The Book Behind the Sewer-Alligator Legend
There was Teddy May, the colorful former superintendent of city sewers, working a mouthful of tobacco with what teeth he had left while spinning his implausible story.
And there with him was Robert Daley, the young writer, asking the questions that would give new life — and credibility — to one of the great legends of New York City.
“I says to myself them guys been drinking,” Mr. May began. “I’ll go down there,” he continued, “And prove to youse guys that there ain’t no alligators in my sewers.”
Edward P. May, former Superintendent of Sewers for New York City, took it upon himself to investigate claims of subterranean reptile activity.Arthur Brower/The New York Times Edward P. May, known as Teddy. Mr. May, the former superintendent of sewers, investigated claims of subterranean reptile activity.
That conversation on a Hell’s Kitchen stoop about whether giant reptiles patrolled the city sewers was made public 50 years ago in Mr. Daley’s 1959 book “The World Beneath the City.” The account took what had been a rumor propped up by a few isolated occurrences and helped transform it into one of those cherished facts about New York that don’t have to be true to be endlessly repeated.
That’s because, as he was saying, Mr. May decided to go down to sewers himself to determine whether there was anything other than an excess of whiskey behind his inspectors’ reports of narrow escapes from alligators. That startling description of what he found, given by the man affectionately known as the King of the Sewers and recounted by a journalist, was immortalized in “The World Beneath the City”:
Alligators serenely paddling around in his sewers. The beam of his own flashlight had spotlighted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet. Some may have been longer. Avoiding the swift current of the trunk lines under major avenues, the beasts had wormed up the smaller pipes under less important neighborhoods, and there Teddy had found them. The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.
The legend of alligators in the sewers — discarded pets that have grown large in the bowels of the city, the story goes — leans heavily on a widely cited three-page section of the book. (The city and the state no longer allow alligators or their near-relatives to be kept as pets.)
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