Street Stories

Weblog of Seattle minister to the homeless Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch

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Location: Seattle, Washington, United States

Caring for human beings seems like the best use of my time, homeless or not.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Smell in the Basement

Our experiment with urban chickens has ended, thanks to a family of raccoons and our haphazard farming methods. It's all just as well, because along with chickens, you don't just get the most fantastic eggs ever, you have to be in a constant state of combat with rats.

Rats are endemic to urban neighborhoods anyway. Nearby apartment dumpsters overflow, the crazy cat lady leaves food on her porch, apartment dwellers throw bread to the crows and the squirrels, and old houses, like ours, provide natural burrowing opportunities for the Rattus Norvegicus (Norwegian Rat.)

Now, I am queasy about killing anything. I am no sportsman. But adulthood means one of my domestic tasks is to mind the traps. Which I do now with some interest. Now that the chicken food is gone, the rats are feeling more than a little 11-o'clockish. They seem way more interested in the peanut-butter baited snap traps I have set by their many entrances near the chicken run.

But, unknown to me, my normally-sensible wife shoved poison bait down the holes. Which is why we have this strong odor emanating from the crawl space into our basement into our furnace into the entire house. There is a dead rat some place in our basement.

We have known this for at least ten weeks. I concocted a wonderful compote of Christmas spices and allowed the elixir to bubble on the stove for hours at a time, filling the entire house with yummy cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg odors. Every few days I would add a gallon of water and reconstitute it. Part of the routine of coming home from work – turning on the stove, where the good smell happened.

Occasionally, on the rare Saturday off, I would throw open the door that divides the habitable part of the basement from the crawl space. Cobwebs and death and falling-down insulation always remind me that there are other things to get done. Besides, the smell will fade with time, or are we simply getting used to it.

The real excitement happens when guests are coming over. I crank up the elixir on the stove, light some scented candles, and quietly vow to crawl down there and do something about it. But I haven't done it. The idea of crawling on my belly in a dark space to discover the carcass of a dead critter is just a little too. . . real.

I don't like thinking about the dead rat, I don't like smelling the dead rat, because I don't like considering my own death. Someday, I will be subject to the same sadness – when my wonderful lumpy body will breathe out for the final time, and nature will take its course. I am a lot bigger than a rat. If left alone, I will, like Lazarus, stink. I will die, and if left alone, will be no different than that darn rat.

I stood in my basement on Good Friday, looking into the netherworld of cobwebs and damp earth, smelling that stench. It's not so bad to consider our mortality. I will die. So will you. What will really matter in the end? I don't think it's the stuff we have or the places we've been that matter. My legacy won't be a fully checked-off bucket list. It's the loving kindness we've shown to the people around us. Our love for neighbors – even the cranky ones. Our care for those with broken-hearts, broken bodies, and broken minds. It's what we were made to do – take care of each other.

Jesus went into the basement; he didn't want to. But he did it.