Fear on Four Legs

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The once aimless rats of the subway have organized — and their mission does not bode well for subway riders.
  Photo Credit: Jennifer H. Cunningham

Tommy had finished up his shift at the hospital and, as he always did, grabbed his backpack and hunkered down into the city night.

It was a short walk from Mount Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, to the downtown 6 train. At 2 a.m. the streets were quiet, except for the occasional ambulance bleating down the avenue and the honking of a waiting taxi. He scuttled past a construction site and walked east on 97th, looking down the Metro-North rail lines that disappear into the city’s belly.

He arrived at the downtown 6 and eyed the clocks: Standard wait times, the next train in six minutes, followed by 18 minutes. He flipped through an amNewYork he’d grabbed and stashed earlier in the day, mentally preparing for the trip south to the Lexington Ave-53rd stop where he would transfer to a Queens-bound E — sprint down the platform, up the steep escalators, through the glass-walled station, then race down the stairs and back up the escalators.

The platform was quiet. Usually a tired crooner or steel drummer was around for company, but this night was silent — the kind of eerie quiet that made your ears ring. Tommy was alone, nobody in sight except for the quartet of wildlife — rats — enjoying the buffet in the middle of the tracks. He looked back at the clock. Still six minutes. At least the service was consistently bad.

He stood there, flipping though his paper, chuckling at the story about the lack of funding for the underground transport. Finally his 6 arrived, nearly empty. A ghost train, as he liked to call them. In the early hours of the morning, he would occasionally land these oasis-on-wheels with no singers, no one pleading for his money.

He flopped onto the bench as the doors closed, and the announcer delivered an incomprehensible message that didn’t even sound like English. He just hoped that the train was making its usual stops. As the train pulled into the tunnel, he realized he wasn’t alone.

There was a rat.

No, make that two rats. Then three. Four. At first, they didn’t notice him. But one creature stopped, lifted its head and turned directly at him. The other followed in unison, standing at rapt attention. The biggest one inched toward him. He pulled his legs up onto the bench.

"Gross," he thought.

As a registered nurse, Tommy was well aware of the illnesses one could get from a rat. He tried to shoo away the big one, suddenly realizing the size of the specimen about the length and almost the girth of a football, with crooked, sharp whiskers and a kinked dead tail that trailed him by a foot. The rat climbed up to the facing bench and stared at Tommy. He wadded his newspaper and chucked it across the aisle, striking the dingy rodent squarely in the head. It didn’t move. Just blinked slowly. 

The commotion drew the other rats over, and he began to feel trapped. What he thought was four rats was now 10 rats. Grey ones, white ones, black ones. All entranced, peering directly into his eyes.

In a matter of seconds he was surrounded. The closest door was to his left. He darted and made the illegal transfer to the next car. Extenuating circumstances, he thought, got to get the hell out of there. The relief lasted but a moment, as he exhaled he sensed movement out of the corner of his eye. More rats. Lots of them, like a disease-ridden fog gliding across the floor, up onto the seats and rails, up the doors and onto the ceiling.  Tommy gasped and the sound of his drawn breath put 50 black eyes on him. The squeaking finally registered and instantly roared in his head, the grating chatter of gnashing mouths.

Another indecipherable announcement calls out from the speakers.

He ran through the car as fast as his terrified legs would take him, but the rats were moving faster. He made it to the end of the car and threw open the door as one latched onto to the hem of his pants. He flung his leg and sent the rat flying. Next car. They can’t all be infested, can they? He barged though the door. More rats. The door slammed shut behind him, as he realized he’d made it to the first car. The driver. Somebody is making this train roll along. Finally help.

Tommy took a big first step and grabbed the pole, swinging up to the bench, running down past the horde of rodents as they sprung off the ground like popcorn in a hot pan, swiping their claws at his shoelaces. As he neared the driver’s door he heard another announcement.

His stomach dropped.

This train, the speakers are working. Squeaking. Shrill. Incessant. It wasn’t English. This wasn’t his train.

He reached the door at the front of the train knocked on it. Banged. Punched. The handle slowly started turning down and the door creaked open.

On the chair. At the throttle. At the microphone.


They turned to look at him. He screamed and spun around, but he was trapped, facing a sea of thousands of four-legged freaks falling over each other to get at him.

A rat fell on Tommy’s head, then more on his shoulder. He felt the first bite on his back, then a second on his ankle, then on his thighs, his arms. He collapsed, writhing, as tiny talons swarmed him. His cries were quickly drowned by the high-pitch squeaking of the overhead announcement as the train rumbled into the night.


Scott A. Rosenberg is the senior editor at amNewYork and can be found being apologized to for the inconvenience on an E train.