The rat was on the bottom step of the escalator going down, scampering up just in time as the escalator kept moving, running on an endless treadmill. Joe and I were on our way out of the subway and at first I thought it was cute. I thought that even about the ones I saw scurrying across train tracks, but this one was especially small and harmless looking. But the escalator kept moving and the rat kept running up and couldn't keep pace. We have to help, I said, probably in an abnormal high pitched voice, the voice people used to address cute small animals tinged with concern.
There was a small crowd gathered around the escalator watching and marveling, none who expressed any worry. The mouse ran into the edge of the escalator and struggled, panickedly to get away. We have to help, we have to help, I said, but I couldn't think of anything to do. Joe pressed the emergency stop button. The escalator stopped, but the rat's tail was trapped within the metal spaces of the escalator. The people around us crept closer, some crouching down to snap photos on the iPhone.
The rat began to chew his own tail. We have to help, I said, growing hysterical, panicked. I wondered if we could just cut the tail off. I didn't want to hurt him. I heard comments from voices without faces around us--"Call 311. Instead of you fucking assholes standing there taking pictures." A woman's voice retorting a mean response. "You see homeless men on the street all the time and no one wants to help. You're concerned about a rat." And all the while people with their phones and their gasps and no one who tried to help. I started to cry. "We just have to get the escalator to run the other way," Joe said. He squeezed me tight.
We told a subway worker. We went to the woman at the subway booth. We went to the J. C. Penny, where the men in cheap suits looked at us, oblivious, unhelpful with confused replies while we insisted on speaking to a manager, someone who could help. They said to ask upstairs, at the city mall. There was a small group at the top of the escalator, too, peering down at the helpless rat. A subway worker came with a dustpan and a broom, the same one we spoke to earlier.
"Please don't hurt him," I begged, still crying, voice uncontrolled. He looked at me, "Are you crazy?" He said. "I have to kill that thing."
I cried no, no! Voices around us, snippets I heard--"You better get out of here." I wanted to get out of there. I didn't want to know what he would do to the rat. Joe tried to get me to stay. But I couldn't stand the thought of being there, of having to watch one more person scoop down to laugh and snap a picture. I wish I hadn't paused to watch the rat in the first place.
I pulled Joe toward another exit. We reached another set of escalators leading to the street. Joe looked down toward where the rat was trapped and I told him, "Don't." "It's still alive," Joe told me. But that didn't help.
I was delirious and crying, still. The tears had stained my glasses so that I couldn't see at all, and I walked with them held in my hand. He pulled me toward the direction of our destination and I didn't register the streets. The thought of the rat was so awful. I half sobbed half spoke. How could they just stand there and take pictures. No one even wanted to help. And the awful workers at the store, from the subway. It was the people most of all, the people who completely ignored that there was a living thing, suffering.
It wasn't really about the rat.
I realized that if I had really wanted to save its life I wouldn't have left. I could have screamed at the subway worker until he relented. We could have ran upstairs and found the manager of the Manhattan mall. I could have tried to pull out the rat's tail myself, a thought that passed through my head before. But I was scared. I was selfish and scared and it was too much and too awful.
What upset me so much was those people. That there, they were confronted with a pained creature, helpless, and instead of trying to help they heckled and found the source of a viral video. It seemed to wrap together and represent everything I despised about our society. When YouTube and Twitter replace human sympathy, when empty, ironic and mocking essays replace intelligent thought.
I wondered if the people who loved vintage things did it because they longed for the past, because they simply liked the aesthetic, or if it was possible that they did it out of an aversion for the present. To forget. I thought about deleting all my online profiles and blogs. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life with my fountain pens and paper. Secluded, safe. I never really thought that I was born in the wrong era, or could only like things that were old. But now I felt this immense disgust and hatred of the present. A despair.
I remember when I was trying to catch a flight leaving London in the snowstorm. I dragged two heavy suitcases through the sludgy snow to the tube, and then struggled to get on an overcrowded train. Again and again, trains passed and I didn't get on. I kept hoping the next one would be empty, the passengers sparse. I was guaranteed to be late to my flight. A vicious look from a woman on the last train I tried to get on broke me down. I cried, wretched sobs, hating myself, hating my luggage, hating the thought that I might be stuck. Those last few weeks of the semester I had so desperately looked forward to going home.
Then this old man next to me, in a funny fur muff hat and funny old clothes, who I had been watching before, who was reading a philisophy book, came to me and hugged me. A woman on the other side of me rubbed my shoulder and said soothing words. The old man took out a tissue and handed it to me. It made me cry more. He dragged my suitcase on to the next train. There, there, he said. I remember this so well.