New York is America’s most populous city. This crowded metropolis is home to over 8 million people. And living alongside, underneath and above us are over 40 million examples of the rattus norvegicus. Perhaps more commonly known as the brown rat, the sewer rat or – apologies to some of my Monocle colleagues – the Norwegian rat. New York City is infested. Everyone has a tale to tell and if you haven’t felt something furry and warm scuttle across your feet on a dark summer night, you’re not a real New Yorker yet.
As a Londoner, I was accustomed to observing the occasional rodent nibbling on a banana skin from the underground tube platform. But, nothing prepared me for my first subterranean confrontation with a New York City subway rat, running down the stairs towards me while I stood frozen in shock on the platform of the Bowery station.
There is nothing reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame’s erudite, River Thames-living Ratty about these rodents. Even the sewer-dwelling Splinter, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ guru, is statuesque in comparison. According to the New York State Department of Health, these rats bite around 100 people each year. And with many of them living in or around the subway’s 1,350km of track, this month has seen various city groups campaign for a clean-up of Manhattan’s filthy metro system.
First off, it was subway workers themselves. Earlier this month, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 – the city’s largest transit union – set up a website encouraging the public to upload revolting rodent pictures and then vote on which was most repulsive. The scheme is all part of an effort to get the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to clean stations more frequently.
This week, the crusade was taken a step further. State Senator Bill Perkins proposed a bill that would impose a fine of $250 (€190) on anyone found eating on subway trains or platforms, following the result of a survey that found the biggest factor in the transit system’s rat predicament was the consumption of food. Strapped for time, Manhattan residents may prefer sharing their daily commute with rats to having to wake up an hour earlier in order to consume a peaceful breakfast at home.
A long time campaigner for an extermination program to be run efficiently from City Hall, State Senator Perkins may be Manhattan’s much-needed Pied Piper. And if, like Hamelin, New York city doesn’t support his rat eradicating ways, perhaps he can lure away those whose favourite lunch spot is a subterranean subway car.