20. Chicago’s Great Rat Infestation

20. Chicago’s Great Rat Infestation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Chicago’s Great Rat Infestation

I’m queen of my own compost heap and I’m getting used to the smell.

~Ani DiFranco

My mom has always been a bit eccentric. You know the type of mom who does such strange things that you can’t believe you are related? (And I say this in the nicest possible way.) Things like:

• Pasting and constantly adding to a collage of bob hairstyles torn from magazines on our bathroom mirror, so much so that we could no longer actually see into the mirror. (Ironically, she never styled her hair that way.)

• Using Listerine in her hair to “strengthen it.” (To this day, I still can’t use it as a mouthwash.)

• Putting us on a no-sugar diet by substituting applesauce for sugar in our birthday cakes (which, believe me, is the last thing a kid wants and the quickest way to get kids not to come to your next birthday party).

Then, she seemed to level out to more normal things, yet still-unusual-in-their-own-way things. First, it was water aerobics. (I didn’t even know she knew on-land aerobics. Or knew how to swim. Or owned a bathing suit.) Then it was chair yoga. (Excuse me?) And then it was making an organic compost heap in our backyard garden in Chicago… complete with used coffee grounds, eggshells, and urine. Yes, you read that correctly. The morning I caught my mother urinating in the garden was the morning I knew these “hobbies” of hers had to be stopped.

I asked if she could please use a disposable cup (emphasis on the “disposable”) from then on for her compost heap. I mean, what if a friend of mine came over and caught my mom in the garden? Or a neighbor saw her squatting? After a little convincing, Mom finally obliged and swore that the “garden incident” wouldn’t happen again. I swear, at thirteen, sometimes I felt like the one who was doing the parenting.

All seemed to be going well—until the day my friend, Mike, and I came in after school to do homework. I filled a couple of cups with water. One was a mug, and one was a red Solo cup (you know, the ones that everybody uses at parties). As Mike was about to drink from the Solo cup, my mom walked in, horror-stricken.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said.

“It’s only water…” Mike started to say, assuming my mother thought we were knocking back drinks in the middle of the day. But I knew what she meant.

“That’s my cup,” she said, starting over to us. Mike still didn’t get it and was about to take a sip when my mom grabbed the cup out of his hands, spilling it everywhere.

“Sorry, I use it to garden,” she said, quickly exiting the room. (I tried to think back to whether I had used that red Solo cup recently.)

A few weeks later, my mom’s compost heap turned out to be working so well that it became a hit with all the neighborhood rodents: squirrels, raccoons, and rats. Yep, rats. Never before had our nice, clean neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago had rats—until my mom brought them in like the Pied Piper. The city of Chicago started posting rat warning signs on telephone poles in every alley. Yes, I attributed this to my mother. One hundred percent. And so did the Chicago police, who knocked on our door one day and asked that she dispose of her compost heap.

“But it’s already disposed of,” she said, pointing to it. “It’s being absorbed by the earth.”

“What the earth’s not eating, the rats are,” the police officer retorted. “And I didn’t become a police officer to post rat warning signs, if you know what I mean. Those guys should stay in the sewers, not infest people’s backyards. Do you know how much disease they spread?”

Forlornly, my mom just stared at the officer.

“Besides,” the cop added, “what’s the point?”

Easy for him to say… But I knew the point. And I knew my mom knew the point, too. It kept her busy. My mom looked so sad right then, as though she was back in kindergarten and her teacher had just taken away her crayons. I hated to see the tears in her eyes as she disposed of her compost heap—the inorganic way, in the garbage.

But through it all—the water aerobics, the chair yoga, the compost heap and the red cup (which sounds like a bad nursery rhyme book)—my mother is still my mother. And as eccentric as she is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The city of Chicago, on the other hand, may disagree. I swear they still think she started Chicago’s Great Rat Infestation of 1990. And although there are no longer “Wanted: Rats” posters up on telephone poles in our neighborhood, the other day I saw an old one, now faded by the sun, and couldn’t help but smile.

~Natalia K. Lusinski

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