Living in a dale called Bransdale on the North Yorkshire Moors we used to see a lot of wildlife. I had my studio in a room in our farmhouse that faced south and over the garden to an old stone wall, beyond which was a broad undulating expanse of moorland.
I got used to a daily parade of animals: pheasants, farm cats, hedgehogs, and rabbits during the daylight hours and foxes and the occasional badger at dusk and dawn. And when it got colder, fleet footed mice would dart under the sideboard on their way to the kitchen.
Outside, in the sky there were crows, and seagulls, hawks and a buzzard every now and then. Whilst on the domesticated side of things, our neighbours who were hill farmers, had their sheepdogs, chickens, pigs and cows.Then there were horses ridden by farmers’ daughters and Labradors and other dogs who’d brought their owners up from the towns and villages below for a bracing walk on the old stony tracks that criss-crossed the moor.
But of all the animals, by far the most numerous were the sheep, thousands of them. They were a hardy breed those sheep. They lived out in all weathers and all year round and populated the moors where they scratched holes in the earth banks to shelter from the worst of the North Easterly winds that scoured in from the North Sea, blowing the snow into huge white dunes.
In such hard winters, with their backs covered in snow, and looking like animated giant snowballs you’d see them scratching through the icy covering to find anything edible below. By early summer their fleeces would start to drop off naturally and then they looked the sorriest sights, all ragged and filthy arsed with their well-grown lambs still tugging on their teats.
Then, came the time of the big round-up, when all the moorland sheep that roamed free were collected and penned for their yearly short-back- sides and bellies. After which, they had a nice dip in something antiseptic and a general check-over for health before being set free for another year of doing not much but chewing and having lambs.
The worst thing about sheep, I always thought (mainly because I talked to them) was just how dumb they seemed to be, and poor conversationalists. But perhaps they wouldn’t seem like that to another sheep. Still I suppose they didn’t have to worry about paying the rent or where their next meal was coming from, and they didn’t complain about the weather, didn’t have to, or worry about keeping a roof over their heads.
Actually, come to think about it sheep aren’t dumb after all.
When I moved to New York where I live now, amongst lots of other familiar things (like really good fish and chips and a decent pint), I said ‘bye bye’ to all the flora and fauna of the moorland and hello to an entirely new family of critters.
Kath, my wife, and I co-own two restaurants, one in the East Village of Manhattan (if you ever want to drop in, it’s called Life Café and it’s on the corner of 10th street and Avenue B) the other one is in Brooklyn in an area which was once intensely industrial, called Bushwick. Much of the former industrial properties have been taken over by landlords who’ve converted the mills and redundant factories to loft dwellings. These are inhabited today by thousands of artists, writers and musicians and the like, who make up the majority of our human patrons at our Bushwick café.
Like any restaurant in New York there are other, four-legged patrons, the ones you don’t want but invariably and inevitably get from time to time. I speak of course of the ubiquitous rat.
There are loads more rats in New York than people, a fact that’s not at all surprising when you see what a banquet a city like this is for them. There’s food everywhere, in the domestic waste bags that are put out three times a week on the streets (hard to believe but the covered plastic bin is not favoured by the residents or the bin-men) and by the nut-cases who throw grain and bread on the street to feed the pigeons, which like the rats grow fat and choosey. So often yesterdays’ bagels go untouched by the birds, leaving them there for their four legged counterparts.
And of course then there are the restaurants. Restaurant food waste goes out every night onto the streets in large black plastic bags and may sit there for hours. The bags, which are easily chewed into, are a veritable Deli for rats and other creatures, one reason being that American food portions are invariably huge, resulting in loads of food waste, not to mention what comes out of the kitchen every day and night.
I often wonder how, with so much to choose from, the rats decide where to dine ?
“What do you fancy tonight then Raymond,” said one rat to another.
“Not Mexican again Regina,” said the other rat as they looked down the street from the drain cover.
“How about a Greek something for a change dear, let’s try the one on the corner again?”
“No, I don’t like their chef. That last moussaka was way too greasy.”
“It’s alright after it’s gone off a bit. You’re too picky.” He was sensitive about his food.
“I know,” said Regina cheerily. “Lets just for a change try vegetarian. You know the place, along the sewer for about half a mile and turn left after the curry smell.”
“Oh all right then, but I am definitely not going green!” said Raymond.
Some Lower East Side rats fancy our food too. Now you won’t find many restaurateurs talking about rats, especially the ones that they see around their place, meaning outside in our case. But rats are a fact of life in New York; you keep them at bay, but you have to live knowing they are there, everywhere.
At the back of our restaurant in Manhattan is a charming little garden. A couple of years ago (and until I learned something about rats from an exterminator that I did not know) we had quite a few unwelcome guests who would appear like little furry forgotten Japanese soldiers peering out from the undergrowth whilst patrons slurped their margaritas a couple of feet away.
Now, pound to a penny, if this was a restaurant in North Yorkshire, a rat in a potted plant would be alarming, especially if you thought it was fancying your dessert. But in New York, to the locals, it’s not disturbing at all. They have pigeons in the street and on the window-sills of their apartments and rats in their basements – and the park and the subways. It’s just a fact of City life.
But then I witnessed something which prompted questions and my curiosity.
It was early summer and mild for the first time that year. We’d set up the garden for dinner that evening. I’d just fixed up the fairy lights and the placed looked so pretty, I was standing back thinking how arty I was when something caught my eye.
There in a corner of greenery, drinking from a little pool of water in a stone fountain base was the largest, toughest and meanest looking rat I have ever seen (then again, everybody who’s seen a rat here says it was the biggest rat they ever saw). He was just a few feet away from me and appeared to not have a care in the world.
I clapped my hands and shouted, but he didn’t shift, just kept on lapping up our pond. Well, I was affronted. Who the hell did he think he was ? Weren’t they supposed to be frightened of us?
So I looked around for something to chuck at it and got hold of an ice cube, a big chunk from an ice bucket, and threw it at him. It was dead on and bounced off the his hairy skull. It looked up. I could tell it was pissed off but surprisingly not alarmed and gave me the meanest look, as if to say, try that again pal and I’ll go and get the family.
I couldn’t believe it, he didn’t budge apart from giving me the rat version of the evil eye. Well that got me angry. Just at that moment I could hear a waiter talking to a customer about coming into the garden as they walked down the corridor. So I grabbed a handful of ice and threw it with all the force I could muster. Right on target again, but this time with about five large ice cubes. That scared him and almost knocked it off the pedestal. He took off and disappeared into the undergrowth, fortunately just as a nice couple, all dolled for a date, appeared in the doorway.
So, next time he called I asked Ron, our exterminator, why wasn’t the big rat afraid of me? The first thing he told me was that rats like most other creatures have to drink clean water. Who would have believed that? I thought they drank out of their local sewer. He said we’d been attracting the dirty little devils not because of the food, but because we had a source of clean drinking water in the fountain. Then I asked why hadn’t it run off when I’d first bopped it with the ice cube. He said that rats have very poor eye sight, so it would have felt and registered the blow to it’s skull but not seen that it had come from the arm of Dick Dead Eye! I told him it had given me a dirty look, he said it wouldn’t have been looking at me, just generally in the direction from which the pain had come.
So later that night, after the couple had finished their coffees, out went the fountain and with it out also went the rats!
Next time I’ll tell you about a much larger and much feistier unwelcome guest at our other restaurant.


John Sunderland

New York, United States

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