Thursday, June 17, 2010

The rats of New York

"Not every station has rats, although plenty do. Of 18 stations examined in Lower Manhattan, about half of the subway lines got a fair or poor rating for infestation, meaning they exhibited the telltale culprits - overflowing trash cans, too much track litter - that can lead to a rodent jamboree."

Rodent jamboree. A good phrase, and a disgusting image. That's the New York Times writing about a study the city conducted that attempted to finally analyze just how prevalent the evil rats are in the subway system. There are lots of them, just not the millions that people fear. The good news, as reporter Michael M. Grynbaum wrote, is that "the legend of teeming rat cities tucked deep into subway tunnels is, in fact, a myth. The electrified tracks, scientists said, are far too dangerous."

So the rats don't actually own the city, it just seems that way. Most people are lucky if they only see them while waiting for a subway. Inevitably my eyes gaze down onto the tracks as I wait, searching for any movement. A rat shows up often enough, usually alone although sometimes with family members. They'll devour some food or drag a McDonald's bag to their secret home. The creepy thing about seeing a rat in a subway tunnel isn't that they're invading our space. It's the feeling that we're invading their space.

Unfortunately, I see them everywhere, not just on public transportation. But start with the subway. For years I'd only seen them on the tunnel, never the platforms. When my parents, aunt and uncle and cousins visited three years ago, I assured them the rats didn't patrol the platform. Maybe we'd see one on the tracks, I teased, as if I was a safari guide explaining the likelihood of seeing a lion. But as we sat at the 145th Street stop, waiting to go to Yankee Stadium, a rat scampered on the platform, right next to us, bringing out screams and shattering my assurances. Since then I've seen a rat on two other occasions on the platform. Once the creature scattered behind a ticket machine and I was the only person who saw him take up residence there. I walked past and through the turnstile, while waiting for the panicked cries of some poor soul destined to encounter the rat while buying a weekly Metrocard.

If the rats stayed underground they'd be curiosities, a tourist attraction. But they do invade our space, or at least the land we've taken over and now live on. Several years ago all our building's garbage went in one place - the couches, computer chairs and newspapers mingled with rotting food. Four containers held the garbage in the building's basement. On weekends or on holidays when the garbage didn't get taken out, it was a miserable experience going down there. The stench overwhelmed the senses. Still, I never thought of rodents living down there. I was naive.

One day I went down with a bag, stepped off the elevator and threw it on top of the mountain that had formed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something dart toward my foot. It was a large (is there another kind?) rat. It scurried over my foot. I had sandals on the time, no socks. A rat ran over my barefoot and disappeared into a dark corner of the basement. Too shocked to scream or to weep, I jumped up and back, while simultaneously pushing the button for our floor. Back in the safety of our apartment, I wondered if the plague could be transferred from rat hair to human skin.

From that moment on I never did the laundry in the basement, which I'd done for years. The area's been cleaned up. All the food now goes into a separate chute and the super keeps things as clean as possible.

The residents don't always help.

Several weeks ago our building's management posted a brief letter in the elevator, explaining that an unknown person - but a resident of our building - had been throwing garbage bags out the window and onto an adjoining building. I'd seen the bags down there. It's a hell of a toss.

This, the letter stated, was unacceptable, not to mention against the law and a violation of the lease. Plus, the refuse would attract rodents, specifically, rats. I hoped they would catch the garbage tosser, and subject them to strict interrogation. There'd be only one question: Why? Who thinks it's okay to take a large garbage bag, filled with meat and milk cartons, and heave it out a window, onto an adjoining building? The building has chutes for food and the regular garbage for everything else. Is the 18-second trip on the elevator too much? Do they want their children attacked at night by roving gangs of rats?

Everyone in the city has a rat story. Maybe their favorite restaurant popped up on a WNBC investigation as a secret camera recorded dozens of rats running over the grills at a place that charges $50 for a steak. Maybe they saw one "as big as a cat" prowling a park. When I first moved to the city some guy made the papers because he went around at night on the Upper West Side with a baseball bat hammering away on rats that terrorized the neighborhood. To many he was a local hero, but some people objected to the treatment of the rats (not sure what the argument was; it's not like he was using an aluminum bat).

One morning a month, I stand outside our apartment building at 4:30, waiting for a car to pick me up for work. It's a time for drunks who stumble home. It's a time for those with long commutes to leave their homes. And it's the time for rats. A few weeks ago I stood and watched a pair of them run out from a building down the block and into the garbage sitting on the curb. I stood there for five minutes and they never re-emerged. One middle-aged woman walked past with her dogs, who apparently didn't smell a thing. She was comfortable in her obliviousness, while I squirmed with my knowledge.

The car finally arrived. I quickly hopped in and tried to forget about them. But the message was clear, no matter what the studies say: the rats run this city.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

I take it the city hasn't hired you to promote tourism for the city?? As bad as rats are I still think that snakes are even worse. Your episode of the rat scurrying over your foot reminded me of the snake slithering over my leg at the farm.