Squirrel Real Estate
by Kurt Opprecht

for The New York Times, January 6, 2002

If you talk to the squirrels in the park, you'll get the standard story: "Yes, definitely a cold winter this year. I love what they've done with this park. Do you have any more almonds?" But spend some time with one of the squirrels outside the park and you'll get a glimpse of what a jungle it really is up in the trees.

I know about the scene because I'm pretty tight with an ambitious grey who's doing well for himself working the buildings on my block.

For two years, I've watched this fellow (I'm not really sure it's male), making his rounds up and down the fire escapes on 15th Street. He comes by the windows of my study on the seventh floor about twice a day. You'd think I'd be used to it, but I still jump when I hear a rustle and look up to find a wild animal at the end of my desk, flipping his tail, begging for a cookie.

He's dedicated to his work. On the roof last winter, I found his little tracks in the snow, crossing from one fire escape to another. He's handy around the office, too. He has pushed the right buttons on my fax machine to make it print out a sample page ó something I haven't the slightest idea how to do.

My window is often open and he pops in whether I'm here or not. I've come home to find a Brazil nut in the middle of the bathroom floor, or more often just dirt scattered across my desk and a half-buried acorn in my potted ficus.

According to Henry Stern, Mayor Giuliani's Parks Commissioner, squirrels are territorial; they don't like to share their trees with other squirrels. It seems that when my friend left the nest, all the trees in Stuyvesant Square Park were taken, so he struck out on his own.

In the wild, squirrels eat nuts and berries, and the Parks Department discourages feeding squirrels, because the animals become dependent on the humans for food. But what if I leave a nut out on my desk and a squirrel happens to come in and take it? "More power to the squirrel," the commissioner says.

"You want to relate to other animals," he says. "Squirrels are noble creatures. That's why I wouldn't mind if one came into our offices and visited with us." In fact, this spring, a squirrel came in and built a nest in the Parks Department press office.

Mr. Stern says he doesn't often hear of squirrels entering people's apartments, but it seems to be more common than you'd think. A woman at the corner bookstore told me about a squirrel in her building near Washington Square Park. Under periodic pursuit by her house cat, that squirrel scampered around her 12th- floor apartment for quite some time one morning. It made its way back out the window only after her son got out of bed, armed himself with a tennis racket and stalked the squirrel in his pajamas. (The son, I'm sure, was happy to claim the punch line "And how the squirrel got into my pajamas, I'll never know.")

Having overheard this story, the cashier, from Flatbush in Brooklyn, told me about his squirrel friend. "She would come to the window, and I would whistle for her a single long note, and feed her cat food right out of my hand," he said. "If I stopped whistling, she would start to go wild, but as long as I kept whistling she was just fine."

My friend Anthony told the most disturbing squirrel story. When he was living on the fifth floor of a building in the East Village, he woke up one night with a squirrel under the covers between his legs. (I know there's a joke here too, but I don't want to think about the punch line.)

Even though I seem to have a very building-savvy squirrel, it's clear he has kept up his contacts with the tree-bound set. I saw him leaving the park one day in June. He carefully waited at the curb, then crossed the street, climbed the gate to the passageway and made his way up the fire escape. For all I know, he's running a racket in the park, trading shelled nuts and cookies from my building for duplex nests and parking privileges across the street.

I always enjoy his visits; I work alone and I can use the company. But eventually, the dirt in my keyboard just wasn't cute anymore, and after he broke my soap dish climbing out the bathroom window, I decided that harboring a rodent might not be such a good idea. Who knows what would happen if we surprised each other in the middle of the night?

As a deterrent, I put a cactus on the windowsill, but he made a meal of it. Several meals. I put a screen up, but still he came by every day to stand at my window and flip his tail.

That didn't last long. My squirrel had become more than a pet. The squirrel and I are in the same game, really. We're both New Yorkers ó what's more New York than real estate issues? I couldn't in good conscience thwart such a fine example of American enterprise.
I put a gate in the screen and now we hang out together when I'm in. I do what I can for him and he keeps my spirits up when the writing game gets tough. And I appreciate the nuts.


 © Kurt Opprecht, 2002

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