The super for the building right across the street from mine is Greg the Rat Man, a dedicated killer but also a diligent student of the rodents from Norway who share our streets and subways. He hunts them, I guess you’d say, so he’s become an expert on their habits. He told me one morning that hundreds of deadly bacteria live on the tongue of every rat.
“Imagine that motherfucker bite you,” he said.
Last time I saw him in action it was midnight on 124th between Lenox and 7th Ave, when he rolled up the wrong way (westbound) in his grey Impala as if to arrest me, popped the trunk, and started baiting his traps with Kosher hotdogs.
“I’m a kill these motherfuckers, every last one of ‘em,” he announced. In the outer dark, on the other side of the street where the rehab center sits and the junkies gather every morning, I could see a dozen rats scampering, and I wondered if this hero could conquer that horde.
I said, “I dunno, Greg, there’s a lot of these motherfuckers.” I gestured toward the real thing moving at the edge of the industrial light. “These aren’t windmills.”
He said, “I got determination. I got faith.” He held up one of the traps. “I got equipment.”
Since that midnight, Greg has had a crisis of faith. Always the skeptic, and ever the athlete—-he now rides bikes in competitive events-—he’s been watching a lot of TV and ridiculing the religion he was raised in, asking everybody within range why science fiction isn’t a better answer to his ontological questions than God.
Everybody on the block says he’s different, and they always preface their remarks with something like, “He used to be wild, now he’s just crazy.”
This morning I moved my car to his side of the street and watched as he swept the sidewalk of his building. Mike the doorman of my building came over, and we passed the time, waiting for the moment when parking tickets can’t be issued.
“I watch that ‘Cosmos’ shit,” Greg says, “Man, that shit is heavy, I bought the DVD, that’s what my kids gonna watch, fuck this Sunday mornin’ bullshit, shit I was raised on, they gonna see the truth.”
I’m desperate to light a cigarette, but instead I stupidly say, “Yeah, the truth, and that’s gonna change, too, isn’t it, as the physicists change their minds about how we got here, why not send ‘em to church?”
Greg looks angry, he says “You believe in evolution?”
“Yeah, I believe in evolution, whatever the fuck that’s worth these days,” I say, “What, you think we’re descended from Martians, interstellar visitors and shit?”
“I teach my kids humanity, not this race and that race,” he says, I can tell he’s even more angry because he jabs his finger at me. “We all one kind of people,” he says.
“Fine with me,” I say, and hope the conversation is over, I don’t need to piss anybody else off.
“You believe in religion?,” he says, and now I can see that his crisis of faith will never be private, he might as well be a politician. It’s Charles Darwin versus Pat Robertson.
Mike the doorman backs away, into the street, between the cars, he can see that Greg wants a fight, but me, I’m not worried, I can see that the man wants an intellectual skirmish of the kind that I grew up on.
“You believe in dreams?” I say, “You believe in art?”
Greg says, “What kind of art?”
“Any kind,” I say, “The worst, the best, you think it’s necessary, it’s what we do because we’re human?”
“And those dreams,” I continue, if that is the right word, because by this time I’m pretty agitated, almost apoplectic, “what about them, are they real, do we have them or don’t we?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Greg says, “OK, art and dreams—-“
“Well religion and art and dreams live by the same logic, you wanna do without one, then do without the others, stop pretending science explains every goddamn thing, it’s a reaction formation for Chrissakes, it has no better purchase on reality than art or religion because it creates fucking reality for fuck’s sake.”
Like I said, I was pretty agitated.
Greg says, “You know, that makes sense.”