Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The restaurant I work in has rats. And I find myself conflicted.

On the one hand, I love little animals. Sure, they're not the coziest little creatures. But rats need love, too.

On the other hand, I need my job. And I certainly don’t want to see a repeat of the whole KFC fiasco. It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it pays the rent.

Therein lies the conundrum.

First of all, let me say that rats in NYC restaurants are much more common than you would think. The reason the KFC rats were such a big news item is because the restaurant had just gotten a clean bill of health from the city AND because the rats were extremely camera-friendly. Made a great visual to play over and over on the national news media. However, the reality is that rats are all over the city. Practically a mascot. In fact, I doubt that a tourist in NYC would find their visit complete without a sighting of both a celebrity and a local rat. “Look---there’s Alan Alda!” “Look---there’s a rat!” See what I mean? Sorry, Alan Alda. Nothing personal.

News of the rats began in the kitchen. Like some folktale about a golem---“I swear I just saw something move.”

No one took it seriously until the Spanish dishwasher began to complain about “rata” in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the Spanish work for mouse is “raton” and, since they sounded so much alike, everyone just assumed we had a little mouse. What’s the big deal?

And then, somewhere along the line, Willard and his army of rats invaded our kitchen like the Sixth Airborne Division on the Normandy beaches. But if we were the Germans, we didn’t put up much of a fight. The following day, someone threw down a few glue traps. The rats weren’t deterred in the slightest. Within about two weeks we had a full-fledged infestation on our hands.

Of course, I was not happy about the situation. However, I felt sorry for the little guys. After all, they were just hungry. They had found a nice, warm, comfy place to live and raise their family. On the other hand, I just signed a lease on a Manhattan apartment. Something had to be done.

First of all, let me explain that I am not afraid of rats. Sure, I don’t want the wild ones crawling all over me in my sleep. But, as the old saying goes: They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. But after watching some of our kitchen staff (grown men, by the way) scream like girls and run out of the kitchen trembling in fear, I’m not so sure.

I decided to come to the rescue. Not wanting to see the little creatures harmed in any way, I headed down to the hardware store to purchase a humane trap.

“Hi. I know this might sound a little strange, but I’m looking for a rat trap where you can catch the rat and then let him go.”

“Sorry,” the man said with what I detected was a faint snicker, “we only have the ones that kill.”

In fact, I was snickered at by at least four different hardware store employees at four different stores. Finally, I went to the Big Daddy of them all---Home Depot. For thirty dollars I was able to purchase the Have-A-Heart Rat Trap---a small, metal contraption guaranteed to catch a rat in no time. A short while later, I walked into work with my rat trap and was practically laughed right out of the kitchen. Everyone seemed to think I was crazy.

“Even if you do manage to catch a rat, what are you going to do with it? Turn it into a pet?”

“No. I’ll just take it down to the river and let it go.”

Everyone thought I had completely lost my mind.

“You mean, you’re just going to walk down the street carrying a sewer rat?”

“This is New York. No one would even bat an eye.”

On that point, at least, everyone seemed to agree. I carefully read the instructions on how to set the trap. I then repeatedly tested the trap, baited it with tasty tidbits, and set it in a rat-friendly area.

The next day, I could hardly wait to go to work. Bear in mind, this is a waitressing job---I never look forward to going to work. But that day I could hardly wait to see my new little rescued ratty.

Unfortunately, the trap was empty. No rescued ratty. But I was not to be deterred. Every night, I faithfully set my trap, to the amusement of my co-workers.

One afternoon, I got a call from a manager.

“Did I catch anything?” was the first thing out of my mouth.

“No. But last night after you left, I saw one in the kitchen…”

“And…” I asked with baited breath.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Meanwhile, the management sent in an extermination crew to put down some more effective traps. I would hear news of the deaths. I was sad, but I understood. It was them or us. I was just trying to give the little guys a sporting chance. I even called my family with the news of my latest adventure. My aunt was particularly supportive, “Oh honey, I hope you catch one of those little rats. If you do, be sure to take a picture for me.” Of course I would. Everyday, I made sure to throw my camera into my bag. What a wonderful picture it would make. Me with a big smile on my face, holding my Have-A-Heart rat trap with a little grey rat inside about to be set free. Kodak Magic.

Everyday I got to work and went directly to my trap. Nothing. “But we killed one this morning,” someone would be sure to add. At least I was trying.

However, the sheer number of rats had me puzzled. This wasn’t just one or two who had snuck into the building. This was an infestation. They must be getting in somewhere, but how? And where? I decided that if I wasn’t saving any rats, at the very least, I could try to keep them away from death’s door. I began to track the little guys as they crawled away. Despite the fact that they can get as big as a small cat, these guys can fit thru some pretty narrow openings. And everyday, when the manager or district supervisor would show up, I would direct them to my latest findings. Often, I would be pooh-poohed on my suspicions. One hole in particular, they practically laughed me out of the place---a tiny hole in the ceiling that allowed cables and wires to pass thru. I suggested that a nimble rat could easily climb up the wires and jimmy his way into the hole undetected.

“I’m not so sure about that one.”

This, despite the fact that I’d successfully discovered at least a dozen rat entrances the week before.

“Trust me. I’m 99% sure that they’re going up there.”

That night before close, just on the off chance I might be right, the manager shoved a metal scouring pad into the hole. The next morning, the scouring pad had been pushed thru and the hole had been chewed to a larger size. I became known around work as Rat Girl.

By this time, the rats had grown comfortable around us---if not we around them. And, lucky for us, the rats preferred to confine themselves to the kitchen during business hours. Then they began to venture behind the bar. A decision not welcomed by our bartenders.

“Okay, that’s the fourth time tonight a rat ran across my foot. It’s hard to stand there smiling at customers when you’ve got rats crawling at your feet.”

And then, one night, the father of a lovely family of four leaned in after I dropped the cheque.

“Do you know that you have critters?”

Ooops. Without ever mentioning the word rat (after all, maybe he had just seen a roach) I apologized and thanked him for his astute observation. I was also able to point out that we were aware of the situation and that “a gentleman is outside in a truck right now waiting for us to close so he can come in and take care of the problem.” Good waitress. Give this girl a raise.

And I was telling the truth. There was a guy in a truck. A guy who came in, threw down some more useless glue traps and noted rat droppings on an official form. I saw the bill. He was paid a few hundred dollars for this amazing piece of detective work.

A few days later, I had a family that wasn’t so complacent. They practically ran screaming from the restaurant. Rat Girl seemed to take on a new meaning as I seemed to get the tables that were seeing the rats. I could only apologize and hope they didn’t call the press. A few minutes later, the rats were running all over the back half of the dining room. Oddly enough, the people in the front half of the dining room didn’t seem to notice. But we did. A phone call was put in to the company headquarters begging for permission to close early. Until we heard back, we told the hostess not to seat the back half of the restaurant. But when one rat started to make his way towards table 12 in the front, I literally screamed, “NO!” and ran towards the host stand. I grabbed two menus and nonchalantly walked thru the dining room casually slapping two menus together as I watched the rat scurry back to its nest. I was now shooing rats away from the customers. Definitely not good.

It was at this point that the extermination began in earnest. The manager offered 30 bucks for every rat. The little guys now had a price on their heads. The only thing missing was a Wild West poster with a picture of a rat and the words, “Wanted. Dead or Alive.”

The next day I called a vet friend. My question? Would it be possible to just pick them up and catch them? They weren’t moving all that fast. Couldn’t I just get some animal control gloves and reach down and grab it by the tail and the scruff of the neck.

“Of course,” she replied. “Just get a good pair of oven mitts. They won’t bite. They’ll probably just be startled and freeze.”

My thoughts exactly. The next day I showed up with a brand new pair of oven mitts and ready for action. It wasn’t until a few days later that the emergency call came in.

“We’ve got one trapped in the back dining room!”

I grabbed my oven mitts, climbed over the make-shift barrier and got ready to catch a rat. Grown men were amazed at my courage. They helped me over the barrier as if I’d just volunteered for a suicide mission. I almost expected to be handed a last cigarette. I couldn’t believe it. Such fear over a little rat.

They knew exactly where it was---behind a wooden pedestal. The only two men unafraid of the rats had joined in the mission. One stood by with a broom while the other stood next to the pedestal, ready to move it and frighten the rat out of its hiding spot.



He moved the pedestal and the rat scurried out. The little grey medium-sized rat ran back and forth trying to get away. I ran after it snapping the fingers on my oven mitts like crab pincers and calling, “Come here, little guy!” I just had to grab it by the base of the tail. But he was quicker than I thought and kept scurrying back and forth. Luckily, he became disoriented from his spinning and suddenly stopped right near my feet. I reached down to grab him by the tail and just then, the dishwasher’s foot came down on his head.

I started to cry.

If everyone thought I was crazy before, now I was completely insane. Who cries over a dead rat? Me. That’s who. I was so close. Two inches away.

The rat-killing disherwasher saw me crying and put his arm around me. “I sorry, Mommy,” he said in broken English; and tried to explain in Spanglish that he was worried the rat would bite me.

“No. La rata non morde,” I said in my own Spanglish. “Yo capturo la rata. Par la base de la cola.”

He comforted me thru my tears as he shook his head. Loca gringa.

At this moment, may I add, that I have yet to catch a rat in the Have-A-Heart rat trap. In fact, the trap seems to have disappeared. In the meantime, their hidey holes have been plugged up one by one; yet, they still manage to get in. Yes, the infestation is over. But no sooner does someone declare the place to be rat-free, than one of the little guys crawls out from under the coffee machine. They’re relentless. Every hole has been plugged up, every crumb wiped off the floor, every nesting area shut down. And yet, just this morning it was reported that one of them crawled out, licked a bit of sugar from someone’s morning coffee off the floor, and shuttled back into a hiding spot.

I still have hopes that I will catch one of the little guys and set him free. In the meantime, when one of them runs thru under the prep area, I try to create sympathy for his plight by singing “Ben”. But even ballads about rats don’t seem to help. I understand. And, I admit, that at this point, even I want the rats gone. It’s getting hard to continue apologizing to the tables that spot one of them scurrying near the bathrooms. I leave the glue traps where they are. I don’t disturb the snap traps. Although I do remember to tell the porters a handy bit of information I learned online---that if you do catch a rat in a glue trap, you can simply take him outside, pour a little bit of room temperature vegetable oil on the glue, and the rat can free himself. But I don’t get the feeling that any of them are inclined to offer life-saving vegetable oil to the rats.

In the meantime, we try to make jokes about the special tonight being “ratatouille” and continue hoping for our 15-20% tips. On the upside, the roach population seems to have gone down. See---the rats are good for something.