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February 19, 2024

Hamtramck Walk 05

By Amy Probst

Good morning, Squirrel

You are fuzzy to me, the tree clearer, Mr. Squirrel. I keep you out of focus these days. And funny, how I am hard-pressed to conjure up Hamtramck when I look at you, the only city you've ever known, the very place we stand this early morning. Instead, I think of the 'seventies, in the suburbs, when I knew fat brown squirrels like you. They were the sole wildlife, in every yard, fuzzy and collarless against green lawns, chasing each other up oak trees and driving backyard dogs to barking distraction. I spent a lot of time in those years trying to prove to squirrels that we could be great friends, were on the same side. Whole days in the park across the street from my house, numb arm outstretched and offering graham crackers and Cheerios, knowing that if only I could get the message of peace across, the squirrels would like me.

No squirrel ever climbed up into my lap to let me pet its fluffy tail, but there were payoff moments of connection. Brown eyes meeting mine in shiny communication, or the retrieval of a Cheerio in the grass only inches from me, frozen and holding my breath. And while I may not have achieved the desired Doolittle status, I damned near perfected speaking in Squirrel, a skill that still turns the head of many a shocked one, such as you here on the garage roof, thirty years later.

I guess the World of the Squirrel in my city neighborhood disorients me; I'm uncomfortable adjusting to your relatively new status. I don't let the squirrels here come into focus, preferring to look right through them. It's easier. Noticing them means seeing them reduced. Here, rats and cats rule the alleys and streets. The domain of squirrels requires expanses of grass, trees, but our yards are tiny enough to be mowed with weed whackers, which many of us do. Knowing the tumbly pride of the squirrel as I did growing up, free and flourishing in the 'burb, I feel sad for you, a squirrel who knows only a splintered life surviving in the 'hood.

I have, however, known a few of your kind in Hamtramck, despite my efforts not to. Squirrel families have taken up residence the past two Springs under the shingles of my neighbor's roof, just five feet from my own. Scrambling baby squirrels are hard to ignore out my window. The man who owns the house was, I think, an engineer of some stature in his native Bangladesh; here, he sends his children to college by working as a carpenter. I wonder if his children's dreams -- and yours, squirrel -- hint of lands that stretch lush and green, uncrowded, in the shade of trees.

The first Spring that I watched baby squirrels chase each other back and forth across their cumin-scented rooftop, it took only a day to regret having let down my guard by letting them come into focus. One of the babies could not use his back legs. It was a horror show to watch. The fuzzy little body with huge eyes trying to keep up with his siblings, dragging himself back and forth, always uselessly behind. Suddenly he would stumble and roll down the roof's slope, catching himself just at the gutter, just before dropping to the ground.

I tossed him up slices of apple and peanut butter bread, and finally pulled the shade on that window.

Last Spring, I let myself look up to watch the new roof babies just once, just long enough to see there were only healthy little rascals there.

But I never thought to look down.

One day, my dog barked herself to distraction until I came outside to investigate: A baby squirrel in the grass, breathing hard, a few feet from the trunk of an oak. I moved closer and, terrified, it tried to make it to the tree. But its attempt at forward motion resulted in a epileptic spasm taking it a foot in the opposite direction. Over and over this happened, until the little guy reached the sidewalk, frantic with fear.

I picked up the Twinkie-sized body with one hand and set him down at the base of the tree, claws touching the bark, and watched while the whole devastating chain of thwarted attempts repeated. Then I went inside my house, sat down, and tried for fifteen seconds to erase his tiny brown existence from my mind before the sobbing began and I called the Humane Society. Probably neurologic brain damage, they said, maybe from a fall. Bring it in and we'll put it down.

He flopped valiantly in the cat carrier all the way there.

So, good morning, squirrel, and good day, because now that I'm a grown-up, I can't handle letting our eyes meet anymore; the focus can break my heart.

Article © Amy Probst. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-01-10
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