Observations on the History and Habitat
Of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Robert Sullivan
Despite what you may believe from personal experience, your common rat has a maximum weight of two pounds, and can grow no more than twenty inches in length (with tail). But they can fit through any hole which is greater than 3/4 of an inch because that is the size of their little bone-head. The rest of their bodies - - - the knee-bone, the back-bone, the hip-bone - - - are able to be squashed up to minuscule size, to slip in anywhere. Like in your kitchen where they can nibble in your bread, beans and butter-patties.

The brown Norwegian rats ( as opposed to the smaller and noisier black rats which are very fond of my attic) are the most populous. And they didn't come from Norway.

They probably started out in Southeast Asia, moved up with the traders and their caravans though the Middle East, took the boat to Denmark, then north to Norway (who got all the blame) . . . then East to Great Britain and the United States.

That's all right, that thing about calling them Norwegian Rats. The English blamed the Gauls for syphilis, called it "The French Pox." And in Germany, the German cockroach is known as the French (or Russian) cockroach. It's nationalism in action.

Their teeth are like steel; no, better than steel: a rat can gnaw though concrete. And they --- them and their disgusting teeth and wormy tails and messy habits and rat-shit --- they are everywhere in the world except one province of Canada. Alberta. God I don't know: should we all move to Alberta?

Rats spend most of their time eating, sleeping, and making babies. One pair can produce 15,000 descendants. During their dirty little lives, they usually stay within sixty-five feet of their original nests. When one of their smelly little colonies is poisoned, the pregnancy rate of all nearby female rats doubles or triples.

We should never forget that Tom and Jerry and Mickey are mice, not rats. Have you ever seen any cartoons with rats that make you laugh? (Although sometimes I wonder how Walt Kelly was able to make Pogo so lovable: get a gander at a real possum up close, when it's hissing at you, making faces, sneering.)

If you want to get the skinny on rats, talk to exterminators. Because of the reality of their jobs (you cannot exterminate all the rats everywhere, maybe not anywhere) they now call themselves "vermologists" or "rodent controllers" or the like.

They will tell you, as one told Sullivan, that to seed a trap you should use Hershey Bars, nuts, anchovies, shrimp and beer. Hold the beets. According to experts, rats don't care for beets, peaches, raw celery, cooked cauliflower, or radishes.

Rats adore scrambled eggs. With cheese. Don't hold the fries, though. Nor the lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, pickles, and ketchup. We rats eat them up. With relish.

The Black plague was called "The Black Death" because although

    the plague can cause parts of the body to turn black, when the Scandinavian writers used the term black, they used it to mean terrible or dreadful or horrible.

The Plague that turned up 750 years ago in Europe often wiped out 80 percent of the population of towns and villages. Killed the rats too. The vector was Xenopsylla cheopis . . . the common rat flea, which, the author tells us, looks like a "miniature elephant under the microscope." I dunno. I find elephants a bit more user-friendly. This one looks like just a disgusting flea to me.

§     §     §

Sullivan is a, sage, elegant and funny writer, and Rats works because he injects himself into the tale, picking out a dark and smelly alley in the lower East Side so he and his night-vision specs can hang out with rats. He and his humble camp-stool make this place his evening study for two years, where he gets to meet hundreds if not thousands of rats, plus various and sundry rat-like characters, including a wino who can call the rats up from their burrows at will.

It is Sullivan's very presence that turns this from dry narrative to charming study: he essays to visit rat conferences in Milwaukee and Chicago. He tries to meet the master of "Rodent Control," one Bobby Corrigan (he is put off). He goes to a rat awareness press conference put on by mayor John Norquist who is under some pressure due to a sex harassment charge. The author says, "Myself, I was merely interested in talking to the mayor about rat control."

Sullivan reports that he wanted to

    slip into Pfister's antique-looking bar and order a beer and wait for someone to ask me what I was doing in town so I could say, "Rats."

Like too many authors, Sullivan has problems with the protocol of finishing up: the last forty pages have the feel of being tacked on in haste or desperation, but we can easily forgive him because the previous 190 pages are jammed with fascinating facts and, too, jammed with an equally interesting take on how an author can come up with all the needed facts to fill a righteous book.

--- R. C. Rywalt

Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH

Send us an e-mail