Rats – their very name evokes shock and paranoia. Particularly if you were living in Sydney circa 1900, when the dreaded bubonic plague arrived in a protracted series of deadly outbreaks. The nasty rodents were blamed for spreading the disease via fleas to humans, and the city employed dozens of rat catchers to combat their onslaught.
Remarkably, these days the City of Sydney Council employs only one ‘pest control officer’ and spends a paltry $72,000 annually in keeping the cunning rodents at bay. Whilst the risk of an epidemic is minimal, rats are apparently running riot in a number of locations, including Wynyard Park and Hyde Park.
As offensive as it may seem to some folk, the fact is that all the great cities of the world have rats and in many ways we are better for their presence – particular when it comes to the rich repository of urban humour. Take New York for example, where David Letterman cracked hundreds of jokes during his lengthy career about the city’s rat and mouse problem. When a mouse was spotted chomping down in the window of a Dunkin’ Donuts store, Letterman quipped: “It’s so cold the rat on my doughnut just froze.”
Here in Sydney we have fond memories of the arthouse Roma Cinema in George Street, built directly above the city’s underground train tunnels. It was not the subterranean rumble of the red rattlers that disturbed moviegoers, but the rats that roamed the aisles in search of tasty candy bar morsels. One such rat was so daring and dextrous that he became a favourite of regular patrons. Known to all as ‘Jaffa Boy’, the massive rodent would actually chase Jaffas down the aisles, pursuing the rolling red balls with an almost addictive fervour. Once he had captured the Jaffa, with all the footwork of a mini Diego Maradona, he would crack it apart, devouring the sweet chocolate center in a frenzied display of manic gnawing.
Rumour has it he met his maker during a screening of The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, perhaps the same night one enthusiastic punter propelled a beer can straight through the screen. The story goes that he attempted to swallow the Jaffa whole – it lodged in his throat, causing instant suffocation and he was found legs up the next morning by a visibly disconsolate cleaner.
It wasn’t the first time rats had featured in a Sydney cinema experience, and some years later the Mandolin Cinema in Elizabeth Street ran a session of Andy Milligan’s B-grade shocker The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! As an enticement for punters, there was a free rat for anybody game enough to take up the offer on leaving the cinema. Many did, and for weeks after movie goers from that screening were spotted walking down Oxford Street and the like, with their white laboratory rats clinging to their shoulders.
Let’s face it, the plague aside, rats get a really bad name. But don’t tell us it’s not a gratuitous thrill when a big grey brute slithers through your feet whilst you are waiting for a bus in Carrington Street or strolling casually through Hyde Park at night. After all, it’s we grubby humans, with all our discarded filth and garbage that supply these devious critters with all they can eat. R.I.P. ‘Jaffa Boy’!
By Coffin Ed, Jay Katz and Miss Death