Jeff Phillips: Rat Trap

[Photo from Business Insider Australia]
This was a time of rats. Bad smells would sink into furnace blasts, blown in through the vents. A fat, foot-long rat’s corpse with a broken neck in a trap would be found in the water heater closet. A drunken female friend would be more courageous than I to reach down and put it in a black trash bag. I’d come home in the evening and interrupt a large rat licking grease smears on the stove-top, jumping down quick as my shadow rounded into the kitchen.

I had a shaved head for a movie role and there was one night I woke up to pee. When I lay my head back down, in my grogginess, I couldn’t quite tell if it was just the new stubble on my noggin, somehow gripping the corner of the pillow, causing it to stick, and curl up against my ear, as I cozied my head back into the pillow’s center; or if it was the firm shape of a rat’s body that rolled up into my head. The next day I found the silvery remnants of a granola bar wrapper, punctured with nibble marks – the bar itself missing – beside my bed.

I lived in that Wicker Park basement apartment with my good friend Donny Rodriguez during my Junior year of college. The year we both turned 21, and our tendency to egg each other on with cans of Miller Lite and goofing around at bars outside the apartment, kept us warm on the inside and distracted from the infestation. We were a little too lenient with the time it took our building’s maintenance man, Andy, to return our calls and send out an exterminator. He would promise to send one early next week. And none would come. The rats would continue to scamper and devour the dry ramen noodle packages in our pantry. We’d call again and the cycle would repeat. I’d tell people at work and they would suggest calling 311: “call the City on their ass!” I then called the leasing agent who showed us our apartment, who witnessed our gleeful dance up and down when we got approved without co-signers for the shitty garden unit, instead of Andy. When she asked how long this had been going on – about a month and half –  she cursed Andy and said this would be resolved. And it was, for a time. And Andy was no longer listed in the directory of contacts at Eak Properties.

The garden unit we were so excited about: There was a front door, 5 windows with thin iron bars running across them. There was a storage room at the back of the kitchen, with a raised cement floor a step above when you opened the door to go into it. A lone naked bulb shined down on cracked cement and dust and cobwebs in the corner. There was another door in the back of this storage room, which would have led to the backyard, had it not been for the rusted accordion gate that padlocked it shut. And we never bothered to make it an operable exit. We just used the storage room to house several folded up ping pong tables for a shady friend, furthering blockage of the real back door.

The details of the layout are important for the next part of the story.

One winter night, Donny and I were at a friend’s party. Donny left before I did, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to spend the night at his girlfriend’s place, or if he was going to head back to our apartment. He’d figure that out on the bus. So we just said goodnight and see you tomorrow.

When I arrived home around 3 AM, I unlocked the deadbolt. I unlocked the door knob lock. I tried opening the door as usual but it wouldn’t budge. I gave it a good few shoves but there was some other lock holding it shut. I double checked the deadbolt and the knob to confirm I hadn’t locked them when I had thought I unlocked them, but I was correct the first time.

We did have a 3rd lock on the front door, a latch, the likes of which are usually found on a bathroom stall door. We never used it.

But maybe Donny used it on this night? Maybe he was mad at me for an unapparent reason? Maybe his girlfriend had come over here and he just wanted some privacy? I didn’t care about respecting that privacy on this night, it was frigid outside and I needed shelter. I tried calling Donny but the call went straight to voicemail. I tried knocking on the door. Then his bedroom window, which was just to the right of the door. There was no answer from within. No noise or light being turned. No opening of the door for me.

Maybe the icy temperatures had caused the door to freeze shut?

Desperate to get in, I threw my body against the door a good six or seven times until it gave way, and sure enough, it was the 3rd latch that had shut me out. With my weight, it ripped free from the screws that secured it to the door, and a deep gouge remained in the door frame.

Ready to chew Donny out for latching that thing, I went to his bedroom door, but his bedroom door was open and he wasn’t in there. He wasn’t anywhere in the apartment. No one was in there but me.

Given the layout, barred windows, barricaded and rusted shut back door, there was no means for Donny to slide shut the 3rd latch on the front door, and then leave the apartment.

With the two remaining locks, I shut myself in, crawled into bed, and tried to wrap my head around the physics. I just thought about how the dead rats probably saw me as an intrusion, as a negative entity. And now they had invisibility cloaks and wanted to take action so they could have the place to themselves.

When summer rolled around, I was watching Elimidate, and the kitchen light went out. I put the show on mute and went to replace the bulb, but discovered the light switch had physically been moved to the off position. Again, I was by myself. The kitchen felt like a walk in freezer, but this was one of the muggiest days of late July and we didn’t have air conditioning.

I turned the light back on and minutes later the small basement apartment was a place to sweat in again.

The rat problem returned a few weeks later. Our property managers brought in some glue traps. When Donny and I returned home one evening, we found a baby rat struggling with feet stuck in the trap. It was screaming. Knowing it was our complaints that led to this panic and pain, we felt the urge to save its life. We picked up the trap and took it across the street and used fallen twigs to help scrape the stickiness from its feet, to help wiggle it from the adhesive surface. The baby rat shrieked and until its limbs were completely free and propelling its run down the street, we saw the absolute face of terror.

The rat problem seemed to stop altogether when they tore up the front porch of rotted wood, where below it, numerous entry points in the foundation were discovered. The demolition, and the laying of concrete in its place, occurred in early August. Both Donny and I moved at the end of the month, so we cannot speak to the longevity of that solution. But every time I’m on the Blue Line, as the train starts to descend underground, passing towards Division, I’m able to catch a quick glimpse of our old apartment. I always wonder about the place’s current critter status, both the living and the disembodied kind. And whether such critters really aren’t so different than Donny and I, just wanting to eat a Little Caesar’s Hot-N-Ready, and play their species’ own variation of PlayStation’s MVP Baseball, in peace.

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