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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Sweet Thing: Rat



The two most successful mammals on earth are humans and brown rats, in that order. You could look it up.

The terms human race and rat race have grown more and more intimately related, like imbricated tiles in a pattern, a metaphor deeply embedded in the later chapters of the Evolutionary Comedy. There may be a reason for this. Those were my thoughts tonight as, scurrying defensively through the streets, I saw something small and dark at the periphery of the visual field, scurrying defensively out of sight into the endarkened entryway of an abandoned storefront.

In black times the economic indicators indicate big ticket items on metal shelves drifting and falling in space outside the ship, the air line to the module cut. Boxes of junk in warehouses, tomorrow's archeology, afloat in space, where no one will ever be able to afford a flatscreen plasma any more.

Rattus norvegicus, the second most successful mammal on the planet, scurrying in a frenzy of overpopulating joy, as in the New Hamelin, through the junk bloated cargo hold.

The empty storefronts, the broken souls, the danger in every doorway, the sirens roaring in the insane city night.

The workers in their cubicles, the conference calls, the meeting rooms, the institutional corridors.

The cigarette burns in the tattered carpets at the unemployment office where the descent into the labyrinth begins. The people without a job want to have a job, the people with jobs hate their jobs and spend their time complaining about their jobs and take out their hatred for their jobs by sitting in their cubicles in their offices wasting their time on the internet, they are rats scurrying to and fro in the cargo hold of the sinking ship of the cargo cult of the dying sick have a nice day society. Let's have coffee.

One fellow tells me about the necessity of killing rats.

On the same night a different fellow tells me about his pet rats, how much he loves them, how each one has a different personality.

He is a school teacher. His students are mostly juvenile delinquents. This fellow practices martial arts assiduously, to protect himself from his students. His daily stress levels are very high. I ought to quit this fucking job and become a beat cop, he says, yeah, that's what I ought to do. To relieve stress he reaches for junk food. A checkup revealed that he has type 2 diabetes. He now checks his blood sugar with a needle pop six times a day. Still, the old vicious cycle. Today after work, he says, I had a quesadilla. Blood sugar bounced right up. Can't do that. No, today I'll carry nuts, I'll eat six nuts, I won't eat a quesadilla.

Beer lowers his blood sugar, he has found. He rides his bike to the bar.

His rats are sweet natured, they are pretty, they love him, they have personalities, they do not require killing, when he is attending to them his stress levels remain low, he has less craving for junk food, this keeps his blood sugar down.

For many years we had a neighbour who was a psychiatrist. She subscribed to a journal called Behavioral Neuroscience. I know this because one issue was misdelivered to us, before redirecting it I glanced through the pages. There were some photos and line drawings of rats being dangled by their tails and then dropped to a hard surface, in slow motion stages. They were shown hitting the laboratory table and flopping. It was apparent they had been drugged. The article recounted test experiments in data that swirled before my eyes as I mourned being a human being. The most successful mammal on earth.

Rats got into a closet a while after that. They chewed holes in a lot of stored books. I don't know if there is much digestible cellulose in a book, but I hoped so.

The street drifters come and go. Surviving on the street is not a long term proposition. One who came two years ago in the summer when the drifters always come and lasted on the street maybe three or four months was a butch young woman with muscle tee, flattop, many scars and body piercings and interesting tattoos and a hard-edge fuck-you-don't-come-too-close demeanour. Lived out of a three-tier shopping cart rodent hotel she had fashioned, the middle tier an elaborate dormitory for her pet rats. There was a complex of water bowls and feeding stations with balanced diet greens and whole wheat fiber and other nourishing foods, everything in careful little bowls. Towels draped over the upper tier extended downward to keep the rat dormitory comfortably endarkened. They sleep all day, she helpfully explained, don't fucking disturb them.

This ecology interested me, so over time I asked discreet questions and learned more. They sleep with me in my sleeping bag at night, she said, but they're really nocturnal so they don't actually sleep much at night, they mostly just run around inside the bag.

I asked if they had names. Sweet Thing and Beauty, she said.

I'd see her now and then and she'd share about her rats, then I didn't see her for awhile. Then I did see her again, wobbly, no shopping cart, I asked after her rats. She looked blank for a moment, dazed. The street does this to its denizens. Then the question and the memory clicked in. Oh, they ran off, she said.

After that day I don't believe I ever saw her again.

File:NYC Rat in a Flowerbox by David Shankbone.jpg

Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), American Berkshire standard, wild colour (agouti), with money: photo by Alexey Krasavin, 2007
Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) in a flowerbox, East Village, New York City: photo by David Shankbone, 2008



What a great piece here, everything going on, "sirens roaring in the insane city night," everyone "scurrying to and fro in the cargo hold of the sinking ship of the cargo cult of the dying sick have a nice day society," the woman with a "three-tier shopping cart rodent hotel." We were reading Williams last night, "the pure products of America go crazy" -- "bodies throw recklessly i the way are cut aside." A different world out here but I see that "butch young woman with muscle tee, flattop, many scars and body piercings and interesting tattoos" when I'm over there. Meanwhile,


orange of sky on horizon above shadowed
trees, song sparrow calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

one original meaning itself,
is that of perception

actual, hearing to perceive
a surface, motionless

whiteness of fog reflected in channel,
gulls flapping toward invisible ridge

u.v.ray. said...

Great story!

I read somewhere that if a nuclear war wiped-out the human race, rats can transmute so quickly they would develop immunity to radioactive fallout.

They would become the dominant species on the planet. Awaiting to plague whatever new species might evolve from the nuclear sludge and ashes.

I like rats. Infinitely more intelligent than we humans. After all, they are each only striving to be the very best rat they can be.

We, however, so often waste our human potential.

~otto~ said...

Ah, she ran off, too.

This hit me hard, especially the way the last sentence was a quick jab: "The cigarette burns in the tattered carpets at the unemployment office where the descent into the labyrinth begins. The people without a job want to have a job, the people with jobs hate their jobs and spend their time complaining about their jobs and take out their hatred for their jobs by sitting in their cubicles in their offices wasting their time on the internet, they are rats scurrying to and fro in the cargo hold of the sinking ship of the cargo cult of the dying sick have a nice day society. Let's have coffee. "

TC said...


All those years I was over there, the last place I ever wanted to be was over here. Still can't figure out how I got here, too late now to ever get out. But what your sequence brings back to me every day is the possibility of a singularity and clarity of attention, a mindset I remember from daily pre-dawn runs from the mesa out along the lagoon to the highway. A perhaps somewhat pretentious word pops into my mind: "prelapsarian":

one original meaning itself,
is that of perception

actual, hearing to perceive
a surface, motionless

I would hate to miss your luminous mornings, and that helps compel me on with these goofy documentations of life among the fallen.


TC said...


Well, you've had the nerve to come right out and say what needs to be said about this strange distribution of niches and nutters on our planet.

Dead on, as always.

TC said...

Yeah, Otto, let's. But not right now. Gotta run.

Anonymous said...

times a week
to and fro on the subway
work sometimes play
i see rats foraging
or in transit
between nest
and hunting ground
or exploring the world
their world
and i wonder
norway black or egyptian
i have gotten
pretty good at identification.
my wife hates when i point one out.

TC said...


Through your wonder you wife will learn to know. Maybe.

timmy said...

the idea that rats are
"ultimate survivors'" is widespread. i have no expertise in these matters and therefore no judgment, but one alternate view i saw was in the book "the world without us" by alan weisman. the author opines that rats, like cats and dogs and mice, are sissies who are too dependent on humans and that if the humans go, they will be made short work of by the real tough guys like snakes and gators. like i say, an alternate view at least.

TC said...


This gives rise to frightening thoughts as to what might take over from the rats, in that case.



Thanks for the note, made me laugh out loud ("prelapsarian," "goofy documentations of life among the fallen" -- hardly!). I remember SEEING you out there on those runs, was struck by your dedication (since I used to run up Terrace and around the sewer ponds once in a while -- am still hiking up the Willow Camp trail to the top of the ridge above Stinson and running back down a couple of times a week if I'm lucky), and now it's the daily going into the water (what I see out there 'reappearing' as the last two lines of these daily "documentations" of the poems.

TC said...


Forgive me for hitching a ride vicariously on your life and the life around you in your place, of which the poems are sweet documents.

The sewer ponds had only just been put in place in our final years out there, I had suffered a bad foot injury playing pickup basketball down at the school and could no longer run by the end of our time there but I do recall maneuvering an old junk bike around the ponds, being gazed at quizzically by egrets.

I have assumed, yet been amazed to think, that you have been in the water every morning of our parallel tracking -- yet too I have wondered how you do it, thought about your wet suit, thought about you coming home and drying off and getting warm and then somehow incredibly, in a daily discipline I enormously admire from this distance of imagining it, putting down your pencil draft and then typing it up, every morning, before my dazed and sober old head has fallen onto the pillow.

(Speaking of fallen.)

Anonymous said...

It makes me sad to think that we are not too far away from this dystopian panorama. I was particularly startled by these two phrases: "Boxes of junk in warehouses, tomorrow's archeology..." and "New Hamelin". After so many years of "evolution" and civilization...

You have put all the elements together to create the special effect we humans need to become aware of what we are doing and what we are failing to do. This piece is impeccable.

TC said...

Thank you very much Lucy for this telling comment. Perhaps it is your ability to stand off a bit, at least geographically, from the scene of the crime that is this pseudo-civilization del Norte, that gives you the perspective and clarity that enables you to see and speak of things as they are.

And of course I suppose what happens up here inevitably weighs to some degree upon what happens where you are, however one might wish it were not so.

The religion and worship of the production and consumption of useless junk is still thought of by some people here as somehow patriotic, unbelievably enough.

"Dystopian panorama" may be an even better phrase to sum all this up than the phrases I have chosen.

Mishari said...

Great piece, Tom. Here in London, I'm reliably informed, one is never more than 10 yards from a rat. I believe it. I respect rats for their relentless adaptability although I don't go quite so far as the rat worshippers at this temple in Bikaner, India.

But if you want to know who the the planet's real tough guy survivors are, check out this fascinating piece by Bruce Sterling. Then look around you and be afraid, be very afraid...

Mishari said...

I dunno why that Bruce Sterling link didn't work but here it is again.

Sterling on bacteria.

TC said...


Extremely informative and interesting links.

First, the feeding party.

I don't know what specific religious tenets may be motivating the rat worshippers, but it's impossible not to observe that the product of their devotion is a wonderful orderly sharing among the rats at the milk bowl. No pushing or shoving, no boarding house reach, no unkindness or rivalry or hostility of any kind.

Lovely indeed.

Just goes to show.

Many thanks, I shall hope to return to this image in my dreams.

TC said...

...But ah, as to that OTHER link.

Bacterial invasion and conquest of the planet as the full spectrum extension of what Lucy in the Sky (above) has called the "dystopian panorama".

The horror!

In this densely congested urban area bacterial strains are rampant. A certain personal been-there-done-that database regrettably informs one's views on this issue (spare you the gruesome details).

Bruce Sterling's piece beggars the efforts of many a sci-fi scenarist.

Shudders of revulsion and terror as one moves from paragraph to paragraph.

"We have spent billions to kill bacteria but mere millions to truly
comprehend them. In our arrogance, we have gravely underestimated our
enemy's power and resourcefulness. Antibiotic resistance is a very real
threat which is well documented and increasing at considerable speed. In
its scope and its depth and the potential pain and horror of its
implications, it may the greatest single menace that we human beings
confront -- besides, of course, the steady increase in our own numbers.
And if we don't somehow resolve our grave problems with bacteria, then
bacteria may well resolve that population problem for us."

Do you suppose that if a cult of bacterial worshippers were to emerge, offering the hungry little trillions of critters lovely bowls of milk, they would be diverted into an innocuous single-minded feasting, and leave us alone?

(However the milk bowl would probably have to be the size of the Grand Canyon, or perhaps the size of India... and when that had been drained, perhaps they could be fed from several of those large dead seas on the moon?)

Mishari said...

...if a cult of bacterial worshippers were to emerge...

Already happened, Tom. Feast your glims on...ta-da...Shitala, Goddess of Smallpox.

Mishari said...

...if a cult of bacterial worshippers were to emerge...

Already happened, Tom. Feast your glims on...ta-da...Shitala, Goddess of Smallpox.

Mishari said...

Goddamnit. Another broken link. Try this:

Shitala, Goddess of Smallpox

TC said...


OMG, as I believe the epidemiologists say. (In the secondary school cafeteria.)

You links would be haunting my dreamlife were it not currently taken up (last night, er I mean today, which was my night... anyway) by Thierry Henry.

Titi or Shitala, what shall it be next?

I do believe George Washington, the father of something, once had smallpox. Trivia flood the brain, as it flails to block out the impending contagion...

On a cheerier (?) note, our conversation has reminded me of a previous cycle of preoccupation with our rat brethren.

There is a poem that dates back some three decades, to when we dwelt uneasily among the rat-infested palms of the South Coast. (In that period I seem to have briefly adopted that loveable creature the roof rat as an emblem. I admired its tenacity as well as its refined tastes.)

I believe I shall post it in your honour.

...and here 'tis.

file said...

Dreams of Thierry Henry, Tom? How an illicit French hand to ball can reverberate eh?

"If you had the luck of the Irish, you'd wish you were English instead." (Only a 'pudlian could have dreamed that up, metinks.)

[perhaps I'll go back to a silent enjoyment of these pages!]

Alarming said...

( not sure if this comment has been posted already in my efforts to register so apoplogies if that is the case )
re: super survivors I'm a great admirer of the flea.

about 20 years ago we moved into a house that had been uninhabited for 4 years. The warmth of our cat's body woke up a legion of flea's eggs that had been lyying dormant in a carpet biding their time. The house was infested extremely quickly.

We moved, the cat died about 5 years ago and wasn't replaced. Fleas still occasionally break cover looking for a host. An extraordinary capacity for survival and of course when they collaborated with the rat I think they gave us Bubonic Plague.

The outhouses of my childhood home were infested with rats. The canvass inner roof of trhe sheds rippled with rat movements from morning til night. A man with a ferret and about 8 bags got rid of most of them. He discovered the bolt holes, put a bag in front of each , put the ferret in the nest entrance and drove away with a van-full of writhing ratbags.

TC said...


Great to hear from you.

No idea why Titi was in my dream. He is just a figure in my dreamlife now and then.

It's freaky, but I suppose that's always the way with dreams.

The day after the dream, he scored on a free kick against Racing Santander. Not much of a free kick at that, it bounced once. Of course he's a shadow of his former self.

But then a shadow of his former self is so much more substantial than the shadow which is me, I shouldn't be saying this.

About the indefensible handball, he seemed like a kid caught in the act of a crime he immediately felt ashamed of but could no longer undo.

Those instants probably get pretty stretched out when you know the whole intelligent universe as well as a lot of Irishmen are watching.

I am for blood reasons a supporter of Ireland and as such should have been angry, I suppose.

But Titi has always seemed such an elegant and civilized fellow, the figure of a gentleman in a world of swaggering boobs and bullies and braggarts & c., it seems impossible to be critical of his conduct.

TC said...


That ferret man sounds formidable indeed. I can think of a hundred uses for such skills.

Yes, it's curious how familiarity with vermin does not always breed contempt -- mostly just more vermin. We always have three or four cats and so we know more about fleas than I am at liberty to divulge.

Now you mention it there has been domestic wisdom here in favour of admitting that when we did indeed have actual rats in the wainscoting (well, the walls), some years back in Southern California, TC was not amused.

Anyway, great to hear from you here!

file said...

cheers Tom, seen him play (at the old Highbury) many times and know exactly what you mean; he's quite iconic, in a lyrical sort of way; a Giraffe God in human form. I see Vieira is back to his old tricks already (i.e. suspended for 3 games), impressed you're keeping up with La Liga, do you have a tip for the world cup and when will we see your Ode on the Jules Rimet Trophy?

("Footy is truth, truth footy" ...)

TC said...

Ah File, you are the first person who has come along on this blog who wants to talk about the subject the host has secretly wanted to talk about all along, but never brought up because he was certain no one would have a clue what he was talking about.

And I'm sure they still don't and wouldn't, & c.

But still. Many thanks.

I would have said Paraguay. Until last month, when their great delantero, the charismatic and bullish Salvador Chava Cabanas, was shot in the head one morning shortly before dawn in the w.c. of a Mexico City bar.

The place is called Barbar. It has a prehistoric flintstone-y theme.

Surgeons were unable to remove the bullet, which remains lodged in the back of Chava's brain.

He meanwhile remembers nothing at all, barely knows who he is, yet is, at seems, intent on making it to South Africa.

The president of Paraguay dropped in to visit him in the hospital last week.

Retinues and squadrons of guards and police all round, naturally.

The heightened security however did not prevent one of Chava's teammates at Club América from being shot in the backside two weeks after the Barbar incident.

Chava has never been the sort of player who is dependent on nous, so perhaps if his body makes it to the Cup, the rest will follow.

In any case Paraguay was about a 500-1 longshot before, so now...

And what think ye?

Do you have a darkhorse choice?

(Surely there can be no hope for England.)


(And BTW, as you mention Vieira, as it happens I have painted him, and Henry, among others... I will bat around among the cobwebs and see if I can find a link for you. In a bit.)

TC said...

Oh well, wild goose chase

Sixteen of them are posted in two posts at a blog called World Football Commentary, but when I went just now to check the links I found myself locked into a time machine with Valencia/Getafe. Not that it wasn't fun, except that David Villa could never score because the page wouldn't
download for my ancient weakling Mac.

In any case, I belabour this. Here is a Zidane with Cannavaro.

Zephirine said...

A piece of trivia I retain about Thierry Henry is that his parents wanted him to be an accountant. Good sensible job for a smart boy.

My problem with rats is the tails, something rather nasty about them, if they had furry tails they'd be more cute, but that one in the top photo has a delightful expression, as a rat who might be saying "This is money? Is this what they make all the fuss about?"

As for fleas, Alarming is quite right, they lurk for years. As a child I lived for a while in a very old little townhouse, which had been empty while being 'refurbished' (white paint and some hardboard), and shortly after we moved in, fleas appeared... I think they were not cat or rat fleas, but people fleas. They certainly liked my ten-year-old ankles.

file said...

yeh, that site takes an age to load but they're all still there. Fantastic construction and dynamism to those Tom, I'm guessing they're after still shots but I could be wrong. Like the Henry one especially but they're all interesting, appreciate the care you took to identify the players extorted mugs.

was raised a Notts County fan so most of my free time this year has been reading about things magpie, (sigh, dem interesting times), rather than world footie.

Still, had heard about Chava but not his teammate; Paraguay is an brave choice but I think Chile will be the South American underdog to watch this year, not least as there will be goals galore.

Like wine, the New (heh!) World teams will be worth sniffing; the Ozzies are getting better and better, even without Hiddink, and (bless their cotton socks) the Americans will have their strongest ever squad I feel and probably have an easier group to qualify from (second to the Limey's, of course).

England will decide to field the WAGS instead of the players and could even do quite well, not sure if their neurosis/psychosis will allow them to really succeed but Capello is made of stern stuff so who knows... will football ever get home?

You're probably more up on these things than me, so the Dutch? African nations? Golden Boot? Rising starlet?

Edgar Cayce is telling me that Spain will beat Brazil in the final, the Engles will reach the semi's and Maradona will test positive for Semtex.

I wonder if there will be a pseuds psecial...

TC said...


I too love Chile, my new underdog longshot favourite.

Humberto El Chupete Suazo, the adroit portly bald striker with the golden foot, will, my crystal ball tells me, score the only goal in the final on an audacious chip over the flailing outstretched fingertips of a backpedalling Iker Casillas.

And the wintry skies of Santiago will explode with light and joy.

One hopes.

(Yes, the WAGS might be a reasonable choice as alternative England XI, if only because of all that bottled up domestic tension. Anger, as John Lydon once sang, perhaps echoing Blake, is an Energy.)

TC said...


As the Flea Authorities are currently in Slumberland, I shall indulge my urge to wax sentimental with you bit about fleas.

We too have our gradations and categories of fleas. There are the wee quick ones, and the standard garden variety cat nuisance ones, and then there are the mega-fleas, which we call "horse fleas," perhaps because they come in sizes ranging from pony to quarter-horse, and when popped with the fingernails, issue enough blood to attract vampires for miles around.

We have found that once installed in the household, they seem to breed forever, for generation after generation, so that it seems the descendants of fleas that once plagued long departed cats now survive to plague their successors.

But I am sure this is just another case of myopic human prejudice, all fleas tending to look pretty much alike to us, notwithstanding those size variations, just as all the waiters in the American restaurant once looked the same to Charlie Chan.

(By the by, speaking of Titi Henry and slender ankles, back in his heyday at Highbury I once heard him referred to, by an adoring-from-a-great-distance female supporter, as "Sex on a Stick". But of course there was no evidence that TH had done anything particular to deserve such a moniker, other than to conduct himself impeccably as perhaps the most civilized footballer ever to lace on boots. Which I suppose might be considered so unusual as to be somewhat sexy, when one thinks of it.)

TC said...

Actually, TH has always reminded me, physically, of a cross between a flamingo and an egret.

I suppose it's the stick-like limbs, "long and small" as in Sir Thos Wyatt's "They fle from me".

(Quite a sexy poem that, in fact -- in a cruel sort of way. I imagine those cell-like Tudor Court chambers to have been full of deceptions, betrayals, duplicities ...and of course, rats.)

file said...

the fingertips of Casillas, yes, another one for the gals, I can only hope John Terry meets up with his g/f in the next four months (actually that's not a bad idea - perhaps Capello can send him on a preparatory "fact-finding" mission to engle-opponents wags...

btw TC, where are your loyalties? US, France, North Korea? You may be interested in investing in one of these to go with your cheetos and root beer.

TC said...


Somehow I can't imagine any nation accepting my loyalties, even were I to proffer them.

England's doom always seems fated, half-willed, and built-in.

It is hard not to fancy Spain, and of course they are lovely on the eyes.

My heart would lie with the South and Central American teams however.

The team I follow most closely is Mexico. They have a bit of the in-built doom there as well, of course. In the past few months however they seem to be developing the one weapon they are always sorely missing, a top-flight striker, in a fresh-faced young man named Xavier Chicharrito Hernandez. He plays domestically for Chivas of Guadalajara. He has size (long, lean), speed, instincts, incredibly quick feet and has lately shown in domestic league matches the ability to make finishing decisions at lightning speed. If he proves able to carry those skills over to the highest level of competition, Mexico might become interesting.

But finally the realist in me would whisper that the hopes of this hemisphere will lie inevitably with Brazil and Argentina.