Grace Bastidas?s New York Obsession (2008)

When I was a little girl growing up in Elmhurst, Queens, the view from my bedroom window was that of a fire escape and bricks and mortar. There, a big imagination was mandatory. During that time I heard the fable of the Pied Piper, who with a magic pipe rid an entire town of "great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats," and dozens of other squeaking rodents by leading them to a river to drown. This image plagued me for years.

Terrified that these creatures would nibble on my toes at night, I made my mom buy me thick socks. Yet these Freddy Kruegers still invaded my subconscious. According to Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary, rat nightmares are a sign of evil.

In third grade, during assembly at P.S. 13, we saw a film about the dangers of poverty. A baby in a crib was sucking on a bottle when it fell from his hand, leaving a milky dribble on the side of his cheek. A big gray rat crawled up the cradle and bit the infant on the face. The trauma only escalated with a slew of bad cinematic rat tales that followed: Ben featured vicious killer rats on a murdering spree, and Food of the Gods II had giant man-eating lab rats wreaking havoc on a college campus.

What had been in my imagination and on-screen for so long became a reality one afternoon. A few blocks away from Ratners (138 Delancey Street, 677-5588), where my family ate dessert often, I was intrigued by a package wrapped in brown butcher paper in the middle of the sidewalk. Having just finished the latest installment of junior detective Encyclopedia Brown, I decided to investigate further. Opting to unveil the bundle with the tip of my shoe, I was horrified to find a dead rat with a stream of blood coloring his tiny buck teeth and a petrified look emanating from his squinty eyes. Needless to say, my natural curiosity waned from that day forward.

No matter how hard I try to avoid them, I can't help but encounter the tailed urban icons almost daily. After all, the city is home to 70 million rodents and counting. On my way home from work I watch them on the subway tracks from the security of the platform at Grand Central Station (42nd Street and Park Avenue) as they sniff out candy wrappers and lick crumpled coffee cups. They go about their rat business as if they're enjoying a day at some miniature Coney Island (1208 Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-372-5159).

Gotham rats are tougher than your run-of-the-mill neighborly suburban rats. A friend tells me he once had a rat chase him two blocks down Eighth Avenue. He lost the little gnawer by knocking down a trash can, thus diverting the squeaky rodent with some nibble.

I can almost sympathize with rats having to scavenge for food. I'm sure you can't be too picky under those circumstances. The most "exotic" fare that's ever crossed my palate has been steamed snails. I can't imagine having to eat a rodent, like in that notorious scene in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in which evil sister Bette Davis serves a disabled Joan Crawford a garnished dead rat on a platter. My sister would never do that to me. Or would she? She was born in 1972, the year of the rat. Hmmm.

I found myself in my own private horror flick a few months ago when I spotted a monster-sized rodent by the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, 708-9480). My first instinct was to run for cover, as I interpreted the inflated vermin to mean that the area was infested with rats. It turns out the labor union scab symbol had been working overtime since April, when MOMA's workers were on strike.

I have to hand it to them, they even have Rudy scared. At Gracie Mansion (East End Avenue and 88th Street, 570-4751), rats wander across the porch unfazed by the mayor's presence—they probably get to the morning paper before he does. Giuliani's even created a rat task force to target rabble-rousing rodents. Of course, the mayor doesn't seem to mind that other rodent who's taken over Times Square.

Having never visited Disney World, I don't know if my feelings about rats can be swayed by life-size puppet rats in cute dresses and bow ties. I'd rather stay in New York, where at least the rats don't talk back to you.


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