5 July, 2012

I promise, my blog is not going to only be stories about rats (though it could be interesting).  But I had to write this one.

The other night, in the midst of our incredible NYC heat-wave, I was meeting my friend Judy for a drink. We agreed it would be nice to sit outside (as the temperature had dropped to the low 80s) and decided that being by the Hudson River would be even nicer, so we settled on the Pier 1 Cafe.  Pier 1 Cafe is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. It’s right on the new promenade along the river with cute umbrella-ed tables, potted plants, and flowers, and it’s a great place to sit with a coffee and a muffin during the day or a glass of wine at night. NO, they have not remunerated me in any way for this plug.

We entered Riverside Park at 72nd Street at dusk. As we walked down the path toward the river, a  rat slowly, defiantly crossed in front of us and entered the periphery of the dog run from which it sat watching us. Judy stomped her foot in an attempt to scare it off, but the rat was nonplussed. Continuing along the path and then along the promenade we were aware of a few other rats in the fauna. At the rather crowded outdoor cafe we each got a glass of wine and then found an empty table for two beside a low concrete wall, adorned with flowers and candles,  that divides the space in half. As we chatted, the sun set over the Hudson and a welcome, though warm, breeze blew in from New Jersey (perhaps Gov. Christie was giving a speech). While drinking our second glass of pinot grigio I began to notice a number of rats darting back and forth in front of the service area and between the tables at that end of the cafe. Because they were a distance away and out of Judy’s line of vision, I didn’t say anything. Suddenly, a rat ran right by us at eye-level atop the concrete divider, artfully maneuvering past the plants and candles. “Was that…?” asked Judy. “Yes,” I responded, then gestured toward the service area. “Maybe he went to join his friends who’ve been running back and forth up there since we arrived.” We swallowed the last of our wine, and left.

As we walked out we saw another rat running around the tables. People seated nearby clearly saw it, too. But there were no screams, no jumping away. They just watched it. Were they too shocked to respond? Or too desensitized to the presence of rodents to care? As we headed out of the park by the light of the moon and street lamps, rats scurried all around us. We didn’t jump or scream, either. Instead, we shared stories about the rats in the subway system… I had actually witnessed two having sex on the tracks a few days earlier… not the most romantic of spots, but hey, I’ve met humans who enjoy sex in dangerous public places, too.

When we got to West End Avenue and 72nd Street, I offered to walk Judy up to 73rd (she lives mid-block between West End and Broadway). “Oh, I never go in from West End at night,” she said. “The rats are everywhere. I walk around and go in from Broadway. The big buildings at that end of the block seem to make the rats less brazen.” I related how much they seem to love the new plantings that the very expensive Apple Bank Building apartments have put into the tree beds along Broadway, and how I often see them running back and forth across 73rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus from one pile of garbage to another.

On our way across 72nd Street, past mountains of closed, open and semi-open garbage bags, we wondered aloud why New York, unlike Chicago and Baltimore and so many other cities, wasn’t built with alleys for garbage collection. I silently wondered why Mayor Mike hasn’t even suggested, much less tried to legislate that garbage be placed in pails or bins or some other rodent-proof containers (the way my friends in the country put their garbage in bear-proof bins), rather than in easily chewed-through plastic bags. I mean the man has legislated (or tried to legislate) smoking, sugar, soft drinks, trans-fats, bicycles and cars… you’d think rats would make his to-do list.

When I left Judy and continued west to Verdi Square, the lovely little park at the new-ish 72nd Street and Broadway subway station which used to be called Needle Park. it was, as it often is late at night, completely overrun with rats. They were everywhere… in the overflowing wire garbage cans, on the benches, all over the pavement, darting in and out of the planted areas.

I wondered why those trash cans, overflowing with the a day or more’s remains of people’s al fresco breakfasts, snacks, lunches and dinners weren’t emptied more often. I also wondered who had thought it was a good idea to plant the area with exactly the kind of ground cover that rats like to nest in. True, it’s prettier than concrete, and it’s low-maintenance – no mowing like if the city or the MTA had planted grass, but it’s also the perfect place for the rat population to wait out the heat of the day. Though it’s not uncommon for the more brazen ones (or are they just more domesticated?) to venture out of the ground cover midday to feast on dropped and leftover food. Sometimes you can see one atop the back of a bench people are seated on. And I’m always aware of a rustling in the ivy leaves that isn’t caused by the wind.

And this is all on the very expensive, very privileged Upper West Side. I shudders to think about what goes on in the city’s less attended to neighborhoods. Perhaps rather than worrying about the super-sized soft-drink epidemic, Mayor Mike should focus on the city’s rat epidemic.

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