Crude and coarse though Teddy may have been, the sewergator legend wouldn't be what
it is today without the help of his unique imagination. We hope he's happily spitting
tobacco juice in that Great Catch Basin in the sky.
Teddy May was a little man, not much over five feet two. His voice was loud and rasping, his speech picturesque and his grammar atrocious, but he knew every turn and joint of New York's 560 miles of sewers. The sewers were his domain, one he guarded jealously, and he reigned below ground like a king.
For his Napoleonesque manner he was unpopular with his men. "Chew-tobacco Teddy" they called him, though not to his face. Having only a few teeth, he chewed with his gums. He had no control over his right eyelid, either. It hung half shut like a broken shade. He got the bad eye one icy cold day in 1925 when a steam line broke. Teddy crawled in to fix it, the steam blowing off at three hundred degrees. When he climbed outside again the temperature was nine degrees and the change, said Teddy, paralyzed his right lid.
"Lost four days in fifty-one years on the job because of the eye," he once growled. "It closes up in the winter, but it never bothers me except when I chew tobacco on my right side and I miss and it hits my coat."
He was fond of giving salty speeches at union or political meetings, peppering the air with Teddy Mayisms. Linoleum, to Teddy was "rineoleum," and he sometimes spoke also of "sympathy" orchestras, "horowitzers," and of two men "getting between ya."
Another time, Teddy entered the office of a borough president, seeking raises for some of his men. The sewer man's plea was as graphic as it was ungrammatical, and when it was finished the Borough President remarked: "It's easy to see that you are a keen student of the English language."
The sarcasm was not lost on Teddy.
"I'll tell you who I am," he snapped. "I'm the guy who carries the cripples and old ladies down the fire escapes to the polls to vote to put bums like you in office. That's who I am."
-- Robert Daley,
The World Beneath the City (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959), Chapter 16, "King
of the Sewers"
-- John T. Flaherty, Chief, Division of Sewer Design, Bureau of Sewers, NYC Department of Environmental Protection (as quoted by Jan Harold Brunvand in Too Good to Be True [W.W. Norton and Co., 1999])
Note: With all due respect to Mr. Flaherty, we believe Alligator cloacensis to be the
proper taxonomic designation for the sewergator.
-- Robert Adamski, Director, Bureau of Waste Water Pollution Control, New York City
Department of Environmental Protection
(Personal communication, December 23, 1999)