Note: I realize that there are worse things than what I’m about to describe. Cancer, the Steubenville rape case, paraplegia, the 2008 financial crisis, etc. But honestly, I think more people have nightmares about this than any of the aforementioned.
Friday began as a day like any other. I woke up exhausted and shuffled blindly to the subway, where I saw a stray rat dragging an unidentified foodstuff through the tracks and felt very glad that it was 20 or 30 yards away, pacing in a valley where I was untouchable. I took the elevator to my office, ate Raisin Bran with almond milk at my desk while hunting through infinity-googol-plex photos of pumpkin pie slices on Getty, and listened to the same Mission of Burma song four times in a row on the subway. I invented the thoughts and desires of fellow commuters while picking lint off of my boiled wool sweater, got off two stops from my house and pretended that it was exercise. I went inside, listened to A$AP Ferg and drank a glass of Vouvray with my roommate, and suddenly remembered that it was my turn to take out the trash.
Taking out the trash is a somewhat involved process at [my address]. One must:
1. Drag the usually-exploding garbage bag down the stairs (leaking quinoa and crumpled paper towels along the way)
2. Throw open the quick-slamming front door
3. Walk about 10 feet to the right
4. Properly insert and turn a small gold key into the large, locked padlock on the plastic dumpster. Remove the padlock and open ‘er up. The dumpster also opens from the front, but typically one only needs to raise the rather heavy dumpster-lid and…
5. Aggressively throw the trash bag into one of the large silver cans within. Shut the lid, relock the padlock, get outta there.
Everything was going according to plan until I reached step 5.
The bag was heavy. Our recycling regimen had really fallen off the rails in past weeks, and glass bottles and jars added serious pounds to the vegetable matter and god-knows-whatever-else that creaked within the thin white plastic. I aimed and hurled the bag at the closer trashcan, but it fell to the side against the edge of the dumpster.
Fine, I thought. No problem; I’ll just open the plastic doors at the front of the dumpster, shimmy inside a bit, and push the bag into the can. Be a good citizen and all. Obey the wishes of our landlord, Auggie, who once told my roommate that his goal in life was to make her happy. Also might have tried to kiss her on the mouth one time, which was pretty inappropriate. Whatever.
But then … the worst thing ever happened.
As I swung open the front doors of the dumpster as though entering a ghost-town saloon, the absolute most atrocious smell that my nostrils have ever beheld wafted right up into my face. Hear you me when I tell you that I have smelled some really bad smells. I’ve worked at dive bars, grown up with boys who don’t believe in hygiene and don’t understand expiration dates, and lived in Tacoma, Washington. But you know in Auschwitz documentaries when the survivors are like, “You never forget the smell of burning/rotting human bodies mixed with excrement?” That was my immediate thought when I encountered this smell. It was almost visual in its potency and had the presence of the poisonous green cloud that cursed Sleeping Beauty. Confused and repulsed, I froze.
And then, very suddenly, I felt a strange, warm, scratching and rustling sensation about my feet and legs. I looked down and covering the bodily area between my toes and my knees were NEW YORK CITY RATS. MANY MANY RATS. Probably more than half a dozen huge, brown, hairy, yellow-toothed rats. And while I’m certain that they actually intended to get away from me, they were doing just the opposite. Their little nails clung to my jeans. Their shit-matted fur brushed against my favorite boots. It all happened in a split second that somehow lasted forever.
I’m sorry, but I’m going to provide a visual so that you can understand why this was the worst thing ever.
Their tails are horrible, scaly, leathery, bitten-off. Their eyes, beady. Their skin mottled with … conditions. This is how the spend most of their lives:
I was not reminded of Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was reminded only of the bajillions of rats that I have seen running around the crudded veins of the subway tracks, noshing on KFC bones and human entrails, threatening to climb up the platform and ever-so-gently brush their bubonic-plagued bodies against us. But we thank our lucky stars that they never really do (or we at least should). There are between 8 million and 32 million rats in New York City, and they mostly keep to themselves … until now.
I leapt back and, in a way that I didn’t think I was female enough to be capable of, emitted a high-pitched scream that caused all of the mutant rodents to leap from my gams and scatter. I stood there paralyzed, backing away from the dumpster and hyperventilating while a group of Puerto Rican men laughed their asses off.
“I … DID YOU … DID YOU SEE THAT?” I asked them.
“What happened, mami, some rats? Rats in the garbage?”
“YES … RATS … THEY TOUCHED ME … THEY CLIMBED ON ME.”
One of the men came over and calmly shut the dumpster for me. I wondered if trash rats had ever climbed all over him and traumatized him beyond repair. Clearly not, I thought, as he fearlessly threw the plastic doors shut. Or maybe he just figured that all of the rats had already attacked me and were ready for a siesta. I owed this man thanks but was unable to form words.
“I WAS … THE RATS …”
“I seen some rats in there, little mice too, you know. Better be careful.”
I stumbled back up the stairs and into my house, trying to think of ways that I could sterilize my entire body. I had bought these particular jeans literally the day before and would risk ruining them if I washed them in hot water, and my boots were beyond beloved to me. I had resoled them three times; throwing them away was out of the question. But how could I possibly be cleansed of this incident? So far all I can think of is washing my hands for 2-3 minutes after touching either garment.
A year or two ago, I came across a photo of a truly behemoth rat allegedly found in a Foot Locker in the Bronx. I have left it behind a link so that you are not involuntarily plagued with the same nightmares that I was after seeing it, or if you are, you were at least warned fairly beforehand. I saw this photo long before I had decided to migrate to the East Coast, and I thought that it was merely photo witchery or alarmist propaganda.
But I take it all back. If the End of Days is near, New York rats are leading the way. They’re powerful, and plentiful, and I think that they’re hoarding dead human bodies in our dumpster.
On the bright side, at least they weren’t tarantulas or cobras. That’s the only way that I can think sunnily about this thing that happened, this terrible, horrible thing. This worst thing ever.