The East River... an alligator throughway?

The East River... an alligator throughway?

My second interview with Rusty proved fruitful. His testimony confirmed my suspicions—there was and is several generations of gater lurking in the waters of the metropolis. What disturbs me is the water quality of the East River, especially at the latter half of the 19th century. It is quite polluted, and is actually dangerous to swim in, though now in 2009 it is much cleaner than ever before. What type of adaptations must these alligators have to be able to survive in such a habitat?

The alligator that injured Chester may still be alive, but Chester has long since passed. I could not investigate his tail to see if the bite marks are consistent with an alligator’s jaw and teeth. My supposition is that it must have been a relatively small alligator; a larger creature would have devoured Chester. Perhaps a more appropriate term is maim. You see, alligators perform what is known as a “death roll” on order to eat their prey. They tightly grip the prey by its body and use their powerful tails to swing that body around until bits of flesh are removed. Only a relatively small gator, even a baby, would have been able to remove a cat’s tail and leave the rest unharmed. The water in that area though moves quite rapidly, at about a speed of four knots. The alligator must be small but an incredibly strong swimmer.

The East River, where Rusty believes the alligator to have lived, connects Upper New York Bay on the south to Long Island Sound on the north. These gators would have a range of habitat then, from the boroughs of the city to Long Island. I decided that Manhattan would be the best center for this type of habitat for several reasons. Namely, the island is actually centrally located, has an intricate network of underground systems including the sewer, the subway, and the tunnels to and from the city that are tightly woven and interconnected, and most importantly, Manhattan is perhaps the only location where such a peripheral population could have gone unnoticed for almost a century.

I decided not to physically investigate the East River. It is too dangerous for swimmers to enter its waters (including scuba divers) because of the levels of toxicity and because of the speedy current. As an alternative, my crew prepared to enter the urban subterranean depths in search of the sewergater.

Residence: Brooklyn, NY

Incident Location: The Fulton Fish Market

Age: 42

Gender: Male

Occupation: Commercial Fisherman

Injury or Fatality: None

Other Witnesses: Unknown

BEGIN RECORDING

Captain Cousteau: Hello Rusty!  Thank you for meeting with me.  Please recount your sewergator encounter with as much detail as possible…

Rusty (refused to provide last name): In 1989, we sold our house in Queens and moved in with my wife’s parents in Brooklyn. We used the capital to purchase a 40-foot 1978 commercial fishing vessel. It had a fiberglass hull and a diesel engine and came from Nova Scotia. I was able to pay in full at the time of the purchase, picking it up for $13,500. I named my boat “Riot Ready.”

At that time, the Fulton Fish Market was in its historic location near the Brooklyn Bridge—above Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. In its original location, the Fulton market was one of the last, and most significant, of the great wholesale food markets on the East Coast. The market was already transitioning from a commercial dock to a truck depository. As a local, I was still able to dock and sell my haul directly to the market without a middleman. I would wake up at 4 a.m. and prepare the Riot for the Atlantic. On a good day, I would finish unloading at 3 p.m. While the Riot is not a factory ship, I use large nets and over the years I sought to harvest tuna, cod, salmon, shrimp, krill, lobster, squid, and crab from wild fisheries far out in the Atlantic Ocean.

After selling my load, I head home for dinner. My catch is then sold to restaurateurs and retailers who purchase fresh fish of every imaginable variety. Fulton prices are tracked and reported to the national government as the market distributes and buys fish to and from ports across New England.

New York is a city of rats, so on the waterfront we have a great need for cats. When the traffic dwindles and most people sleep the neighborhoods are swept by strays. The strays live a life drastically different from kept cats and often die from malnutrition, exposure or food poisoning. Part-time grocery store or restaurant cats were once used to keep rodents away. The number of kept commercial cats has diminished with the decline of small grocery stores and rise of supermarkets, along with more stringent health inspection guidelines. Flea ridden felines are no longer the go-to source for rat removal.

At the fish market the need for cats remains great, but not everyone believes their service outweighs their nuisance. Once, a longshoreman with a severe allergy tried to get rid of all the cats by poisoning their food supply. Within a day the rat infestation was out of control. They covered the crates and stole the workmen’s lunches. Finally, cats were recruited from surrounding neighborhoods, but even then a group of virile rats will sometimes manage to kill a cat. That’s why the cats refuse to sleep at the market. Fearing that the rats would overrun them, they retire behind dumpsters in abandoned alleyways.

The first summer after purchasing the Riot, I began feeding Chester. Cats are punctual and Chester kept track of my schedule and knew my weakness for orange tabbies. As a boy, I’d had an orange tabby named Rambler who I kept until I began fishing commercially as a crew member on a factory ship. I moved out of my father’s bi-level in New Jersey and got an apartment in the city. I saw Rambler on the weekends and always remembered to bring home a bag of catnip with a side of fresh tuna from Friday’s catch.

There’s nothing more depressing than old age in animals. It seems somehow wrong that Rambler, my childhood confidant, should have graying fur, sagging skin and old blind eyes. Rambler became more quiet, and coughed in his sleep and on one December day, while I was in Ft. Lauderdale with friends, Rambler died alone on my parent’s living room floor. My parents kept him in the outdoor refrigerator where they stockpile meat for family barbeques until I returned from vacation. We buried him in the backyard in a small cardboard box I’d taken from the market.

Chester looked a lot like Rambler. He had yet to acquire the cagy, expressionless, haunted look of the other felines of the waterfront. His face was still so full of expression, and I swear that cat had an uncanny sense of time. He was so punctual that a day never passed when Rambler wasn’t awaiting my arrival. When I adjusted my schedule for the 4th of July holiday, I worked a makeup Saturday and was surprised to find that Chester knew not to await my arrival on weekends, knowing that I didn’t work on those days.

That August the cat population once again began to decline. Supervisors questioned all of the longshoremen, but no one admitted to laying down the poison. They contacted the local shelter to see if they had increased their pickup in the area and found that the pickup had also declined. By September the rats had infested the market again.

Chester was thriving and no longer needed my assistance to pull in his dinner. He still awaited my arrival and I always paused to let him rub against my boots. I often scratched him behind the eats as he proudly displayed the large carcass of the rat he’d caught that day. He’d already slit the vermin down the belly and eaten its liver, but he always waited for my arrival to finish off his prey. Occasionally, his dinner was still alive upon my arrival, but always very near death. The rat would squeal as Chester pressed his paw into its broken ribcage. He would tap the rat to ensure that it was still alive. After it cried out in pain, he would pounce on it, tossing it in the air before once again securing it to the ground with sturdy grip on its tail. Before leaving I always congratulated Chester with a celebratory belly rub.

Every day Chester’s catch grew larger, while my load decreased. The market was having trouble maintaining its dock service with its continued rat problem. Crate carries quit and discussion of relocating to Hunt’s Point had already begun among the longshoremen. Pressure was building to redevelop the area due to the Market’s desirable location, high real estate value, and increasing financial problems. Moreover, the market was cramped and lacked modern amenities. More and more men in great shiny suits walked the docks, discussing the site’s potential for retail and residential use. And every day there were more rats.

–Sure, the Bronx market is technologically advanced. It offers climate control. But there’s something nostalgic about an old open-air fish market. There’s some value in hauling my load onto a dock where commercial fishing has gone on for more than a century. I particularly miss the urban legends.

At the time, the rumor began to circulate that the rat problem wasn’t really a rat problem at all. Alligators, although not commonly found along the northeast Atlantic shore, had been sighted in sewers and rivers around throughout the city for decades. The cats could have been killed by gators, which preyed on the felines’ curious nature. Dock cats weren’t afraid of the water and would follow rats running through debris that floated at the water’s edge. Old oil drums floated upside down and discarded lumber was stacked recklessly against the barricades. Hundreds of plastic bottles and soda cans created a thick layer that would sustain a cat’s weight as it bounded after his prey. Some cats misjudged the thickness, and getting too close to the edge of the debris, fell into the bath—an easy meal. But that was just the beginning. Eventually, the gators learned to stalk cats that came near the waterfront, lying in wait in a location the cat was likely to traverse.

The only problem with this theory was that no one actually saw an alligator, no substantiated report of any large reptile with teeth, scales, and large, muscular tails. Not a single confirmed account. Still, somehow every log that fell into the water looked more and more reptilian. The city grew wary of the waterfronts. I began to worry for Chester. He had become the top cat, King of the Docks, proudly presenting me with freshly killed rats nearly equal to himself in size. But even Chester, like the others, might one day disappear. I didn’t know whether the alligator theory was a real possibility, but it was one possibility I could do something about.

My wife and I had been married five years and she wanted to have a baby. Lucy hated cats. She came from a family of dog lovers and animatedly refused to allow a litter box in the house. “Real pets do their business in the bushes,” she said. Until I’d met Chester, I hadn’t even considered asking Lucy if we could acquire a pet. But, now, the conversation seemed inevitable.

I asked Lucy if she wanted to go out to dinner on Friday night and she agreed. I put on the dress shirt and slacks I wore to church and made a reservation at an expensive-looking restaurant in Little Italy. Lucy bought a new dress and seemed anxious. I hadn’t been this nervous since I’d asked her to marry me. Just before the check came I paused, leaned forward and placed my hand on hers.

“I want to adopt a cat,” I muttered.

Lucy retracted and pulled her hand from underneath mine. Before I realized what was happening Lucy had slapped me across the face and left the table. Everyone in the room was looking in my direction. The sting of her fingers on my cheek continued to burn as I rushed to the matradee’s stand and offered him a wad of bills from my wallet. I didn’t bother to count the money and only later realized that I must have spent over $300 on that meal, certainly the most expensive dinner we had and will have eaten in this city.

I followed her to the parking garage. She was pressing herself against the passenger door. I had the keys.

“I thought you were going to ask me to have a baby!” she shouted into the empty garage.

I couldn’t respond. I was standing directly in front of her and yet she continued to shout. I unlocked the car door without saying a word and she climbed in. The silence continued all the way home. The next morning we woke up and without finishing our discussion we continued as if nothing had happened.

I left early that morning, eager to get out of the house. I arrived at the market and finished unloading my catch early as well. Chester wasn’t waiting in his usual spot.

“I’m early,” I told myself. “He’ll be here soon.”

I tied the boat up and seated myself on a crate. It was October and the sun had begun setting earlier. As the shadows lengthened dozens of fur clad, bulbous lumps scampered in the growing darkness.

Thirty minutes passed with no sign of Chester.

An hour.

I walked to the end of the dock and counted the logs that looked like alligators. There were three that had a mild resemblance.

“What are you still doing here?” a supervisor shouted from the landing.

“Have you seen Chester?” I asked.

“That orange cat you like so much?”

“Yeah.”

The man looked confused. He didn’t seem to understand why I cared.

“He’s inside. Cat got into a bit of trouble today. Go check the locker room.”

I wanted to run, but hesitated while the supervisor was watching. My feet were light and I struggled to lay down heavy, slow steps. I swung the door to the locker room open, but didn’t see Chester. I stepped between two wooden benches and walked to the end of a row of lockers. At my feet was a small cardboard box, not unlike the box I’d used to bury Rambler.

I was devastated. I loathed the idea of looking inside. I sat down on the end of one of the benches and moved closer, pressing my ear against the cardboard. I quieted myself. The room was noiseless except for the hum of a distant motor. If Chester was alive I should be able to hear him rustling inside.

Finally, I gained the courage to peel back the cardboard and look inside. Chester looked up at me with a pleased grin as if to say, “You found me!” nestled in a tangle of shop rags and old towels. I reached inside so that I could give him a proper greeting. I pulled the towel away. It was stained with blood.

Despite the injury, Chester quickly popped up to say hello. I rubbed his head and neck and counted his legs—four—he still had four legs. And as I ran my fingers down his back he turned so that I could rub the crest of his spine. Then I noticed the damage. Chester’s tail was gone!

That was all the proof I needed. The Fulton fish market was overrun with alligators and Chester was coming home with me. I tucked him into the cardboard box and safely stowed it below deck.

That night, at Lucy’s suggestion, I slept on the couch with Chester. My punishment didn’t last long, as Lucy was soon pregnant. We had a baby girl in July.

END OF INTERVIEW

Photos of Incident Location:

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Photo of “Riot Ready” Commercial Fishing Vessel:

Fishing Boats

Photo of Sewergator Victim: Chester (Missing Tail Not Shown)

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The Alligator People _1959_

Possible images of Alligator/People Hybrids from the 1959 film “The Alligator People.”

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Alligator People

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Film Trailer:

Pop Culture

April 24, 2009

The Simpsons, Episode 80 – Marge in Chains

May 6, 1993

Bart: We flushed the gator down the toilet, but it got stuck halfway, and now we have to feed it.

Grandpa Simpson: I’ll bet you want a piece of me! Well, you ain’t gonna get it, see!

sewergator1

“Alligators were introduced to New York City’s subway system in the 1800s to combat the rat problem. The alligators eat the rats and all is well, except that the city regularly needs to pump out the alligator’s waste. This is one of the special trucks.”

From: http://www.kenrockwell.com

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“Alligators in the sewers form one of the most enduring and endearing urban legends known. Sadly, today’s sewergators are threatened by a diminishing supply of the gullibility so crucial to their survival. In response to this crisis, Sewergator Enterprises has joined forces with renowned folklorists to establish a refuge on the Internet, the only place in the world still capable of meeting the special needs of the sewergator population. Here, with your help, the subterranean saurians can flourish as never before.”

See: http://sewergator.com

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