Hadassah Nelson and Loren Parker's pet albino Norway rat Ghost plays with a toothbrush. Following the fire in the Gastineau Apartment building Ghost's fate was unknown for over 48 hours.
Story last updated at 12/12/2012 - 3:21 pm
Juneau resident Hadassah Nelson walked past her former home, the Gastineau Apartment building where she shared an apartment with her boyfriend, Loren Parker, and their pet rat, Ghost. She walked down South Franklin Street past the bars and the public library and turned a sharp corner into one of the narrow spaces that separate buildings in Juneau's tourism area. She unlocked a door on the side of the Tanzanite International Building and started ascending a few flights of stairs.
Very carefully she opened the door to a one room living area.
"There may be a rat in there," Parker, who was inside the room, said, motioning to a pile of clothes on the couch. Through the end of a sleeve of a jacket, a small white head and whiskers peeked out.
The building, a jewelry store with dorm-like rooms and common kitchen areas above it, is used to house store staff in the summer and often occupied by legislative staff in the winter.
Right now, however, the building is housing Nelson, Parker and Ghost, who were displaced from their apartment during the Nov. 5 fire, which originated on the same floor as their apartment. The presence of Ghost in their new digs was not a given.
Nelson, 27, is from Talkeetna. Parker, 28, is from Juneau. The couple met at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In the spring of 2011 they moved to Juneau, and after a couple of weeks of couch surfing they settled in on the fourth floor of the Gastineau Apartment building. The apartment was affordable, and they had both found jobs downtown. They enjoyed the quirkiness of the place; they had views of the mountains, the ocean, and of the street below, which they referred to as "drunk TV."
"We saw a lot of fights," Nelson said. "There was always yelling. I saw a guy get maced once."
"I saved a dude's life once," Parker said.
A man had passed out, intoxicated, in the middle of the street in front of their building and Parker got him up and on his way.
"I didn't really know anybody except for Loren and the people I met through him, so I was a little lonely," Nelson said.
Which is partly why they decided to get a pet. Parker had owned rats in the past.
"They make surprisingly good pets, especially for someone without a lot of space, and without a lot of time," Parker said. "They require a lot of socialization, but if they're pretty good at entertaining themselves. They're really good pets, very social, very intelligent. I thought that would be a good fit."
One fall afternoon last year, they boarded a bus from downtown to the Mendenhall Valley and headed to the Wee Fishy pet store. They looked at snakes, lizards, toads, fish and tarantulas. Then they were led to a back room that had baby mice and one rat left. A staff member retrieved the albino animal, known as a Norway rat, and put it in Nelson's cupped hands.
"She was about two to two and a half inches long," Nelson said. "Her nose was a little bit more pointy than a mouse. She was so soft. She was cutest thing I ever saw. Her tail was really pretty. I didn't give her back."
The couple grew quite attached the rat which they named Ghost. Nelson said they would spend hours watching her, marveling at what she described as an "elegant profile." They said Ghost quickly grew into her name, darting around their apartment.
"She'll be right next to you - or you'll think she's right next to you - and you'll look over and she'll be climbing up into your closet," Nelson said. "It makes no sense how she could be here one moment and then somewhere else within seconds."
Ghost does not embody the connotation of a rat, a mangy black sharp-toothed rodent associated with New York subway stations. She's curious and clean, soft and cuddly - and white as a ghost.
Nelson said ambulances regularly rolled through the area, and the buildings fire alarms went off quite often.
"We ended up not leaving the building unless we saw the fire trucks coming," Nelson said. "The fire trucks have come so many times I felt bad for the fire guys."
The building's fire alarms went off around 5 p.m. the day of the fire. Nelson was walking back to her place from work. Someone she knew was walking the other direction, and told Nelson that her apartment building was on fire.
"My immediate thought was like, 'No, it's not a fire, or if it's a fire it's something small,'" Nelson said.
When she arrived at the building a policeman was rushing out of it yelling at people to move away, to stand on the other side of the street. Nelson could have cared less about everything in their apartment, save a ring from her grandmother who died in 2009 and with whom Nelson was close, and Ghost.
"I thought, 'Well maybe I should run in there,'" Nelson said. "If I didn't get her out of there alive I would have been pretty messed up."
Before Nelson went over to The Rookery Café, where Parker was working, she located a policeman on the scene. She asked him if he had seen a white rat. He hadn't. She told him if he did, it was hers. After some time decompressing over dumplings and whiskey, the couple walked by the burning building.
"I was thinking that my rat must be dead," Nelson said. That was all she could think about. "I was thinking about how she was dying or suffering, or..." She breathed deeply and sighed. "I've never become as close to a pet before as I am to Ghost."
For two nights they stayed in the Goldbelt Hotel, which had donated rooms for displaced Gastineau Apartment residents. The day after the fire, Election Day, they were told they might be able to enter the building that evening. But it was still too dangerous to enter. They went to Bullwinkle's pizza and watched election coverage over bowls of soup and plates of salad, a pitiful scene but fitting for a couple not sure whether to grieve or not.
The following day Nelson was able to enter building. She said pieces of the ceiling were hanging down, and she could hear water dripping.
"My heart was racing," Nelson said. "I just felt shaky with a big adrenaline rush. The smell was just horrible. It's not like a fire pit smell, or a wood stove smell. I've never smelled anything like that."
Nelson got to the top of the stairwell on the level her apartment was located and creeped into the hallway.
"The door had obviously been kicked in," she said. "There was dust and soot; everything was kind of covered in this gray."
Nelson started calling for Ghost. Ghost has a cage, but the couple lets her roam around. She checked the closet where Ghost would often sleep. No Ghost. She went through clothes. No Ghost. She searched her closet, then Loren's. No white rat. She found her grandmother's ring and continued her search, but said she had mentally surrendered to the reality that Ghost was dead. And then Nelson pulled off the blanket of their bed.
"She kind of just flopped," she said. "I think I flipped her when I pulled the blanket cover up. I wasn't being careful at that point, I was freaking out."
Ghost was alive, but not moving very fast. Nelson said the animal was low on energy, likely not having had much to eat or drink in the last two days.
"With all the loud noises and the smoke I wouldn't have been surprised if she had just stayed in the blanket," Nelson said.
For the first week after Ghost's recovery, the animal was quite sick. She coughed and sneezed.
"She would have these fits of coughing," Nelson said. "It was really scary. We'd never heard her make that noise."
The couple was temporarily staying at a friend's house while they searched for new places to stay. But the availability of rental units was slim; around 50 residents had been displaced and housing was in high demand. Add to that the presence of a pet and the availability decreased even more. The Tanzanite building was accommodating to pets, so the couple moved in. Nelson and Parker are grateful for the housing but are in search of a more permanent situation.
"People keep asking us what we need, but until we have a place we can't accept things like furniture or cooking stuff," she said.
They've contacted over 30 people about housing. Most of them haven't returned phone calls. Half of the ones that did told them they couldn't accept pets.
"I heard that with male cats they have smelly pee and dogs can mess up a place, but Ghost, we've had her since she's a baby," Nelson said. "She doesn't shed, she doesn't pee or poop all over, she does that in her cage. Can you smell her? She's not smelly."
Parker said he was hesitant to argue with prospective landlords.
"We just try and explain her in the clearest and the most concise terms possible and usually they just assume the worst," he said.
Right now they're playing the waiting game and following up on the dwindling amount of housing leads. They said people have been extremely generous, donating clothes and other items. But, as Nelson said, she can't really get comfortable until she has a place to call home, a difficult feat when a pet is involved.
As Parker put it, "Ghost isn't much more harmful than a fish; just way cooler."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.