Rodent City

It’s funny how a mouse can reaffirm everything you love and hate about the place you live.

After nearly twelve hours of traveling, I returned to my tiny Brooklyn apartment. For some reason, I was surprised to find it in the same state of disarray that I had left it in: sheets undone, laundry on the floor, dirty dishes still in the sink. The only new thing I noticed was the mouse, which scurried behind the oven the moment I turned on the light and set down my suitcase.

That night I dreamed of a mouse much larger than the one I saw. It was the size of a small dog, and it was sitting on my chest, pinning me down under its weight. The next morning, I googled “mouse traps.”


Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman

A few months ago, a friend told me about the time he caught a mouse in a glue trap and came home to find it half-stuck in the trap, dragging its poor self all over his apartment. The experience sounded so harrowing for my friend that I decided I would rather live with a mouse than have to go through that myself. In truth, I was strangely empathetic to the mouse. We were both just trying to make it in New York, which would never be an easy place to live.

I spent half an hour researching humane mouse traps on Amazon, looking at customer ratings and reading reviews. I found an adorable looking one — a green, translucent piece of plastic shaped like an actual house. Reviews, like this one, were glowing:

“We are in awe over how well this device works! In just 24 hours we have already caught 3 mice, and they all have happy new homes in the woods. My children race to check the traps each morning, who would have thought catching mice could be so much fun?”

I was a little alarmed by the idea of mice catching as a recreational activity for children, but I figured if kids could do it, I certainly could too.

The instructions said to put a saltine with peanut butter in the trap. I bought crackers, spread some chunky peanut butter, and placed the trap near the oven. It looked kind of tasty, so that evening I ate saltines and peanut butter for dinner.

When I woke up the next morning, I was slow to get out of bed, thinking about how as soon as I got up, I would have to deal with a captive rodent. But I was disappointed to find the trap empty, the saltine untouched. Days went by, then weeks, and still no mouse. I should have realized I was dealing with a New York mouse, one more cunning and clever than ordinary field mice. This mouse had been hardened by the city; to be a rodent in this city, you had to be tough.

I dreamt that I woke up, opened my bedroom door, and found the rest of my apartment covered in mice. I closed the bedroom door, but the mice seeped through the cracks, and slowly rose like the tide. The sea of mice looked like something out of a Miyazaki film, eventually pouring over my bed, my body — a thousand little creatures squirming and nibbling.

I went to Target and purchased a package of old fashioned spring-loaded mousetraps. The instructions were simple: apply peanut butter to the bait switch, pull the bar back, and wait for the force of the spring to snap the mouse’s spinal cord.

For the next few weeks, I would occasionally find the traps set off, all the peanut butter licked clean off. There was no catching this mouse. Like some sort of futile ritual, I would reset the trap and place it in the same spot. I stopped bothering to put peanut butter on it.

In Seattle, I lived in a loft apartment in my favorite neighborhood, with big windows that faced the Space Needle, only a fifteen-minute walk to work. In Brooklyn, my apartment faces the backside of a construction site, where drilling and hammering and whatever it takes to erect a building begins six days a week at 8 a.m. One day it’ll be a condo I can’t afford to live in. I see it every morning out my window before my hour-long subway commute to the office.

I had recently come back from a trip to the Northwest. I’m back in Seattle often for work, but it’s always a good excuse to visit friends. In the year since I’ve left, my friends are moving in with their partners or getting engaged. The mouse was the closest thing I had to a roommate.

That weekend, I had a party to celebrate my first year in New York. A lot of people came, and I thought about how great the past year had been. It had never been easy, but the gathering affirmed that things were going well on some level.

Nobody knew it, but I’d been seriously considering moving back to Seattle, or elsewhere. I had realized that New York would never stop being exhausting. I thought that I might never have the resilience to really live here.

I was on the subway headed home from Midtown, getting out of work late. I sat down on the 3 train and pulled out a book. The girl sitting next to me noticed the book and remarked that it wasn’t out yet. I explained that I was a book reviewer, so I had been sent an advanced copy. She was too, and had received the same book that day.

We talked for a while about the book, then books as a whole. After a while, I asked her where she lived. Crown Heights, same neighborhood where I was. We talked for a while about that too — the bars we liked, the noisiness, the strangeness of it. Talking about it reminded me how much I liked where I lived, despite how hard it could be at times.

“Where do you live in Crown Heights?” I asked.

“Nostrand Ave and St. John’s Place.”

“That’s funny, those are exactly my cross streets.”

As it turns out, we both lived in the same building. In fact, we lived next door to each other. We had both moved in around the same time, and in the past year, had never seen each other. On the opposite side of my bedroom wall, she was living a nearly parallel life.

I asked if she had a mouse. She did, as of a month ago, likely the same mouse, scurrying between our apartments.

It was an extraordinary coincidence, one that still seems unbelievable every time I tell this story. And yet, it’s not so unbelievable when I think about New York. It’s not so unlikely that two book reviewers would live in New York — the center of book publishing in the U.S. — and live in Crown Heights, a hip, sort of up-and-coming neighborhood. Of course we would share a mouse.

Weeks later, I would wake up and find the mouse caught in the trap, its — no, her — body lifeless, her neck pinned between a piece of wood and a metal bar. Later my neighbor and I would make plans to grab a drink, but those plans would fall through. Later my rent would go up and I would renew my lease anyway. Later the world would feel very small, large perhaps for a mouse, but less so for me.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.