The rise of the New York City rat took the pundit class by surprise.
Rats, per the conventional wisdom, were yesterday’s news: remnants of a cruder, less enlightened urban landscape. In recent years, as the city celebrated its evolution into a gleaming, tidied-up mecca for earbudded tech professionals and purebred dogs in oilcloth raincoats, rats were maligned as dirty, backward, and feral.
Last month, Mayor Eric Adams appointed a “rat czar,” Kathleen Corradi, to sideline the city’s rat constituency. The Department of Sanitation recently issued a report arguing in favor of new, rodent-proof sidewalk trash containers, concluding that “containerization” will lead to “cleaner streets, fewer rats, and a more livable city.”
But by othering, demonizing, and belittling rats, human beings have created the perfect conditions for a groundswell of rat grievance, which has now come back to bite—and sometimes infect—the city’s privileged elites. Indeed, the New Rat Hegemony has loosed upon society a series of public rat behaviors once considered unthinkable: openly dragging a pizza slice down a staircase; skittering across the pristine wheely sneakers of pre-schoolers; appropriating toilets as Jacuzzis.
By othering, demonizing, and belittling rats, human beings have created the perfect conditions for a groundswell of rat grievance, which has now come back to bite—and sometimes infect—the city’s privileged elites.
We are doomed to face an unbridgeable societal divide, even street-to-street combat, if we do not make a good-faith effort to understand rats. Recently I paid a visit to a shallow puddle of standing water at the south end of the West Fourth Street subway station that, since the 1950s, has been a gathering place for proudly old-school members of the Rattus norvegicus species. The prevailing sentiment I heard is that rats preferred the city the way it used to be.
“When Lindsay was mayor, you could shine a flashlight up and down this platform, and as far as the eye could see, you saw rat families,” said a thickset older rat with rheumy eyes and unkempt whiskers who identified himself only as “Snif.” “The cops didn’t give us no trouble and the kids didn’t carry no boom boxes,” he continued. “That ain’t rat music. Jerry Vale—that was rat music.”
“It’s the way the newbies look at us and gag with disgust,” offered a female rat named Eek, who lay sprawled on her side as she nursed 18 pups, her third litter this year. “Last night on the B-D-F-M platform, I crawl over the foot of this itty-bitty trust-fund girl in her Moncler coat and Lululemon leggings, and she screams. I says to her, ‘Calm down, bitch, I don’t bite!’ I do bite, actually, but that’s not the point.”
“See, the attitudes you’re picking up on, that’s all stuff that we’ve been gnawing on for years in HVAC ducts and rail tunnels,” said the author J. D. Ratt over a late lunch of punctured condiment packets in the alleyway behind the Five Guys on Bleecker Street. Ratt is a newly minted literary celebrity. His harrowing memoir of pan-generational rodent struggle, Hairless-Tail Elegy, is a surprise best-seller, the subject of approving, high-pitched chatter in rat circles and a must-read for human New Yorkers keen to understand the rats with whom they must now share resources and political power.
“We all just reached a breaking point,” Ratt told me. “The condescension. The stereotype that we’re disease spreaders. The ouster of Andrew Cuomo”—the part-rat ex-governor—“for transgressions that a full human would easily get away with. And just look at how Hollywood has portrayed us, as rubes and grotesques. Templeton is a dissolute carny in Charlotte’s Web. And Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films? I mean, you tell me how it feels to see yourself represented by Timothy Spall in a fright wig.”
To be sure, the rat bloc is not entirely blameless in fostering divisions in the city. Its members stubbornly ignore outside voices, getting their information entirely from a closed feedback loop of ultrasonic vocalizations, pheromone secretions, and urine-marking.
“We all just reached a breaking point. The condescension. The stereotype that we’re disease spreaders. The ouster of Andrew Cuomo”—the part-rat ex-governor—“for transgressions that a full human would easily get away with.”
And in their newly emboldened state, rats have shown no inhibition about pumping toxicity into the discourse, specifically via the pathogen Toxoplasma gondii, which travels from their feces to cats to such human hosts as Jeanine Pirro. J. D. Ratt’s sympathetic framing of this circumstance as a mere symptom of his species’s “hygienic anxiety” rings hollow.
Still, we would do well to lend a sympathetic ear, and perhaps some spare cold cuts and loose-fill cellulose insulation, to our rat neighbors. For they are indeed our neighbors—and it is to our discredit that we looked the other way when they were barely squeaking by.
David Kamp is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of several books, including The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution