Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tales of the City Rat...Starting With PS 177

photo below, East Broadway, looking east from Catherine Street

by Susanne Pelly Spitzer
City Rat I: The Rat in the Classroom

One of the most distinctive features about PS 177 was the variety of urban wildlife. None of the coyote, raccoons, rabbits, or squirrels or suburban wild turkeys that occasionally dive-bomb unsuspecting schoolkids that are waiting for the buses in the suburbs here. Certainly not the occasional bear, moose, wolf, or cougar that occasionally wander into the urban areas bordering forests in the state, up north. Or the deer that came up the Mississippi and right through the window of our Capitol in St. Paul designed by Cass Gilbert, who left Minnesota to design the Woolworth building.

PS 177 had as long as I could remember, mice and cockroaches and God knows what else. And so do I know what else, because in third grade, a rat ran through our classroom. This was no classroom pet, for it spoke Norwegian, I think, since that was allegedly its country of origin, and was definitely an uninvited guest. We all panicked, but were calmed by the voice of Mrs. Wachspress, who must have been in terror herself. She calmly told us, "Now boys and girls, I'm sure if you just put your feet all up on your desks Mr. Rat will just pass through the classroom." And he did! In all my years since I was 17 and left New York for good, I have never encountered another person who had a rat in his/her classroom in third grade. It's a distinction, albeit an odd one.

City Rat II: Tales of East Broadway

When I was young, East Broadway was a mecca for totally fundamentalist ultra Orthodox yeshivas, the Educational Alliance, and the Seward Park library. It was also the major shopping street on Sunday, when it came alive with all the Jews buying and selling food. One Sunday my mother and I went walking down East Broadway in search of bell-shaped chocolate-covered cream-filled pastries and a ready-made barley side, in the stores near Seward Park.

The City had just completed a fiasco: it had attempted to widen East Broadway for cars, by removing a portion of the sidewalk. This did not go over well with Sunday shoppers, who protested loudly at the lack of space. Eventually their frustration registered, and the City spent $99,000 restoring the sidewalk portion it had removed. (I believe you can still see the metal strip that was inserted to border the lengths of the old sidewalk and the restored one.)

So this nice Sunday, my mother Ethel and I were walking down the old portion that had not been disturbed. Suddenly I heard her scream, "Don't look down, don't look down!" Like any self-respecting child, I looked down immediately, and saw we had a companion. Yet another Norway rat, brown and the size of the proverbial cat, strolling at the exact pace that we were, keeping us company on the new part of the sidewalk. Haven't met too many people who've had that experience, either.

City Rat III: The Rat Who Didn't Speak Chinese

When my parents decided me skipping kindergarten was enough advancement, and sent me to 3-year SPE at JHS 22, I found that most of my classmates were Chinese-Americans from PS 13 in Chinatown. Many of them were born overseas. I am still friends with some of them when I rediscovered them a few years ago.

One of them, Joyce Gee, lived in a tenement on Bayard Street. The tenement was owned by her grandmother, who kept the rents artificially low for her relatives, who occupied most or all of the building. That way, they could save for a house outside of Manhattan in the exotic neighborhood of Flushing.

The rents being that cheap, there were few dollars available for maintenance and none for keeping the vermin out. Everybody in Chinatown, as far as I can tell, had both cockroaches and rats in their tenements. They took the usual precautions: no milk since most couldn't digest it anyway and drinking cows' milk is considered disgusting in traditional Chinese culture. If they did give milk to the kids, faces were religiously washed before bed time so the rats couldn't smell it on the kids. However, the rats still got in.

The relatives in Joyce's tenement had a unique system for handling the rats: a rat patrol. Whenever a rat was spotted at night, the woman of the apartment in question would shout in Cantonese, "RAT! RAT!" Everyone knew their relatives' voices, so they would run to the apartment, brooms in hand. They would back the rat into a corner, where it would meet a very sad end. Perhaps if it had spoken Cantonese, it could have negotiated its escape?

I am happy to note that Joyce and her family did get out of there, but sadly, I lost contact with her after they moved to a nice attached house in Flushing and she went to Flushing High School.

So I guess the moral is, "Women, if you come from the LES, that guy with the whiskers may not be your husband, he may be a RAT!" (On second thought, he may be both!)

Buenas noches to y'all from the land of ice pellets, snow, and permamurk, as winter has arrived. Hard to believe that I took vacation time last Tuesday off to get the vote out for Obama, there were leaves on the trees in the most beautiful colors, and I had on a short-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. Or that we knew who our US senator was! (The recount continues...).


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