Tom Sierra, (in)famous for his street performer act with his pet rats, rakes in the dough
Upper West Side Who is that man in the black hat? It's Tom Sierra, otherwise known as Rat Man, a designation he has enjoyed for more than ten years.
Siera, former computer technician, former fork lift operator, is the Brooklyn-born, rat-crowned Pied Piper of Broadway. He lives on 28th Street in Manhattan now, and is the proud (foster) papa of "six in total" affectionate white rats. Only five of his friends were "hanging around" - quite literally - perched on his shoulders and atop his hat, on a recent day on the job. Inquiring about the whereabouts of number six, he said, "I have the carrier around the corner. There's a baby in there."
Noting how civilized the creatures appeared, we inquired about why the animals seemed so docile - and how Rat Man maintained their calm demeanor, especially in the face of New York noise and traffic. "Like any other animal." he said. "Everything is repetition with them."
"I get kids that are younger than two years old to hold them," Sierra said. "They will they eat out of the hands of children."
Assuring the squeamish (including me) that the rats are healthy when a member of the crowd called out "They don't have plague, do they?" Sierra informed onlookers that the rats have had both rabies and tetanus shots. "I don't have to get it for them, but I do."
No license or permit is needed for his appearances with the rodents, which qualify as street performance, Sierra said. "I entertain at children's parties and I'm a street performer at Times Square." On his belt hangs a 4 X 5 Tips-for-Pictures cash holder, inviting contributions.
What does it pay to be a city rat ringleader? "Different things. Some people give a dollar, some people give more," Sierra said. "On a good day, I collect anywhere from $400 and above."
Wondering if I had heard correctly, I repeated "$400?"
"And above," said Sierra.
"Yeah!" he repeated.
Some quick math proved that to come out to around $3,000 a week.
"So, you're making a $120,000 a year on this gig?" I calculated.
"Probably more," said the black-hatted rat master. "Probably more."
Plus, it's an all cash business, a fact Sierra doesn't mind sharing with the world at large. When questioned about his relationship to the IRS, and asked what he declares on his taxes, he simply replied, "Um, nothin.'"
Perched on Sierra's shoulders were four of his "co-performers." "From right to left, these guys are Poppy, Snuggles, Gizmo, Shrek and Freddie on top." Freddie is a blue rat - that is, after his masterful fur dye job is completed. Nothing here seems natural. Passers-by stopped and asked "can we pet 'em? Can we?" Sierra offered the a choice of furry friends, but kept Freddie out of it. Freddie stayed on top.
Caden Burke stopped to say "hello" to Sierra and the rats. Caden is a student at Midtown West middle school. With his mom's permission to handle the rats, Poppy came down Sierra's arm to greet the kid.
"I know that owning these rats - or cats - is a very big thing. It's very very popular," said Caden's mom, revealing that she was a former cat owner. "I used to dye their fur - a long time ago - like twenty years ago. I thought it was so pretty. One of my cats had a pink mohawk!"
After playing with Caden, Sierra and the rats mosied along down Broadway, perhaps on the way to their daily gig at Times Square. There, Rat Man may find himself in competition with a number of street mates roaming the Times Square area. Recent news stories have reported a violent Spiderman, an anti-Semitic Elmo, and some far more aggressive "mice" of the Disney variety, some of whom recently staged a protest against what they consider "hostile" treatment by the New York Police Department.
Judging by the crowds that flock to Sierra wherever he and his pack of rats wander, it doesn't seem like his popularity is in jeopardy.