Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rat Watching in Lower Manhattan with Robert Sullivan

The Denver Post

May 16, 2004

By Dylan Foley

Be still," whispered author Bob Sullivan, as he stopped suddenly like a wilderness scout in a garbage-filled alley in New York City. "Can you hear the rustling?"

The sound was like the wind in the trees and it was coming from a massive pile of trash bags. All of a sudden, a rat jumped out and ran along the curb, across the alley and into an abandoned lot. The bags were alive with rats. "You can tell that the rat hole is in that lot," Sullivan said triumphantly.

Sullivan is obsessed with rats. Starting in 2001, he spent a year hanging out in a trash-filled alley in lower Manhattan, watching a colony of rats feed and mate. Along the way, Sullivan explored the history of America's most despised residents, the exterminators that try to kill them and the symbolism of the vermin.

The resulting book, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitats of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants," quickly moves beyond one group of rats, examining what rats represent to humans in terms of fear and loathing. Sullivan has developed an engrossing, eclectic work by writing a quirky homage to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and the nature writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sullivan digs deep into his rat alley and finds out that Eden and Ryders alleys, an ancient L-shaped passageway near Wall Street, may have been the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. He crosses the country in search of the Elvis of rat control. Sullivan holds rats up as a mirror species: They live with us and they eat our garbage. What can we learn about ourselves by looking at them?

In a freak sleet storm a week before spring started, Sullivan took a writer to Theater Alley,not far from ground zero and the open pit that once was the World Trade Center. The goal was to watch the rats feed.

Sullivan's last book had been about a Native American whale hunt in Washington state. "When I did 'A Whale Hunt,' everybody was talking about how great whales are," said the 41-year-old writer. "What is the opposite of a whale? That's rats. This is a creature that is truly abhorred by man.

"You look at rats, which are so hated by us, but the only reason they are here is because of us. The term used by biologists is commensal, which means 'eats at the same table,"' said Sullivan. "The indicator of wildness is a grizzly bear, which needs 100 miles to roam on its own. The indicator of city and man, of intense human population, is the rat. They are also in the suburbs. They are everywhere there are people."

Steam billowed up through sewer grates as the rats carried off bits of office workers' breakfast muffins from the garbage. "Rats symbolize all the dark things," said Sullivan. "To me, rats are about fear. People are afraid of them.

"Supposedly, I am a nature writer, so I was trying to write something that was not nature, not 'natural,"' he said. "I wanted to see if I could switch the greatest nature writers, Emerson and Thoreau, to writing about rats. The great thing about Thoreau is that everybody thinks that he is going into the woods to commune with nature. He was also going into the woods to figure out how to live in society."

Sullivan got night goggles and a stool, and several nights a week, he watched his rats. He tried to trap them and failed. He met with exterminators. He investigated a company that makes giant inflatable rats used by striking unions at demonstrations. He communed with the rats from dusk to dawn.

"Understanding how an alley works takes time," said Sullivan, giving pointers on rat watching. "The rats get food from here," he said, gesturing to the garbage. "Their nest is over there," he added, pointing to the abandoned lot. "Anyone can become a rat expert if they take the time. The hard part was getting to know the context of the alley, the history."

Sullivan, however, is no stranger to offbeat nonfiction. He is the author of "The Meadowlands," a chronicle of New Jersey's most famous swamp, and went from mob body dumping grounds to burning garbage piles. During the writing of "A Whale Hunt," he lived in a steel shack during the winter, reading Melville's "Moby-Dick" as his only entertainment.

In his new book, Sullivan goes on glorious rat tangents, from anti-Chinese plague hysteria in San Francisco to Harlem rent strikes where rats were used as political weapons. "Tangents are everything," said Sullivan. "You walk into a rat alley and you say to yourself, 'What am I doing here? Where am I going?' I was hoping to see a tangent. The way rats run is kind of like a tangent. They scatter. If you put your foot down, they go all over the place."

After three years watching rats and traveling the country to study the people who try to destroy them, Sullivan came away with a healthy respect for rats. "It's always fun to see them again," he said. "They do a great job at being rats. They know how to survive. Everybody wants to get rid of them, but they stay. Don't get me wrong, but there is a little bit of elegance in how they have slipped themselves into this vile niche."

As the sleet pelted him in the garbage-strewn alley, Sullivan waxed poetic. "When rats run, their tails don't seem to touch the ground," he said. "There is a beauty to that."

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