Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Back-Hall Bat Lady

National Bat Appreciation Day was on April 17th. (Yes, I’m a bit late with this post. Sorry.)

I think this refers to the mammal, not the implement/club used in sports like cricket or baseball.

When I was growing up in the Washington Street half-a-double-house in Hackettstown, NJ, and my mother had to go up into the attic for something that she couldn’t have one of us do for her, she’d habitually tie on a large straw hat with flowers on the brim and a long gauzy pale blue scarf before ascending those steep narrow stairs. This was because, despite Daddy’s insisting that he’d bat-proofed the attic, she firmly believed that we did have bats up there. There were always huge sheets of brown cardboard tacked up against the rafters as a ceiling, but in some places they would sag, and nothing would convince her that they didn’t harbor a flitter of bats—not a colony, but a flitter, the collective word she always used. “I just know those rafters are festooned with a flitter of bats up under there,” she’d say darkly, and shudder at the thought of their little claws getting into her hair and their flapping leathery wings around her ears.

She’d do whatever it was as quickly as she could, tight-lipped with revulsion, so she could go back downstairs…but sometimes she’d forget to take off the hat and restore it to its place atop the white metal shelved cabinet that took the place of a linen closet. At least once, she wore it downstairs after guests had arrived suddenly. This annoyed her because she really wasn’t absent-minded, but that day she had been preoccupied, I forget why. She was even more annoyed that none of us had been there to head her off, so to speak.

She would not have liked this occasion at all.

I’m not exactly a fan of bats myself, although I’m not afraid of them. As a storyteller, I’ve discovered that just about everybody has a bat story, and if you tell one, someone else will say, “Oh, I had an experience with a bat that you’ve got to hear!” Some of them are scary, and some are funny, and some are filled with facts about how useful they are.

I have a bat story of my own….and yes, I’m going to write it out here:

It happened in the early 80s, when my first husband George and I were Urban Pioneering on Pittsburgh’s North Side, in a neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets—that’s because the man who developed and parceled out the lots on those streets had fought in the Mexican War, and named the streets after its battles, Spanish names like Palo Alto, Buena Vista, Resaca, and the names of generals in that war. Urban Pioneering means that you are living in an urban area, like Pittsburgh,, in modern times, but you're living like a pioneer while renovating a house, aka gentrification or yuppication in an old neighborhood.We lived in a big old brownstone house, half of a double house, that had been built in 1881 as a wedding present by their father for twin sisters and their husbands. Our half had seen better days, all of them before the Depression; after that, it was turned into three apartments and went downhill from there.

The original kitchen had been in the basement. It wasn’t dark, because the ground sloped in the back, so on the alley side, the kitchen was at ground level—although the front door of the house, up a level, was on the street level. This is not all that unusual for houses of that period in Pittsburgh, which is not exactly a flat place….But the owner who’d bought our side from one of the twins jerry-built two-story addition in the back for kitchens on the first and second floors. The problem was that he’d skimped on the materials. (Jerry-built is defined as "poorly built with shoddy, flimsy materials.") As a result of the way he propped it up, it sagged. By the time we bought it and moved in in 1980, the kitchen and the room above it had a pronounced slant going from the front to the back. The third floor apartment had a back bedroom converted into its kitchen.

Our plan was to eventually knock off the addition and go back to having the kitchen in the basement, with a restored dumbwaiter up to the dining-room (the original dumbwaiter’s back had been taken out, it was floored on each level and the mechanism removed, so it became the entrance to the first and second floor kitchen addition). We were going to put the twelve rooms back into a one-family house, to be filled with/used by extended family and friends.

For three years, the house was an odd combination of partially-restored and not-tackled-yet, so we had miles of walls stripped down through layers of paint and wallpaper to the original horsehair-plaster-lath, and more miles of stripped woodwork and interior wooden shutters (all done by me), a lovely slate fireplace that worked in the living-room (originally the back parlor), broken tile hearths in several other rooms, and a bathroom on each floor except the basement.Interior shutters were propped up in a corner, ladders and various tools and pails of debris were lying around, and so on.

In its heyday, the house had had two staircases, an elegant front one that swept up from the entrance hall, and in a back hall, behind it a narrower, steeper one with a bell next to it to summon the maid, back when there was no lack of cheap labor. At some point, the servants’ stair had been torn out, along with the bell, and the maid was long gone too. Unfortunately. I could have used her help! We did have two ghosts, though, which is another story entirely.

But one day, just before lunch, I noticed that our two cats were acting oddly in the back hall. Investigating, I found that my first fear, that they had cornered a rat or mouse (Tyke, the Japanese bobtail, had cleared them out in his first three weeks of residence; Freight, the tortoiseshell, wouldn’t have known what to do with either kind) was groundless.

Instead, they had found a bat.

I immediately spoiled their fun by clapping a cardboard carton over it and yelling for George, who had chosen that day, unusually, to come home for lunch. He emerged from our library—we both had lots of books even before we married each other, and so the front parlor had become the library/office. Pointing to the box, I informed him of our latest livestock addition. “We have to move it!”

“You mean we have to touch it?” he asked in horror.

“Not if we can help it, because there’s definitely something wrong with it,” I told him. “After all, it’s winter, and chilly in here, and broad daylight. It shouldn’t be here—and it was kind of skittering around on the floor. It didn’t fly.” We had nice high ceilings too, over ten feet high.

So he slid a piece of plywood under the box, and together we moved it into the first floor bathroom, the only room on that floor with a door the cats couldn’t get open; I was concerned that they might get bitten or somehow infected with whatever ailed the bat.

I returned to fixing lunch; George went into the library to make some calls as to what we should do with the bat. After all, bats do live in colonies—or flitters—and if something was wrong with this one, others might be affected as well. Presently he came into the kitchen. “Well, I called several places,” he said cheerfully. “The state ag guy was telling me all kinds of interesting stuff about them. They’re very useful in controlling bugs.”

“I’d be thrilled if they’d take care of the silverfish and cockroaches,” I told him, “except that I doubt that’s why this one was down on our hall floor!”

“I told him you weren’t feeling very appreciative of them today.”

“Not when they’re in my space, no. I don’t go in their caves. And?” I prodded.

“And he suggested we call the county health department, and I did, but all I could get was a recording; they must all be out to lunch. Gosh, is that the time already? I’ve got to run or I’ll be late to my meeting!” And the coward beat a hasty retreat, leaving me stuck with a bat in the bathroom.

I did get through to the county health department a while later, and the gentleman I spoke with was very enthused. No, that wasn’t normal behavior at all, he agreed. The best thing would be to have it tested. But they didn’t pick up, nor did they deliver, so I’d have to bring the bat to them in Oakland. It was alive? Oh, the thing to do was kill it, he said blithely.

I regretted eating lunch. “Can I drop a cinder block on it?” I asked. We had plenty of them in the front yard, from demolishing an ugly porch in favor of a more appropriate front stoop.

“No! We need the brain intact. It would be best if you smothered it. ‘Bye now!”

I hung up the phone and contemplated my options. A sense of unreality was overcoming me, a not unusual feeling during those years….In the end, I walked down the hill to a little mom-and-pop corner grocery, and asked Mr. Ward if I might please have one of his butcher bags—very thick mylar. No, I didn’t want any meat, I just needed a bag.


My truthful response startled him—and fascinated the old neighborhood drunk who'd come in to get warm, abnd who followed me up the hill. He was still there when I brought out the carton and plywood, so I made him shovel the bat into the bag, along with a few wind-blown dead leaves. If he was going to kibitz, he might as well be useful.

Bats have very large, fierce eyes, did you know that?

Slowly, thinking dark thoughts about Karma, I squeezed the air out of the bag, its little claws scrabbling at the clear mylar shroud enclosing it….as it mouthed little bat curses at me and the world on its way to the Bat Hereafter.

I dumped the bag into a garbage bag so I didn’t have to see those accusing eyes, and put it once more back in the bathroom while I called George. His new secretary, sounding dazed, put me through to him.

“Okay, the bat’s dead, but we have to take it to the health department, and I am not taking it on the bus. You’ve got the car; can you come back and run me over there, please?” I asked.

“Well, okay. I’ll be there soon.” After all, urban pioneering had been his idea.

Presently, he drew up in front and I opened the bathroom door, wondering what I’d do if instead of a dead bat in a garbage bag, I found a gentleman with a widow’s peak, a black cape, and a Transylvanian accent….

Nope, just the garbage bag next to the claw-footed Victorian tub. I felt distinctly let down.
We drove over to the health department, where the receptionist made us put it under a chair in the corner furthest from her little window while she called the white-coated men in back to come get it.

When George and I arrived home, it was almost twilight, and we saw a plume of black eddying out of the third-floor window of an abandoned house two doors away. It was one of those bitterly cold, Arctic days that Pittsburgh gets in mid-January. They should have been hibernating, but we were sure that that was the source—even if we never did figure out how that one had gotten into our house.

Now, we had an elementary school up the block, and a lot of children, cats and dogs living on our street—this was back in the days when neighborhood kids walked to school. I called every city and county agency I could think of that might have some kind of jurisdiction over abandoned houses and/or bats, and every single one of them suggested another number I could try. I tried all of them, every morning.

Eventually, the  health department gave us the results of their autopsy. Our bat was sick. No rabies, which was our biggest concern, but sick with something rare. Maybe not contagious to humans, but they weren’t sure.

At the end of three weeks, I called each number again—by now I was on first name basis with most of them—and said the same thing to each person: “Look, we have a grade school, with kids going back and forth every day right past that house. These are little kids, who are fascinated by anything that might remotely look like a pet and might try to pick one up if they see it on the ground. There are lots of cats and dogs on this street too. Last night we had a meeting of our block club—I’m president—and we all agreed that I should tell you our decision. If someone from your office does not come out here tomorrow, gets rid of the bats and boards up that house, and any one of them bites any child, adult or pet, we are going to sue your office and you personally, and we will call every TV and radio station in Pittsburgh so that you get lots of lousy publicity about your indifference to the public welfare and safety.”

The next morning at 8 am, there were crews outside from both the city and the county, boarding up the house and trucking away the bats. I don't know where they took them and I didn't ask.

A few months later, a crew from the phone company dumped a large pole along the curb in the street outside. Our street was narrow and cobblestoned, and most of us had no parking except on the street; this pole was really in the way. They’d simply put it down and disappeared. I called the phone company two days later to ask them to move it. When I mentioned our address, the man on the other end said, “Oh, you’re the bat lady! We’ll take care of it!” and it was gone the next day.

Now that was a day that I appreciated bats!


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