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Of the challenges I have faced in New York City’s service industry during COVID-19, a massacre of rats in East Williamsburg remains on my mind most vividly. As the manager of a coffee shop with a major infestation in the winter of 2022, I knew the rats were a concern for public health—and a threat to my livelihood. Something had to be done.
The severely infested coffee shop in East Williamsburg sat atop a once-existing basement that had since been filled: a rat’s oasis of soft dirt and abandoned infrastructure. From the yard of the building I could see indications of burrowing under the wall and several active runways. Rats live close to their food source and often never travel more than a few hundred feet in their lifetime. Our coffee shop was their ideal perfect bed and breakfast.
I could not let them win. City policy on rats is oblique: aside from the threat of being shut down, businesses are guided on pest control practices by a downloadable PDF and setting times for trash collection. But my target policy for rats was zero rats, so I scheduled for more frequent pest control visits to help solve the problem. They came armed with traps, bait stations, steel wool, and poison and diagnosed structural issues in the building as viable entry points for vermin.
The coffee shop’s upper management disagreed over these assessments, and the exterminators’ advice was dismissed. Instead, I was instructed to investigate the possibility of rats entering the café from behind the lowboy fridges. But the fridges supported marble counters and would not budge, so I focused on enforcing cleanliness: not a crumb could be left out! When it became clear the rats could simply feed on the fresh breads and pastries delivered overnight, my message to staff adjusted toward personal apology. I knew I was in for a long winter.
For many New Yorkers, rats are less visible in the winter, and sightings ramp up in the spring. But in an infested café, winter is brutal. The cold weather drove many rats to brave the nightly journey inside our walls. I arrived early for my shifts to tend to my ratty responsibilities: check the traps; sniff around for any offensive odors; kill any rat that may not have died in a trap (more on this later); scoop up, scrape off, and double-bag the remains; bleach the area of death; and, importantly, allow myself to wash my hands and adjust psychologically before dialing in the espresso.
To catch one during the day is a disaster. You will hear a loud snap of the trap and the rat screams, likely followed by shrieks and ensuing panic from customers. The rat’s screaming may not stop, or they may still be writhing in pain, and this is when you must kill them to end their suffering. Without access to euthanasia, the next best method is a hammer. Drowning a rat is more hands-off but slow and agonizing, and should be avoided.
Coworkers understood when I was on special rat-disposal duty by the look: two masks, four gloves, wide-eyed, holding a hammer. You will want two trash bags, in case you break through the plastic. After lining a dust pan with one of the bags, you sweep the rat (you will want to keep a separate broom for these duties), then you double-bag and take it outside. Outside, even double-bagged you should be able to locate the head (please take the time to be precise), and you make sure you hammer it accurately and hard enough to ensure instant death. You will also want to keep the rat deep enough in the bag to help prevent blood splatter from exiting the open side, as tying it may enclose air that could affect accuracy of the swing’s impact.
Unlike when a cartoon’s face turns green and the animal does a little pirouette before dying, a poisoned rat can take days to die. In that time the rat will exhibit odd behavior—stumbling around in the daylight, seemingly unafraid or unaware of crowds, or breathing heavily in sedation. For humans, the animal’s softer features may come into focus, as the rat frisks those little rodent whiskers and attempts shallow, labored breaths, observing passers-by. The instinct is to scoop the rat up for release somewhere nice and out of the way, maybe by a tree in the park or down the block, but there the rat will only continue a slow and painful death. In such cases, the rat will still need to die by the hammer method. (A COVID-era outdoor dining “streetery” can help lend some privacy.)
A café manager can perform due diligence every day in locating trapped and poisoned bodies, but rats will still slip through the cracks here and there. When a rat dies in hiding, or beyond your reach in the wall cavities of the building, the smell of decay grows strong, and then your café becomes infested with bugs as well. The stench can help lead you to its location, but at first whiff you will want to find it before it becomes nauseating and the fly problem gets out of hand. When the bodies are found, they are the most difficult to clean: fur often sticks to surfaces, the corpse pulls apart, and maggots try to flee the scene. Handling a decaying rat can be detrimental to coffee quality control for the rest of your shift.
I have a hard time giving an estimate of the massacre’s body count, but considering how many traps we went through each week, plus the poison, I calculate that I killed a little over 100 rats last winter. For comparison: in 2019, Eric Adams (then the Brooklyn Borough President and now Mayor of New York City) held a demonstration touting an innovative solution to the city’s rat problem in the form of a trap designed to lure rats into a vat of alcohol-based liquid. After a month-long pilot program involving multiple devices placed around Brooklyn Borough Hall, Adams reported that his scheme had trapped and killed 107 rats, meant to be a substantial and telling number—a number similar to mine.
More recently, Adams has declared a “war on rats,” while at the same time, he failed to responsibly do his part as a landlord to protect his tenants from an infestation in a building he owns. Ultimately, the city fined Adams the minimum $300 penalty for the infestation’s health code violation—about the price of one of the rat-drowning buckets he had installed on the property.
Alarmists postulate that the pandemic has allowed rats to build an opportunistic army of sorts, enabled by sanitation cut-backs. Adams, like mayors before him, may make political hay out of positioning himself as a rat-hating strongman. But have we simply run a collision course in our attempts at a return toward normalcy?
Exterminating rats was necessary for (human) health and safety in the coffee shop, but I became miserable and felt under-appreciated, eventually stepping down from management altogether. In killing 100 rats, I grew to see them equally as both animals and fellow New York City transplants. Why must we punish rats when we fail to do enough ourselves? As I see it, we are tied to our rats and must take personal responsibility when we can to help one another in an overcrowded city.
This essay is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.
Curran Boyd is an essayist from San Diego living in New York City.