Miss Rawlings heard me that day. Nobody else on the second floor opened the door, but she came out and said, “Is everything all right?” I think she was worried about me.
I was still at the top of the stairs wondering how they’d moved my shopping cart so far from her door. They’re small animals, “mere rodents” as one of the neighbors said one day, so what came into my head was all those Greek warriors pushing that huge wooden horse to the gates of Troy. A lot of planning there, a lot of effort, I thought, they’re narrating a future like old Odysseus. I guess I knew that already, I just hadn’t thought it.
“I’m fine, Miss Rawlings,” I said, “I gotta head back to the C-Town, you go ahead and get inside, would you please, I don’t know that they’re not in the building. Looks like they need food, gonna get it where they can. All right?” I was thinking of the groceries I’d just delivered to her apartment. God knows how they’d get up into those cabinets above the counter, but then long before the rats came, I saw a mouse on top of my refrigerator.
It scared me that night, scurrying at eye level, because it made me remember standing on a chair shrieking with my little sister at the sight of one in our bedroom, afraid of a tiny animal desperate to get out of our way.
So why don’t these rats bother me? That’s what I asked myself as I left the building, heading for the C-Town.
First I listened for the buses. They used to wake me every night on the hour with their hissing, kneeling elephant sounds, two stops right in front of my building, but now they’re random events. If the buses are running, there’s structure and authority somewhere, meaning people are going to work, because nobody would drive these things for fun, and nobody except the tourists would board them unless they had to. That’s what one of my neighbors used to say, but then he worked for the MTA. I haven’t seen him for weeks. He lived on the first floor, did his own shopping.
It was quiet, not even a gypsy cab. When I moved to Sugar Hill they were three out of every five vehicles on the street, you could summon one without looking just by raising your hand, now they’ve all gone downtown. The residents’ cars stay parked because opposite side rules are indefinitely suspended up here.
No buses running that morning. All the movement is in the leaves and the rats, I thought, and the occasional bird. Not many of them left, either, you’d think they’d have multiplied without the cats to prey on them. Avian flu, the neighbors say, this time it killed the birds themselves.
I walked north on Edgecombe, turned on to 160th, past the Morris-Jumel Mansion, toward Amsterdam. The oldest residence in Manhattan, once a tourist destination—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr slept there—had become the headquarters of a new kingdom. The lawns were now planted with rats. In the late fall you could mistake this undulating brown mass for a fallow field moved by the wind, but not today. It was early spring.
I watched the sentinels watch me, their huge heads moving methodically, scanning the streets below as impassively and dangerously as secret service agents at a presidential ceremony. “Mere rodents,” I thought.
The C-Town was crowded with firemen from Ladder Company 33 on 161st, it’s only a half block away. These crazy white guys won’t stand on line, and they used to do their mandatory drills in the middle of the day just to fuck with traffic, so everybody hates them. Like all cops and firemen, though, they think they’re local heroes, they shoulder their way through the store as if they’re in a hurry to do something important on your behalf and you’re supposed to thank them before they do it.
I stay away from them if I can. That day, it was impossible.