In the City, Subway Circle of Life

A rat died in the DeKalb Avenue station on the L line about a week and a half ago. I know this because its corpse is still laying on the track bed, in the space in the middle, the one people dive into to save their lives if they’re on the tracks and a train is barreling down on them. Didn’t help the rat any.

It’s a big system, about 400 miles of track. Debris from the city piles up and makes its way down there. They have a big vacuum train, bought from the French, that is powerful enough to suck up mattresses, but leaves behind the gravel of the track bed. Subtlety and brute force combined to keep our subways clean, but they don’t run the thing through the system every night. The dead rat is testament that it hasn’t made its way to the DeKalb Avenue station on the L line in awhile.

I saw the vacuum car once. About five in the morning, after a long night slinging drinks on the Upper East Side. Slow night, not that many customers, not that much money. It was slow enough that I was willing to sit and wait for a late night train rather than spring fifteen bucks for a cab. Man, if you’ve ever been in the New York subway at five in the morning, you know that is the very definition of being tight for funds.

There was a great roar from the tunnel — deafening. I looked up and there was the great yellow beast, crawling along at four miles an hour, the biggest bastard vacuum I’d ever seen. I watched it creep and howl its way through the station. I breathed the air it kicked out of its dust filters. I coughed, and then it was gone. I looked down on to the tracks, and there was nothing left behind but that brown dust color from the brakes that covers everything down there. No bottles, newspapers, hats, scarves, paper plates, forks, knives, cans, basketballs, cigarette lighters, plastic bags, or shoes (singles, never a matching pair). So I know the French vacuum works, anyways.

Even the noise wasn’t all that bad. If you can picture a diesel locomotive combined with a Hoover you can picture the noise. The noise was nothing compared to the night I was in a station and the rail grinder went by. Just as slow as the French vacuum, except this thing was rubbing steel. The worst corner screech you could ever hear. No kidding around. It was a painful screech, too. All treble and no let up for about five minutes. I had to check and make sure my ears weren’t bleeding. Maybe that’s what got the rat.

So there the rat lay, anyway. Legs kicked up in the air, grey belly facing the ceiling, tail straight as a saber. I got curious about it. Not from any sort of morbidity or anything like that. I just wanted to know. In the greatest city in the world, the mythical melting pot brought to reality, the very seat of the United Nations, for crying out loud, how long would it take for the transit people to get rid of a dead thing on one of its tracks? We’re at nine or ten days, I forgot to count, and its still there. It has bloated, it has sagged, the wind from the trains has blown it here and there, but it remains. On top of that, it’s been dry lately, so dead rat began to take on a desiccated look. No sign of real rot, just a dried out husk. Until today. Today dead rat crossed the Rubicon, entered into the great circle of life, if you will. For today it rained, and rain drains onto subway tracks.

As I looked down on dead rat from the platform on high, I saw not the pristine grey mummy of the past week, but a mound of wet fur, with a tail, and crawling with maggots. They were big ones, too. Real boss maggots, at least an inch long. They were spreading all over the track bed, trying to climb out, but always rolling back towards dead rat. Ten days, maybe eleven, even, for the dead thing to sprout living things. What lesson do I take from this? What insight into the meaning of life, the unfortunate mortality of man, have I learned from watching this exposed hunk of dead flesh? But for a casket, there go I, and everyone I know and ever have known? Of course not. I’ve learned to lean back from the edge. I’ve had enough of looking down on subway tracks.