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

Chapter 20. SPRING

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity.

—William Wordsworth, "Lines Written

a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

IT WAS SPRING when I found the dead rat, and I didn't recognize it—though that's not to say it wasn't the rat that I had previously recognized.

I had come by the alley during the day for the very first time. It was a warm, clear spring day—a hopeful day after a fear-filled winter. I was merely walking through the alley, and a little thrown off by the natural light on the cobblestones. Frankly, I didn't expect to see any rats. Then I looked down. At first I thought I saw trash, but then I realized that it was a dead Rattus norvegicus. It was on the edge of the alley, roughly where the Chinese garbage berm would have been and would likely be again that evening, though I found it difficult to determine precisely where the garbage had been—everything was so cleaned up on that day that I almost didn't recognize the place. Overall, it was strange to even be there, a little like waking up from a long dream.

The dead rat didn't look as if it had been run over by a garbage truck or attacked by another animal, so I began looking around the alley, investigating, like an exterminator. And then, sure enough, I found it—the rat poison. I looked around some more and saw some more rat poison and put two and two together: an exterminator was working my alley.

The next time I went to the alley at night, there were rats, but fewer rats. The same thing happened again a few days later. Eventually, I went home and called up the exterminator whose name was on the poison bait stations, AA Federal Exterminating. Mike Baglivo answered the phone and politely put me on hold a few times; he sounded pretty busy. I explained—as carefully as I was able—that I had been keeping a rat journal and that he was exterminating in my rat alley. He seemed to understand; he did not seem to have a problem with my experiment. I said I thought he was doing a good job of rodent control in the alley, which, as true as it was, was a little difficult for me to say. I also complimented him on his placement of the bait stations, which were—as I knew, perhaps as well as anyone—in high rat-traffic spots.

"Thank you," Mike said, and launched into a small discourse on rat placement and rat eating habits in general. "You know, the thing with rats is, rats are very lazy creatures, and they'll take food that's right near them rather than go across the street for a steak. It's like that old saying, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, if you know what I mean. And the other thing is, they're very edgy. They're always worried, so to speak. They feel they have to keep on the move."

I agreed. Mike went on. "It's a family-run business," Mike said, "which means our guys get out there and do what they have to do. I mean, when you have a small company, it matters more. Not that I wouldn't mind it being a bigger company, don't get me wrong. But when these guys are out there, they know that they've got the account and that if they lose it, we won't make any money. So if one of these guys is on vacation and somebody else does the work and they don't do a good job, then they get kind of sore, if you know what I mean. Our guys go and do what they have to do."

I felt the need to meet with the exterminator who had exterminated the rats in my alley, face-to-face. I asked him if I could stop by.

"I'll be here," he said, and in a little while I was shaking hands with him in his storefront office in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, near New York Bay. The store was full of poisons and traps for sale; the walls were decorated with hunting trophies. I shook hands with Mike, and as soon as I did, he excused himself and was back on the phone. He was in the midst of dispatching four different exterminators throughout the New York area.

"Federal," Mike said, answering. He listened. "Okay, yes, you could see termites for the next two months, but if you see anything next year, then call, all righty? Now, it's just a matter of waiting for them to die."

He hung up the phone, but it rang again immediately. "Federal." Mike listened again. "Now, Mrs. S.," he finally said, "what you're doing here is accusing one of my workers, which, if he did do it, he's gonna lose his job. Does that sound reasonable, Mrs. S.? Could you have missed the buzzer?" Mike began nodding. "Okay, we'll send somebody right back. Thank you."

Mike finally said to me, "We do homes, apartments, food processing plants. We do everything." He explained that his father had started the business after working as an airplane mechanic, first in the service and then with Pan Am. His father named the company Federal to sound solid and nationalistic and he added the AA to get the listing up high in the phone book. Mike himself went to pharmaceutical college, but then changed his mind. "When I graduated, it was going down the tubes," he said of pharmacy work. He said he felt that being a pharmacist meant working at a giant chain pharmacy, and he was not interested in that. Instead, he went into the family business, where a knowledge of chemicals helps, given the amount of poison used. Today, he was doing the dispatching, while his father was out on a job.

I asked him about Edens Alley, but there wasn't much to say. He was not the one exterminating the rats there; it was another exterminator who was out in the field at the moment. So we ended up just chatting about rats.

He recalled one of the first rat jobs he ever went out on, in a supermarket in East New York, where the market workers had been shooting rats in the basement with a .22-caliber rifle. Up in the produce section, he noticed a rat sitting in the produce shelf. "It was in the lettuce," Mike said. He thought a woman was about to pick it up, mistaking it for something that was not a live rat; the rat was being misted by a vegetable mister. Mike quickly grabbed the spraying wand of a pesticide sprayer and bashed the rat. "I didn't plan it or anything," he said. "It was just a reactionary move."

I was getting ready to leave—Mike was just too busy. But then Mike was reminded of an aspect of the nature of rats in the city, and as he put down the phone, he said, "You know, I heard there are three layers of sewer lines." He counted them off on his fingers. "There are the ones from the 1800s, the ones from the 1700s, and the ones they don't have the maps for anymore. Once in a while, they use that old line, when they're doing construction or something, and you read in the papers that there are hundreds of rats coming up. Well, those rats that are in the third line, they haven't even seen man before. Hold on a second . . ."

One of his technicians radioed in. "Where are you, killer?" Mike said. "What do you figure, fifteen minutes? . . . Okay, you got it." The phone rang again. "You got it, Mrs. Salamo . . . No, it's our fault too, Mrs. Salamo. We'll see you soon." He hung up. "She's a real sweetheart."

As he was talking, an inspector from the state department of environmental protection came into the office to give a surprise inspection of AA Federal's pesticide storage procedures. I shook hands with Mike again and disappeared.

I WAS A LITTLE SAD about the end of the rats in my alley, a little melancholy, and to cheer myself up, I walked down to the alley and looked around. I felt a sort of anticlimactic euphoria, this bittersweet excitement. I can see the hill! I thought to myself, as I once again pictured Golden Hill. In the same way, I walked up through City Hall Park and imagined rallies of generations past and generations hence and then saw some bait stations and some people on City Hall's steps and at some point, yes, I could feel myself a part of the crowd. Then I got to thinking about George Ladd, the exterminator who'd sent me downtown looking for rats in the first place, at the beginning of my rat alley experiment, and I walked up to the Lower East Side to see if he was around.

It didn't look as if he was going to be there, but he was—he cracked open his door and greeted me warmly. He seemed to be in good spirits; that big construction project downtown that had been canceled because of the World Trade Center disaster was back on, and he would be doing the rodent control. Also, he was beginning to get involved in pest control politics. He was talking about working with a pest control lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

Just for fun, I asked him if I could see the tape of him on Japanese TV again. It showed him with relics of his great-grandfather's work in Japan; it showed the office cat that had since died; it showed George in his driveway with his wife, as they packed up to go off on a camping trip in the Adirondacks. "He can get upset with things pretty easily," his wife said, "but once you get to know him, he's great." In a part of the program I did not recall, George talked a little bit about why Bonzai de Bug had never become a large pest control firm, why he'd stayed small. "Working for someone's a big thing for me," he said. "I have a problem when it comes to that point when you gotta call manure manure." This seemed to sum up something about being a small-business owner in the city, or even in America, about being a noncorporate cog in a big economic and political and social wheel—about being an exterminator. But as we continued to watch him speak on tape, George said something that cheered me up. "I always say that the money will come if you love what you're doing," he said.

I learned this, at the very least, by sitting in a rat alley: that there is hope in the life of many exterminators. Life is mean and vile in many ways, but exterminators advance toward society's depths and meet life there and see it for what it is, in some cases.

I felt much better after I left George's shop—stopping in on somebody you enjoy talking to will do that. I walked home with rat stories running in my head, and I suppose it will not surprise the reader to hear that, at this point, as I was walking back to my apartment, I began to think more than ever that we are all a little like rats. We come and go. We are beaten down but we come back again. We live in colonies and we strike out on our own, or get forced out or starved out or are eaten up by our competition, by the biggest rats. We thrive in unlikely places, and devour. Our city was not always inhabited, and when we stand in a rat alley, we can see the ancient hills on which our ancestors stood before we infested and devoured the land. We are different and the same; we are touched by the hand of Midas and we are plague-ridden, sons and daughters of Job. We are rats in Congress, rats in a housing complex, rich rats cashing in, poor rats being kicked out. "Rat populations throughout the world are relatively similar, although local conditions and specific differences produce some variation in degree," wrote Dave Davis, and the same can be said for us. We are the rats whose population may boom, whose population may decline, who can survive where no other species could or would want to, in Edens Alley despoiled. With caution, we will flourish; without it we will not; we will starve and die and maybe kill each other, maybe not.

Everyone has heard a rat story, and surely everyone has heard that story that runs through New York and cities everywhere—for I have recounted versions of it in these pages and it is in many ways an emblematic rat story—of the large and scraggly rat that swims through the sewage flow, having gained access through some crack in the underground, through some cobblestone gap, and then rises up in a toilet bowl and infests an apartment building. Who is not disgusted by this? Who is not a little frightened when thinking about its implications toward personal safety and mental hygiene, among other things? And yet who is not impressed that the rat survives—if only to be poisoned or killed with a trap or perhaps a broom or whatever is handy for the person or the pest control operator confronted with this act of sublime magnificence? Does this not give us some hope and concern for our own future as well?

I'm not saying that everyone will agree with me on this point—I'm not even certain it's true, and I don't necessarily think of myself as a rat all of the time. But I know that if you look deep down into the darkness, even in a rat hole, there is some life down there, some fecund spark, like it or not.