I first moved to Charm City in September of 1981. Back then, there were still cheap digs to be found in downtown Baltimore, and I settled into the second floor of a carriage house off Mount Vernon Place. Nowadays, carriage houses downtown are freshly painted, remodeled, subdivided flats with solid wooden doors and window boxes to provide old world charm; in the 1980s, carriage houses were storage garages on service alleys. Still, it was a neighborhood serene.
Some people say Baltimore has a rat problem. Sure, you can find Charm City rats, although I hasten to point out that the folks at Orkin, who rank these things, report Washington, D.C., and New York City each have a bigger rat problem than Baltimore.
Side by side, humans and rats have spread across the globe. Coastal cities have always been ports of entry to new lands, and when the first European ships sailed up the Chesapeake into the Patapsco River, both brown rats (Rattus norvegicus, aka wharf rat) and black rats (Rattus rattus, aka ship rat) were aboard. Lush land along the Chesapeake made a hospitable place to call home. Even before the humans rowed their tenders to shore, the rats had climbed up from the ships’ holds beneath, scurried down ropes to the water surface, and swum to the shoreline’s marshy edge. There have been rats in Baltimore since the first house was built along the Jones Falls; descendants of those seafaring rats dispersed as the city grew.
My carriage house had a large loft with a mezzanine kitchen above and a garage on the ground level. I had no idea what was in the garage, behind the gnawed door secured with a padlock. Unconcerned and comfortable in my airy realm, I lost no sleep. The alley was quiet and I rarely saw neighbors. Occasionally, walking home at night I would see a rat tending to rodent business, but city life means living close by fellow citizens. This four-footed neighbor seemed no more interested in me than I in him. Arriving at our destinations, he would dart into some grate and I would scamper upstairs to my perch. It was a harmonious arrangement.
Then one week in June, I was reminded of just who was a natural-born resident of Charm City and who was the out-of-town renter.
I came home from work on a Monday afternoon ready to unwind. Ascending to my elevated nest, I discovered a brown rat casually hanging out in my domain. Nothing snaps you out of a reverie quite like finding an intruder in your home. Equally startled, the stranger hastened to find a hiding place but the loft was sparsely furnished, and the best he could manage was to huddle in a corner.
I grabbed a banker’s box and dumped years of calculus notes on the floor. Trapping the trespasser, I was proud of my first-time rat-herder effort. Kneeling over the cardboard cage, I turned the box upright but was too slow with the lid. An eleven-inch brown rat can jump from a standing position three feet straight up. In an instant, visions of myself as the victorious hunter were displaced by the sight of an incoming rat flying at eye level. Fearing the hunter had become the hunted I did what anyone would… I fell over backwards on the floor.
With nowhere to hide in my spartan space, the rat, whom I had to admire for his tenacity and agility, had no choice but to dart into the next corner. With one failed attempt under my belt, I recaptured the creature and, in one smooth movement, flipped the box and secured the cover. Finally I had him where I wanted him!
Anxious to evict, I cranked open the casement window and poured the beast onto the pavement below. I thought the fall might kill him. At the very least he’d be bruised up enough that he wouldn’t want to come back.
As it turns out, a rodent who can vault three feet in the air without breaking a sweat can easily fall twenty feet or more without injury. He landed like a Gotham superhero, looked around to regain his bearings, blinked in the bright sun—or winked at me, I can’t be sure which—then dashed under the garage door directly beneath my feet.
I had let my large-brained species down.
Tuesday evening I was on guard but came home to an apparently deserted space. Clearly the emotional trauma was mutual, and we’d each declared a truce.
I was wrong.
On Wednesday, I came home, climbed the stairs, and sensed instantly I was not alone. Up in the kitchen, I startled ten, maybe twelve, medium-sized rats in the pantry playing in spilled flour as if it was their own private beach. Like humans, rats are highly social creatures and, like us, they apparently enjoy getting together for a good meal.
Barging in on their dinner party, I yelped with alarm. The tone and volume of my voice frightened them, in turn. They may have squeaked, too, but I wouldn’t have known since most rat communication is above the audible range for humans. However it was transmitted, the threat message was clearly broadcast. They sprinted and tumbled and jumped off the counter, disappearing under the cabinets and into their secret passageways.
Surveying the damage, I understood why a group of rats is called a mischief. The pantry showed no evidence of orderly rodent turn-taking. Once the bacchanal had begun it was every rat for themselves. The top of the flour package was open, holes had been gnawed through the bottom as well, and the contents had sifted out and piled up into dunes. Powdered paws left little tracks of the frenetic getaway all over the marble countertop. Baltimore’s best detective would have needed a month to recreate the scene.
That evening was spent applying my big brain to the problem of securing the pantry and thereby removing the allure of my abode. First, I disposed of any food the mischief might have sampled or trampled. The remaining provisions fit in mouse-proof tins in the fridge (even so, I wasn’t entirely confident it would hold). Next, I scoured the surfaces to remove crumbs and flour in an attempt to eliminate any enticing sights and smells, as well as germs and rat cooties.
What I didn’t know then was that rats leave a trail of pheromones in their wake when fleeing dangerous and stressful situations. The scent serves as a community warning to avoid the area. I wasn’t scrubbing off the “all-night diner” sign; I was washing away the “condemned property” sign.
Thursday—all quiet on the home front. Success! Arriving home on Friday, I heard not so much as a near ultrasonic chirp. Finally, I appeared to have the upper hand. But alas, the memory of that floury dinner drove me from my kitchen. I sauntered down to The Buttery for a grilled ham and swiss with fries. Afterward, I crossed to Louie’s for a beer and social time with my own species. Back home later that night, I settled onto my futon on the floor. Tired from the beer and the battles of the week, sleep came quickly.
It did not last.
A gentle nudging roused me awake. I opened my eyes in the dark bedroom to find a fat brown rat casually nosing about the foot of my futon. Much bigger than my other visitors, this must have been the mother of the mischief, come to check me out for herself. Or maybe she was looking for a comfortable bed for her next litter of pups; rats are highly adaptive, able to nest in the most inhospitable places—under sidewalks, inside sewers—but they are quick to claim more welcoming quarters, such as heated human structures, when opportunity knocks. This gal had lucked into a cozy cottage with a colossal cotton crib.
Rats have always been a part of the Baltimore ecosystem. They are highly adaptive, generalist species, just like humans. They are here to stay and I can live with that… but I don’t want them as roommates.
I’ll admit the Mother of Mischiefs was more friendly than menacing, more calm than crazed. In that middle-of-the-night moment, however, the same could not be said of me. A massive rat was in my bed so, more crazed than calm, I jumped straight up from a prone position while throwing a shoe.
A brown rat’s heart beats, on average, about four hundred times per minute. I had the heart of a brown rat that night. My pulse racing, I couldn’t aim well enough to hit her, but she was gone. Between the residual adrenaline and the carriage house lit like Memorial Stadium for the World Series, I didn’t sleep again that night.
Indeed, I never slept another minute in that carriage house. I’d been planning on leaving the alley in a month but knew when I was beaten. I pulled out when the sun came up, moving to a neighborhood where the row houses were colonized by my own bipedal breed. I left the alley to the resilient four-footed colonists and, hundreds of generations later, descendants of my flatmates still walk the streets of Baltimore.