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

Chapter 18. RAT KING

ON WINTER MORNINGS, I awoke groggy from my rat duties, kissed my family good day, then filled my thermos and subwayed through my day in the shoulder-crunching, welcoming, belligerent, and ambivalent crowds of Manhattan and Brooklyn and, once in a while, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. I was not delinquent in my rat duties. No, I undertook them with greater zest as I was desirous of arriving at some truth about the rats, or at least about my alley—some great notion that I felt still eluded me about my rats and my particular situation. I didn't know what that truth was exactly, so I took a more scrupulous view, despite the cold, because in my mind, or in my sleep deprivation, I felt close to it.

FROM MY RAT JOURNAL

5:04—Dusk. A small telephone company construction site, a hole burrowed by phone company workers, in the center of the alley, surrounded by cobblestones stacked up like dentures, surrounded, in turn, by piles of dirt. Up at the end of the alley, a van from a catering place. Two men carefully loading it with what appears to be food.

5:09—The van, loaded, attempts to drive around the corner of the alley, to proceed from Ryders Alley into Edens Alley, but is thwarted by the angle of the alley's turn. Instead, the truck backs up, driving across plastic trash bags, crushing garbage—a liquid bursts from the overripe bags. A trickle of garbage juice, a stream is born.

5:19—A man in white pants, shirt, and apron emerges from out of the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant, lights a cigarette, relaxes amidst the refuse. Confucius taught that one eats and one does not know the savor of food. Likewise, one does not know the potential for rankness and repulsiveness of the once-savory food.

5:24—I am sipping coffee, settling in for a few hours of observation, when I see it, the first rat of the night. The rat appears at the top of the alley. The rat stops. The rat crosses the cobblestones, bounding, stopping once, bounding again. The rat circles behind the construction site and then comes back across the alley again to the garbage on the Irish bar and restaurant side. I try to maintain a certain rationality, or clinical aloofness, and yet (as is typical by now) I am mesmerized—first, by the appearance of a rat, still a perverse miracle to me, and second, by a movement that is completely ratlike in its hugging of the wall, in its bold carefulness, and yet also different—a surprise. Who could have predicted that the rat would cross the alley up high and then cross down low again? Seconds pass. One, then two more rats follow. Ah, the rats of Edens Alley!

5:33—A man emerges from the Irish bar, bringing out more garbage into the alley's growing stream: the sound of the door opening, the crackly thump of the heavy but light-plastic-enclosed trash causes rats to scurry out of human sight.

5:40—Another rat has appeared at the top of the alley, has squeezed himself up through a hole in the sidewalk, paws pulling him up, up and out. On the Chinese restaurant side, I see three adult rats and two juveniles—at least I think the juveniles are juveniles: they are in and out of the garbage bags quickly, with their youthful vigor, their close-to- the-street risks. Juveniles seem to wander farther down the alley, nearly entering the street; the older rats stay closer to the nests. In their small size is the promise of rat regeneration, of rat life reborn in this still-winter alley, in the wounded but healing city. And there seem to be more and more juveniles.

5:44—The rats retreat suddenly. The reason: three men enter the alley, though when I see the men, I wonder which creature left the alley for which creature—sometimes it seems as if the rats' departure is a courtesy extended by the rats. I leave my post at the bottom of the alley and go around the corner and, from out of sight of the young men, see rats in the garage like lot on Gold Street; peering through the fence, I notice rats climbing over lumber, up metal scraps, across broken things. I think of all the rats that have crawled through this alley before, the history of this alley's previous inhabitants. Oh, to know—to reallyknow—this pellicle of rat-infested ground.

I can hear the rats too: scurrying, screeching, their strong nails scraping the scrap construction metal. Still waiting for the young men, I walk up into Edens Alley and see more garbage and then more rats and then more rats coming around the corner from Ryders Alley—still being displaced by the three humans. I sneak around, quietly, but at some point I begin to believe that the rats are aware of my presence, and consequently, I back down from the alley, slowly, then more quickly, then a little more quickly still. My movement is noticed almost peripherally by a man who is at this time passing the entrance to Edens Alley, arm in arm with a woman. When he sees me seeing the rat, when he interprets my rat alley evacuation body language, he picks up his own pace. And like me, he nearly sprints, slowing down a few seconds later, just down Gold Street, when his partner looks at him strangely, at which point he says, excitedly, even slightly frantically, "Holy shit! Did you see those rats?"

5:55—I am back at the base of the alley, trying to be discreet, but the young men in alley are still there, making loud chattering noises. They notice me. Again, I scurry off. I retreat to John DeLury Plaza, reflexively conjuring up John DeLury himself for an instant: the pipe, the glasses, the stubborn, shout-prone, un-unrelenting negotiator, his workers. And then I move farther across the street to stand near the trash in front of a Burger King. The young males continue to peek out of the alley at me. Who knows what they are thinking when they are looking at me? Though I was concerned, I was also preoccupied. I had to stay with the rats, no matter what.

6:03—More garbage comes up out of the bottom of the Irish bar. One bag lands on a rodent bait station that is ancient and nearly destroyed. The garbage tide is rising. I am reminded of Milton, in "Lycidas": " . . . tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new." Though when I am reminded of it the words woods and pastures are replaced by trash.

6:08—The young men move out. When will the rats return? And, continuing on that line of silent inquiry, what exactly am I waiting here for? Nature, even rat nature, does not answer mortals, even rat-interested mortals. If the alley speaks, it is obscure: Claude os et audit!

6:14—Sixty-two people pass in thirty seconds; even at night, even after rush hour, even when fewer people are on the street because of the World Trade Center attack and because of some lingering fear and even still some panic. Even after all this, New York is stuffed with people, people constantly walking, running, going out to eat, leaving food behind, even if they don't know it. Extrapolating, I calculate that at this slow, semi-abandoned, semiconscious downtown rate, the entire city passes, all eight million New Yorkers, in a month and a half. To stand in an alley is to watch the city from its bowels, to feel life grumbling in its gut.

6:15—The first rat returns. He is large. He comes from out of the deep hole, that great hole in the back. I might plumb the depths of that hole, but to what end? Suddenly, as I ponder, the geographic, historical, and animal begin to collide. I think about the hole. I know, for instance, that this is the hole that leads to the basement of the sanitation workers' union hall—that is the raw, coincidence-flavored fact. And yet to my eye, it appears bottomless, as if it goes straight to the other side of the world. And so I wonder further, what is this hole, this deep pit?

6:18—They are all returning, the rats, flushing back out into the alley, like beachgoers after a brief thundershower. As I step slowly into the alley, I am now focused on the hole, the great rat pit. My focus is broken momentarily, though, when someone drops a cigarette from an upper floor of an apartment above the alley. The cigarette hits the ground: a miniature, sparkling orange meteorite lands at my feet, a break in the firmament. I look up and see a faint star.

IT SEEMS INEVITABLE IN RETROSPECT. Like a fisherman who becomes fixated on a fish, like a whaler who becomes obsessed with one whale, I notice one rat: a large male, with an unusual tail, strangely curled. This rat appears, through binoculars, to be a little more than a foot—i.e., longer than a cobblestone, which is easily measured to be twelve inches. I watch this rat graze from one garbage bag to the next. This rat does not leave the alley with food; he eats food in the alley, standing his ground. And most significant to me, when it goes away, it goes into the hole.

I move to test this rat. I flinch. It flinches, but it does not flee upon my movement. It hunkers, moves back slightly, and in a few seconds it returns to a large garbage bag, where another more moderate-size rat pulls and pulls at garbage. The big rat joins in. There appears to be no animosity between the rats. They stand on their rear legs. They pull and pull, until first the large rat and then the moderate rat each draw from the bag a large piece of chicken. Again, they do not quarrel. With an abundance of garbage, there is a harmony in the rat alley.

6:32—A sanitation truck passes, and then a street cleaner. The rats are unfazed.

6:42—All at once, with a silence-breaking clatter, a small pack of men pour out of the back door of the gourmet supermarket at the end of the alley. They have bags and bags of garbage and they fill the large Dumpsters full of trash. They overfill them with garbage, using poles and gloves. The rats have retreated and the men from the market are now tossing trash down Edens Alley, fire brigade style.

6:50—Out across Fulton Street, the garbage from the Burger King is dragged out, as I imagine is happening at fast food restaurants all over New York at around this time. A small mountain of garbage bags forms, a vile and grease-dripping sedimentary New York City occurrence that nightly turns the streets into miniature badlands, to be eroded by morning, assuming the sanitation workers arrive, after which there will be dark stains on the concrete, like sweat on the morning rocks of a mountain.

6:57—More garbage, more rats, so many more that it's becoming difficult to concentrate: there are too many rats now, more than a dozen visible at any time—squads constantly surfacing, resurfacing. In the foreground are the young rats. In the back, the larger rats, the rats that must be older, given their size: when I venture up with binoculars I can see their mottled coats, the bite marks—on one, a gash like scar. I see also specialty diversions, rat performers in a circus of trash, affording much entertainment for the alley watcher: a rat climbs up a garbage bag, stops at the summit, appears to look around. The rat jumps, nearly straight up, in fact jumps for what my later measurement will show to be one foot—up, up and onto the old ledge of a boarded-up window. The rat walks along the ledge and turns, behind the rusted old steel window bars, to face the alley again, then lowers himself down on a bag back close to the wall, a bag that is inaccessible from the alley floor.

7:15—The rats are drunk on food, I think. Technically speaking, all a rat needs is three or four ounces of food a day, but these rats seem to be greatly exceeding that amount, and wouldn't you? It is not at all difficult to picture the rat eating at its food source until the food source is destroyed, cleaned out, until the rat must move on to the next alley, the next street, the next neighborhood. Now, the rats that grab food and run back to the nest are getting food and running around in circles—as if feigning a return to their nests, or maybe not feigning, I couldn't say. In a few minutes, they are not eating as much, but seem to be recreating, playing. They fool in the little pile of dirt by the telephone company's excavation; they burrow, throw dirt, run off. How free they are! How full of liberty in what was not originally their own environment but is now! Perhaps this alley reminds them of their past in some distant way? In their voyage from garbage to nest, from nest to garbage, with the slight variations that come when they lead each other toward food with the scent of food-hunting success or away from danger with the invisible scent of stress. Do they understand old paths, old routes, old rat roads? Does this dirt-filled burrowing spot perhaps remind them, somewhere deep in their genetic structure, deep in their rat bones, of a place where they burrowed freely in Siberia, in the rat-originating Eurasian steppes? Or of their first burrows in old New York?

7:25—I am moved to move by a man who, apparently not seeing me in the alley, was moved to urinate in the spot where I had been standing. I cross the street and sit in John DeLury Plaza on my portable camping stool. I drink coffee from my thermos and think once again of John DeLury and the time of trash piled high in the streets. I think of big rats in general and then the big rat in the alley, and then I look back in the alley and easily spot him and his corkscrew tail. Some people go off into the mountains to collect themselves and look into their souls, but here I am enjoying the view at something outside my soul, in this case a rat.

7:32—Another guy comes out of the Chinese restaurant. He is kicking boxes as he smokes a cigarette. He leans back when he kicks the boxes, keeps his body back, at a safe distance. Is he too observing rats? Or is he merely repulsed? In a big city, or in any city for that matter, it is one thing to observe someone who appears to be watching rats, and quite another to know how they might feel about them, especially when you yourself having been watching rats for three seasons, and you're still not certain precisely why it is that you are watching them.

IT HAD BEEN A MILD WINTER, to be sure. The following year, I would watch snow fill the alley and notice that the rats coming up from their burrows in Edens Alley tunneled through the soot-peppered ice. But during this winter, snow fell in the alley only lightly, and I wondered if the mildness had somehow helped explode the rat population because on another night, closer toward spring, around eleven o'clock, I saw even more rats, the rat-infested alley seeming more rat-infested. I counted eighteen easily but then lost track. To some extent, the alley seemed clean; it had rained recently and the light from the streetlight glimmered on the slick cobblestones, on the garbage bags' luminescent black. But the alley was more ratty. This evening, for whatever reason, things were not as amicable among the rats. The rats were squealing. The rats were fighting. Juveniles streamed down from the large dark hole on the south side of the alley and gorged in the Chinese restaurant's refuse. Adults settled into the trash by the door of the Irish restaurant and bar. At the foot of the alley, I heard a man passing by on Fulton Street, tossing off conversational litter: "That's what life's about—choices." And then I looked to see that in the alley, the rats were mating.

If I draw the line at something regarding rat observations, then it is rats mating. I prefer to let them mate in privacy, though I will say this: the male seemed aggressive, and the female made sounds that seemed to indicate she was not interested in mating, though her movements indicated interests to the contrary. But mate these rats did, and repeatedly, which is a thing about male rats—they have been known to mate with a female rat long after she is interested in mating, sometimes after the female is dead.

When they were done, I inspected the male rat again. His tail was distinctive. Was it the same corkscrew shape I had seen before, or was I just imagining it? Had I spent too many hours in the rat alley? Either way, I could see this rat chasing another rat. This rat was chasing a rat that had come down from the top of the alley, down the hill that begins at the deep black hole. The rat chase stopped at the end of a prescribed range, an invisible (to the nonrat) border that describes the difference between home and not home. The rats ran to the line and stopped, as if encountering an invisible fence. The chase could have been friendly for all I know, but it could have been to the death; rat territory seems sacred to rats.

A FEW NIGHTS LATER, MIDNIGHT, and the rats were in full swing, and I was looking at the rat that I was amazed to find I recognized. I waited a long time, because the bar around the corner was crowded, and the alley accepted the overflow. Tonight, a small group of young women were assembled in the alley, standing alongside the dark rat pit. "They're carding," a woman said, voice high-pitched. Two young males arrived. The young males laughed, then walked away. A woman said, "He ratted on us!" When the young people finally left, the rats returned to take their place. Picture me, in fleece and wind-resistant overcoat, furiously scribbling notes. Picture me looking up, amazed, because I saw the rat, the rat with the tail. Picture me understanding a little bit about this community of rats, recognizing some traits, some habits, some of the players in the colony—or at least recognizing what must have been the alpha male.

THE NIGHTS WERE WARMER, and a week passed, and on the next night I was in the alley, it was pouring rain, and more people were in the alley, this time a film crew, filming a scene: one man attacking another, a mugging. The actors were at the top of Edens Alley, and as I watched them stand where the rats normally skitter, I wondered what story, if any, the rats would tell about this gutterlike lane.

Two policemen in a police car were watching the movie set, the police car's headlights spotlighting the dancing of the rain. (Policemen were present because of a city law that requires police presence on a movie set on which any weapon, even fake, is used.) I waited on the edge and watched as the rats got used to the actors. As the rats emerged, they appeared in the police headlights like stars in an ice show. After a while, I introduced myself to the director as someone who was observing rats. Of course, I was happy to hear the director mention that he was pleased with the presence of rats—he said they would help the scene, which was about a robbery, as best I could understand. I did not mention the big rat, the one I recognized. This didn't seem like something I should mention to him, or to anyone, for that matter. This particular rat eventually emerged for its cameo, though, and when it did, the director turned to the cameraman, recognized the rat as the star that it so clearly was.

"Oh, man, did you see that rat?" the cameraman said. "Jesus, that is one huge rat!"

MY RAT, MY LEADER OF RATS, my rat that doesn't seem to so much lead as to coerce—my Rat King, which I called it even though I knew it was not a huge Rat King that sat on a ring of other rats' tails, that ruled other rats, as best I could tell. I saw him as a star among stars in the deep and capacious alley of rats. For me, this rat cast a transcendent sublimity that united these unwanted inhabitants of the alley in particular and the city in general, even if they are abhorred. I saw him as the Brute Neighbor in all of us, the representative Unrepre­sented Rat.

But was I just making him up? Was he a rat of my imagination?

A few nights later, on a night when the private trash-carting truck came to take the rats' habitat away, to open the truck's hydraulic jaw and engulf the trash, I was caught unawares as the truck arrived; I was startled. I backed off as the trash was taken away, as the driver of the truck climbed down into the alley. I was up against the wall when the driver approached, nodded, greeted me with no apparent malice; on the contrary, he was smiling. I said I was looking at rats. The driver didn't blink. "Did you see the big one with the tail?" he said.

I was flabbergasted.

I described the rat. I described the rat's tail. This man knew this rat's tail.

"Yeah, he lives back in that hole in there," the man said. "He's big, boy. I've seen him walk up stairs."