la Ketch

my life story

Thursday, August 31, 2006

a bit about Rats

Like many New York Newbies, when I first moved to the city, I became obsessed with rats. Rats and pigeons actually but my fear surrounded the rats. The pigeons triggered mostly disgust. The pigeon disgust sprouted from an experience I had in my sublet wherein I made the huge mistake of opening the window to the airshaft to “let some air in” the suffocating kitchen and found what can only be described as a pigeon grave yard. I honestly believe that this is where all of the pigeons of New York City go to die, in the air shaft of that building I first lived in. Proof was sitting on the widow sill directly in front of me in the form of, yes you guessed it a decomposing dead pigeon complete with worms crawling all over it. I got a big stick and shoved it off the ledge. The sound of it dropping to the ground with a wormy thump will never leave me as long as I live. I then scrubbed the windowsill for thirty minutes with dish soap and Clorox and a wire brush while sort of crying and whining and hyperventilating and feeling like there were 10,000 worms crawling on me. The other pigeons, the ones that were still alive but had come to die, watched on. They were next. Good riddance.

I couldn’t believe that square in Venice when I saw it on my honeymoon, all of the pigeons, so many fucking pigeons and the tourists feeding them and letting them (gag) perch all over their bodies. Why not let rats crawl all over you?

Yes, rats. I didn’t come here to talk about the pigeons. I came here to talk about the rats. Of course I hate rats. Who doesn’t hate them? But unlike pigeons, I have a respect for them. I respect them because they are intelligent and because they are intelligent (and aggressive and filled with disease) I fear them. When I first moved to the city, they were all I could talk about. At any gathering, I would corner whoever was dumb enough not to walk away from me and drill them about rats. Were they afraid of them, did they have an experience they could share, did they suspect, like I did that the rats were organizing, etc… A lot of people here do enjoy this conversation. Like me they enjoy hashing over worst case scenarios (having to evacuate a subway and feel them crawl over your feet), dissecting their nightmares. It’s part healing, part self torture. Fine line there, a line I crossed one too many times. After a while, no one wanted to talk about rats with me anymore. I started becoming hysterical about them.

One night, my good friend Jaedra was in town visiting from Seattle and we had gone to see, “True West” on Broadway. This was when I was at the height of my hysteria. We were standing in the long line of the women’s restroom in the basement of the theatre when we heard a woman scream from inside. I then looked down and saw what I thought was a huge rat coming toward me. I screamed even louder and grabbed the woman in front of me, a complete stranger, and threw her down on the ground in front of me, then I fell down on top of her. Thank god she was understanding. She was shocked but I explained to her that I had a horrible rat phobia and I thought I saw one running toward me. It turned out that the woman who screamed has seen a cockroach, one of those big “water bugs” in one of the stalls. It hadn’t coming running out into the line though, nothing had. I hallucinated the entire thing. Jaedra was laughing uncontrolably. I was mortified. The woman was so shocked. She kept saying, “You really took me down there!” It was horrible.

I haven’t thought about rats in a while but The Gallivanting Monkey's recent situation has inspired me to ponder them again. I have rats on the brain now and I have to get them out. My first encounter with them actually occurred when I was about 8 years old, living in Southern California. We had a huge wall of Ivy in our backyard and it turns out that rats love Ivy and they were “nesting” there. Doesn’t that word make you want to rip your skin off? Be warned, I will use it again. The only way to rid yourself of the fear is to face the fear. The rats were nesting in the Ivy alright. This started to become apparent when we noticed them making themselves at home in our house. One night, I was sitting in our TV room with my sister. I was in my dad’s chair and my sister was sitting on the couch and she looked over at me and started crying. I was like, “What?” And she was like, “There’s a rat on your head.” I didn’t believe her until it ran down the arm of the chair and under the couch. It wasn’t actually on my head but it had crawled up the back of the chair and sat on the top of the chair just over my head so it looked like it was on my head. My dad got us out of the room after he heard the screams of bloody murder and then he locked himself in with a baseball bat. It took about 30 minutes of thumping and smashing and swearing but eventually, he killed the fucking rat with the bat. After that, he became obsessed with the rats. Maybe this is where it comes from? He would make these crazy traps with his fishing pole that would catch the rats live. When one was caught a bell would ring and we would all run out back and look at the live rat squirming at the end of the pole, my dad beaming at his conquest. Ahhh, memories. Eventually, we got rid of the Ivy and killed the rats with poison and they didn’t return.

When I got to New York, I started noticing the rats on the subway platform when I would take the L train in the morning. It’s one thing when they are down on the tracks but when they are up on the platform, it’s really disturbing. When you see more than one rat on the subway platform and it seems obvious that they are holding some sort of meeting, well then you take the bus.

One of my favorite New York Rat Stories (everyone who has ever lived here has one) comes from my friend Paul who exhibited super human strength when he saw upwards of 15 rats running toward him on a subway platform where he was standing alone waiting for the train one night. This was back when the turnstiles were lower and flat on the tops and he actually leapt up in one sweeping motion and LANDED on the turnstile, one foot on each side, in order to get away from them. He says he doesn’t know how he did it. He thinks it’s an adrenaline thing, like when a mother lifts a truck off her baby to save it's life except that the truck was those rats and he was the baby. Once he got up there he turned around to find the station attendant laughing at him from inside her booth. “I know honey,” she said, “I’m dealing with them every night.” He called the station manager who actually returned his call explaining that they were doing construction down the street and they seemed to have, “disturbed a nest.” I told you I’d say it again.

It’s true that rats are very intelligent and it’s also true that they live in very structured communities. Many of the rats never even leave the nest for food. They have it brought to them. Some of the rats never see the light of day. The rats we see are the lowly rats, the gopher rats, the rats sent out to get the food for the others. And if you see a rat during the day time, then you know you really have a problem because they are nocturnal and if they are out foraging for food during the day then there’s probably a lot of them. I’ve learned most of what I know about rats from reading this book: RATS (observations on the history & habitat of the city’s most unwanted inhabitants) by Robert Sullivan. This is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. No joke. The guy is a really great writer and I highly recommend reading it. You’ve probably already heard about this book, it got quite a bit of buzz when it came out but just in case you need a refresher; the author lived in an alley infested with rats for one year and wrote about it. Well, he didn’t really live there but he spent every night there watching them, chronicling them. His girlfriend was not so into his pursuits. I think he is the bravest person I have ever heard of.

The result is fantastic, totally gripping. It reads partly like a horror novel and partly like a history book. He goes through the history of rats and the history of New York City while weaving in and out of time spent in “his alley”. He doesn’t go so far as to name the rats but he does begin to recognize one over the other. Then, in the middle of the year, in the middle of the book, Sept. 11th happens. He can’t get down to the rats for a while but he is in close contact with all of the exterminators in the city because he has befriended them and interviewed them for his book. Let me tell you something that the newscasters didn’t. Those exterminators prevented a huge, huge catastrophe after Sept. 11th. You think it couldn’t have gotten worse? Oh, it can always get worse. They acted quickly and baited heavily enough that they were able to stop the rats from basically taking over all of downtown Manhattan. Although, they probably would have had the World Trade Center rebuilt by now, it wouldn’t have been a place you’d want to visit.

The only way to get rid of the rats is to take away their food source. You can poison them and kill off a lot of them that way but to completely eradicate them you have to stop feeding them. This will never happen in New York City. It’s impossible. Rats multiply very quickly. They fuck like bunnies. No, they fuck like rats. They breed like bunnies. After Sept. 11th, with all of those abandoned buildings and ladies and gentleman, all of that rotting food, so much food, those rats would have multiplied into a full blown black plague epidemic. Luckily, they didn’t. The citiy's exterminators acted fast and prevented it and they all deserve medals of honor.

I learned a lot from reading this book about rats, about history, about humanity but mostly I learned about myself. It a widely known fact that the more you know about the thing you fear, the less you will fear it and that is why when I heard about the book I knew I had to read it. All of my worst fears about rats were confirmed. Yes, they bite. They bite people and they carry disease. Not only do they bite people but they especially tend to bite babies. They bite them because babies tend to have food and milk and stuff on their skin and clothing and they smell it. They bite babies on the face whle they sleep and there are many accounts of this happening in New York City.

So Gallivanting Monkey, if you were reading this, and I know you aren’t, this is where I would tell you that you did the right thing in taking your baby out of that rat infested house. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that but I would tell you anyway! Because that’s what I do, I tell people things.

This is, in my personal opinion, the worst thing about rats. The biting babies part of their personality. But now I know the worst and I can face it. I’m much, much, much less afraid of rats since I’ve read this book, even knowing what I know now. It’s a relief to say the least. When I see them, I still hate them. I still think, “you little fucker(s).” But I don’t have knee jerk hysteria and try to drag people in front of me, putting them in between me and something only I can see.

Well, I haven’t done that in a while anyway.


At 5:56 PM, Blogger PuckFinn said...

Thank you for sharing this fear.

I just wanted to say that there are different breeds of rats.
The kind in the sewers (and subways) is a more aggressive breed. I’m a little scared of them as well. Okay, I’m really scared of the sewer rats but really roaches stop me dead in my tracks.

I have two pet rats and they’re quite lovely. They’re about the size of guinea pigs (perhaps even a little smaller) and they’re not baby biters. Actually, they’re vegan and would prefer to eat their lab blocks over anything else that I offer them. When nipped me a little when I first got them (well over a year ago), but would always run away as soon as they touched skin. They don’t carry diseases either. These rats wouldn’t last two seconds in the NYC subway/sewer system.

So while I totally share your fear of the sewer/subway rat, I couldn’t help but let you know about my two docile rat friends.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger la Ketch said...

Puck - i'm definitely not talking about your rats. I'm talking about wild city rats or Norweigan Brown Rats. Although I'm not a person that would ever have a pet rat, I believe you when you say that your rats are cool and make good pets. I'm sure they do because they are so smart.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Pennyjuana said...

I said it ran over the the top of the chair and you didn't believe me and then we ran out and stood on the kitchen table and Dad went in there with a mop stick.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger la Ketch said...

Ok, OK! you're probably right. but a baseball bat sounds better, you have to admit...and "there's a rat on your head." that's funny!

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Certainlia said...

Okay, wow, I think I might have to link to you from my blog and write a whole post about this because I have A LOT to say on the subject. Would you consider that stealing? or plagerism? or attention-mongering? Or would you just think I don't have any ideas of my own?

At 10:45 AM, Blogger la Ketch said...

Oh Certainlia, flattery will get you everywhere. I wrote this post after reading Galivanting Monkey's Blog. So, it's all rats from here on out I guess. People feel stongly about them. It's bound to be contagious.

At 1:47 AM, Blogger momster said...

Last fall I went to NYC for the very first time. I saw a RAT in the subway scampering across the tracks! It was so creepy.

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Eve said...

Holy hell- I laughed for 5 minutes at "the biting babies part of their personality". haha! It's still funny!
I'll have to find that book, since rats are 2nd on my "Not Invited to My House" list...right after ghosts.


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