For Metrorail, it’s one man vs. mouse (and rat)

To keep mice, rats and bugs at bay, Washington's Metro system uses low-tech sticky cardboard and packets of poison. But the transit agency's best weapon may be 61-year-old exterminator Bob Chialastri. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
March 15

Bob Chialastri explains, “You’ve basically got two types of rodents,” meaning two types in the Metro subway, where Chialastri, a practitioner of the pest-control arts, spends many hours peering at floors and poking in crevices.

You have your ordinary field mice, which commuters see scurrying in stations from time to time. And you have your plump-keistered Norway rats, which, believe Chialastri when he tells you, “Them critters is nasty, you happen to corner one.”

Just now, making his Orange Line rounds, station by station, toting a bucket filled with traps and poisoned bait, he raps on the glass of the mezzanine kiosk in Landover, where manager Brenda Lampkins is on duty. Lately, Lampkins has been a bit distracted at work, beset by anxiety and occasional jolts of mortal fear.

“How you doing today?” Chialastri says, sticking his weathered, beefy face through the kiosk doorway and glancing around. “I’m the exterminator. You having any— ”

“Yeah!” says Lampkins, eyes wide. Rising from her chair, she points to the floor beneath a console of video monitors. “It’s a big, fat mouse in here!”


Bob Chialastri checks over a rail where people often throw trash. Food-related trash is a big lure for rodents. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The reason Metro riders, unlike straphangers in some other big cities, are barred from eating in the subway isn’t because the system has an awful pest problem; it’s because crumbs and discarded leftovers would invite an infestation (or as Chialastri mildly overstates it, “a Black Plague-type situation”). As it is, scofflaws — including snacking transit workers — make it necessary for Metro to contract a full-time rodent killer.

Chialastri, 61, who calls himself “a country boy,” drives 65 miles to work from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and afterward happily retreats across the Bay Bridge, having no interest in the metropolis beyond snuffing out vermin. He says the job demands patience and persistence. So as Lampkins goes on venting about the kiosk rodent, Chialastri, a one-man operation in the transit system, pays close attention to the details.

“It’s in here where they put those traps down,” she tells him.

“And he ain’t coming to it?”

“Nope, uh-uh,” she says. While Chialastri inspects the floor, Lampkins, 56, shakes her head. “I am so horrified of a mouse.” Gesturing to a row of fare machines, she says: “It runs from in here to back over there in an angle. Then it runs back over here. Back and forth, back and forth. . . . He’s got like a little hump in his back.”

Hearing this, Chialastri nods, then breaks the news: “It’s a baby rat,” he says, causing Lampkins to fall silent. “If you’re saying he’s got a hump? Because the way a rat runs, he’s got the front legs up here, and the back legs are up like that.” To illustrate, Chialastri strikes a ratlike pose — if a rat stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 204 pounds with a scraggly beard and a company ball cap. “He’ll be jacked up in the back like that.”

Plus, “their tail is a whole lot longer than a mouse’s,” he says, before outlining for Lampkins his plan for doing away with the elusive creature. Then Lampkins might finally feel comfortable in her chair without rubber bands around the ankles of her pants.

“I was so afraid one day,” she says, “I hurt myself running out the kiosk. I mean, mouse, rat, whatever. I said: ‘He can have it. It’s his. He can run the station.’ ”

Rules and realities

You want to dine in the New York subway? Go ahead, bring a three-course surf-and-turf into the Fulton Street station, finish your dessert on the ride uptown.

Same thing in Boston, where, as in Gotham, you can buy junk food at platform newsstands. In Chicago and Atlanta, you can chow down in stations but not in rail cars, while in Philadelphia, “light snacks” are permitted throughout the subway.

“Some of you race to get the kids to school or daycare so your morning ride may be the only time to eat breakfast before the clock starts ticking on your work day,” Joe Casey, manager of the Philly transit system, told commuters four years ago in relaxing a no-eating rule.

“For others,” he said in the online message, “your evening ride may be the dinner hour — the time between your first and second job or the trip between work and school.”

In the nation’s capital (and in San Francisco and Los Angeles), you’ll have to go hungry. Before Metro’s builders even picked up a shovel in the 1970s, “there was a strong consensus against allowing food,” says historian Zachary M. Schrag, author of “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.” He says, “They were trying to do everything possible to be different from New York, to keep it from getting so grubby.”

Carrying food and beverages is allowed, but consumption is illegal. “It’s also a courtesy thing,” says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “If you’ve ever been on other systems where people open up whole entrees, those odors are not always pleasant.”

By now, after 38 years of Metrorail service, “most people understand and adhere” to the eating ban, Stessel says. “It’s actually become a social more in Washington.” Yet still, in America’s second-busiest subway — averaging 750,000 passenger trips each weekday — gustatory leavings from just a small fraction of riders are enough to attract scurrying gangs of “undesirable inhabitants,” as Stessel calls them.

“Rats, man, rats,” says Manuel Hector, a manager who rotates among stations at the east end of the Orange Line. Standing outside a Stadium-Armory kiosk while Chialastri pokes around the floor, Hector, 43, echoes other workers in the system: “Rats, you’ll see them up here, downstairs on the tracks. You’ll see them all over, especially when it’s quiet.”

He cocks an eye and says, “Big ones, too, sometimes.”

Thus Metro’s $50,000-a-year contract with AB&B Termite & Pest Control, which employs Chialastri, who commutes from Ridgely, Md., a town of 1,600, where he and his girlfriend reside in a century-old farmhouse kept rodent-free by snakes.

Chialastri has worked in pest control sporadically over the past three decades, accumulating about 15 years of experience with a half-dozen companies. After he gave up driving a septic truck six months ago to join AB&B, he was assigned the Metro job.

“I feel like I walk about 20 miles a day,” he says.

Every other week, Chialastri tours the entire subway by train, spreading traps and poisoned bait in all 86 stations. Around and around he goes; when he’s done, he begins again. The rest of his workdays are spent in Metro’s bus garages, maintenance buildings, rail yards and — if a white-collar pest crisis arises — the agency’s executive offices.

For safety reasons, he isn’t allowed to walk in the tunnels, which is fine by him. The tunnels are a “here be dragons” region uncharted by any exterminator, a darkness where, legend has it, gargantuan creatures lurk. Chialastri would rather stay where the people are.

“You know, they eat in them kiosks,” he says at one point, confidentially, out a corner of his mouth. “They ain’t supposed to, and they’ll tell me they don’t. But I know they do.”

He pauses in a station, puts down his bucket. “See, they’ll be eating, they’ll brush themselves off like this, okay? Now, nine times out of 10, that’s all you’ll need to pull an infestation, because them crumbs, they’re like a smorgasbord.” And commuters? “You can ride like me, and within the course of a day, you’ll see how many people don’t even abide by the rules. You’ll see them sitting on the platform having their lunch.”

The traps in his plastic pail smell like peanut butter. They’re little fold-open cardboard tunnels lined with glue. The idea is, a tiny mammal enters and can’t leave without fatally gnawing off a limb or two. Or it is smothered, snout stuck to the glue. Or it dies in there from thirst or hunger — or possibly from embarrassment, since most Metro rodents, it seems, are smart enough not to walk into the things in the first place.

Chialastri prefers your classic snap traps. But using them would be asking for trouble. AB&B’s owner, Robert Buckey, who understands not only rodent behavior but also the litigious instincts of the human species, says, “Suppose some kid sticks his finger in it.”

The poisoned bait, in tiny paper packets that are easy to chew open, is 99.995 percent stuff that tastes good to a rodent and 0.005 percent bromadiolone, which, after a couple of helpings over a couple of days, is lethal. “The one drawback is, he’s going to crawl up and die somewhere, and you can’t find him,” Chialastri says. “Now, have you ever smelled death? Because he is going to stink, and he is going to stink to high heaven.”

In a trap, he’ll occasionally find a mess of formless gray matter that used to be a rodent. In a station, he’ll catch a whiff of a putrid odor. But he rarely sees what he kills. Nor does he encounter many living mice and rats, since they’re nocturnal.

They’re around, though, maybe watching him. “I used to work at Eastern Market,” Lampkins says, meaning the Metro station. As Chialastri tends to his business in the Landover mezzanine, she says: “You’re talking about rats? I knew all the babies and their mammas up there, and it’s a lot — believe me.”

As for the critter in her kiosk, Chialastri has a plan. He’s reluctant to use poison in confined spaces, because of postmortem aromas. But he tells her: “I’m going to do something that goes against everything I believe in. I’m going to put you some bait out in here.”

“All right,” she says.

“Now, have you ever smelled death?”

“Uh-huh, my sister died . . .

“Because you won’t like it, I’ll guarantee you.”

Pests and priorities

The most notorious act of subway noshing in the city occurred Oct. 23, 2000, when Ansche Hedgepeth, 12, wantonly popped a takeout french fry in her mouth on the first day of a week-long Metro crackdown on illegal eating.

Unlike adults, under D.C. law juveniles couldn’t be issued citations for any misdeeds except traffic offenses; they had to be arrested or let go unpunished. A transit officer in the Tenleytown-AU station handcuffed Ansche and hauled her to a police building, where she was held for hours. Because grown-ups nabbed in the crackdown were simply given tickets, lawyers argued that Ansche’s constitutional right to equal protection had been violated.

In a widely publicized legal action taken on the seventh-grader’s behalf, a federal appeals court eventually sided with Metro — but not before the transit agency became a laughingstock, scorned and ridiculed for busting “the french-fry girl.”

The controversy prompted Metro to adopt a policy of issuing written warnings to youngsters caught eating in the subway. If Lil’ Johnnie racks up enough warnings, he could get collared. Yet it’s unclear how many warnings have been issued. “We’re trying to do a better job of keeping track,” says Ronald A. Pavlik Jr., transit police chief.

As for adult citations, fewer than a half-dozen were handed out in the subway last year, a spokeswoman says. Depending on the jurisdiction, fines are $10 to $50 for a first offense and as much as $100 for a subsequent violation. Pavlik attributes the small number of citations partly to “self-policing,” saying, “Most riders know better.”

But it’s also true that in the terrorism age, enforcing snack rules isn’t a priority for police officers safeguarding the underground transit network in the nation’s capital.

Which means onward for the lone exterminator, Bob Chialastri, slouched in his seat aboard an Orange Line train trundling beneath the city’s core, his pail beside him, the next stop always his stop in the eternal struggle against the forces of pestilence.

“You know, I have the utmost respect that I can possibly give a rat,” he says, on the topic of critters he’s wary of. “And raccoons,” although ordinarily he doesn’t mess with varmints bigger than a rat. A trapping company hired by Metro handles the larger wildlife.

“Now a mouse, I could care less,” he says. “A mouse ain’t going to do nothing to you.”

Still ahead on this frigid afternoon, at the Court House station, he’ll snoop around for an energetic rodent that recently has taken up residence in the employee break room. And he’ll confer with two managers at Rosslyn who have been smelling death in their kiosk.

“Makes you sick to your stomach,” one of them will complain, and the other will say: “Mice are crazy, running through here, running over there, on this wall, over by the escalator. They ain’t scared of nothing.”

Owing to the many electrical wires in a subway, Chialastri doesn’t like sticking his hands into unseen places, so his policy on searching for decaying rodent corpses is, he’ll make cursory effort. But the main recovery work should be left to maintenance professionals. “I’ll kill them, you hold the funerals,” is how he enjoys putting it.

In the half-empty Orange Line car, bundled in five layers of winter clothing under his yellow Metro safety vest, Chialastri says, “I started out as a termite man.” This was 30 years ago, after he came out of the Army. “There was an ad in the paper saying they needed a termite man, and they will train. So I’m a school-trained termite man.”

He says, “It just got bigger from there.”

Arriving at Metro Center, he waits for the doors to slide open, then gathers himself as he slowly stands, hitching his pants, smoothing his vest.

And once more in mankind’s futile imagining that the subways might someday belong only to him, the rodent-killer sighs and reaches for his bucket.

“Okay,” he says, “let’s see what we got.”

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