Stick of Joe

3 minute read
Joel Stein

As a non-coffee drinker, I often feel shunned, especially at social events like “coffee breaks,” “going out for coffee” or “drinking coffee.” So when the government decided to spend $250,000 on caffeinated-gum research, I was thrilled. Instead of money wasted on defense (Hello? We haven’t been invaded since 1812) or that unfinished FICA project I keep reading about on my pay stub, this would help someone with a real problem. Soon I too could awake groggy and cranky, pull out a couple of sticks of gum, read the paper and then deal with the wife and kids. As I saw it, caffeinated gum research could get me a wife and kids.

The only politician brave enough to advocate spending federal dollars for caffeinated-gum research is Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who pushed for a measly $250,000 in this year’s budget. (To give you an idea of how little money that is, if you had a stack of $1,000 bills, there would be only 250 of them.) Hastert knew about the issue not just because he’s a progressive-thinking lawmaker, but also because Amurol, the company that makes Stay Alert Caffeine Supplement Gum, is in his district.

The $250,000 is taking a long time to work its way through Washington bureaucracy, so I decided to jump-start the project. My research, which consisted mainly of getting Amurol to send me free gum, shows that it tastes really, really bad. Of the five people I gave it to, three made a face, one spit it out and the other was my dad, who thinks everything tastes O.K., even months after its expiration date has passed.

While the company appreciated my efforts, Amurol wants to stick to its research plan, which will take place at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Tom Balkin, the chief of the department of neurobiology and behavior, has already begun his work on the gum. “It doesn’t taste very good,” he says. “People around here spit it out.” But as a man of science he persevered. “Maybe it’s like their first beer. At first you don’t like it, but then you acquire a taste for it.”

Balkin’s experiments will figure out whether the gum is a good way to keep soldiers up while they are in battle. Amurol suspects its gum might taste good enough for guys who eat powdered coffee straight from the packet. The Amurol marketers are not overly ambitious people.

In the next few months, Balkin’s assistants will pay people to stay up until 4 a.m. Then they’re going to give them wads of gum and keep them up 14 hours more, testing their alertness by having them push a button as fast as they can when a signal goes off. The subjects will do this until they go mad and beat one another in a way that’s uncoordinated enough to entertain the scientists. At least that’s how I would run the experiment.

But this is just a small part of the research that needs to be done. There are things I want to know, like will some annoying guy at nice restaurants with hidden cameras try to switch the good gum with Folgers caffeinated gum? Do you need decaffeinated peanut butter to get caffeinated gum out of your hair? Can I save money by asking women out for gum? We’ve got work to do, people. Social Security can wait.

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