La Peste! They are the media darlings of the moment. Cameras hunt them, people point and screech when they think they spot them but so far these notorious New Yorkers have pretty well succeeded at preserving their privacy. True, there have been sightings of them in posh uptown co-ops, in Lower East Side artists' studios, the best Tribeca restaurants, and, this week, at the picturesque children's "Hippo" playground in Riverside Park - but no one knows for sure when and where they will turn up; their itinerary, if one exists, is unpublished. They are not Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her Camelot-descended groom; they are rats: both the snarling, bilgy black "sewer" variety, and the sleek grey "Norway" kind, nearly two feet long from tip of whiffling, yellow-fanged pointy snout, to end of coiling, snaky tail.

The seeds of the rat renaissance were planted last year, when New York's Bureau of Pest Control decided to stop routinely baiting catch basins and sewers. Growth picked up early this year when blizzards delayed the spring poisoning rounds, and so, after a long, mild summer, this autumn has reaped a bumper crop of vermin. Made vigorous by the snappy October air, rats may be seen frisking in places where rents would imply that not even a mouse would dare show a whisker.

Jamie Kay lives in a scenic Brooklyn brownstone. She woke one day to the sound of a ghoulish, graveyard scritching. She looked out her window: "I saw this huge rat saunter up our front steps." Kay screamed, then called an exterminator. "I hate rats," she says. "They're so ... indestructible." As Kay stood outside her front door waiting for the exterminators, she had a funny feeling and turned around. "There was this rat, as big as a cat, basking in the midday sun." The exterminator - who looked, Kay says, "like a caricature of a person who hunts rodents for a living", arrived. He lifted up an immense grating leading into the cellar, and crowed with wonder. "He said 'Joey, commere, you're not gonna believe the size of this ratshit,' " Kay recalls. He told Kay to cement the basement and brick up the grate, or move out. When she protested that she had stopped up the rat holes with steel wool, plaster, and tin, Ben shook his head. "Honey, that's not stopping this one,it's like a hot knife through butter." Kay moved.

But for New Yorkers who can't move, the fear persists; what if that thing in the pipes darts up and takes a bite, what if that furry animal that comes bounding across your picnic cloth in Central Park is no squirrel; and what are the early symptoms of plague, anyhow? (And can we protect the Bessette-Kennedys from it?)