Posted tagged ‘street rats’

If You Build It, Rats Will Come

October 16, 2011

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Dirty Harry Dog Cleans Up NYC Streets

June 17, 2010

I’ll get to Dirty Harry, but my story starts with my recent trip to scenic Burlington, Vermont. I walked along the lake and rested in the beautifully designed swinging benches.

A duck waddled ashore to preen,

and blue mountains emerged as the clouds lifted from the far shore.

Lake Champlain with clearing sky

Back in Manhattan at evening, we tossed our bags inside the door, and headed back outside, strolling through lush, overgrown Riverside Park to the shores of the Hudson.

The Hudson River on a mid-June evening

In the late-lingering light of June, the banks of the river are quite as lovely as the shores of Lake Champlain, and despite the endless rush of the West Side Highway, the spot is peaceful and the heart expands.

After having lived far away from NYC for almost 20 years, I am still delighted, after every trip, to return home to Eden on the Hudson. Oh, I know Eden isn’t all roses (though roses are in bloom right now behind the benches in the Broadway islands). In fact, what captivates me is NYC’s juxtaposition of lives and cultures. Divergent desires and aspirations collide (who was that well-fed, wide-eyed, middle-aged Hasidic man in full regalia who said “hello” to me on a Soho Street, and, overjoyed by my polite response, proceeded to try to pick me up?).  Surprising alliances, and seemingly impossible existences, are everywhere, like the huge white egrets, as light and white as a blank sheet of paper, that perch in the delicate topmost tree branches in Morningside Park as fiercely intense basketball games rage in the concrete court below.

No, it’s not all roses. Just last week, I mourned the disappearance of a classically beautiful neon sign advertising a fortune-teller, who plied her trade from a second-floor apartment over an Irish bar.

No more fortune-teller: so, tell me, what's going to happen?

In warm weather, she set up at a small table in front of Sleepy’s mattress store. Where is the neighborhood seer now?

Victor, long-time owner of a rooftop pigeon coop, lives uptown now, though his pigeons live south of 110th Street.  In the 1960s, Victor’s family was the first Puerto Rican family to move into a largely Irish neighborhood.  Over the next decades, Amsterdam and Columbus in the 100s became almost entirely Hispanic with a thriving Dominican population.

109th Street Little League Baseball sign

Victor tells me many of the old-time pigeon fliers were junkies, passing idle drugged-out days watching their birds circle above the rooftops.  “Pigeon coops are only in poor neighborhoods,” Victor says, “Places where people don’t have much, and nobody cares what you do up on the roof.”

Victor's flock circles

All around, especially nearer to Broadway, the rising neighborhood group is the gentry, for whom economics – money, plain and simple – trumps racial, religious and ethnic signifiers. Gentrification is a mighty force. It moves masses of people in and out of an area, improves schools, fights halfway houses, pushes out homeless people, destroys bodegas, brings in fresh vegetables, and hoses down the sidewalks. But it can’t stop the kings of the night.

A king of NYC, probably by Banksy (click image for more info)

On garbage night, rats rule the side streets, well-fed kings of trash, their sway undiminished by the transformation of rent-controlled apartments into doorman-attended co-ops.  In fact, all that building, digging, repairing and renovating of buildings, sidewalks and streets just roils up the rats.  It disturbs their secret subterranean world. It stirs up their conclaves, breaks up their nests, and sends them scurrying up into our realm of light and fresh air.

Look! There goes one now, slipping ghost-like through a crack in the sidewalk.

Not everyone sees rats. But to walk the side streets at night with a dog like Esau is to apprentice yourself to a master hunter. My eye is trained by Esau. I know where the rats are, even when I can’t see them. There’s one, crouching in the darkness behind the front wheel of a parked car. There’s another, beneath that grate in the gutter.

And on garbage night, it’s party-hearty time for neighborhood rodents.  The rats squeeze unnoticed underneath the great curb-side mounds of trash bags, and, safely out of sight of pedestrians, tear open the black plastic, and feast. Esau, scruffy little 30-pound mutt, likes to catch them while they eat, when, as Hamlet says of Claudius, the rats are “full of bread,/With all [their] crimes broad blown”.

Three times, Esau has caught a street rat while out for a civilized, leashed walk, darting his nose under a trash bag and emerging with the creature – huge, writhing – held firmly in his jaws. The first time it happened, I shrieked and impulsively jerked hard on the leash, which jerked the poor dog’s head so that his mouth opened and the rat flew in an airborne trajectory, up, up, up across the sidewalk and down the stairs to land by the basement door of some unsuspecting super’s apartment.

Clint Eastwood's got nothing on Esau.

Esau’s performance thoroughly impressed a group of tough young men hanging out on a nearby stoop. They ruffled his ears and called him “Killer.” “What kind of dog is that?” they asked admiringly. “Where’d you get that killer dog?”

By the third time, Esau had learned to waste no time in dispatching his victim. As I turned my attention away to greet a neighbor, he swiftly grabbed a rat from under a trash bag and gave a quick, sharp shake of his head. Before I knew what was happening, he had deposited the lifeless, bloodless body on the sidewalk, and was looking proudly and serenely up at me as the neighbor, eyes round with panic and skin chalk-white, moved quickly away.

Portrait of a killer

Nowadays, on garbage nights, I keep the leash taut and my attention focused, as we pass the massive pyramids of garbage.  Esau’s days as a vigilante are over, and though his street cred is intact, he can only dream of somehow, someday, running free once again to fulfill his terrifying, Dirty Harry-like potential to purify the streets of New York.


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