Where have you lived, William Foster?
When I was nine, my dad decided I should have the experience of hunting, killing and eating an animal. Long story short, I ended up shooting a squirrel in the woods near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The shot didn’t quite kill the squirrel; my dad had to crush its twitching head under his boot as I looked on stoically. Together we gutted, skinned, and cooked the rodent in a Brunswick stew, and despite the fact that it looked like a rat carcass floating in vegetable soup, I gnawed every bit of sinewy flesh off its tiny bones.
To immortalize the occasion, my dad preserved the squirrel’s tail and mounted it on a plaque along with the spent shell and a brass plate inscribed with my name, the date, and the words “First Squirrel Shot” (it was, incidentally, also my last). The trophy hung proudly on my bedroom wall until circa puberty, when the whole thing became embarrassing and I relegated the tail to a closet shelf.
In 2001, days after graduating from college in Virginia, I returned to my parents’ house to pack my car for a one-way road trip to San Francisco. Rummaging through my closet, I serendipitously rediscovered the plaque and decided to take it westward as my sole memento of home.
Steiner St. & Page St., San Francisco, CA, $900/mo. (studio)
My girlfriend and I split the $1,200 rent proportionally to our gross incomes, which with a little rounding came to $300 and $900, respectively. We furnished the space with a mattress, a chair, and a small end table that, as the only flat and elevated surface in the room, served the full range of table-oriented functions. This sparsity of furniture was in accordance with some sort of bohemian ideal, but with 11 years of hindsight, just sounds uncomfortable and annoying. The squirrel tail spent the entire year in the cardboard box in which it arrived.
Ransom St., Chapel Hill, NC, $275 (1-br)
I lived here with the same girlfriend, but this time we split the $550 rent 50/50. No more egalitarian commie stuff. God bless her, but the relationship didn’t last, and I embarked on a journey across the Mason-Dixon. The tail remained in a moving box throughout this brief episode.
Locust St., West Philadelphia, PA, $450/mo. (studio)
Me: [about to sign the rental agreement] It says here that you don’t pay for “extermination services.” You don’t have problems with any pests, do you?
Devious Slumlord: No, no, no.
Me: [signs agreement]
In addition to dealing with cockroach infestation, for a week or two there I was waking up at sunrise to the crowing of a rooster. I suppose it was either an escaped fighting cock or a chicken breeder’s stud who got bored with humping hens all day and decided to go on an adventure. He eventually wandered southward to an unknown fate. I unpacked and hung the squirrel tail for the first time in this apartment. It was the only decorative object in the room.
S 21st St., Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA, $650/mo. (studio)
This was a real Jeffersonian move for me. I traded roaches and cocks for an entirely different set of annoyances, many of which involved the clientele of nearby Stephen Starr restaurants. The rent may seem low for such a fancy neighborhood, but that’s because of all the perchloroethylene billowing out of the dry cleaners on the ground floor. Besides hanging the squirrel tail, I added one aesthetic flourish to the space: an aloe plant.
S 4th St., Queen Village, Philadelphia, PA, $475/mo. (2-br)
I lived here with a coworker and her cats Beulah and Henry, a.k.a. Dirty B and The H-Bomb (check ‘em out: A, B, C, and D). Cats across the board love to mess with the squirrel tail. We hung it in the living room, but not quite out of paw’s reach. One day I found the tail under the kitchen table (it detaches readily from the plaque), and a few days later I caught Beulah with it clutched between her jaws, slinking away to do whatever she was planning on doing with it. I moved it to my bedroom.
SE 74th St., Portland, OR, $400/mo. (3-br house)
This was an idyllic little home situated on the slope of a volcano. In the front yard, we (me and two roommates, one of whom owned the house) had two plum trees, two apple trees (each with various varietals grafted onto the trunk), a fig tree and a cherry tree, and in the back yard a grape vine and a garden space where I grew vegetables and kept a compost heap. Portland!
St. Johns Pl., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY, $675 (3-br)
Here I was confronted with the cold reality that the squirrel tail is not immortal. With each cross-country move, I had packed the plaque in a box and left it to the mercy of the United States Postal Service. Each time, it took another little beating, lost a little more hair, and by this point the cumulative effect was quite noticeable. Desiccated flesh showed in spots, and it had completely lost the fluffy tuft at its tip. I vowed to become a better caretaker.
SE 74th St., Portland, OR, $500/mo. (3-br house)
Same room in the same house as before, but three years later and $100 more rent. “Rents have been going up in Portland,” said the owner, but I think he was just saving up for a badass jet ski.
In spite of my vow, this turned out to be a tragic and pivotal period for the squirrel tail. Not only did it snap in half somewhere in transit between Brooklyn and Portland, but I made the mistake of hanging it where it was exposed to direct sunlight for much of the day. By the end of the year, a dusting of coarse, black particles had collected beneath it, and the line between “squirrel tail” and “hairy mummy penis” was becoming ever blurrier.
Inwood, Manhattan, New York, NY, $633.33/mo. (3-br)
I can’t recall the square footage, but this is by far the largest apartment I’ve ever lived in. It was rent-controlled at $1,900, which we split three ways, and I had way more space than I knew what to do with. In fact, I did nothing with it; there were a lot of bare walls and an echo. The squirrel tail took center stage, hanging at the focal point of our living room between two asparagus ferns. This is something that happened there, but I can’t say anything else about it.
Classon Ave., Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, NY, $835/mo. (3-br)
One night in this apartment I saw a demon. The demon looked like Rod Stewart, except his hair was standin’ straight up!
SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR, $855/mo. (studio)
It’s nice living alone again. No one has to smell my shit, and I don’t have to smell anybody’s. I moved here with the intention of staying a while, after so much coast-hopping, so I actually invested in decent furniture and plants and all the household objects that for so many years I’d depended on roommates for. With that mindset, for the first time, I hung the tail with not so much irony as recognition that it’s been one of the very few continuous threads in my aimless and meandering adult life.
Here, look at it:
William Foster is an interesting cat. He lives in Portland, Ore., but you knew that.