'Serbs and the City: Rats', by Sofija Stefanovic

Bundy. Photograph by the author.

This is the second instalment in ‘Serbs and the City’, Sofija Stefanovic’s column about her experiences as a Serbian-Australian living ambivalently in New York. Read the first instalment, ‘This is a Mistake’.

So, New York is brimming, heaving, with rats. People throw rubbish into black bags and dump them on the streets, and the rodents help themselves. Squeaking, feasting rats are my nightmare and I am living it here in my new home.

I have a phobia. I’m pretty sure it started when I was twelve. My poor dad was dying of cancer and we had rats in our ceiling. I would have to climb the ladder, open the hatch, take down a bowl that had been emptied of poison pellets and fill it with new ones. Coincidentally, my dad was being poisoned by chemo himself at the time and he was dying in the next room. I started imagining dead rats falling on my head, I dreamt about them touching me and it made me sick. To me, rats equal death, and I do not want to die.

To me, rats equal death, and I do not want to die.

A phobia fills you with adrenalin and, like the mother who can lift a car to free her trapped child, seeing a rat gives me the ability to jump like an athlete. I saw one in Tokyo a few years ago, and I leapt backwards so powerfully that I knocked over three Gothic Lolitas and their clothed dog. Another time, I was working on a comedy show with some colleagues and a rat ran across the room. A rat in a space in which I’d been relaxed! A rat in a place where I ate food, had naps, wrote jokes! I started shaking and crying and my kind colleagues escorted me outside to play basketball for the rest of the day instead of working.

If you are going to tell me something like: ‘but rats are so much smaller than you’ or ‘they’re more scared of you than you are of them’, don’t bother, you jerk. A phobia is an irrational fear, so a rat’s actual size makes no difference to how big it is in my mind. Also, I can assure you New York rats are certainly less scared of me than I am of them, otherwise they would do something other than nonchalantly scoff old pretzels with their diseased little mouths as I walk by.

So, how to manage rats in my daily life? My boyfriend Michael good-naturedly puts up with my behaviours (jumping, freezing, gagging), but what about the people of New York, who I want to befriend? I imagine an editor from Vanity Fair wanting to publish me. We are walking down a narrow street, eating bagels, talking about the feature I am being commissioned to write. A rat runs towards us, I punch the editor in the face and leap over her lifeless body to get away.

A rat runs towards us, I punch the editor in the face and leap over her lifeless body to get away.

I was thinking of my New York-inappropriate phobia on the walk from the supermarket to our new apartment building, when I passed a woman intently addressing her Jack Russell in Serbian: piški sine, she said, which means, ‘pee, my son’. She was wearing a bizarre headpiece made of gourds. My people, I thought. Next, I passed a homeless man, who was masturbating under a blanket. When he saw me approach, he drew his hand out to wave ‘You like this!?’ he said, joyfully pointing to the blanket, under which his penis stood. ‘Like’ is a strong word, I thought, though I admitted to myself that if I had to spend the afternoon with this guy or a rat, I’d choose the jolly wanker in a heartbeat.

Coming home I passed Attila the Hungarian building superintendent as he tried to train his young golden retriever, Nick, not to jump on another neighbour’s dog. ‘He’s a crazy guy,’ Attila apologised, as Nick choked himself trying to paw at the puggle. Attila’s assistant Gabor looked on. Bundy the fat cat—also belonging to Attila—sat fatly removed atop the mailboxes.

Cut to two months later. Not much has changed, except that my dogs have been shipped over from Australia, and my friend Hanna is visiting and lazing about with me. I walk to the kitchen to get cheesecake and see a rodent run across the bench. In my own home. I scream blood-curdlingly and pull Hanna and the dogs into my bedroom, squashing Michael’s clothing along the bottom of the door, so the rat can’t squeeze under. I call Attila three times on his mobile and once on his home phone. I text him. Hanna takes the dogs to the kitchen to hunt the rodent. They misunderstand the task and sit politely, expecting treats. At the speed of sound, I run out of the apartment and down to the basement.

Attila is there, operating a loud machine that does something important for the building: he is in charge of maintenance for the whole apartment block. ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen!’ I scream. ‘There is a rat in my kitchen. I need you, Nick, Gabor, and Bundy on the sixth floor immediately.’ Despite his protective gear and helmet, Attila doesn’t scold me for trespassing on his workspace. Ignoring my high pitch, wild eyes, and the fact I’m in pajamas, he puts up one finger. ‘One: it’s a mouse, this building is rat-free’. He puts up another finger: ‘Two: that is too big team for this job,’ then he whistles, and—like magic—Bundy the fat cat appears, with Gabor the assistant behind him.

I am comforted by his thoroughness, and his belly, which I imagine is fat from rodents.

Bundy and Gabor come up to my flat, politely avoiding any comment on my shaking and rapid breathing. Hanna takes my useless dogs for a walk and I watch Bundy masterfully inspect every inch of the space, tail twitching. Gabor thinks the rat (or mouse) has gone back the way it came, and he plugs a hole behind the stove with some steel wool. I watch the fat cat as he serenely rubs himself on the couch, the books, my toothbrush. I am comforted by his thoroughness, and his belly, which I imagine is fat from rodents.

‘He leaves his smell.’ Gabor says. ‘It scares mice.’ My eyes fill with grateful tears, so I try to focus them again by looking at Gabor’s arm tattoo, which is symbolic: a bulging heart.

Gabor tells me I can keep Bundy overnight if I want, and he leaves. Gabor is a New Yorker, as are Attila, the woman with the gourd-hat, and the masturbating homeless man. I had been wondering how I’d fit in among New Yorkers with my phobia, but I realise now that I’m only a small fish in a very big pond of crazy. And looking at my hero with his twitching whiskers, I think I’ve found my new best friend.

Sofija Stefanovic now lives in New York. She writes investigative pieces, teaches, and is a faculty member of The School of Life Australia. She tweets at @sstefanovic.