On my doormat, a large, greasy-golden rat is curled as if sleeping, tucked into the corner where my apartment door meets the wall of the hallway. Her dark, shining eyes are open. I can’t tell if she’s dead or dying, alive enough to dart into my apartment, so I close the door quick. I can’t get out of my apartment without stepping over the rat and I have no intention of doing that. She gives me the shivers. In twenty-five years, I have never seen a rat inside the building and this weird intrusion concerns me as an indication of entropic breakdown in the system gone too far. When the exterminator comes for his monthly visit, he will tell me that, since the pandemic began, the rats of New York have been leaving the subterranean zone to venture upwards into buildings, into hallways and apartments, searching for food. This, he will say, is unusual behavior for a rat.
The building super has swept her away, but the memory of the rat clings to me. I feel infected, as if the rat is the virus, carrier of plague. I worry about fleas. About rats squeezing under the door. I buy a door sweep to cover the gap, but don’t install it, deciding that my fear is irrational, the gap isn’t big enough to admit a rat. For weeks, I will hesitate before opening my door, expecting to see her again, as though she might reappear as a ghost. Why am I gendering this rat as female? What does she represent? Rats come up from the basement, the underground, the chthonic mother-world with its earthy chaos of nature and instinct, the dark interior with all its symbolic vaginality. A fragment of the repressed, she dwells in the urban unconscious, yet here she is, high above ground where she does not belong. Out of order, she carries a piece of the city’s newly liberated disorder, which I appreciate but maybe not on my doorstep. Be careful what you wish for, people say, as if wishes had the power to make things happen.
It’s Jung who talks about chthonic mother-worlds, but I take Freud to Central Park, sit on a stone bench between Bethesda Fountain and the green-skinned lake, and read his account of the Rat Man, “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis,” 1909. In the case, the patient recalls hearing about a method of Chinese punishment in which a pot of rats is strapped to a criminal’s buttocks, forcing the rats to attempt escape by boring into the man’s anus. The horrifying image of the rat punishment stirred up the patient’s anal erotism, writes Freud, and the rat symbolized money, the penis, the greedy oral aggression of children. As a child, the Rat Man had been “a nasty, dirty little wretch, who was apt to bite people when he was in a rage.” Sex and aggression, the usual stuff, and the poor rat had to bear it all away. What does my rat hold for me? The return of the repressed. Right now, all of New York feels like that, the rejected, chaotic, sexual, aggressive city returning, pushing up from under the forces of repression. Look at that green skin on Central Park Lake—nature reclaiming her territory. Historically, chaos has been depicted as feminine, diffuse, messy, and untamed, witchy Mother Nature with her wild storms and dark, lawless forests (good old Hester Prynne), feared and dominated by the repressive order of masculinity. Is that why I call the rat “she”? We transsexuals tend to be haunted by our cast-off genders, the buried shapes of our old bodies. Maybe the rat represents my own chaotic feminine, the part I had to subdue in order to exist as a man within the limits of our binary world. But here she is, smashing windows and splashing graffiti, spilling over like a boiling pot, clambering up from the underworld to curl at my doorstep and say, “Don’t forget me.”
It’s only a coincidence that 2020 happens to be the year of the rat in the Chinese calendar. It’s only a coincidence that when I leave Central Park with Freud’s Rat Man in my bag, I bike past Scabby the Rat, the large inflatable rodent that trade unions park outside of buildings to protest the use of nonunion workers. This Scabby is special. She is wearing a mask to protect her from Covid-19. In the combination of rat and mask, chaos meets order and Scabby will not be penetrated by the lawless nature of the virus. While I am prone to make connections, I try not to make too much of this. Lying on Freud’s couch, the Rat Man quoted one of the Apophthegms and Interludes in Nietszche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “‘I did this,’ says my Memory. ‘I cannot have done this,’ says my Pride and remains inexorable. In the end—Memory yields.” However, the Rat Man insists, his memory has not yielded, though there is much he cannot recall. Is my rat a reminiscence, the sort that hysterics suffer from, a memory that cannot be remembered and so takes up residence in the body? For too long, I will feel the rat’s rattiness on my skin, the kind of itch you get when close to filth, invisible insects you know aren’t there but still you scratch.
Sign the Petition
As New York becomes feral again (for now, for how long nobody knows), I become aware of a wish for the return of Page, the woman who in the 1980s and ’90s used to stand at Astor Place and other corners around town shouting, “Sign the petition,” with the emphasis on the last syllable, so it went, “Sign the peti-SHUN!” The gruff melody of her mantra has stayed with me so that sometimes, unannounced, it will float into my consciousness and repeat; walking along the street, I’ll find myself whispering it, speaking it aloud, because it’s the kind of thing that presses for audible eruption. The petition that Page wanted people to sign had to do with ending pornography. She would set up a folding table on the sidewalk with signs that read PORN DEGRADES WOMEN and large, blown-up, hardcore photos, including one of a topless woman in rope bondage, her breasts crushed and swollen, and the famous Hustler cover of the woman gone headfirst into a meat grinder, nothing left of her but the lower half. All the images were visible to anyone passing by, including children, but no one back then made a fuss about it. This was New York.
Some years ago, I posted about Page on social media and commenters wrote in their memories of her. Laura recalled, “One of my friends once asked her where the money went and she snapped and said. ‘Go away, you doe-eyed bimbo, go home and get your beating.’” Danielle remembered: “Once I heard her scream at a male passerby, ‘Go home and beat your damned wife!’” Jessica worked for her, briefly, and recalled, “She had an ad in the Voice. She said she was going to pay $8 an hour. She had to train me to yell right. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t loud enough or mean enough.”
By the late 1990s, Page turned her efforts to the animal world. “I’m through with women,” she told The Observer in 1998. “I’m through with those ding-dongs! They dress like whores because they are whores!” She replaced the pornographic posters with pictures of homeless cats. The contents of the petition changed, but Page kept shouting at people to sign it. A commenter, Jamie, recalled asking her about this change. “I said, ‘Page, what happened to pornography?’ She looked at me ruefully and said in a voice laced with bitterness, ‘Bill Clinton got elected, that’s what happened.’”
People say Page headed for California soon after being brought up on fraud charges in New York. (One count of scheming to defraud in the second degree, two counts of fraudulently obtaining a signature, and two counts of fraudulent accosting. She moved to dismiss all counts.) Like many people who preferred the rougher, weirder city, I missed her when she left. She brought something untamed and shocking to the streets, and it made you feel more awake. If given the chance, however, not everyone would welcome her return. One anonymous commenter recounted a “horrible instance” during childhood in which Page “barked in my mother’s face on East 86th Street, telling her her husband was probably at home ‘screwing some whore’ while she was out with me.” Anonymous was “scared witless” by the episode and is not sanguine about this part of New York’s past. “Pardon my pretentiousness,” they continued, “but Milan Kundera was right when he said, ‘In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.’”
In the Murder Pavilion
In Central Park I go looking for the pavilion on the Lake where the Baby-Faced Butcher and her altar-boy boyfriend murdered and disemboweled a man in 1997. I stop first at one that probably isn’t the one, at a spot called Hernshead Cove. It is occupied by a man and a woman, seated more than six feet apart, so I assume they are strangers, engaged in a conversation about the future of New York now that it’s not the city it was six months ago. The man is maybe sixty, with a gray beard and large plugs in his stretched earlobes, some sort of aged punk. The woman is a typical Upper West Sider in her seventies, the sort of lefty, Jewish, silver-haired woman you used to see at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, taking in the latest Woody Allen film, before it was forced out of business. On the subject of New York’s future, they agree: Rents will go down and crime will rise.
“The New York of Charles Bronson,” the man says, referring to the criminal horrors of Death Wish, “is coming back. But the kids are going to come back, too, the artist kids, and they’re going to make something really fantastic here. Danger and risk are great when you’re young. Not so great when you’re in your sixties.” A large rat crawls out from the rocks by the shoreline and sits in a patch of shade beneath the woman’s bench as she talks about leaving, how she was considering Vermont, which is both bucolic and politically progressive, but then she read that cautionary tale in the West Side Rag this week about another Upper West Side woman who “did the unthinkable.” She gave up her rent-stabilized apartment to move to Vermont. “Clearly,” the woman said in the West Side Rag, “I was losing my mind. I had Covid brain.” Well, it didn’t work out. The woman became extremely bored. There were no people in Vermont, she said, and nothing to do. She got tired of drying her laundry outdoors on a bucolic clothesline and she missed Central Park—which, in my opinion, is better than any natural kind of nature because it’s surrounded by the city, so you can’t get lost or mauled by a bear, and you can always leave to get a slice of pizza.
While the conversation interests me, this is not the murder pavilion, so I move along, down the path through the wisteria arbor where a barber is giving Covid-safe outdoor haircuts and, further down, a man plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” on the erhu, the two-stringed Chinese violin. I find the right pavilion, gazebo, whatever, sure it’s the right one because it looks exactly like the crime-scene photo from 1997, the one where a young couple goes rowing by, sun on their faces, while a detective seals evidence into a Ziploc bag. I take a seat inside and try to imagine the murder, but it’s difficult because there’s a boy here, fishing with a fishing pole, informing me that the Lake is filled with bass, perch, catfish, and carp. The sunlight is soft with clouds and the air is temperate, everything green and blue, the surface of the Lake dotted with turtles. It’s hard to imagine teenagers gutting a man, filling his torso with stones, and sinking him into this dreamy water. When the boy leaves, a man comes, removes his shirt and shoes, and sits in the sun on the other side of the gazebo. I open a book, Vicky Osterweil’s In Defense of Looting, and the man asks what I’m reading. He’s white and boomer-age and I don’t want to get into an argument about looting, a subject that tends to trigger people, so I just say, “It’s about looting,” but the man surprises me when he replies, “Oh, some pro-capitalist argument against the radical redistribution of wealth in corporate America?” He’s a non-sectarian leftist, he tells me, and as I slip into my comfortable role of active, empathic listener, he tells me much more.
When he says he is being tortured by his neighbor, a young tech genius from “the generation created by corporate America to be autistic sociopaths,” I’m all ears. The neighbor makes strange noises that keep the man up at night. But it gets much worse, he says, do I really want to hear this? I do. I really do. I am fascinated by the New York story of being tortured by one’s neighbors. “Nobody believes me,” the man says, “but I’ll tell you.” The neighbor is watching him, he says, with tiny cameras and recording devices. The neighbor sends surveillance drones, disguised as insects, through holes in the man’s window screens. The neighbor is monitoring the man’s heartbeat. The neighbor has top-secret electromagnetic devices that can project holographic images through the walls and into the man’s apartment. I ask, “What kinds of images?” The man doesn’t say and I am left to imagine as, beyond the trees, the musician on the Chinese violin is playing the Love Theme from The Godfather over and over, after playing “Scarborough Fair” over and over, apparently the only two songs he knows. I tell the man that his situation with the neighbor sounds terrible, like torture. “It must be driving you crazy,” I say, instead of saying that he is crazy, which he probably hears enough already and doesn’t need to hear from me. He says he copes as best he can. He has a rent-stabilized lease, so he can’t leave. He just prays that the neighbor will move away. I am personally familiar with this prayer and begin to wonder if this non-sectarian leftist is actually the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, visiting me in this haunted place to point his spectral finger toward a vision of my own future in which I am driven to madness by a neighbor, convinced that the walls have become porous, the boundaries between inside and outside peppered with holes. It could happen to anyone.
“Only part of us is sane,” wrote Rebecca West. “Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness,” while “The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair…. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.”
If this scene in the murder pavilion were happening in a Dickens story, I would decide to change the future that this ghost reveals. I’d become the un-Scrooge, skipping through town, embracing my new neighbors, giving them a turkey, and generally embodying the so-called spirit of Christmas. But this is not a Dickens story and I am too interested in the “yeasty darkness” to let it go so easily. Beyond the trees, the Chinese violinist takes another lap around Scarborough Fair, and for the rest of the day, I will not be able to stop repeating, in my head, the list of herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.