The Rat Man Beckoned, and Against Instinct, I Followed

It was 80 degrees outside and I was off to the westbank of New Orleans to spend my day hunting the same critters I spent a chunk of my childhood fearfully avoiding — rats.

Reporting on a subject that reflects a personal fear isn’t a typical example of fearless journalism (which is usually associated with more hard-hitting, investigative news coverage). However, I am proud of my unusual interpretation.

After contacting more than a dozen rodent control services assisting the Orleans Parish, only one person — Charles Parker, owner of Parker Wildlife Control — allowed me to follow and document a house call.

Those in the New Orleans rodent industry were not eager to talk to reporters. As one rodent control professional put it before hastily ending a phone call, “It’s not good for business.”

Fortunately, I had Mr. Parker in my corner, so I was one step closer to my squeaking and scurrying subjects. I climbed into his truck, which I deemed the “rat mobile,” and we rolled toward the scheduled appointment.

Elijah Sinclair Walker, a photographer at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute  who was assigned to the story, trailed us closely in a separate vehicle. The photographers weren’t exactly gnawing at the opportunity to shoot rodent harborage. Who could blame them?

We arrived at a house that was nice exteriorly. I quickly explained to the homeowner why I wanted to enter her home while trying my best to not sound like a rat-crazed lunatic. Her face was puzzled but she still welcomed me inside.

Mr. Parker directed me to a hallway and pulled down a dusty ladder leading to a dark attic.

I felt a gust of heat against my face. I’m terrified of rats, yet I was excited about the possibility of encountering a nest of rodents.

We searched for a switch to illuminate the dark unknown before entering the attic, but our search was unsuccessful. Mr. Parker, or as I called him, the Rat Man, first scaled the ladder and invited me to do the same. I stuck my phone in my pocket and followed.

Step-by-step, I climbed the ladder. Dim lighting from the entrance allowed me to see straight ahead to a circle of baby powder with an unidentifiable paste in the center. Roofing debris were scattered alongside various objects like plastic fruit. The attic’s scene resembled the remains of a ritual that went wrong. The value of closed-toed shoes quickly became apparent. And I was glad I was wearing them.

My back was oddly hunched to avoid hitting the ceiling boards. The only light source came from the attic entrance which seemed to lead to another world. The temperature in the attic was unbearable considering the circumstances. Drops of sweat slid down my face as I braced myself for the unexpected.

I heard the sound of twitching boards and I could barely see. We kneeled on the dusty boards. The Rat Man pulled out his flashlight and I pulled out my phone to report.

And the search began.