Lawrence, the Rat Who Lives in Our Building

Lawrence, the Rat Who Lives in Our Building

I met Lawrence a few weeks ago.

Before then I'd only caught glimpses of his tail as he dashed to and fro in the garbage area, where he spends most of his time. But one evening when I was taking out the trash we had a proper meeting. He jumped out of the garbage can where he was rummaging as I was about to put in my own bag of garbage. I said hi. He said hi. Since then he’s become more comfortable in my presence. Usually we sit in the trash area and have a cigarette. He smokes a tiny cigarette with tobacco gathered from the trash. I sip my whiskey, and we have an intimate man-to-rat talk about life.

JOEY
A lot of people don’t like you.

LAWRENCE
Hello to you too.

JOEY
Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound so bad. But a lot of people in this building are really freaked out by you.

LAWRENCE
What exactly is the problem?

JOEY
Rats are scary. They carry diseases.

LAWRENCE
I’ve had all my shots. I've been to the doctor. I'm disease free.

JOEY
Rats get shots?

LAWRENCE
I go to the doctor like anyone else. I take care of myself. Except for the occasional cigarette, I'm very healthy. I root through trash but I try to stay clean. Trust me, you think rats aren’t afraid of disease either? I mean, I’m an above ground rat, I’m not some subway rat who doesn’t give a shit whether he’s fried on the third rail or not. My family’s always been above ground rats and we have certain standards to live up to. First is our priority to stay disease free. Did you know that cats and dogs have a greater chance of getting parasites and diseases than rats do?

JOEY
I didn't know that. But isn't it hard to stay disease free when you go through trash all day? 

LAWRENCE
If you didn’t throw away perfectly good food items, we wouldn’t have to root through trash. You know, once we made things. Once we produced.  But we don’t have to do that anymore. We’re the ones being environmental safe, conscious. It’s who you have the problem. You're the disgusting ones throwing away all this great food.

JOEY
Fair enough.

LAWRENCE
My point is that rats are really dong you a favor. And here's the thing, do you really know anything about rats? What do you know?

JOEY
You scavenge? You scare our cat? You scare the other tenants. No one wants to come down here. There’s even been a lot of talk about setting more traps.  

LAWRENCE
No one’s more bloodthirsty and cruel than a human. No one. What rat have you known that’s ever killed a human? Sure I know we get a bad rap with the Bubonic plague, but historians aren't so sure rats played such an integral role in the spread of that. Have you known anyone recently who died because of a rat? What about people who die from guns and war?

My point is rats are actually extremely clean animals. We spend many hours every day grooming ourselves and our family. We're less likely than cats or dogs to catch and transmit parasites and viruses.

JOEY
Yeah you mentioned that. Do you have a family?

LAWRENCE
Of course. Rats are extremely social animals. We enjoy the company of other rats. I have a family a wife, and thirty-two children and a big extended family.

JOEY
Do you know all their names?

LAWRENCE
Edwin, Edwina, Morris. Henry, Topaz. Jade. Luke--

JOEY
Okay.

LAWRENCE
I could go on. Rats have excellent memories, buddy. Once you show me a route, I can’t forget it. That’s how good our memories are.

JOEY
What do you do for fun?

LAWRENCE
We throw parties. What do you think all this scavenging is for? We have a thriving party culture in our rat land and we like to go out to the movies, watch plays, we’re really not that different from you except that you think you’re better than us. I don’t know why, but you think you’re better and it doesn’t make any sense. I mean you capture us and do experiments on us. If we captured you and did experiments on you you’d probably have something to say about that, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you be a little upset if we tested rat shampoo on your fur to see if it created a rash?

JOEY
Is that why you always run away from us?

LAWRENCE
Well, most people haven’t talked to rats before.  If you saw a giant that was fifty times your height you’d run away too buddy. That’s just what rats do. We run away, unless we can really outnumber you. Then we attack. We’ll eat you up. Ever wonder what happens to those people who explore the tunnels and you never hear from them? Or that missing child? I’m not saying it’s right I’m just saying it happens sometimes. I don’t condone it at all, but those subway rats are out of control. 

JOEY
Do you know pizza rat?

LAWRENCE
Oh my God, I’m tired of talking about pizza rat. So it was a rat who was hungry and pizza is good so wouldn’t he try to eat it too? I mean, you have two ways of judging things. You humans are allowed to stuff all the pizza you want into your face but God forbid a rat should have any pizza.

JOEY
It was just that the rat was carrying the whole slice down the stairs. It was really incredible and amazing.

LAWRENCE
Big deal. I carry that much stuff all the time. That was nothing. There's so much to rats you don't even know. Our lives and culture and our way of life and traditions and community, it's vast. You’d be amazed.

JOEY
Any close calls?

LAWRENCE
Yeah, there’s poison all over this place, not too fresh but you got to be careful. If I come with rats who don’t know the place they sometimes go right for the poison so I have to warn them, tell them not to be stupid that’s rat poison not food. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes when it's dark.

At this point in the conversation, one of my neighbors, a man named Sydney, enters the garbage area. He screams when he sees Lawrence.

JOEY
It’s okay, Sydney. We’re just having a conversation.

SYDNEY
He’s huge. How he’d get that big?

LAWRENCE
You’re not so skinny yourself.

JOEY
It’s okay, he's friendly. We’re just having a conversation.

SYDNEY
You can’t stay here. You’re not welcome here. How dare you come into our building. You’ve made taking out the trash a nightmare. My wife won’t even do it anymore, that’s why I’m down here. How dare you. How dare you? I hope you die. Rats are fucking disgusting.

Sydney leaves.

LAWRENCE
Friendly guy.  

JOEY
Sorry about that. What should he know about rats?

LAWRENCE
The rat is revered in many cultures. The rat is the first of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. People born in this year possess characteristics which are associated with rats, such as creativity, intelligence, honesty, ambition and generosity. Really, me in a nutshell.

JOEY
I’m the year of the Cock.

LAWRENCE
That explains a lot. Sydney should also know that in the Indian tradition, rats are recognized as the vehicle of Lord Ganesh. We are worshiped at the Karni Devi Temple, where priests and pilgrims will feed us grain and milk.

Sydney reenters the trash area with a shovel. Lawrence jumps up, startled. But before he can run away, and before I can stop him, Sydney hits him. Lawrence lies bleeding. 

JOEY
Oh my God, Lawrence. Sydney, what are you doing? Why did you do that?

SYDNEY
Rats are disgusting creates. They deserve to die.

JOEY
Get out of here! Get out!

Sydney throws down the shovel and leaves

LAWRENCE
Just leave me. They'll come get my body. They won't come if you're still here. They told me it was too dangerous. They told me not to talk to humans...

JOEY
I'm sorry, Lawrence.

LAWRENCE
Just leave. I'll put out a distress signal. They'll come get me.

JOEY
Bye, Lawrence. I learned a lot today about rats.

LAWRENCE
Humans. Fucking humans. Never trust them. Never.

When I came back, all that was left of Lawrence was the tiny cigarette he'd been smoking. I often wonder if he survived. Every time I hear a rustle in the garbage, I call out, Lawrence! Lawrence! but in return I only get silence. I don't talk to my neighbor Sydney anymore. Sometimes I leave little bits of food outside Sydney's door, hoping that the rats will find him. They'll come for him, thousands of rats to avenge Lawrence. Come, little rats. Come avenge Lawrence. I won't stop you. I'll help you open the door. I'll pretend to be UPS. We'll get him out to the hallway. We'll get him, don't worry.