The animal was clearly dying, and that’s the last thing I expected to see.
I was at the 7th Avenue stop of the Q train in Brooklyn, on my way to Manhattan. The weather was good that day, the station mild and pleasant and almost entirely deserted, probably because a train had passed through recently.
My Q train strategy: walk to the front of the platform (more chance for a seat there). So I’m heading in that direction about thirty feet from the end, and then I see something moving on the concrete before me, something small and definitely ugly and yet clearly alive, about the size of a grown man’s hand. I stop dead. What gives the moment its strangeness is that at first I can’t tell what it is. (I think: a bird, a squirrel, a rat—in the subway, naturally you think: rat.) A living thing is here where it shouldn’t be, not down in the tracks, but here where we wait for the train, and what I feel then is the very specific fear of contamination.
My first reaction is to back away, but I’m also curious, and so I step forward cautiously. And then I know: it’s a rat, after all—but so thin and desiccated as to be hardly recognizable, its coat sparse, patches of livid pink showing through, bleak eyes staring, dark and empty.
It’s trying to walk but keeps listing badly to one side.
I suppose it’s an odd thing to say, but until this moment, I’ve never considered what it must be like for a rat to face death—not abstractly, that is, but actually. And yet here it is, the dying animal’s eyes somehow alert (and yet still lusterless and empty) with something like puzzlement. And I understand that what I’m witnessing is the animal response to the intransigence and failure of the body.
And so here I stand, trying to decide whether I need to do anything—report this to the stationmaster? But what would he do? More people are gathering on the platform. I sense them behind me, and glance quickly back in that surreptitious manner of the subway. I have the feeling that everybody is aware of the animal lying there just beyond me, but they’re also trying to ignore it.
But now someone else has come closer. I turn my head (again, that quick, hooded look)—and see a woman perhaps in her late thirties. She has that somewhat pinched or strained appearance of people who have been in the city a long time, perhaps living alone and working some unglamorous job steadily and punctually. (It’s just a feeling I have—for all I know she may be a glamorous but dressed down magazine editor.) Then a moment unfolds between us, the urban ritual, in which two people consider whether to say something to one another and then decide not to.
We stand like that, watching the rat trying to drag itself off somewhere but unable to do so, while the rat watches us, or seems to, but without any real interest, its attention focused entirely on trying to make its awkward body function right.
At some point I become aware that the woman standing near me has opened her bag and is poking around inside it, and then I realize that she’s removed a small container. It’s transparent plastic, and so I see at once that it’s filled with dry cat food. Perhaps our eyes skip past one another’s again. But then she steps forward, closer to the rat—far closer than I would have dared to—and taps a few pellets of the cat food onto the concrete in front of the animal. She steps back to her former position. Our eyes may have met again, but again neither of us says anything. I have the feeling that almost everyone on the platform has noticed what she’s done. Then the grinding sound of a train enters the station, pushing a wind down the length of the tube. The rat begins to nibble on the dried pellets, but listlessly, as though it’s a purely mechanical reaction.
Then the train comes to a stop, the doors slide open, and everyone steps inside—the woman with the cat food has disappeared into another car. The doors slide shut, we’re sealed inside, and we begin to move, and then I catch one last glimpse of the rat with its little storehouse of food as the train enters the tunnel.