By Chad Koch
That June, the intern arrived at Charles Schwab. She arrived from Berkeley by subway carrying a bag of organic breakfast bars and protein drinks. She sat between the IRA processors and the Death Certificates department, dividing the full-time employees in half the way Moses parted the Red Sea.
The intern, a twenty-one year old rhetoric major, waited two days before making her first declaration.
“This floor will be a green space,” she said, foisting two empty boxes that once contained printer paper. “This one is compost, and this one is recycling.”
She handed boxes to everyone, even those in the microfilm department who never used paper.
One employee tossed his boxes. The very next day, the intern called a meeting despite the protests of the manager. She made her second declaration.
“I understand that I am an intern, and that I am here to learn from you. And although this is the bottom of the ladder, and many of you don’t have the privilege of a post-high school education, I must insist that you stop killing the planet.”
Over the next two weeks they listened to her. They filled their boxes with old account statements; they composted banana peels, apple cores, and the crusts of bread on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For the next two weeks, the intern gave progress reports during the morning meetings.
“We are twenty percent more Earth-friendly than two days ago. We are more Earth-friendly than Investment Services. By next week, we should catch-up to Community Development!”
The people clapped. The intern promised a pizza party. She put a chart on the fridge and added stickers. The floor was just five stickers away!
Some people from the IRA team started policing. They tossed unfinished lunches when someone simply went to get a glass of water. They cleared out the fridge daily—discarding leftover lasagnas, whole slices of pizza, and entire weekly plans of Weight Watchers into the boxes. They were two stickers away.
The boxes started to smell. They started to disintegrate. The Death Certificates department began to smell like death. People brought in cologne and air fresheners. A military vet wore a gas mask that made him sound like Darth Vader. The intern assured them they were close. Her third declaration:
“You are not what you eat! You are what you compost. Let the flies at your desk be a badge of honor. Let them swirl around and land on your hands. Let them regurgitate on your arms and then lick it back up. This is your salvation!”
They were one sticker away.
The next morning something was off. The smell had receded. The compost boxes were filled with holes. The compost was missing. Desks were disheveled, and the floor smelled like urine. Pellets of poop were scattered everywhere. The rats had arrived. Although the intern had created the compost bins, she’d never thought of having them emptied. She’d assumed someone in that place would do it. She didn’t understand that things have a cost because her parents had been paying for college.
The compost beckoned the rats. Such a mountain of food, so much of it organic! It had been whispered by the cockroaches and rumored by the mice. It could be smelled for miles. It was foretold in the rats’ prophecies: The Great Human Folly. They knew of the intern from Berkeley. The oracle of food. They’d read about her on compost blogs—the food magazines for rats. She was their Gordon Ramsey.
By 10 a.m., a dozen rats had taken over the IRA department. They were sensible rats. They ate Weight Watchers. There was no emergency meeting in the conference room because the rats had taken all the discarded Italian food there. They were dividing the food fairly. They were quite socialist but in a very Scandinavian sort of way.
The manager asked to speak to the Rat King, but there wasn’t one. There was a council of officials. They met in the hallway; the humans on the right, the rats on the left. The first thing the rats said was they didn’t want to be called rats. There were some politics about it, and this was San Francisco, so the humans understood how serious this was.
“How do we get our office back?” the manager asked.
“Your office? You mean our city-state? You summoned us with your food waste. You gave up that office.”
“Is there anything we can do? We need to finish the transfer of accounts, or we’ll be fired. Do you want to see us in the streets?”
The rats, having lived in the streets, didn’t want to see them in the streets.
“How about a trade,” the rats said. “Give us the girl.”
“I’m not a thing you can trade,” she said. And the rats agreed that she was not a thing.
“You have leadership skills,” the rats said. “You’re a good manager.”
She agreed with all of it. She knew she should’ve been running Charles Schwab. She was saving them millions of dollars by saving the Earth. Still, she didn’t want to live with rats. She liked her upper-middle class home in Los Gatos. She loved her master suite in her co-op at Berkeley.
“I can’t live with you.”
The rats circled together and spoke in tongues. The yips and barks were loud and then soft.
“All we need,” the rats said, “is for you to start compost programs throughout the city.”
The rats were socialist but prudent with finances. They even had an investment account with Charles Schwab. They offered her an executive position for their compost company, Dirty Rats, which they renamed to Clean Girl based on her suggestion.
Before she left, the intern gave her final declaration: “One man’s uneaten leftovers that he tossed in order to win a pizza party is another rat’s equally divided meal among six. Remember me when you eat your pizza.” She put the final sticker on the chart.