Ratspotting

by

12/13/2002

400 east 82nd st ny 10028

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

My mother taught me to fear rats.  She still shudders when she recalls the rat-infested tenement overlooking the Harlem River in the Bronx that my Czech refugee family called home when we first arrived in America, in 1970. Strange crunching sounds could be heard emanating from the hollowed walls of our apartment, and after a neighbor proudly showed my mother a one-pound rat caught in a trap, she nearly fainted.  I was a three-month-old baby at the time, and my mother’s biggest fear was that a rat would eat me. We lasted three weeks in that apartment before moving to a two-family “Archie Bunker” in New Rochelle, and eventually we made our way out to the suburbs of Long Island.  For the next twenty-five years, the rats in my mother’s stories haunted my imagination.  In 1995, like so many of my peers seeking refuge from suburbia, I moved back into the city that my parents fled.  It is here, in a fifth-floor walk-up in Yorkville, that I have developed a strange and obsessive curiosity about these nocturnal creatures of the underground.  I am a ratspotter.

I take meticulous notes about the rats I see — their approximate size, appearance, and weight — and jot these statistics down.  If I were braver and more scientific about it, I would bring along a tape measure and a scale, but I am a ratspotter and not a scientist.  Although there are no rats in our apartment, my wife and I did catch twenty-three mice in our kitchen one hot and humid summer, which supports the old wives tale that if you have mice, you don’t have rats.

In recent years, my wife and I regularly spotted rats on our walks through Carl Schurz Park, which flanks the East River from East Eighty-fourth Street to East Ninetieth.  Usually, we spotted them at night scavenging for food, but once I saw three rogue rats wandering the park in the early afternoon during a snowstorm.  One of them startled me as I rounded an old elm tree while walking my dog.  The rat sat perched on the edge of a wire-mesh garbage bin.  It was so close that if I wanted to, I could have reached out and grabbed it by its seven-inch tail.  My dog, freaked by the yelp I let out when I first noticed the rat, jumped up and tagged my chest with her front paws.  The fat and frightened rat plopped into the basket with a loud but cushioned thump.  I could see its round shape as it wriggled against the opaque white trash liner.  Although I was tempted to look inside at the bristly creature as it wrestled with discarded newspapers, my fear compelled me to step back and away.

Ever since the Parks Department administered a rat poison known as MAKI in March of 2000, I no longer see rats in Carl Schurz Park.  These days, the one place I can count on spotting rats is on the subway tracks, where the transit workers who fix the rails call them track rabbits.  From the safety of the passenger platform, I like to watch these plump rodents as they dart back and forth between steel rails.  Even the fattest rat is capable of squeezing through a tiny hole no larger than the size of a Sacajewa dollar. Rats are remarkably quick and agile, splashing through puddles without the slightest worry over getting electrocuted by the third rail.  It is an unwritten rule that rats stay down on the tracks, while people remain on the concrete platform above.  Sometimes, this rule is broken.

I once saw a rat climb up onto the platform at the 59th Street subway station.  Its foot-long body easily weighed a pound and its gray boar-like bristles stopped where its long naked tail began.  The rat scampered up to a man in a red flannel shirt leaning against a wall.  He faced the opposite direction and was therefore oblivious to the giant rodent at his heels.  My first instinct was to yell over to him, but then I caught the wide eyes of an elderly woman standing next to me.  She and I entered into a silent agreement: it was best not to startle the man. At that moment, an approaching subway sent a clanking telegram through the rails that the rat seemed to understand as a sort of inner warning.  The rat waddled off the platform and disappeared into the tracks down below.  The man in the red flannel shirt boarded the train without ever knowing that a rat had sniffed his shoes.  The elderly lady looked at me; we exchanged smiles and boarded separate subway cars as we continued our journey through the underground.

Rats are not indigenous to New York.  They arrived as stowaways aboard trade ships, enduring starvation and violent storms at sea.  In Joseph Mitchell’s 1944 New Yorker piece “The Rats on the Waterfront”, he traces the origins of the brownish-gray Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) — the city’s most common rat — back to Central Asia, from where it migrated through northern Europe and eventually to America.  Less common rats like the black rat (Rattus rattus) came from India, while the Egyptian rat (Rattus rattus alexandrinus), otherwise called the roof rat, can be traced back to the ports of Egypt.

Today, no one knows for sure how many rats live in the city — estimates vary wildly, anywhere from eight million to seventy million.  Since we barely managed to recruit enough people to administer last year’s human census, we can forget about accurately counting the elusive rat.  Even if there are only eight million rats in this city — that still means there is a rat for every New Yorker, one which leads a parallel life to our own. I doubt that rats will ever escape their stigma as carriers of the bubonic plague — the Black Death devastated Europe during the Middle Ages.  But the rat, just as much as you or I, came to this city seeking a better life — and in that struggle, the rat has earned every right to be called a New Yorker.

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