The Legendary Lower East Side Rat Killer
A rat in my kitchen spurs a community to action
I heard noises under the sink. Loud noises.
Then, there he was, next to the stove, an 8-inch blob of matted fur studded with scarily intelligent black eyes. He had come to check me out. He peered up at me, bewildered and irritated. I read him loud and clear: “Who the hell are you?”
We stared at each other. My body took a moment to shoot adrenaline, and then I came to my senses. I stamped my bare feet. I yelled, firmly, GO AWAY, three times.
He stared back, considering my ridiculous performance.
I stamped again. Yelled again. Finally, having paused long enough to prove his indifference, he turned and dragged his hairless tail back into the dark.
Ten minutes later I sat at my local coffee shop as Europeans streamed in; a soccer game had just ended and espressos were required. From the sidewalk, I had just telephoned Richard, my delinquent Fire-Island based illegal-sublet landlord. I was unable to keep a hysterical note out of my voice as I screamed, “I looked him in the eye! They have no fear, Richard, THEY. HAVE. NO. FEAR.”
I burst into tears as a large man in a Pest Control uniform looked on. A girl who passed by walking her dog asked if I was all right. I worried she might think I was a junkie, disheveled and sweaty and breaking down on the sidewalk at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The truth was, I desperately needed a shower. There probably were junkies in the LES cleaner than me.
Richard averred that he felt my pain, and promised me he’d arrange an exterminator and call me back.
Two hours later, no call. In the meantime, I had done some internet research which told me that rats were disease ridden and aggressive and shit all over the place. But I also confirmed that in daytime, rodents make themselves scarce. So, sweatier by the minute, I thought I’d go home, take a shower, and gather some things to take refuge at a friend’s.
Back at 172 Rivington, I flung open the door and beat my hand against the sink. No noise. Good. Inside the apartment I immediately peeled out of my underwear, then stopped to use the bathroom before taking off my dress. About to sit on the toilet, I heard something and startled.
There in the corner was another giant rat. It seemed to be cowering. I cowered more. I jumped, ran away, grabbed my phone and some flip-flops and stumbled out of the apartment. Suddenly I realized I had left my underwear on the apartment floor. But I wasn’t going back. Whether this was an all-out-invasion or the same rat, I wasn’t sticking around to find out.
I called Richard again. No answer. Downstairs sat Umberto, the Puerto Rican building super who hated the under-40 invaders of his formerly geriatric, now gentrifying building. He especially hated me, since I wasn’t even a real tenant, just a lowly subletter.
Maybe he would help me anyway. I pulled myself together and sat down on the stairs.
“Umberto, maybe you can help me. There is a giant rat in my bathroom. Actually, it’s been in the apartment since early this morning when it woke me up.”
He looked up at the ceiling, shook his head, and scratched at his chin.
“You can go in there. You shouldn’t be afraid.”
Then he turned and started at me, nearly poker faced, except for maybe the smallest hint of smugness.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I apologized, embarrassed.
He stared at the dirty surface of his little fold-up table, then finally got up and pulled a ripped envelope out of the broom closet. He scrawled a number onto the corner with a pencil.
“Call this number. Mercedes. She owns the building.”
Mercedes lived in the Bronx and was also Puerto Rican, but a brasher, tartier version than Umberto. She was surprisingly friendly. I told her Umberto had given me her number and explained the situation.
“The rat is IN your apartment? This is bad!”
“Umberto didn’t help you? He a man and he didn’t help you?”
“Yes, he’s the super, isn’t he?”
“No, no, my son Pedro, he the super now. But I just talked to him and he at a friend’s. Anyway, he scared a rats.”
“OK. Should we call an exterminator then?”
“Nobody gonna come on Saturday.”
“Well, what do you recommend I do?”
“Let me think. I dunno. Du-no. Let me think. This is bad.”
“I GOT IT! You know the upholstery shop, next door? Ask the man there if he’ll help you.”
I was confused.
“How’s he going to help me?”
“HE KILL THE RAT!”
Well, here was a novel idea. Kill the rat.
Actually, it seemed like a terrible idea, but I was growing short on options. So to the upholstery shop I went—strongly regretting that, about to approach a man I had never met and ask him to kill a giant rat, I wasn’t wearing underwear.
Hector, who was fit and perhaps 45, turned out to be the owner of both the upholstery shop and the barber shop. He was talking on his cell phone outside when I approached, and smiled at me kindly.
I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject, so I just blurted it all out, no commas.
“There’s a giant rat in my bathroom and Mercedes said I should come and get you to kill it.”
We locked eyes.
“A big rat?”
“OK, I will do it.”
I nearly fell over. He was willing to kill the rat. Intrigued, even.
“How will you do it?”
“With wood. I whack it.” He shrugged. “I’m not afraid of rats. I kill them all the time.”
He went inside, amid the bolts of upholstery fabric, and returned with a broomstick. I showed him the way.
Back at the apartment, we both peaked our heads in. Cartoon style, we looked right. Then left. Nothing. We tiptoed back to the bathroom—me first, allowing me to kick my discarded underwear out of sight. The humiliations of the day were stacking up.
In the bathroom, the rat was still cowering behind the toilet. Hector took the scene in.
“My. God,” he said, wiping his brow.
“That a … big rat.”
I felt proud that my rat could impress even Hector, the legendary Lower East Side rat killer.
“I never seen such a rat.”
He looked around the apartment and quickly realized that if he didn’t get it at first strike, which seemed likely, there would be many, many other places for the rat to hide.
“I don’t think I should kill this rat. This rat will run. Instead, we will lock it in the bathroom.”
Right. Lock it in the bathroom.
I had him grab my toothbrush, contact fluid, and makeup and watched him for a moment as he busied himself with the task of barricading the door, which for reasons I won’t bother to explain, required both a table knife and an area rug.
Hector returned to the kitchen, declaring the rat trapped. “Now what?” I asked.
“We come back later in case it ate poison and died. He acting funny anyway.”
“But what if there’s another rat?”
“Of course there’s another rat. That’s how rats are. That’s why you gotta keep killing them.”
And so we left, I with my pink suitcase, Hector with his broomstick.
Later I called back Mercedes, told her what happened, and asked if there were empty units in the building where I could stay until the apartment was clean.
“Oh no. You don’t want to stay in that building,” she said, in the chummy tone of a girlfriend giving me her best advice.
“Not with all those rats.”
A day later, I came back to pick up some paperwork – what I needed to rent the new apartment I’d just applied for, in fact. I dreaded my return.
Umberto was in the hallway. He threw his hands up when he saw me.
“Why you not ask me to help you yesterday?!”
I didn’t even bother to dispute him. Someone had clearly already insulted his manhood.
“Well, here we are,” I said with a smile. “Help me now.”
He grabbed a broom, now just as game as Hector had been to jump into action. Obviously Mercedes had given him a few choice words and his manhood was in the balance.
Sure enough, the rat was still there. And still alive. As soon as I saw it moving, I fled to the hallway. I heard a WHACK and a SQUEAK, pounding footsteps and Umberto’s bellows. Then more WHACKING, more SQUEAKING. And finally a victorious shout.
“I KILLED HIM! I KILLED HIM!”
I raced back into the apartment. Like a cat bringing home tribute, he proudly held the dustpan up.
“I KILLED THE MOTHERFUCKER!! No more rat. I am not afraid of no rats.”