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COLUMN ONE : New York Losing the Rat Race : East Side, West Side, vermin are all around the town. But budget cuts and a trash incinerator ban have made this an especially miserable summer for weary residents and wary exterminators.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city is no longer one of the world’s great seaports, but it is still a fine place to be a rat. Garbage--so teeming and pungent--is as much a part of Gotham as the resplendent neon of Times Square. Cellars, sidewalks and subway tracks are the dependably sumptuous tables for rodent buffets.

Experts here have long presumed there is a rat for every person, but lately the rats seem to be gaining the numerical edge. While reported rat bites and other complaints are only slightly on the rise, city officials and editorial writers sense something increasingly creepy and swarming around the trash.

“People are calling in who’ve never called before, from neighborhoods that have never had a problem before,” said E. Randy Dupree, the health department’s man in charge of rat control. “Everywhere you go you’re seeing or hearing rats. It creates a feeling: The rats are out there.”

David Letterman, who broadcasts from New York, has made the rats a staple of his nightly routines. At restaurants, he joked, “your food gets bused away from the table and the busboy is nowhere in sight.” He swears he saw a rat and a pigeon together in Central Park, playing Frisbee with a bottle cap.

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Quite certainly, Central Park has a rat problem. Huge colonies live in an interconnecting twist of burrows. Rat-eating owls were once introduced to the rolling greenery, but their appetites were far too puny to thin the herd.

A more recent effort was dubbed Rat Tuesday, when 80 city employees fanned out across the park to stuff poison down the holes. Nothing, however, works as well as a blast of icy weather. The rats then migrate in droves across the street to the posh apartment buildings on 5th Avenue and Central Park West.

Poorer areas are the worst-afflicted, but no part of New York is immune. At Mostly Memories, an antique shop on the tony Upper East Side, rats patter across the period furniture and Persian rugs. Owner Nevenka Knezevic begins each day whisking their droppings off the bone china in the front window.

Rats are primarily creatures of the darkness. People are most apt to see them slinking along at night, relentlessly sniffing, always ready to dart into a crevice. Even large rats can shimmy into a hole no bigger than a quarter, though, when confronted, they at times bare their teeth, rise up and hiss.

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Willie Greggs watches them from his front stoop in Harlem. “They’re bold, you better believe it,” he said. “Bigger than cats, some of them. They’ll sit right with you in the living room, like they’re watching the TV.”

Elisa Reyes, who lives in Washington Heights, a few weeks ago found a whiskered snout peeking out at her through the rumpled clothes in her laundry basket. “Now I’m scared to go down and use the washing machine,” she said.

At a Manhattan subway station across from Macy’s, city workers have clocked rats on the stairs to the street, about one every 15 seconds. Beside the famous Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the rats circle in the bushes around the 40-foot-high Peace Fountain, sometimes vaulting from the centerpiece statuary.

“The people where most of the rats are, they don’t even bother to call us anymore,” said Dupree of the health department. “By now, the perception is that this is the way things are. The rats come with the territory.”

Officials would happily bring in the Pied Piper but the city is enforcing yet another hiring freeze. In fact, budget cuts at the health department account for some of the current woe. The size of its cleanup crew has fallen from 50 to 12 and its squad of exterminators is down from 30 to 10.

Then, too, a new city law has banned air-polluting incinerators and forced landlords to put in trash compactors instead. The big steel machines, installed in basements, collect refuse dropped from garbage chutes. Rats gather in the accumulation, sampling the scraps like chefs in a test kitchen.

“Watch this,” warned George Plaintron, the janitor in another building in Harlem. He opened the compactor’s door. Three rats were inside atop the pile.

They flinched, but only for a second, determined not to allow the sudden light to spoil the mood and interrupt their repast.

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In Los Angeles, the most common rat is black, the roof rat. It is smaller and less fierce than the predominating ones in New York, which are brown and known as Norway rats. At times, the black and the brown fight over turf, with the brown clawing and biting the smaller rats to pieces and sometimes eating them.

New Yorkers routinely exaggerate the size of their rodents. While this may only be a peculiar form of civic pride, it also attests to a sincere, grudging respect. “It may be disloyal to say so but I have a lot of admiration for the rats,” said Caroline Hilton, one of the city’s supervisors in pest control.

Actually, Norway rats are rarely longer than 16 inches, not counting the tail, with a weight seldom more than 1 1/2 pounds. They can, however, leap four feet sideways and drop down five stories without getting hurt. They are marathon swimmers, able to use sewers as highways and tread water for days.

Rats can chew through pipe and cinder block and bone. They have been blamed for power failures, their bite marks found along the insulation of electrical cable. Their front teeth never stop growing, and, without the constant gnawing that grinds them down, these incisors would eventually lock their jaws shut.

Though a rat’s life is a whirlwind of foraging, they foul far more food than they eat by leaving a trail of feces and urine. They are vandals as well, taking a single nip out of 20 apples rather than consuming just one.

The best way to control their numbers is with conscientious garbage pickup. “The trouble is, it takes so little food to keep a rat going that maybe we’re talking about a level of sanitation that’s really impossible,"said Gregory Gurri Glass, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Rats multiply at a monstrous rate. Females can go into heat within 48 hours of giving birth. Each litter has up to a dozen pups. Young rats are ready to mate after only two or three months. They live about a year.

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The biggest danger to humans is not so much from a bite as from the diseases rats can transmit, including typhus and trichinosis. Still, it is a bite that people most fear. Last year, 264 were reported here. That compares to 10,739 dog bites, 1,476 by cats and 1,401 by humans.

Babies are most often the rat-bite victims, especially those left in a crib with food or a bottle. Last month, in a tiny fifth-floor walk-up in Chinatown, 2-year-old Dyshan Toubio was snapped on the big toe by a rat that crawled under his yellow comforter. Within days, his mother was bitten as well.

“I woke up and the teeth were dug into my pinkie finger,” said Dafina Hernandez, who keeps an immaculate apartment. “I chased the rat into the kitchen, where it disappeared in this little hole under the window.”

Her landlord has since inserted some steel wool in the opening, but she continues to hear squealing at night and finds fresh droppings in her bottom dresser drawer. “What should I do?” she asked. “Sleep or stand watch?”

*

The city exterminators whose job it is to kill the rats find themselves outnumbered a million to one. Their apple and molasses-flavored poisons come in paper packets or waxy bars. They act as anticoagulants, causing a burst of internal bleeding. Death follows a mortal swallow in three to five days.

The exterminators vary in manner. Juan Colon, who serves Upper Manhattan, is a stealthy frontiersman, bending low to to track the trail of feces. Mike Castrulli, in Lower Manhattan and Staten Island, prefers the search-and-avoid technique, making enough noise to shoo the rats into hiding before he enters.

Some infested buildings are well-tended, though most others are impeccably neglected, slick with grime and pulsating with odor. Residents at 102 W. 142nd St. call their address 1-0-Zoo. Trash is casually tossed from windows, and the lot is a mulch of chicken bones, dirty diapers, kitty litter and crack vials.

The people in such buildings, rather than the rodents, make pest control into risky work. In these ominous surroundings, many have reason to be suspicious of a man who comes by and says he is there to kill the rats.

“Exterminator from the Department of Health,” Juan Colon intrepidly announced as he knocked on one door. “Can I come in?”

By way of reply, the occupant had a question of his own: “You wanna get the hell outta here or you wanna get shot?”

Such gaps in public cooperation are part of the routine. Police once had to restrain a woman before Colon could set out his poison. “She had names for all her rats,” he said. “She was crying out, ‘Don’t kill my babies!’ ”

Another woman, on East 10th Street, also befriended her rodents, instituting a policy of appeasement. “She fed them and sang to them,” said health department supervisor Mohammed Soliman. “She had given up her bed. She was afraid if we poisoned any of them, others left behind would take their revenge.”

*

As forbidding as the rat chase is at street level, it is downright spooky in the looping caverns of the subway system. The Metro Transit Authority has its own rat patrol. They, too, place packets of poison in holes and crannies, but each of their bags is painstakingly primed with a smear of peanut butter, an enticement that has proven superior to Jello and home-made gravy.

Every night, this small, happy-go-lucky crew makes its way through the dank stations and tunnels, their work only deterred by the sudden gashes of light that foretell a train. The boss is P. C. Taylor, a man who once whirled on a rat wedged in hiding between two pipes and stabbed it. “It screeched and hair flew all over and it pulled right out from under the knife,” he said.

Quite a rat mythology has grown among the exterminators of the subway. They assume their rats to be bigger, faster and more cunning. The peanut butter is spread on the poison because of the high quality of competing food tossed on the tracks by riders: a continuing feast of pizza, candy bars and croissants.

Of the myths, the most fetching has to do with the many beheaded rats found beside the steel rails. “They commit suicide to stop the pain,” Taylor said sagely. He imagines the anticoagulant poison at work, tiny blood vessels exploding in the rats like little percussion bombs. Suicide is a mercy.

But Jim Valletti, foreman of the extermination crew, has a second theory. He has trailed a great many dying rats once they were slowed and bloated and disoriented. Their senses have failed them. “They put their ear on the track to listen for the train,” he said. “And then, you know, wham, history.”

*

In the tunnels, Valletti and three others tossed around the poison, one of them--Fred Singer--calling out, “Die, rats, die,” and all of them hoping for that rare moment when they actually see a rodent bite into the deadly packet.

Actually, only a few live rats could be found on the tracks, though several carcasses lay flattened in the dirty, puddle-filled channels, looking like so many discarded sweat socks. Rodents are hard to observe in multitudes, except in the big trash compactor rooms under Grand Central Station and elsewhere.

One of those rooms is in a darkened alcove beside the Brooklyn stop at Hoyt and Schermerhorn. Valletti banged on the heavy metal doors. Suddenly, hordes were on the run, like beads of water shooting out of a lawn sprinkler.

Fred Singer charged in, boosting himself above a dumpster and jackknifing inside for a look at stragglers. “Don’t be stupid, Fred,” Valletti yelled.

“Why?”

“Fred, get your head out of there.”

“Why? Why?”

“Fred, you’re gonna get bitten in the neck is why.”

*

Beyond the fierce lights of the stations are points impossibly far from Norman Rockwell’s America. Hundreds of the homeless live in the many-tiered tunnels, tucking themselves into stinking, blackened crannies and disappearing into the sooty walls like terrified refugees dressed in urban camouflage.

The exterminators know some of these subterraneans. One of them is Ed Robinson, 35, who has found his remote niche along Track E1, about 50 feet south of the Schermerhorn station. He sleeps naked under a ragged cotton blanket on a mattress that is fertile with decay.

Agitation flutters in his eyes, yet everything he said was accompanied by laughter. His hands sometimes sprang out to grasp at the empty air. He was not afraid of rats, he said, though they do nibble on him as he sleeps.

Among the indignities of the city and brutalities of life, to him rats were actually of little consequence. It was the immutable law of human relativity.

“Rats,” he said. “I got no problem with the rats.”


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