A few summers back, writer Robert Sullivan decided to closely observe a cagey and misunderstood creature of the wild and account for its culinary preferences, mating habits, and overall psyche. Surprisingly, Sullivan undertook the task mere blocks from the South Street Seaport on a greasy side street with the unlikely moniker Edens Alley, where he monitored the nocturnal transmissions of the dreaded Rattus norvegicus for a solid year. In his daylight hours, the author dug up reams of ratty lore and communed with exterminators—or make that “pest control operators,” since, as an expert explained, “the word exterminate suggested a permanency to a customer that was not possible to provide.” That’s because when they’re not inhaling our garbage, rats spend most of their time fornicating: A particularly avid couple can have sex up to 20 times a day and produce 15,000 pups in a single year.
Hugely entertaining and likably discursive, Sullivan’s overview brims with such staggering vermin stats while disproving others (all together now: There is not one rat for every human in New York City, but more like one for 36). The dingy nuisance gets to don a coat of many colors through the ages: Here we have rat as popular amusement (a Gangs of New York-era section on Irish-born “rodentary magnet” Kit Burns, who staged dog-vs.-rat fights in the Sportsman’s Hall), as outdoorsy adventurer (rats in trees in Greenpoint!), and as social vector—a catalyst for the sanitation workers’ and Harlem tenants’ strikes of the 1960s. Also, rat as tough motherfucker: hard to kill, nearly impossible to contain, and worthy of our queasy, querulous esteem.