The first time I bought the book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, it was as a birthday gift for my oldest friend, Oro. Oro and I have known each other since infancy. More recently, we have been organizing walking tours for our friends about three or four times a year (nothing too formal, just an excuse to take long walks through new neighborhoods and perhaps eat better and more cheaply than usual). Given our mutual lifetime obsession with New York, Rats seemed like the perfect present. Our local bookstore wrapped the volume in map-of-Manhattan paper, which Oro later hung on the kitchen wall of the apartment he and his mother share. For several years, every time I went over to their apartment (which was about once a month because Oro and his mother are the two other members of my three-person book group), I thought of Rats and how none of us had ever read it and how none of us had ever suggested it for book group. The wrapping paper map on the wall began to represent every book I had ever wanted to read but somehow failed to get to; I wondered whether it would be tacky to ask for the book back.
When I finally did read rats (to prepare for the interview below), it took me all of one sitting. The thing I find so compelling about the topic here is that, like trash, rats are one of those things you only really think about if you can’t afford not to, or if you’re uncontrollably fascinated by details. Robert Sullivan, infectiously, is the latter.
everydaytrash: In writing a book about rats in New York City, how much of your research focused on garbage in New York City?
Robert Sullivan: The food of rats is trash, so I spent a lot of time in, or very near, a lot of trash. I looked at what trash or kinds of trash they (rats) prefer, which turns out to be a lot like the food people tend to prefer. Trash bags in an alley are to rats what fields of delicious grasses are to a wild horse out in an Oregon wilderness. Rats love to wrestle around in individual garbage bags. One of the innovations that has improved rat watching since the time I first went rat watching is the see-through trash bag. Before see-through bags, rats were like kids wrestling in a pup tent; now, they are like the boy in the bubble only they are a rats in trash.
everydaytrash: How much of reducing the rat population in the city do you think relies on reducing the amount of trash we produce?
Sullivan: It’s partly how much trash we produce–and that includes trash we bag and put out on the street and all the trash we just throw down on the ground whenever we feel like it or even accidentally–and partly how we contain our trash. In Chicago, people use metal containers, dumpsters in the alleys. Here we use plastic bags. By using plastic bags, it is as if we are raising rats. A plastic bag to a rat is almost like puff pastry, at least in terms of it toughness as a protective shell.
everydaytrash: In Rats, you cover the housing rights movement and labor organizing among sanitation workers. Do you see rats as a catalyst for social chance?
Sullivan: Rats have been used as a catalyst. People pay attention when you talk about rats. The rent strike I refer to in the book, in which organizers brought rats to city hall and rats even to Congress, is said to be the largest rent strike in the history of the United States, not that you read about it in text books very often. I also think rats are a good indicator species. The presence of rats in neighborhoods, for instance, indicates a place where we, as a city or town, could stand to pay more attention, whether that means spending more money or just caring more somehow.
everydaytrash: Since writing the book, do your friends now give you rat-themed gifts? Are you now called upon to review or endorse strange rat-themed products?
Sullivan: I am sometimes called in by friends who have rodent problems. But
that’s not a problem for me: after having written a rat book I am happy to have any friends at all.
everydaytrash: Are there any new statistics on how many rats live in the city?
Sullivan: There are always new statistics–like the famous one rat per person statistic that never dies, even though it should. But the new statistics are almost inevitably wrong. We might better spend any money we might spend counting rats on helping people not have them.
everydaytrash: If a blogger writing about trash were interested in adding a rat category to her site, what online resources would you recommend she check out?
I can’t help you there. I don’t know any rat blogs. I did once meet a member of the Chicago Rat Patrol, when I was in Chicago looking at rats. He seemed like a nice guy.
If your local bookstore doesn’t have Rats in stock, ask them to order it.
Check back tomorrow for more Literary Trash!