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

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


I HAVE WRITTEN a couple of books prior to Rats, but this is my first afterword. I had hoped to write a foreword, but now, since we're here at the end of the book—well, it seems a little late for that. Besides, with a foreword I might scare you off, if I haven't already, just with the tide of the book. An afterword seems a little less intrusive, a little more laissez-faire. To me, an afterword says, "If you want to know even more about rats, then that's not my problem." Part of me hopes that you have not made it this far, that you finished the book right where I originally planned for you to finish, or even a few chapters before that, and that now you are off leading a less rat-oriented life. The reason being I don't have a lot more to say about rats. I don't mean I couldn't go on and on for pages about them. I just mean that when you write a rat book, when you sit in an alley for a year with night-vision gear, when you type up your notes into a book and then hit the road on a Rats book tour that involves you visiting cities all across the country and standing up before perfectly nice people and, night after night, bringing up rats—when you do that you start to worry about what people think of you. As a result, I have a fierce urge to make this afterword and all my subsequent writing about really pretty flowers.

So let me start by throwing out the answers to a few of the questions most frequently asked of rat authors, in no particular order. No, I do not have rats at home. No, my wife does not like rats. Yes, my wife thinks I'm crazy but not that crazy. My children think I'm crazy. My parents did not have rats or any affinity for rats that I have ever been made aware of. I have never been attacked by a pack of rats—you give them space, they'll give you space, I have found. I am not with rats right now, typing in fetid squalor, though my desk does need to be cleaned. I don't think wild rats are cute, and, although I have nothing against them, I'm not a huge fan of pet rats either. Yes, rats in alleys fighting over garbage or each other do screech, and they screech really loudly—you can't believe how loudly, the first time you hear them. No, I don't feed wild rats. No, I don't like to lay down and let rats run all over my body. (There are very few things that I like to let run all over my body, as it happens.) And let me make this next answer perfectly clear: I think rats are really, really gross, though through no fault of their own. I think it is our fault, actually. We humans are always looking for a species to despise, especially since we can and do act so despicably ourselves. We shake our heads as rats overpopulate, fight over limited food supplies, and then go to war until the population is killed down, but then we proceed to follow the same battle plan.

Even though I find them disgusting, I can relate to rats. In general, rat-book authors usually can. (This has been my experience, though I should point out that I know only one other rat-book author.) The rat-book author is not going to be high on the marquee, and usually the people in charge of the marquee think it's kind of a joke that they have you on it at all. That this book was a bestseller is, I continue to maintain, a kind of ratty mistake. I tell my friends—and I still sort of believe it—that pretty soon there are going to be lots of people showing up at bookstores wanting to return their copy of Rats claiming to have mistakenly assumed they were buying Cats. Bookstores, by the way, tend to have practical experience with rats. In a California bookstore, I was taken to the very spot where a rat had been, shall we say, discount-tabled by the still-adrenaline-rushed staff; as the booksellers stood there beaming, I felt as if I should have had a citation to give them or something. In Brooklyn, while I was writing this book, my own local bookstore did valiant battle with a Rattus norvegicus. I can't remember who actually ended up with the win, but the bookstore, an independent, is still there, an amazing feat of survival these days.

JUST AS ROCK-AND-ROLL BANDS of a certain age like to name their concert tours, so we referred to the rat-book tour at my home as the Rats Over America Tour, and even though I was ostensibly going out on the road to talk to people about what I had learned on the subject of rats, an excellent thing for me was that I got to learn even more about rats in general and about rats in the places where I went. One night, for instance, I was invited to go out into the back alleys of downtown Beverly Hills to look for rats. Rats in California can be, generally speaking, very different from rats in New York. First of all, Los Angeles has two different species of rats: the black rat, or Rattus rattus, and the Norway rat, or Rattus norvegicus. The Norway rat, as you probably know by now, is the predominant rat in New York City and America. The black rat, which once was the predominant American rat, tends to live in trees and attics, as opposed to Norway rats, which tend to live in basements and sewers; black rats climb along electrical wires and down into Dumpsters. One of the reasons black rats do so well in Los Angeles is that exterminators are better at exterminating Nprway rats, which are less sleek and a little easier to trap than black rats; with fewer Norway rats around, black rats prosper. So there I was, after a rat reading late one night, in a suit and tie—I try to dress nice for rat readings to break any rat-author stereotypes that anyone might harbor—and traipsing through, Beverly Hills with some very nice people who wanted to see some rats, though didn't really want to see rats, if you know what I mean. On that particular evening we did not see any rats, as it happened, but we talked to some workers behind a swank restaurant and we looked through the boxes of a fashion boutique and founds some spots where rats had recently been. It was the same thing in Chicago, except that I got to see rats; in addition, I got to see the back alleys of the blues clubs and lots of art students and beautiful (to me) old buildings that looked like they were about to be torn down. I also noticed that in addition to a rat problem, the Chicago public parks appear to have a bit of a rabbit problem. Rabbits were hopping all over the place, believe it or not. It was a little scary, believe it or not.

I saw rats in San Francisco, but I also got to know a kind of ratty neighborhood in the process of searching. I got to find out about a tenants' demonstration that was happening there. I talked to cops in the neighborhood about what's good (and bad) about the place from a crime-prevention perspective—cops know a lot about rats, as you might imagine. I was pleasantly surprised to find a very gross alley, close to where an artist had set up shop to sell beautiful handmade stationery that my wife loved: rats and tenant organizers and artists are often found together, coexisting semi-peacefully. One night, I retired to a pub that, in addition to serving good locally brewed beers and ales, was at that late hour hosting a small annual convention of letter writers who, I learned, meet regularly to correspond with their legislators—a letter-writers group. I never would have found the place if I hadn't gone ratting. Ratting, for me, then, is not just about rats; it is also about seeing another side of a given city. In other words, I can check into a nice hotel in San Francisco and hit the organic bakery and a few fancy shops, or I can go look at what's going on in the alleys—always with an eye to safety, of course. Checking out rats, I would argue, leads naturally to writing your legislators, or at least to thinking a little more closely about a neighborhood, about where it's going, about where it's been. If you take a map of rat infestation in a city (which is usually a map of where rat bites are reported) and you place it over a map showing the places where somebody ought to be spending more money on social services, more money on repairing the housing stock, or more time just generally caring about the people there, then you will most likely find that they match up pretty closely.

Sometimes, while wandering in big old cities and even in new suburbs, I was called on for advice, and my advice was always the same: get rid of the garbage and the rats will take care of themselves. (I am proud to report that city health officials who attended one rat reading in New York City responded the very next day to a woman who asked me for help with a rat problem in her basement, which sounded to me less like a rat problem than like a full-fledged rat invasion.) In Washington, D.C, people called in to a radio show, sounding sort of defensive to me, to ask if Washington, D.C. rats weren't just as big as New York rats, and I had to tell them, sadly, that while all rats live completely different lives in completely different places, all rats are size- and ferociousness-wise almost exactly the same. But what mostly happened on the Rats Over America Tour was that I got to hear all kinds of excellent rat stories. People sometimes apologize before they tell me a rat story, guessing that I've heard them all. It's true that I have heard an awful lot of them. But I have not heard them all. There may not be one rat per person in America, but there's nearly a rat story for everyone, which is a lot of rat stories. On a talk show a guy called up and talked about a rat in his side alley that he had watched and hunted for months and months, never achieving a final rat bagging, as I recall. There was a woman who, while in bed with a broken leg, befriended the rat that visited her room each evening, even fed him, which sounds to me like something out of a Stephen King story. There were the three men in the financial district of San Francisco who, on their way to work one morning, came upon a rat trapped in a sewer grate. The finely dressed businessmen huddled, knelt down to the struggling rat, and, with their Wall Street white handkerchiefs, successfully freed the stuck creature as onlookers cheered.

MY NEW FAVORITE RAT STORY is not so much a great rat story as a rat story that proves a rat point, and maybe a point about nature. It has to do with the difference between wild rats and pet rats, which is a distinction I thought I made in the book (see chapter 2) but a distinction I had to constantly reiterate while on the road, even to people who were kind enough to have read my book, or to have acted as if they had read my book—as a rat author, I am under no delusions. People often brought pictures of their pet rats to share with me; some people brought their children with their children's pictures of their pet rats, sometimes called fancy rats. And at one reading in Berkeley, California, I thought I was going to have a rat riot on my hands when a small group of people showed up thinking I was against pet rats or something—and, again, I'm not, I swear. It's just that wild rats aren't at all like pet rats—they are not, I repeat not, cute and cuddly, believe me.

Anyway, I heard my favorite new rat story from a young couple who live in Brooklyn. They showed up at a reading at a cool little bar in lower Manhattan. They didn't say anything during the rats question-and- answer section of my presentation, but afterward the man came over alone, and, pulling me aside, asked if he could speak with me for a moment. I was a little worried about what he was going to ask me—I'm no good, for instance, at relationship advice. But he eventually explained that his girlfriend worked for an animal-welfare organization. She had adopted a rat that had been rescued from the World Trade Center and handed over to her animal-welfare group; the caged rat had survived the towers' destruction. The man recounted to me how, after a while, his girlfriend took the rat home. It developed cancer and died a short while later, but they had both grown accustomed to the rat and were saddened by the empty cage. One evening, while walking home through the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn—a neighborhood that has seen its ups and downs and is lately beginning to see some ups again—the man spotted a small rat on the sidewalk, a juvenile. He decided to bring it home to the empty cage, as a gift to his girlfriend. He caught it with his hands, noting immediately that it was more aggressive than their previous rat. At home, the rat grew quickly, but while the couple had assumed it might mellow, it did not. Indeed, the opposite happened. The man said that when he placed food in the cage, he made certain to quickly jerk out his hand; he likened feeding the rat in the cage to feeding a piranha. As the man recounted this rat story to me, his girlfriend finally approached, and soon they were both describing their fear of their new "pet" rat. I say fear because their eyes beseeched me, hoping I would understand, and, frankly, I did, because I've been there, sort of—I mean, I've been with wild rats. They told me that they wanted to release the rat in a park—coincidentally, a park in the borough of Queens that I knew from my childhood. But they were afraid the rat might jump out of the cage and immediately turn and attack them. I told them to be careful; I told them to play it safe. I suggested that one release option might be to open the cage and run like hell. I also told them that I was glad to hear a story that proved once and for all the difference between the wild and pet versions of Rattus norvegicus—proved it for me, at least. In my own mind, I equate the difference between wild Rattus norvegicus and fancy Rattus norvegicus to the difference between American Homo sapiens and European Homo sapiens—same species, completely different upbringing.

THAT'S ABOUT ALL I have to say afterward. I suppose I should add that I still drop by my rat alley once in a while, for old times' sake. Sometimes there are rats there, sometimes there aren't. (These days, they are easier to see in the garbage: since I began ratting, see-through garbage bags have become more prevalent, and a boon to the rat observer.) Mostly, as far as it goes afterward for me and Rats, I'm still kind of amazed. After you write a book and it is published and months later you pick it up one more time and thumb through it and close it and just look at its excellent rat cover, you think again about all the nice people that you got to meet and talk to and work with, merely by asking some questions about rats. There are the exterminators and pest-control people working with city governments who don't get a lot of face time on TV but are ready to give you all the time you want when it comes to spreading the rat word. They invite you to rat conferences, where they recall exciting rat situations and talk openly about unsolvable rat issues. Afterward, even my neighbors invite me over to look and see if they have rats, which they more often than not do, and I'm not just saying that because since I wrote Rats these same neighbors, when they see me across the street or on a train or across a crowded room, yell, "Hey, Rat Guy!" I'm saying it because they really do have rats. Remember: Rats are everywhere. Don't think they're not near you.

So I want to say thank you to all those people here and say thank you as well to a guy named Dan Milner, who adapted—which in this case means cleaned up the language of—a great rat song, "McNally's Row of Flats." I heard him sing it once with Bob Conroy at the South Street Seaport, just down from my rat alley, and since then I have grown to enjoy singing it whenever I am out talking about rats. It was written by Edward "Ned" Harrigan, a comedic actor and minstrel singer, in 1882, the music composed by his father-in-law. It's about living in a tenement where more languages are spoken than in the ancient city of Babylon, where rent might be collected by the taking of the bedding and the slats, where things are flea-infested and laugh-infected and crummy but still to some extent good. And it's about what I see Rats as being about, which is a bunch of different kinds of people all swarming together in the places where they have historically swarmed together and having either a good time or a bad time but definitely having a time of it. Here is the chorus. If you happen to know the tune then you can sing it after this afterword. Otherwise, just shout it out:

Ireland and Italy, ferusalem and Germany,

Chinese, Africans, a paradise for rats,

fumbled up together, in the snow and rainy weather

They constitute the tenants of McNally's row of flats.

Now, go and have a drink or relax or something, because the book you just read that was all about rats is thankfully over.