The number one nightmare scenario of every New Yorker: coming into close physical contact with rattus norvegicus, or the typical city street and sewer rat.
Now imagine being attacked by a horde of these greasy creatures. That’s what actually happened to one woman while heading to her car parked on a street near city hall, where an empty lot that once held a tavern was now home to hundreds of rats.
It happened in the summer of 1979, during a tugboat strike that left trash and garbage rotting on city streets.
At about 9 p.m., a woman described by witnesses as being in her 30s was walking on Ann Street near Theatre Alley (above), south of City Hall.
“Judging from the various accounts, she seems to have been approached by the rats as she was walking toward her car,” wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.
“She also seems to have noticed the rats coming near her, their paws skittering on the street. Witnesses said the rats swarmed around the woman. One climbed her leg and appeared to bite her.”
The woman understandably began screaming; a man tried to help her by waving his jacket in front of the rats, but unafraid, they simply climbed up the coat.
The hysterical woman finally made it to her car and closed the door, with the rats climbing all over it.
When police arrived, “the rats were still there, scurrying through the streets and into Theatre Alley and into nests on a lot on Ann Street around the corner,” wrote Sullivan.
The unnamed victim of the rat attack was reported to city papers the next day. New Yorkers accustomed to living among rats shuddered.
Only the police doubted the story because nobody went to a hospital within 50 miles of the city for injuries consistent with a rat attack, wrote Jerry Langton in Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Sullivan’s book and newspaper accounts. however, take the story to be true.
[Third photo: garbage strike in a pre-gentrification New York City; NY Times; fourth photo: Theatre Alley in grittier days in 1999; NYPL/Dylan Stone]