Factotum

By: Matt Roy May 26

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Intro – August 2000

Somewhere along I-90 in New York, probably around mile marker 380, I’m pretty sure I heard what amounted to an audible pop. It was the sound of my brain ceasing to function at a high level. It was the fifteenth time I made the drive in the team van from Waukesha, WI (home to Team Sports, Inc., the marketing group that ran Saturn Cycling, Volvo Cannondale and the Timex Women’s Pro Cycling Team) back to Boston. It was an 18-hour, 1,100-mile mind-numbing trip that I drove straight through each time.

Even the CB radio had ceased to be entertaining. Affectionately termed “The White Trash Internet,” the CB radio was my lifeline to obstacles in the road; from speed traps to road kill to traffic. “Plain brown wrapper at your front door” = Unmarked brown police car in the median. “Four-wheeler paying for a light show” = Car pulled over for speeding. “Smokey Bear with gumball machines at 221.” = Marked police car with lights on the roof at mile marker 221. Driving around in a van emblazoned to the hilt with “Timex Women’s Professional Cycling Team” often made for sleazy (and occasionally clever) CB banter. For example (please insert your best Southern drawl): “I bet them Timex women take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.” And regrettably, on the occasion I would have to drive with bikes on the roof, (drawl again, please), “I sure would like to sniff them bike seats.” That one still makes me shudder.

It was nearing the end of my tenure on the road for Timex. Many of the teams’ athletes had left for Sydney to train with their respective national teams in preparation for the Olympic Games. I had been on the go for nine months, driven close to 115,000 miles and had crisscrossed the US six times. I was cracked and I was ready for something new. I thought it might be time to get back to science. Instead of focusing on ecology, however, I thought my “skill set” could be applied to understanding human illness.

The Factotum –

In an obnoxiously worded resume on Monster.com I described myself as the following: “Generalist/Factotum: A Principal Investigator’s Dream Candidate!!!” (Yes, I used three exclamation points). Surprisingly, this ploy worked and I landed a job as a research technician at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA. I was selected for the job not because of my understanding of genetics or immunology (little and none), or because of my aptitude with pipettes and standard lab methodologies (I knew what a pipette was, let’s just leave it at that) but because of two things that stood out on my resume.

The first; I double majored in biology and jazz at a small liberal arts school in Vermont (of course). One half of the husband/wife PI team, Diane, is a jazz aficionado and she thought the lab could really use another musician. Rather than quiz me on intricacies of T-cell differentiations (thankfully) she wanted to know how I felt about Chet Baker, the heroin addled trumpet player who died soon after his comeback. (I told her I was more of a Clifford Brown guy, as far as the trumpet goes… but she didn’t hold it against me).

The second, and this is the one that really sold them; I had worked as a mechanic for the Timex Women’s Professional Cycling and the Saturn Cycling Teams the previous two years. The other half of the PI team, Christophe, grew up in Paris watching the Tour de France every summer. He asked the first thing anyone who was privy to the Festina scandal of the 1988 Tour de France might ask; does everyone dope? I could proudly say that I was unaware of any domestic athletes who were “on the program.” (But shit, what does a guy who works in a parking lot out of the back of the truck really know?).

Despite my obvious lack of credentials, I was offered the job.

The funny thing was… I didn’t take it right way. I was torn between taking a job at a biotech in Cambridge ($) or working in academia at a non-profit (less $). I hemmed and hawed for a week or so until Christophe sent me an email entirely in French. He had somehow presumed that as a mechanic who had worked in French governed sport (linguistically speaking, anyway) I was fluent (so very French of him, huh?). Truth be told, I could tell you what numbers the Commissaire read out over the race radio or whether we were about to turn à gauche or à droite. Needless to say, it took me a little while to translate it. And after I translated it, I had to translate it. Here’s the gist of what the email said:

“A man should spend more time choosing what he should have for dinner than who he should marry.”

Hmm.

I took this to mean; if it’s the right thing, you know it right away. If it is something trite like a meal, you can quibble about whether the risotto or the fresh gnocchi is right for your palette (by the way, it’s always the gnocchi).

Crap. He was right. This was the right job for me.

One of the first lengthy discussions my new boss and I had was the usage of the word “factotum” in my online resume. I have always thought of it as a tongue-in-cheek snobby word for handyman. Christophe, on the other hand, took a different interpretation of the word. From the only source worth referencing, the Oxford English Dictionary, factotum is, a Jack-of-all-trades, a would-be universal genius (yup, that’s what I was thinking, emphasis on the would-be). But also; one who meddles with everything, a busybody… and, a servant who has the entire management of his master’s affairs. Christophe was thinking, here’s someone who is offering to be my bitch (of course, in slightly more elegant French discourse) while I’m thinking that I’m a would-be-demi-genius who could untangle the intricacies of Type-I diabetes (that’s not the one that fat people get, right?). Meddles with everything? That, I cannot deny. Needless to say, it wouldn’t be the last time we would cross swords over interpretation (of words, data, cheese).

For the next four years, I worked as research technician, studying the genetics of Type I diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis and a very strange disease called APECED. Fortunately, I have always been able to keep my hand in the cycling cookie jar. I look forward to that phone call or email from my friends “on the circuit,” or in the industry. A few times a year, for a week here and there, I take time out of the lab to work for different team, for Butch at SRAM Neutral Race Support, or with the Berlingers at MAVIC. I keep my skills sharp, renew old friendships and make new ones, and relieve the occasionally jaded team mechanic with fresh legs, so to speak. Of course, there is still cyclocross season to talk about, but that’s a completely different animal.

I added yet another arrow to my quixotic quiver of jobs (mechanic, musician, aquatic biologist, professor, mower of lawns). Even today, nearly six years into my PhD program, I am seeking the next step forward. When questioned by my mentors and colleagues why I have had such a circuitous route to academia, I tell them, jokingly (hopefully), “I’m trying to be so well rounded I’m useless.”

By the way, as I put the finishing touches on this entry, I am on a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico with the Pedro’s crew to help Marla Streb kick off the opening of her new mountain bike park, ToroVerde. I have the best second job. Ever.

Oh, and I have a meeting with my thesis committee next Tuesday.

 

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