Some of them can read

Sean Wilsey

  • Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
    Granta, 242 pp, £12.99, January 2005, ISBN 1 86207 761 4

Daphne and I told her parents that she was pregnant at Thanksgiving 2003, when we were visiting them in Florida. There was a lot of toasting and crying, and then we all went to bed. The next morning I woke to find a rat had gnawed through the power cord of the laptop I’m writing this on. Come spring, back in New York, we read parenting books. Daphne was due in July. Under the rubric ‘advice to fathers’, one said: ‘Keep the nest tidy. An upset nest yields an upset mother – and baby. In the postpartum period seeing one dirty dish unglues Martha . . . TIDY is your memory word for the day . . . Feel like a servant and waiter? You are.’ I also began reading about rats. Mature rats and newborn babies are approximately the same size, and the former make terrifyingly good reading for an expectant father.

The first thing I read was ‘Rats on the Waterfront’, the mother of all New York rat pieces, by the great reporter Joseph Mitchell:

The brown rat is hostile to other kinds; it usually attacks them on sight. It kills them by biting their throats or by clawing them to pieces, and, if hungry, it eats them . . . All rats are vandals, but the brown is the most ruthless . . . Now and then, in live-poultry markets, a lust for blood seems to take hold of the brown rat. One night, in the poultry part of old Gansevoort Market, alongside the Hudson, a burrow of them bit the throats of over three hundred broilers and ate less than a dozen. Before this part of the market was abandoned, in 1942, the rats practically had charge of it. Some of them nested in the drawers of desks. When the drawers were pulled open, they leaped out, snarling.

In 1944, when Mitchell wrote his rat piece, there were three distinct varieties of rat thriving in New York City: the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), which lives in burrows and stays close to the ground; the black or ship rat (Rattus rattus), which is fond of attics and eaves and seagoing vessels; and the roof or Alexandrian rat (Rattus rattus alexandrinus), a subspecies of the black. In the intervening years, winter by winter – that being the season in which they’re forced to live in closest proximity – the brown rat has killed off the other two. The black and the roof rat, all but extinct in New York, have gone to Los Angeles. Gendy Alimurung, an LA Weekly reporter, is entertainingly obsessed with them: ‘Rats! Rats burrowing through see-through plastic garbage bags. Rats scampering in a line across the edge of the dumpster like pedestrian traffic. Rats poking their noses through holes in the walls. Old rats. Young rats. Baby rats. Thrashy rats. Ugly, dirty scratchy rats. Funny, jumpy cute rats.’

And then there is Robert Sullivan’s delightful and revolting Rats, the most exhaustive, nauseating and pleasurable compendium of rat facts ever set down. Facts such as: wherever there are human beings, there are rats. China is where the rat originated, and where you can find it on restaurant menus. Rat populations increase in times of war. New York City battled an epic rat infestation at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, and was obliged to fill the ruins with poison. A third of the world’s food supply is consumed or destroyed by rats. Rats have eaten cadavers in the New York City coroner’s office. Rats have attacked and killed homeless people sleeping on the streets of Manhattan. There are more rodents currently infected with plague in North America (mostly in rural western states: Wyoming, Montana, Colorado) than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death. Whenever we see a rat, it’s a weak rat, forced into the open to look for food; the strong ones stay out of sight. Brown rats survived nuclear testing in the Pacific by staying deep down in their burrows. There have always been rats in the White House. Exterminators will always have work. ‘Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,’ an exterminator told Mitchell sixty years ago. ‘A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skilfully 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.’ A pest control technician – as they’re now called, ‘exterminator’ having a deceptive air of finality – told Sullivan that a ‘sniper with a night-vision scope’ is the only way to kill a rat of the semi-literate kind. The Department of Homeland Security, as part of its post-9/11 bioterror-alertness effort, catches rats and inspects their fleas to see if terrorists have released the Black Death in New York City. A male rat will continue mating with a female rat even if she’s dead. A ‘dominant male rat may mate with up to twenty female rats in just six hours,’ Sullivan says.

Male rats exiled from their nest by more aggressive male rats will also live in all-male rat colonies and have sex with the other male rats. The gestation period of a pregnant female rat is 21 days, the average litter between eight to ten pups. And a female rat can become pregnant immediately after giving birth. If there is a healthy amount of garbage for the rats to eat, then a female rat will produce up to 12 litters of 20 rats each a year. One rat’s nest can turn into a rat colony of 50 rats in six months. One pair of rats has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year.

As Mitchell more concisely puts it, ‘rats are almost as fecund as germs.’

Living in New York, I’ve collected a few rat stories. My friend Cressida, who lives uptown on 108th Street and wears open-toed shoes in the summer, always walks home in the middle of the street on trash collection days, to avoid the rats that dash back and forth across the sidewalk, running like commuters from their basement dens to the heavy black bags set out along the curb. On the other end of the island, Brad and Mary’s al fresco dinner in the tented garden of a pan-Latin restaurant was interrupted by the squeals and thrashings behind one of the tent’s side panels of a particularly vicious rat fight, which culminated in the winner hurling the loser over a table at which people were eating. A number of summers ago my friend Eli and I had dinner at a trendy downtown pizza place (John F. Kennedy Jr was at the next table). After we’d finished, and I was halfway out the door, Eli called me back, in a strangely delighted tone of voice, to show me the dead, foot-long sewer rat (grey, oily belly distended, chest flattened, long yellow incisors bared in anguish) that had been under our table – under our backpacks, in fact. ‘That’s one big dead rat!’ Eli said as I fled for the street, leaned between two parked cars, and retched.

Colin used to work as the superintendent of a rundown, medium-sized building in a Dominican block on the Lower East Side. One of his duties, which he hated, was to cart out the building’s trash – always full of foraging rats. The previous super was known for putting on a big pair of steel-toecapped boots so he could leap into the trash barrels and stomp the rats to death. Colin usually left them alone. One time, though, he managed to trap a rat in an empty barrel. Then he found a heavy iron rod in the building’s courtyard, and dragged the can out onto the street, where a group of Dominican men were playing dominoes. The rat squeaked and threw itself against the sides.

‘What you got in there?’ a man asked. ‘A rat?’

‘Of course,’ Colin said.

‘What’re you going to do with it?’

‘I’m going to beat it to death with this iron rod.’

Everyone immediately stopped playing dominoes and followed Colin out into the middle of Rivington Street. He tipped the barrel over on its side, brandished the rod, and pulled off the lid, expecting the rat to come running out to meet its fate. But rats are cautious. This one stayed put, stared at its captors, and took mincing steps side to side. After about fifteen seconds Colin adjusted his grip on the bar, and that’s when the rat made its move: it dashed out of the barrel through the legs of one of the domino players – ‘They all screamed,’ Colin said – and disappeared into an empty lot.

Gary had a rat infestation in his building. ‘We killed a lot of them,’ he told me excitedly. ‘Mostly mothers and babies!’ I can think of no other mammal about which such a statement could be made with the same guilt-free pleasure.

Most of the live rats I’ve seen have been in the subway. Train workers call them ‘track rabbits’. Sullivan describes a subway station near Madison Square Garden:

People come down from the streets and throw the food that they have not eaten onto the tracks, along with newspapers and soda bottles . . . The rats eat freely from the waste and sit at the side of the little streams of creamy brown sewery water that flows between the rails. They sip the water the way rats do, either with their front paws or by scooping it up with their incisors.

Recently, a track worker called Manuel, who moonlights as a handyman, helped Daphne and me paint what would soon become our child’s room. Manuel painted in silence, until I asked if he ever encountered rats in the tunnels. ‘I see them all the time! They’re big, and they’re brave. They scare me. The other night I was spreading concrete when I looked up and there was one about a foot long, staring at me. When I waved my shovel at him he stood up on his hind legs and snarled.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I decided to go on a break.’

With New York to themselves, the city’s brown rats continue to adapt in ever more unusual ways. Sullivan records the reaction of the city’s head exterminator on discovering a pack nesting in the trees of a Brooklyn park – unprecedented behaviour for the ground-loving norvegicus. My first thought on reading the passage was: pity the squirrels. As for the head exterminator, he got on a walkie-talkie and shouted: ‘Hey, Rick! There’s rats in the goddam trees!

Rats – fast, tireless runners – will also make use of public transport. Subway workers have reported rats boarding trains to ride a few stops down the line. They are most numerous in the older stations in the lower parts of Manhattan.

What no employee of the city government would deny is that we kill an astounding number of rats. ‘We kill more of them than any place else,’ Rudy Giuliani once said. ‘We probably lead the country in rat killing.’ He held a ‘rat summit’ and gave the city a ‘rat tsar’. But no matter how good we get, rats will always be better at killing their own.

The peg for Mitchell’s piece (provisionally entitled ‘Thirty-Two Rats From Casablanca’) was the city’s close brush with bubonic plague, when ‘an old French tramp, the Wyoming, in from Casablanca, where the black death has been intermittent for centuries’, falsely claimed to have carried out rat fumigation and was allowed to dock, first in Brooklyn, then in Lower Manhattan, then in Staten Island. Eventually some longshoremen noticed the Wyoming was infested. The ship was quarantined and fumigated, and 32 rats were collected and combed for fleas. Flea extract was injected into healthy guinea pigs, which died of plague. It’s hard to read this story and not think about terrorism, and the impossibility of screening every container shipped into the United States. I had to wonder what inspired Mitchell to write about rats in the middle of the Second World War. Could he have suspected biological warfare?

I got in touch with one of Mitchell’s friends – who wishes to remain nameless – and asked her. She gave me a definitive no, saying that Mitchell’s interest in rats didn’t have anything to do with biological warfare, and if he had thought there was a story there, he would have written it. I asked her if he maybe hadn’t wanted to alarm the public. She said no. He was a reporter. He reported. Then I started thinking about what Mitchell had in common with Sullivan, and decided it was fatherhood. (Daphne was seven months pregnant and I was thinking about children all the time.) As it turns out, Mitchell had become a father shortly before he started working on the rat piece. Sullivan, too, has young children, and makes a few oblique, amusing references to fatherhood in Rats. His wife asks him to strip and scrub down before coming near their children. He is especially disturbed by the fact that rats bite babies on the face, because they smell traces of food there. Mitchell’s friend told me she’d worked in child welfare when she was a young woman, and had treated a baby that had been bitten by rats, which made her ‘grow up fast’.

The only other domestic rat fact that seems seriously to disturb Sullivan is that they occasionally emerge in toilet bowls, after crawling through sewer pipes, and bite people’s genitals.

A few weeks before our child was born I called 311, the Citizen Service Center, to get the latest statistics on the rat population. The operator told me I needed to speak with someone at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This, she said, was where ‘all rat questions go’. After she transferred me, a man answered the phone immediately, in a bored voice.

Must not be a lot of rat questions, I thought. ‘I’m trying to get a grip on the rat situation in the city,’ I said. ‘Specifically the number of rats we’ve got here.’ There was silence. ‘The most recent information I could find was in the New Yorker magazine,’ I went on. ‘A 1998 article that said there were 28 million rats in New York City.’

‘What!? Twenty-eight million rats?! That cannot be!’

‘Four per person,’ I said.

‘That sounds more reasonable,’ he said. ‘I’ll check your figures with rodent control.’

I asked if he could also check whether there were any vestigial traces of black or Alexandrian rats in the city. He said he would. A few hours later another man called me back and left a long message: so long I saved it to listen to properly at a later time. Soon afterwards, Daphne and I were walking down our block when a small, blurry shape came galloping out of the Catholic cemetery, straight at us.

Daphne, a few days past her due date, shouted: ‘What?! Oh my God!’

I thought: Oh, fuck – a rat! A rat’s going to send my wife into labour!

But it wasn’t a rat, it was a squirrel (possibly driven from its tree by intrepid rats), which chattered as it leaped the curb, ran under our legs, circled us, and then ran back across the street. A few hours later we were at the hospital. Our son, Owen Taylor Wilsey, was born after a 27-hour labour. He weighed seven pounds nine ounces, had no hair, could not see farther than 12 inches in front of his face, had no peripheral vision, could not feed himself, was startled by any metallic or staccato noises, and would not be able to hold his head up for three months. A rat can hold its head up from birth.

At home, presents rolled in. We got a pair of baby pyjamas that opened at one end, and were covered in pirates: we called them the rat bag.

A few weeks later, I listened to the congratulatory birth-of-our-child calls on the answering machine.

From my mother: ‘Sean! You’re a father! Hooray! Let’s hope he doesn’t have too many of our crazy genes.’

From my drawling Uncle Charles, in Houston: ‘Owen Taylor is a very masculine name. Very male.’

Then ‘Hi Sean. Or Mr Wilsey. This is Sid from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, returning your call. Let me know if this message suffices. We understand that you have an estimate of the number of rats in New York City; but, quite frankly we don’t have an estimate, nor have we ever given one out, as far as I know, on the number of rodents in New York City. There are a number of variables that play into how many rodents there might be at any given time, such as weather changes – during cold weather the number of rats declines – or the availability of food sources and other things, like exterminations and baiting trends in New York City, all of which may alter the size of the rodent population in the city at any given time. Plus, quite frankly, we don’t have someone going around taking a rat census. So we’ve not given out a number, a guestimate, or an estimate for the populations of Rattus norvegicus in New York City. The brown rat, or the Norway rat, is the only rat in New York City at this time. On that point you are correct. Thank you sir. Goodbye.’

Since Owen was born I have sent numerous requests to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for more rat information. Among other things, I’d like to know if they still inspect ships for rats, what the command structure is in the case of a major rat-related public health emergency, and the size of the biggest rat ever found in NYC. But they have been unresponsive. A child suffocated in an outer borough day-care centre, the media went crazy, and the head of the department was fired. They have no time for rats.

My other rat source, Manuel, has regularly called me looking for odd jobs. I haven’t been much help, but I’ve learned a little bit of his life story. He came to America not for money – ‘There is plenty in Ecuador,’ he says – but because he’d been in command of a detachment of paratroopers guarding the Ecuadorian president. He was ordered to fire on an unruly crowd, and refused. Then he had to flee to escape prison. He’s not afraid of much – except rats.

‘Sean, how is your son?’ he asked the other day.

‘Getting bigger. Holding up his head.’ Pause. ‘And the rats, Manuel, how are the rats?’

‘Numerous! Getting bigger, too! Ten inches! Thirteen inches! All over Brooklyn. None of us want to work in Brooklyn.’

I continued not to hear back from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, until I got a letter marked:

THE CITY OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND MENTAL HYGIENE
125 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013-4089
Vital Records, CN-4

I figured they’d decided to put their answers in writing.

I tore the envelope open, and found my son’s birth certificate.