Linda Gartz is an author and award-winning documentary television producer and writer. Her prose has been published in national and local magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. For several years, she’s been digging through more than a century of family letters, diaries, and artifacts, and sharing discoveries on her blog, Family Archaeologist. She’s working on a memoir of her family’s sprawling rooming house on Chicago’s West Side, and the impact of wacky tenants, a grandmother’s insanity, her dad’s lengthy travel, and the racial turmoil of the 1960s on her parents’ once storybook love. Visit Linda’s blog at familyarchaeologist and her website at lindagartz.com.
The Urban Jungle
Sometime in the late 1960s, Dad made one of his many “I’m-just-looking” forays into a pet store. He bought a baby boa constrictor, naming his mini-serpent Lucifer. The young snake was about eighteen inches long and a half inch in diameter. It was a benign-enough-looking pet, whose small size didn’t portend its eventual length and girth. Over time, Lucifer grew to more than seven feet, head to tail. Two large hands could barely encircle its ten inches of circumference.
Constrictors prefer live meat––so, clearly, Dad had to raise rats.
Dad’s first rats were Victoria and Albert, both black and white with eyes that looked like fat oil drops. Dad treated his pet rats fondly, often removing them from their cage to sit on his lap and crawl up his shirt and onto his shoulders while he wrote reports for work. The rats were sweet, affectionate, and, as my dad pointed out, one of nature’s most intelligent mammals––as well as one of the most procreant. Within a few months, Dad had twelve cages in the basement, each containing two to three rats. Sometimes I stopped by my parents’ house when the snake hadn’t eaten in a while, and Dad would say, “Well, I think old Lucifer needs a meal.”
Feeding Lucifer usually took place in what we called “The Music Room,” a formal parlor when the house was built in 1898. With its arrangement of brocaded antique furniture, my mother’s upright piano, a Victorian stained-glass chandelier, and a Renoir reproduction of two sisters playing stringed instruments, the room had retained its gentility. Gold carpeting covered the floor, and a large white Buddha meditated next to the ornate brass screen that stood before the fireplace. The Buddha was a gift from my brother, so its incongruity in the decorating scheme mattered little. Nor did we think about the ironic presence of a vegetarian Buddha for the upcoming event.
Dad fetched Lucifer from his basement cage and placed him on the plush carpet, then released one of the rats, the rodent’s body length varying from a few inches to as long as seven inches as Lucifer grew. We waited.
Clueless, the rat crawled around, sniffing the floor, standing on its hind legs, nose high in the air, whiskers twittering. Lucifer’s eyes locked on the rat, like a laser-guided missile finding its target. He slithered within striking range, and raised his head, rocking it back and forth, then sideways, the movements computing exactly where to land. An indiscernible flash––and Lucifer was coiled around the rat, squeezing steadily. My mind wrestled with the spectacle. I was at once horrified by nature’s cold indifference, but felt oddly privileged to witness jungle reality in our home, even if it wasn’t the most equal playing field.
After a few minutes of compression, Lucifer released the limp body and began lining himself up, nose to nose, with the rat. He opened, and opened, and opened his jaws, expanding his mouth to almost 180 degrees and began swallowing his prey, muscle contractions rippling along the snake’s entire length. The rat’s body slowly disappeared until only the slender tail tip hung out of Lucifer’s mouth. Then that, too, was gone. Dad scooped up his satiated snake, supporting the body with two hands, and lowered him into his cage where Lucifer lay, torpid and sleepy for days, digesting his meal.
Around this same time, I was teaching sixth graders in an affluent suburb north of Chicago. The students thrived in the district’s “learn-by-doing” philosophy, and so did I––especially when it came to nature studies. Each science unit arrived with a kit including drawers of materials, lesson plans, and hands-on activities. The ecosystems kit supplied the classroom with mini plastic terrariums into which we poured soil and sowed grass seed. After a lush carpet of green had sprouted, the students added crickets to eat the grass––to learn the concept of food chains. But a predator, the crucial final link, was missing. Perhaps the educational company was squeamish about such an addition, but life with my father had taught me that biology needn’t be censored, that beauty and fascination infuses all of nature, even in its callous calculations of life and death.
Dad was the second son of European immigrants whose habits and culture were based on a nineteenth-century lifestyle, when one’s survival depended upon dealing with death. Dad’s parents, Josef and Lisi, had immigrated to America in 1911 from Transylvania, today in Romania, where each had grown up on a Hof, a home with a large courtyard comprising enough land to be a mini-farm. Here they planted vegetables and raised pigs, chickens, and other small animals for food. At an early age Lisi learned to deftly break a chicken’s neck, gut it, and pluck the feathers. She then roasted the fowl whole or cut it into pieces for a stew. In December, Lisi’s parents and their neighbors butchered pigs, preserving the meat to nourish their families through the bitter winters.
Once settled in Chicago, Josef and Lisi adapted these old-world habits to their new life in the city, where Josef earned a living as janitor for several large apartment buildings. On their back porch, they raised rabbits and squab, teaching my dad how to dispatch one or more animals for dinner. Responsible for the tenants’ well-being, Josef and Lisi worked with their sons to eliminate nuisance and dangerous animals––to hunt down the feral cats and dogs that plagued the neighborhood; to trap and kill rats, which threatened health and safety.
These were lessons Dad passed on to his children. Even though I grew up in an urban jungle of sidewalks, tangled traffic, and screeching sirens, hunting was as real to me as to any rural kid. It began with the rats.
I was about ten years old when Dad poked his head into my bedroom. “C’mon, Linda. It’s a perfect night to take the dogs on a ratting expedition.” I put down my book and smiled. “A good rain always drives them out,” he said.
Dad unslipped two leashes from the metal hook in our hallway closet. He pulled on his wool-lined leather jacket, with its shiny elbows, and his mahogany-brown leather baseball cap, raggedy at the brim from his back and forth adjustments to get just the right fit. No other girl I knew had a dad who hunted rats. All my friends’ dads slouched deep into their recliners and easy-chairs on a night like this one, watching television, dozing off, entitled to relax after a full day’s work.
Placing his middle finger and thumb between his teeth, Dad blew a shrill whistle. Our two dogs, Buttons and Bows, bounded over to him, their hind quarters gyrating in a mambo of elation. I grabbed my jacket off the couch and tied a nylon scarf under my chin, babushka-like, to ward off the damp. Then I clipped the leashes onto their collars while Dad fetched a flashlight, shoving it into one pocket. A frisson of anticipation tickled my skin as we exited through the front vestibule. Dad always dished up adventure.
We stepped out into the misty night air onto Washington Boulevard, a main artery into downtown Chicago. During the day this street was crowded with traffic, but it was late now—and pretty quiet. Dad told me the rats spent their days hiding in the nooks and crannies of the gangways between buildings, coming out at night to forage among the trash. At the back alley, he had installed an immovable cement garbage can with a hooked lid to keep them out.
I walked with Buttons, the father. Dad led Buttons’s son, Bows. Because of their special skills, Dad was certain the dogs had rat terrier in their lineage. He called them “ratters.”
Rainbow halos encircled each street lamp on the empty sidewalks. The few cars that rolled past lit up the pavement, their headlights sending out reflective shards that advanced and retreated along with the rumble of their engines. Dad scanned the sidewalk with his flashlight, looking for the night-crawlers that worked their way out of the sodden soil after a rain, searching for air––and love. Scores of fat, pink worms lay strewn about down the length of our block.
Dad’s flashlight beam illuminated one wormy couple pressing their slimy naked skins together, an opportunity for him to tell me about the mating cycle of worms. “Worms are hermaphrodites,” he said. “That means they have both male and female sex organs. They exchange sperm back and forth. Then both can make baby worms.” I wasn’t sure just how that worked. I’d only recently learned the “facts of life” from my nine-year-old best friend. Mostly I gleaned from Dad’s explanation that no topics were off-limits.
We bent over and picked up a few worms from the cement and tossed them onto the parkway grass. “They’ll get stepped on,” he said, “or fry when the sun comes up.” Each one I held writhed between my fingers, trying to escape, unaware I was rescuing it from certain death. I didn’t find their slithery bodies disgusting—just another fascinating kind of life. “Worms create air pockets in the soil, and that helps plants grow,” Dad said, “so we like them.” I believed he knew every single thing about all living creatures.
We neared the end of the block where a wide, vacant lot, backed by an illuminated billboard, dominated the corner. The earth was scooped out here, as if a foundation had been started and never finished. After a downpour, the deep depression filled with water, flooding the rat holes that perforated its perimeter, forcing out the occupants. Prime ratting territory.
We stopped at the pool of water, searching for the tell-tale wake of swimming rats among the shimmering reflections from the billboard lights. There! A long pointy nose split the water into a “V” where a raggedy, gray rat, big as a fat house cat, paddled silently toward the perimeter. Dad crouched next to the dogs and unhooked their leashes. “Rats!” he whispered.
They took off like race horses at the starting gate, legs stretched long, leaping, seemingly poised above the water for a moment before splash-landing, noses held high above the surface. They paddled furiously toward the panicked rat. Bows pursued the rat onto higher ground directly toward Buttons, who had leapt out of the water to cut off the rat’s escape. Just a few feet from Dad and me, the rat confronted Buttons, skidded to a stop, and, cartoon-like, made a one-eighty, only to come snout to snout with Bows—lips curled, ears flattened, neck hair bristling, a guttural growl deep in his throat. “Oh, Daddy!” I cried, grabbing his pant leg, moving behind him as the primal scene’s mayhem unfolded just steps away. The frantic rat screeched, crouched low, backed up, and bared its teeth, hissing. Buttons came from behind, grabbed the rat by the neck, and shook it dead.
“Buttons, drop!” Dad commanded. The rat hit the pavement, lying limp and motionless. “Well, there’s one good rat,” said Dad. He looked at me, still clutching his trousers, peering around his leg. “You ok, Linda?”
I nodded several times, then expelled a long breath. “Whew! That was close! I thought that nasty rat would hurt Buttons or Bows. Are they ok?” I moved around to Dad’s side, entwining my small fingers with his big ones.
“They’re fine,” he said. “Those dogs are natural born ratters.” He removed his hand from mine, putting an arm around my shoulder, squeezing and jostling me a bit at his side, kissing the top of my head. Buttons and Bows were panting nearby, gazing up for approval, their open mouths curved into what I was certain were two proud smiles. Daddy released me, and we both bent down to scratch their ears and pat their heads, telling them what good, smart boys they were.
“We got that rotten old rat,” Dad said. He picked it up by its tail, letting it dangle casually by his side as we walked the half block home. We took the gangway route to the back of the house, where Dad flipped the body into our rat-proof garbage can.
Familiar first-hand with the predator-prey relationship, I felt compelled to complete the food chain for my classroom’s ecosystems science unit––or risk teaching a bogus lesson. I engaged my sixth-graders in creating a vivarium, a terrarium that included living animals. We dug in plants and laid moss on a layer of soil, then brought in the predators: a skink, which resembled a truncated snake with short legs; a moist, peach-skinned tree frog, which slept squished in the corner, looking like a blob of chewing gum; and a sandy-colored flying gecko.
Every few days, we tossed a couple of our crickets into the vivarium. They crawled about, oblivious to the hungry stares latching onto them. The blob transformed into a carnivorous frog, eyes bulging on its swiveled head. The gecko’s empty gaze sparked to an avid stare, zeroing-in on his next meal.
Suburban and sheltered, my students were equally transfixed, watching for the first time in their lives the unvarnished cycle of life: the predator’s intense focus, the blinding leap, the cold grip of prey, and the unambiguous drive to hunt and eat.