Hello!  My name is Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

jacquescousteau11

I am a French naval officer, explorer, ecologist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studies the sea and all forms of life in water.

I recently read Robert Daley’s fascinating excursion under the sidewalks of New York, “The World Beneath the City” (1959).  Daley was born and educated in New York City and prior to becoming novelist, served as Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD).  One chapter, in particular, “Alligators in the Sewers” (pp. 187-194) was of particular interest to me.  I will recount this information as follows:

Robert Daley’s “The World Beneath the City” (1959)

Robert Daley's "The World Beneath the City" (1959)

ALLIGATORS, small boys and at least one horse have accidentally swum in the sewers of New York.  The boys and the horse seem not to have enjoyed the experience, but the alligators throve on it.

Sewer inspectors first reported seeing alligators about 1935, Teddy May being Superintendent at the time.  Neither May nor anyone else believed them.

“I says to myself,” May recalled, “them guys been drinking in there.’  He refused to approve reports mentioning alligators.  Instead, he set me to watch the sewer walkers to find out how they were obtaining whiskey down in the pipes, and where they hid it when off duty.

Before long Teddy’s checkers reported that there ways no evidence of clandestine booze below decks, but that inspectors were still claiming narrow escapes from alligators.

“I’ll go down there and prove to youse guys that there ain’t no alligators in my sewers,” rasped Teddy.

A chastened Teddy May returned to his office a few hours later.  Had he been a drinking man, he would have poured himself a stiff one.  He sat at this desk screwing his fists into his eyes, trying to forget the sight of alligators serenely paddling around his sewers.  The beam of his own flashlight had spotlighted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet.  Some may have been longer.  Avoiding the swift current of the trunk lines under major avenues, the beasts had wormed up the smaller pipes under less important neighborhoods, and there Teddy had found them.  The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.

Teddy could not comprehend how they had got there and, though he wouldn’t admit it, he did not know how to get rid of them.

Various sewer inspectors advanced their own theories about the origin of the anachronistic reptiles.  The most plausible was this: During those years painted turtles had become a fad among youngsters, and nearly every boy or girl had a bowl or tank in their house containing a “collection.”

Because turtles sold so well, dealers began to import their distant cousins, lizards, salamanders and even alligators, riding the fad for all it was worth.  Now turtles, lizards and salamanders do not grow much and, handled roughly by children, die rather easily.  But the recently hatched alligators, shipped up from Florida in tiny perforated boxes, grew and grew and grew until the bowls and tanks which contained them were too small.  At Junior’s insistence, the residence of the friendly ‘gator was thereupon transferred to the family bathtub, only the gator wasn’t too friendly any more and Dad had grown extremely nervous about lifting him out every time anyone wanted to bathe.  Also, those were depression times and the voracious appetites of the beasts became a bit nerveracking too.

As the days passed, Father grew madder and madder.  Junior’s tears would not be able to save his pet much longer.

Finally the breaking point came.  Either the alligator went, or Father went.

Having reached this decision, a new problem arose.  How does one kill a two-foot alligator–you can’t stuff a live one in a garbage can.  Various ways were considered and, in most cases, discarded.  Poison was difficult to obtain, expensive, and a risk with children in the house.  Besides, who would hold Junior while a wad of strychnine was rammed down the throat of his “friend.”

No one wanted to use a knife on the beast.  Merely to touch it was repulsive to most parents, who hardly relished the prospect of sawing through that armor.

So parents adopted the easiest way.  One night after Junior was in bed, Father rushed into the bathroom, grabbed the alligator by the tail and, teeth bared insanely now, darted out into the street, straight for the corner sewer.  His strength increased tenfold by the emotion of the moment, Dad dug two fingers under the manhole cover and whipped it aside.  With a plop, the alligator disappeared.

Dad’s feeling of release, as he walked back to the house, was ecstatic.  He hated alligator, so he thought, was gone forever.

Within a day or two of admitting that there really were alligators in the sewers, Teddy May was able to face the problem of eliminating them.

A few months later they were gone.  Some succumbed to rat poison.  Others were harassed by sewer inspectors into swimming into the trunk mains, where the Niagara-like current washed them out to sea.  Some were drowned when blockages filled their secluded pipes with backwash–to the very top.  And a few were hunted down by inspectors with .22 rifles and pistols–not as part of the job, but for sport–possibly the most unusual hunting on earth, a veritable sewer safari.

… I, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, will begin my search for the surviving sewergators.  Please join me on this journey beneath the city of New York.

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