Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 10. GARBAGE
A LATE-SUMMER EVENING, almost fall. A delicious evening that was cool but not cold, an evening of haze-blurred stars beneath which, as I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River fought the rising tide to rush into the harbor, the bay, the ocean. And then I was down from the bird's-eye view of the bridge and into the twinkling buildings, then the side streets, then the alley, which is not really light and not really dark but locked in its semi-sickly fluorescence, in the side-street twilight that is its Arctic White Night. The rats were out, grazing peacefully in the two garbage berms, in the Chinese and the Irish trash. So many rats, at least a dozen visible now, some large, some small. Rat life in the alley can be a harried blur, a wash of rodentary citizenry, or it can be a kaleidoscope of the recognizable, a rat-a-tat-tat of what almost immediately becomes a harmonized familiar—and so I consider these questions: Are there more? Is this colony growing? Or am I just noticing rats that I did not notice before?
I watched as the rats entered and exited in what was now their familiar pattern: holding tight to the wall and, leaving their nest area, taking a first few tentative steps, then halting, then making that exhilarating rat charge, the wall to one side, the open alley to their left. Another halt and then another charge, and in a moment a rat was up on the crinkly black of the garbage bag or under the bag or through the well-chewed hole and into the semi-eaten spoiled and not-so-spoiled once human food. Each rat takes a particular course that is nearly the same and yet slightly different from the next rat. In so doing, they were carrying food back, though some also ate the food in place. I once read a rat study that suggested that the likelihood that a rat will eat depends on how safe he feels at a food acquisition site in relation to how safe he feels in his nest, which, it has occurred to me, is not unlike a human apartment dweller's consideration when ordering takeout.
Boldly, I stepped out into the alley, as if stepping from behind my blind. I was more confident by now, more at ease with the feeding patterns of the rats, though still a little jumpy. And when I stepped out, when I walked up into the alley, the rats initially hesitated at the sound of my footsteps, but then as I moved slowly, easily, they seemed to take less mind. They stayed on their course, making their jerky flights along the walls, into the bags, answering the call of the discarded-by-humans food. Precisely how many rats were they? I couldn't say at this point. And before the reader scoffs at this remark, I suggest they go to Grand Central, to Penn Station, to a Grateful Dead concert on a farm in the Oregon country, or whatever passes for a Grateful Dead concert, now that the Dead are gone, and try to count—it is not for nothing that the masses are called the masses.
It's considerably more difficult to distinguish rats en scene than it might seem to the armchair rat watcher—this is something that I was understanding more and more. I will, however, say that I could see between eight and ten rats at any given moment, which may not sound like a lot, but those rats appeared to be part of a larger relay team, one group replacing the next. Also, I lost count as to how many rats were in the heaps of garbage bags at a given time. The bags were animated now, each bag churning, heaving—a bar brawl in a pup tent.
As an experiment, I stomped. The three rats I could see moving at that moment froze. After the count of just four seconds, they started up again. Likewise, the garbage bags were quiet, then they resumed their soft rustle. The old papers of Dave Davis show that deterrnining the total number of rats from visual counts is somewhat unreliable; the most reliable method is to trap the rats, tag them, release them back into the city, and keep trapping until a total count is reached. Using my own more unreliable visual methods, I would estimate between fifty and sixty rats lived here. But implementing a more general rule sometimes used by rat professionals—if you see one, then there may be ten in the vicinity—I estimated about one hundred rats living in the alley, hidden away in holes, basements, underground vaults. And to think that the first time I looked down the alley all I saw was a dead end! Still standing midalley, I now sensed multiple dartings, fast blurs in the corner of my eye, each causing me to momentarily consider an alley evacuation. I stood still for a little longer, nonetheless, attempting to focus again, to calm my nerves, to concentrate on the energy of these seemingly caffeinated quiverings—to become an all-sensing, outer-focused, night-vision eye. How bold these smallest strokes of nature!
I stood proudly at the top of the alley, looking down the incline toward Fulton Street, standing in a place that I felt was out of rats' way, seeing the waves of pedestrians passing back on nonalley land and feeling only slightly repulsed, and a wave of calm finally came over me—until, looking left, I noticed that a small crack in the sidewalk was moving and then noticed that it was a rat. One rat, two rats, and then a brief rat squabble as the first rat attempts to return through the hole and crosses paths with a third rat coming up. It was a new rat source, another nest entirely, which I had only accidentally discovered in my moment of haughty self-congratulation. I turned the corner and looked down Edens Alley toward Gold Street and saw more rats coming up from holes in the street, through gaps in the cobblestones: rats hoisting themselves up, ramming their snouts up from below the street, pulling out their front legs and then heaving, hauling themselves up to quickly find the edge of the shiny curb, the trace of a wall, to scurry, to scatter.
This was a lot of rats for one person to handle. I got out of there. I walked across Fulton Street, back to the little traffic triangle where I could still see the garbage in the alley and watch the rats with binoculars and wonder what else I was missing. I set up my little portable camping stool, and it was then that I looked down at the ground and saw an engraving in the stone and slowly realized that the name cut into the little square I was standing in was nearly synonymous with garbage. I realized that I was standing in John DeLury Plaza. As rats and refuse are concerned, it was as if I had suddenly realized I was standing on a nose on Mount Rushmore, or in the basement of Monticello.
AS NEPTUNE CONTROLLED THE SEAS and all its creatures, so for many years did John DeLury control the city's garbage flow—the sanitation workers were his union mermen, his trust-bound dolphins. John DeLury was the first and longtime leader of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association (U.S.A.), and when I left the rat alley that evening and began digging in books, I learned that John DeLury was the man who changed the term garbageman to sanitation worker. I also learned about the very first time that his workers stopped working, a time when the city filled to the brim with trash—a time that would surely be written about by rats if rats could write. "We may deliver garbage, but we are not garbage," was something John DeLury was fond of saying. Men and women hanging off the backs of city garbage trucks still remember John DeLury today because John DeLury went to jail because of garbage, in an act of sanitary disobedience.
DeLury went to jail in 1968 when John Lindsay was mayor and Nelson Rockefeller was governor. Lindsay was young, good-looking, and Yale-educated, a Republican from the city's Silk Stocking District on the Upper East Side, a district so named in 1897 because of the colonies of wealthy residents along Park and Fifth Avenues. Lindsay was nationally prominent as a leader who was interested in giving minority neighborhoods more power and as the mayor of "Fun City," though the city was not so fun at that moment, since the mayor was borrowing heavily to finance a huge budget deficit as well as feuding with the governor, whom the city needed to bail it out. Nelson Rockefeller was a nationally prominent leader who was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, founder of the Museum of Primitive Art, soon-to-be-vice-president, under Gerald Ford, and the first governor of New York to set up an office in New - York City, where he governed except during legislative sessions. Also, he was a Rockefeller. John DeLury was not that young—sixty-three—and he was not considered especially good-looking—he was white-haired, bespectacled, short, tough-seeming, and always gnawing on his pipe—and he was not a Rockefeller. DeLury was born in Brooklyn, the second of thirteen children. He quit high school in 1921 to help support his family and he worked for fifteen years on Wall Street, until he found a job working at a dump that increased his salary from $100 a month to $135. He organized his fellow dump workers—building many small garbage-related unions into the U.S.A. In 1938, when John DeLury first became president of the U.S.A., the salary for a forty-eight-hour workweek was $1,800 a year. By the mid-1960s, the sanitation men earned $6,424 to $7,956 a year. DeLury won the union a forty-hour workweek in 1956, twenty years after a forty-hour workweek had been made a federal law. In the seventies before DeLury retired, the salary of a sanitation worker was equal to the salary of policemen and firemen. Many New Yorkers hated John DeLury for this very reason, but the sanitation workers loved him.
DeLury was known to shout and yell and scream at public officials, but somehow they still considered him reasonable, a navigable storm. He had an acute sense of precisely how far he could push City Hall with his demands. "He's a bulldog. He can wear anybody down, never lets go, no doubt about it. But he's not an unreasonable guy," a sanitation department commissioner once said. Before the strike of 1968, the sanitation workers' union had only resorted to one short strike, in 1960—DeLury always preferred to negotiate. The secret of his success was said to be the collection of file cards describing the life details of each of the ten thousand union members and their families, all of which he kept in the basement of the union hall. "Only God can guarantee one hundred percent of the vote," DeLury would say. People who weren't DeLury noted that DeLury came very close. One of the last leaders of Tammany Hall, the old New York political club, once said, "I would today rather have John DeLury's sanitation men with me in an election than half the party headquarters in town." DeLury's men respected him too. "He had a lot of involvement with the members," a union member who remembered him told me. "He was very honest. He spoke our language, and everybody knew him as John. He used to say, 'I'm your leader. I need you.' He wasn't above anybody. But he was a tough son of a bitch too. You wouldn't want to have him as a father-in-law." After work, DeLury would sit in his Greenwich Village apartment and listen to classical music, reading biographies and labor histories.
On February 2, 1968, seven months after the sanitation workers' contract had expired, John DeLury called for a mass meeting in City Hall Park, the ancient commons of the city, once called the Fields. It was a cold, gray day. The sanitation workers arrived at seven in the morning, filling the little patch of green and then spilling out into Broadway and Park Row. DeLury climbed on top of a car and took the pipe out of his mouth. He shouted out the terms offered by the city officials. The crowd rejected the offer. They called for a strike. DeLury didn't want the strike, but over and over the crowd shouted, "Go, go, go!" So DeLury called a strike. The courts ordered the workers back to work later that day, but they didn't go. Garbage immediately started piling up. Mayor Lindsay asked the city's highway workers to collect garbage. They declined. Three days later, DeLury asked the striking workers to collect garbage at hospitals and schools. They did; signs on their trucks said, "We're taking it away without pay." The courts called the strike illegal. As a crowd of striking sanitation workers cheered, DeLury surrendered himself to the city sheriff and walked into the Thirty-third Street jail.
Garbage, garbage everywhere—ten thousand tons of garbage piling up every day instead of heading off on barges, instead of being dumped on landfills. The streets of New York looked as if they had been covered with snow and plowed except that the huge snowbanks along the streets were made of trash. In some neighborhoods—in Harlem and East Harlem, for example—it didn't look as if the snow had even been plowed; the trash was inches deep on the streets and the sidewalks. For this, New Yorkers despised John DeLury and his men. One judge said of the strike, "It's blackmail, it's extortion." A nationally syndicated columnist pointed out that the union was Mob-tainted—a deputy commissioner of sanitation had been killed gangland style. Life magazine conceded that the laws governing municipal workers' unions were "archaic and senselessly rigid." But most New Yorkers were, as the Daily News editorialized, "fed up with kicks in the kisser from strike-happy public employee unions."
As if on cue, as if he knew that by doing so he was playing his trump card, the city health commissioner invoked the specter of rats, which Paul O'Dwyer, an attorney for the union, commented on after the strike was over: "[T]he rats, which had bitten four hundred slum-dwelling children last year, might indeed invade the middle-class and wealthier sections of our town. While we did not seem to get terribly excited while the vermin were attacking the children of the impoverished, our society did get itself in a state of white heat at the thought of rodent escalation."
Mayor Lindsay was furious. He declared a health emergency and demanded municipal employees transfer to sanitation jobs. The municipal employees refused; they would not break the strike. Now, there were rumors of a general strike, something that has never happened in New York and that would have completely paralyzed the city; the Teamsters were considering shutting down all trucking. Finally, Mayor Lindsay asked Governor Rockefeller to call out the National Guard to pick up garbage. Several editorial pages supported the idea; people reportedly telephoned the governor to induce him to accept the mayor's request. But the governor refused. He went on TV to say that if ten thousand soldiers picked up trash, the city would have half a million tons of it on the street at the end of two months, due to the soldiers' lack of experience in handling garbage. "We'd be buried in it, ladies and gentlemen," the governor said.
A guard brought DeLury from jail to the governor's office on Fifty-fifth Street for negotiations. An arbitration panel suggested a $425-a-year raise. DeLury exploded, left the room, returned, then accepted the offer. Mayor Lindsay rejected it. DeLury told the governor to go ahead and call out the National Guard. According to the union officials present, Rockefeller then recalled a strike at a company owned by his family, during which the National Guard had been called in and men and women were killed, at which point the governor supposedly said, "There must be another way," and then began to weep so that the labor leaders got embarrassed and looked at each other and left the room. It seemed as though the governor was being sensitive and sensible; on the other hand, DeLury had supported Rockefeller in the gubernatorial election and was mainly using the governor to go over the mayor's head. In fact, everybody was using everybody else; it was a bacchanalian feast of garbage-related favors.
When the governor collected himself and the labor leaders returned to the room, the governor authorized the state to take over the city's sanitation department, to pay the workers until a contract could be signed. At five in the morning, DeLury was escorted by the sheriff to the union headquarters, where the two hundred shop stewards had been waiting since ten o'clock the night before. They roared when DeLury walked into the big room. Like the governor, he got all choked up. By nine o'clock, the sanitation workers were out picking up trash. DeLury was back in jail.
THE GARBAGE WAS MOSTLY PICKED up in a week. DeLury was released after a few days. Over the next few weeks, DeLury, with the help of a public relations firm, set out to illuminate the sanitation workers' working conditions. He stood by poster-size photos of trucks that regularly caught on fire. He toured reporters through rooms heated by stoves fed by garbage found on the street. He demonstrated human-limb- eating hydraulics. He shouted about a hernia rate higher than in the logging industry (according to a professor from Springfield College in Massachusetts the union brought in to test the physical stresses of the job). He had the wives of amputees testify to the hardships involved given that sanitation workers didn't receive workers' compensation for any injury on the job. On TV, DeLury pointed to a grime-encrusted drinking fountain. "Now, fellas," DeLury said to reporters, "I know you gotta make do, and I know you gotta be on the sovereign right of the state and all that, but remember, we're people too."
When the settlement was reached weeks later, the union got a raise: $425 a year, bringing their maximum wage to $8,356 a year, almost as much as the wage of a city sewer worker at the time. The arbitration board also increased the union's pension fund, a trend in municipal union contract deals. A number of politicians and historians argue that giving the unions pay raises and pension increases was a mistake that nearly killed the city, financially speaking; people still gripe today about the union's power in the sixties. On the other hand, a few years after John DeLury settled his union's strike, when the city was completely bankrupt, when the banks would no longer give it any money to cover its debts, when the federal government wouldn't lend it any more money and the Daily News summed up President Gerald Ford's attitude toward New York and all cities with the front-page headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, when the city was a day away from total fiscal ruin, the municipal unions dipped into their pension funds to lend the city money—albeit reluctantly—and the city stayed alive. I like to think of this as a case of the rats not leaving the sinking ship.
After the garbage strike, Rockefeller, for his part, lost political support by not having called out the National Guard. Mayor Lindsay won reelection, though not with the support of John DeLury. "You know there's something about a jail," DeLury said on one radio show after he was released. "I've never been in a jail before. There's a rapport when you get there. You know when you have that common denominator that your freedom is taken away from you, you warm up to the other individual who is incarcerated."
"So you think Mayor Lindsay could be warmed up?" a reporter asked.
"I don't know about him," said DeLury.
LIKE A POND FILLED WITH RIPPLES, the city is filled with circles that overlap and intersect, that share a focus, or a deli. Sometimes I think the city is naturally conducive to coincidences in the same way that Plains states like Nebraska and Oklahoma are conducive to twisters, in the same way that mountain lakes are conducive to lightning. From John DeLury Plaza, I could see the rats running in and out of the dark hole that was in the back of the alley, though I had still not determined exactly how deep the hole was or any of its dimensions, and it wasn't until a couple of days later that I realized the building that the hole was behind was the headquarters of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association on Cliff Street, just around the corner. Naturally, I was blown away.
A couple of days later, I got up the nerve to knock on the door of U.S.A. headquarters. When the door opened, I met a guy who told me that rats used to run up and down his legs all the time when he was starting his sanitation career in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn; that more people apply to be sanitation workers than police officers because the pay is better; and that, yes, he remembered John DeLury, his old union boss, who had died in 1980.
"He found no levity in any kind of sanitation jokes," the guy told me.
I began to chuckle but then just nodded—this guy was pretty serious himself. But he softened up when recalling John DeLury: "He told me something once and I'll never forget it. What he said was, 'When a union is a protection for incompetence, then you're losing sight of what a union is. When you represent a productive and hardworking workforce, unified, you're boundless.' I'm paraphrasing but that's what he said and I'll never forget that."
Rats seem to operate in waves of activity, and on that evening at what felt like the very beginnings of fall, I stood for a while in John DeLury Plaza and watched the rats climb in and out of the hole in the back of the alley—I was obviously even more interested in that hole now, knowing its geographic relationship to John DeLury and the U.S.A., but was still feeling a little nervous about it, as it was still dark and deep and rat-filled. And then, when the current wave of rat activity seemed to stop, I headed home.
I think that I am disgusted by rats as much as most people, and as I have tried to impart, I am naturally no rat-alley observer, no rat-secluded soul, but rather I might possibly enjoy having a drink at a bar at night on the way home from work more than anyone—the customary, social, and nonrat thing for a city dweller to do. So that sometimes, after I was done ratting, if it wasn't too late, I would stop in at the bar in my neighborhood and have a beer and watch the last innings of a baseball game while looking over my rat journal. That particular evening, I walked into the pub, which was crowded, and elbowed in at the bar. I was just standing there talking with my friend Dave, the artist, whom I kept up-to-date on my rat experiences, who was rat-interested like many New Yorkers and, of course, city dwellers of every kind. Dave, as it happened, was talking with his friend John.
I was excited about rats and ratting; as autumn was approaching, I felt as though I was really settling into my work; I thought I was, as far as rats went, finally beginning to see. With glass in hand, I extolled the alley and the rats to John, who was unusually interested in hearing about them, which is to say he was not immediately repulsed. Then I mentioned John DeLury. John looked at me in a kind of startled way. He stopped drinking. "John DeLury was my grandfather!" he said.