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Of Rats And Railways

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley – Burns

Pausing mid-run for the traffic light at Court and Atlantic on Sunday, I noticed a long line of folks outside the new Trader Joe’s store and suspected a sale on horseradish. But upon further inspection I saw that they were being broken in to small groups and led by a portly fellow in a neon construction vest to the center of the busy intersection. There, in a space cordoned off with traffic cones, each disappeared below ground after being helped carefully down a ladder leading from an uncovered manhole. “Awesome,” I thought. “Sunday sewer tours.” The light changed and I continued on my run, my faith properly restored in my decision to move to New York City.

Turns out I was almost right. These people were part of a tour instigated by this man after his long search to find an abandoned Civil War era subway tunnel proved fruitful.  The main body of the tunnel is still blocked off by a concrete wall, and is rumored to house as many as two steam railroad engines in good condition and the diary of John Wilkes Booth.  The promise of such discoveries typically outshines the actual find, if and when it’s made. If Booth did keep a diary, it’s likely largely banal and unmoving. (Tuesday, April 12. Ate out at mutton joint on Calvert Street last night and suspect I was overcharged. Nagging internal resentment growing.) More interesting to me is the idea that such a tour is available to city residents on a Sunday afternoon. The closest San Francisco comes to this kind of weekend offering is the free oat cakes and chai brunch at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center on Market Street. (This weekend’s topic : Straight Men and What To Do About Them.) For all its gentrification and, until recently, appreciating real estate, Brooklyn continues to prove worth its salt in surprising and varied respects.

Late in the evening that same day, returning from Manhattan and walking down Montague Street (where Bob Dylan apparently resided back when there was “revolution in the air”), I was privvy to another personal New York First : having to alter my walking route due to rats. Monday being garbage day, there were mounds of trash bags containing food scraps on the sidewalk outside the closed restaurants and cafes. It had just rained, and the relatively warm temperatures combined with wet streets made for prime conditions. Having been around the city a while now, I’m certainly used to seeing the rodents in varying size and number. But this was something else. There had to be at least fifty of the fat tailed beasts scurrying in an unbroken trail from a recessed stairwell to the trash bag bonanza. As I neared, it became apparent that my presence would do little to deter them from their frenzied activity and the best I could hope for would be to not have several of them take me on in hope of an alternative food source. So, with a slight shiver, I crossed the street to the other sidewalk and continued my journey home.

This, of course, is where urban authenticity meets personal hygienic preference. The only run-ins I’ve had with New York rats have been from a distance, either observing them on the tracks from the subway platform or in the above mentioned context, on the street in front of me. The way I figure it, if you’re going to choose to live in an urban environment, you have to accept the presence of other living creatures. I’ve yet to have a rat hit me up for money or ask for a moment of my time to discuss a charitable contribution for a good cause. The rest of my walk home was brisk, enjoyable, and uneventful.

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