On a steamy October day in the town of Orange, a white van with an Uber sign in the front window ran out of gas in the parking lot of a plasma donation center.
Call it a snapshot, if you will, of an economy that for many folks continues to sputter.
A woman named Crystal, who had just sold her plasma, lent a one-gallon gas can to the couple in the van. Crystal, 28, told me she carries the can in her 1998 Nissan because it's tough to keep up with the bills and she's often running on fumes.
The couple with the van were in a hurry and I didn't get much information out of them, except that the man sometimes drives for Uber and the woman has a rare blood type, so she makes decent money having Biomat USA draw it through a needle at regular intervals.
Crystal told me she's studying to become a registered nurse, and began selling plasma several months ago to help pay for school. She's already a licensed vocational nurse but couldn't find steady employment, so she works part time as a medical assistant.
"A lot of people don't understand that if you go to school, it's still not easy to find a job," she said.
Jessica Wade has developed scar tissue on her arm from so many needle pricks. The 25-year-old
"No one who's working full time should be struggling in poverty," said Wade.
I saw quite a few students and young adults in my visits to plasma centers in Orange, Van Nuys, Lake Balboa and Bellflower, which are open every day of the week. But I also saw some older people.
"The line was too long," a middle-aged woman named Joyce Rogers said as she got into her car outside Octapharma Plasma in Van Nuys.
Rogers, a certified nurse assistant, told me she was going to a job interview and would return later to see if the line had thinned. But it seldom seems to. I've seen dozens of people reclined on lounges, fat 17-gauge needles in their arms, while dozens more wait in the packed lobby and the parking lot, some of them with children in tow.
The going rate for plasma donation, which can take a couple of hours, is about $25 or $30. But Octapharma is offering $50 for the first five visits, and a poster in the lobby says: "Donate 10X by the end of October for a chance to win a TV!!!"
"When you get that $50, you feel good," Rogers said. "I paid my gas bill."
At the same center, three veterans sat in a skunky-smelling car in the parking lot and told me they pay a different kind of bill with their plasma money.
"Medical marijuana," said one of the three. "It helps with my anxiety."
Whatever the motive of the sellers, the plasma business is a booming, $20-billion-dollar international enterprise, according to Patrick Robert, an industry analyst. Demand for plasma is growing worldwide, he said, because the body fluid is used to manufacture drugs that treat immune disorders, protein disorders, shock, severe burns and other maladies, with business expanding into developing countries.
Octapharma and Biomat USA are each a division of a European-based pharmaceutical company, but the vast majority of the world's plasma providers are in the United States, where screening and handling regulations are considered safe, and selling fluids is more culturally acceptable.
"We have all kinds of donors, under-employed or unemployed," said Vlasta Hakes, spokeswoman for Grifols, the Spanish company that owns Biomat USA.
She said Grifols has 150 plasma centers in the U.S., with five in California including huge, sleek facilities in Bellflower and Lake Balboa. On average, 1,000 people sell plasma weekly at each center.
Like other industry reps, Hakes refers to plasma "donors" rather than plasma sellers, which may sound a little better from a marketing perspective. She emphasizes the great benefit of plasma-based drugs.
But it's disturbing to see so many people so destitute — even if they're working — that they've resorted to selling body fluids. For their trouble, they make something akin to minimum wage while billions of dollars flow into corporate bank accounts.
Dr. Roger Kobayashi, a Nebraska physician who teaches immunology at UCLA, takes it a step further. He raises moral and ethical questions about the commodification of a body fluid by international businesses that sometimes behave in ways that hurt patients.
"Prices keep going up, and it's becoming harder to get the drugs to patients because they can't afford it," Kobayashi said. "The people who are making a lot of money are the investors and the corporations."
And they are well aware that for many people living on the edge, personal economics is all that matters.
"This is my first time," a middle-aged woman named Elizabeth told me at the Lake Balboa Biomat USA. She said she took time off from a job to care for her ailing mother, and now she can't find work.
"If you would have told me five years ago that I'd end up in here, I wouldn't have believed it. It's reality, and it's humbled me for sure."
At the Orange Biomat, Navy veteran Tim Edwards told me he makes about $13.50 an hour setting up alcohol displays in stores, and he was waiting to hear if he got a better job he'd applied for.
"I can't pay my debts," he said. "I have mixed feelings because I don't want to have to do this. At the same time, it feels good to be doing something positive for other people."
Wade, the Long Beach student, told me she shares that do-gooder motivation. But she does get uncomfortable thinking about the huge business she is a small part of, pumping plasma so she can pump gas into her Scion.
"I feel kind of powerless," she said.
I asked Crystal, the woman with the gas can in her car, what she spends her plasma money on.
"I'm saving right now," she said.