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Who lives here?

In downtown Cleveland, Ohio, we have a Justice Center, a monolithic, imposing structure. It cost $135 million, plus a hundred thou here and there to fix things since it was finished in 1976. It's the ultimate in modernity. There's even a Noguchi sculpture called "Portal."

In late October, when the cool nip of autumn was in the air, the local paper carried the news that the Justice Center has a healthy population of mice. At first I had the same reaction as did other Clevelanders: disgust. With better housekeeping, "they" could keep the vermin out, thought I.

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Then I thought again. We humans only thinkm this is our world. The little creatures know to whom it really belongs. We are only here by forbearance. The mice go about their affairs in a purposeful manner. They scurry here and there scouting up food; they make their nests and rear their young. They never have any doubts or fears they're in the wrong location, much less that the place they choose to call home belongs to someone else -- those huge, hulking humans that go clomping about messing things up. If we feel disgust at their presence, think of the disgust they must feel at ours. They're tidy, and we're untidy. Their lives are ordered -- every sequence programmed from birth to be exactly thus-and-so. Our lives are disordered. We pick up and move, often hundreds of miles. A mouse family wouldn't dream of moving even to the next courtroom, once it has established its territory.

We change partners frequently, oh, very frequently, and our kids have complicated relationships to cope with -- mother and then perhaps a series of stepmothers. Mousekins have no such troubles. Mom is mom forever, since mice mate for life.

And we litter, leaving bits and pieces of foreign objects (like plastic, metal, and paper) in our wake. You say, "good grief, mice litter," but they don't. All they leave in their wake is organic matter, the substances of life-support and life debris.

We're noisy. We not only clomp, but we shout, and make machines that squawk and blat and clatter unmercifully. The only noise you hear from a mouse are those tiny, restless footsteps and tiny squeaks and squeals.

We're voracious.Each one of us eats tons of food every year, stuffing it down with greedy abandon. The mouse nibbles daintily -- a chair leg here, a corner of a document there, a tiny nip from your sandwich or piece of fruit. You can spare that much, can't you?

We hustle and bustle through the day. When night falls, most humans depart from the great Justice Center, leaving only the cops and robbers in the sixth-floor jail, drowsily watching the tube. The gentle mouse kingdom comes into its own at night. It is then we can imagine the flourish of mouse tails as the sturdy foragers scamper forth to garner the midnight crumb. It is then that the stately edifice we think was made for human affairs quietly becomes a home.


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