Saturday, January 20, 2007

Me and Rats

Some of you know I worked once upon a time on rat farm. Specifically I worked at West Jersey Biological Supply for Dewey Parker, my friend Suzy's dad. Dewey's rat farm was a supply house for high schools, colleges, and research facilities in the Northeast. He raised white lab rats primarily. He once told me they were pedigreed white rats...but more about that later. He also did some toxicology testing for the beauty products industry testing shampoos, etc on live rabbits and brokered preserved animal parts for use by classes in various schools (sharks, lambs eyes, and on and on). Periodically he'd have hamsters or goats but mostly it was white rats and mice.
I got the job because Ralph Leeds quit. My friend Chuck Holstein was working there and asked Mr. Parker if I could have the job. Dewey had me come to the house and we went out to the building with the rats. It smelled mostly of sawdust, sanitizing agent, and a vague urine scent. While he was discussing my duties a woman and her young son walked in with a rat in a cage. The boys pet. It was sick and they took it to Dewey to see what he could do. He said it was probably going to die but if they'd like he'd give it a safe place to live, a clean cage, food, water and comfort till the end. Followed by a dignified burial. They thanked him and left Dewey, me, and the rat behind. I looked out the window from the second floor and saw them about to get in their car. Just then Dewey pulled the rat out of the cage by it's tail, spun it several times and whacked it on the end of table. Then he tossed it in the trash. Well, that's done, he said. That was my first day on the job.
I lasted about a month. It turns out I was allergic to the hay the rabbits bedded down in and got asthma and had to quit but I learned a great deal about rats and work.
Anyway, you probably all know I'm an exteminator now. I send people out to kill rats, though usually not as directly as Dewey and I did back in the day. I've also written recently about my love for Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old House". I'd forgotten it's long section on rats. It's of a piece with Robert Sullivan's book "Rats" and in many ways takes place in the same byways of old Manhattan. I was interviewed by Kaz Janowski of BBC Radio for a companion piece on the book. I expounded over a couple pints of beer about rats and found myself on the radio at length. You can still listen to my ramblings if you google my name and rats and the bbc.
Finally to bring this little piece to a merciful ending you know I recently visited the Mutter Museum. While there I noted it was funded by the Wistar Institute. I went back and reread "Rats" and noted that the great rat catcher of London, Jack Black, had bred a highly specialized breed of albino white rats and sold them for quite a pretty penny to the Wistar Institute. The Mutter Museum is associated with the Wistar Institute. I called my friend Suzy on the phone and asked her for Dewey's phone number in Nevada. She asked, why? and when I said I needed to know what kind of rats he bred, she said Wistar, he bred Wistar rats.
I've probably done this story before but in less detail. What I'm trying to talk about is the long trail of coincidence and mystery that life makes as it moves along. Where to begin? My name is Jack. I kill rats. I write about rats. I killed the white rat offspring of history's greatest rat catcher. His name was Jack. I was interviewed by the BBC and knew of none of this except how to kill rats. Mr. Mitchell gives less than a line to laboratory rats, doesn't even know they're descended from royalty (Jack Black was the Queen's rat catcher!). Mr. Sullivan knows more but only cares about the ones in his alley. I am not afraid of rats. They're fairly easy to kill. I'm fairly easy to kill. Think about it...rat spelled backward is tar...which means nothing.
But all together it's a great, rich stew on a cold, snowy day. I suggest you pick up a copy of "Rats" or "Up in the Old House", cook up some stew, settle down with a pint of good stout and read about New Yorks most unheralded denizens. I'm going to.
On tap for tomorrow: Why we shouldn't listen to poets talking about poetry

1 comment:

Ms. K said...

You're amazing. Your prose works in much the same way as your poetry. Love when you get to "what I'm trying to talk about..." Indeed, we all have our material.