August 4, 2005    Story

Fishing for Mice

As I took a walk in the park this afternoon, I noticed a man with a sign in front of him that said, “Tell me a funny story about living in New York.” About a minute later, I remembered a story I could have told him. Instead of going back to him, I decided to write it down. It’s a story of how I ended up spending one summer fishing for mice out of my window.

I moved from Japan to New York in 1987 to attend School of Visual Arts (aka “SVA”). During the school year, SVA rented several floors of the YMCA, “the Sloane House,” which was on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, to serve as a dorm for their students. They gave each of us a tiny room to live in and a half of another room as a studio. The rooms were so small (a bed took up more than half of the room) that everyone came out into the hallway where they partied every night. I say “they” because I felt too foreign to join them and that my English was too poor for anyone to enjoy a conversation with me. The fact that everyone had to share the communal bathroom was another factor that seemed to unite everyone quickly.

Interestingly, we had to share the studio space with another student of the opposite sex. It was shocking enough, coming from Japan, that the dorm was coed; the fact that the school forced me to share a tiny studio with a girl felt like they were trying to encourage bad behavior. Apparently the school knew better; nothing bad ever happened. Instead, I heard several stories of staying up all night drinking beer with studio mates sharing their painful childhood experiences in tears. Since I couldn’t carry on a decent conversation, I didn’t get to know my studio mate. I now feel bad for her. If she had a different studio mate, she probably would’ve had a more memorable experience.

For my whole time there, I didn’t have the courage to reach out to others, so I kept to myself. I was feeling so lonely inside that the pain was almost physical. Fortunately, two people insisted on talking to me. One was Jimmy, an Irish-American graffiti artist from the Bronx who convinced me to buy a pair of high-top sneakers. The other was my next door neighbor, Brenda, through whom I made several more friends, including Nilka who eventually became my first wife. Nilka, also a student at SVA, lived in Brooklyn with her family, and was jealous of the life in the dorm. Even though the YMCA did not allow overnight guests, she would often find one friend or another to stay with.

As lonely as I was feeling, I was at the same time very excited. A part of me knew that I would look back on this period in the future and feel that it was one of the most thrilling times of my life. It was like being in an artists’ commune, living closely with others who shared the same passion. I remember the day when a girl came running through the hallway announcing Andy Warhol’s death. Everyone was shocked and sad, myself included. I had always hoped to meet him one day in person. We weren’t allowed to cook in the dorm, but some of us had smuggled in hot plates, and we would cut vegetables with a plastic knife. Ironically all these minor inconveniences were what made the experience at the Sloane House so special in my memory. In comparison, I’ve heard that the New York University students often didn’t know their next-door neighbors because their dorms were fancy.

Over the summer, SVA closed the dorm because most of the students went home. They moved me down to the third floor where I was with other guests of the YMCA, mostly tourists on a budget and people who were temporarily homeless. I had to stay there because I had enrolled from the Spring semester and needed to catch up with the rest of the students over the summer. There was another girl on the same floor, Laura, who was in the same predicament as I was. We kept each other company during that brutal summer without air conditioners. She was a devout Christian. I can’t remember what kind of Christian she was since at the time I didn’t know there were so many different branches of Christianity. We had many long nights talking about what God is. She told me how she tried to kill herself when she was younger. She opposed abortion and was determined not to have sex until she was married. Naturally, these views did not jibe well with most of the other students, as the art schools in New York have always been leftist/liberal. In that sense, she was a foreigner too. Some kids in our class called her “Jesus-head.”

Against this backdrop, my fishing for mice started. The Sloane House had a big hole in the middle that provided ventilation and some light for the rooms facing inside. Under normal circumstances, it could have been called a courtyard, but here it was called “the pit.” The whole building ended up functioning like a massive trash can. The building was about twenty stories high. Half of the rooms faced the pit, while the other half enjoyed the various views of Manhattan. So, you could probably imagine how dark and gloomy it was on the third floor facing the pit where my room was. The residents of the YMCA had no manners when it came to throwing out garbage. People casually tossed out pizza boxes, soda cans, and even beer bottles into the pit through their windows. Every now and then I would hear a bottle hitting the bottom of the pit, and pieces of shattered glass hitting the surrounding windows. The bottom was covered with garbage, many layers over.

When I wasn’t working on homework assignments, I would stare at the pile of garbage through my window. While working, I would listen to Howard Stern on the radio, even though I didn’t know who he was and couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. One day, I realized that a lot of little things were moving under the pile of garbage. I eventually figured out that they were mice. As I had nothing better to do, I began studying their behavior. They were much more active at night, and I could still see them with the light coming through the surrounding windows. And, one night, I wondered if I could catch one if I lowered a trap from my window.

My first contraption was a box with a hole and a slice of Swiss cheese inside. It’s something Tom would probably create to catch Jerry. I attached a string to the box and lowered it slowly to the bottom of the pit. I immediately realized my problem; I didn’t know when to reel it in, since I could not tell whether or not any mice were in it. I kept reeling it in to find nothing inside. Then I cut the top part of a clear plastic bottle and put a slice of cheese in it. This time I could see, but still no mouse would go in. They were aware of my cheese and were circling around the bottle, but none would go in. Clearly they smelled something fishy. Smart creatures they are. Out of the fear of getting outsmarted by mice, I sacrificed my time to work on my homework assignment to come up with a better design for the trap.

Meanwhile, Laura somehow got a pet mouse in her room. I’m not sure if she bought it or she brought it from home. It is certainly a strange pet to have when you are surrounded by thousands of them. Every now and then, she would take it out of the  glass tank and give it a cuddle and a kiss. In comparison to the mice I was dealing with (secretly from Laura), her pet mouse looked pretty stupid. Proportionately speaking, her mouse had a much bigger room than we did. Living in such a small room, we did feel like mice trapped in a cage. Laura and I often wrestled in our rooms for fun, like two lab mice might do. I think something about being in a small space for a long time together encourages that kind of behavior. (After we moved out of the YMCA, we never wrestled again.) There was certainly a sexual tension on my part. In fact, during one of the fights, while laying on top of her, she said, “Why is your heart beating so fast?” I remember quickly releasing her, and scratching my head. I felt like a mouse in that moment.

I continued working on my mouse-catching device with different kinds of plastic bottles. Some mice went in for a brief moment, but as soon as I pulled the string, they would jump right out. A further observation revealed that mice don’t like to eat where they are visible from potential intruders. Whenever they find a piece of food, they would drag it under something. I then made a box with a door that flipped like the back of a pick-up truck. I attached a string to the flap and another string to the other side of the box which did not open. When I pulled both strings, the door flipped shut. This, however, reintroduced my first problem; I couldn’t tell if any mice went in. After much thinking, I constructed the same box with super-white cardboard that I bought from an art supply store. For the flip-door, I faced the white side in, so that when it opened, the white side was facing up. If any mouse were to move in, I could clearly see its silhouette against the white flap. I thought I was a genius, and excitedly lowered the box to the pit, but the mice were still smarter. They just circled around the box and never went in.

One night, a street mouse invaded Laura’s room. She came banging on my door in the middle of the night. I opened the door half asleep. She came in and explained the situation. (She noticed that I was in my underwear, so she told me to put my pants on, but she would often hang out in her swimsuit after coming back from her summer job as a pool guard.) To my surprise, she eventually caught the street mouse and decided to keep it with her pet mouse in the same tank. I was able to see the elusive opponent up close. Compared to the pristine white mouse, the street one was dark and greasy. While the pet mouse ran around happily, the street one was clammed up in the corner shivering. He was clearly scared. It seemed ironic that this mouse could be so smart and brave in the real world, but scared and paralyzed in a cozy, artificial environment. And obviously, he was also scared of the naive white mouse. He had probably never seen a white mouse before. I could not help relating to the street mouse a little. Coming from Japan where there is no other race but Japanese, white people were intimidating to me; something I had only seen in movies. Laura being white, blonde, and blue-eyed, I felt like I was that greasy street mouse.

When I was alone in my room, the battle raged on with the mice in the pit. It was certainly peculiar. Why would they go into hundreds of other boxes, but not to mine? I kept on observing their behavior and came up with a theory that they don’t like to go into a closed-ended box. The most popular boxes by far were pizza boxes and they are open on three sides. I modified my previous box by adding another flipping door on the other side, so that when it was resting at the bottom, both doors were open. They could see the other side when they looked in. With this box, I won the battle. Almost as soon as I lowered the contraption, they ran right in. Not just one, but a whole bunch. I pulled the string fast, and the doors flipped shut. I reeled it in close enough for them to see my face, opened the box, and let them go back into the pit. Every time I pulled it up, there were three or four in it. After I achieved this several times, I figured the game was clearly over.

One night, Nilka came to visit me, and we hugged and kissed in bed. It was the first time I kissed a girl. So, I felt triumphant from that as well. Towards the end of the summer, I found an apartment across the street from the school, and moved in with Jimmy, the graffiti artist. Laura found her own apartment in Brooklyn too. Not many people stayed at the Sloane House more than a year. After all, the rooms were small and not particularly cheap. Part of me felt sad to be leaving the intensity of the experience I had there, but at the same time, I was looking forward to the new possibilities my own apartment could open. Looking back, I realize from this experience that, to make your life memorable, you don’t need to be happy; you just have to live it intensely.