By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At a job site, he worries about gear left alone in the way a mother frets about an untended baby, as if someone might run up and spirit it away at any moment. He worries about leaving his truck unlocked. More than once in the course of the afternoon, he berates me for leaving his tank or his box alone outside an apartment. Like anyone in his right mind is going to snatch a mad-scientist metal canister loaded with poison, I say, or a heavy black box plastered with skull-and-crossbones stickers screaming “DANGER! Peligro!”
But people do. People have, he says. Pest control is rat-eat-rat — there’s little honor among thieves, or rival exterminators. “I tell my guys, always, always lock your truck. Say you leave your route card in the front seat. Some other guy working for some other pest-control company sees it, comes in and steals it. Now he knows your next appointment. Now he calls them up and says, Hello, Mrs. Smith, I understand Bob from Western is meeting you at 3:30, but I can meet you at 3 o’clock and give you the same service for 20 bucks less. Now he knows who all your customers are for the next few months because there they are written out on your card. Now he knows their phone numbers, their addresses, their alarm codes. Maybe he even steals your box where you’ve got all the keys to all their front doors that they’ve given you because they trust you to take care of their pest issues while they’re gone on vacation. Trust,” he says. “It’s about trust.”
Western Exterminator was established in the early 1920s, when 25-year-old Carl Strom arrived stateside from Sweden. Trace his movements and you’d draw a line from Stockholm to Brooklyn to San Pedro. Back then, rough-and-tumble exterminators mixed their own bulk poisons in the backs of their trucks, cutting bottles of strychnine or arsenic into bite-size portions. Before chemical pesticides, humans and insects coexisted in relative “live and let live” fashion. But with technological advances and reduced contact with pests, urbanites grew less tolerant. Nationwide, pest control today is an $8-billion-a-year industry; pest control is a $1-billion-a-year industry in California alone.
Western is the largest family-owned exterminating company on the West Coast, and its diligent worker bees are descended, metaphorically and somewhat literally, from a single genetic line, a highly structured colony. Somewhere at the top of the hive, behind glass walls back at Corporate, are Strom’s original descendants. There are entomologists to research the bugs, track the chemicals. Then there are the field technicians, who drive around the city on fixed routes on 20-day cycles. Certain routes, such as the ones in Beverly Hills, are more coveted than others. Supervisors command the field techs in teams of five to six. Bob is a supervisor (“Team Bob”), as is Rod (“Team Rod”). Moving on up the chain, the supervisors have a supervisor, who in turn has a supervisor. Every so often, orders come down from on high to rotate the supervisors and techs — Team Bob and Team Rod are never composed of the same worker bees. The idea is to minimize attachment so that techs are less inclined to “take advantage of” their team leaders.
The main branch office itself, called Service Center One, sits atop a hill on Temple Boulevard overlooking the 101 freeway. It is a nondescript prefab pseudo-industrial building, with a gaggle of cubicles. Glenn, the manager, is tucked into an office in the back corner. Dispatch commands radiate from him outward to the exterminators. As Bob shuttles around the city, raging to heavy metal, a blue key stuck onto the jugular of the steering wheel’s neck beeps at regular intervals. It beeps every seven minutes that Bob’s truck is parked. It knows how fast Bob drives. It knows how far. It knows how many stops in how much time.
In the parking lot, a fleet of gleaming yellow vehicles vigilantly await dispatch. Managers drive yellow Volkswagen Beetles. Field techs drive trucks. Rear-mounted on each truck is a statuette of a little man in a top hat. He wags a finger in admonishment with one hand, packs a mallet behind his back with the other. Man and mouse have been at opposite ends of the stick for centuries, but look closely at the trucks and you’ll see there is no bug, no roach, no rat. At some point in the Little Man’s evolution, the rat was removed by executive decree. Now the rat is implied. It is about suggestion, absence. The idea of the rat is enough.
“Please let me see The Chamber,” I beg. Bob and I are having one of our typical semiantagonistic, frustrating, quid-pro-quo Clarice-Starling-versus-Hannibal-Lecter-but-about-rodents conversations. The Chamber is a top-secret, very private, no-unauthorized-personnel-allowed 50-gallon metal tank where Bob — and, at his office, only Bob — puts the animals after they’ve been trapped. It is where the critters go to die.
“No,” he says.
“You don’t need to see The Chamber. The skunk goes in the cage. The cage goes in The Chamber. The skunk goes to sleep forever. End of story.”