The only pets I’ve ever had were hamsters. My friend Adam was the first to get them, a pair of fluffy teddy bears who did adorable things like stuff their cheeks full of food, run around in plastic orange balls, and sit calmly in Adam’s fist as he stroked their heads.
I would drop things into their cage to see what would happen. A Cheezit cracker, which they sniffed but didn’t eat. A small red ball, which they tried to eat instead, pulling off strips of rubber with their long yellow teeth as though peeling the rind from fruit. Panicked I told Adam’s father, who fished out the ball and stray strips.
“You don’t want to eat that,” he cooed at the fur balls.
Our hamsters were plain brown and not fluffy, but we still loved them. We still thought they were cute.
Then, somewhere along the way, they became less cute. They became scary. I thought of their pointy choppers and took to wearing one of my mother’s dishwashing gloves whenever I had to reach into the their cage.
Then they began to fight. One morning I came down to find one with a firy scratch under its eye.
“Why do they do that?” I asked my father.
He shrugged. He was a scientist in a cancer research lab. He worked with mice and rats every day.
“Sometimes animals fight,” he said.
Adam’s hamsters had begun to tussle as well. He’d toss a towel over their cage so that he wouldn’t have to watch.
The next thing we heard they were having babies. I knew the fighting had something to do with the babies, but I wasn’t sure what. I tried not to think about it.
Then the next thing we heard, the mother hamster ate her babies.
Maybe you didn’t hear me: THE MOTHER HAMSTER ATE HER BABIES.
“Whyyyyy?!?!” I cried to my father, and again he shrugged.
“Sometimes animals do that,” he said. “When they get nervous.”
I was nervous. Everyone said so. That’s why I got stomachaches over book reports, and would cry when encountering a roomful strangers. But I’d never EAT MY BABIES.
I couldn’t stop picturing it. The mother with her deadly incisors ripping out squirming chunks, each baby a rubber ball.
Soon after my parents let us get rid of our hamsters. My father took them to his lab, and I don’t know what became of them. (Sorry, PETA.)
Thus began my squeamishness with all things rodentia.
* * *
Perhaps you’ve seen this video of a rat on a New York subway climbing on a guy’s face.
Did you hear me? A RAT CLIMBING ON A GUY’S FACE.
First of all, do you see how big that thing is? Is that a rat or a fat chihuahua? Secondly, sure New Yorkers are supposed be impassive, but COME ON. It’s ginormous scurrying vermin in an enclosed space, and those guys are lifting their legs like it’s a rambunctious toddler on the loose (hence, the rumors that the whole thing was staged). I lived in New York for 10 years, and I’d be swinging from the subway pole.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m not wondering why there’s a rat on the subway in the first place. I’m not because I know why: in New York City, rats are everywhere.
* * *
New York rats are formally known as Rattus norvegicus, or the Norway or brown rat. In 1972 the Federal Government estimated one rat per person, while other reports claim as many as six to 12, which could mean at LEAST 50,351,286 rats. Did you catch that? Fifty MILLION rats, the population of a good-sized country.
A country of rats living underneath, or in some cases on top of, our feet.
* * *
When I was 15, we had mice in our attic. Every night I heard them, scritch-scratching above my head. I heard them running. I imagined their sharp and hairless paws, not unlike the paws of Adam’s cannibalistic hamsters.
I told my father, who went up to the attic, took a cursory look around, and pronounced our attic “mouse-free.”
“They’re in the insulation,” I told him. “I’m telling you, I hear them every night.”
My father looked peeved. “And I told you I didn’t see any. You’re hearing things.”
“You’re craaaaazy!” my brother sang.
Later my father took another look, found mouse droppings, and called an exterminator, who confirmed: “Yes, you have mice.”
Crazy my ass.
* * *
Perhaps you’ve seen this other video from 2007 of rats taking over a KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village.
I’m glad to say I’ve never eaten at that KFC/Taco Bell, but I’m sure I’ve eaten at other places where there have been rats, unbeknownst to me. And I’m sorry to say, I have eaten at places where there were rats, known to me, as related by friends (“The rat didn’t even run. It took its time, like a dog”), because most likely, more places than not in New York have have had rats at one time or another.
The Taste You Love.
Mmmm, rat taste.
* * *
I have seen rats in many places.
I have seen rats on the subway tracks. I’ve seen them crawl in and out of holes in walls. I’ve learned that when they disappear into the holes, a train is coming in approximately ten to 20 seconds.
I have seen a rat on the subway platform. I’ve hightailed it from said rat onto the subway car, where a, shall we say, flamboyant young man hurried off, followed ten seconds later by a high-pierced shriek.
I have heard rats in a grassy area off of First Street. I have heard them jumping and rustling and squeaking in said grass. I have been so freaked out by said rats that I’ve had to walk past it with my eyes closed while someone less freaked out guides me down the sidewalk.
I have seen rats a block from where I lived on the Lower East Side. I have seen them scurrying over a not-well-kept pile of garbage. I’ve seen them run across my path as I hurry past. I did not, I’m glad to say, notice the one that ran practically over my toes.
I have seen rats from a distance. A long-tailed silhouette bounding in the moonlight over a gravely path.
I have seen rats where there were no rats. At foot level and rustling in the wind, just about anything looks like a rat, such as:
A plastic bag.
A hobo’s foot.
I have mistaken the sound of a squeaking radiator for the squeaking of a rat’s nest.
In San Francisco, where I now live and where I’ve yet to seen a rat, I’ve mistaken all of the above for rats in mini-fits of rat-PTSD.
* * *
While seeing thousands of rats (did you hear me? THOUSANDS OF RATS) pour out of the walls and furniture was disconcerting, I felt worse for the rat owner, Glenn. After the sudden death of his young wife, Glenn began growing his rat collection when his three pets escaped and began to procreate. Soon, the rats became both companion and distraction from his grief and loneliness. Soon, they ate him out of house and home.
Unlike other hoarders profiled in the show, Glenn himself was the one who decided he needed a change, and no matter how difficult, no matter how much he loved them, he had to get rid of the rats (the very injured and ill put out of their misery, the balance put up for adoption).
For the record, Glenn’s rats, as far as rats go, are rather cute, a bit smaller and cuddlier than their city rat cousins.
But I still wouldn’t want one.
* * *
All of this is rather ironic because I am a rat. That is, I was born the year of the rat.
The rat is the first sign on the Chinese zodiac, having won the race set up by the Jade Emperor. The cunning little shit let the cat oversleep, then used the dumb-head ox to cross the river before jumping on land first and winning.
Rats are supposedly “smart, magnetic, well-liked affable, quick-witted, surreptitious, selfish, protective, and calculating.” Me and everyone else born in twelve-year increments since, and before, 1900.
Of course all of this could very well be bullshit, as could how all the signs match up in love. Rats, the Chinese zodiac claims, get along best with dragons and monkeys, second best with dogs, pigs, and other rats. I’ve only flirted online with a monkey, who while H-O-T gave terrible email. I’ve dated two dogs, both of whom were dickish in their own ways. Sure, tell yourself you’re super-smart although you’ve never heard of Gloria Steinem, Shamu the Whale, or the Communist Revolution in China. That’s right, tell me I’m negative right before yelling at some poor woman having trouble at the subway turnstile.
My current partner is a tiger, a so-so match according to the zodiac, but the stars have been wrong before, so who gives a rat’s ass, right?
Except for one tiny thing.
I married a horse, was cheated on by a horse, and divorced said horse, despite warnings that:
This is a relationship that can end in bitterness.
Rat and Horse don’t make up a great pair. They are most likely to get involve in arguments.
Rat and Horse make up as one of the worst relationships. There is nothing right between these two animal signs, so beware!
Don’t even think about it.
Not much going for you.
But did I listen? No.
I didn’t even listen when my husband himself mentioned a tale in which the rat eats up the horse’s grain, a story I’d never heard before. I didn’t pay attention to the way he talked about his mother, also a rat, with a mixture of reverence, rage, and guilt. The way she could push his buttons without, it seemed, even trying. The way he thought I was trying to push his buttons in the same way when I wasn’t trying to do anything.
So when he finally had an affair, you’d think he’d have picked anyone but another rat. Not another rat to eat up his grain.
But guess what? His mistress was a rat too.
People Hoarding, A&E’s next big show.
* * *
I have been at war with rats, in many ways.
Overhead and underfoot.
In childhood and as an adult.
They have threatened to invade and have invaded my home.
They’ve burrowed themselves into my brain.
They’ve become my fears, my worries, my doubts.
They are, of course, me.
But they’re also my friends (hello fellow rats!). My favorite aunt. They’re a figment of my imagination. They’re only scary if I let them be. Like Glenn, I can let them go.
I’d still scream like a little girl though if I ever saw one on the subway.