It has occurred to me that my daily life consists of reading, writing, and thinking about what I’ve read and what I want to write. Yeah, yeah there’s the role TV occupies but it isn’t a blanket: I’m usually reading while the TV is playing. Or doing crosswords. In other words…words.
I had to take a break from something I was reading because it’s horrifying and awful. It’s about rats in New York City.
Now, the only people I know who worry about rats in New York are people who don’t live in New York. The other day, I saw a brief video supposedly shot in a NYC subway car, empty except for a couple of people and a rat. One of the riders was sleeping and continued sleeping even as the rat approached him, ran up his leg and continued onto his shoulder. Whoever posted this video labeled it as what was happening in NYC subways.
Almost instantly I knew it was a fake, a set-up with a trained rat. How did I know this? Because the car was virtually empty, the guy didn’t wake up and who was filming this performance anyway? I’ve lived in the city almost my entire life, I’ve ridden trains for decades and the only non-human critters I’ve ever seen in subway cars are exotic pets, parrots and snakes. I did see a couple of roaches, yes, but not lately.
I’ve seen an occasional rat on the subway tracks but only once (in decades, let me remind you) did a rat appear on a platform.
The article I just stopped reading so I could tell you about it is in the September 4, 2023 New Yorker which, according to editor in chief David Remnick is dedicated to animals (“Our Dumb Friends”).
Thus, “Harboring Rats: Vermin of the waterfront and beyond.”
A few excerpts from this article, the opening sentence of which is: “In New York, as in all great seaports, rats abound.”
“Herds have been seen on autumn nights scuttering across Fifth Avenue.”
“The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits.”
“Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria. They will severely bite babies… and they will bite sleeping adults…If hemmed in, and sometimes if too suddenly come upon, they will attack. They fight savagely and blindly, in the manner of mad dogs; they bare their teeth and leap about every which way, snarling and snapping and clawing the air.”
“Rats are almost as fecund as germs. In New York, under fair conditions, they bear from three to five times a year, in litters of from five to twenty-two.”
“‘Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,’ one exterminator says. ‘A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skillfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read.'”
Every paragraph is jam packed with rats and their activities. In details. Once I thought I’d wandered into Robert Browning’s epic poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” (“Rats! They fought the dogs, and killed the cats, And bit the babies in the cradles, And ate the cheeses out of the vats, And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladies, Split open the kegs of salted sprats, Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats, And even spoiled the women’s chats, By drowning their speaking With shrieking and squeaking, In fifty different sharps and flats.” )
But no. My revulsion was not buffered by the 739 years between the original ur-Piper legend and the poem (1845). What I was reading was rats. Now. In New York City.
Or was it?
I’ve been telling you a shaggy rat tale. The New Yorker article was originally published in an April 1944 magazine, and was written by Joseph Mitchell. Who, amid the disgusting swarm of rats, informs us this happened during World War II when ships from Europe (the rat is not native to the United States) brought vermin and their fleas to our port. (Yes, the plague did threaten but was successfully beaten down by health officials.)
So take a deep breath. Eighty years have passed since Mitchell wrote his true life horror tale; the city is greatly improved and I would swear our current rat population cannot read.
But I can, and have advanced to a thrilling 2004 New Yorker sea story by David Grann, an adventure the centerpiece of which is the Kraken — in our contemporary nomenclature, the giant squid.