Oh, rats. There’s one aspect of Baltimore she can’t get used to
Seven years ago, my husband landed a job teaching theater at a university on the outskirts of Baltimore. Though I didn’t want to leave my beloved Brooklyn, I put on my rose-colored glasses — I’m an optimist; I really am — and we moved south.
The glasses fogged over.
I suppose it is partly because I remain a relative newcomer — in New York City, everyone is from elsewhere, while in Baltimore everyone was born and raised here or was dragged here kicking and screaming by spouses with dreams of tenure twinkling in their eyes — but there’s one aspect of Charm City I still can’t get used to:
The rat corpses strewn about. And the relative apathy surrounding them.
A month after I moved here, a giant rat met his death by some indeterminate method. He died in the middle of the sidewalk on the corner of my street at the height of summer.
No one disposed of him.
Days went by and I watched, a kind of experiment in neighborliness, hygiene, activism, civics. Would anyone deal with this dead rat lying in the very center of the sidewalk, where all of us had to pass each day several times? Or would we avert our gaze — as I did, myself, a coward cloaked in moral indignation — as we walked past it on the way to the bodega or the mailbox or the dry cleaner?
We averted our eyes.
And the rat, visited by flies and then ants and finally maggots, grew more grotesque. And suddenly one day it was gone.
A neighbor had shown some initiative, some civic responsibility, some consideration, some acknowledgement that we’ve got a problem here — and at great personal cost. “Well done,” I thought. “What a grand city Baltimore is.”
Moments later, as I stepped onto the roadbehind my parallel-parked car to put something in the trunk, I nearly stepped on that same dead, decomposing rat’s head.
Someone had merely knocked it into the gutter with a stick. Or their foot.
The better to forget all about it.
Consider this: They found a dead man on my son’s school playground. Police came and collected the corpse — but for a long time I kept asking folks: “So, who was that guy? Any word on what happened to him? How’d he die?” All I got in response to my questions was a shrug. Here in the nation’s fifth deadliest city — 217 murders last year — folks take these things with troubling equanimity.
Imagine a city of rowhouses built for 1 million people, a Rust Belt town whose boom and bust pattern followed the expected trajectories for steel mills and shipbuilders during the two World Wars. Then, riots on the heels of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death led to white flight in the ’60s and ’70s, leaving a population of 621,342 rattling around in a town built for a million. Now visualize vast swaths of the city where thousands of rowhouses are vacant, boarded up and ready for rodent habitation. Recent foreclosures mean our mortgage crisis is the rats’ boon.
Every once in a while, the city musters up some indignation. As far as I can tell, glancing at media accounts, scientific studies and government reports, this happens every eight years. I attribute this to a population bulge — rat, not human. Here is my theory: Rat colonies get crowded, and territorial squabbles break out as one rat nation-state covets its neighbor’s turf, until there is a world war. Fast-forward a few months, and the rat warriors come limping home to procreate like mad. Enter the boomer rats. Where did all these unruly rats come from and what should be done about them, city officials suddenly demand — approximately every eight years.
The reported rat rate increased from fewer than 10 rats per 1,000 residents in 2002 to 60 per 1,000 in 2009, according to Baltimore CitiStat. A Baltimore City Health Department report that year noted that “the rodent infestation rate in Baltimore is six times the national average.” More recently, 19,869 residents called the city’s 311 number to complain about rats between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 4, 2013, with a slight bump from 7,579 in 2011 to 8,436 in 2012. (This compares to the District’s 311 calls regarding rodents, which rose from 2,820 in 2011 to 3,010 in 2012.) Personally, I’ve called Baltimore’s 311 number for rodent control once when my chubby, not-the-brightest-bulb dog started catching and killing the brazen creatures in my yard one summer; since then, dozens and dozens of rats have darted by, and I haven’t bothered calling.
Baltimore gives the rats free housing, free food, free rein. “Have at!” we tell them, putting our overflowing garbage cans in the dark back alleys.
Baltimore is a place where the rats — and I’m not being metaphorical here, referring to the ones at City Hall who mismanage local affairs or the ex-mayor, convicted a few years back for taking gift cards donated for the poor and giving them to her own children — truly have their run of the city. Baltimore gives the rats free housing, free food, free rein. “Have at!” we tell them, putting our overflowing garbage cans in the dark back alleys unlike say, in New York City, where trash cans are typically placed for pickup on the sidewalks, subject to the streetlights, pedestrians and regular sanitation inspectors that keep rodents in check.
Moving to Baltimore seven years ago sparked an ongoing argument with my husband wherein I regularly insist that the rat infestation here is far worse than anything I had ever seen in Brooklyn, and he regularly insists I am grousing because I never wanted to leave NYC in the first place. But I like Baltimore … except for the racial segregation. And the failing schools. And the homicide rate. And the rats.
This is not about being a tag-along spouse, I argued. This about a rodent-infested city. This is about apathy.
I spent the next several years documenting evidence to prove my point.
I am a very competitive person.
First, I told my husband, I was going to count the number of times I saw rats on my routine strolls through the neighborhood. I was teaching a night class then at nearby Johns Hopkins University and decided to call him every time I saw a rat on my 10-block walk home.
There was only one night all semester that I didn’t call him.
There were some nights I called him twice.
I also gathered photographic proof, an agit-prop art project.
Restricting myself to a two-block radius of my home, for one month I snapped photographs of all the dead rats I saw.
My son, 11 when we moved to Baltimore, assisted me. “Mom, I saw one over by the alley on St. Paul and 27th,” he would say. “It’s a good one. You should see how long his teeth are!”
And he was unusually helpful, enjoying this mother-son bonding project almost as much as when I would take him fishing. “Here,” he said one afternoon, taking the camera from my hands. “I’ll take the pictures while you hold up traffic.” We were trying to get the perfect shot of a rat, hit in the road in broad daylight, dead but not yet smashed by passing cars. I stood in the street to direct the slow-moving traffic around the spot while he crouched close.
“Hurry up!” I urged. “Do you want me to get it or not?” he said. He had the zoom on. “I think these are his intestines,” he marveled.
At the end of the month, I shared my exhibit with my husband.
He was unimpressed with my carnage art. “Keep your day job,” he said.