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The Exterminators

Photos by Jack Gould

Rats!

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

And bit the babies in the cradles . . .

And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles . . .

And even spoiled the women’s chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

— Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

In the early morning, Rattus rattus scratches behind the bedroom wall. It scrambles inside the kitchen-ceiling light, brown body rattling the milky plexiglass shade, hefty as a well-fed kitten. Every night it roams the cavernous piano body, where delicate wires fan out like combed nerves. Every night it bestows the musician a tiny gift: a turd. The musician hates Rattus rattus with a passion. He calls Bob the exterminator.

From his yellow truck, Bob scopes out the lot. “Bet he’s running along that gable,” he mutters, eyeing the spot on the Neo-Victorian where the telephone line tethers to the angled roof. “That’s right, Mr. Rat-rat, I got your number.”

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: Fred Reese is the night exterminator, the vampire, the rat man. Armando Cosio ’s two-man company, La Cucaracha, won a big job ridding the post office of pigeons; the only problem was that he had to kill them. Josie Trevino , one of the few women in pest control, envisions a legion of trucks featuring her Desert Bug Stormers logo.

Bob sets spring-loaded wooden traps high in cabinets and behind ceiling lights. He smears the snapper’s business end with a dollop of mashed walnut. The musician and his wife shiver with delight. Doesn’t Bob want to put traps inside the piano? they ask.

“Absolutely we can put ’em inside,” Bob says gleefully, “just so long as you don’t mind cleaning up the blood.” The musician blanches, his Japanese wife shudders and waves her hands in dismay. No, no, that’s all right, catch him somewhere else.

The musician strokes his beard in concentration, plotting countermeasures. He is appraising his house with a whole new perspective. “When we catch him, do you want us to save him for you?” he asks expectantly.

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” says Bob, cocking his hat.

“Well, darn,” says the musician, disappointed. “Rats.”

It’s been said that if you removed all the concrete, glass and steel in all the buildings where ants hide out, you could still clearly see the outline of the city with the ants floating in midair. Add to this the termites, which, if they are of the subterranean sort, march in the millions per colony. Add to this the roaches, which, even if you baited, trapped and sprayed all but one egg-carrying female out of one apartment in a complex, that single female would simply pick up house, set up in the apartment next door and reproduce at a rate of 30 baby roaches a year, out of which another female would in turn pick up house, lay eggs, hatch her 30 baby roaches, and so forth and so on. Add to this the Norway rats, which, if you outfitted them with radio collars, you’d discover travel up to 150 feet in a single evening. Then add in all the bees, wasps, slugs, silverfish, fleas, moths, snails, roly-polies, possums, squirrels, mice and the occasional wayward skunk, and you would start to get a sense of what the exterminator is up against. At the musician’s house, we’d come in for a rat, but as we leave, Bob spots some ants crawling on the driveway. “You see?” he says earnestly. “If I do a good job with his rat, maybe later he calls me back to take care of his ants.” All an exterminator has is time.

 

I first met Bob De haseth on a rainy day in winter, the kind of day pest controllers argue about whether it is a good rodent-roach-ant day or bad. Bob works for Western Exterminator, and that day I was watching another Western guy, Rod, kill roaches at an apartment building. Rod was in the middle of describing the relationship between pesticides and cockroach death posture. “When you use an insecticide, you’ll find the roach flipped over on its back. Immediate kill. Roach spasms and flips over. But when you use a bait gel, which is a slow-acting stomach poison, the roach will be running along, and a day or two later his metabolism has slowed down so much that he just dies in the middle of whatever he’s doing. You’ll find him standing straight up.” He poked under a cabinet, and there it was, barely bigger than a fingertip, a little caramel-colored cockroach pitched forward on a front-leg handstand like an Olympic gymnast. “It’s an agonizing death, really.”

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?”

“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.

At the grocery store, shopping for skunk bait, Bob makes me close my eyes while he secretively picks out a can of “mystery” lure. Bob is also like the roof rat, the kind of rat Norways eat for dinner — elusive, obtuse, sly. “You want me to give up all my secrets? No thanks, Lois Lane.” He’s had 12 years to think about skunks and what they’ll eat. He’s tried and rejected marshmallows, cashews, walnuts, dry cat food, wet cat food and tuna fish. He is considered the best trapper at his branch office — there isn’t an animal invented he can’t catch. After flirting with the checkout girl — “Heyyy, girl. Have you ever considered doing pest control? You’ve got what it takes” — he guardedly wraps his purchase in a brown paper bag.

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.

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because what?”

“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.”

“But how does it work? Do you create a vacuum?” I ask. “Does its head explode? Do its eyes bug out?”

“No! This isn’t Red Planet. This isn’t Total Recall

The exterminator business, as I understand it, comes with an innate image problem: the business of exterminating. Cleanliness is next to godliness, but it’s also next to deadliness. People hire you to get rid of the critters, but then despise you for doing it. They hate the thought of rats, but then hate the thought of pesticides. Killing is mostly fine for ants and roaches and fleas — surely an insect has no feelings — but what about a skunk? Crossing the invertebrate-vertebrate zone, things get hazy. Animal-rights activists call you a murderer, but who among them wants to bed down with a rat? You channel other people’s bad karma. You absorb their guilt. You keep their restaurants in the clear, keep them safe from the plague and from things going squeak in the night.

“Do you ever feel bad about the killing?” I ask.

“Never. We hate rats. We feel no mercy. Look,” he sighs, “if I ran over a dog in my truck, I’d probably stop and take it to the hospital.”

“Okay, what if you ran over a skunk?”

“I’d back right over it,” he counters, half-joking. “Because a skunk is a varmint.”

“And a dog isn’t?”

“No,” he says with finality, “a dog isn’t.” I ask him where he draws the line. “I’m not gonna have sympathy for a rat. It’s not a human. It’s a rat!”

This is the Chamber process as Bob describes it: He flips the switch on a pump attached to the tank. The oxygen is removed. Bob won’t say how, but on the Web sites of various manufacturers it’s done by pumping in either carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide or other poison gases. It takes three to five minutes. The animal suffocates and dies. It’s supposed to be the easiest, quickest, most humane way to go. Easier (for skunk, exterminator and corporate image alike) and more effective than, say, getting bashed on the head with a big hammer.

By midafternoon, we’re at a bird job on the roof of a dental clinic: Operation Pigeon Out. When they see Bob coming, the other exterminators hoot, “Hey, Bob, get that dead rat out of your teeth!” and “Hey, Bob, clean the mice outta your truck!” Tin pans of poison corn were stationed at each of the building’s four cardinal points: north, east, south, west. “Pigeon LSD. They get confused after they eat it and don’t remember how to get back home,” says Bob from the floor, where he lies curled in a fetal position, his beached-whale stomach lolling under a vent. “Want a pigeon skeleton?” he adds, chucking a clump of bird vertebrae at my feet. With a six-pack of beer, the exterminators could be just a crew of neighborhood dads, patching the roof on a Sunday afternoon. I could see the manly-man appeal of the job — no suits, no ties, no fluorescent lights. And you get to do Boy Scouty things with hardware supplies.

It was his dad, Bob confides with a touch of bitterness, who knew somebody who knew somebody who killed bugs, who “dropped him off in pest control” 12 years ago when Bob was unemployed and suffering through one of his divorces. The money was good. Bob stayed.

Bob is full of tall tales. We’re at Subway, where he has lunch and dinner every day. Once, he tells me, he stared down a huge Norway in a pizza parlor, snout to snout, grabbed it by the tail and swished it into a garbage can. Once he was driving home from a cleanout and he found a cockroach hitching a ride on his neck. Once he got to a place and there were so many roaches that the walls seemed to ripple.

And once, Bob was called in to wrangle a rat in a grocery store that was chewing through the foil wrappers on the candy bars. He and the store’s owner had corralled the rat into the back aisle. “I told the guy, ‘Okay, this rat’s gonna run down the aisle towards you. When it gets to you, you step on its tail and I’ll come get it.’” Bob made a loud noise, and, sure enough, the rat ran where Bob had predicted. The tiny booth into which Bob had squeezed suddenly seemed too small a place — here was a king of pests, a rodent Svengali. “The guy started screaming, ‘Arrgh!’” Bob tells me. “Like a girl! Like a little girl . . . So then the rat ran to me and I stepped on its back. Trapped it right under my boot. ‘Do you hear that?’ I asked the guy as I held down this squealing rat. ‘Do you hear it?’” Bob said, leaning over for emphasis in between bites of his turkey on white.

“‘What?’ the guy said.

“Crrrrrrickkkk!!” said Bob, gently putting down his foot, “That was its skull.”

 

Flying down the street with J. Lo on the radio: “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got . . . Used to have a little, now I have a lot.” Blaring his horn at pedestrians, Bob drives to a Hollywood Hills house to bag that skunk. The owner is a film producer. “He’s big-time!” Bob says bouncily. Cell phones ring as exterminators chitter over the airwaves. “Jesus God fucking dammit, did I not fucking tell you to use the motherfucking strychnine?” he screams into his phone. “Please pardon Bob’s cursing,” he apologizes. “Bob meant motherflipping strychnine.”

At sunset, the mansion atop the hills is a blaze of white marble. It is fresh and minimal and Zen, a house made of glass. Bob’s truck crunches on the gravel driveway, and as we pull to a stop, we can see the owner through a screen of green bamboo, standing by his front door, tapping one bare foot. He’s pissed. We are exactly three minutes late. “Shit,” Bob says. “Let me handle this.”

“Where have you been?” says the owner angrily, in spotless white shorts and tank top. “That other guy, he’s no good. He did a terrible job. Terrible! You are not getting paid. You’re not getting any money.”

“Sir, I’m very sorry about that, sir,” Bob says humbly, eyes to the ground. “Let me go ahead and take care of this for you, sir.” The owner gives Bob a withering look and waves him around to the back yard with the stellar view. “And don’t touch any of the furniture on your way out. I just had it cleaned.” ‰

“He’s just upset about his skunk. See that hole Bob says, pointing down. “Ground squirrel.” He crouches to examine the vent where the skunk has been sneaking in at night. The grate has been chewed through. This is where he’ll put the “Have-a-Heart” metal cage that will trap the animal. He’ll fence off any alternative routes with wire mesh so the skunk has no choice but doom. Bob’s rigged the Have-a-Hearts with little guillotines, he says, looking up. I grimace. “God! You believed me? I’m just kidding,” he softens at my horrified expression. The owner’s cat swishes its tail, eyeing us from behind a glass wall. “Aww, fuck,” Bob smacks his forehead, remembering. “Damn. I can’t set this trap today.” In a fit of generosity, he had given the last of his wire mesh to the musician. He’ll have to come back tomorrow.

The modern image of the exterminator is clean and professional. Antiseptic. Contrary to the romance of the Pied Piper, sometime savior of the populace, leading marauding rats away from the city with his siren song. Bob was full of tall tales, but he was also full of small ones, humble ones about how he gets to see his two sons only on weekends, about how his doctor wants him to lose 100 pounds, about how at night when he’s not too tired, which is less and less frequent these days, he logs on to eBay and bids on toy cars.

“I could live in a house like this,” he decides, standing up, and I wonder how many skunks and how many rats it would take to get this view. “Or better yet, here’s a good deal: You get the house. You got my number. I’ll come and get the rats.”

Headed back to home base, I ask Bob what he’s going to do with the skunk once it’s trapped. What vile, repulsive, gut-bursting, skull-crunching, Master-of-Doom torture he’d like to bring to bear. He can’t tell me, he says. It’s too bad. It’s too evil. “I never ever have, and I never ever will, because it’s so against the rules, and you could get in bad trouble if you did, and it’s wrong in so many ways, but if I could, do you know what I’d do?” Fine, just tell me, I can take it. He leans in and answers, with the gleam in his eye that would make a grown rodent tremble: “I’d set it free.”


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