Photo by Jack Gould

Creeping down to the basement. Trailing Fred Reese, the night exterminator, through the inky blackness. Fred is on rodent reconnaissance. At an as-yet-undetermined time, depending on the severity of the infestation, Fred will send in another team of exterminators, the infantry. We’re in a building in downtown L.A., not far from City Hall. Broken boxes, broken crates. Broken bodies of months-old dead rats crunching underfoot. Stay in the light! Oh please oh please oh please oh please, God, let me not step on a dead rodent. Please let me not step on a live rodent. I hurry to keep up with the safe circle of Fred’s flashlight beam as it bounces crazily from corner to corner, along edges of walls, along the steel rafters on the ceiling. There are rats caught in traps, faces upturned in agony, surprise. Paws frozen midair. Dead rats in various stages of decay — some dried out, others glistening, raw and juicy. The air is heavy with musty animal smell — rat pee, rat dung. Rat fear and rat love. “Certain traps are more popular than others,” says Fred. “For instance, if one trap gets covered in rat blood, rodent activity on that trap will be very intense. You can get yourself 50 rats on that one trap alone.”

Then I hear the scratching.

There is a whole other Los Angeles, a subterranean shadow city that thrives just beneath everyday consciousness. Beneath the traffic, the shiny malls, lurking in shadows, sneaking in underfoot through open doors, drain pipes, gaps in fences. Biding its time. Fred knows this city like the back of his hand. He knows it like he knows that exactly 15 minutes after a certain restaurant’s 9 p.m. customers have paid their checks, after the last weary waitress closes up shop at 10, a family of rats that’s been hovering in the eaves out of sight, waiting for its table to open, makes its way down a rain gutter for a 10:15 evening meal. No reservations required. A hip young couple can be eating their egg foo yung at a banquette at a Chinese restaurant and never know that in the space in the booth beneath them, a hip young couple of rats are dining
as well.

For 21 years, Fred has worked the dusk-to-dawn shift at Western’s Night Division — the vampires. Fred hasn’t seen daylight since he was 40. When the rest of the city is settling in for an evening of Fear Factor, Fred is gearing up, because most of the species that fall under an exterminator’s jurisdiction come out at night.

Down here, it is exceptionally creepy, funereal and vast. It is the unsettling feeling of a hundred pairs of alien eyes watching. If not for me and the security guard two floors up who let us in, Fred would be here alone. I ask him if he’s ever scared, if he ever worries that his flashlight will go out; if in the dark, with the rats, he ever ponders if truly no one will hear his screams. He replies, with a shrug, no.

“They found some weird stuff when they first cleaned out this building,” Fred says. Fred had just told a story about a 250-strong colony of rats that commandeered a nearby parking lot. There were so many rats that they were hanging from the trees like fruit. They chattered and played and ran around, and Fred was charmed. On the dashboard of his truck, he keeps a larger-than-life-size plastic rat with a pine-scented air freshener tied around its neck. I didn’t know if he’d put it there just for me, or if it was his mascot.

Either way, I was curious to know what in Fred’s world qualified as weird. “Oh, you know, just some strange sex stuff.” He blushes as we round another corner in the tomblike maze.

And there they are.

Rats! Rats burrowing through see-through plastic garbage bags. Rats scampering in a line across the edge of the dumpster like pedestrian traffic. Rats poking their noses through holes in the walls. Old rats. Young rats. Baby rats. Thrashy rats. Ugly, dirty scratchy rats. Funny, jumpy cute rats. “It’s Rattus norvegicus! That there’s a teenager,” Fred says, nabbing a rat in the spotlight. “You got four generations here.” We count five, 10, 15, 25, 40. “Look at them,” Fred says, as if I could look anywhere else. “They’re so . . . intelligent.” They are the liveliest creatures in this whole desolate building. One rat perches on the corner of the dumpster. He watches us as we watch him. His fur is dusky brown. His nose twitches. His eyes are clear and bright and curious, and as his colleagues shuttle back and forth against the wall behind him, leaving behind their telltale greasy brown streak, harboring the fleas that bring the Black Death, they seem to squeak volumes, in a language that, try as we might, is forever lost in translation. Rat to man. Man to rat. We cannot understand.

In the end, Fred called in the day crew, who swept in with boxes of poison bait. The rats took the bait and leaked blood from their ears and noses. The colony was decimated; the dumpster was safe. At least for now.

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