Saturday, July 31, 2010


The theater had a rat problem.
It was during the monumental Big Dig in Boston, and as construction workers tunnelled through downtown, they would stir up huge pockets of rats. Boston already had a rat problem. Walking through the Common at night you would see dark blurs the size of small cats scurrying around. Every building downtown had either rats or mice. You prayed for mice. A hundred years ago when they were filling in the swamp that became the Back Bay, they had to halt construction for days just to slaughter rats.
The rats won.
To this day, the alleys of Back Bay swarm with rats at night. The Big Dig had kicked this problem into overdrive, and the theater was no exception. As the giant tunnel diggers churned through earth a couple blocks away, the rat sightings exploded. There is nothing rats like more than big bags of grain, and the theater had hundreds of pounds of popcorn kernels stored in the back rooms at any given time. The rats were getting bolder and bolder too, coming out during daylight hours to feast on leftovers and garbage.
Customer complaints began to explode also. There were daily, and sometimes hourly, reports of rats in specific theaters. One customer reported hearing a sliding noise during the movie, only to look down and see a rat backing up, pulling a carboard tray of half-eaten chicken down the aisle with him. Another customer reached down to get some popcorn from their bucket on the ground, only the see a rat standing on it's hind legs with it's head in the bucket helping himself to a snack. People regularily reported rats running across their feet while they watched the latest piece of shit Hollywood blockbuster.
I like rats. I had a pet rat as a kid, and he was friendly and affectionate and smart. But even I was super creeped out by these sightings. These were filthy city rats, and I felt bad for the customers. For once, the customer was actually right. No amount of free child size sodas or even complimentary movie passes could make up for that horrible experience. During the height of the Big Dig, going to work became a real drag. Every customer that walked up to Guest Services was probably going to complain about a rat sighting. The exterminators were useless. They would come a couple of times a week, empty a trap or two, tell us we had a rat problem, and then hand us the bill. Thanks, guys. They didn't give a rat's ass about nailing rats asses.
The complaints became so frequent and predictable that we began playing little games just to break up the horrifying monotony of the situation. Sometimes, when somebody would complain about a rat sighting, I would say:
"You didn't make eye contact with the rat did you? Don't make eye contact! In their culture that is disrespectful and it sends them into a rage. Please tell me you didn't make eye contact...."
One time I told a lady that the rats were left over from the big world premiere of Willard that we hosted, but not to worry, they were trained Hollywood stunt rats and wouldn't harm anybody. She laughed, thank god. That could have easily ended with me sitting in my boss's office with a complaint letter in his hands. The joke was definitely worth the risk though.
One night I was closing up, and the night cleaning crew was just starting. Hilario was the best worker on the night crew. He was a really likable guy from El Salvador, and his wife worked with him sometimes when she wasn't watching their kids. Hilario was about 5' 2", but he was deceptively strong. I'd seen him scamper up a 30 foot ladder to change a light bulb, and I'd seen him haul 50 pound bags of popcorn two at a time.
On this night I was talking to him about a carpet cleaning project. Hilario didn't speak a word of English, but we could communicate with tone of voice and hand pantomime. Plus, I knew a little Spanish. While I was talking to him in the main lobby, something caught his eye, and he froze with slightly hunched shoulders. He then made a beeline for the escalators. When he got to the escalators, he made a sharp right and ran betwwen the up and down escalators. When he appeared on the other side he was still running full steam as he headed towards the vending machines. I couldn't tell what the hell was going on until I saw the blur come out from behind the soda machine. It was heading towards the first floor concession stand and Hilario was in hot pursuit. Just as the blur got to the floor board by the popcorn bin, Hilario dove head first through the air. It was like some shit out of Die Hard. Hilario hit the floor sliding, and grabbed something in the corner. I ran over and saw that he had ahold of something in the crack between the wall and the concession stand. He forcibly pulled on it, and slowly the huge haunches of the nastiest rat I had ever seen began to emerge. Hilario had it by the tail, and it was frantacily clawing and screeching as Hilario extracted him from the tiny crevice.
When the rat was about halfway out, Hilario reached into his pocket with his free hand and pulled out a switchblade. I'm not talking a pocket knife or even a Leatherman. I'm talking full out switchblade. The same knife that every drug dealer in every movie has used to test the kilo of coke during a drug deal. You know the one I'm talking about. Real Jets vs. Sharks shit. Old school. Hilario flicked the blade open and slowly and precisely gutted the rat up the middle. The rat died quickly, and Hilario pulled the carcass out of it's last hiding place.
The rat was huge. It's body was bigger than Hilario's forearm, and it's tail ran all the way up to his shoulder. The rat was almost hairless, like it had mange or something, and it's front teeth stuck way out of it's mouth. It was the ugliest beast I had ever seen. Hilario chucked it into an empty garbage bag he pulled from his back pocket, tied the bag off, and threw it on a pile of garbage by the storeroom. He wiped some blood off of his hands (I couldn't tell if it was his or the rat's) and resumed asking me where the extra carpet cleaning solution was.
I stood there staring at Hilario with my mouth agape. The whole incident didn't phase him at all. It was probably a nightly occurence and Hilario lived in Chelsea, so he probably had to use his switchblade regularily to protect himself. Business as usual in the big city.
Eventually the Big Dig moved on and we hired a new exterminator and got the rat problem under control. I'll never forget that night though. I wondered if I had witnessed the hunting and killing of a legendary Cupacabra, the mythical livestock killer native to Hilario's homeland. It's dull red eyes and hairless snarl are burned into my memory forever. It could have definitely won one of those "World's Ugliest Dog" contests, but it might have been too big to enter.
I'll tell you one thing, I had a newfound respect for Hilario. I'd always liked him and gave him whatever he needed, but after that night, I made sure to never cross him. I didn't want to end up in a garbage bag on a pile of trash in Chelsea.

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