Rat On The Tracks

My wife, in addition to being wise and kind, is generally made of sterner stuff than I am. This serves us both well, but the contrast does serve to elucidate some important concepts from time to time.

Living as we do in New York City, subway rides and the occasional rat are both inevitable parts of our experience. It is not at all uncommon to be standing on a subway platform and to see a rodent or two scurrying about on the tracks before a train arrives. It’s not a ray of sunshine in anyone’s day, but isn’t particularly remarkable or traumatic when it happens.

For the first decade or so of our relationship, during those few moments when we were standing together on a subway platform and there was a rat on the tracks, I’d inevitably get an elbow in the ribs. “Hey, look.”


The impulse to point out a rat on the tracks is understandable; it’s a mildly noteworthy thing to observe, it’s kind of boring to kill time on a train platform, and some folks like to observe creepy-crawly things from a distance.

After years of this pattern, I came to see it differently. In this situation, the best case scenario was that I’d see a rat on the tracks, something that I don’t enjoy.

That is, if everything went exactly according to plan, and if everyone did their part, the net outcome would be at least one person being a little less comfortable than they were before. This was epiphany.

So, so often, we all are pointing out a rat on the tracks. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. It’s not saying “Maybe we can go shoo that rat away.” or “Let’s tell someone with powerful poisons that we’ll regret using!” or “Perhaps we can all sing Ben to it!”

My shorthand, then, for any course of action that will result in slightly less happiness if all goes as intended is “rat on the tracks”. Feel free to use the phrase as needed. And if you see a rat on the tracks, you don’t actually have to tell anybody.