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The Exterminators 

Rats and roaches and the men (and women) who kill them for us

Thursday, Jul 24 2003
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Page 2 of 6

Several other Western guys were swarming around the apartment, and when Bob entered, Rod said, “You wanna meet an exterminator, you gotta talk to Bob.” Rod is a forthright, kindly fellow, but something about Bob brought out Rod’s inner sadist. “Bob is the elite of pest control,” he sneered. “Bob is the only one of us who said, ‘Daddy, when I grow up, I want to kill bugs for a living.’”

Bob was all height, all girth, like a sofa blocking the hallway. He wore two sets of glasses — safety goggles on his face and sunglasses on top of his head — and a bait gun holstered, cowboy style, at his waist. His face and mustache were sweaty, and his shirt was coming untucked.

“Hey, Bob,” called Rod, “how do you like your job?”

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“I fucking love my goddamn job,” said Bob, as Rod and the others snickered. “Who the fuck wants to know?”

A few days later, I’m sitting next to Bob as he drives his route. Apartment buildings sprawl out before us. The mice run back and forth between units. They chase each other at dusk around the swimming pool. You cannot completely eliminate the roaches, rodents and ants. You can only hope to keep them at bay, to hold the line between their territory and yours. This is the theory on which the monthly service contract is based — the trap, you might say, the company lays for the customer. A one-time cleanout is good. But getting a customer on a monthly route — that’s money. Bob is a foot soldier in the skirmish zone. He makes me carry his bag of tricks — a beaten-up tackle box filled with roach bait, poison gel, surgical gloves, cardboard roach motels, snap traps and other mysterious implements of doom.

“Had that box for 12 years,” he says affectionately.

“It’s a good box, then,” I say, appreciating its heft.

“No,” he grumbles. “It leaks now.”

The tenants open their doors and stagger sleepily back to bed. Every exterminator is part voyeur, taking in the minutiae of other lives: moody corridos on the radio, red devotional candles flickering in bathrooms, chicken feathers scattered on stoves. The tang of sweat, the velvety heaviness of spices. “Feel that?” Bob says. The Indian woman stares at Bob. She doesn’t speak English. “It’s like a sauna in here. A roach sauna. They like that. Los gusta a lot.” Invariably people stand back when Bob comes knocking. A slight genuflect at the door, a curious peep from around a corner hallway. Who is this creepy guy? Others shake their heads at the whole dirty business and leave the house entirely: Just call us when you’re done.

“In 13 years,” he swears, “no one’s ever asked, what are you gonna do with that rat once it’s out. People do not want to know.”

But did he mention that the cardboard roach motels come “pre-scented”? Bob happily holds out a trap for me to sniff, in love with the tools of his trade. Vanilla? Chocolate? Young male-roach sex hormone? “It’s peanut butter.” He grins and shoves the trap underneath a drawer. “German cockroaches only come out at night. If you see one in the day, you have a big problem.” On cue, a roach skitters across the counter.

Bob is a frenzy of rubber and mist. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty . . . we got roaches up the yin yang. Let’s rock and roll, girl. Oh, you want some?” He flails about the kitchen. He bangs on countertops. Roaches drip from the ceiling. They plop on the linoleum, right themselves and stagger away to die. “There’s one! There’s another!” He’s wearing a bubblegum-pink respirator, green dishwashing-style gloves and his uniform — lemon-yellow shirt and green pants. Never mind that he’s dressed like a circus bear; he’s on top of the world. Man versus Beast. Man wins.

“What do you call that?” I ask, pointing at a silver spray canister.

“A bee-and-gee,” Bob says through the respirator.

“A what?”

“How’s your eyesight?”

“Fine.”

“So what’s it say here?” He points at the side of the canister. It’s embossed with the initials B&G.

“So, what’s it stand for?”

“Hell if I know. It’s a bee-and-gee.”

 

Bob is like the Norway rat — aggressive, scrappy, probing, a hustler. His way of introducing himself to anyone he meets on the street is to cajole them into talking about pests: Have they got any roaches, rodents, spiders or ants? Have they ever considered a career in pest control? Partly he does this because his livelihood depends on it, as if every rodent or roach scurrying into the underbrush was a dollar bill waiting to get caught. And partly he does it out of pride. The pursuit of rats and bugs has sunk deep into his salesman’s psyche. The thrill of the sale played out in miniature in the thrill of ‰ the kill. “What, no roaches?” he gibes, offended. “You live in a glass house or something?” Though he talks a lot of smack about bug killing, it has become the standard by which all greatness — physical prowess, mental acuity, salesmanship and deductive logic — is measured. “Have you ever considered doing pest control? You’ve got what it takes” is Bob’s ultimate compliment. It is also his twisted way of flirting.

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