Personal  •  August 4, 2005

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 is something I should have written down while my memory was clearer, but I figured it’s still better to do so now than later. 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 me 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. Even to this day, I still wish I could have. I felt 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 else quickly. Interestingly, we had to share the studio space with another person 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; I didn’t hear any stories of bad incidents. 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 more memorable experiences.

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 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. Some part of me knew that I would look back on this period 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 are what made the experience at the Sloane House so special in my memory. In comparison, I’ve heard that at the New York University dorm, which was much fancier, people often didn’t even know their next-door neighbor.

Over the summer, they 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 budget and people who were temporarily homeless. I had to stay since I started from the Spring semester, and needed to catch up with the rest 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 an air conditioner. 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. (In Japan Christianity is a minor religion.) 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. The dominant culture of New York art schools has always been, especially at the time, quite leftist/liberal in its ideals. In that sense, she was a foreigner too. I remember some people in our class calling 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 some of the rooms. 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 big box-shaped garbage can. The building was probably about 20 stories high, and the bottom of the pit was at the first floor. 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 at 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, cans, and even 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. I’m not sure what was under the garbage.

When I wasn’t working on homework assignments, I would stare at the pile of garbage through my window. Sometimes I would listen to Howard Stern on the radio at the same time, even though I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying, and didn’t know who he was. One day, I realized that a lot of little things were moving under the garbage. It didn’t take me long to spot a few mice running on top of it. For the lack of better things to do, I started 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.

Now I cannot remember exactly how the contraption evolved over time, but it started with a box with a hole with 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 in, since I could not tell whether or not any mice were in the box. I kept reeling 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.

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 weird pet to have when you are actually surrounded by millions of them. Every now and then, she would take it out of the glass aquarium 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. Living in such a small room, we did feel like mice in a cage. In fact, her mouse had a much bigger room than we did, proportionately speaking. Thinking about it now, it feels childish, but we would often wrestle in our rooms, like two mice trapped in a small cage would. I think something about being trapped 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, in 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 did feel like a mouse at that point.

I kept trying with different kinds of plastic bottles, and a few times, a mouse went in a little, but as soon as I pulled the string, it 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 which flipped like the way pick-up trucks open at the back. On one side of the box, I attached a string to where a doorknob would normally be, and another string to the other side of the box which did not open; so, when I pulled the string, the door flipped closed. Unfortunately, now I had the same problem I had before; 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 white. 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. Laura 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 then noticed that I was in my underwear, and told me to put my pants on. So I did, but I remember feeling puzzled since 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 aquarium. 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 atmosphere. 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. 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 ends. 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 in the box close enough where I could see their eyes, opened the box, and let them go back into the pit. Every time I pulled up, there were 3 or 4 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 that my own apartment could offer. I realize now that what makes life memorable is not whether you are happy or sad, but how intensely you live it.