Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 6. SUMMER
THIS WAS MY curious labor: to observe the rats in my alley, to think about these specific rats and savor their natural details, which I did—although I admit I also thought a lot about rats corning at me en masse each time I passed by the scene of the 1979 rat attack on the way to Edens Alley. And, yes, at times the thought of rat attacks made me reconsider what I was doing exactly, especially early on, when my wife, for instance, had not yet come to terms with the idea of me spending my summer evenings with rats. Nevertheless, I managed to set off to describe the movements and details of the rats, to see how rats live. And here at the beginning of my experiment, my thoughts alternated between being trampled by herds of rats and not being able to see any rats at all, much less tell them apart. Would I really see rats? Would they see me?
I went to the alley late each evening, arriving after the office workers had left for home, as people were settled in for a late-night drink at the bars. I would take my position, usually standing at the entrance of the alley. I would then wait—simply and with deliberateness. At first, I relied heavily on my night-vision gear to see the telltale shine of the rats' small eyes, but, as I became more accustomed to spotting the rats, I was able to use standard binoculars. The streetlight allowed me to see the rats with the naked eye, the sickly yellow glare shining in the remnants of a broken windshield, in the plastic newness of each evening's freshly tossed garbage bags. Sometimes, on the very corner of a small triangular plaza in the middle of Fulton Street, I sat on a small camping stool and looked in with binoculars. In the anonymity of a big city's street traffic, I was, as best as I could tell, unobserved by the vast majority of passersby as I watched the rats consume. "They've got four thousand in net capital," a man once said as he brushed against my shoulder, his suit touching my windbreaker, his other shoulder bumping up against the man who was walking along with him, nodding.
I kept notes all that summer, and after a while, I found the alley, aside from its stench, to be a pleasant place, a scene for a kind of rat-related meditation, a place that never ceased to be novel. I looked forward to my visits there, in fact. I merely needed to take a few moments at the start of each evening to acclimate myself to the smell. When I first began observing, I was happy, after just a few minutes of intense, eye-aching scrutiny, to merely see a rat, any rat. But after a few days, I was able to spot rats quickly. Like the birder who returns over and over to the same woods, I grew comfortable in Edens Alley, accustomed.
Once the rats were out in the alley, they moved quickly—sniffing, licking, nibbling, walking easily around empty, beat-up rat poison dispensers, then galloping off in impressive bursts along the cobblestones. I noticed early on that a rat would stick its head into a garbage bag for a number of seconds. I counted off seconds as a rat drank water from a thimble-size puddle in the nooks of the cobblestones: six. I wondered what proportion of their required two ounces of water a day these six seconds represented—like any time-rich nature-watching endeavor, observations beget more and more questions. On another occasion early on, I took a video camera to the alley and filmed a rat running. I expected to see a kind of skittering, a spidery or crablike crawl. But when I analyzed the tape, I was amazed to see that the rat was almost galloping: the hind legs pushing the front legs up and forward, resulting in an elegant midair arch of the rat's body. Given the darkness of the alley, it is difficult for me to say for certain, but it seems likely from the rat-running tape that all of the rat's legs are in the air at some point in the typical rat gallop. I would bet on it.
You might not have known it was summer by looking at the alley. Sometimes the alley seems free of all seasonal indications, or resigned to the bare minimum, at least—the leaves on the ailanthus tree are either on or off. But there are differences in the seasons, just the same. In the summer, the cobblestones are even more slicked with filth, as if they sweat garbage grease. The ailanthus tree's feathery leaves sway just slightly in the warm, nearly still breeze. One might have known it was summer by watching me watch the rats in the alley; I was perspiration-soaked, frequently sucking from a water bottle I'd previously used on a camping trip. Or one might have guessed from the rancid smell that the garbage emitted: sometimes I thought I saw little ripples in the air above the garbage bags, like heat on a highway's horizon, but I would then blink hard and see nothing. In the summer, the alley's bouquet is at its richest, most intense. In the summer, it is like a tidal flat at low tide during a full moon—oh, how it stinks! It was during the summer months that my wife seemed most concerned about me possibly bringing back any diseases from the rat alley. It was then that I was mostly likely to strip down before reentering our apartment, where I then showered profusely because—even though I didn't mention it to my wife—at times in the summer I felt as if I were nature-walking through a petri dish.
During a typical summer evening, I would venture into the alley a few times a night to search for burrows, for tracks and scat. One night, to estimate a rat's speed, I ran alongside an adult as it in turn ran down the sidewalks turning the corner from Ryders Alley into Edens Alley. I put the speed of the rat at roughly six miles an hour, perhaps slightly faster. Mostly, though, I stood on the edge of the alley and concentrated on looking intently.
One of the first things I noticed was that the rats in the alley tended to run close to the walls and curbstones; this observation is consistent with everything the pest control manuals say about rats, their thig-mophilic behavior. As for the specifics of my alley, I noticed that rat activities seemed to be centered around two main garbage areas: the Chinese restaurant garbage area on the north side of the alley and the Irish bar's garbage on the south side. The first observation that I made, that I felt was a legitimate Rattus norvegicus observation, was this: the rats seemed to stay on the side of the alley that they were eating the garbage on.
As for the total population, it was difficult to get a count of the rats initially. I could see as many as seven or eight at one time, and that number seemed to increase as my observational abilities improved. Judging from the amount of rat scat and from what I had read in Dave Davis's papers, I guessed that there were at least a couple of dozen, which seemed like lot for a small alley.
And yet despite what I felt were noticeable improvements in my rat awareness, I still found it difficult to recognize individuals. When I saw rats, I just saw rats. My instincts told me I had a lot to learn.
A SIDE EFFECT OF MY close attention to rats in my alley was that I was suddenly much better at seeing rats in alleys everywhere. One night, however, when I was looking down into Theatre Alley, seeing the telltale scatter, I met someone who was skilled in rat watching in a way that I will never be—a kind of accidental master. His name was Derrick, and he was hanging out in Theatre Alley. When I met him, I was reminded of a description of a certain species of man that Thoreau calls "wild"—men who, as he put it, "instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsman, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped." Thoreau continues: "His life itself passes deeper in nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist."
I learned a lot from Derrick, though at first I didn't notice Derrick. I saw the rats in Theatre Alley scurrying; I noticed them moving along the base of the old brick wall, saw them hugging the corners as they came out of an abandoned lot. I have to admit that I was wondering if I should have made Theatre Alley the centerpiece of my rat studies—a certain rat envy came over me. But in the end, if there was one thing that meeting Derrick did, it made me thankful for the situation I had.
It was hot that evening, extremely hot and humid. German cockroaches were on the ground, near the trash, but American cockroaches were on the walls of Theatre Alley.* The American cockroaches were big and they were flying—an exterminator said that a flying American cockroach is a rare sight, that it has to be especially humid to see a roach fly in New York. ("They have become what we call domesticated, in a sense, because see cockroaches have wings—they used to fly everywhere to get food—but now they don't use them so it's like someone who has been in a wheelchair for a long time and they've come to the point where their legs don't work anymore," the exterminator said.) In fact, I was bobbing and weaving, ducking the flying cockroaches, as I stood there looking down the alley for rats. I noticed a number of stacked-up cardboard boxes, ready for recycling, which the rats were using for cover. I counted six rats on the eastern edge of the alley, and as I was counting, I noticed Derrick, who, in turn, noticed me. He seemed confused by my presence in the alley, perturbed even; he said something to the two people he was standing with. He stopped what he was saying to the man and the woman he was with and, leery, moved toward me. I greeted him. He was reserved. It wasn't until I mentioned that I was looking for rats that he finally brightened. "We got lots of rats," he said, gesturing all around the alley.
Derrick is not tall—about five foot seven—and he is wiry and scraggly. He talks quickly and, as he does, moves his hands. He seemed to be living on the street. He was reluctant to talk about his situation, and I didn't press him. It did come up that he was forty-four years old. He kept a poster of Jimi Hendrix hanging on a chain-link fence that was surrounding a lot filled with the remains of a demolished building: a hole of rubble and garbage on Theatre Alley. Derrick told me that a few months before a man had been filming some of the rats in the alley. Derrick said that he had been trying to lower the rat population in the alley himself but hadn't had a lot of luck. "We've been trying to get rid of them some nights," he said. He shrugged and shook his head in wonder. "You will kill yourself but you will not kill these things."
He began to describe the various groups of rats that lived in the alley. "I've got a couple of different groups of them." He turned around and gestured with his beer bottle to one side of the alley, behind some Dumpsters, and then up high, on top of a garbage area, where rats were nesting on a corrugated-metal roof—you could hear their nails scratching the tin. He pointed out the camps of rats, which I understood to be individual nests. "I got a whole posse of rats over here," he said, "and I've got some here and then ones over on this side. And we used to have rats over here but they left. I guess they got outnumbered. And these here, they will fight the ones on the other side. They just tell 'em—you don't belong in this area. It's just territorial rights, like a lion would do, you know? Also, sometimes they hiss at each other."
At that moment, a large rat entered the very center of the alley—so at ease were the rats, I later surmised, that some of them did not feel the need to touch walls.
Derrick put down his beer bottle and approached the rat. The rat made a hissing sound. Derrick made a hissing sound in response. He turned back toward me to make a point: "They get on their hind legs," he said, "and they jump like this." He jumped.
The rat hissed. "See, he's trying to tell me that he's not scared. So I, Derrick, say, 'Okay, I got to get a brick for your ass.' 'Cause I gotta teach 'em who's boss in this house."
Derrick hissed again, this time lunging forward and stomping his foot as he did. The rat retreated.
Derrick picked up his beer bottle again, relaxed. He noted that professional exterminators had come to the alley. "The rats look at the traps like they're some kind of a joke," he says. And he recalled a time that there was no garbage in the alley for a couple of days and the rats ran around a little more on edge than usual, exhibiting signs of cannibalism. "It's just like humans when they don't have any food," he said. "It's like that plane crash where the people started eating each other."
After a while, Derrick went back to the area of the alley where he had just faced off with the large rat. He wanted to demonstrate the prowess of the rat he considered to be the most aggressive. He sought it out and then challenged it, with stomps and sounds.
"Shhhhhhh-oooo! Shhhhh-oooo!" Derrick said.
The rats squealed in unison.
"Do they normally respond to that?" I asked.
"I've got one or two that will stick around. The rest will run. But I got one or two really big ones. I guess they're the elders."
One of the rats was climbing up and down a fence toward the corrugated-tin roof. "They're getting innovative," Derrick said. "They're getting too damn smart for their own good.
"Look at that!" he went on. "Look at his imagination! So, okay—so he's learning too much for his own good. It's still survival of the fittest. They're cunning little animals. That's why I don't trust them."
I felt hopeful watching Derrick with the rats—hopeful that I might eventually understand rat behaviors in my own alley, I mean. But at the same time, I was worried about Derrick's living situation. I'd read about a lot of people falling asleep and being eaten by rats in alleys, for instance: the rats are drawn to the smell of food. I was just standing there watching Derrick, feeling a little dumbfounded, when one of the guys he was drinking beer with called out to him:
"Hey, rat man!"
Derrick turned around and looked at me. His eyes were beaming as he shook his head. "It's a very interesting world, isn't it, the lower echelon?"
I ONLY STOPPED BY THEATRE ALLEY to see Derrick a few times that summer. I had my own rats to attend to, my own alley to study, and I didn't want to bother him too much; he always seemed to be negotiating with people in the alley, his base. After a while, I had the feeling that I was beginning to annoy him; I was feeling like a pest. Even with his expertise in rats, he was understandably only so interested in them. Also, whereas I was entertained by the rats' movements, like a hermit in the woods watching squirrels, he was living with rats, which was a whole different story.
Nevertheless, when I saw him one night late that summer, I waved down the alley, and he squinted to see me in the alley light, then came out and greeted me with a hug. I was with two friends, Matt, a poet, and Dave, a painter. I suppose the mere fact that I was in the company of two friends itself proves that I wasn't actually like some kind of hermit when it came to my rat studies. Sometimes my friends came along to help, to observe, to share in the ratness of it all. (Believe it or not, I sometimes had to turn people down when they requested to come to the alley.)
Derrick was also with a companion—a tall guy, quiet, laughing occasionally—and he was holding a beer bottle and weaving a little. I noticed that Derrick had cleaned up his area of the alley using the brooms that were laid next to his chair and his portable radio. I said the alley looked clean and pointed out that it seemed as if there were fewer rats around as a result. Derrick disagreed. He took me back in the alley and shouted and stamped and made the squealing ratlike sound that he makes. Rats came racing out.
This time there weren't just five or six rats scurrying around. This time there were lots of rats—dozens of rats. I would say there were close to one hundred rats. (Don't think I'm just saying "close to one hundred rats." I arrived at this number carefully, comparing notes with Matt and Dave that evening and factoring in possible hysteria. I'm as certain of it as I can be.) All of the rats seemed to have joined forces and come out en masse, as one pack of rats. It seemed reminiscent—to me, at least—of the rat situation involving the woman in 1979 who either was or merely thought she was being attacked by rats right in this location, on the corner of Ann Street and Theatre Alley. I'd never seen anything like it, except in movies, and in movies, I happen to know, they mostly use trained nonwild Norway rats.
"See," Derrick said, as rats came rushing out everywhere. "I got 'em trained. They're just like any animal. If you do something long enough, you've got 'em trained."
The rats were running from all the nests he had described, and to make a point that bears repeating, there were a lot of rats. In addition to the running, the rats were screeching, screaming, and making other noises. Derrick was saying, "See? See?" I was nodding, and looking down at my feet. I was trying to simultaneously count the rats and stand still and stay out of the rats' way.
The rats moved in the shape of a mob, a herding mass, with rat trying feverishly to pass rat, some not passing, some falling back, some climbing past the others. Matt and Dave and I gathered close together, as if we were about to be burned at a stake, and we watched in panic-stricken amazement, deciding instinctively, I think, that it was better to stand very still than to run.
Fortunately, instead of heading straight for us, the rats suddenly veered off toward the wall of the alley, at a point a few feet before the alley wall ended and the vacant lot began. The lot, as I have already mentioned, contained the remains of a demolished building; it was a vortex of rubble. The rats were racing, at high speed, and yet as they turned and came to the wall, they formed a single-file line, seemingly meticulous, purely straight: I thought of commuters massing on the street and then filing single file down the narrow steps of a subway entrance, of spectators filing out of a baseball stadium. The rats turned the corner of the alley wall and headed down into the lot as if they were flowing out of a funnel or a spout. "A rat faucet," Dave, who was standing very still next to me, remarked. From there, the rats dispersed, skittering into the rubble hole, turning from rat to moving patch of darkness to shadowy blur as they scrambled down and down and, one by one, disappeared into the hole.
After the rats were gone, my skin was tingling. I don't know about their skin, but Dave and Matt seemed pretty shook up too. Dave said, "Jeez." And Matt was saying he couldn't believe how many rats he had seen. I had a couple of out-of-body experiences, in which I communicated with my body asking it what in the hell it was doing there. We looked over at Derrick, who was watching the rats as if he were a shepherd. One rat had stayed back, undeterred by Derrick's calls and commotion.
"See that! See that one! I always get one. It must be an elder. I always get one who will stand there, and that's what upsets me. 'Cause if it doesn't move, I'll have to kill him, and they're my babies. I call 'em my babies, anyway."
He was serious about this. He turned toward us. "Some of these rats are too smart for their own good," he said. He looked me right in the eye. "You know what I mean?"
I shook my head. "Yes."
I was interested in leaving at that point, so we all said good-bye to Derrick, shaking his hand. I walked the few blocks over to my rat alley to take notes—excited, in fact, by everything that Derrick had showed me. But then, about half an hour later, we saw Derrick again. We saw him all of a sudden. He had popped up out of a little crawl space between an old power plant and a Thai restaurant, a little spot on Gold Street, where he apparently slept. Derrick seemed more shocked than we did, and we were pretty shocked.
"Hey, are you following me?" he asked. He was angry.
"No," I said. "We're just looking for rats in this alley."
"You're following me!"
I felt like a jerk. "No, really," I said.
He finally calmed down after that and began talking about other places he had seen rats downtown. He said there were rats under the Brooklyn Bridge, in a spot where he had once often slept: "Me and my wife, we were living there. She died there."
Derrick looked at me again, right in the eye. "You know, some guys are too smart for their own good," he said. It made me want to go home and never look for another rat. He was still staring at me, and he said it again. "You know, some guys are too smart for their own good."
*Just as Norway rats did not come from Norway, German cockroaches did not come from Germany; more likely, they came from Africa. In Germany, German cockroaches are known as French cockroaches or Russian cockroaches. In Russia, they are known as Prussian roaches. One theory has it that American cockroaches were brought over from Africa by slave traders. American cockroaches are also known as Croton bugs because they arrived in New York City through the water pipes laid in to carry water from the Croton reservoir system, in upstate New York.