Chapter Six: Second Chances
Having Baby slip away across the rainbow bridge was the first time I had ever held a cat while it passed away. On two occasions I had gone with people when their cats had to be taken in to be put to sleep. The first time was with Irene, and I gave her (and Cleo) time alone in the other room. The second time was with my stepdad and I stayed in the room with him.
I got my first cat when I was twelve. My mom divorced when I was two and it was just the two of us for many years. She refused visitation rights, which was just as well as he ran off to Florida with another woman and started another family. She didn’t even want child support.
We tried several times to get a pet. One puppy from the pet store died in a matter of days, probably from distemper. Then we got a bunny and, shortly after that, we somehow got a dog. It was a grown scraggy terrier mutt. The dog scared the bunny to death (that can happen very easily) and then he snapped at me when I tried to move his bowl while he was eating. I think he got his walking papers the next day.
I don’t know where the snarly mutt came from or where he went. I was only about nine at the time. A good guess would have been from my grandmother who lived a few blocks away. She was your quintessential crazy Bronx dog and cat lady right out of Central Casting. It was only a four-room apartment but she always had a core group of six dogs and an ever-changing circus of cats. All strays, cats and dogs alike, and none of them fixed. One of the two bedrooms was a bare-bones space for whatever was in heat. It never completely worked.
The linoleum in the fair-sized living room was stained and warped from years of piddle puddles.
Long story short, that was how I got Tiger.
We were living in Queens by then. I honestly don’t remember how Tiger made it to our apartment. Suddenly I had a cat and I had a feeling this one was going to stick around longer. Tiger just made herself at home and assumed the duties of being my cat. She followed me wherever I went without being obnoxious. She slept on my bed with me. We didn’t have any cat toys back then but she liked a rolled-up ball of paper just fine.
I would like to think, and I’m probably right, that Tiger just wanted a home and she was happy to have one. There is one other explanation and maybe both explanations are true.
Tiger turned out to be a Madonna in Waiting. A pregnant cat getting ready to nest. This is even true with many pregnant ferals as well. They’ll be very friendly to anybody who looks like a kind soul with a safe place to be in during their vulnerable state. Sometimes this turns out to be a permanent relationship. Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, see ya. Thanks a lot,” especially after her litter gets old enough to be taken away and given homes. You’d be surprised how many Madonnas will actually be convinced to take a spot inside after they’ve carefully checked it out. They might even stay forever but they’ll probably want to remain an inside/outside cat.
I used to have a habit of going through the motions of hanging my coat on a hook in my closet but, most of the time, just letting it slip off and fall on the floor. Hey, I was good at science and math. Not so good at home economics.
One of my uncles gave me a really cool black leather coat with a black and gold fleece lining. You guessed it. Tiger gave birth to five or six babies on my coat. I couldn’t blame her. She had good taste.
A year later, long after her babies were adopted and long after that coat was thrown out, I heard some tiny cries from outside the window and down in the alley between the two apartment buildings. It was two tiny kittens all alone. I ran downstairs and checked it out. I couldn’t figure out where these babies came from so I just scooped them up and brought them upstairs.
I showed them to Tiger and I told her, “Tiger, you have to take care of these babies.”
She stepped up to the task immediately and then something miraculous happened. She started nursing again and the rest was history. Just like when she had her natural litter, she cried and searched for these kittens after they were old enough to be adopted. This is always heartbreaking to watch but it passes.
Just like my crazy cat grandma, getting pets fixed just didn’t seem like something people did back then. I don’t remember even ever seeing a Vet office in either my Bronx or Queens neighborhoods. Poor Tiger went through several heats, crying out for a boyfriend. She never strayed outside but we made extra sure all windows and doors were secure during these episodes. Who knows, it probably kept male suitors from getting inside as well.
Shortly after my mom and I first moved to Queens, before I got Tiger, I became a recluse. I don’t know why. I had been placed in the top track for my last year in elementary school. Nothing in particular bothered me, but I would just come home after school, eat cookies and sleep until my mom came home from work. By the next year, I was the second fattest kid in my 7th grade Junior High School class.
My mom was seeing a fellow quite regularly and, sure enough, they sat down with me about what I thought about them getting married. Sure, why not. He was a good guy. Sometime later, they told me that my mom was expecting and I was fine with that too.
Either I was having a suppressed reaction to my mom getting married or I was tired of being the fat kid who got beat up in school. I don’t know which it was but I became anorexic. I’m not bandying the term around lightly. We didn’t even know what anorexia was back then. Okay, I also gained five inches and I was pushing 5’8”, but it wasn’t the ‘string bean effect’.
From 7th grade to the end of 8th grade I ate one ‘meal’ a day- a piece of meat and a piece of broccoli. When I came home for lunch, my mom was at work and I had one diet cookie (there was a product called Metrecal back then). I didn’t eat dinner until I moved my bowels and I did five hundred situps every night. Okay, so the situps were in bed and it was a lot more comfortable than a gym floor or mat but five hundred situps no less. I was obsessed with staying under 99 pounds. I had gone from being the second fattest kid in 7th grade to being the second skinniest kid in 8th grade.
There were a number of Specialized High Schools in New York City. At some point during 9th grade, my homeroom teacher suggested I take the test for The High School of Art and design. I received a date to come to the school (it was in Manhattan), bring a portfolio and take further tests while I was there. A lot of kids showed up that day. They must have given the student body the day off because they divided us up into small groups and placed us in all the classrooms.
We left our portfolios at the teacher’s desk, grabbed a copy of the test and sat down. I couldn’t find it to show you, but my portfolio included a pencil sketch of Tiger sleeping by a radiator. The only part of the test that I remember was to draw something right then and there at your desk, just to prove you were the creator of that portfolio. The assignment was to draw a young woman shopping for clothes. A few weeks later I was informed that I passed and I was instructed to show up for orientation on the first school day in September.
Everything had come together. For the first time, I had a whole family with a sister or brother on the way. I think the joy and confidence I experienced by getting accepted to Art and Design stabilized and normalized my weight. I had a great cat.
Then it all went upside down and backward.
My sister was born that June and, during that summer, something disturbing was going on with her. After a couple of doctor office visits, it was determined that a LOT was going on with her and none of it was good.
She was diagnosed with severe brain damage, epilepsy, and minimal seeing ability (from what they can gauge at that age). Seeing a tiny baby have a seizure that could kill a horse was something I wish on no one. Even greater than my dashed hopes of having a sister, something all my friends and cousins seemed to have, my parents were beyond devastated.
They had very little patience for your average American teenager, let alone a teenager who was about to enter a circus of beatniks, freaks and hippies. I was walking on eggshells at home, trying not to make my stepfather go ballistic or my mother burst into tears, both from their frustration and heartache.
I stayed away from home more and more. There was one of those small security chains inside our apartment door. My stepfather put it on at 10 o'clock sharp and they went to bed. If I came home anytime after that the chain would make a racket while it kept the door from opening, followed by my stepfather raising high holy hell for having to get up and take off the chain.
I spent several nights in Central Park, where I ran into the real-life denizens depicted in the musical Hair. I’d pick the longest subway lines and sleep in a far corner seat back and forth from the first stop to the last stop and back again.
The God of Irony must have laughed his ass off when I got a job at a Drug Abuse and Mental Health hotline. I always volunteered for the overnight shift. I’d do my homework, take a nap, talk some kid down from an acid trip, rinse, repeat.
There’s a reason why I have dragged you through this unexpected ‘woe is me’ biography. I was angry and I didn’t even know how angry I was. I took it out on Tiger. I took it out on the one living thing that deserved it the least. The one creature that would have been there, and she tried, to be there for me no matter what.
When I was home, I’d kick her out of my way. I’d throw her off the bed when she wanted to join me. She just kept coming back, wanting to be with me and probably very confused about what was going on.
For the year after High School, I just stumbled around the city, going from one part-time job to another. Things felt so disconnected that in my mind’s eye, it seemed like I was talking to my mom on the phone. She told me Tiger was walking around crying a lot and they thought there must be something wrong with her and they were going to take her to be put to sleep.
If I managed any response, it was no more than, “Okay. Whatever.”
This amazing cat didn’t know what was going on. She was probably dying from a broken heart. She was put in a box and left with strangers who probably threw her in a cage until it was time to grab her, jab her and put her to sleep forever.
It wasn’t until years later that I fully recalled and reconstructed how I treated her and how I wasn’t there for her. If there is a hell, I’m probably going there for what I did to her.
We moved to Boston. I actually, for the first time, got a girlfriend. She and her roommates had a bunch of cats. Suddenly they had to move and, for some reason, the cats couldn't come with them. My job, unbeknownst to my parents, was to bring them one of the cats. I pretty much came in and said, “Hi. Here’s a cat. Bye.”
They called her Snoopy. I believe she had vet visits during her life. When the time came, my mom was with her when she was put to sleep. The vet mentioned that she had recently had to do the same to one of her cats. I think the last thing my mom heard was the vet asking Snoopy to say hi to her cat when she saw her. My mom cried for days.
Sometime after Snoopy, the lady next door told my folks that there was a scraggy little calico cat in the lot behind their house. By the end of the day, my folks had her upstairs in their apartment and they let her eat and sleep in a nice dark safe corner under the couch. Veterinary care was now a thing people did in my family. They gave the cat some crazy fancy name, like Miss Lulu Belle or something, but, as far as I know, they channeled Holly Golightly and just called her Cat. Add to that, my stepfather was the only person she’d let anywhere near her. I think that was the only way she could have had vet visits.
Over the span of Miss Lulu Cat’s tenure, we lost my mom and then, not long afterward, my sister. Oh yes, I didn’t mention that my parents kept my very challenged sister home for all of her forty-five years. For all those years, she never improved beyond an adult crib and a special wheelchair that propped her up into a sitting position. My parents hand-fed, changed her diapers and bathed her.
My stepdad, who I've actually referred to as my dad for years, was a changed man. In what seemed like a blink of an eye everything he had built his life around was gone. My parents always took separate vacations, as they had a few bad experiences with respite programs. One of them was always with my sister.
I came back up to Boston twice to handle the final arrangements for my mom and, then, my sister. At least he still had Lulu Cat Belle.
This was around the time that I went back to the Bronx and formally started looking after the cats outback.
You heard all the names- Hobo, Old Man, Chad, Frankie and, yes, there really was a Ben Affleck. I named Liza and Elsa after Liza Minelli and Elsa Lanchester. I just referred to them by their first names, especially in Irene’s presence. Despite her history of having several cats, and despite the many occasions I cat-sat for her while she was away, she would kind of give me that sing-song “I don’t know about you” when my interests would suddenly take off in a curious direction. Think of it as Sherlock Holmes and Mrs. Hudson.
Frankie was one guy who spanned many phases of The Space Monkeys. Yeah, I needed an official name for my colony just in case I did get recognized by the TNR program.
He started out as a member of the ‘missionary soup kitchen’. He always seemed a little punch drunk. His beautiful blue eyes always had a terrible chronic eye infection that I would have gladly paid to get treated but, as I mentioned, it was just daunting. I wished he had been around during the Cat Lady experience. We might have trapped him and got him all fixed up from here to the moon but hindsight is a wish that you already know didn’t come true.
He would come and then go for longer and longer periods of time until I’d be certain he was dispatched by one of the many dangers out there. Then he’d show up again.
He had the markings of a Siamese, except his face didn’t follow the Siamese color schemes I had seen. He had a black cowl and a bright white muzzle. It looked like he had a Batman mask. When I told Irene that I named him Frankie, she thought it was an homage to Frank Sinatra’s famous blue eyes. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Frankie was short for Frankenstein because he looked like he was made out of two different cats.
A friend of mine pointed out, “Heater, all cats are made out of two different cats.”
(note: It’s also been pointed out that he might have been a ragdoll cat. As G.I. Joe says, “And now you know… and learning is half the battle.”)
Okay, so we’re back to Grem, Liza, Elsa and the Three Amigos.
I had wisely reached out on GoFundMe for help taking care of even this brood. Not only did people provide enough for a steady supply of cat food, but they also made it possible for me to send away for some real cat shelters.
I added some insulated drapes I had plus I lined each ‘cabana’ with those heat-reflective cat mats that I mentioned. Not too shabby, if you ask me.
I noticed Grem had a strange trait and still does to this day. She’s sociable to a fault when it comes to cats outside the colony. She hides when any person other than me is in the area, which I prefer, especially when she’s outside.
But she’d run up and want to play with any newcomer that wandered through the yard. As you might guess, this was not taken well. Also, Grem didn't know how to fight. She knew how to play fight with her friends, especially Buddy Amigo, but she would constantly get her ass kicked by transients. These strangers would run off when I came outside but, on many occasions, she'd run off after them.
The need to turn her into a full-time house cat was weighing heavy. I wish I had never transitioned her back into the outside, even if she did spend half her time indoors. Again, think back to what I said about hindsight and wishes.
When her outside days were uneventful, life was good, but she was getting into more and more fights each week. To compound the situation, some idiot down the block got a Bengal cat. I don’t know what generation it was. Bengals are supposed to be down bred and ‘diluted’ with each generation of breeding with a non-Bengal. That was moot as all Bengals are illegal in New York City anyway. This one was always getting out. It was an unfixed aggressive male and, before long, Grem was its favorite target.
Living in a tiny basement rear studio apartment made it a lot easier to keep an eye on things but I wasn’t glued to the window and, yes, I actually had places to go to during the week.
It was on a quiet late Autumn afternoon and I was engrossed in writing something at my desk, much as I am doing right now. Six feet away, on the other side of the back door, the most desperate cries mixed with the sounds of rumble and tumble broke the silence into a million shards. The Bengal had Grem in the corner where the door met an outcropping wall and seemed to be tearing into her like crazy. I burst through the door and the Bengal took off for the woods. I picked up Grem and examined her. No blood and no other wounds could be seen, but she was shaking like a leaf with her pupils dilated to full black.
I just held her in my arms and whispered, “I’ll never ever let anybody hurt you.”
She began her life in a drainage ditch. Somehow she got trapped by some TNR group and, somehow, I called the Cat Lady and got pressed into housing that week’s group of caught cats… one of which was Grem.
She even dodged, with my help, whatever might have happened to her when that raccoon was trying to get into her cage.
After all that, I was not going to let her get brutally maimed or even killed by a vicious animal that had no business being in the population. As angry as I was, I wasn’t going to kill or hurt the Bengal. I’d just chase it off with the garden hose, even when Grem wasn’t outside. It wasn’t his fault. Idiots bring illegal exotic creatures into the city all the time. News stories about full-grown alligators and tigers being raised from infancy and kept in an apartment didn’t even get a raised eyebrow from the average New Yorker.
I had the TNR cage that was a gift from a GoFundMe sponsor but I was adrift at sea with no paddle as far as getting anything I trapped fixed. Of course, I devilishly daydreamed of trapping the Bengal, getting him neutered, and then letting him back out.
Something had to happen, for better or worse, to break out of this scenario. Once again, wurtzite boron nitride and Mount Augustus were laughing at my helplessness. Time and space suddenly went up and down and over and out and it was crystal clear. I remembered Tiger and how my insensitivity and neglect played so much into her terrible ending. I will never forgive myself for that but, in some kind of weird inversion, the mission now was to take care of Grem. Maybe I would not only save her but my soul as well.
Something happened. For better or worse, it did indeed happen.