We are waiting for the rats. When they arrive, light rail really arrives.
We are waiting for the rats. When they arrive, light rail really arrives. Charles Mudede

I will begin with a warning to those whose main mode of transportation is the car. This post is definitely not for you. Ignore it and go elsewhere, because there's just no way you can feel me and come to something close to an appreciation for the subject of this post, which concerns the growing number of dead rats on sidewalks.

I'm writing instead to people who experience the city as a live wire, which is possible only on the bike/scooter/wheelchair, or while jogging/walking, or while on the bus/train. A car experiences the city as something abstract. We see from behind the wheel the city made unreal. Car manufacturers work hard to flatten the environment—be it rural or urban—into an image. This kind of isolation, which has its moment of satisfaction when docking at the single-family home, the Dutch traffic philosophy of woonerf attempts to shatter.

That said, let's turn to all of these rats I have recently seen on the sidewalks of my neighborhood.

As "kings, princes, attendants and followers" often "enter fleeing" in the last act of a theatrical tragedy, a good number of rats on Beacon Hill and in Columbia City (I cannot speak for other neighborhoods) have entered the sidewalk at the end of their already brief and rude lives. Here is an accurate account of the ones I've encountered over the past month.

1) While walking down Columbia Way at the late end of cloud-proud dusk on the last day of April, I come across a very new and huge rat death in the middle of a sidewalk in front of a house next to MC Foods, a business that plays non-stop Christian pop. I almost step on the thing.

2) Again, I'm walking at dusk. Again, the clouds are magnificent. It's the 5th of May. This is now my street. These are my neighbors. Behind me is Alaska Street, and in front of me, and growing with every step I make through the twilight, is a mangled, mid-sized dead rat again in the middle of the sidewalk. Its mouth is open in a way that indicates a last word was attempted but never made. There are so many places for it to die here. What brought its end to this exact spot?

3) On May 10th, I spot a sizable rat death on the south sidewalk of Genesee Street. It's around noon. I'm heading to a shelter in Genesee Park that has become during this pretty dry May my office. The rat is on its back with its guts all open and obviously picked at by the indifferent crows. The shock of the sight sends me across the street.

4) On May 11th, I'm walking down the north sidewalk of Genesee Street to avoid the rat death I saw the day before. I'm again heading to the shelter in the park. I have it in mind to avoid that gutted rat. But not long after passing its position on the other sidewalk, I come across a dead rat on my sidewalk. It, too, is on its back. It, too, is eviscerated. And the very moment I notice it, its open-to-the-sky body detonates a cloud of well-fed flies.

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5) On May 23rd, this rat makes the violence of its death known on the sidewalk next to La Escuelita Bilingual School. The toddlers, waddlers, preschool walkers are taught primarily in Spanish there. The children who can walk at this school often visit the Rainier Playfield to run around, play games, and make the kind of noise that can even keep the crows away. (The noise of children is far better than that of crows.) The moment before seeing the dead rat, I saw a boy in one of the classrooms staring at me through a window. My eyes caught his eyes. But I was nothing more than a ghost passing in flickers a boy-mind that will have long lost any impression of me by the time it reaches its adult-mind in a future that finally sees a light rail station opening in faraway Ballard.

So, there is the evidence. Dead rats on sidewalks over a short period of time (under a month) and in an area that's only two square miles. What to make of this? Am I walking more in my neighborhood? Was the winter not hard enough on rodents? Or is there something attractive about bringing it all to an end on a sidewalk? Maybe the rats who make it to the road go unknown because the wheels of 4,000-pound cars soon squash them out of any appearance?

Because this sidewalk matter is too difficult to explain, I want to turn to something that is not: the presence of live rats in NYC subways and the complete absence of them (dead or alive) in Seattle's. How are we to understand this?


The reason why the subways of New York have so many rats is because they also have so many humans. And the more humans use a subway station, the more junk they leave in trash cans and also on the tracks. Seattle's subway stations, even the one at Capitol Hill, are pristine, despite being below a good number of restaurants. (Indeed, the escalators on the west part of the station rise up to the smell of curry.) There's really not enough for rats to eat down there, let alone something like a whole slice of pizza. But one day, Link will achieve the kind of high-capacity regularity that makes its train tracks a new niche for rats. In that future, which is hopefully not too far from us, we will look down and see from the platform a rodent dragging a Dick's burger.