Rodent Right Of Way
© Copyright 2023 by Mason Sansonia
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It happened when I was still pretty young, before I hit ten years old even, but after I was old enough to walk to school by myself. Growing up in Manhattan is different from growing up almost anywhere else in ways that I might not ever be able to fully comprehend, but one of the differences is getting to and from school. At a certain age itís a matter of walking or taking public transit, and always alone. You get used to the streets and whatís on them, sometimes garbage, sometimes a weird scene, but mostly just people.
Occasionally there are animals, but usually pets. Dogs out for walks, big and small, and once in a blue moon something more exotic. More often than not the oddest animal youíll see is a dead one in the gutter; a pigeon, a squirrel, one time a cat. After a while you learn to just move on. Standing and staring is like lingering over a car crash, it just slows down traffic. One of the more terrifying experiences I had as a child was discovering an enormous hornet lying, still alive but clearly dying, outside of a local cemetery. In my memory, itís as big as my hand and its multi-faceted eyes are full of hatred. But thatís not the real story. The real story involves a rat.
Rats are a fact of life in Manhattan, not always seen but always known. Growing up, I knew for a long time there were rats in the city, even though I never saw one. I see them a lot more frequently now. Sometimes one will scurry across the sidewalk late at night in a hurry, but far more frequently they hang out on subway tracks. They give folks a wide berth and we do the same for them. Of Manhattanís two genetically distinct rat populations, the Uptowners and the Downtowners, Iím most familiar with the downtown rats since I grew up around Alphabet City.
The encounter Iím talking about didnít happen in the subway though, it was up on the sidewalk, and in broad daylight, which is unusual. Iím not bothered by rats these days, since I know I could take one in a fight, but that wasnít always the case. Like most people, I was smaller when I was younger, and less sure of myself in new situations. Which is why I froze up when I saw my first ever rat.
I donít remember if I was heading towards the school I eventually attended for middle school or if I was just walking home from a friendís house. Whatever the case, I had my eyes downcast instead of looking straight ahead, which is why I saw the rat before anything else. It was big, grey, and coming towards me very quickly. Like I said before, I was smaller then, and this rat looked big enough to fit over my entire face and chew it off. Just like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights of a car, I froze up.
Thinking back I really didnít need to freeze. I could have stepped to the left or right, it was a wide open sidewalk at that point. Maybe it was the sudden and terrifying intrusion into my life of something that had practically been a myth up to this point. I might have had the exact same reaction to a creature made of raw sewage charging towards me. Whatever the case, my muscles and lungs locked up and I couldnít move, which definitely didnít save me and didnít help the rat either.
My eyes were tracking the rat, so I didnít see the thing that descended upon it until it was already there. At the time, I thought it was cardboard, but looking back it was probably a piece of wood. Cardboard couldnít do what this thing did to that rat. I looked up a second later to see that someone was holding it, but to me it came down with all the suddenness of a guillotine blade and none of the buildup. It came down right in the center of the rat, cutting it in half. To be more accurate, it smooshed the center of the rat along a very narrow margin, destroying its spine and the middle of its body. But it didnít split the ratís flesh, so there was no blood.
This didnít help with my shock, so I still couldnít move. I watched as the rat twitched a little, tried to move, like it hadnít realized that it was dead yet. A moment later, the cardboard, wood panel, whatever it was, came back into my line of sight and swept the rat under a nearby car. I looked up then, and saw the man holding the cardboard. He was an older gentleman in a waste disposal uniform, with a greying, somewhat scraggly beard. He gave me a somewhat embarrassed smile, like he was sorry that I had to experience any of that.
There was a garbage bag behind him, trash that I guess he was there to remove. It was very literally crawling with other rats. I didnít want to stick around and wait for them to run past me, or to say anything to the man who had just killed one of the rats right in front of me. I turned tail and ran, and never said a word of the incident to anybody. After all, I came out of it without a scratch and it was the most unusual thing that happened that day. But Iíve never forgotten it, and I doubt I will as long as I live.
These days I donít fear rats anymore. One ran past my feet on the subway somewhat recently, but I had been the one going to the back of the platform where few people do. It was likely more startled than I was. For the most part, I just look at them as smaller neighbors, but I wonít deny that viewpoint will change the instant one becomes an inconvenience for me, and I donít think any other New Yorker would deny the same of themselves.
I donít really know if this instance in particular helped contribute to my hesitation when it comes to squishing insects, or any other tendencies I have when it comes to small creatures. I do know that I wish I had thanked the guy who brought the cardboard down. Itís not often your job involves stopping a rat from pouncing on some fool kid coming down a sidewalk.
My name is Mason Sansonia. I was born and raised in Manhattan, New York, and am 28 years old as of writing this. I studied film and creative writing at Hofstra University. I donít have a writing career as of yet except for an online magazine called GameRant, for which I occasionally write pieces of news about the video game industry. I hope to have a full career in writing one day.