Tuesday, June 17, 2008



The plague is coming. It always does, periodically and with great devastation. Sometimes it comes by dirty water like cholera. Sometimes it comes by dirty air like tuberculosis. Often it comes by bodily fluids like AIDS. It always comes dirty. It always comes by surprise. Looking backward it's coming has a brilliant aura of inevitability. "What did they expect?" The plague is probably coming to Columbus by the time-honored method, rats. If you're the plague, you gotta love rats. They're filthy. They carry lice and fleas, mites and ticks, diseases and tiny little bugs. They're on the same mosquito menu as humans. They're plentiful. They thrive on garbage. And, best of all, they live everywhere people do. If you're the plague, they're adorable.
If you're a rat: They've tried shooting you, poisoning you, trapping you, hating you, ignoring you. Just like people. And just like people, the most effective and least merciful killer is starvation. All the human wars in history don't add up to few good famines. Nothing is less forgiving than hunger. Unless they were brought over in chains, most of our ancestors were driven to this country by hunger. Rat population is limited by food supply and the limits of human charity. Columbus is an extraordinarily charitable town. Its charity is deeply appreciated. Rats breed hugely fast, six to twelve to a litter. A trap catches one, now and then, sometimes. The rat trap is as effective at controlling rat population as the death penalty is at controlling crime. It may be fun to kill a rat now and then, if you get off on that kind of thing, but it doesn't solve the problem. The problem is food supply. Specifically garbage.
Ramblings about garbage: There are two areas of town targeted by the Columbus Department of Health (CDH) for rat control: Downtown and the University Area. Forget Downtown, too many lawyer jokes, study the flagship of higher education for Ohio, The Ohio State University, a rat can meander the alleys east of High Street like a stroll through an all you can eat buffet. Huge open pits of garbage (potato chips, pizza crusts, carry-out remains, and of course the occasional dirty diaper) lining the alleys just like the serving line in a college dorm. In the summertime you can smell the university area from Clintonville if the wind is right, or you can just scan the horizon for clouds of buzzing flies. If you tour other comparable college areas, places with frightening names to many middle class Midwesterners, the south side ghetto of Chicago, lower Manhattan, Boston, the first impression is usually how clean the neighborhood is. They pick up their garbage. It shows.
One single dumpster: Epidemiologists and public health workers are a fascinating cross between detectives and engineers, sometimes looking for microbes too small to see with the naked eye and sometimes searching large statistical databases for sociological causes too big to see with the well dressed eye. It's like listening to school kids argue nature versus nurture when every parent ought to know damned well it's both. Taking the middle ground, let's look at one single dumpster. Crouched behind 186 East Norwich Avenue like an evil toad sits a garbage pit that has not had a lid for over 20 years. About once a decade, the owners GAS Properties, gets written up, puts a lid on it, and then removes it the day after the inspection. Every spring and fall, two employees jam it full of all the yard waste it will hold, then they fill the neighbors garbage cans with the rest. On occasions that neighbors have complained to the city, they have been immediately cited for weeds or cracked sidewalks or…. Get it? When asked why the slumlord Talbott was allowed to maintain open garbage pits, a city inspector said, "The last guy who wrote him up got transferred to the Hilltop." That's worse? If this dumpster were an anomaly, it would be disgusting, but with absolutely no city health enforcement, it's the norm. It's foreshadowing. The plague is coming. We deserve it.
Instructions for coping with the plague: When you start seeing dead rats and squirrels (Squirrels are rats that live in trees. That's why there are so many more of them in the neighborhoods than in parks) lying in the streets, pack your bags. When you start seeing dead college students lying in the streets, run like hell. Spread the news. The plague is coming to a neighborhood near you.

Reading list: Rats Lice and History, Hans Zissner

Ghost Map, Steven Johnson
And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts
Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, James H. Jones
The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History, Molly Caldwell Crosby
The Plague, Albert Camus
The History of Rat Control in Alberta: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3441
Rodent Control: http://www.cdc.gov/rodents/

And strictly for amusement: http://www.publichealth.columbus.gov/programs/programs_151.asp

this is a copy of the text sent to mayor michael b. coleman, columbus dispatch editor marrison, health commissioner dr. teresa long, and everyone else i could think of. no response after 20 years. anyone know les wexner's private email?