NYC Health Department

The Democratic Pleasures of the NYC Health Department Rating System

This piece was first published in 2013. 


There is this whiskey bar around the corner from where we live. They sell oysters, too.  It’s the kind of place that mines a very specific vibe and mines it very well. Picture floor-to-ceiling windowed façades separated by tastefully stained strips of dark wood. Imagine low wisps of orange light ensconced in vaguely European fixtures—gracefully set above white candles in cute little vintage crystal holders—to create the kind of mystic glow that makes anybody’s face look both mysterious and more appealing. Beneath the 150-year-old Massachusetts barnwood beams, picture refugees priced out from more expensive zipcodes by their socioeconomic betters. Picture upwardly mobile hipsters. Picture white people.

My wife and I pass it every day on the way home from the C train after work. We imagine the place filling as the evening comes down and the conversations, the cigarettes, the talk of young creative people who have been liberated from fashioning things with their hands to better produce ideas with their minds. What wit! What interesting anecdotes!  Pour another drink! Try the Blue Label! We can hear their voices through the glass, blitzed with all the color and carefree whimsy of liberal arts graduates whose friendships are mostly based on the lubricating effects of alcohol. We marvel at the insouciance of those who do not have to worry about the children because they have been on birth control for the past twenty years, or else the Caribbean nanny is in tonight. I’ve just got a promotion! Another round on me!

If you detect a trace of jealousy, reader, I do not deny it. Another’s success, as terrible as it is to say, always invites dark thoughts in the secret places of the heart. Witnessing the enjoyment of something that one cannot have is a cruel burden to endure. It’s the reason I still feel the urge to knock lollipops and ice cream cones out of the hands of passing children on the street. On occasion, let it be said, I have indulged those urges. Better that none should have if I should do without. So goes the resentful logic of the heart.

It is true: I cannot afford whiskey.

But do not think me grotesque in my jealousy, reader. My wife tells me that envying the rich is one of the few remaining pleasures left to the poor. Do not take it from us.

And indeed, one of our paramount consolations came as of July 28, 2010, a date to kindle the democratic impulses lodged in the cockles of every equitable New Yorker, no matter how cynical or browbeaten. For debuting this day was the Health Department’s infamous A-B-C restaurant grading system, which cast a scarlet letter upon those unfortunate eateries whose stainless-steel sheen in front belied the dissipation behind the counter. Each letter grade, no matter how offending, must be placed prominently on the entrance to the establishment. Better still, the public penny paid for a searchable online database of all restaurants in the city, with detailed explanations for each grade given. It was like a beautiful dream: an open society, with transparent public information made readily available, empowering its citizens to be the rational economic actors the Republican party believes we all can be, and, as God intended, allowing the free market to determine the public’s standards of acceptable queasiness.

Cut to my wife and I, late September of the same year, making the usual tired trek home from work. More tired than usual, actually, as it had been pouring steadily all day—one of those days when the tops of the buildings are obscured in grey infinity. We had stopped under an awning to shake the flecks of water from our umbrellas when my wife gasped at something behind me and clawed at my shoulder. It was no Damascus moment, to be sure, but there were suddenly parting clouds, and rainclouds breaking into a hundred shafts of light, and crepuscular rays like the fingers of God through the dome of St. Peter’s. Turning around, with the skies upending and the light falling out and over everything, I saw the utilitarian font of the Health Department glowing like an icon.

The whiskey bar got a B.

The system was still so new that we didn’t know what it meant. But there was a sense of something momentous happening, an understanding before understanding, as though perhaps for once cosmic justice was to replace cosmic disappointment. We removed our shoes. We rushed home.

With surgical glee we dissected the account given on the website. The descriptions were frustratingly uniform, the result of an inspector punching in the code for a standardized comment, but gradually we came to see them as all the more tantalizing for what the bureaucracy of it did not say. There were limitless possibilities, entire worlds, in what was left unspoken.

Take, for example, the first violation: “Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” You could drive a truck through the gaping holes of ambiguity in that sentence. The inclusion of ‘live mice’ alone opens up the horrific possibility of the physical presence of rodents at the time of inspection, perhaps tumbling playfully in the flour or skittering among the pots, so unconstrained that even a jittery staff couldn’t keep them out of sight for the duration of an inspection. And think about ‘evidence of mice’—a coy phrase including, presumably, everything from the droppings of the animals to teeth marks to chewed holes in dry goods, to—God help us—the severed limbs of the creatures, dismembered accidentally in the closing of a door or a particularly vicious fight. Which raises the question—why are dead mice not even mentioned as a possibility? Is there another code altogether for dead mice? Or is a subtle philosophical point here emphasized by the Health Department, that a mouse may be simultaneously dead or alive, until the moment it is observed, like Schrödinger’s cat?

And consider that ‘and/or.’ A phrase as demanding of greater explanation as there ever was. Are they saying that mice—evidence or otherwise—were simply in the food areas, milling about underfoot? Or merely confined to the bathroom, an area more rigidly non-food than any other unless, perhaps, you are a dung beetle? Food or non-food areas—which is it? I think I am not alone in the presumption that a healthy amount of foot traffic depends on the careful resolution of this question. But there is a third possibility, too, like a spectre arising in the mind. There is the genuine and sobering possibility that perhaps ‘food’ is meant to remain on its own, decoupled from its adjectival pairing with ‘areas.’  Yes, live mice are in the food. Or else ‘evidence of mice’—attach whatever meaning you will—has made its way onto the serving plate itself, to be dished up to an unwitting public blissful in its ignorance.

Retaining all the ambiguity of the first while introducing fresh horrors, the second violation reads thusly: “Evidence of flying insects or live flying insects present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Again with the ‘evidences’ and the unfortunate conjunctives! But now imagine—flying insects! My God! Gnats I can forgive, some mosquitoes, even a moth or two fluttering against a light bulb at night—but what are we talking here? An infestation of grasshoppers? Flies? Flying—gasp!—cockroaches?  And surely ‘evidence’ in this case is more mentally redolent than mere mice droppings. What does it mean? Smashed bugs, limbs akimbo, mashed onto counters? The proverbial smoking gun of a hastily stashed and gummy flyswatter? Eggs, like grains of rice, deposited into foodstuffs or onto the inner lip of crockery?

But the coup de grâce of the inspection is the third violation: “Facility not vermin proof.  Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.” Vermin? Can it be…? Google tells me that vermin can include all types of small objectionable animals that are destructive or injurious to health—but, in its most common usage, the term refers specifically to rats. Rats! So it’s far worse than anyone feared. Once the purvey of subway tracks and sewers, the noxious conditions of eating and drinking establishments are luring the large rodents of New York City into their already-tiny acreages. There are rats in the whiskey bar.  This is several orders of magnitude beyond mere mice and arthropods. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Furthermore, what does ‘harborage’ mean? And where have you heard—or will ever hear again—that phrase in the 21st century? But more to the point, what does ‘harborage’ really tell us, besides the evident use of an outdated thesaurus within the Health Department?

The implication is that someone at the whiskey bar is actively promoting the interests of the rat population. Yes, the Health Department is trying to tell me that my local whiskey bar harbors rats, like they were the members of some kind of traitorous faction.  Someone in that establishment is waging an active campaign against his or her own species in preference for an alternative vision of reality, one which elevates the nonhuman to a place of special, even prime, importance. The conditions for some kind of rat army, an explosion of rodent society, are being nourished just around the corner.  Far worse than a union rat, or even a Communist, we have a Rattus norvegicus sympathizer in our midst.

I know. I was shocked too. What possible motivation could the proprietor have? But, then, ideology has never needed reasons, has it? The illusions of a fevered mind are enough. The vain reaching for transcendence furnished, if only temporarily, by the seductions of a totalizing narrative. The feeling of being part of something greater.

And all this attached to that single letter B at the whiskey bar we pass every day.

Imagine our glee. My wife and I held each other and made love vigorously. There is justice in the universe, after all! With shivers, we whispered to each other in the filtered light beneath the sheets of the bed. All those Junior Manhattanites—those monstrously poor sufferers of the peculiar cognitive dissonance that ensnares persons desperately proud to have moved to Brooklyn three years ago but who would move to SoHo if they could afford it—frequenting a place of infestation! Rat tails disappearing like slurped spaghetti into the bloated, corpuscular lips of the rich! Insane laughter over dram after dram of exorbitant spirits—joy so refined it is oblivious to mundane matters like floating rat turds! We made love again.

I say: do not think me jealous, reader. For the democratizing effects of the Health Department make us all equal before those vaunted letter grades. It is the great leveler, whereby even the very poor may lord it over the very moneyed. Taking in food— the voluntary insertion of foreign objects inside your body to be made part of your very flesh—is intimate in a way that few things are. Dysfunction there breeds dysfunction everywhere. Every valley high and every mountain low, indeed.

And so, when I close my eyes to sleep, and fancy myself able to hear the clinking of the glasses and the hearty cheers of the clean and well-dressed upper classes around the corner, I see an apocalyptic vision firing the inside of my eyelids. For I know a day is coming, and that right soon. My wife and I will rise late one night, past midnight. We will don our Sunday best. I will put one leg on at a time with great care into the void of my trousers. She will help me part my hair crisply so no strand is out of place. I will tie a bow into her fresh curls and zip her flowered dress. Our shoes, polished black as mica, will be new. We will have a moment together in silence before the mirror. And then we will leave.

The whiskey bar will be bright with its bacchanal festivities. No one will see us coming. Streaming in together at full speed, quick as thieves in the night, we will spread our hands to heaven with a shout. They will see our faces, radiant, beatific, like that of St. Stephen’s, and they will be afraid. We will relish their fear. Their surprise will invigorate us. Our fingers will splay and arch. And with one voice we will thunder to shake the foundations of the earth:

“Rats! Rats! All this time and you’ve been eating rats!”