My neighbor wanted Joy Division. I needed something with some redemption, so we put on some Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison, opened beers, lit up nasty-smelling cigars, and cursed our landlord.
What you do, the exterminator had said, is buy quarter-inch steel mesh. Half-inch isn’t good enough; little ones can get through. So I bought everything he told me to buy: tinsnips, staple gun, 15 square feet of the mesh. My neighbor came over at seven, ready to help.
Tell me again about this thing, my neighbor said. So I did. I held out my hands to show how large it was, a full eight inches without the tail, a dirty brown-gray color, bring with it the smell of sweet rot. I described watching it run inches from my socked feet, right in front of the door to the hallway, talked about the fevers it likely carried. He nodded, and we went to pull out the stove.
There were sharp triangular holes in the wall, each big enough to take three fingers. Johnny and June Carter Cash sang about Jackson. I knelt and poured a cup of bleach into each hole, filled them with broken glass, and began to fit the steel mesh over the sides, the unresonant sound of the staple gun hammering through the small apartment.
Growing up, my vision of New York City was all predators: Wall Street stealing from the middle class, extortionate landlords, joggers raped in Central Park, archetypal muggers beating grannies. Even those who plainly loved the city, like Lou Reed, whose New York, on cassette, vied with The Wall as my favorite 15-year-old Walkman fodder, loved to make it seem dreadful and unsympathetic.
But living here for six years, I have rarely been prey, save for the occasional harassment in a sketchy neighborhood. Con men have milked me for a few dollars, and my friends have been mugged and robbed, but I’ve been perfectly safe unless you count the landlord’s willingness to leave open sewage in the basement (anyone want cholera?), or the occasional junkie who must be shooed out of the tiny foyer, nervously pocketing his or her pipes and needles. And of course there are national predators: telemarketers, junk mail, spam, health insurance companies. All of it can be shrugged off; little of it chews up my time. But that night, as a creature ran around my floor and under my bed, thrashing there, I realized that I was, to the rat, prey and only prey—my food, my apartment, anything I had that could be food.
‘When rats bite babies in their cribs, it’s always at night (and most often on the baby’s face). It happens because the baby smells of milk, the odor attracts a rat that is looking for food. To protect your baby, take the baby’s bottle away as soon as the baby is asleep, then wash the baby’s hands and face. A clean baby in a clean crib is going to be a lot safer from a rat attack.’
—NYC Department of Health
As the rats, so the people: the homeless who collect recyclable cans and bottles take them not to state-run recycling centers, but to a man who’ll give them a percentage on the deposit at any time of day; If you need a sandwich or a fix, $10 tonight must look much better than $20 tomorrow. I wonder about the sort of person who makes his living by lowballing homeless people, in the same way I view realtors who make 15 percent of a year’s rent for turning a key. I imagine them providing the classic mob-movie rationalization, which always comes before the big shoot-out, for corrupt capitalist behavior: ‘People have a need. I provide for that need. What’s the harm in that?’ And somehow, it’s implied, by pimps and realtors alike, the transaction makes it okay; as long as it’s business, it’s morally excusable. At least the rats have savage instinct for an excuse, but the humans choose their sins.
Last night at Galapagos, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I saw a sign asking women to be careful walking home late at night because of a string of assaults in the neighborhood. What a woman’s supposed to do, I remembered, is humanize herself, say ‘My Mom always said something like this will happen. My boyfriend loves me so much, what am I going to do.’ Apparently some rapists give up when they realize the woman is a human being. When I got home, a man was sitting in a pile of garbage outside the building next door, holding a doll. To a woman walking behind me, he yelled ‘Give you this doll for five.’ She answered, ‘That’s my doll. You’re in my garbage. Get out.’
‘Trying to make a living,’ he said, as she went upstairs.
This afternoon, as I waited for a friend to pick me up on our way to Coney Island, a woman stopped on her bicycle and asked if she could speak with me. I expected another con, but it turned out a man had chased her from Red Hook and she wanted me—I’m a big man—to pretend to be her friend, and fend him off. Her pursuer circled back, angry at my intrusion in his fantasy. I told him to go away. He accused me of disrespecting him. I accused him of disrespecting my friend. It went back and forth for a few long moments, but he’d lost his chance at harassment and pedaled off yelling. The woman, in her early 20s, 5'4" on a red bicycle, thanked me and headed to Prospect Park. I watched her go, and a wave of the shakes overtook me, then I was back to normal, back to waiting for my friend to pick me up.
‘You said last week we lived like kings,’ my neighbor said. My hands were covered in blood from the scratches of the steel mesh, and we’d discovered a hole under the bathroom sink through which I could feel a draft and see the light from my neighbor’s apartment. The weird-rot smell of silicon caulk, used to seal the edges of the mesh, filled the room despite the best effort of two noisy electric fans to keep the air moving.
‘I did, I know.’ He’d been complaining about our building.
‘I want you to retract that statement.’
‘We do live like kings. Look at all the stuff we own. We have health insurance. We can afford everything we need to live comfortably. We eat Mexican food and order salt on our margaritas.’
‘Kings don’t have rats.’
‘There were rats in Gracie Mansion,’ I said. ‘Giuliani saw them.’
‘Kings have more than 220 square feet to call home.’
‘That’s true. But still, our lives are privileged compared to, what, the lives of Ghanaians, you know?’
‘Not like kings,’ he said, stapling. Next week we would ratproof his apartment.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Not like kings. Still, we have privileges.’
‘Yes. But this is not as good as it can be. That’s all I’m saying.’
I looked at my bleeding hands, the splattered caulk, the strips of mesh. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’
He paused for a moment. ‘This rat has made a man of you. I figured you’d be a little pussy bitch about it. I mean, I think I might, but you’re savage. You’re attacking.’
It was true. The invasion had become an invigorant, an excuse to start over. Already, I’d thrown away a quarter of my possessions, reorganized my small space, bought a gym membership, planned a new career, brought in exterminators, yelled at the landlord, and mopped with fury in my arms.
I am happiest when things are shaken up, when there isn’t a center to hold onto. I lived in Israel for a few months last year, during a quiet phase of the Intifada: a limited risk is satisfying; it forces you to consider things, makes you keep your papers in order. I liked being there, the awful confused mess of the place, the directness of the people I met, the clarity of the situation a vivid contrast to the corruption of the Israeli policies, the violent ambiguity of their war. When I was laid off from my job, near Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2001, and came back to my apartment on September 18, unemployed, downtown Manhattan still smoking, I did not feel anything like good, but I felt determined. I put my life back together and settled down, went soft once more; now the rat had brought back a shadow of that determination, and I found myself deciding to cling to it, to hold onto the change rather than sacrifice it to comfort.
As I took my bags of garbage to the curb, all the detritus of my life, all the things I bought and didn’t need, I found myself wondering why I moved to New York at all. I always explained it as an accident—a friend was coming and needed a roommate, so I came here; everything just followed. Until the rat, it was enough of an explanation, but now I’m seeing that I like the rough edges, the pressure and motion and risk. There’s nowhere else in America for me; my secret fantasies of what comes next include not a steady job and marriage, but more travel, and countries like Ghana or Egypt roll through my mind. As I go to the gym and throw my possessions away, I say that I’m doing it to obtain a kind of calm, to eliminate chaos. But the truth, appearing in the form of a gray Norway rat, is that the calm is simply a necessity for the next step, that I need more balance so that I might go out and find a new set of predators to confront and fathom.