I remember pulling up next to a Terminix truck at a red light one morning and thinking to myself that the man behind the wheel must not be the sharpest tool in the shed. I mean, who would want to kill bugs for a living? I figured he must not make much money to do an “easy job” like that. I was 18 years old and fancied myself to be a pretty talented young man – I was a union member with a good job in a skilled trade. He was just a bug man. The only other bug man I knew of was the father of some weird kid who lived in my neighborhood. Pops worked for Orkin. He wore one of those ridiculous white Orkin shirts and always looked like Andy Capp, with a Kangol touring hat, a cigar hanging out of his mouth and a can of bug juice in his hand. He always smelled like whatever he was spraying that day – probably Diazinon or whatever God-awful potion they used back in the 70s. Yeah, I had no idea that day that a recession and a layoff later I’d be working that “easy job” myself.
Now before all you tuff guys from Baltimore and Camden get to scratching your heads and puffing your chests out because you think your city is the most dangerous in America, let me point out that according to Parenting Magazine, Wilmington, Delaware, has surpassed both your towns for the pride and distinction of being America’s most dangerous this year. Not only that, but a couple of years ago, Mens’ Health Magazine rated us as the 4th angriest. We may not be as big as you, but we’re more dangerous and we’re pretty angry. You may get hit by a stray bullet in Wilmington, so be careful if you’re unlucky enough to have some reason to be here. The 75 year old man who trained me to take over his bug route in this town once told me “the only person who sees more than the exterminator is the police officer and sometimes people don’t hide things from the bug man that they would from the cops. And cops have guns, we only have B&Gs”.
I was trained for a total of four days before they gave me my own truck and sent me into Center City to take over my new route. I had barely any idea what I was doing. The old man had told me that when he worked for Terminix back in the 50s, they didn’t even know what chemicals they were using. They had chemical “A” for cockroaches in restaurants and downtown commercial buildings, and chemical “B” for residential accounts because it didn’t smell as bad. That was about the extent of my knowledge at that point. I had this jug of chemicals, some rat bait for the boiler rooms and this thing called a “Whitmire System 3”, which was a complex tool involving pouches for several different types of aerosol cans and some brass fittings, coiled tubes and injectors. Apparently you needed different kinds of aerosols for different bugs or situations, which I had to learn about the hard way by upsetting a lot of people in office buildings – spraying the wrong smelly bug juice a few times before I got the hang of it. Now, this first day of the month was a commercial route of banks, office buildings and the like and I could access all of the accounts by parking in a central lot. I didn’t want to waste a lot of time going back and forth to my truck, so I took all this equipment with me. Yeah, you guessed it…I looked like John Goodman in Arachnophobia…and I probably scared the tellers in those bank more than the bugs did.
I had guns pulled on me twice that year. The first time, I had just finished servicing a corner store in a neighborhood on the north side of town. I was waiting at the counter to get the service slip signed and I could sense that a young man behind me wasn’t too pleased with my presence there. He was standing almost directly on my shoulder and staring me down. I was a much younger man then, so I didn’t take too kindly to that. I threw my elbow into his jaw. He fell back into a Wrigley’s gum rack. Gum went flying everywhere. People starting ducking and dodging in the aisles. He pulled a .38 from his belt and I ran out the door, jumped in my truck and I was out of there. He was all of 16 years old. A few months later, in the same neighborhood, I witnessed a drug deal. I was loading some equipment out of the back of my truck to do a roach job and there was a hand-off of a brown paper bag. I tried to ignore it, you learn to mind your business. The gentleman who did the hand-off casually walked over to me, opened his jacket to show me a .45 he had in a chest holster and kindly informed me that I had seen nothing. I agreed with him and headed into the house to kill some cockroaches.
I serviced another corner store on 6th and Washington in the heart of the wretched Hill Top neighborhood. The building had six apartments above. The proprietor would hand me a ring of about a hundred keys that I had to figure out. He always claimed that everyone had been notified that I’d be doing service, but I always ended up walking in on people having sex, doing drugs – God knows what. One hot August day he assured me, as usual, that everyone knew I was coming. I worked my way through the Rubik’s Cube of a key chain for the first five apartments and treated them with no problems. Nobody was home that day. The sixth apartment was all the way up on the third floor of the building. I found the key and opened the door. There was nothing in there but a couch. I went to the kitchen and opened the cabinets – one single can of beans and about a million cockroaches. I started spraying. I got a strange feeling that someone was in the apartment somewhere, but it was dead quiet. I started looking around. I opened the bedroom door, nobody. I opened the bathroom door, nothing. Finally, I opened a closet door…there was a pit bull in there. He lunged at me, got his jaws on my pantleg. I whacked him on his head with my cop light. That stunned him for a minute…long enough for me to get out the nearest window. I was three floors up then, standing on the 12 inch ledge of the bay window below, looking down into an alleyway.The dog kept diving at the window. Fortunately, the pane had been replaced with thick plexi-glass, otherwise the animal probably would have killed us both. He dove at the window for a while, blood gushing out of his face from the impact and then he just kind of gave up. I stood up there for about a half an hour before some school kids came walking down the alley. I called down to them. They laughed at me and moved on. I didn’t have much of a ledge to stand on and my feet were getting tired. I was afraid I was going to fall. I started planning my attack on the dog. He was kind of sickly and underfed. I figured I could take him, but I wasn’t quite ready to risk it. A little while later a worker from the electric company came down the alley with a ladder. Not a minute too soon.
I service mainly residential accounts in the affluent suburbs now. Other than getting stung by an occasional bee or having to satisfy some fussy customer who’s very stressed out over ants on their kitchen counter-top, my day is more annoying than dangerous. That’s OK, annoying is fine. It’s pest control.