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.
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