It was something about the rat itself, the nature of the beast, the way thousands of years of proximity have produced a highly nuanced historical and cultural bond with humanity. Would any parent think of taking children to a performance of The Nutcracker featuring a Bedbug King? Is it any wonder Michael Jackson’s first No. 1 hit as a solo artist was “Ben,” theme from a movie about a telepathic, homicidal alpha rat? Rat lit is a staple of the New York writer, with this graph from Joseph Mitchell more or less summing it up. “Rats are almost as fecund as germs … a rat at four is older than a man at ninety. ‘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 … I believe some of them can read.’ ”
One could become obsessional about rats, I thought, thumbing through a scholarly article by the noted urban rodentologist Bobby Corrigan. A pioneer of “green” pest management and adviser to the City Health Department with a Ph.D. in rodent control from Purdue University, Corrigan did not put much credence in the suggestion that the uptick in rat sightings was a result of projects like the Second Avenue subway and the aptly named Bruce Ratner’s Barclays Center. “A rat isn’t going to leave his burrow unless it is directly impacted,” said the Brooklyn-born Corrigan. “Vibrations do not bother them. They are not leaving home because someone has a jackhammer.”
Corrigan called the present hysteria “understandable but idiotic.” The recent outbreak, he said, may only be little more than the unsettling of a few rat colonies, involving no more than 200 or 300 individuals. So this whole uproar was over a handful of rats? “It very well could be,” said Corrigan.
His point was that people are confused about rats. The fact was man “was more indebted to the Norway rat than any other species on Earth” with all those lab experiments and the lives they saved.
That was the conundrum; humans and rats were inextricably linked by time and space. History taught there was no getting rid of them. It was a Cold War, mutually-assured-destruction situation; wiping out the rats would wipe us out, too. What was needed was distance, Corrigan said. “Rats are diabolically clever animals. By that I don’t mean they’re controlled by the devil. It is just that they are very smart, very single-minded, very determined. One thing they want to do is be close to us, which is the problem, because if you allow a rat to get close to you, he will get very, very close. Closer than you want. That’s what we do, manage the distance.”
Iwas thinking about distance while wandering around looking for rats. This was embarrassing, since there are plenty of people in New York who don’t need to go out to find rats. The rats come to them. Right into their babies’ cribs. Not that I didn’t have rat stories of my own. For instance, in the winter of 1972, I was living in a storefront apartment with my sister on 6th Street between Avenues A and B. Bimbo Rivas, Loisaida poet and playwright, was my sister’s boyfriend and was around a lot. One day, Bim, a man with a sense of flair, used the five-foot-long steel-pole “police lock” to spear a scurrying Rattus norvegicus right through the belly. Toshiro Mifune couldn’t have done it better. The rat squealed a bit, but that subsided soon after Bim, with a quick flick of the pole, tossed the body out into an air shaft and closed the window.
Corrigan was right. Rats like to be close. They hug walls, seek warmth, want to be near you, if only to burrow into the subconscious, as in Freud’s famous “Rat Man” case, in which the patient was possessed by a fantasy of a chamber pot full of rodents attached to a man’s buttocks (which dovetails with the urban nightmare of the rat crawling through a toilet; check YouTube, if you want to throw up). Rats were parasites, living off human imperfection. Humanity was a race of profligate slobs who threw Doritos out the car window and were too lazy to fasten the lids on $100 pestproof trash cans. New York had more garbage than anywhere else, so we had more rats. They existed to mock us for our grandiosity and our sloth. They were our mirror, unwanted but true.
It was about then, as I sat near Collect Pond Park, that a rat appeared. I figured one would, sooner or later. Collect Pond, down the block from the Tombs, was a flash point in the rat scare. “Holy bleep, it is like a rat zoo in there,” exclaimed one video blogger. The rat approached, got within six feet of me, and stopped. This was fine. Six feet was an acceptable distance. But then the rat zigzagged around, moving closer by six inches or so. It was now within my zone.
I don’t like it when city animals act funny; it makes me think they might be rabid. But for all the diseases they spread, rats don’t get rabies. It was then I saw the Reese’s wrapper near my foot. Inside was a bit of peanut-butter cup. Rats can’t see for shit but can smell anything, and they’re crazy about peanut butter. It is like crack to them. I could see it: the rat decision-making process. Would he chance it? Make his move? It would be a mistake, because that peanut-butter cup was in my space. Lines had to be drawn. The rat, realizing I was serious, soon ran off. But he’d be back; two residents of the city, we were stuck with each other.