Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sympathy for the Plague Rats

Stranger passing by, consider, for a moment, the plague rat. In the hold of a ship, gnawing on grain or bounding out onto a dock – weaving through odor rich streets or spinning a nest of fabric, straw, string, and dirt for its young – the plague rat carries death along with it wherever it goes. We curse the creature, calling it by its ancient name of 'vermin' and 'pestilence.' The bird masks of the physicians in the seventeenth century that astonish people today might well have been matched by rat masks for the undertakers.

My thoughts have turned to this animal for natural reasons. On the Monday after Christmas, I was at a fine restaurant to have a fine sandwich of meat and dairy and a beverage of sugar and emolument. As I went into the Splash Mountain-style switch back of the line (queue, for our stranger strangers), a family came in behind me. Pa, for that, I feel certain, was his name, wore a Metallica tour t-shirt emblazoned with “Kill 'Em All” on it. Ma was wearing a plain jeans and shirt combo. Jr. was sporting black hair dye, wallet chain, an open jacket, and a weight problem, while his younger brother, Trip, was fitter, more appropriately rock 'n roll. Sister had very effective makeup and bangles and t-shirt and showed her figure to great advantage while obscuring her features in an unmistakeable announcement that she was not 'pretty.' She was made up in the way that they call 'emo' – which is to say the thing that happened when punk cosmetics were stolen by the heavy metal kids and then stolen by the goth kids and then stolen by the heavy metal kids again. Junior is the focus of this story, though. Junior was a plague rat.

Pa may have had the t-shirt, but Junior had the power. Although he spoke with perfect politeness and effeminacy, Junior accomplished his goal by coughing at a rate of five to seven times a minute without ever once bringing a hand or arm up to block. He did not cover his mouth or even show a twitch of a muscle as if any part of his brain had any motor impulse toward covering the cough. He did not turn his face toward the ground, or away from people. He simply coughed, straight ahead, constantly, from his doughy face toward whatever surface was unlucky enough to be within three meters of him.

I pulled up the hood to my jacket. I turned away. I went to a different cashier. I sat away from them. I did what I could, even if it meant not getting to stare at Sis's body. I fell ill.

The next morning, I had a sore throat. The next day, I was coughing, and that night I nearly died. When I went to the doctor, he assumed, I think, that it was a boo-hoo cold, but, in fact, I had pneumonia. I had a good fever, and my breathing sounded like a hookah convention. (Hey! I'm Aqualung!)

Anyway, the word I used to describe Junior in my mind was “plague rat.” All during my illness (I'm a bit better, but I'm not healthy yet) the word stuck in my mind. It kept clicking, like a rock stuck in the tread of a sneaker, everywhere I went. I don't know how it is with you, Stranger, but when that happens to me, it usually means that I'm not done with the concept.

Oh, and it often means that Jungian synchronicity is going to happen.

Sure enough, the book I've been reading at lunch, At Home, by Bill Bryson, talked about the plague after I had fixated on my term. He made the point that the plague killed the rats right along with the people, and so it isn't as if the plague rats were getting out of the deal unscathed. Indeed, we think of the plague rat as a creature maliciously spreading a disease, but, in fact, it is an animal that spreads a disease by bumbling.

The two-legged sort of plague rat – our bulbous friend at the Burger King – is a fool. He is sick, knows that he is sick, and thinks of no consequences. The world stops outside of his flesh, apparently, or outside of the present moment. Thus, he wants to go, and so he goes, but covering a cough is not an active thought. Or he could be a malicious animal of a different sort than we usually think by just being as selfish as a toddler. It might be that he feels that his suffering is the only suffering of any note, that the rest should suffer with him, or that his hunger is more important than another's safety. Any one of these three would be wicked, but stupidly wicked, bestially wicked.

I think most plague rats, though, are fools, not egomaniacs. Consider the rat itself. If we want to find a wise rat, a rat with complicity, we need to look at the ship's rat that knows that the ship is sinking and manages to jump just in time. That's the clever rat. Odds are that the ship is out at sea and it won't make any difference, but at least the rat has escaped a certain death. The plague rat, on the other hand, has no foreknowledge, cannot read the weather, cannot see the fireships sailing alongside, cannot feel the creak in the wood, doesn't know the bilge is backing up, doesn't realize that the last flea bite was worse than the one before, doesn't notice that there are extra bumps on its arm pit and neck. The plague rat just gets sick and dies.

You see, that other rat – the swimmer – is incomprehensible to me. I feel less sympathy for it.

I moved to Manhattan in August, 2001. In a month, terrorists attacked. At the end of the year, my boss left her position to take another, sealing my doom in the job. The next year, as I prepared to leave, the power went out to the entire northeast of the U.S. I moved down to Baltimore that year and began working in a public school. The pay was good, but I started in August and, by October, there were whispers of crisis. By December, it was clear that the school system had a budget of -$130,000,000. The prior year's administration had written one hundred and five million dollars of bad checks. By January, all persons hired that year were laid off, which meant me. Private grants kept me employed through the term. At the start of the next school year, the principle, vice principle, and eighty percent of the administration had left, and I was unemployed. I moved down to where I am now, and things seemed alright. Last year, they eliminated 20% of the faculty.

The plague rat is leading a doomed existence, and its illness makes it seek a nest all the more. It thus nestles close to people most urgently, and its corpse's passengers flee. The ship's rat leaves just before the disaster strikes. I have never understood the ship's rat, and I'm beginning to feel more and more sympathy for the other fellow.

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