Digested week: New York faces triple plague of rats, flies and racist mascots | Emma Brockes

Digested week: New York faces triple plague of rats, flies and racist mascots

Emma Brockes

While pest populations soar in the city, kids’ venue mascots face accusations of discrimination

Families attend Chuck E Cheese's Beach Party Bash in June 2021 in Florida.


There’s the heat, the smell, and the lingering risk of Covid, but the real menace of summer in New York City this year is the twin plague of rats and lantern flies. Let’s start with the rats. During early lockdown, the city’s rat population had to adapt to survive, as garbage-based food options dwindled. The rats of New York, never known for their modesty, became “more brazen”, as the New York Times put it this week – swaggering across the pavement in the middle of the day to grab at a rare piece of pizza. When restrictions ended, the brazenness remained and now the rat population is booming.

In the first four months of this year, the city received more calls to its rat hotline than at any time since records began –a reported 7,400 sightings. This is, of course, a fraction of the actual number of encounters between humans and rats, which occur every time a New Yorker steps out. My kids refer to the playground at the end of our street as “rat park”. We avoid entire blocks because they are literal rat runs. (Stroll east down 65th Street from West End Avenue at dusk and enjoy the sensation of rats scampering across your feet). The city has responded by inviting concerned citizens to attend something called Rat Academy, a free three-hour course on “rat management”. This does not include details on how to kill a rat. The advisory on lantern flies, meanwhile, is to murder on sight. The invasive species is so prevalent that their red and black corpses litter the pavement and build up in drifts at the side of the road. I’m too weedy to squish them, but my children, with the ferocity of native New Yorkers, have gone full Fury Road and are keeping a body count: 11 kills so far and counting.


The mascot for Chuck E Cheese, the original American kids’ arcade, is a grinning white mouse, but it could just as easily be a rat, an appropriate symbol for the vibe at these places – dim, squalid and guaranteed to bring on feelings of panic in every adult in the place. This week, the franchise became an even less desirable hang-out in the wake of accusations of discrimination.

The allegedly racist Chuck E Cheese mascot appeared at an outlet in Wayne, New Jersey, where video captured someone dressed in the mouse costume high-fiving a bunch of white kids while walking past a two-year-old black child. (The company was “saddened” by this on the basis that the customers had “a less than perfect experience” but declined to discuss what might have happened and why).

The incident followed hard on the heels of a lawsuit targeting Sesame Place, a theme park in Pennsylvania. According to the filing, Sesame Street mascots ignored a five-year-old black girl, just as video from the same venue surfaced showing Rosita, the turquoise muppet, apparently cold-shouldering several black kids. (Sesame Place apologised to the family and said it was “devastated about the misunderstanding”). All of which falls firmly, and grimly, in the tradition of the delinquent mascots of Times Square, where Elmo the hustler, Cookie Monster the stalker and Minnie Mouse the persistent offender have been causing trouble for years.


The list of qualifying tax deductions in the US is famously more liberal than in Europe, with the US government allowing, for example, on-the-books babysitting, pet expenses (if your cat catches mice in your place of business) and the interest on primary mortgages to come off your tax return. This week, however, the state of Georgia took this principle to new absurdist heights by ruling, in the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade, that from 20 July taxpayers could list a foetus with a detectable heartbeat as a dependent on their tax return.

Heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks; the rate of miscarriage in the US is 15%; the value of the tax deduction is a hefty $3,000 off your gross income. You can see where this is heading. Not content with involving the police and the criminal justice system in a woman’s pregnancy and potential miscarriage, let’s welcome the auditors of the IRS as they scrub in!

The move by Georgia state legislators is a gesture designed, like so many others, to persuade voters that a bunch of cells is a person. And the tax thing may have some small effect. (In December 2014, I was offered two dates either side of the New Year for a semi-urgent c-section for my twins. “I’d take the first and bank this year’s $6000 deduction,” said the consultant, half-jokingly. I took the first).

Evidence this week from the polling booth, however, suggests Americans aren’t that persuadable. In Kansas, a state only marginally less conservative than Georgia, residents voted overwhelmingly against a constitutional amendment that would have permitted state legislators to restrict or ban abortion. A whopping 59% of voters rejected the amendment and turnout was double that of the last state primary in 2018. With something like hope, all eyes swivelled towards November and the midterms.


Our summer bucket list takes us to Luna Park on Thursday, the theme park in Coney Island where there are no mascots but plenty of other provocations. Wrist-banded entrance fees don’t cover the coconut shy-type games where you compete to win large furry prizes. “It’s all rigged,” I mutter bitterly, but drop another $15 on 3 balls to take out the pyramid of cans. How close I came on the last try; how under utilised my amazing and long dormant jock skills are; how desperately I want to win. On the fourth try, I do it and scream louder in triumph than my seven-year-olds. We take home a giant, stuffed sloth the size of an airship, which needs its own seat on the subway and cost more in tickets than anything we could have gone out and bought. Oh, but the unparalleled joy of sporting victory.


Gertrude “Gertie” Ederle would’ve understood. When we visit our local pool, her photo looms large in reception in a facility bearing her name. Gertrude was born in my neighbourhood over a century ago and, improbably for a child of German immigrants to upper Manhattan, became the first woman to swim the Channel. In August 1926, she swam from France to England in 14 hours and 34 minutes, with her sister and father shouting encouragement from the boat. On returning to the US, she became the first female recipient of a ticker-tape parade in New York, a cheerful corrective to her reception in England. Standing on the beach, awaiting her arrival when she staggered out of the water after her historic swim, stood a man from UK immigration control. He asked to see the 19-year-old’s passport.