A plague grows in Brooklyn

Swarms of rats are wreaking havoc on my neighborhood -- inhaling garbage, popping up in toilets, killing trees, even skirting up my leg. Still, they enthrall me.

Published August 25, 2003 9:38PM (EDT)

The rain came three weeks ago and flooded Gowanus, in the industrial flats of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the people in the neighborhood thought it would flush out the rats at last. The grain warehouses, the gun factory, the sweatshops, the garbage depots, the crumbling walk-ups, the dying hookers, the wild dogs roaming in packs, even the stinking Gowanus Canal, sat up and stopped and huddled a little in the blasting storm. The rats, who build bunkers in the empty lot across from my home, did not.

Fattened on the current budget crisis, where garbage pickup goes laggard and city exterminators turn deadbeat, New York rats are famous again, as they were in the crumbling 1970s: there are eight of them to every human, which places their number at around 60 million. Problem's out of control, reports the New York Times. To bring home the point of this slow-summer hysteria, the dailies frontpaged the infamous tale of the rat firehouse in Queens, where the creatures quite simply took over the walls and beams, the very structure, and earlier this month evicted the firefighters. "We thought we were winning the war initially," the fire chief told the Daily News, "but later it became clear that the rats are winning the war."

Rats, it goes without saying, have caused mankind more economic and physical misery than any other pest in history. They are the slyest and smartest of humanity's camp followers; wherever man has laid mortar and started towns, wherever he has civilized himself, the rat was there in tandem, a shadow order, thriving as we. Why the rat, and not the raccoon or the squirrel or the chipmunk? The rat was by far the most efficient in its parasitism, and showing much good sense he attached himself to homo sapiens, the planet's top parasite. Like man, the rat was adaptable, creative, exploitative; he thrives in all conditions, living in barns, on rooftops, in sewers, ocean liners, trees, basements, and on the tops of 50-story buildings. Like man, the rat is theatrical in its mayhem, the Black Death being its finest production. And like man, the rat enjoys collecting useless glittery junk to its nest, stealing and hoarding coins and jewelry and key rings, anything that its beady eyes mistake for value. More impressive, rats each year destroy some 20 percent of the world's food supply, by direct pilferage and indirect contamination.

The rats in Gowanus are terrorizing my lady. She cuts a vaudeville figure in the gauntlet to our door, with her Olympic leaps along the moving sidewalks, the way she suddenly charges into the streets and runs down the middle of the road against the traffic. She comes in pale and red-eyed, she throws her bag across the room, she threatens me physically, she tells me I'm a dirty person. She falls in a heap on the bed. It's an ancestral horror, common sense after the thousand plagues of history.

I find the rats fascinating; I go out at 4 and 5 a.m., near dawn, to watch them build and fight, standing at 10, even five paces; they ignore me. I walk out of our apartment on Ninth Street late one night, past a garbage pile, and a startled rat slingshots from an overstuffed trashbag that leaks diapers and hotdogs. We dance in mutual evasion to one side and then the other, but the beast runs over my sandaled foot and up my leg to below the knee (claws hooking like toothpicks, not piercing the skin -- nipping, rather), and in my head and stomach there's the hot waxen feel of paralyzed terror: a rat cornered or startled will attack; he will pounce like a berserker, running straight up one's clothes, tearing and gashing and snarling, his teeth hard like stone, constantly worked and refined, and a rat if he's desperate can gnaw through brick, cinder block, aluminum siding, lead pipe in the space of minutes. What can he do to flesh? He spreads disease, leptospirosis, rat-bite fever, trichinosis, fleas, plague. I thought of an exterminator's pamphlet I'd read on the powers of the thing: "Adept athletes, rats can leap three feet straight up and four feet horizontally. They can scramble up the outside of a pipe three inches in diameter, and climb inside pipes one-and-a-half to four inches in diameter. They can walk between buildings on telephone or power lines, and scramble on board a ship on its mooring lines. They can fall more than 50 feet and survive."

My rat did a back flip off my calf and hurried into the darkness, and I drank heavily at bars for the rest of the evening, keeping calm. This was a Norway rat, the largest, meanest, dirtiest and commonest of the species in North America; also known as the brown, the wharf, the sewer, or the house rat, and to biologists as rattus norvegicus. He was 9 inches long -- 16 counting his scaly tail -- fat through his middle like an otter, heavy like a wet shoe, and colored like a brown paper bag soaked in vegetable oil.

The Norway rat bears young with awful vigor, between four and seven times a year, in litters of sometimes 20 or more, and its offspring prepare to breed as early as 4 months of age. Many thriving families were established in the lot on Ninth Street and Second Avenue in Gowanus. The bunker there was bustling, multi-tiered, with a dozen back doors and side entrances and escape hatches and well-worn paths in highway intersects, as nonstop in its hurry as the sweatshops or the gun factory across the street, which produces pistols for cops. The rats pass each other on the paths, they bump heads, shivering, exchange what might be anthropomorphized as a nod of recognition, even a salutation, and like New Yorkers everywhere make way scurrying to their respective holes. I once saw a black rat and a German shepherd mutt battling over a chicken bone, on a warm sunny morning. They splashed in puddles and the dog howled, the rat shot forward like a party favor and raked the dog's nose. I can hear the rats, four floors down from my windows, squealing and making little hooting sounds in the garbage piles. They root and roll and slink and slide, biting each other, competing for scraps. Feeding time is the occasion for much social friction, the weeding of the weak, the establishment of hierarchies, where the top rats partake at leisure and the subordinates pick at the remains. In extreme cases, in periods of starvation, for example, the weakest are sometimes themselves eaten.

When the waters rose in the storm, I went out to watch the rats drown. The eye, when it hit, roared against the shoulders of the homes, blowing the water through the casements of windows, causing white-brown waterfalls and chutes and hose-like blasts from the walls of the shores of the Gowanus Canal, which sped in its ebb to sea, helped along by the wind and the overflow of the sewers. Bursts of lightning etched the rain, making the drops stand out. A man standing by the canal, watching, screamed to be heard over the blasts: "Never t'ought ya'd see Niagara Falls in Brooklyn, hein?"

The stretch of Ninth Street from Second Avenue to the bridge over the canal was soon under a meter of water, and where the road sagged to its lowest point, the water assumed the kind of untested dark depth where no one wanted to go. Cars were abandoned at crooked angles, sunk to their windshields. Nowhere else in South Brooklyn was the flooding so bad; true to its swampy nature, Gowanus was the catchment for the poisons of the highlands. In the air and in the great lake forming on Ninth were the smell of sulphur, old feces, old rot, bad whiffs; and the wind, when it turned, carried the sour news of tropical diseases. The force of the water tore open manholes and sewer covers, tossing them aside like tissue, and the tarmac was torn up and ground into slick chocolate clay and dashed against the walls of warehouses, where shirtless men worked frantically in the wide mouths of the loading, sweeping the water out in waves, sump-pumping their gorged basements. In years past, boys from the neighborhood have boogie-boarded on these floods.

In the rat lot, the torrid sewer water rose and rushed. On the warehouse rooftops, big black dogs barked. And when the storm had passed, whitecaps gone, the water on Ninth Street grew murkier in the afternoon light; the colors of the rainbow were slicked across it in oil. Little waves beat at people's passing as they trudged up to their thighs, hugging the walls of the buildings, their feet emerging licked with dirt and toxic. The waters from the pond on Ninth Street ran away, leaving sludge, a creamy, sticky black scum that clung to boots and made a sucking sound when you stepped in it, the pulverized leavings of an hour of flushed Brooklyn toilets, and soon parts of the scum dried and turned to dust that kicked up against the wheels of passing cars. Trucks from the Department of Environmental Protection were seen circling, flashing their lights, milling, but a week after the deluge the black scum remained, soggy from new rain and exhaling its filthy breath over the people of Gowanus. Along its mucky edges rats trawled for dinner.

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The rat lot flourished thereafter, supplied with new water sources; I soon learned that the great Gowanus storm was nothing to the Norway rat, who, unlike the mouse, is a superb swimmer and can tread water for up to three days, pop up inside toilets, beat with ease against ocean currents.

Late this August, the owner of the lot, Mr. Mardig Kashian, hired a local man, Jose, to weed the garden, expose the rat holes and lay poison. Kashian, an Armenian-American with unruly white hair and a welcoming manner, had been slapped with extraordinary fines from the Department of Health, and he hoped to make a last stand with the rodents. Which of course was impossible, he knew, if surrounding homes made no effort to clean up the garbage left in plenty, uncanned on the streets. "People need to build a cage, heavy chicken wire; put all your garbage in the cage -- cage the garbage!" he said, pointing out where the filth spilled over in the front yards of the tenements.

As we spoke, a rat fled under Jose's foot, through the underbrush, and we turned to watch as Jose and his helper, a thin Hispanic man with no front teeth, threw pieces of brick at the scurrying, flitting, frantic creature; neither man spoke. Jose attempted to smash the rat with a broom, raising a plume of dust around his lined, bearded face. I told him to watch out: Rats will run up brooms like flags up poles and tear off your fingernail. Jose's hapless helper climbed onto a window sill, frightened when the thing came at him, and again lobbed bricks and broken pieces of mortar and a bottle of Coca-Cola, which shattered. Jose swung again with the broom, snapping it in half; he cursed. Armed now with a shorter, wider, heavier stick, he smashed and smashed and smashed, leaping to one side and another like a whirling dervish, until he said "Aha!" with no fanfare, and reached for the lifeless creature's tail, tossing it over the fence onto the sidewalk, where its bashed-in head flopped on the petals of broken glass.

"Sixteen pups every two weeks in a nest this big," Jose said, out of breath. "These aren't animals no more we talking about."

Jose pointed out the stunted Ailanthus trees that grew up through the wire of the fencing on the lot, and that until just a few years ago, before the rats became legion, burst with healthy, heavy leaves in spring. The trees were dead, looking cartoonishly like the poisoned skeleton trees near toxic waste sites. Leafless, their arms were held up to the sky; the wood was desiccated and brittle and snapped at the merest pressure; the bark was gray like old chop-meat. Jose put his hands around the lower trunk of one of the taller trees, pushing and pulling; the corpse uprooted easily, crackling like paper, swinging side to side in the soil as if just planted, for the root had been destroyed, and now branches rained on Jose. "The rats eat the roots," Jose said. "They kill the trees from underneath. Looks like we still got trees, but it's all hollow inside." He snapped a thick dead branch in half, weighed it in his palm. "See? No weight. Nothin' there. Toldja these ain't animals we talking about."

Mr. Kashian, a professional sculptor, had stepped away for awhile to his studio, a drafty industrial structure down the block, and when he returned I buttonholed him on his strategy for the big win. He had considered pouring concrete into the warren, smoothing the lot; maybe tarmacking the space. A lot of money, he said. In any case, he remarked, it wouldn't do any good; there were concrete lots all around us pockmarked with holes that boasted neat little rain-sodden piles of gravel and dirt where the rats had spit out their work, burrowing from underneath and above in constant joining of tunnels.

"Rat population is a function of food supply," Kashian observed. "You'll never get rid of the rats unless you get rid of the food."

The solution, then, was quite clear, I told him. We must get rid of the people. They're the unruly mob behind this food supply business. "Get rid of the people!" I told him, wishing I could have sounded a trumpet.

By Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance writer living near Moab, Utah. You can find more of his work at ChristopherKetcham.com.

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