Cats came and went in the first third of my life much like roommates, part of the fabric of frugal bachelor existence but quickly relegated to history once absent. There was even a time when, living in a remote cypress shack on Bayou Grosse Tete, I had a dozen cats foisted on me by a couple who were moving out of the country, and were looking for a place where their pets could thrive and they could guiltlessly relocate to France. The cats found that the fields and swamps surrounding my house were vastly more interesting than living a cloistered life with a curmudgeon, and quickly adapted to living on their own, deserting me and my cold-water household. Though they would show up from time to time to show off a new litter and mooch a can of tuna.
Then I met my partner thirty-one years ago. I was not seeking feline companionship at the time, but that was part of the deal for access to this smart and caring, long-legged and quite beautiful redhead named Faun. Among my more rudimentary associates, the saying went: “Ya wants da goil, ya gots ta carry da goil’s baggage.” I accepted the cat. It has proved a good bargain.
The cat Norman and his protector
Siamese Norman, the male version of the name Norma Jean, AKA Marilyn Monroe, had absolutely nothing in common with his namesake except a volatilely inclined disposition toward males. Me, in this case.
In our early acquaintance Norman made my life as difficult as he could, preferring not to share his mistress with any other human in general and me in particular. And since she had just graduated law school and was leaving on a long-planned relocation to Paris, he had the prospect of European travel with the lovely girl. I did not. Another French departee. Having a degree in law from Louisiana, a state that deals in Napoleonic Code rather than American Civil Law, meant that she could eventually practice that profession in France if she wanted. She told me that she had in mind doing just that for a living. Just that, or dancing at a place like the Crazy Horse. That particular image made me rue her departure, or the fact that I could not go see the envisioned performance, all the more.
But I didn’t want to stand in the way of her dream, and I let her and the cat fly out of my life. Luckily, the timing was right for me and wrong for the two travelers. A bitterly cold Parisian winter drove them back to balmy New Orleans some four months later and into a shared room with me, upstairs over a Mexican taqueria. I hocked my typewriter to cook her a fancy meal when she returned.
Norman quickly proved he was his own cat. At the time I was living with some friends who contracted out as construction workers, and tall ladders were leaned against the back of the house by my window in storage for the next job. When we awoke one morning to find the cat missing, I looked out of that second story window to see Norman climbing back up the 20-foot ladder to return to our room after a night’s rousting about. He was a brilliant creature, but I was always second in his life to Faun.
When we moved to a quaint shotgun house in the Bywater district of New Orleans, luxuriously equipped with two claw-foot bathtubs under the bathroom skylight, he took over the residence and thrived. I began to even like the aggressive beastie. But Norman was unused to regular urban life, and a car caught him crossing the street in our very first year.
Faun was inconsolable, losing a friend who had been with her through such life-changing times, and so after ritually burying Norman under a blackberry bush in our back yard, I began examining newspaper ads for Siamese cats the very next morning. Found one, called the number, and discovered that they had two kittens remaining from a litter. We rushed over and were instantly heart-bound by the large boisterous brother and his delicate tiny sister. They were actually just half Siamese, and half striped tabby. They were adorable. Separation of the two was impossible.
On the way home with a lapful of bouncing kitten, their names were decided as Percy and Paulinho.
And thus my life as the owner of multiple cats began.
* * *
We lived through a lot with those two. We drove them north to meet my parents on Bayou Robert, and they expressed their fear at their first car trip by filled their carrying case, and in the process covering each other, with poop. Strangers at an Airline Highway truck stop sat goggle-eyed at the sight of me standing by the store-front holding first one, then the other, fouled kitten in hand while I attempted to hose each clean. They were quite patient with me, and once we were again on our way, damp but content kitties now ensconced in laps, there followed at least fifty miles of poop-derived laughter.
I grew used to living in a cat world. But over the next ten years, came the inevitable passage of life, first Zoë and then Koko replacing that first much-loved pair.
The “Siamese” Zoë A young Koko
By this time, we began to realize the word “Siamese” was just a draw – Zoë was billed as such, but once we saw her the same things happened. An inability to leave her behind.
So came our first tortoise-shell, and one of the two cats who, along with Koko (a cat so kindred a spirit that I remember once praying that I would die before he did – he was my son), would accompany us on two Big Adventures: buying a house and surviving Hurricane Katrina.
* * *
Indeed a Hurricane was in our future. As if my eyes, and their feline connection, weren’t trouble enough.
These dots that swim sometimes languidly sometimes frantically in my right eye, they will never dissipate. They will never go away. That’s what the doctors say. Some sort of crystals suspended in the liquid.
Won’t dissolve. Ever.
So I am prone to these occasional swats at a shadowy New Orleans mosquito that is not really there. I am regularly pulled from a deep read by a reflexive glance right or left, as the fluid in my eye moves one way or the other. Only to realize the joke is again on me.
Trick of the eye, the phrase goes. In this case, my eye. The same eye that year nurtured a malignant melanoma and tried to kill me.
It is a vagabond eye, a rogue organ, and it persists in its demands for dominance. It wants a bigger say in what happens to this body, how it is administrated. Even with its attached nerve, it can’t comprise more than an ounce or two of the two hundred plus pounds comprising the physical me, but my right eye wants to be noticed at every waking moment.
And so it is. But yet another odd coincidence in my life involves cats and this ongoing optical allusion/illusion.
Right after moving into our new home, we had a succession of three feral tabbies wander up to the back door in rapid succession, and remain to stay. Shortly after the passing of each cat, another would arrive, as if summoned. These cats bore a particularly unique physical trait in common -- each had only one functional eye.
* * *
It was during the actual renovation that the succession began. One-eyed Fred was the first. He and his brother Butch appeared in a neighbor's trash pile as two very sick kittens during the first month of the restoration of this century-old house where I now live. The elderly resident cat-lady said the momma cat was dead, recently run over in the street, and that these kittens would follow her soon. She had at least three dozen others, so the loss of two new cats meant little to her. It was painful for me to hear this death sentence, much less watch it progress, as my kitchen window overlooked her patio. Finally I couldn’t stand it. I climbed her fence, scooped up the two kittens, and drove the two to a vet, a simpatico friend.
Butch, a perfectly white short-hair, had lung disease. Fred, an orange tabby, had one horribly infected eye bulging from his head. They were both stoic and braving their illnesses with only minor whimpers, and still acting excited about being alive. Kittenish. I couldn’t help myself. The money set aside for a backyard fence was invested on getting the two tiny creatures well.
After a huge amount of money and several months, they did return to health.
Butch promptly was run over by a speeder, who did not stop.
Fred, on the other hand, did not leave, indeed stayed for years, an angry, defiant cat who peed on any and everything within range of his prodigious bladder. I called him an artist at his chosen life style: a “Urinary Expressionist”. In spite of his half-vision, he also attacked any other creature who dared come near his territory.
The slightly maniacal Fred
So for year the house ran on with the three furred companions in tow. The sweet tortoise-shell Zoë, the even sweeter and more affectionate Koko, and the demon Fred.
And then came Hurricane Katrina.
Somehow just hours after arriving on a marathon flight back from Tokyo, I found myself departing New Orleans again, to spend fourteen straight hours driving away from the raging winds in a tiny convertible VW Beetle. A bad driver in any case, jet-lagged to the max, I was trying to get us out of the path of harm. Encased in the small Germanic bubble were a terrified redhead, three screaming felines, and my own horrible anxieties, all cutting cross-country in the dark searching for my parents’ house.
The weeks living on the road do not bear telling here, but let it be said that the three cats behaved much more heroically then either of the humans, and when returned to their home on Marigny street in New Orleans, they acted for all the world as if they never knew that there were thirteen trees missing from their yard. It was merely their yard, and that was that.
* * *
We have never again had to seek out a cat. After Katrina word spread in the neighborhood, and suddenly there was a line at the back door every morning when food was being dispensed. Once-domestic animals, pets abandoned in the face of the evacuation, often on the legally-binding orders of the soldiers and police officers who stripped pets from evacuees boarding buses out of the City, began to re-approach humans.
Three black cats co-inhabited our backyard. We didn’t know if they were from the same feral litter, but we fed them morning and night, and each day they came closer and acted friendlier.
One, a tuxedo whom Faun calls Blackie and I call Mr B now comes to me and will even sit in my lap. He was obviously captured after the storm, castrated and released, as is evidenced by his left ear, which is missing its top third. Force-fixed cats were caught and disfigured in that manner immediately post-K, when every animal was considered feral, rabid and dangerous. The missing ear was to prevent their being picked up again. At least they were not euthanized, which was the case with many of the personal pets confiscated at the Katrina bus boarding sites.
Blackie had spent much time lost among the toxic floodwaters left by Katrina, and shortly after this picture was taken began suffering the effects of that exposure. He is now completely blind, but has adapted, as after eight years he knows our yard, and seldom leaves it.
Another solid black, L’il Miss, remains in many ways a very down-to-earth and affectionate female, but for all these years she has mostly refused to come down from the trees. The water might rise again. As a feeding solution we have affixed a few strips of Velcro to an avocado tree limb, and also to the bottom of a dish, and L’il Miss now feeds about six feet above the rest of the herd.
Nikko, who knew
The last of these first three was the mysterious, unapproachable and absolutely mystical Nikko. Whom we came to love as something of a feline shaman.
Immediately post-Katrina, the three house cats and three yard cats were often joined at breakfast and dinner by a large raccoon who had taken up residence in the abandoned fire station on the back of the block. We thought him a lone straggler and watched him grow ever larger, until just the other morning when she arrived for breakfast with two short and fuzzy versions of herself.
The three masked stripers loved the papayas and bananas that filled their dish each morning. Food from our yard. But soon enough the urban jungle began to fill in again and the raccoons were not to be seen again.
There were then just six cats upon the premises. Just six cats.
* * *
A year later, Fred came to his end in a heroic battle with two much-larger terriers. He retained a sense of purpose to the end, Fred did.
Then less than two months after Fred’s demise, another one-eyed tabby appeared, filled with an even larger life mission.
And a larger story. He had already lived a long life when he arrived. I told Tigger’s story a few years ago, and it still breaks my heart to remember.
But here it is.
* * *
He was deserted by his mother at birth and survived by his wits as a literal infant. He begged for food from seedier neighborhood hangers-on, those scarcely better off than he. He scavenged for meals through rotting garbage in restaurant dumpsters, running between shadows on the precarious New Orleans lakefront. He occasionally trapped a fish which had strayed into the shallows or found a recently dead crab washed up on the shore.
He slept in abandoned cubbyholes hidden in the maze of small, damp caves that criss-cross beneath the jagged concrete of Lake Ponchartrain water breaks.
He managed his own life for well over a decade, with help from no one.
Then as he was trying to cross a street, once again scrabbling for food, he was hit and critically injured by a car. The vehicle rolled over him, and did not stop to help.
Neighbors saw his injury, ran to the accident site and tried to find him. But, like sole survivalists are wont to do, he had instantly gone to ground to try and recover on his own. Other than recent blood stains, there was not even a sign of him to be found when that help first arrived. When by pure chance he was discovered weeks later by a rescuer, he was on the verge of death, had lost one eye, all his teeth and the use of a leg. His tongue was split down the middle. Untreated, his bones had fused incorrectly.
He was in constant pain, and tried as best he could to communicate that distress. His volunteer doctor ordered him taken for rehabilitation to a wooded inland farm in Mississippi, a place that catered to such lost souls. He had really just been settling in there when in 2005 Hurricane Katrina came ashore just south of the place, inundating the coastline with a thirty-foot storm surge. Trees and dwellings were considerably thinned.
But he survived again, and even began to thrive, together with others of his ilk and age for the first time. By that December he had recovered enough to be offered for adoption on the internet, his story accompanied by a picture of his tortured, though admirable, face.
But an adoptive family was not considered a likely result. Even the rescue agency itself admitted that a crippled, toothless, and half-blind thirteen-year-old was a long-shot for adoption.
He came to live at our house.
Through an improbable chain of events starting with his picture on the internet, and the fact that we had lost a one-eyed orange tabby, the limping little fellow came to live with us.
“Tigger” he was called. He was already tagged as “Tiger” when adopted, but the old boy was much too loving and non-aggressive to be called that, and so his name was softened with another “g”. He weighed twelve pounds, 5.4 kilos, when he arrived here on Marigny street in New Orleans. He gained weight and then a feeling of safety, on a steady diet and much petting.
Then after months of stability and love, those measures of happiness suddenly were declining hourly. Something bad had entered his system, and his breathing became more labored by the moment. At first the doctors thought it a harsh uprising of asthma, and then, a possible heart attack, sending some sort of embolism from heart to lungs. It was the Memorial holiday weekend, his regular vet was not available, and the emergency clinic where he first was treated had him overnight in an oxygen tent.
In the process of diagnosing his condition and evaluating his current status they performed a number of scientific and medical procedures, including taking a life-sized x-ray. They looked inside his thick orange fur and discovered even more of his history. There was a bullet lodged in his side. It had been there some time and had scarred over. Two of his spinal vertebrae were crushed in what were probably the jaws of a large dog. He had many many other healed wounds.
All this violence attached to the touchingly affectionate creature that had slept purring with his head and front paws on my hip for all these past months. I never realized before the x-ray just how far he had come, how much he had endured. Yet here was a creature still able to blot out past horror and simply offer himself as a loving presence in other’s lives.
That nervous Sunday morning, while I waited for word about Tigger’s imminent transfer to a different, much better-equipped, and vastly more expensive critical-care facility, I began thinking that this old tabby and his now-discovered contents had made me begin separating faces and lives, and stories. Maybe this was his function on earth, offering himself as a reminder for compassion on a personal scale.
Though at the time I feared the cat and I both owed that Bush fellow, still the “W” president then, a debt of sorts. That Saturday, before taking Tigger to the emergency room, the mail arrived with an “economic stimulus payment” -- a check from the federal government made out to me for $600. Then, just hours later at the ritzy veterinary critical care hospital, I was required to put down a deposit on the Tig’s bill: the hospital’s finance person demanded I pay exactly $600 before she would admit him for care. Exactly $600. Which, confounding George W Bush’s economically subterranean policies, I gave to the hospital and did not spend at Wal-Mart.
No matter, George. All of us eventually die anyway. Only the worth of the story remains.
Tigger would tell them that they all matter, if he could. He himself matters, here in this hard place where creatures live and die at the whim of their fellows. Where the self-aware are ruled by the caprice of the planet on which they are allowed to momentarily exist. To occasionally use the litter box. Then to not exist.
I spoke to the doctor later that day. My tabby was awake and purring in his oxygen tent. I knew I must go read him the Sunday paper.
He liked the way I explained the brightly-printed comics. There are speaking cats in those pages, felines who are in control of their lives.
He was not well, you know, and to heal needed brief respites from the pain of reality. As do we all.
We went home. Then, time again went forward, faster as it does for cats.
All the love in the world could not keep Tigger alive forever. One day, a year and a half after he arrived at my door, Tigger passed of a massive heart attack suffered as he enjoyed his dinner dish. He left the world happy and knowing he was safe and loved.
I miss the old boy daily.
* * *
Six months further passed, and then, just as I was softening to the blow of losing Tigger, a tiny kitten crawled out from under the back porch. A female this time, and grey. But a tabby. With just a solitary working eye. The right one.
I have no idea where she came from, how she got here. But Sterling now is a permanent resident.
Our right eyes meet on a regular basis, and I believe they know each other. Along with eight other rescues who all just wandered up since Katrina, some as a coda to their lives, other as a start to living. I will bring this tale to the present with their stories.
* * *
I recorded this particular narrative about McMuff, another orange tabby, more feral than most, but a good guy nonetheless. Here seen in a typically relaxed sleeping mode.
* * *
Sounds ridiculous but, three weeks after a serious injury, I am still recovering from an infected wound. I am just finishing weeks laced with the nausea of twice-daily doses of major antibiotics and three-times-daily pain of minor rehab.
It was simple to accomplish all this misery: one Monday afternoon I decided a very sick orange tabby needed to go to the vet. That is all it took.
I gently picked up the obviously ill and limp McMuff – no I have no idea where the name came from -- to put him into the pet carrier. Naturally, the cat then bit the absolute hell out of me, tooth going right straight through my thumb and out the other side. Chipped bone. Ripped me up. Bled all over the place. And, despite peroxide and alcohol and Epsom salt soaking, the wound went south and turned seriously black by TUE. Emergency room, tetanus shots etc etc etc. And antibiotics, very strong large pills twice a day, but pain is worse. No sleeping. Hard to believe.
All of which still keeps me a tad feverish and constantly nauseous. Maybe that is where the tenor of both my bank and gun story originated. I went to faculty interviews Monday and almost passed out. I was too embarrassed to admit the source of my pitiful physical state.
This past Tuesday the thumb was still draining nasty stuff, and I had to keep squeezing it (most painful) every couple of hours to keep from pressure buildup behind the thumbnail, which is also absolutely excruciating and to be avoided.
Then yesterday all the skin peeled off the thumb, which is finally finally finally shrinking and drying up.
Today is my last day on these horrible antibiotics.
McMuff wasted away in time, ever refusing a vet visit. We coddled him to the end.
But I remembered trying to do a good deed, and then whammo, of course, this body in which I am fated to live got punished for it. Incredible.
Just like real life.
* * *
Others came and went, too. Nikko developed a non-functioning liver, and in spite of us even giving daily saline injections, he finally looked Faun in the eye one morning and said goodbye. When we came home from work that evening he had vanished forever. Suzie Q, a gorgeous calico, stayed for a few years and then disappeared. We believed her kidnapped, as she was an exceeding beautiful creature, and willing to go along with a kind word and a full dish.
* * *
So as we approach Tuesday 19 November 2013, the 31st anniversary of my induction into the Temple of Cats, seven of the creatures live upon my homestead.
Sterling and Blackie and L’il Miss continue, now joined by Buddy, another adventurous all-black who likes to chase dogs. Punk’n, a bobtailed orange tabby, came to us abandoned as a kitten adorned with a spike collar that he had outgrown, which then began strangling him. We removed it. He stayed. Daisy is another beautiful calico, and speaks a cat language all her own. Luckily she stays close to home and away from strangers. Silver is a large grey tabby male with white feet and bib. He is the sole feral holdout, but is now coming into the kitchen for meals.
* * *
As a result of this article I will still refuse to confess to becoming another crazy bag lady/gent, some smelly derelict lost to society, surrounded in later life only by uncontrolled dozens of mewling and pissing creatures. I myself have known a number of these people. But the stereotype is not always the case. I am not so smelly. Yet.
Sometimes you just give off a good nurturing vibe and life gathers. Comes to the doorstep, willing to exchange love for love. Like I did, with Faun, thirty-one years ago Tuesday.
And that is a damn good thing.