(AP/Getty/Salon/Mireia Triguero Roura)

Of mice and murder, and Ronald Reagan

Like people and presidents, mice do the worst stuff in secret. Those who remember 1981 know what's happening today


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Peter Birkenhead
March 19, 2017 3:30AM (UTC)

When I was 21 years old I murdered mice at the crossroads of the world and almost got away with it. Not that anyone cared much. Not there, not then. I’m guessing few tears have been shed at any point for the mice of Times Square, but by June of 1981 we were six months into the blindingly bright new reality of the Reagan Era, and New Yorkers seemed to be splitting into roughly two large camps in response: those fighting desperately to keep their eyes open, and those fighting to keep them shut.

If that sounds a little dramatic, a little much, well that’s how it felt to a young, self-serious assistant manager of a six-screen movie theater on 44th and 7th, through whose glass doors the assistant manager would watch in slack-jawed wonderment every evening as the known world went koo koo. As if everything had taken on the qualities of dramatization, grown swollen and shiny, engorged with laughing gas.

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People were wearing costumes instead of clothes, spiffed-up regurgitations of 30-year-old styles.They were speaking out of the corners of their mouths, their words bracketed by quotation marks. Two old Broadway theaters across the street were being razed to make room for a 30-story hotel with “California King” sized beds, whatever they were; a decades-old diner in the neighborhood was being kitschified into a 1950s-style “diner.” Even Bond’s, the iconic men’s clothing store above the Criterion, had been similarly mummified and repurposed as a retro nightclub.

Anyone who was alive in 1981 knows that our present moment is less of a beginning than a fruition. It can be difficult to communicate to those who weren’t there just how quickly and radically the culture inverted itself in just a few years, how disorienting it was for so many of us. Reagan, who liked to tell stories about being present at the liberation of concentration camps he had never visited, whose White House operated under the guiding principle that, “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true,” was first called the “Great Communicator” in August of ’81, giving Orwellian punctuation to a summer when when economic supply and demand traded places, music became a visual medium, and Jeff Koons became famous.

The movies being shown at the Criterion were either bloated, winking facsimiles of the stories they’d displaced, or new stories that blithely inverted the moral valence of the old ones. When it premiered in 1983, it wasn’t until about 45 minutes into watching "Risky Business" that I realized the filmmakers weren’t kidding, that they actually expected me to root for Tom Cruise’s amoral frat-boy and not against him.

The other staff members at the Criterion did not share my alarm, not outwardly anyway. My immediate superior was a defiantly bearded holdout from The Before Time named David, who oversaw my attempts at money-counting and book-balancing with the half-lidded gaze of a man who spent his breaks chain-smoking his way through "The Portable Dorothy Parker." He was 30, about five and a half feet tall with a pointed chin and floppy bangs, and seemed to be making the leap from elvish to wizened without stopping at untroubled. He wore enormous, square-framed glasses. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone more pregnant with unspoken observations than David was in 1981.

He had only been at the Criterion for three years, yet David was the senior member of our staff. As movie theaters went it was not a terrible place to work — it was even, on occasion, thrilling (like on News Year's Eve when we would all head up to the roof with picnic dinners and watch the thrashing mobs below from the comfort of fold-out beach chairs, or on our late night explorations of the labyrinth of hidden passageways that connected the Criterion to its neighbors, or on the morning in early June when 2,000 kids in Doc Martens lined up in front of the theater at 10 a.m. to see a matinee show by The Clash during their two week run at Bond's ) — but nobody ever wanted to stay for very long. Most of us were on our way to or from somewhere, recently hired or about to leave. We were students, immigrants, divorcees, refugees, rehabbers, and in my case, a dropout, since leaving a junior-year lecture on The Politics of the Soviet Union at NYU, and never returning to the class or the school again.

In thinking about the moment years later I would finally notice that my retreat from impending adulthood had coincided almost exactly with the violent end of my parents’ marriage, but at the time I was certain I was leaving school because, as I put it to my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, “They simply have nothing to teach me here.”

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* * *

There was a certain redundancy to being 21 in 1981. The country itself had glimpsed, in its post-Watergate disillusionment, the frightening and liberating truths of post-adolescence: that our fathers were human, that we were mortal, burdened with responsibility and capable of cruelty, that a meaningful future would require self-reflection — and with the election of an addled fantasist we had chosen, as young adults will, to run from reality and take uneasy refuge in delusion.

Every night after the last show had started at the Criterion I would stand at the ticket box with Aman, the eldest of three friends from Afghanistan who had arrived at the Criterion two years earlier, after the invading Soviet army had chased them from their homes. Strikingly elegant, with a swept-back mane of hair and the posture of a sentry, Aman would ask in halting sentences why I had given up on my education, and smile with patience at my lunging replies. I was a lost, thick-tongued mess, but thankfully not far gone enough to miss the dull thud produced by the complaints of a foggy-eyed American suburbanite on the ears of an exile, so I let my colleague do most of the talking, which, as you can imagine was of a distinctly guarded sort.

Aman allowed himself a suspiciously hearty laugh at my expense at least once, though, when I finally confessed, during one of our ticket-counter chats, to a recent spree of mouse murders.

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I had murdered my first mouse about eight weeks after taking the job at the Criterion, or about six weeks since the mice had launched a series of midnight attacks on the store-front ice cream stand the theater’s owners had opened in a renovated former box office. Ice cream stands were popping up all over New York that summer, selling a product that, like so many other things -- suits, chairs, baseball players and beds -- had suddenly and without warning doubled in size.

The Criterion itself had recently undergone a metastatic growth, with the division of its ground-level movie house into two, and the addition of four new bunker-ish theaters in the basement. It wasn’t very long, of course, before all that digging and growing and ice cream-welcoming caught the attention of the building’s permanent residents, and, on a distractingly humid night in early June, inspired them to overcome their usual shyness to brazenly dine, buffet style, at the stand’s five-gallon tub of rum raisin.

An emergency meeting was called by Rich, one of the owners, a sputtering fire hydrant of a man who had recently taken to wearing blue shirts with white collars that only served to emphasize his myocardial complexion. Rich, along with his wife and sons, operated the Criterion in a manner that perfectly evoked the level of easy-going, drama-free problem-solving we all associate with the word “family,” and forever inoculated me against the cultural mythology of “mom and pop shops.”

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Rich had a plan for dealing with the mice and it went like this: Kill the mice. Kill all the mice, however we have to, every day, for as long as necessary to keep them from getting between us and a single penny of that sweet, sweet Fuck-You-Jimmy-Carter-It’s-Morning-in America-Now Money.

The mice-killing would happen like this: The morning crew would set out some traps, glue traps, and every night at closing time the college dropout would dispose of the trapped and killed enemies of wealth in a manner to be determined later. OK?

OK. So, that was OK. No biggie, whatever. Except I probably didn't say “no biggie, whatever” because people weren't saying things like that yet. We were still in the first few months of The Reaganing, and there were still some things, a few stalwart, remaining things, like words, that hadn’t yet been fully holographed and italicized. Or so it seemed to me, self-serious me, as I helpfully explained to the Criterion’s cashiers, concessionaires and ushers in long, spit-flecked, nightly asides much like this one, often for precisely the same purpose: to avoid the uncomfortable subject of mice.

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Like people and presidents, mice do their worst damage in secret: the poisoning of wells, the sharing of contagion, the spreading of fear. We are left to infer the trouble they’ve caused by the shit they leave behind. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was doing his best to murder the past and obscure the future. He occupied a constantly evolving, revisionist present, where he was able to make a virtue of his knack for amiable amnesia and blithely dismiss “misstatements” with a calculated twinkle in his eye — and the press cooperated by judging the administration on its own terms.

The good news is that, like people and presidents, mice also cannot resist the desire to force others to clean up their poop, a hubris they refuse to unlearn and which leads them, inevitably, to their doom.

They do not go peacefully, however. A mouse stuck in a glue trap will chew through flesh to free himself, and die trying. He will snap his own bones, break his own teeth, and die in agony.

Finding a mouse in a glue trap usually meant finding a dying mouse, rather than an already dead one. It meant witnessing his agony, sometimes three or four times a night, something that only got harder the more I did it.

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The question of what to do about that had become an urgent one. Tossing writhing rodents into a trash can was unimaginable. David suggested I let him pet the mice. David had a sore on his arm, near his wrist, that wouldn’t heal. A round, purple lesion that he referred to as his “stigmata.” “I’m like a reverse Jesus,” he said. One touch from me and they’ll keel right over.”

So I walked into the office to ask Rich, the owner, why we didn’t just hire an exterminator. I found him sitting there in front of teetering stacks of one- and five-dollar bills — a not uncommon sight in the movie theater business, but always a fraught one, since the movie theater business is actually the popcorn business, or, more accurately, the popcorn cup business, since popcorn cannot be inventoried in units, while cups of course can, and so the opportunities for mischief are as plentiful as the number of cups that can be retrieved from the trash every night by concessionaires who then refill and resell them while pocketing, and sometimes sharing, the profits.

So maybe it was just-a-hazard-of-the-business jumpiness, or maybe not, but whatever the reason, when I entered Rich’s office and asked my exterminator question he cocked his head at me and said, “Do you like your job?” and before I could muster an answer he was chalking a diagram for me on the office blackboard. As he drew he said, “Do you know why you have a job?” and then something like, “You have a job because I. Make. Money. I created your job and everyone’s job in this place and I pay for your uniform, your Social Security, (there were lots of chalk dollar signs and arrows now, raining down from the top of the blackboard at a stick figure that I guess was supposed to be me. “. . . and I give you breaks and let you eat in the office and all this stuff I do not and should not have to do because I make enough money to do them. You wanna give me a hard time about being smart enough to not get ripped off by some schmuck with a tank full of Raid I can buy at the A&P? How about a little gratitude? How about maybe instead some gratitude?”

I took a breath and mumbled my thanks, and what I did later that night was this: I followed a telltale trail of droppings behind the ice cream counter, to find a mouse who had just then and just barely been trapped. One of his rear feet had firmly, permanently, dug its way into to the glue. I lifted him, or, not him but the trap, as he dangled from it, and I placed it in a white ice cream bag and crumpled the top closed. Then I walked out the front door of the theater toward a momentarily empty Seventh Avenue and I bent quickly to place the bag a foot or so from the curb, turned right around and headed back inside without waiting to see what happened. When I left work through the same door an hour later I avoided looking at scene head-on, but caught the flattened shape of the bag in my peripheral vision.

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I repeated the procedure every night after that, at least once, sometimes more.

* * *

The top ten television shows of 1975 were, in order, "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," "Chico and the Man," "The Jeffersons," "M*A*S*H," "Rhoda," "The Waltons," "Good Times," "Maude" and "Hawaii Five-O." Anyone too young to remember them should look up images of the people who starred in those series, people like Esther Rolle and Bill Macy. You might notice that almost all of them look suspiciously like actual people, human beings, with medical histories and memories and digestive systems. And if you look up 1985’s top shows you might notice that this was very much not the case for the stars of "Dynasty," "Dallas," "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties," "The A-Team," "Simon & Simon," "Knots Landing" and "Falcon Crest." You’ll see a gallery of the kind of faces we’re now used to seeing on TV, the ones that look like they’re assembled in face factories and shipped to Hollywood in bubble-wrap. That was the face Reagan’s America loved, the kind that asked nothing of its audience, and it was the face his White House presented to the public. Despite all his time on horseback, Reagan was a man of affect, not action, and he was inspiring a culture of apathy and entitlement.

Sometime in June of ’81 a patron vomited in the entryway to one of the new basement bunkers. I had cleaned up my share of excretions from a wide variety of urban inhabitants over the two years that I’d been working in theaters, but my recent elevation to management meant that I would now be able to delegate that and other unpleasant tasks to the ushers.

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So I pulled a mop and bucket out of the storeroom, started walking it toward Aman, who was the usher on duty and . . . and I kept walking, right past him, over to the puddle on the floor. I had never been a boss before, of any kind, and I was incapable of making the needed request of anyone, let alone Aman, who was at least 20 years older than I and a lifetime more dignified.

I got to work on the stinking mess myself, but as I went to wring out the mop Aman placed his hand on my wrist and silently implored me not to. The look in his eyes wasn’t a collegial, “please, let me,” it was pained. Admonishing. Of course. I had insulted him. I let go of the mop without a word and watched as he went to work. He mopped that floor, that dirty floor of a Times Square movie theater, quietly and quickly, with his back straight and his face at rest, without a trace of a grimace. He cleaned it in the manner I’d seen him write letters home, talk to children and take off his jacket, with aplomb, in the manner I’d seen him scold the bullies who were starting to show up at closing time to yell “towel head” and “Ayatollah”: with purpose and serenity.

When he was finished Aman put the mop and bucket away, washed his hands, and joined me at the ticket box. We watched the late-night parade of punks and tourists thin to a few tipsy stragglers, and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know this man, this man with whom I’d been sharing this midnight ritual for months, at all. I said, “Aman, what did you do at home, in Kabul, for work?"

Aman reached into his breast pocket and handed me a coin inscribed with Arabic calligraphy. I asked, “were you . . . a businessman, did you buy or sell things?” Aman reached again into his pocket and took out a small stack of Polaroid pictures. He handed them to me, one by one, taking a small pause between each photo. The first was of a haunting, twisted abstract shape in bronze, a sort of torqued apple with a hole through it. The next showed an urban plaza, a beautiful, terraced green and concrete space embraced by a large, sloping and curving monument of some kind, a sculpture, clearly created by the same hand responsible for the apple and the coin.

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Amanullah Haiderzad was, and is, Afghanistan’s most celebrated artist. He's the founder of its first undergraduate arts program at the University of Kabul, and the designer of its minted currency.

I don’t remember what I said to Aman about the pictures of his work. I do remember that as I spoke I felt a little bit like what I imagined astronauts feel when they’re “pulling G’s,” like I was rushing with great velocity toward or away from something.

One night not long after that one I was lifting a glue trap with a mouse stuck to it from a corner of the ice cream store when David burst into the room and said, “They’re holding a door for us upstairs at Bond’s. If we take the back stairway we can get in for free.” We bolted up an old, unused stairway as an insistent murmur above us grew to a ferocious, ecstatic beat, through a door that had been left ajar, and right into a frenetic, sweaty crowd lifting itself up and down in unison to The Clash. We stood shoulder to shoulder, very still at first, stupefied, on the edge of a hurricane. The room was blazing hot but I slipped my hands into my jacket pockets to pull it closed, in an act of self-comfort in the face of all that raging energy. It took less than a second for the pain to shoot straight from my fingertip, straight up my arm to my neck, an electric hot spasm that opened my mouth before I could gather enough breath for a scream. I grabbed my bleeding finger with the other hand, turned to David, and finally forced a word out: “Mouse!” An unmurdered mouse, still in the trap, still in my pocket where I’d stuffed him.

Blue and amber lights were spinning and strobing now as the crowd swarmed and engulfed us. Joe Strummer stomped a black boot on the stage while the drummer beat the skins into a raging, anguished delirium. I lifted my hands above my head and let the blood stream down my arm. The drums grew louder still. They sounded like they were beating a procession, a tribute to a great and murdered world.

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Peter Birkenhead

Peter Birkenhead’s work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, The LA Review of Books, U.S. News, MORE, Marie Claire, The Awl, The Morning News, Tikkun, and other publications. He is the author of "Gonville: a memoir."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1980s Editor's Picks Immigration Joe Strummer Life Stories Ronald Reagan The Clash Times Square

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