Jake Austen (partially in view) holds Ratso the puppet (a rat puppet with suspenders) as Marshall Brodien faces the camera
Ratso with Marshall Brodien, the late magician who also played “Wizzo” on The Bozo Show. Credit: Courtesy Chic-A-Go-Go archives

South-sider and lifetime teen Ratso is most known for cohosting the beloved dance party Chic-A-Go-Go with his companions (Reader contributor and Roctober zine creator) Jake Austen and Mia Park on Chicago’s public-access channel CAN TV since 1996. With his signature disheveled style, floppy ears, love of punk music, and squeakily delivered humorous observations, it’s easy to see why Ratso has remained a staple presence in Chicago media circles since his early 90s debut in Austen’s Punk’nhead comic strip, where Ratso and the titular character Punk’nhead were also in an unnamed band. “It’s just Punk’nhead’s band. We’re not big on names, you know? We’re just big on vibes, you know?” For the Rat Issue, Ratso—a self-professed garbage lover—spoke to us about a subject all Chicagoans love to talk about, food.

Sheba White: How long have you been a teenager, Ratso?

Ratso: 1992. 

That’s a long time. Have you learned anything about being a teenager for so long that you could share? 

If you just keep showing up at school, they don’t kick you out.

I know that you love food. And back in the day, you used to talk about eating a lot of garbage. Did you mean that as “bad for you” foods or did you mean that as literal garbage?

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s bad for you. But I would say literal garbage, as in the sense of food from the gutter. And the dumpsters. And the trash cans. But in Chicago, you know, you can sometimes get like three-quarters of an Italian beef in the garbage can. 

What’s your favorite Chicago thing to eat?

I would say the au jus after Taste of Chicago when it rains. You can put that on anything!

What have you put it on?

Well, just whatever you find: turkey bones, watermelon rinds, shoes.

There’s been a lot in the news about rats and pizza. 

I think that video of that rat struggling with that pizza is fake. 

You think it’s fake?

Oh yeah, I mean, a rat could normally balance three pizzas with ease, with grace, like a ballerina.

What’s your favorite pizza?

I like Italian Fiesta the best. I’m actually kind of sad that Pizza Castle on Garfield closed. That place was amazing. Their dumpster was never locked and had a big hole in the bottom. That may be why they closed, but I hope not.

Do all rats know which dumpsters have holes in the bottoms?

Chicago has legendary super rats who can make holes in dumpsters. I’m not related to any super rats, but I appreciate their work. We also can get through a hole the size of like a pinprick—rats are magic. 

They are! There have been a lot of reports of rats eating through car wires, plastic plumbing, fiberglass insulation, rubber trash bin lids.

Yeah, but let me tell you something, [long pause] that stuff tastes terrible! There are no reports of the same rat doing it twice!

There are weird things that rats eat like that—weird to humans. For instance, they eat fresh droppings because it helps with their nutrient and mineral absorption. That all seems really extreme and odd to human beings, but are there things that human beings eat that are odd to rats?

Let me tell you something, if you eat in Chicago, you’ve had plenty of rat droppings. 

So you think that humans are also enjoying that?

I hope you are; if you love Chicago food, you love rat droppings.

There’s a list of foods that rats should avoid eating, like onions, raisins, chocolate, mangoes, dried corn, dried beans. It’s a surprisingly long list. Have you ever eaten any of these or gotten sick?

I think I’ve eaten everything on that list. On one pizza! And [long pause] I felt pretty good. Eat what you love. You only live once. ROLO! Rats Only Live Once!

What places would you suggest that people or rats check out?

The really nice thing about fall and winter is that everybody who is tailgating at Soldier Field goes inside. It’s like being at an amusement park by yourself. It’s amazing!

So there’s food outside after everyone leaves?

Yeah, yeah. All the tailgaters, they just leave stuff, they drop stuff, and it’s a mess. There’s no security there, there’s no people. Everybody’s watching the football game. And you’re just having the Super Bowl of gluttony. For any rats or just any creature that enjoys pavement food, I highly recommend post-tailgate parties. 

That’s a great suggestion. The last question is a philosophical question about rats and food. It seems like unless rats are carrying pizza down a New York stoop, which you say is fake.

Fake, staged! I think it’s a real rat; I don’t think it’s a robot. But I think it’s trained to do a little trick for, you know, clout.

OK, got it. But it seems like unless they’re being cute, rats tend to get a bad rap. They’re sort of seen as being invasive, parasitic, and relentless. Relentless, above all else.

So basically, totally punk rock. 

RElated stories

The rats issue 2023