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Rat Ratification
An Actual Alien Invasion: The Army Beneath Our Feet, With 2014 Update
It is now Summer 2014 and I am still haunted by that Norway rat out in Middle River that would not get out of my way last Wednesday night. He gave me this look that said, "Do you mind pal? They built these gutters for us. You are supposed to retie your dollar store shoestrings over on the park bench, douche bag."
As humiliating as it was to lose a nose-to-nose stare down with something that could use my work boot for a canoe, I did get over it. You see, the very next day, my private news service informed me that I had not been punked out by just any Norway rat, but by a member of the third most renowned rodent occupation force in the nation! Why, this was no worse than loosing a skirmish to the Third SS Panzer Division. At least I was not bluffed by the equivalent of the Vichy Gendarme. According to my math, considering Harm City's small size, our #3 rat population gives Harm City rats the best rat-to-human ratio in the nation.
Makes a rodent biographer proud.
Rat City
Yesterday afternoon, Thursday June 7th, at 1:05 I was transferring buses at the corner of Northern Parkway and Harford Road, at the gas station across from the pharmacy. I had just missed the #19 and took out my copy of The Iron Dragon and stepped over by the decorative wrought iron fence at the corner of the gas station behind the bus shelter that hemmed in the actual live plants that swayed in the sun-kissed breeze. I was reading Richard Bustillo’s memories of growing up in Hawaii, and thought that getting next to some greenery would provide the right context…
….Then I heard him there, that furtive scavenger beneath my feet; an adolescent Norway rat, with ears cupped out mouse-like upon his furry head that was not yet matted with a lifetime of rat-grease from doing rat-things, while secreting rat-stuff, in rat-places. He and his friend were looking into my eyes, and at my hands, darting back and forth beneath the greenery, not three feet from my goliath form. I said, “So what are you up to pal?”
For an answer I got only the twitch of whiskers, and the back-shuffling of four tiny claws. Taking notice of the mostly eaten bag of potato chips rattling in the breeze at my feet it came to me. After twenty years of taking the bus, I have never seen a bus stop dweller actually use the empty trashcan provided for the reception of his/her/he-she/its refuse. Every person in Baltimore that I have ever seen on a city street uses the sidewalk or gutter for the disposal of unwanted packaging. Of course, from my rodent friend’s point-of-view, that quarter-once of crumbs in the bottom of that bag was equal to a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy sprinkled with kosher salt.
And this intrepid four-legged scout did have some stones. As his comrade scampered below he remained, eyes on the enemy and vigilant above. I imagined what was going through his mind as I alternately read my book and looked curiously down at him, “Well come on you towering two-legged freak, give up the goods. It’s in your hand so just drop it like the rest of my suppliers. I’ve got twelve bunkers with forty-eight troops to feed at this firebase. We’re too small to drive captured vehicles so we rely on airdrops. Now drop the goods and off with your alien self!”
A rodent military fantasy you say? A four-legged urban insurgency you say? What are you nuts, LaFond? I think you’ve written too much science-fiction…
And, crank that I am, would you expect me to counter with anything less than a tale of cross-species urban warfare?
My portion of Harm City is overrun with rats. I have often seen foxes, one of which is as big as a medium-sized dog, bounding along with cat-sized rats between their teeth. One of my roommates is a psychopathic killer, a cat to be exact, who lives on the front porch and eats squirrels, rabbits and birds. She does not however eat the rats she kills, but throws them into the gutter as a warning to the rest. The rats she kills are half her size, or about four pounds with a nine inch body and a nine inch tail.
As I bear witness to this grungy ecosystem at my feet I think back to the six housing inspectors that I interviewed in 2001. That was a private assignment for a retired housing inspector who wanted me to document his trade through interviews with his coworkers, as background material for the memoir he was planning to write.
Before I delve into the world of Baltimore City housing inspection permit me a look back into my own rat-filled past.
Mister Silverstein’s Dough
Mister Silverstein would only sell fresh doughnuts to our customers. I was a young clerk on the grocery crew when he asked me to clean up the raw dough that his thoughtless overnight baker had left to rise on the ground beside the dock out back. I found the twenty pound blob of risen dough there below the dock and came across the victim of this poor work. I stood there for many moments above his long hairy and now hideously swollen body, his eyes popping from his skull as he attempted to breathe his last, a breath that could not actually be drawn.
Terry, the eccentric super-genius store manager who actually had a doctorate in physics came to stand next to me and looked down at the gruesome spectacle.
“Imagine the pain when, after consuming a third his weight in raw dough, the food began to grow within him like a wicked alien spore! Imagine the confusion compounded by his innocence as his stomach burst and the cartilage between his ribs tore! Nigh the terror, as he discovered, like the Martians in H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds, that this very planet conspired to, and was in the process of, engineering his extinction!”
That was one of Terry’s more mainstream moments.
Timmy
“Behind my house is the alley that butts up behind the Grain Elevator [at the Locust Point terminal]. Yesterday there was a fire in the base of the Grain Elevator and I stepped out back in the alley to get a look at that rising cloud. Next thing I know this cat comes running down the alley with its tail pointing in the air and the hair bugging out on its spine—meeow, schoom, right by me! I look down the alley behind this thing and then it looks behind me when it gets past, and I look back up the alley at what it’s looking at and I see a wall of fucking rats man! A fucking rolling wall of rats two feet high; tumbling over each other like breakers on the beach—a fuckin’ alien nation man! I fuckin’ bolted down the alley and out into the street. I was afraid to even go toward my house fer fear that they’d roll in there after me. It was literally a ton of rats man. When they hit the street behind me they broke into streams and started running like ugly water toward the storm drains. I was fuckin’ done—just walked to the bar and got smashed!”
The Ambition of Mice
Three years later, in the same neighborhood, at an upscale supermarket with a big gourmet trade, we got a new store manager. He was a closer, the guy that shut down failing supermarkets. The first thing he did was slash the payroll. When he found out that I was still cleaning shelves as I stocked, reducing my case-rate from 40 per hour to 35, he forbade me or any other clerk to clean. He told me that when the store got remodeled by our company or whoever bought it that the shelves would be sold for scrap and replaced anyways.
Up until this point, this had been one of the few marginally clean markets I had worked in. Most managers take any payroll that would go to janitorial concerns and pocket it toward their bonus. In fact, of the 34 markets I have worked in, only two—one being the one I managed—ever had any cleaning schedule. Supermarkets are never, ever cleaned. They are remodeled. But this was a waterfront place, beloved habitat of the Norway Rat, only a few blocks from the Grain Elevator, and this mentality would come back to bite The Closer in the ass.
One night I heard a terrified scream in the deli and rushed in to see if the girl who tore down the slicers and cleaned them despite The Closer’s admonition not to clean, still possessed her fingers. When I burst into the kitchen around which the deli counter wrapped I saw her there holding her hands to her face in horror, looking at an aberration on the table. Squatting above the uncovered creamed-chip beef bowl, on his hairy haunches, was a giant mouse, a mouse nearly the size of a teenage rat, gnawing on a fried chicken wing. She was terrified, “But mice don’t eat meat! They can’t; their not carnivores are they—my toes, what about my toes, will he eat my toes?”
I consoled her, “We are in Baltimore City. Would you really expect him to eat anything other than a fried chicken wing?”
This was just the opening salvo of the War of Mice on Men. They had been driven inside by the cat-killing Locust Point Rat Horde; and apparently, like the Goths fleeing the Huns only to find themselves in a lush unprotected Roman province, decided to carve out a kingdom of their own.
Months later, when I was doing the audit [checking expiration dates] in the health food aisle that had its shelving backed up again the wall of the deli kitchen, I made a discovery. The tray-cases of protein and energy bars, the stuff that the people who trained at the fitness club across the lot paid $3 a pop to eat while they walked on the treadmill, had been hollowed out.
Where rats leave tell-tale grease trails mice leave urine and feces pellets. They cannot apparently go for more than a minute without excreting something.
I pulled the entire rack apart and discovered that over a thousand dollars worth of protein bars had been eaten by mice who had chewed through the back of the display boxes, and through the wrappers, and left nothing but the bar you see in the front of the tray, half-eaten from behind!
I took the report to The Closer and he ordered me to move the display to the next aisle, away from the deli. I did. It took the mice two weeks to infiltrate the next aisle and eat us out of bars. This continued for weeks, and then months, until finally, we had moved the protein bars all the way across the store into the pet food aisle. The mice struck even there. As The Closer stood in the pet food aisle above a health inspector who had been called by a cat owner in response to finding mice droppings on her cat food bag, he came face-to-face with his fate. As the inspector jacked up the bottom shelf, his year-old injunction against cleanliness rose up from the past in the form of a bunker complex constructed by mice out of cat chow pellets poured from a mice-bitten 20-pound bag to funnel into the space below the shelf to provide edible bedding for the troops. According to their droppings and teeth marks these mice were now four times normal size—the mutant steroid bangers of their species.
The Closer came to me nearly in tears, hands in his slacks pockets. “Did you call the Health Department?”
I flashed a wry grin. “Sir, if I had called the Health Department they would have checked the dairy cooler for unprocessed shrink, and I’d be standing here proudly telling you, hoping you’re do something stupid so I could sue your big ass into poverty, Sir.”
He let out a tense breath. “Alright, get this store cleaned up and you get whatever it is you want.”
I still haven’t cashed in that IOU. We got the store clean by the end of the week and the mice apparently migrated to the health spa to begin pumping iron…
Note: This man's name was Jeff, who ended up softening his management style. He turned out to be a good man warping under bad pressure. We became friends. I'm sorry to say Jeff passed away last year.
Mister Bob
Mister Bob was a retired housing inspector with a 1960s British sports car who liked to drink ginger ale and dark rum cocktails. He paid me to interview him and his former coworkers to gather source material for his memoirs, because he did not trust his own objectivity. He provided me with a hand-held tape recorder and I went to work with gusto, even interviewing a slum lord as to how he dealt with housing inspectors. This generated 27 hours of taped interviews and a stack of hand-written notes. I only kept the rat notes, because I thought it would make an interesting article. I do not know what came of the tapes; only that Mister Bob passed a few years ago.
Bob was tall, with a deep resonant voice and lived alone in a three-story house full of neatly shelved books in the upscale Baltimore City neighborhood of Chesterfield.
“I have a degree in English Lit. So I became a housing inspector among ‘the ruins of a once great medieval city.’ It was an interesting life. Truthfully I got into it because I loved architecture, the architecture of this old city. Then, after you make it your business to preserve it, you discover that a half-million souls are intent on destroying it, and the rest of us flee to the suburbs or make a profit from the ongoing atrocity.
“The department is interesting in that you have a dozen college educated inspectors and a staff of uneducated municipal employees that do not interact with one another very meaningfully. The problem with Baltimore and other such cities is desertification in a social sense. We have twenty-five-thousand vacant homes in the city. We have two teams of two men, with a van—that’s two vans total—dedicated to boarding up the vacants so that they aren’t squatted in and stripped of copper. That boards up four houses a day. Do the math my friend”—a toast of his dark and stormy cocktail conceals a painful frown—“and the vacants, that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The houses and the lives of those who dwell within them are often even less appealing as the dwelling deteriorates on its way to eventual vacancy.”
“We had two women that worked as housing inspectors, but it was largely a men’s club. For a while we even pitched in to keep an apartment—a frat house for adults—down town, so that we could get away from the wives. It was a living, but the squalor became deadening for the soul. I’ll leave the rest for my friends to expound on.”
Lawrence
“The worst thing to deal with is the shit; basements full of human waste from broken lines that don’t make it to the sewage line. Imagine an entire basement full of shit! The next on the list is dead dogs in the basement, and kitchens literally wall-papered with cockroaches—entire frying pans full of grease but covered in roaches like some imploded chocolate cake with white icing covered in thumb-size chocolate sprinkles.
“Now rats, the rule with rats are there’re four to a hole. The alleys and sewers are the ecosystem, their highways. The Norway rat is aquatic; theoretically capable of plunging into the sewer in your alley, swimming up the pipe coming from your third-story toilet, and emerging into the toilet bowl and biting you in the balls as you read the paper! However, they prefer the path of least resistance.
“Rats thrive were there are dirt basements. They feast on the trash in the alley—and even on the dog shit that is deposited there. What really enables rats is litter, the fact that most people throw their garbage on the ground. Really, that redneck in Essex you see throwing the wrapper from his cigarettes out the window is demonstrating what keeps rats going, our primate penchant for messy disposal of our waste.
“So you have rats feasting on a mountain of half-eaten garbage in the alley, and then tunneling into the uncut grass yard of the corner house—they like the corner house near the sewer line. The uncut grass gives them cover you see. Then they emerge into the basement. I went into the basement of a house that had a complaint from the neighbors. The entire basement was filled with dirty clothes that were just tossed down the stairs. The basement was their dumpster. These people just bought new clothes. Everything they put on was new or donated, and everything they took off went down the stairs.
“In the middle of the one-room basement—there was a ledge where there was a cat carcass—was what appeared to be a termite mound—a fucking termite mound from the African Savanna! This mound was four feet tall and four feet across at the base. I counted thirteen rat holes in it. That is seventy-six rats in that fucking mound! Imagine living next door to that.
“Speaking of next door: I had a complaint on this one house. A sweet old lady lived in the basement; sitting there knitting. I came downstairs and asked her if she had a rat problem, and she said ‘No’—just continued knitting and rocking in her rocking chair.
"I said, ‘Well miss, what about him?’ and pointed to the rat that was sitting on the back of her chair just above her right shoulder.
"She looked at this rat and said, ‘Oh, he’s just visiting. He lives next door.’
“What do you say to that? I left, and I headed around back before reporting to the Rat Eradication Program—that was hilarious. Everybody that staffed the Rat Eradication Program was pretty uneducated—except Chanelle, who headed it. You would call and they would answer, ‘Rat Ratification’. We would get such a kick out of that!
“Well, I’m around back checking for rat holes and refuse and I run into these twelve guys playing dice, and they think I’m there spying on them—they see the camera and they get aggressive. So I thought quick. I had this Polaroid camera and I suggested they all take each other’s picture. It’s not like they were going to let me leave with the camera anyway. So I left them there snapping pictures of each other and made haste.
“The actual Rat Ratification [laughs] facility was cool. We had a pet ferret in a big cage. We used to drop rats in there and make bets on how long the rats lasted. It was not a contest but an execution—right between the eyes every time. The rat never had a chance, so we bet on his longevity.”
Chanelle
“How do you defeat an enemy when you insist on feeding them? When you set out traps you catch the stupid ones and they don’t reproduce, and the next generation is smarter. How do you bait with poison—really, how good is that poison pellet going to taste—when you’ve got some guy who buys a cheese-steak sub with his baby’s mamma’s food stamps and then tosses half of it in the gutter? Okay. You’re a rat, and you’re not Einstein, but even to your rat-self the cheese-steak sub is looking a lot better than that block of poison. From that perspective, the impossibility of getting people to keep their environment clean, the battle is already lost. But we were recruited to fight a war and fight it we did.
“The heart and soul of the operation was Mason [a fictional name for the real man]. Mason was the rat-killer extraordinaire—the great hunter. He trained the teams. He was the first guy, the only guy for a while. He believed in the shovel—you get in there with a shovel and kill the little bastards. We got up to twelve teams. We had an impact, but we weren’t just fighting the twenty million rats in Baltimore, but the half million people who don’t believe in using a trash can or cleaning up dog shit.”
The Final Battle
“Mason had tracked the major rat activity on the East Side up across the train tracks that service the terminals [where the Grain Elevator from Timmy’s story is]. You see, the lose grain falls off of the trains and makes the tracks a feed trail for rats—a migratory route! He wanted to do an interdiction, hit their supply train; catch them in the open. He selected the field around the tracks where the train travels beneath the Edison Highway Bridge just above Highland Town. There were many, many rat holes in those fields.
“We took every team, there was over twenty of us, I think twenty-four, even me in my dress and high heels with a shovel—ready to kill rats! We had smoke bombs that would be dropped down the holes, and that’s what we did, we smoked them out. As the smoke began to rise from all of these holes that we had simultaneously dropped bombs into, we heard it. I couldn’t believe it myself. It was a sound I can’t truly describe; kind of a hiss, and a whine, and a scratching all at once, as if the ground beneath our feet was coming alive!
“It was terrible! There was no counting them and they were huge, easily as big as cats! The combination of the smoke rising to obscure our vision, the ankle deep grass brushing your ankles and the ground coming alive with all of these creatures—the enemy—was too much. Everybody but Mason broke and ran. There he stood; the Rat Killer, slaughtering rats, like Custer at the Little Big Horn. But the rest of us ran for our lives!”
Epilogue
As the Housing inspectors pointed out East Coast city dwellers are at war with the army beneath their feet, a war we are losing, even as we subsidize the enemy. According to the people interviewed above, the Rat Ratification Program was shut down soon after the Edison Highway Rat Victory. Unfortunately the Baltimore City Council was not able to bring in the 82nd Airborne to bring the enemy to heel. They told me though, that Mason was still out there, taking the war to the Rat Enemy, dealing rodent death with his trusty shovel.
Waking Up in Indian Country: Harm City: 2015
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Add Comment
IshmaelJune 14, 2017 9:14 PM UTC

We used suppressors made from pvc, on our 22s, looked like sprinkler parts in our pickups, ammo called 22 caps, low velocity rounds, under the lights at the grain mill, roll down your truck window, crack a beer and enjoy, being a left hand shooter sat in the passenger side, we would work both side of the tracks where the box cars unloaded the grain, rats would crawl out of their holes thinking they were safe at night, hillbilly sniping heaven!
the woodsmanMay 26, 2015 2:09 PM UTC

Thank you for this (and ALL your other) entertaining entries! I truly enjoy and appreciate your writing. This story reminded me of an experience from my youth you might find interesting:

Every year our neighbor would empty out his corn crib - always a much anticipated event. A corn crib is basically a farm building with "slat" walls open to the elements that holds whole ear corn. The "slat" walls allow the ear corn to dry, thereby avoiding fermented and moldy corn. However, they are a real boon for rats. In the '80's and '90's the use of corn cribs in eastern Iowa was pretty rare because most everyone was storing shelled corn in metal bins.

Anyway, whenever Dale would empty his corn crib he would invite all the neighbor kids to come over with their dogs, cats, baseball bats and hoes. The older kids only had to help shovel the ear corn into the conveyor. And you better believe all the neighbor kids would show up. All the kids would form a circle around the corn crib. Even the dogs and cats would lie in wait, side by side, with what seemed like a mutually agreed upon temporary feline/canine truce.

When Dale turned the conveyor on and the ear corn started moving out of the crib into the wagon, rats would veritably EXPLODE out of the corn crib in every direction. The kids, dogs and cats would shout in glee during the resultant rat killing melee. I gotta tell you it was sheer bliss killing rats for 20-30 minutes for all involved, bizarre as that may seem. When it was over there were bloody rat corpses all around and we would all then sit under their weeping willow tree and drink lemonade and eat homemade pie that Dale's wife would expertly make. I dearly miss the yearly event and fear that my own children will never be able to partake in such a thing.

Thanks again.
responds:May 26, 2015 4:14 PM UTC

Sounds like Chanelle could have used some Iowa help down at the train tracks.
SidVicMay 26, 2015 11:46 AM UTC

Funny as hell. I've seen the Baltimore rats and it is no exaggeration to describe them as big as cats. Give the kids pump pellet guns and pay a dollar per rat head. On second thought..
responds:May 26, 2015 4:30 PM UTC

I am reposting some other Ghetto Grocer classics for your enjoyment! Beginning now.