Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)

Chapter 15. WINTER

I DID NOT GET to my rat alley for a long time that fall; streets were blocked off all over downtown. A sense of dread hung over the city for a long time, though eventually it lifted, not coincidentally, I would argue, with the ability of the populace to walk through the streets again, to go to work and buy lunch, pick up a newspaper or have a drink. Naturally, I was interested in seeing my alley again, and after my own city life regained some routine, I even began thinking, given my own strange area of expertise, of rats. Fear was what the city was facing—with threats, real or perceived, on its buildings, its bridges, its infrastructure, with concerns for family and safety and Hfe—and rats are like fear: they creep in at night, in those unseen places of vulnerability. There was a time in New York, in the 1920s, when scientists proposed a great wall along the waterfront to shut out rats completely, to seal out rats and, thus, forever end rat fear. Eventually, though, the idea was deemed implausible and abandoned: rats will always get through. In those days when I was unable to get back to my rat alley because of blockades, it dawned on me that rats would get through to the streets that were cut off from people and maybe thrive. It dawned on me that there might be a lot of rats, actually.

Of course, I didn't mention this to people. Nobody really wanted to hear about rats, and who can blame them? The newspapers and television news programs weren't concerned with rats, to be sure. Rats were even censored to some extent. A movie entitled The Rats, originally scheduled to premiere on television the week after the disaster, was canceled; it was about New York City being overrun by rats, packs of them attacking residents.* As it happened, I was actually glad to hear that pest control officials everywhere were thinking about rats—it made me feel more sane. Eventually, I began hearing from exterminators that I know, and like small-business owners all over the city, some were adversely affected. George Ladd of Bonzai de Bug had a large construction job that he'd been counting on canceled after the disaster. On the other hand, Barry Beck was getting more work. When I talked to him, he was on his cell phone a few blocks from the site of the building and said he thought the rat population was increasing dramatically downtown: "They've proliferated. They've compounded, multiplied, and intensified," Barry said.

Late that fall and into the winter, Barry was working overtime all around the World Trade Center, at the small businesses and restaurants that surrounded it. He said he was forced to keep a full-time rodent control crew at the office of one large business located near the World Trade Center site. I found a strange comfort in hearing that Barry Beck was still on the job. Newspapers reported on whether large multinational conglomerates and financial banking firms would stay or go, but for my own part I felt it said something good about the city that Barry Beck was sticking around to fight rats.

There was some controversy over precisely where the rats were. Some people thought the rats were going into what remained of the old World Trade Center site itself. Barry disagreed. "My personal feeling is that they've left the World Trade Center area and went into the surrounding buildings," Barry said to me at some point. "That's my personal feeling. I think they went into the restaurants and things."

When I did finally go out at night again, I put off going to Edens Alley; I looked for rats elsewhere first. As I walked, I noticed right away that someone had put rat poison all around; there were bait stations filled with rat poison everywhere. I saw a number of them on Thames Street, for instance, a short, alley like street that runs off lower Broadway and connects to the World Trade Center site. Rats were streaking up and down Thames Street, stopping in the bait stations momentarily to feed on poison. (Thames Street was where trucks unloaded food donated to the World Trade Center rescue workers by people around the country—lobsters came from Maine, for example, and Cajun food from New Orleans, the scraps of which no doubt helped feed the rats.)

And then when I checked in on Theatre Alley—my second favorite rat alley, the alley that was the site of the famous rat attack and is hidden right across from City Hall—it was as if I was checking in on an old friend. How happy I was to see that the row of old buildings in front of it, as dust- and ash-covered as they were, had survived! The alley itself felt protected, safe, secretly secure from the apocalyptic event two blocks away. Inside the alley itself, where I had once seen scores of rats, now there were only bait stations, lined up and down the walls. I checked the poison identification labels and discovered they had been laid out by the city's rodent control department. Then, as I continued to look around, in the streets immediately surrounding the World Trade Center and even as I looked over the remaining police barricades, I saw bait stations in other alleys and even lining whole streets. It was a tremendous show of antirodent strength.

I GOT IN TOUCH WITH some people I know at the health department's rodent control office. I talked to Dan Markowski. Markowski is a tall, ponytailed Southerner, who works in the section of the health department called vector control. A vector is anything that carries a virus or a disease. Rats are excellent vectors: rats are vectors of plague, as well as diseases such as typhus, salmonella, rabies, hantavirus, and leptospirosis, which is sometimes called yellow jaundice or Well's disease and is spread by the rats' infected urine, usually in water. (A few years ago, a dog in Brooklyn's Prospect Park died of the disease after he ate a rat he caught in a big puddle.) Many insects are vectors, and New York's health department monitors the population of New York ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and mosquitoes, which can carry typhus and malaria and West Nile virus. Roaches are also suspected of being a source for asthma, as are rodents.

Dan Markowski had studied ticks in Rhode Island, where he went to graduate school. After graduation, he worked with mosquitoes in New Jersey, on the Jersey shore. When he came to New York, in 2001, he was mainly responsible for mosquito work; he spends a good deal of time testing mosquitoes and considering spraying insecticides from helicopters. But he was also interested in a project that involved live rat trapping, something New York's rodent control office had abandoned decades before but was considering starting up again. "It's pretty exciting," he said.

Before trapping could begin, some basic, if extensive, sanitation work had to be done downtown. After September 11, Markowski inspected downtown restaurants that had been closed due to the quarantine and left unattended for many days. The condition of the restaurants was especially bad in the blocks surrounding the World Trade Center. At one restaurant, on Murray Street, Markowski and his colleagues had to put on protective suits and breathing apparatus to go in. The restaurant had had a long self-serve buffet station out on the morning of September 11 when everyone had evacuated. The buffet station had been left alone for weeks. A fireman who had been working in the WTC noticed Markowski and the other health department officers as they went into the restaurant. "I don't want your job," he shouted over to them.

The stench that hit them as they entered the restaurant was disgusting. "It was just this overwhelming, horrible odor that was just as bad as anything you could ever imagine," Markowski remembered.

They moved farther in. One of Dan's colleagues turned to him. She was also wearing a suit. "Dan," she said, "I've got to get out of here. I'm going to throw up."

Next, Dan thought he was going to throw up too, but he didn't.

When they made it to the buffet counter, they saw that all the items offered had putrefied. "There was just this slurry or sludge of rancid stuff," Dan said.

When some of the bags broke as they dragged them out of the restaurant, the emergency officials outside the restaurant scattered. Sanitation workers carted them away.

IT WAS DURING THESE PUTRID food removal forays that the health department began to think about rats. A fireman who noticed their health department jackets pointed to the partially destroyed building at 5 World Trade Center. "You guys better get in there," the fireman said. Dan and his boss, James Gibson, the director of the vector control department, realized that rats might become a big problem.

They began inspections. Strangely, there were not a lot of signs of rats on the streets nearby. Health officials suggested that the rats may have been finding food underground, in the basements of the buildings, in the underground restaurants. "You had all of these restaurants with all of this food, so there was the food source right there," Dan said. He paused as he continued, uncomfortable with what he was about to say, because another possible food source was the bodies of the people killed in the collapse of the towers—as public health officials, they had to think about such things. "And then you had a lot of deceased individuals," Dan said. "The thing is, that could be a food source."

When Dan said this, he paused and spent a few seconds trying to look like a professional health official.

Among the people who volunteered to help at the World Trade Center were the employees of Terminix, one of the largest pest control firms in the country. They were certainly not as celebrated as other kinds of workers who volunteered at Ground Zero, but they were just as happy to help. (LiphaTech, the company I visited in Wisconsin, donated bait stations.) "We had more employees volunteer than we had places to use them," said Mike Baessler, a Terminix executive. Baessler flew into the city from Memphis.

"We didn't do rodent-proofing," Baessler said. "Around Ground Zero that was impossible."

They put out a thousand bait stations, just in the World Trade Center, an enormous amount. They put 115 steel-wire bait holders in the area's sewers. They worked long shifts, from dawn to midnight, trying to stop rats.

"We thought, let's create this perimeter around Ground Zero," Baessler said.

Finally, with the Terminix volunteers, the health department arranged to be escorted into the basements of the World Trade Center, the underground rooms of the area—that is, the ones that had survived. Again, they did not see live rats. They did, however, see a lot of evidence that rats had been there. The rats appeared to be avoiding the rancid food, as they had predicted, though they were obviously eating what they could—most of a cookie store, for instance. But in the tunnels, in the inch-thick dust, in the lights of their flashlights, the rat fighters couldn't believe what they were seeing: there were thousands and thousands of rat tracks.

"The dust was just totally run through with rodents," Baessler said.

"The rodent population may have been tremendous," Dan recalled.

If they ever worried that they had put out too much poison, they remembered those tracks.

They circled the old building site with bait stations; they placed rodenticide all up and down the nearby streets. People in TriBeCa and in Battery Park complained of the rats in the streets that winter, and there were rats—I saw them. But there would have been an awful lot more rats if it hadn't been for the health department. Months later, James Gibson testified to the city council that they had successfully contained a potential rat explosion—a statement that was difficult to prove, or even believe if you didn't fully understand the downtown rat situation.

Dan Markowski summed up the exterminators' dilemma this way: "If we're out there doing our job, there are no rats. But it's notoriously hard to confirm our job. The only way to prove it is to stop." I think of them as being like spies, or undercover police, the people charged with securing the invisible perimeters who work in the areas where no one else goes. When they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, you don't always know. You only hear about them when something goes wrong.

AFTER so MANY WEEKS AWAY, I finally got a chance to spend some time back in my alley. It was the beginning of the winter, and it was a cold, rainy night. I came across the Brooklyn Bridge and looked down on the nighttime water, the dark waves; at the crest of the bridge, I could see the lights at the sites of the destroyed towers, glowing all throughout downtown like a steady fire. I passed City Hall and City Hall Park and heard the starlings that always sit in the London plane trees; they chattered busily as if nothing had happened. I walked toward Theatre Alley, the buildings completely protecting it still all covered with soot and ash. Aside from being filled with rat poison in the health department's secret rat offensive, the alley had been sanitized: the vacant lot had been covered over, the rubble-filled rat hole sealed, and the trash in the alley had been cleared out. The rat's natural habitat had been destroyed. I stood there for a minute wondering what could have happened to Derrick, the guy who called himself Rat Man, who had nearly had all the rats trained. There was a lot of talk about the difficulties faced by people who lived downtown after the World Trade Center was destroyed, but I never heard mention of the fate of the people who lived in the street downtown. Later, my friend Matt saw him recycling cans in Greenwich Village.

It was still raining by the time I got to Edens Alley, and I was feeling down about everything. I didn't have much hope for the rats. I also had mixed feelings about having any hope for rats.

I took the long way and walked past the Fulton Fish Market. The market was closed up—but all of a sudden I though I heard a flute. It was coming from inside the market. I followed the sound, peering in each of the fishmongers' stalls. The floors were clean; the place had been hosed down. But the place smelled like fish. I saw a man sitting alone on a forklift playing the flute—a piper. He saw me and stopped. "Keep playing," I shouted.

"It really carries," he said. He started up again.

I listened for a while and then went around the corner to my alley. I was afraid to look in, and when I did, I didn't see anything. Dejected, I looked in again, and then I saw the gray streak, the blur. It was a rat, followed by rats. I didn't see any poison. The rats in my alley were still there. And, as I would learn, they were pretty much forgotten.

* Instead of showing The Rats, the television network showed an old movie, The Nutty Professor. One of the few places that did mention rats was the New York Post, though, in my opinion, it tended to over mention them; like something out of Defoe, it equated rats at every opportunity with foreigners and to American citizens who consorted with foreigners—the paper used rats, in other words, to sell rage and xenophobia, which in turn sold papers. Some examples of the numerous Post headlines using the word rat are THE RAT'S BACK, RATS HELP TRAP OTHER RATS, MESSAGE FROM THE RAT HOLE, RATS JUMP FROM SINKING SHIP, OUR SPIES CLOSE IN ON EVIL RAT HOLES, and RATS GALORE. A political cartoon featured a giant rat that was labeled "terrorism" and about to eat a giant piece of cheese on an American flag that doubled as a giant rat trap. After an American was captured in Afghanistan when American military forces invaded in retaliation for the destruction of the World Trade Center, the front page of the Post was like an overgrown rat haiku. It read:

LOOKS LIKE A RAT
TALKS LIKE A RAT
SMELLS LIKE A RAT
HIDES LIKE A RAT
IT IS A RAT

When I went to the New York Public Library to look at this issue of the Post for a second time, the librarian who handed it to me said it was repeatedly requested. When we finished speaking, a German tourist politely inquired as to whether the library's archival copy was for sale.