Rats swim there. Eels have slithered about. Even a sturdy species of man known as the sewer prospector occasionally descends into manholes to sift the murky depths for coins and jewelry. Still, the hard-boiled May was startled when, he remembered years later, his inspectors reported sightings of a beast completely alien to New York and certainly to its forbidding underground: the alligator. "I says to myself, 'Them guys been drinking in there,'" May was quoted as saying in Robert Daley's 1959 book, "The World Beneath the City." An incredulous May then told his men, "I'll go down there and prove to youse guys that there ain't no alligators in my sewers."
But it was a "chastened" superintendent who returned hours later that day in 1935. "Had he been a drinking man, he would have poured himself a stiff one," Daley wrote. "He sat at his desk screwing his fists into his eyes, trying to forget the sight of alligators serenely paddling around in his sewers." The beam of May's flashlight had found alligator after alligator swimming and slithering as if they were in the Everglades.
"Avoiding the swift current of the trunk lines under major avenues, the beasts had wormed up the smaller pipes under less important avenues, and there Teddy had found them. The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world."
Daley's book was intended as fact, but the recollection of the 84-year-old May was immediately recognized as the product of an active imagination. Still, it succeeded in cementing and spreading the urban legend of the New York City sewer alligator. Like its distant relatives, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, the Sewer Gator now endures in a fuzzy place somewhere between the fiction and nonfiction aisles.
According to scientists, the idea that alligators can live and reproduce in New York's sewers is bunk. The water is too cold, the current too swift, the bacteria too plentiful. Yet, can anyone say he has examined every inch of the 6,437 miles of sewer piping under New York's 16 million feet to prove gators definitely are not among us?
ACCORDING TO the legend, New Yorkers purchased the alligators while vacationing in Florida, intending them as cute little pets for their apartments back home. When the animals grew too large and too menacing, they were summarily flushed down the toilet and into the sewer system, where they grew even larger by feasting on rats and raw sewage. After years of breeding in this dark, sunless world, blind and albino alligators eventually were produced.
Or so the story goes. Thomas Pynchon made the gators part of his 1961 novel, "V.," writing that "they moved big, blind, albino, all over the sewer system. Down there, God knew how many there were. Some had turned cannibal because in their neighborhood the rats had all been eaten, or had fled in terror." In John Sayles' 1981 horror-comedy "Alligator," the legend is transported to a generic Midwestern city: A baby gator flushed down the toilet pumps up to humongous proportions by dining for years on animal carcasses dumped into the sewers by a lab testing growth hormones.
Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are in some small way descendants of New York's underground reptiles. Last year, hoaxers affixed stickers to hundreds of manhole covers and sewer grates around the city: "Warning: Sewer lizard extermination in progress. Stay clear."
One reason the legend endures is that there really have been occasional sightings. On May 31, 1937, barge captain Ira Fisk was sunning himself on the deck of the Louie Ganz in the East River when he spotted a slimy green 4-foot gator swimming toward him from the Brooklyn shore. "The tropical visitor was clearly exhausted and seemed in no humor to fight," The New York Times reported. The good captain eventually caught the beast, slipping a rope around its "wildly waving forefeet."
Seven days later, passengers waiting at the Brooklyn Museum IRT stop fled screaming when a 2-foot alligator emerged from a refuse can. Officer Edward O'Keefe "pounced on the reptile and managed to keep out of range of the snapping jaws," while Patrolman James O'Connell "got a rope and lassoed the alligator's mouth," according to one report. Passengers told cops they had seen a man put a large bundle in the trash can just before the gator appeared.
The most celebrated incident occurred Feb. 9, 1935, when teenage boys shoveling snow into a manhole on E. 123rd St. by the Harlem River discovered an alligator trying to poke through the snow and ice. Their initial instinct was to help it. But when "the creature opened its jaw and snapped," the "boys jumped back" and "sympathy turned to enmity," according to The Times. "So the shovels that had been used to pile snow on the alligator's head were now about to rain blows upon it. The gator's tail swished about a few last times. Its jaws clashed weakly. But it was in no mood for a struggle after its icy incarnation. It died on the spot." Police speculated the gator had fallen overboard from a passing steamer.
THE CITY'S Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the sewer system, receives inquiries from around the world about the sewer alligator. Privately, DEP brass say it's ridiculous to think an alligator can live for any extended period in the system. But in their public comments, the agency's spokesmen often leave the door open to the possibility.
For it creates some intrigue and allure about the system, boosting the morale of
sewer workers, officials explain. The
DEP's house mascot is a sunglasses-sporting gator emerging from a manhole. The agency gives away
T-shirts featuring this gator along with the slogan, "The legend lives. ..." Old
Teddy May surely would smile at that.