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By now, Inez Bowman knows how to play defense. The strategically placed pieces of furniture in her apartment serve as rodent barricades. Holes in the kitchen, living room, and bedroom walls are plugged with Kool-Aid can tops. A teddy bear is stuffed headfirst into a hole in the kids’ bedroom. Bowman does not walk down certain staircases or use the trash chutes. When she opens her new refrigerator, she stamps her feet to scare off any creatures lurking nearby. When she finally goes to bed, she gets up after a few hours to check on her kids. It’s hand-to-paw combat, every single day.
Welcome to Arthur Capper. The 601 Virginia Ave. SE apartment building looks like any other housing-authority property: broken elevators, leaky roofs, torn-out fire alarms, a constantly propped-open back door, and graffiti-laced hallways. But Capper is defined and distinguished by its rats.
Capper’s reputation as a rat haven is so notorious that many private security officers assigned to the area refuse to work the building. In the officers’ bathroom, a supervisor recently found two dead rats stuck to the carpet. Depending on the weather and the proximity of trash-collection day, the estimated rat population hovers around 50spread out over the same number of apartment units. A rat in every pot.
Earlier in the day, the rats ate through Bowman’s refrigerator wiring and into the interior. She didn’t notice the damage until around 2 p.m., just as the rodents were starting to feast on the frozen hamburger patties and cabbage heads. “There was [meat] blood running out of the refrigerator,” she explains between serious drags on a Newport. “I thought it was a dead body or something.”
No one is sure why the rats decided to make Arthur Capper their D.C. headquarters. Some believe the baby boom occurred a few years back when a pipe burst and flooded the apartments. Others think the rats migrated from a nearby demolished housing project. Carol Mozee says the rats moved into her apartment after maintenance crews fixed broken pipes but left huge holes in the tiling. Mozee says that when she went to the maintenance office to complain, they gave her steel wool to block the rat holes. Ah yes, that oughta do it.
The D.C. Housing Authority, which is responsible for maintaining Arthur Capper, was placed in receivership by a D.C. Superior Court judge more than two years ago. Arthur Jones, a spokesperson for the authority, says he doesn’t know about any rat problem at Capper. But the building may undergo renovation someday soon. “There are plans that are still in formulation,” Jones says.
Those “formulations” can’t come too soon for Bowman: A 10-year resident of the housing project, she can’t remember living without rats. She believes they have “classrooms” where they get together to study the intricate piping and discuss the best places for trash. “They have blueprints of the building,” she adds, no stranger to hyperbole. “When you run and they catch up with you, something’s weird,” Bowman says, referring to a rat she calls “Big Ben” who she claims has chased her up the stairs and followed her throughout the complex.
“Everybody’s paranoid, scared to death,” she says. “You have to look everywhere you go. You’ll be scared if you see their teeth. You’ll know why.”
The Capper rats have now trumped the animal food chain. Cats in the housing project are either afraid of the rats or crazed with rabies from past skirmishes. Bowman says two of her catsfirst Sunshine and then Twinklelost fights with the rodents and contracted rabies. Both had to be put to sleep.
And the cats aren’t the only ones with post-rodential stress disorder. Skittish from battle, the residents now see rats everywhere. “Do you see ’em?” Patricia Brown asks, pointing to a lump of plaster behind her kitchen cabinet. There are no rats in sight, just a telltale foot-wide hole marking their path. Brown has propped her kitchen table up against another hole. A chair and a broken clock (stuck at 8:45) serve as reinforcements. Her couch, she says, was the birthplace of rat babies one night. A nest of rat turds crowds one corner of her living room.
Brown’s bathroom has its own maze of rat holes and shredded tile and steel. Bathroom tiles fell from the ceiling on Thursday, cutting her son’s feet. The shower head is surrounded by a 2-foot crater in the ceiling. Brown says the rats get in through there and exit through gaps next to the faucet and pipes under the sink. When the rats are using the bathroom, Brown says she knocks on the door and waits about an hour for them to leave. When she showers, she stands at attention in the back of the stall.
Many nights, Brown just sleeps at friends’ houses. If she chooses to stay at her apartment, it takes her a couple of beers before she can muster the courage to get into bed. “I have to be real drunk to sleep here,” she admits. “You can’t be here….You are going to get hurt.”
Outside on the steps, teenage boys boast bravely about how many rat kills they have under their belts. But at night, the fear sets in. Shirlene Adams recalls one time when she sat up fending off the rodents all night long. “We came in here one night, and a rat jumped out of the bed,” she says. “One of us had a bat, one of us had a brick….We didn’t catch none.” Bowman tells a story of a neighbor who, having passed out after a party one night, was awakened by a nudge. She thought it was a man telling her to make room. When she turned over, she found a rat.
At 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, Brown sits in her apartment clutching a cup of brew. The lights are on, and the Orioles game is blaring from her television. Brown says she has to keep the TV loud so the rats won’t come. But just to tease them, she turns it down, dims the lights, and waits by the door. “You see one?” she asks. No rats.
During the stakeout, Brown talks up her apartment. With sudden, Martha Stewartesque pride, she points out how clean it is. “Do you see any roaches?” she asks. “I don’t have any roaches, baby.” Aside from the rat turds and gaping holes, she’s right: She keeps a clean apartment.
After about a half-hour, Brown abandons the vigil and heads to a friend’s house. “I’m tired,” she says simply, making her way out the door to find a rat-free place to lay her head.
Things may have been quiet, but by 3:30 a.m. the next night the rats have emerged in force. They come out through the holes in the walls and pipes, underneath sinks and stoves, trash dumpsters and trash chutes. Large, fat ones hobble-hop across the parking lot. Tiny baby ones poke through the trash in the fourth-floor broom closet. Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, two rats play the mating game, chasing each other in circles.
In Apartment 110, Brown is blasting her television in an effort to the keep the rats away. Four floors up, Bowman is asleep, maybe dreaming about the housing transfer she was granted in March last yearand has been wait-listed for ever since.
In the security office down below, officer D. Young sits in his chair warning guests about one rat he saw scampering down the hallway. “It looked like a cat,” he says. There’s no talk of action. “We can’t shoot any rats. It would wake the tenants up.” CP