Of Mice and Me
When I was in high school, I found a scared, glue-trapped mouse in the garage. I’d never seen such a thing, and tried to set the mouse free in the back yard, but getting it off the trap proved difficult. Eventually, I started flipping the trap back and forth, hoping the mouse would fall loose, but it just stuck to the trap. I flapped more vigorously until it finally flew off with a pained squeak, leaving behind the entirety of its skin and fur on the trap.
Years later, because karma comes back on the stupid more than the aware, I had a bit of a mouse problem in my second city apartment. My girlfriend at the time, a lifelong city girl, tried to ease my worries by saying that having a few mice was just another cost of living in the city, but I didn’t think that was it.
She only became convinced after we settled in to watch a movie one night, when, as soon as the lights went off, we could hear clinks and scurrying coming from the kitchen. Upon shining a flashlight on the counter, we saw three of the little buggers doing acrobatics on my dishes, at which point my girlfriend became firm in her insistence that I had to do something about the infestation. She went home and didn’t come over again for some time, which was something, because a 20-year-old girl had been murdered in her backyard not too long before that and she was justifiably terrified to sleep alone.
For years, the mice would come in from outdoors every fall. It would start with one, whose droppings I’d find on the counter, which meant I’d have to clear everything off and bleach the entire area, and then set traps in every possible high-traffic spot.
I also started a kill count on a dry erase board hanging on my fridge. The first year it climbed to ten hash marks, but the second year a young doctor moved into the apartment below me, and that fall mice casualties shot up to 30. I’d go a few days without a kill, and then two traps would snap minutes apart. I got home from Thanksgiving weekend at my parents only to find three dead mice and a shredded bag that had held a half-pound of almonds. And every time I found traces of them on the counters, I had to dismantle the entire system and decontaminate every surface. At the height of the rodent holocaust, I ran into the downstairs doctor, who agreed that our building had a bit of an issue.
“They hollowed out a loaf of bread on my counter,” he told me. “Strangest thing. I came home and it was just the crust left.”
I asked him what steps he was taking to kill them, and he informed me that he couldn’t do it.
“Aren’t you an ER doctor?”
“It’s not that. I just don’t have the heart. They’re innocent.” I asked him if he’d seen any cases of bubonic plague recently. He laughed, but I was only half-joking. I was tired of finding the poo-pellets and freaking out about disease.
When the next fall’s infestation started, I was prepared. I set a prodigious number of traps: Glue traps. Snap traps. Spring traps. I baited them with sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter and honey. If there were any mice in my apartment, they weren't long for this earth.
For a week, nothing. I came home to empty traps.
Then, on a Monday night, I heard the tell-tale snap from on top of the counter. They crawled up there through a space behind the oven. I turned on the light to see a big mother mouse trying to suck breath through a collapsed esophagus. It only took a minute.
On Tuesday night I came home to find the father in the same predicament. Stiff from his long day at the office.
And Wednesday night I found the kids. I turned on the kitchen light and heard the rustling of one of the glue trap boxes from the floor by the fridge. I hate the glue traps, because when you pick them up the mice squeak pure fear. It's second as guilt inspiration only to that sound dogs make when you step on them in the dark. And then there’s the question of how you dispose of them. Restaurant people I knew told me that they had their Mexican staff take the filled glue traps outside, turn them over, and stomp them with glee, like kids with bubble wrap. Nope. No existential crisis there. I couldn’t do that. Not yet, anyway. Every time I found a mouse in a glue trap, I thought of PETA protestors. It is cruel. It is vile. But I’d made it 35 years free from bubonic plague, and I partly credited glue traps.
I looked down at this box on that Wednesday night, loathe to move it, but it rattled on its own. I knew inside was a scared mouse that I didn't want to deal with. When I toed the box, I was surprised when two identical little heads popped out. The kids. It was the most adorable thing I'd seen in a while. I picked up the box and thankfully they didn't squeak. I put it in a plastic bag and thankfully they didn't squeak. I walked the bag outside to the dumpster, and that's when they started up, but I lifted the lid and dropped them in.
Even though I couldn’t kill them manually, I tied their traps in plastic bags, hoping they’d suffocate long before starving. Still, I’d have visions of cats getting into the dumpsters, doomed to walk the rest of their days with glue traps stuck to their paws and faces. I hated the traps and eventually found a different kind that was instantly lethal and reusable, and that’s the one I use to this day.
I’d feel better about everything if I just learned to live with a few mice. They’ve fought for their place in the world and they’ve earned it. How are they different from hamsters and gerbils? They were among the earliest mammals, one of the few creatures to survive the asteroid 65 million years ago. I should feel kinship with them rather than revulsion. I should thank them for evolving into me.
But, nope. Not there yet.
Claire and her Rat Friends
As I mentioned in the last chapter, a popular, beautiful, young waitress had been brutally raped and murdered in the alley behind my ex-girlfriend’s house, an event that both traumatized and enraged the neighborhood. There were nightly vigils in the alley for a week, where friends and neighbors gathered to remind each other that she had been a wonderful person, and that through their sorrow and honoring, the world was still a good place.
I, on the other hand, had been shocked into the determination to make the world a safer place in some small way, and joined the neighborhood Town Watch.
With the Town Watch, we formed a plaid footpath across the neighborhood three nights a week. We looked for crime and signs of crime, and took notes of who had security cameras so that we could create a database to share with police. After a few weeks of that, I found myself more aware of details I’d looked over before, and more willing to report them.
But we never found someone committing a crime. When that happens, the vigilant get bored and start seeing crimes in ordinary deviances.
Like the urine stench that came from a house three doors down from mine, which had broken first-floor windows that were filled with stacked newspapers. I’d always passed that house and assumed it was vacant except for some squatters, and didn’t pay any attention. But now that I was a Town Watch officer, it occurred to me that perhaps it was a drug den, filled with criminals just waiting to mug someone. As I walked by it one night on the way home from a meeting, the stink of urine was overpowering, and I decided to call a city hot-line to report the problem house.
“Thank you for reporting it,” said the bored-sounding operator. “We’ll have someone look into that.” I wasn’t convinced, but that’s as far as my Town Watch powers extended. Anything beyond the sidewalk was out of my jurisdiction.
A few weeks later I was discussing the property with Rick, an Albanian who ran a coffee shop on the corner.
“Oh, that’s just old Claire,” he said.
“Somebody actually lives there?”
“Yes. She’s old and can’t afford electricity or water. It smells like piss because she uses jars and dumps the jars on the street at night.”
“Oh. Oh my God.”
“I don’t understand how you Americans let that happen. In my country, old people are taken care of. Everything else may be shit, but old people are safe.” I didn’t have a response to that. “When Claire comes here, she just sits for hours reading the same page of a magazine. She doesn’t order anything, but I feel sorry for her and let her stay.”
“Oh, wait, that’s her? That lady—“
Suddenly I knew who she was. I only saw her once a month, coming from her front door to leave trash out, walking with a 90-degree hunch that didn’t enable her to look at anything but the sidewalk. She was a living ghost, her hair a mess, her clothes bleached by a thousand washes. She had scabs on exposed skin that I had attributed to old age on the one occasion I’d given her half a thought. She was the kind of reclusive old woman who makes neighborhood children believe in witches. I’d never put it together that she actually lived there.
“Yes. That is her.”
I felt bad for reporting her house. Yes, I wondered. Why do we allow that to happen in America?
With the coming of winter, the urine stink disappeared, and I assumed that summer’s heat exacerbated the smell while cold air cleared it out, like it does with the subways. The infrequency of Claire sightings meant that nobody noticed she hadn’t come out for a few months, and then one night I saw the flash of emergency lights coming through the window.
Outside were two police cars and an ambulance, blocking the street in front of Claire’s place. There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered outside, and I bundled up to go out and see what had happened.
When the paramedics wheeled her out on the gurney, there was nothing left. They hadn’t put her in a body bag, but had strapped a tarp over her, and from the looks of things, there was nothing underneath but bulges where her head and feet were.
Gossip and speculation commenced among the neighbors, but I didn’t learn the truth until I saw Rick at his coffee shop the next morning before work.
“The rats ate her,” he said with a heavy expression of gloom.
“She had rats. Hundreds of rats. They lived with her on the second floor. The third floor had no windows and it was full of pigeons. But the second floor was for the rats. She fed them. Then, I guess, she ran out of food.”
“Wait, they killed her?”
“The police didn’t know, but that’s what he thought. He said it had been too long, maybe two months, so they don’t know how she died.
They only know the rats ate everything.”
“Wait, where did the rats go when they were done?”
“They are still there. The police said he had never seen anything so terrible. They couldn’t walk through the first floor, all the garbage. The second floor was all rats, and the third floor was all pigeons.”
That trash was the stacks of newspapers and magazines I’d seen through the windows. That was the first time I’d heard of hoarding. After Claire, I googled “eaten by rats,” and discovered that – horribly – elderly hoarders are devoured by rats with much more frequency than I’d have ever considered.
Through additional neighborhood gossip and research, we discovered that Claire’s family had owned a dozen properties in the neighborhood and was once very active in its flourishing. She lived there for the better part of a century, meaning she’d lived through the white flight, the Puerto Rican and black changeover, and now the gentrification. As it turned out, she’d been very wealthy. But why had she been so alone? How can that happen?
Sometime later, Rick was deported due to a visa issue, leaving his wife and young child to fend for themselves. Also, Claire’s property was purchased, demolished, rebuilt, and flipped to a young entrepreneur who turned it into a party house that filled the street with happy, purposeless revelers who made me feel old. Around that time, my girlfriend and I broke up and I moved out of that neighborhood because it’s no fun to live in a place that makes you feel old and alone, its memories soured and gnawed away.