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Victoria Zackheim: Rats In San Francisco?

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By Victoria Zackheim

I live in Dogpatch, a historic San Francisco neighborhood on the east side of the city. Walk out of my building, cross the poorly maintained, railroad-tracked street -- I mention this lest some local official might see the benefits, with election year at hand, of repairing the mess -- continue a few hundred yards and you'll fall into the bay. Or turn south and you're at the old shipyard, a vibrant center of shipbuilding activity throughout World War II. There are no ships being built today, but many still arrive and are hoisted into dry-dock for repairs. These vessels often include ocean liners -- behemoth cruise ships with tennis courts, swimming pools, casinos, and thousands of lights that give our drab little neighborhood a festive, night-party touch.

We're an eclectic group here in Dogpatch. Denizens include writers and sailors, homeless families living in vans and artists, and a handful of elderly laborers who settled here a half-century ago, when this was a working class community not yet defined by the live/work lofts that have sprung up in the past fifteen years. The area is undergoing a construction explosion, including the new University of California San Francisco Mission Bay campus, designated as the nation's biotech center, plus three hospitals and office buildings filled with venture capital companies. There's tumult all around, everything rising from bayside landfill. With growth comes change -- escalated values for existing homes, tonier restaurants, a decidedly improved quality of espresso, and a few unwelcome guests forced out of their habitats by bulldozers and construction. At the top of that list: Norwegian wharf rats.

I spend a good part of the day at my desk. Positioned in front of a large window, I'm able to look onto my little patio. Despite the bum rap San Francisco gets about wind and fog, sunshine is the norm in Dogpatch, which is why I can grow bamboo, hot-pink bougainvilleas and an apple tree, a Japanese maple and fuchsia. Yes, there are the requisite pots holding skeletal geraniums and the remains of several orchids left over from Mother's Day, but mostly my little space is green and in flower, a pleasant patch of foliage welcoming me every morning.

In the fifteen years I've owned this loft, I've seen a few mice, but never a rat. So imagine my surprise when, several weeks ago, my peripheral vision picked up movement. Of something big. I stood, surveyed the area, and there it was: a scurrying rodent that measured at least ten inches from nose to tail. Did I scream? Oh, please. At my age, one hardly screams, much less risks injury from jumping onto a chair. Instead, I pounded on the window and watched with satisfaction as the furry creature raced up the passion flower shrub, along the ledge separating my patio from my neighbor's, and disappeared into the narrow space between my building and the recording studio next door. (Where, I might add, Journey and members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once recorded.) The rat was gone, f

Not quite. Over the next week, the rat was joined by friends and family. I turned to the Internet and put my faith in Google. Rats are repelled by peppermint oil. Off I went to Whole Foods. I sprayed oil along the ledges, in the crevices, and waited. Soon, two rats appeared and (I swear) licked the oil from the cement. Back to the Internet. Rats hate fresh mint. Another trip to the market. They ate the mint. I imagined a festive rat picnic of peppermint salad. Frightened away; I returned to my work. Done!

Someone suggested cat urine. And this is sold... where?

The hardware store was happy to sell me sonar devices guaranteed to emit a high-frequency noise that drives away pesky rodents. (By this time, I counted four and was having nightmares about rats racing across my bed.) Minutes after plugging in the devices, six rats arrived, stopped in front of the blinking disks, and stared. I banged on the window and I'm quite sure one of the retreating beasts stopped, turned, and gave me the finger. That night, I flicked on the patio light and there were at least ten rats. I couldn't help wondering if, after munching their salads, they had come back to dance to the sonar music.

It was time to abandon all humane acts. I don't own an Uzi, so I put out two pounds of poison and watched with sadistic satisfaction as the varmints returned to nosh. Two days later, there were three rats; in four days, they were gone. To date, they have not returned. I guess that makes me a murderer. I can live with that just fine.

Victoria Zackheim edited five anthologies, including The Other Woman, which she adapted to a play scheduled for 2012 productions. She writes documentary films, teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and is a 2010 San Francisco Library Laureate. Visit her at www.victoriazackheim.com or on Red Room, where you can read her blog.