EXTERMINATORS - Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)


IN THE CITY, given the absence of rat-eating wild mammals and great numbers of birds of prey, the natural predator of the rat is the exterminator. Exterminators hang out in basements and crawl into old, dark spaces that no one else wants to crawl into. They attempt to think like rats and then kill them. Exterminators roam the city with traps and poisons, in marked and unmarked vehicles, depending on the customer's preference. They work in small mom-and-pop operations and sometimes with large firms. In some four-star restaurants and fancy hotels, working as an exterminator is like working as a spy behind enemy lines; if you are discovered, your existence will be denied. Once, I met an exterminator on the subway. He was dressed in overalls and carried boxes of tools and supplies on the kind of luggage cart used by someone repairing a computer or copying machine. It was the first day of winter like temperatures at the time, and I asked him how the weather was affecting business, if the weather was driving rodents into people's homes. As he was getting off the subway at a downtown station, he smiled and nodded repeatedly. "Things are starting to happen," he said.

The first professional rat catcher in New York was the first professional rat catcher in America, Walter "Sure Pop" Isaacsen, who opened up a shop in Brooklyn, in 1857; he sold poison grains guaranteed strong enough to kill elephants and relied heavily on ferrets, which he raised on a farm in the countryside.* In 1893, the city's star rat catcher was Frederick Wegner, who arrived from Bavaria and made his name, first, by ridding Brooklyn's Prospect Park and then Greenwood Cemetery of rats. When there was a rat infestation in the Central Park Zoo—the rumor was that the elephants had been attacked by rats—he was immediately called in and caught 475 rats in his first week; he used traps because the zookeeper was worried about poison around the elephants. (Recently, in the National Zoological Park, in Washington, D.C., two red pandas, an endangered species, died after eating rat poison buried in their exhibit.) Harry Jennings was a well-known Manhattan-based exterminator with a shop in So Ho. When he died in 1891, an editorial writer said: "While not employing a very excited social position in the city, there were few more useful men than Harry Jennings." In 1936, the National Association of Exterminators and Fumigators voted to change the name of the profession from exterminator to pest control operator. William Buettner, a second-generation New York City exterminator, was the president of the association at the time. Exterminators were concerned that the word exterminate made for too great an expectation for the vermin-infested, exterminators as a group being, above all, realists. "Bill contended that the word exterminate suggested a permanency to a customer that was not possible to provide, while control more closely described the service provided," a pest control historian explained. An alternate choice was verminologist.

The city of New York founded the Rodent Control Unit in 1949. Optimistically, they still use the term exterminator. The number of exterminators in the bureau of rodent control fluctuates with the strength of the economy. For instance, when Juan Colon began exterminating in the early 1980s, when funding was available, he was one of ten men who exterminated from Ninety-sixth Street all the way north to the tip of Manhattan Island. Toward the end of his career, when funding was no longer available, he was the only one. Today, Colon is remembered as the only exterminator ever to tie a rodent to a rope and walk it back to the bureau office, eager to show off its impressive size. "I was young and crazy," Colon once said.

THE ALGONQUIN TRIBES CONSIDER THE hunter to be their best man, and if I were an Algonquin, I would see exterminators as the city's best men, so many of whom, while spending my time in Edens Alley, I have had the opportunity to meet. I can report that among exterminators, there are many different types. An example of a publicly supported rat catcher is Larry Adams, who is the highest-ranking exterminator working for the City of New York. Although he has worked in the private pest control industry, he has spent most of his career exterminating for the city; I think of him as the people's rat catcher. Larry works in Brooklyn, but he is likely to be called anywhere in the city. If you are in New York and you see a headline Such as GIANT VAMPIRE RATS TERRORIZE LOWER EAST SIDE! which was an actual headline a few summers ago—then you can be certain that Larry is on the job, baiting and filling up giant vampire rat holes. In the case of the giant vampire rats, even Larry was impressed not so much with the rats' size, which was merely typical, but with the number. "We had a tremendous kill over there," Larry said.

Larry is fifty-three years old and of medium height with a graying mustache and a slightly mischievous grin; he moves cautiously, occasionally interjecting quick bursts. When I stopped by the rodent control office in Bedford-Stuyvesant where he is based, he was wearing dark work pants, a blue work shirt, a walkie-talkie, and a flashlight clipped to his belt. He was born in Brooklyn, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, the son of a truck driver from North Carolina. Growing up, he never saw a rat; his neighborhood was clean, and in his memory he sees his neighbors hosing down their stoops and sweeping, always sweeping. "I never saw a rat until I was a teenager," he said. Then, Larry's family moved to a housing project in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn that was filled with breweries up until the sixties. When he walked to school, he often passed rats, feeding on hops and barley. He worked for the sanitation department in high school. "I made thirty-two dollars and fifty-four cents one time," he said. "I remember that." He played football but then injured himself and sat on the sidelines as his team won the city championship. "I was a ball of confusion, so many issues I was dealing with," he recalled. He dropped out of high school and got a position at the health department. He was hired as a health department laborer, one man on a crew of people responsible for cleaning out abandoned lots and trash-plagued houses—a job he took just until he could get something better. Although it only paid $5,600 a year, he did not consider it a disgrace, especially during the city's fiscal crisis in the seventies. "People were like, 'You got a. job! With the city! How did you ever get that!1"he said.

Larry had never seen so much garbage as he did working that job. "I remember saying that I never knew anyplace existed like this," he said. "Garbage as high as that. Garbage going to the second-floor window in the backyards. You could actually step out the window on the garbage and work your way down to the ground." This was in the seventies, when neighborhoods were burning out in cites all over America, when the once-clean streets in Bedford-Stuyvesant were decomposing, when the city seemed as if it were dying. One day Larry was out near Coney Island, clearing out the house of a mentally ill woman who had never thrown anything out. "The house was filled front-to-back, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with every type of garbage, junk, with pails of human feces, urine, everything," Larry recalled. "I got three skin infections working that particular job. There were flies and maggots, and rats. They used all the best workers out of all the crews to do that job, and I was doing my thing that day. I was coordinating stuff. I was working for everyone. And I didn't know it at the time, but the director was sitting about a half a block away, watching with binoculars. Before the day was over, a guy comes up to me and says, 'Hey, the boss, he's watching you and he likes your thing.'"

In a few weeks, Larry was a regional director in the department of health, working out of a rodent control office in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Eubie Blake, the great ragtime piano player and songwriter, often poked his head in. "He'd stop by every day," Larry said. "He always had a thing to say. He'd make you laugh. He used to like to watch the girls on their way to the train station. He'd say, 'Now, you catch up with her and get her to hold on while I catch up to you.' It was like two separate Worlds. In one world, Eubie Blake was this big famous guy and was a piece of American history, and in the other world he was just a neighborhood man I respected, an old man I listened to."

Larry went to school at night to study pest control, and soon he was moonlighting for a small pest control operator in Queens. He had just started working pest control when, on the night of his first wedding anniversary, he got an emergency termite call. "My wife had a fit," he remembered. "Boy she was mad! I got home at one-thirty in the morning after drilling and pumping chemicals. But I came home and spread all that money across the bed. I made a few hundred dollars, and in the 1970s two hundred dollars for one day's work was all right. So I laid it out on the bed and she said, 'Oh, fine!1 We made up for it, I'll say. Everything was just fine." He also worked as a gypsy-cab driver and sold hats and other merchandise on the street. "Man I was nuts!" he remembered. "But I was married and we kind of adopted four of my wife's nephews and nieces—two of one sister's children and two of the other. It was something. There were good times, though, a lot of good times."

Larry hoped to become a city exterminator but there were no openings. Meanwhile, he was enjoying his work as a private exterminator. One Sunday morning, his wife sent him to a live-poultry market to buy a chicken. He spotted a rat running through the crowd of people in broad daylight. He immediately showed the owner of the market his card. "I'm gonna take care of this for you," he said.

"I mean, this guy would have sixty rats sitting on his fence in the morning when he was opening up!" Larry said. "And then across the street there was this semidemolished building, and a fish market down the corner dumped old fish in the building. I said, 'Jesus Christ! I gotta take care of that too!' But then a few days later, there were rats everywhere dead, just everywhere."

He worked on a crew of men who would become the great rat-killers of modern New York: Jimmy Clarke, who worked in Queens; Herbie Shackner, an exterminator in Brooklyn; Michael Castrulli, who worked on the Lower East Side. They were all at the famous Ann Street rat infestation, near Theatre Alley, where the woman was chased by rats to her car. Larry still remembers the Ann Street incident, when the woman was attacked by rats. "I've never seen so many rats in all my life," Larry recalled.

At last, he was promoted to exterminator, and now, after nearly three decades of experience hunting rats, he says he feels as if he has seen everything when it comes to rats, but he is still surprised on occasion. An example: "This was just two or three years ago, over in McGolrick Park in Greenpoint, and I had been out of work for four months—guy ran a light and tore me up. And anyway, I come back to work, first day, and I get a call from Pack Simeone, who's director of operations, and Rick, he said, 'Larry, you're not gonna believe this, but we got rats in trees.' I said, 'Get out of here! What are you smoking?' I said, 'Rats don't live in trees.' I said, 'Rats may be crossing over to use the limbs to get to a food source or something, but they don't live in trees, you understand?' He said, 'Larry, they're in the trees, Larry. There are rats in the trees!' I thought maybe he'd been drinking. So I said, 'Okay, we'll be over.' Then, I go over to where they're talking about. First thing I see is a rat sticking his head out of a hole in the tree. And then I look up. There's a rat on the limb. They were running all over the place in the daylight. So I pick up my walkie-talkie and I call Rick, and I said, 'Hey, Rick! There's rats in the goddamn trees!'"

With his expertise, Larry has developed his own rat-eradication techniques, such as concrete mixed with broken glass to keep the rats from gnawing through the concrete. "Sometimes, they'll still cut through before the concrete hardens. So sometimes, I use glass and industrial-strength steel wool and put it in with the concrete and make one big goop with it." He has also gained the respect of his friends. "They used to say, 'Look. Here comes rat man!' " Larry says. "Now, they are likely to say, 'Here comes Larry. Rats don't stand a chance with Larry around. Rats gonna get out of town.'"

If you hang around with Larry long enough, you realize that he sees the city in a way that most people don't—in layers. He sees the parks and the streets and then he sees the subways and the sewers and even the old tunnels underneath the sewers. He sees the city that is on the maps and the city that was on the maps—the city's past, the city of hidden speakeasies and ancient tunnels, the inklings of old streams and hills.

"People don't realize the subterranean conditions out there," he likes to say. "People don't realize the levels. People don't realize that we got things down there from the Revolution. A lot of people don't realize that there's just layers of settlers here, that things just get bricked off, covered up and all. They're not accessible to people, but they are to rats. And they have rats down there that have maybe never seen the surface. If they did, then they'd run people out. Like in the movies. You see, we only see the tail end of it. And we only see the weak rats, the ones that get forced out to look for food."

ONE DAY, I FOLLOWED LARRY ADAMS as he went out exterminating. His office is across the street from a vast housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The basement is filled with old wire rat cages from the time years ago when the city used to catch rats alive in cages and sometimes put them on a Greyhound bus up to Albany for testing. There are usually one or two rodent control vans parked out in front of the place. On that cool, gray morning, Larry got in one of the vans with two assistant exterminators—Ralph Saunders and David Simpkins. Larry trained Ralph when he was starting out in rodent control, and Simpkins's father was a city exterminator. "I've got it in my genes," Simpkins said. A yellow light was flashing on the dashboard of the van.

"It's only for emergencies, really," Larry said. "Like now. We're going to a rat bite."

The rat bite was in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, in an apartment building on the fourth floor. Bushwick is full of new immigrants to New York and America, the group who have, it might be argued, historically suffered the brunt of the city's rat infestations, not to mention other problems. At the rat-bite scene, the van met Gary Gaynor, a health department inspector, in front of the building. Gary was dressed in a yellow windbreaker and carrying a clipboard and an L.L. Bean backpack embroidered with the words RODENT CONTROL. "Sometimes you go into places, and you don't want to go in but you have to," Gary said. "I've been down in places where I know they're there, but I can't see them, and then I look up and they're walking around in the ceiling." The they he was talking about was rats.

The sidewalks were narrow and, in many places, crumbling; the street was lightly parked with old cars. Larry inspected the sidewalk for holes and rat-size basement entryways. He pointed to one hole in the sidewalk, a cragged circle of gnarled cement: "See that? They'll gnaw through concrete." He pointed down and then David put on a respirator and pumped a poisonous tracking powder into the hole. David used a giant bike-pump-like device that the exterminators refer to as the Bazooka.

On the way upstairs, the exterminators attempted to exterminate in other apartments. One door was padlocked shut. "There could be something in there but we can't get in right now," Gary said.

Upstairs, in the fourth-floor apartment that had called in the rat bite, a young girl was sitting on a couch, watching TV alongside her brother and her aunt. They were quiet as they watched the exterminators work. The woman held the girl, who seemed scared and clung tightly to her aunt. The woman showed the exterminators around the apartment, which was sparsely furnished but very clean. She said they were originally from Ecuador. When they talked about the rat bite, the woman sat down next to the girl and held her. Gary spoke kindly with them. Larry, meanwhile, looked behind the stove, where he found rat holes. Larry asked David to bait the holes with poison. In the living room, the girl remained quiet. "She got bit by a rat," the aunt said. The aunt did not seem to speak much English, but she managed to explain to Gary that the girl had been to a hospital, that she had been examined and was okay. The aunt then showed the exterminators how she and her sister block the back room of the three-room apartment with couch cushions each evening in hopes of keeping out the rats.

In a little while, Larry went down in the basement—it was dark and low-ceilinged. He spotted the place where the rats had been coming into the building and made a note to tell the landlord to patch up the holes.

Rat bites mean rat infestations, of course, and so Larry headed out into the streets to continue hunting—he had been working in this neighborhood recently. Down the street, Larry began knocking on doors.

"Health department," Larry said. "We're inspecting for rats and baiting."

"Good," said a woman, standing on her stoop.

Next door, a man from Trinidad enthusiastically invited the exterminators into his studio apartment. It was filled with Indian religious paintings and spiritual music CDs. The man said his girlfriend was upset by the rats in his apartment and no longer visited him. "My girl, she get scared," he said. He showed the exterminators a photograph of his girlfriend, and he held a loaf of sandwich bread by its plastic packaging's twisted end—the bottom of the loaf was chewed away. "You see that? The rat ate that," the man said.

Back on the street, a landlord named Joe Fragala approached the exterminators. He was wearing a Yankees T-shirt and jeans, and when he found out that they were exterminators, he thanked them. "The rat situation's gotten a lot better over here," he said, "maybe because you guys are baiting with poison." He pointed a few blocks away. "But over on there on Melrose, forget about it! They're going crazy! I've seen them, believe me."

Meanwhile, Larry had picked up on something. He was walking back and forth in front of a house and looking down intently. He seemed to be sniffing. Rat droppings were everywhere and he could smell them. It was incredible. He directed David and Ralph to stuff poison in several holes, and he followed David along, poking the poison down into the hole with an old broom handle that he carried with him.

Finally, he stopped before an old wooden tenement building. He inspected rat droppings and pointed out one dropping in particular. "Man, that one is two inches long. I don't know what made that," he said.

He knocked on the door of the building, and an old woman answered in a well-worn nightgown, which she cinched at her waist as she shooed Larry away. "No rats!" she said. "No, no rats!" The woman closed the door.

Larry walked down the stoop and then stood before the building for a minute. "They're in there. I can taste 'em."

He walked back up the steps and knocked again. This time the old woman relented. Larry went straight for the basement, where I could finally smell the rat smell he'd been talking about, which was now almost unbearable for him. As he walked down the tight, old stairs, he said, "Whew! Do you smell 'em? It's like a zoo down here."

On the floor of the basement were more rat droppings, huge and fresh. David and Ralph went to work. Meanwhile, Larry was walking around, looking down and scanning the floor and the walls—until all of a sudden, when he stopped and looked up toward the low ceiling. Something darted down, raced to the floor, where it stopped and looked right at him. It was a big rat. Larry smiled.

ANOTHER, VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF exterminator is Barry Beck. If Larry Adams is the people's exterminator, then Barry is the private pest control operator writ large, the highest form of the mom-and-pop exterminator, the representative of rodent control for profit. He makes a big point of not being an exterminator—it is a selling point, in fact. "We don't consider ourselves exterminators," he explained the first time I dropped by his office. "We consider ourselves pest control managers."

He gave as an example his work with pigeons, a species that, he stresses, he does not poison.

"Do we kill pigeons?" he asked rhetorically. "No. We exclude them."

Barry runs a big pest control operation—in fact, it is the biggest firm in the city. "There's two hundred and fifty pest control operators in the five boroughs," he says. "Two hundred and twenty of them are small. The other thirty are medium-sized and then there's us." He works on the largest buildings and is currently involved with the largest construction project in the city. Like a good exterminator, he doesn't name names, and in terms of rats, as well as mice, he has an unending market. "There's no city like this city. I mean, all cities have their problems, but in terms of pest control, this city is so infested that it's incredible. It's incredible!" Barry is married and has two children, a young son and a teenage daughter. He works constantly. "I'm a capitalist," he likes to say. "I've devoted as much time as I can to my business without getting a divorce."

Barry Beck is of medium height and medium build, and he works in an office in the middle of Manhattan, where, in a dark business suit, white shirt, and dark ties, he blends in with the non-rat-exterminating business community. Aside from being an expert in pest control, Barry is a salesman, and he began his career in sales out in the suburbs on Long Island, working alongside his father in the car business. "I rented cars, fixed cars, sold cars, did all kinds of stuff," he said. " I 'm a car guy."

Barry's route to rodent control went like this: he went to college, got married, went looking for a job, answered an ad for a position with a cleaning company in the city. They wanted to hire him as a salesman in their pest control division. "I turned off, and I basically said I never saw a rodent in my life," he remembered. "I really didn't have too much interest, but they asked me to think about it and they called me and asked me to come in for a second interview, and the guy sold me a bill of goods. And he was right. The opportunities were unlimited for somebody who knew how to sell and knew operations. I moved up. I broke every sales record they ever had, and this was the largest company in New York at the time. I moved up the corporate ladder, rose to executive vice president. And then things were changing but nobody knew why, but my division was doing unbelievable. They were thinking of cutting my company car, which was the wrong thing to say to a car guy. I had a Toyota Supra Turbo—I always had the best cars. I said, 'Really? You should offer me a chauffeur and a limo.' So then I called up Bob and Ted at Pioneer Pest Control, and I said, 'I'm looking for a job.' And they said, 'Okay,' and Bob said to me, 'Barry, I respect your boss at the company you're at now, and I would never call you, but you called me.' And then he said, 'What do you want?' We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Fifty-sixth Street between Lex and Third. That was ten years ago. Now, I drive a Mercedes convertible."

Today, Barry commands the largest pest control force in the city. "In the industry, the standard is, how many men do you have?" he says. "We now have a hundred." And he has worked tenaciously for his company to grow, constantly selling, constantly finding new clients, eating away at the competition. "When I started at Pioneer, they probably had twenty-five men," he recalls. "I went from working for the largest company to this rinky-dink company. My office used to have a view of Madison Square Park. I had a couch, the whole bit. And then I had a desk outside the chemical room in the hallway. I didn't care. This was a established business that needed to grow."

He has opened up new pest control divisions—his bird division, for example, which includes the pigeon exclusion department. To emphasize the deleterious effects of pigeon excrement to clients, he cites an incident a few years ago in which pigeon droppings cut through a cable on the Brooklyn Bridge, due to its acidity. The cable snapped and decapitated a man. "The object is to build out pests without pesticides," he says. "That's the future." He foresees a day when he will be hired to analyze a building's weaknesses, vis-a-vis pests and rodents. He sees this as a more humane pest control method, and humane systems are currently in vogue. People often ask that mice be trapped live, and once in a while people ask about live-trapping rats. "Every year I get somebody who calls up and asks us to trap the rats, and I say, 'Well, fine, but where would you like us to release them?' And the people always say Central Park." Barry's daughter is a vegetarian, and once she asked about the possibility of more humane ways of eliminating roaches. "I said if they come up with a way, I'll be happy to sell it," Barry said.

Barry can't believe how often people attempt to skimp on pest control. "They design buildings to support pigeons and for infiltration by rodents because they don't think about it. Grand Central Station, right? They just renovated it, right? Who knows what they spent on that, right? You know how much they spent on pest control? You know how much they budgeted? Nothing. I did all the extra work there, but they had to pay us out of the emergency budget."

Barry guards his client list carefully. "I got lots of clients, which I cannot identify," he said. "They're big. You wouldn't believe how big."

Once, he had the World Trade Center as an account. "I always wanted it, I could never get it," he said. "I tried like hell to get it. It goes out to the lowest bid to the littlest guy who does nothing. I can't compete." When the building was first bombed, in 1993, office workers evacuated but left food that they were eating all over the building. As a result, there was a rat problem. Beck was called in. "They were concerned, and they remembered who we were," he said. "We did top to bottom and they loved us, but after the emergency was over, then they had to go out to bid again. I'm not interested in a big-volume account with no profit. I'm a capitalist. If I can't make a profit, I don't want you. I don't need prestige. I got prestige."

As the biggest pest control firm in the city, Barry's company is often called in for the big jobs that smaller outfits might not be able to handle. "A couple of weeks ago, we had a call for a job," he told me once. "I'm not gonna say where, but it was a big job. The guys had to wear the protective suits. There were inches of droppings. This is in a place right here in Manhattan—Midtown. We go in there and we see carcasses and skulls, and we're thinking, What's going on here? And sure enough, we found out later that these people were eating them. Eating the rats!"

He leaned back in his chair, imagining these people eating rats, on purpose. "I'll tell you what," he said. "It's bizarre and incredible, but that is their culture. It's not my culture but it's their culture. People treat rats different in different places. There's a country in Africa where they worship the rat. It's true. I saw it on TV."

Barry's company, meanwhile, takes over lots of smaller companies. For instance, when I mentioned a smaller one that I'd heard of, he said, "I took over that company one and a half years ago—swallowed them up." Recently, he took over the company he started out with. "It was bittersweet," he said, "but we've been the biggest in New York City for about seven years. You just keep growing and growing and growing, and then the next thing you know, you're a giant. But you just keep working. It's like, if I have this huge sale today, what about tomorrow?" Despite all his success in preventing or even eliminating rodents, his respect for rats only grows. "They're survivors. They know how to live. They know how to keep going."

AT HIS DESK ONE DAY, Barry was all pest business. Before him were sample rodent traps and repelling devices that were being tested and a plaque that said, "Best wishes—National Cleaning Contractors." Inventing is a hobby for Barry. He invented the Extend-A-Wand, a compressed-air-sprayer extender. He also invented a kind of rodent bait simplification device, which is patented under the name Myrna-Baiter, named after his mother-in-law, Myrna. "I have a bunch of other ideas, but I have no time for 'em," he said between calls.

Each time the phone rang, Barry said his name forcefully and quickly and bluntly.

"Barry Beck," he said once, for example, and as he did, he quickly reached for a yellow legal pad.

"Yes, thanks for returning the call," he went on. "I heard you were interested in our bird eradication techniques."


"Yes. What do you feel like, tomorrow?"


"Sure, tomorrow at ten. Great! Would you like me to bring by some of our exclusion devices so I can show you some of our techniques?"


"Okay, great!"

At this point, Barry hung up the phone and then pointed his finger at me and smiled. "I've been looking up for two and a half years at the pigeon dung on that building and leaving flyers every time I go by."

And then another call—from a rat expert whom he had been trying to reach to discuss a new rat exclusion device that a company had asked Beck for help in testing. The device is designed to scare rodents away with sound, though Barry is not sure it works. The secretary puts the expert through.

"Rich, it's Barry Beck with Pioneer Exterminating in Manhattan. How are you?"


"Yeah, look," Barry said. "I was interested in getting a study done and was looking for a ballpark on a new ultrasonic on rodents."


"Well, basically, everything I've seen about their unit is that they're at the initial stages. Basically, from an engineering perspective I think they might be on the ball, but from a rodent perspective they're in the Dark Ages. It's two guys and one of the guys has got a brother who's an astronaut—it's a big name, I forget. Well, I'm looking for a price on a study. My criteria would be, number one, are rodents expelled with the device? And, number two, if you put up barriers, how does the sound affect the rodent with partition walls?"


"Okay, thanks." Barry put down the phone. "You know, there was a guy I really wanted to get to help us, but he's busy. I mean, this expert is good, but there is someone in this country that knows even more than him about rodents. That's Bobby Corrigan. He's backed up over two years to accept a consulting job."

I asked Barry if there would be any way for me to meet Bobby Corrigan.

"I think it's impossible," Barry said. "But if you could, that'd be something. He has done more studies and understands more about rats literally than anybody in the world."

* Traveling exterminators probably existed even earlier in America's cities, men selling their poison powders and extermination services from pushcarts. In The Ratcatcher's Child, a history of the American pest control industry written by Robert Snetsinger, an early exterminator named Solomon Rose is reported to have set up a company in Cincinnati around 1860; he appears to have been selling antirat powders to Northern soldiers during the Civil War—at least until December of 1862, when Ulysses S. Grant ordered the expulsion of all Jews "as a class" from territory that is now in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Abraham Lincoln rescinded the order in January of 1863. Snetsinger theorizes that Grant was attempting to get rid of the itinerant peddlers who followed the Union Army and sold them things like whiskey. "Grant's action as seen by Lincoln was unconstitutional and is viewed by modern Jews as evidence of Grant's anti-Semitic tendencies," he writes. Snetsinger also notes that German-Americans' expertise with the exterminating chemicals came from innovations in their homeland with brightly colored fabric dyes, which were all the rage in European fashion in the late 1800s.