We first saw them one February, scampering around the kitchen, venturing shyly into the living room, squeaking in the emerald-green Victorian couch. Big eyes. Big ears. They were like greeting-card mice, as adorable as Steiff toys.
Nevertheless, they were mice, and they had to go. I got a big hatbox, cut a hole, added some sunflower seeds and cilantro—mice apparently enjoy a little Mexican zing—and waited for hours until one ventured in. I transferred it to a jar and sent Paul, my husband, out into the twilight to St. Luke’s churchyard garden. It was a frosty night, so he put the jar in a knit cap before he left.
When he came back he was clutching the jar, still in the hat. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “I tapped the jar at the gate. The mouse didn’t want to leave. I dumped it out and it walked very slowly. I thought, ‘The ground is frozen; I’ve sent the thing to its death.’ It was past the gate, so I couldn’t get it. I thought, ‘If it comes back, I’ll take it back home.’ I put the jar down, and the little thing turned around and slowly came back and got back in the jar.”
I remembered the story of the boy sent out with a cow to sell, only to return with three beans. I was expecting an empty jar, but now I had a mouse! Correction: two mice.
While Paul was out, I had captured this small survivor’s sister with my hatbox. Within two days, I had three more. We bought a 10-gallon terrarium and a running wheel, and Paul built a cardboard lodge with a few rooms. A friend sent a plastic duplex. The mice did lots of cardio. It would get them in shape. We decided to release them in the spring.
May rolled around, and Paul drove me and the mice to Yaddo, the artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. The mice spun around on their wheel even as the car bumped along. The wee guests lived with me in the “Pink Room” that Truman Capote had once occupied, and I soothed their wheel in perpetual motion with olive oil to keep the maid from hearing it squeak. Writers came to my room for a salon, but even those who regularly expose the dark or alternative side of humankind—i.e., A.M. Homes and Linda Yablonsky—knew nothing of my mice. Edgar Allan Poe may have written “The Raven” at Yaddo, but pets were verboten.
I told only one person my secret, a strange and curious conceptual artist named Melissa. One spring day, Melissa and I carried the terrarium out into the woods. Two daring mice bolted in glee, but the others clung to the wheel: their merry-go-round, their religion and their drug.
Later, Paul said I should have left them the wheel.
It occurred to me that mice (despite Stuart Little, plus Disney’s adorable Mickey and Minnie) are not only unwelcome and feared but violently misunderstood. And yet Picasso had a tame white mouse that lived in a drawer while living in his studio in Paris. Kafka dignified the mouse with his charming short story “Josephine the Singer.” My neighbor, playwright Robert Heide, whose work inspired part of Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls, has mice. He thinks they’re cute and, other than keeping his food in jars, does nothing to shoo them. Maybe the true measure of a person’s humanity lies in the way they treat small creatures.
June 2006. During a Gotham monsoon, a mouse the size of a nickel crossed my path on West 10th Street, making a beeline for a restaurant called the Place. A kindly blond boy who worked there gave me a takeout container. The mouse, however, preferred to crawl inside my Italian silk raincoat. Down the street I pleaded for some bread, telling the waiter I had rescued an “animal.” Probably thinking I was homeless, he came back with a large stack of French bread, carefully sliced and wrapped in foil. I found a cab.
At Petco, I scanned the “small animal” shelves and plucked up a small log with several holes, a running wheel and another terrarium. And then I did what no New Yorker I know has ever done: I took the mouse home.
Dr. Amy Kurowski at St. Marks Veterinary Hospital suggested kitten formula, in which I soaked the restaurant bread with a little organic-rice soymilk and flaxseed oil. She also implied that it would be cruel to release Carmen (as I had named her) into the wild, now that she’d gotten used to her easy domestic life. I considered my options.
Plan A: Hamster House in Inwood, run by a young, saintly woman who rescues those oft-tossed little rodents. I could make two donations: one financial, one fuzzy. But when I saw Carmen—tiny white ring around her pink nose—carefully ejecting a piece of poop from her log house, I had second thoughts. Would Hamster House appreciate her excellent hygiene? Would they feed her fresh corn, and almonds and the occasional raspberry?
Plan B: try to palm Carmen off on an eccentric friend. “She probably comes from a long chain of restaurant mice,” said my artist pal Suzan Clark, the former owner of Stanley. A tame country mouse, Stanley: He climbed about her arm and played in her lap. Not so Carmen, who has a feral urban attitude. “How did you tame Stanley?” I asked. “Can you tame Carmen? Do you want her?”
“She needs a better wheel,” Suzan said, “and a cage with bars so she can smell you. See how she stands up on her hind legs to sniff? And mice are social. She needs a friend.”
After finding a mouse-sitter, Paul and I flew to Chicago to visit my father and stepmother, Leon and Takeko, retired professors. In Chicago, Takeko had shared photos Leon had taken of mice he rescued from snakes while working at the Museum of Natural History. “That’s Lester,” he said. Then there was Emmelina, who lived on a mantel and ate watermelon. She did her running on a record player. “She would get tired and jump on the spindle.”
I realized in an instant that my love of mice is genetic. I was simply helplessly following my DNA when I took in these refugees. “How did you tame her?” I asked of Emmelina. “What’s the secret?”
“Oh,” my father said, probably thinking about his new critical text, Things to Come, “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s only a mouse.”
I’ve just gotten off the phone with Suzan, who is considering taking my little mus musculus. In the meantime, I’m stopping by Petco to upgrade Carmen’s wheel. And unless I find another stray mouse pretty soon, I just might buy her a playmate. What can I say? It’s in my blood.