We spend a lot of time at Food52 offering up ways to improve your home life, with inspiration for cooking, handsome home goods, and tips to keep it a beautiful, organized, welcoming sanctuary. We don’t spend a lot of time on the realities of home ownership. Well, buckle up—that’s about to change. In Where the Wild Things Are, Amanda Hesser introduces us to some of the critters with whom her family has not-so-willfully cohabited over the years, hoping to inspire you to share your own stories. Bring on the funny disasters. The rants. And the helpful solutions, too! This is the first in Amanda’s six-part series.
I’m deeply in love with our apartment. My husband, Tad, likes to call me an unrelenting devotee of home improvement, and I’m a shameless homebody. But our home hasn’t made it easy on us.
We moved into our place 17 years ago. It’s the second floor of a 19th-century brownstone on a wide, leafy block of Brooklyn Heights, steps from the Promenade that overlooks the East River and Manhattan. We’re perched at treehouse level above the street. While we do hear passing cars from our living room, the dominant sounds are of birds singing and the low moan of boat horns in the harbor. Often, when living in New York City, you’re so closed in by buildings that it’s easy to forget it’s a collection of islands surrounding an industrious body of water. I liked having this audible reminder.
Our building was purchased in the 1960s by three families who converted it into a co-op. When we moved in in 2002, one of those families still resided on the top floor. During our co-op interview, the board (aka, all the residents) told us that no family stayed on the second floor for long, because they often outgrew it. They expected us to last five years, tops.
As Tad and I had both come from small one bedrooms on the Upper West Side, our new apartment seemed enormous. We had a living room. And a den! And we each had our own small study (two of the four rooms our broker had generously referred to as “bedrooms").
The previous owners had gut renovated the apartment five years earlier, which meant we were inheriting relatively unused appliances and a clean slate, electrically speaking. While we had a daunting mortgage, it was an investment in our future together, which was all we were thinking about with our wedding just three months away.
Our new apartment agreed with us for the first few years. We put in a wall with bookcases and a pocket door and a boatload of additional bookshelves (the previous owners had taken all the shelves out, to Tad’s horror). We painted—lots of White Dove—and did our best to tame the previous owners’ obsession with cherry wood.
We had great neighbors. The couple upstairs, the Howards, who were in their eighties, were cultural omnivores, always eager to talk about something they’d read in The New Yorker or seen at a gallery. Downstairs were a federal judge and a lawyer, who had been there for more than a decade. (Small world fun fact: Sam Sifton, the Food Editor at The New York Times, grew up on the parlor floor.)
The only disagreement among the current tenants was over a maple tree whose limbs intruded on the Howards’ deck (and ours). The Howards wanted to prune the branches. The judge, a gentle man and environmentalist, was opposed. Whenever the subject came up, he would quote Joyce Kilmer’s poem about never having seen a thing as lovely as a tree. And when it came time for the annual pruning, he would stand outside in his pajamas to make sure only the minimum was trimmed. In New York, where co-op members are constantly suing each other over construction noise or poodle poop, this was pretty benign.
But after a handful of years, we began to notice rustling in our bedroom ceiling, usually early in the morning. As we lay there, awakened, it sounded all too much like squirrels—and indeed it was. At first, we assumed the squirrels were inhabiting the space between the Howards’ deck and the roof, which was right above our bedroom. Eventually, we admitted to ourselves that, no, they were in the ceiling itself. There was just a thin layer of wallboard between them and us.
The Howards were getting old and didn’t seem eager to root around under their deck. Tad went up there to investigate a couple of times, but there were no suspects in sight.
Time and familiarity have a way of blunting your perceptions of your home. Even if you’re a fusspot, you start overlooking that broken tile. You think nothing of the awkward way you have to pop a door closed so it locks. You no longer notice the moldy smell in the bathroom. Or bother about the plume of fire that bursts from your oven when you turn on your broiler—although you do keep your kids back when you light it.
The squirrels became white noise. What most normal people would see as an alarming problem that had to be addressed immediately, we saw as comforting normalcy. The squirrels were waking up just as we were. We were stretching. They were scratching. Squirrels are cute. No big deal, right?
One Sunday evening—because all plumber- or electrician-worthy events and rapidly-spreading rashes and fevers occur on weekends—I was sitting in the armchair in our kitchen, working.
I heard a thunk near my study, followed by frantic scratching. The pocket door to my study was wobbling in its track. As I got closer to inspect, it was clear there was something in the pocket door wall. When I aimed a flashlight between the door and its frame, I came eye to eye with one of the house squirrels for the first time. It was stuck in the space between the door and the wall. We glared at each other.
A few panicked calls taught me that squirrels are considered wildlife, so you need a licensed wildlife expert to deal with them. The squirrel was struggling; it had to get out. The most helpful expert I could find said he’d be happy to come get the squirrel. What he’d do is cut a hole in the wall (which was covered in irreplaceable fabric wallpaper) and grab the squirrel. This didn’t sound pleasant for either the squirrel or us. Also, this smash-and-grab would cost $750. And the additional wall repair would be up to us.
Expensive options inspire creative thinking. It occurred to me that all the squirrel needed to get back to its “safe space” above our bedroom was for me to move the door and give the squirrel more room to climb. Very slowly, I eased the door from its pocket. I can’t say the squirrel loved this bit, but it worked. As soon as the squirrel had more room to move, it shimmied back up in the ceiling recess.
It was clearly time for intervention. We called in wildlife experts and soon had squirrel traps strategically mounted on the roof, a low-tech solution with a high price tag. We quickly caught three squirrels, who got released into the wild, far from the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.
The problem is that squirrels usually live in families of four. The fourth squirrel was a savvy beast who evaded the trap for weeks. Because you rent the traps by week, each week meant a new bill. Tad became restless. We convinced ourselves that the last remaining squirrel would grow lonely and vacate in search of new friends, like the last retiree heading off to Florida.
The alternative would be to remove the Howards’ deck to gain access to the roof to fully address the invasion and make repairs. But the Howards were battling illnesses. We didn’t want to broach the topic of ripping up their roofdeck. So we let it go.
The surviving squirrel immediately shacked up with a mate and soon, we had another family of four above our bedroom.