Letter From Milo: Ratso

March 19th, 2020

In the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, the old-timers liked to tell stories about factory rats that were bigger, meaner and more resourceful than North Woods wolverines.

These factory rats were said to be super rats, superior in size, strength, cunning and savagery to their milder-natured street rat cousins. Some steelworkers believed that they were actually mutant rats, whose DNA had been rearranged by the toxic by-products of the steel industry – grease, oil, abrasive chemicals, acids and noxious fumes. Others believed it was simply the tough industrial environment that bred a hardier strain of rat.

In other words, it was the old “heredity versus environment” argument, which I thought had been settled, once and for all, by Moe Howard, back in the 1930s, in a Columbia film short called “Hoi Polloi.”

I worked in Gary’s steel mills for several summers while attending college. I worked in U.S. Steel’s Sheet & Tin Mill for a total of eight or nine months and probably heard a factory rat story every day that I worked in that steel mill.

“Old man Popovich nearly got attacked by a pack of rats. Good thing he had his welding torch handy. Used it to scare the bastards off.”

“They found some bones down by 6-Stand yesterday.”

“Human bones?”

“Hard to say. They could be human remains or leftover baby back ribs. Either way, they were picked clean.”

“Damn.”

Although the term “Urban Legend” had not been coined yet, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the rat stories were bullshit. There were no factory super rats.

In all the months I worked for U.S. Steel, I never saw a fucking rat.

About 25 years later I bought a home in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. It was a nice old house, solid brick construction on a wide lot. The only problem was that the garage was in terrible shape. The walls were leaning and the roof was sagging. It looked like it might collapse at any moment.

The lovely Mrs. Milo was concerned. “We’ve got to have the garage taken down. It’s dangerous.”

“It’ll probably cost a thousand dollars to have it torn down. I don’t want to spend the money.”

“There are a lot of kids in this neighborhood. What if one of them gets hurt?

“Serve the little bastard right. Teach him a good lesson about playing around in other peoples’ garages.”

“Quit being an idiot. Just call the city and explain the situation. They’ll probably take it down and it won’t cost a cent.”

The next day I called the City and got someone from the Department of Streets and Sanitation on the line. I explained the situation, told him the garage was a hazard and asked if the City would tear it down.

“No way, man.”

“The garage is dangerous. Somebody could get hurt. There are a lot of kids in the area.”

“That’s no skin off my ass.”

“I think you should be more concerned about the welfare of the citizens of this fine town.”

“I don’t believe that’s part of my job description.”

“Thanks for nothing, you worthless fuck.”

“Up yours, asshole.”

Later that day I was chatting with one of my new neighbors, complaining about the callousness of City employees and their use of vile language. It just so happened that the person I was talking with worked for the City. He explained that I had gone about this garage business the wrong way.

“Milo, you dumbass, what makes you think the City cares about anyone’s safety?

“I just assumed…”

“Well, you were wrong. What the City cares about is rats.”

“Rats?”

“Yeah, tell them your garage is infested with rats and they’ll tear it down before you get off the phone.”

The next morning I called Streets and Sanitation again. Thankfully, I didn’t end up talking to the same asshole I spoke to before. This guy was a real gentleman.

“Whaddya want?”

“I got a problem with my garage. The damn thing is infested with rats.”

“Shit, that’s too fucking bad.”

“Yeah, they’re huge rats, man, like steel mill rats.”

“I’ve heard stories about steel mill rats. They’re supposed to be real nasty fuckers.”

“Plus, these rats look sick. I hope they’re not carrying the Bubonic Plague or something.”

“What the hell is that?”

“It’s a disease that wiped out most of Europe about 600 years ago.”

“Jesus fucking Christ! That garage needs to be torn down.”

“That’s what I was thinking, too.”

Two days later a City crew came out to my house, knocked down the garage and hauled away the debris. They even cleaned up afterwards.

I recall one of the workmen asking me, “Where’s all the rats?”

“They must have heard you were coming.”

He nodded in understanding, like it made all the sense in the world.

FROM THE EDITORS:
In our continuing efforts to improve service to the faithful readers of The Third City, we have recently upgraded our telephone system. Here are the new menu options:

For updates on outstanding warrants and lawsuits, press 1.
For information on current cease-and-desist orders and restraining orders, press 2.
To check the status of pending paternity suits, press 3.
For accounts receivable, press 4 (there is no accounts payable).
For donations to Milo’s favorite charity, press 5, (have your credit cards handy).
For directions to whorehouses, taverns, pool rooms, racetracks or Nickel Bag Bernie’s house, press 6.

All other inquiries should be directed to our attorneys.

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