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Kill 'Em All: A Portland Exterminator's Experiences at the Intersection of Wilderness and Civilization

Jake Wasson takes care of the bedbugs, rats and roaches that bedevil you.

One day last spring, as dawn approached, I was belly down on the cold floor of a cavernous grocery store near the river in Southeast Portland, eyeing the baseboards of a freezer aisle.

We had already used every snap trap and glue board we brought with us, slathered them with peanut butter and chunks of chocolate bars, then slid them at the rat living below. "You see him now?" my fellow rat catcher called from the other side. I locked eyes with the beast. "He's a big fucker," I said.

"I'm going to push him onto one of the glue boards with this broom," my colleague said.

I heard a laugh followed by the clanking sound of broom on pipe. The rat ignored our best shot and waddled back into the darkness. We'd unleashed our pest-control magic, but that rat wasn't going anywhere. It had water from the freezer, food from busted bags of pet chow, and a sub-floor hidey-hole beneath shoppers' feet.

Off the clock, I'm 37 years old, happily married, with unsold copies of my novel collecting dust on my bookshelf.

On the clock, I'm someone else. I call myself simply "rat catcher"—even though I'm often summoned to rid people's homes of every other pest you can imagine.

For bug killers like me, this time of year is the big cash harvest. Sugar ants and house ants hit in early March. Carpenter ants began their epic forages through our yards in mid-April. And right now, wasps are steadily ramping up for deck-party season under our eves. The list these days is long. Even housebound bugs know it's springtime in Portland.

Last month, I went to work for my fourth Portland pest control company. My friends and family think I'm nuts. They tell me there are healthier and more profitable ways to make a buck than spelunking for bedbugs in people's beds and sofas with headlamp on and flashlight in hand. I agree. What I do for a living is crazy, but I refill my pesticide tanks and hit the streets of Portland in search of the wilderness anyway.

If people ask why I do it, I tell them I'm hooked on the magic line that divides wilderness from civil society. I can't explore that line in a national park. The tourists never get close enough to the bears, elk or marmots for any kind of magic to happen. I play a part in protecting the social fabric of civilization. We call it "home," and those we trust to hold that line are the rat catchers.

People are terrified of the creatures I kill, especially bedbugs. Without their fear, I have no job—and that job's a lot easier if I pull back your refrigerator and find a wall of roaches waiting for me. Fear buys me hamburgers and pays my rent.

It feels good to save a customer's baby from ants or nuke their backyard full of spiders until it glows green, because I'm drawing the magic line around their homes, even if I don't always feel like I'm on the right side of it. The wilderness feeds on conflict—and so do I.

I didn't set out to be a rat catcher.

I grew up in Portland, went to Oregon State, served in the Marines and traveled the world. But I always came back to the Pacific Northwest.

My real introduction to vermin came when I worked for a crystal miner deep in the Northern Cascades five years ago. Living in a corrugated metal cabin, I read and wrote at night by candlelight. My plumbing was a gravity-fed waterline comprising plastic jugs, garden hose and duct tape. Sounds idyllic, right, like a Sierra Club calendar? Those calendar photos never show what's hiding in the cracks.

What was hiding was mostly mice. Every night I'd wake to the sound of mice running over my nylon sleeping bag. That was maddening, but it was the incessant sound of gnawing that finally broke me. I just couldn't sleep.

At first, I made my own traps with used plastic containers and peanut butter by sticking the bait just far enough out of the mice's reach that they'd lose their footing and fall. My bio-friendly traps caught mice, but catching them didn't solve the problem. They were still there in my pet cages demanding my attention.

Night after night, I'd hear my captives struggling to escape when I went to bed.

To give them a quick death, I'd pin them to my wood-splitting log with one hand and lop off their heads with a hatchet.

Even after six years in the Marine Corps Reserve, I didn't really want to kill anything. But I realized that holding mice captive was crueler than ending their lives. The mice didn't want to be my pets, or be ripped from their homes and families again and again. They wanted my bag of pickle-flavored Kettle chips, and they were willing to die trying to take control of it.

The next step in my evolution into vermin killer took place in May 2014, when my wife Emily's new organic farming business "activated" me. I was now ready to combat anything that stood between Emily and her farm dream. Especially voles, those small, subterranean rodents that destroy plants from below.

At about the same time, I went to work for a large exterminating company I'll call Global Giant. The company flew me to St. Paul, Minn., for training. I sat in a classroom full of dudes wearing long-sleeved pinstriped shirts and blue gas-station pants. We even had a company cheer: "[Unnamed company] is where it's at!" we sounded off in unison. "We kill roaches, mice and rats! When we come to set the date, we'll be back to eliminate!"

We were instructed not to use words like "spray" or "chemical," and instead say "treatment" or "product." We called it a "service vehicle" instead of a "truck."

By the end of summer, I was a licensed pest control operator in Oregon and Washington, and I was getting paid $17 an hour.

I was in Seattle when I killed my first rat. After a long night of racing from stop to stop through that city's rain-slicked streets, I was dreaming of a bag of chips and sleep.

My last stop was at a 24-hour grocery chain: I replaced glue boards in fly lights, checked the interior traps, and joked with the grocers.

I was outside restocking bait stations with anticoagulants when I popped open a station a few feet from the store's automatic doors and saw a rat staring back with the calm of a zombie. I couldn't back down. "You got this," I thought as I put on my green dishwasher gloves and grabbed an old bait bucket and lid, and swaggered back to the rat like a rum-fueled pirate.

First, I set my bucket near the station, then I popped it open, ready for the death struggle my training in St. Paul had led me to expect. Nothing.

I scooped up the rat, and in the darkness of the parking lot, I swung my hammer into the bucket. The rat survived the first few blows, so I beat harder. Eventually the rat died. It was a rookie move. Now I know that those zombie eyes meant that the rat had already eaten a fatal dose of bait.

Anticoagulants deliver a long, painful death—the rat bleeds internally. My hammer was a tool of mercy like the hatchet I'd used to dispatch mice in the Cascades. The silence that followed filled me with relief. Thank God that filthy vermin was dead! Finally, I could go back to my hotel, munch some Kettle chips, and sleep now that my bloodthirst had been quenched.

I killed a lot of rats in my 10 months with the company, but the night route was more about roaches. Once a month, when your favorite restaurant or bar closes for the night, a bug destroyer like me will walk in with a respirator, jumpsuit, a tank full of roach killer, and a flusher. A magic wand shoots a fog of ultra low volume pyrethroid pesticide into wall voids, cracks, stoves and dishwashers where roaches live.

The flushing chemical didn't kill roaches. It herded them into the open, where I could spray the roach poison and end their lives.

The fattest roaches I ever hunted in Portland sprang from the old brick Stumptown catacombs under downtown restaurants near the Willamette. And while I have killed thousands, perhaps millions of roaches, I became increasingly aware that total pest control is like launching nuclear warheads. To kill all of them, we'd have to kill us.

On April 5, 2015, I left the fatter paychecks at Global Giant for a mom-and-pop pest control operation—bug killing with more heart, I hoped. The new operation was set in a battered house in Parkrose with a view of I-205. A cellphone tower soared from the side yard, and pesticide wagons crowded the backyard. It was great.

The operators I worked with were battle-hardened and tough, especially the company vice president, who wasn't afraid to tell you that her balls were bigger than most. And I'd agree. In this business, it takes steel to look your customers in the eye and tell the truth. "That's right," she encouraged us to tell tenants and managers. "We think it's best if you sleep in your bed after the treatment. The bedbugs won't come out of their hidey-holes and cross our chemicals without proper bait."

Other companies shy away from the creepy fact that bedbugs can hole up for up to nine months without feeding if they don't have a host around to draw them out. In other words, there is no quick kill for bedbugs. Even after the treatment, you're still the bait.

Big Balls wasn't afraid to tell people the real cost of controlling their pests. If they had to clean up their shit, trim their trees, or stop feeding pet chow to the goddamned rats, she'd tell them.

Our customers were mostly low-income property management companies. I tackled more infestations in a few months at the mom-and-pop company than the whole time I worked for the Global Giant. Those confrontations with wild creatures turned me into a bounty hunter.

I'd knock on the door of an apartment in Lents ready to free the home from the bad guys. I came to relish the challenge of battling multidimensional infestations.

For example, two-dimensional infestations were mostly kitchens. The 3-D infestations were kitchens plus everywhere, and 4-D infestations were everywhere plus the building around it. I relished the challenge, but 99 percent of the time, if my colleague and I were battling anything greater than 2-D infestations, we found ourselves playing "chase the cockroach" from unit to unit for lack of a methodical plan, or the will to make that plan happen.

One day, I was prepping for a bedbug job in a large apartment complex in Northeast Portland near Glendoveer Golf Course.

It was a sweaty summer day, and the family sharing its unit with bedbugs did not speak English. I struggled to explain that they needed to leave so I could douse their home in a toxic spray.

"You have to leave now," I said, gesturing to them. "I need time to kill your bugs." I shaped my hand into a gun and mimicked shooting the other as it writhed like a bedbug.

Most days I felt like I was living in an infestation, too. I'll never forget a surly but kind drunk who rented a unit off Northeast 82nd Avenue.

After a few blasts of my chemical wand, his unit had hundreds or maybe thousands of dead bedbugs clumped around his baseboards.

One customer, an elderly woman, greeted me at the door with her breasts hanging out of her smock and diapers poking through the hole in her baggy pants. She told me that she had her fleas under control.

I went in to check and found an inch layer of pet shit, newspapers, trash, and other decomposing organics I was not able to identify spread over her carpets and kitchen floor.

Over that layer, she'd taken a bag of diatomaceous earth and sprinkled it on everything like it was fairy dust.

Another customer fed birdseed to his small population of cage-free pet birds, which coexisted with a large population of free-range cockroaches.

I hit the roaches with my first round of bug killer and watched the kitchen explode. Everything—stove, fridge, counters, tub, door jams—everywhere crawled with life. I could hear them move.

When I left, I stripped off my shirt and shoes in an attempt to rid myself of roaches. It was one of the few times I felt that "Get them off me!" fear most people feel when they encounter a bug in the comfort of their homes.

Early this spring, after 10 months or so of applying pesticides for slum lords, I jumped ship for another company I'll call the Green Piper.

The influence of my wife's pesticide-free farm business was present when I read the first lines on Green Piper's website: "Guaranteed and green. Protect your home, business and the environment with [Green Piper] eco-friendly pest control." It seemed like a better option at the time.

The office made me feel like I'd landed in Silicon Valley. There was an employee lounge with a massive sectional facing a large-screen TV and pingpong table.

The new boss was young, fit and eager to get me rolling. I was excited about learning something new from a team of hippie pest control operators who talked about bugs all day, believed in the natural magic of permaculture, and only used the same kind of bio-friendly pesticides that organic farmers like my wife did.

Wrong. When I read the product labels in Green Piper's warehouse arsenal, I discovered that the only unfamiliar "bio-friendly product" used the same active ingredient that Global Giant sprayed in Portland's large fly-infested restaurants.

All the others were the classic chemicals all operators use to treat everything from fancy hotels to roach motels. Green Piper's so-called bio-friendly product is a sort of super Raid, a synthetic repellent that stays active in the environment a lot longer than the organically approved "contact kill" products.

My service truck had images of happy babies and cute puppies on it. But I was spraying liquid Raid at homes full of real happy babies and cute puppies.

That put me in a tough spot.

"Should I put my dogs inside?" customers would ask.

But the equation was simple. No spray, no pay.

"Don't worry," I'd say. "Our products are safe as table salt."

I didn't mention that table salt in high doses is poisonous.

At Green Piper, we turned average homeowners into pest-control-seeking fiends. The Piper wanted its customers to call every time a few ants or spiders crawled from the cracks of their tubs; each call-back visit was an opportunity to supply them with their fix of pest control for the day.

The idea was to create a dependency—not control pests—and we did whatever it took to make that happen.

Earlier this spring, I was standing beside my green happy-baby truck on a cul-de-sac at the top of Mount Scott. It was quiet enough that an ant could fart on the other side of the street and I'd hear it.

Clouds rolled over the cityscape below and gathered en masse around Mount Hood. The smell and feel of the rain made me think of the crystal miner's cabin in the Northern Cascades, where my addiction to sacrificing vermin in the name of holding the magic line for our homes began. I wanted to quit. Instead, I pulled my green power sprayer around the homes of Happy Valley and sprayed them in the rain. Nobody cares what I'm doing anyway, so long as they think it's green.

After a month of working for Green Piper, I was ready to dig a hidey-hole under the freezer section of my local grocery store and spend the rest of my days living off condensation and pet chow.

Then the phone rang. It was another pest control company. The man's pitch about ant behavior told me he wasn't like the others I'd worked for. This guy knew his stuff, and he was offering me more money and freedom to explore the magic line like a pro. How could I say no?

I'm still hooked on the magic line.