ten a day. I didn’t buy packs of cigarettes, but like most students, bought them ‘loose’, in singles or pairs. Our budgets just didn’t permit the pack. Indeed, I didn’t begin to purchase packs until after moving to the US and commencing graduate school.

Four years after moving to the US, I tried to quit smoking. I was three months short of my twenty-fifth birthday. On New Year’s Day 1991, I stopped. I stayed tobacco-free for more than two years, surviving 1991, 1992 and the first five months or so of 1993. Then, on a hike in the Himalayas, I stopped at a mountaineering expedition’s base camp and the porters, after a hearty and friendly conversation, offered me a beedi. I accepted. I don’t know why. Perhaps, at that moment, overcome by euphoria and the friendship on display, I felt I couldn’t decline. My defenses had been breached. A few weeks later, during a long train journey through India, I smoked again. I had fallen off the wagon.

But from then on, my smoking was always sporadic; I was always in between attempts at quitting. I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1993 and smoked heavily the first year, all the while regretting it. I quit in 1994 for a few weeks; I tried again in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, I succeeded again, staying off cigarettes till I had finishing my Ph.D in 2000. But on the day of my successful defense, drunk and disordered, I smoked again. I was off the wagon once more.

I moved to Australia after my Ph.D and quit several more times. Each of these episodes lasted days or weeks, never months. In 2001, I quit for a few months before starting again, as I struggled to cope with the stress of my job hunt.  In 2002, during a trip to Tokyo for a conference, an Australian graduate student urged me to throw away my half-full pack of Marlboros. I did, and stayed off cigarettes for a few months. In 2003, I began again. My girlfriend smoked.

In November 2003, we went away for a weekend to Cape May. My father’s 68th birth anniversary fell during that weekend. On that day, the two of us awoke and set out for breakfast. On the way, we stopped at a local bookstore, and I bought a biography of a US Navy pilot. As I did so, my girlfriend asked me if I was paying tribute to my father. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was probably true. A few minutes later, we arrived at our diner. In those days, you could still smoke indoors in eating establishments. Our coffees arrived, and we reached for our cigarettes. At that moment, I thought that this day seemed like as good a day as any other to quit smoking. So I did. My girlfriend–who is now my wife–quit for good a few months later.

I haven’t smoked cigarettes since.  The pattern I noticed in my quitting and restarting was that initially, I fell off the wagon because I was trying to celebrate something; later, I responded adversely to stress. But once I had tried to quit and succeeded for as long as I did, it became clear to me I didn’t want to smoke. So every cigarette from there on became a mark of failure, one I vainly attempted to disguise. It didn’t work and my compulsion to quit, even if almost always unsuccessful, remained strong.

I still fear the damage I did to my body all those years; perhaps I haven’t escaped tobacco’s cancerous embrace. For now, I’ll just hope I’ve managed to dodge the bullet.