Two cats in the yard, life used to be so...
Road trip! Hop in! No need to pack your toothbrush. I'll have you back before your coffee gets cold . . . My family and I lived in an apartment building in West New York, NJ from 1965-1980. It was a five-story, yellow-brick, pre-war building. The rooms had high ceilings and wood trim in the living room. It was really a one-bedroom with a dining room off the living room, but our family of five was comfortable making it a 3-bedroom with a sleeper couch in the living room for my brother. The kitchen was larger than the living room, and while it had very little in the way of counter-tops – it had a huge floor that Mommy washed and waxed on her hands and knees. “On my hands and knees.” (I hear that in my mother’s Jersey accent.)
Anyway, the building was constructed so there was a courtyard. Now, when you think courtyard, you probably think Italy, New Orleans, Morocco – flowers spilling over planters -- lovely benches, maybe a water fountain gently gurgling. Our courtyard didn’t have anything like that. Our courtyard had cats. Lots and lots of cats.
(We lived in the apt. with the air conditioner!)
The courtyard was where the women hung their family’s laundry.
The women would climb out their kitchen window onto the fire escape which faced the courtyard. Mommy would put the wet clothes on the windowsill, or have them in a large bucket, and she’d crawl out and deftly pull the line in, clip the clothes with wooden clothespins, keeping one or two between her lips, while she reached for the wet laundry with her other hand. Hand over hand she’d pull the clothesline toward her, and hand over hand she’d push it out with shirts, pants, (Photo credit: Jacob Riis, NYC tenements) and underwear dancing high above the courtyard ground.
Below the flapping clothes was the reason, or reasons I am tripping down memory lane this morning: The cats.
But first you need to know about the luckiest person in our building: Catherine was our building’s “super” (superintendent), a widow with five grown sons. She lived alone in the basement. I remember her as a soft-spoken woman with a puff of pale peach hair, always wearing beige, rubber-soled shoes, and a long apron over a house dress. She was tall and thin with shoulders that hunched forward, like she’d just been slugged in the stomach.
Mommy's voice always took on a pitying note when she spoke of Catherine – “a widow raising five boys, God bless her.” I thought God had blessed her: She had a bounty of cats! Surely a sign of God's love. Yes, you had to hold your nose when you went to the basement to throw away garbage. The smell of urine was enough to singe the hair in your nostrils. However, this small olfactory offense aside, Catherine always had a dozen or so cats weaving around her ankles. Calico, black, black and white, gray and white, and my favorite: The orange-Creamsicle kitty. They didn’t live with her, but she fed them, and they cavorted in the courtyard. In winter, they roamed the dark basement, staying warm near the boiler that heated the entire building. They caught mice, and roaches, and sang all night long. What a lucky woman to have such companions!
Visiting the kitties in the courtyard wasn't enough. I wanted one of my own to cuddle in my room. I was convinced I spoke Cat, and I could do a fairly believable meow. Once I managed to lure a cat home with me, meowing ahead of him, "This way! Follow me!" I was able to give him a bowl of milk and some tuna before my mother told me he had to go. Mommy, who probably could be coaxed into letting me keep it, said that my father didn’t like cats. Didn’t like cats? How could anyone not like cats?
(The cat hater, Mommy, me, circa 1969.) (That doll came with a magnet that allowed me to open /close her eyes! So cool!)
I was cat crazy. I’d crawl around meowing, rubbing up against my family members’ legs. Purring. Lapping milk out of a bowl. Cute for all of five minutes. I'd answer questions with "meow." I'd hiss. I'd spit. I'd get sent to my room. Mommy bought me a pair of “kitty cat” flannel pajamas. They had gray kitties all over a teal background, the flannel soft from so many washings. I wore them until I outgrew them, and then I continued to wear them until one night I found a similar but larger pair in their place. Mommy had tried to swap out a pair that would fit, but I knew: Clearly, the cats’ faces were much larger.
I never got a cat. Not while I lived with my parents. I had a cat in college. I lived on the Lower East Side on Norfolk Street with my boyfriend, and the first-floor apartment looked out onto an alley where the stray cats congregated. The man who lived above us, an 85-year old Russian immigrant, would lower a pie tin piled high with cat kibble, and the cats would try to climb up our window screens to reach the food. One cat, all gray, took a liking to us when we opened the window and let her in. She was filthy and when we stroked her fur our fingers came back black, like when you read the newspaper. (Remember newspapers?) My boyfriend suggested we name her Prensa – which means newspaper in Spanish. A few weeks after moving in with us, Prensa ended up having 4 kittens in our closet, all (Anshe Chesed Synagogue, formed in 1825) of which we eventually placed. After I 175 Norfolk Street in the early '80s moved out of that apartment, the boyfriend kept Prensa. I kept the memory of her.
After Norfolk Street, I moved in with two women in Jersey City. We lived a block from the correctional center where women stood outside at all hours while their incarcerated men yelled down at them, "Wait for me, baby! I love you!" and the women caterwauled and flashed them. No cats, though. (No photo of apartment in Jersey City, either.)
(140 Waverly Place - our studio apartment now rents for $2,650)
I didn’t have another cat until I moved in with Jill on Waverly Place in the West Village. Snuggy was another New York alley cat, this time black and white. Jill would let her out of the apartment to run up and down the stairwell for exercise. When I moved to North Dakota, Jill suggested I take her with me because I’d be in the “country.” So, I did. Snuggy made the road trip in my new, Ford Tempo, stuffed with my belongings. She had a long happy life in the “country,” although she had to be rescued during the flood evacuation of '97. Snuggy wasn't very snuggly, so I am sure that rescue was heroic.
After Snuggy died, at 18, I didn’t have the pleasure of additional cat company until Tony the Tenor came to live with us in November ’19. I agreed to take Tony from a friend who was fostering him. (He was named Tony when I learned he came to ND with the US Air Force from NJ.)
(Snuggy daring you to pet her.)
CONFESSION ALERT: Bless me, reader, I did a terrible thing. I didn’t discuss it with my current roommate, my husband. I predicted he’d say “no,” and there comes a time (around age 49) when you don’t want a man to tell you whether or not you can have a pet. My father said no, and for years I knew without asking that my husband would say no. So I thought about it, and then I said, “Fuck it. I’m getting the cat.”
It’s terrible to make decisions that way in a marriage, and I am very glad it’s worked out the way it has. Alan likes Tony. And Alan likes me. Plus, it helps that Alan’s a cat guy and Tony's a people guy. But I think I get more of a kick out of Tony. We play "get the fishy" each day. He sleeps curled up with me, herds me to bed, and wakes me up with annoying cat nibbles. He even gives me editorial suggestions. (He said this was too long and it needs more photos of him.) He’s my cat. And I’m his woman. Meow.
Tony even forgave me yesterday after I put a collar on him. It took two days to get that collar around his neck. You see, he’s been wanting to go out and eat the birds which taunt him from beyond the windows. So, I thought that since I’ve stopped coloring my hair it was time to embrace my inner cat lady, too, and walk Tony on a leash. Why not? The neighbors already talk.
(Tony, thinking of the indignities he's First I bought a purple collar. But it subjected to; "it wasn't like this in Jersey".) disappeared after the first attempt I made to put it on him. Poof! Gone. Can't find it anywhere.
Then I bought a blue harness and leash. Have you ever tried to put a harness on a cat? Apparently, there's a technique and I don't know it. So, then I bought a cute little polka dot collar. It reminded me of a hipster's bow tie. Figured if I could get that over his head, I could clip the leash on it and we'd have a merry walk in the park. I slyly crept up on him, careful not to make any sudden movement, and then just when he relaxed I slipped that collar over his head! Ha!
But Tony took off like a cat out of hell! I could tell he'd gone upstairs to the bedrooms because the bell on the collar gave him away. But before I could find which bed he was under, the bell stopped jingling. I figured when Tony made an appearance I'd clip the leash on and show him I had only good intentions.
It took a couple hours before he appeared. I glanced over and there he was licking his paws. The collar was gone. He glanced up at me, and said, "Not for nothing, but Jersey boys don't wear no stinkin' collars."
Life, it's all about what we can and will put up with to get what we want. As much as Tony wants to catch those little birdies and rip their necks open, he really, really does not want to be seen on a leash. I can’t blame him. It’s gotta be against cat code. Cats have dignity. They call the shots. They tolerate us mere mortals, unlike dogs who hang on our every word and movement. We are the center of a dog’s world. We just live in a cat’s.
I still haven’t found the collar or the bell, but sometimes when Tony jumps off my lap, I swear I hear a jingle. Your turn: Take out a sheet of paper, fold it in 3, length-wise, with the first two columns the same size, about 2 inches, and the last column about 4 inches. In column one write the name of a pet. In the second column write the address of where you lived when you had that pet. In the 3rd column, write the details that bubble up when you think of your pet and this address: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people, etc. If you're inspired, pick a pet and write about it for 5 minutes, then another. Have fun visiting the past!