The young mother I sat across from in Central Park didn't look happy when a large rat scurried across the path. But her preschool-age daughter squealed with delight.
"Look," she said, "it's Mickey Mouse!"
Lately we have been bombarded with NYC vermin tales, as videos have gone viral showing a rat dragging a full slice of pizza down subway steps and a squirrel pulling a half-full milkshake from a garbage can and diving in.
Do we freak out watching these? Au contraire. We have even given them cute names: Pizza Rat! Milkshake Squirrel! Cheeseburger Pigeon! (OK, I made that last one up, but it's only a matter of time.)
Why do we delight so much in what others might view with distaste? Maybe it's a perverse pride of ownership. They're home-team vermin. Those living in rural areas have their deer, horses and rabbits. We have our pigeons, squirrels and rats.
"When I moved here from Westchester and saw my first city rat, I freaked out," confesses Victoria Unschuld, an NYC hypnotherapist. "Now when I see a rat, I take it in stride."
Unschuld's live-and-let-live attitude is typical of most New Yorkers -- but not all. While I'm not thrilled with those who feed pigeons in the park, what bothers me more are kids who chase and try to stomp the pigeons, while their parents sit idly by. It's no accident that some of these kids grow up to be serial killers, or hedge fund managers.
How can they be so cruel to these feathered and bushy-tailed neighbors? Squirrels will come right up while you snack, with a "Are you gonna eat the rest of that or what?" look in their beady eyes, while pigeons have their own cool, distinctive strut and soothing coo.
And please don't lecture me about how filthy they are and how they spread disease. They speak well of you. Yes, I talk to the animals -- what of it?
A visiting cousin recently saw two rats scurrying around the Herald Square station subway tracks and panicked. When I felt compelled to defend the rats, she looked at me as if I were crazy.
Hey, they might be vermin, but they're our vermin.
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.