Steve the Spitter

Steve the Spitter is a character from something I’m working on at the moment . . .

Steve the Spitter is, along with the Ghost and Dr. Cunningham, another nocturnal denizen of our centre’s labs and suites and cold and instrument rooms. Unlike the aforementioned scientists, however, the reason for Steve the Spitter being a creature of the night is not workaholism — far from it. He is one of the laziest — if not the laziest — people in our institute. No, his motivation for working at night comes from his antisocial nature, his inability to get along with his labmates and a secretive, if not paranoid, streak that does not allow him perform any experimental work in the presence of others for fear of having his results stolen, technical approaches copied or being scooped. (Although, if one were to pick, out of all the researchers in our centre, somebody to copy or filch data from, he would be last in the queue; in our national centre of excellence, Steve the Spitter stands out for his lack thereof. He often follows lines of reasoning in his research which are unconventional or ill-thought out and will stubbornly muddle down an investigative blind alley regardless of the opinions of his PI and colleagues or what leading researchers in his field believe. The thinking among his labmates is that if he ever generates novel data it will be through pure serendipity and pot luck rather than pig-headed adherence to unconventional experimental approaches and theories. Thus, there is little professional respect for him among them. In spite of this and along with his black sheep status in his lab, his appalling lack of team spirit, and the irritation he causes to his labmates (see below) he has not shown been the door; he brought his own funding with him from his own country and will have to be tolerated until this runs out.)

Initially, Steve the Spitter’s contrary schedule raised eyebrows among his colleagues and group leader. Efforts have been made to compel him to keep a more regular timetable, both in terms of number of hours worked (for, even from the start, he tended to accumulate no more than five to six per day) and clocking in and out time, but after a week or so he always falls back into his old routine of turning up in the lab when most people are leaving or have already left. In truth, this arrangement suits all parties concerned; just as much as Steve the Spitter wants to avoid his labmates, they are not particularly anxious to be in his company. He has, you see, a long list of disturbing if not revolting habits and traits that means being his presence is not an agreeable experience.

To start with, there is his personal hygiene. It is obvious from the strong smell of body odour that he leaves in his wake that he rarely showers or washes his clothes. He has only ever been seen wearing the same off-white runners, pale blue denims and a selection of long-sleeved tops which he rotates at an interval of approximately one week. The smell that emanates from him makes it unpleasant to share confined spaces with him. Some of the more sensitive female members of his team will instantly vacate a room into which he had walked; this does nothing to ameliorate his paranoia or help his integration into the group.

As one might deduce from his nickname, Steve is fond of spitting. One does not know whether the spitting is cultural or a kind of tick peculiar to him alone, but one thing is clear: he spits constantly and seems to derive satisfaction from the act. The spits he produces are not dense or mucousy gobs generated by a heavy hawking of his throat but light, bubbly and clear and could be accurately described as spittle. It has been calculated by an impish member of his group, stopwatch in one hand tablet in the other, that Steve spits once every minute and thirty-seven seconds (n = 500; SD = 18 s). He will without stopping whatever he is doing, be this the loading of a gel for a Western blot or the trypsinisation of adherent cells, turn his head ever so briefly to the side, sniff a number of times and spit from (usually) the right-hand side of his mouth. The spit he expertly directs to the nearest dustbin or sink. In fairness to him, he never spits on the floor or onto work surfaces or lab or office furniture. Nonetheless, it is still unsettling for his labmates to go to use the sink only to find it mottled with a quarter of an hour’s worth of Steve the Spitter’s saliva. In a similar vein to his timekeeping, he has been spoken to repeatedly about this disgusting habit, but just as in the former case, he behaves himself for a few days before always reverting to type.

Next on the list is his problem with alcohol. After he first arrived to our centre, within a couple of weeks of being among his labmates they began to notice that, as well as regularly spitting, he would quite often, though not as often as once every couple of minutes, reach into his labcoat, pull out a bottle of orange liquid and take a short slug. People’s curiosity was piqued by the fact that this was clearly a homemade concoction (the vessel was always a recycled plastic water bottle, the liquid never quite the same intensity of orange) and by estimations of the quantity he must be consuming per day. Was this some sort of dietary supplement? they wondered. Or an isotonic sports drink? Or just another foible? Then people put two and two together and linked the increasingly erratic nature of his behaviour as the night wore on with the dwindling levels of orange liquid in the plastic bottle. It was alcohol he was tipping away at, they concluded. He was diluting vodka or some other non-smelling alcoholic spirit with orange cordial and gradually, as the evening wore on, would become relaxed, then tipsy, until reaching a plateau of mild drunkenness by going-home time, sometime in the middle of the night.

This discovery went a long way to explaining much of Steve the Spitter’s behaviour; his increasing roughness, slamming doors and banging beakers down on the bench, for example, as evening turned to night; his singing and laughing to himself in the small hours of the morning when he thought nobody could see him; the dirty and chaotic state his bench was left in after a night’s work; the frequent breakages and spillages that greeted those who were first to arrive into his lab early in the morning. Then, a more worrying discovery was made; one day he was caught in the act of decanting lab alcohol from a drum into a two litre soft drinks bottle. While nobody had any proof, people thereafter believed that he was getting drunk on lab alcohol, something with grave long-term implications for his health. Lab alcohol is not pure ethyl alcohol; there are usually impurities such as methyl alcohol present to a level of one per cent. There is a constant debate, especially among the female members of Steve the Spitter’s lab, to take him aside and “have a word in his ear” about his drinking, but relations between him and the rest of his group have reached such a point that nobody is willing to put themselves in the position of having to have such a conversation with him.

Another factor is that Steve the Spitter is almost impossible to communicate with. He doesn’t speak our own language and his English is very poor. Having a conversation with him requires much patience. One has to talk slowly, use short, simple phrases and often repeat what one had said. To make matters worse, his own heavily accented English is brutish, guttural and near impossible to decipher. The look of hostility mixed with shyness or shame that he shoots at one while he speaks tends not to aid one’s aural comprehension faculties. By all accounts, even in his own language he is not an easy person to draw conversation from or direct it to. His two compatriots in our centre keep their distance from him, citing this, along with his general “craziness” as reasons.

Steve the Spitter comes from a Middle Eastern country. He is short and swarthy, with a thick crop of jet-black hair sitting atop a perpetually sweat-shined forehead. Unless very far gone on lab alcohol, the expression he always wears is belligerent and thunderous. When drunk, his eyes swim wildly in his head and a goofy grin is etched on his face. He sometimes becomes talkative in this state, shouting inanities across the lab at his co-workers, if any happen to be present at such a late hour.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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