A NOTE BEFORE READING: Today’s post and the three Thursday posts that will follow come from a memoir project: five Catalysts and five Constants. The project’s essays are all quite a bit longer than my usual posts, so I am going to share this one in four installments.
Between our junior and senior years of college, my friend Robin and I discovered the bench. It was in a great locale. Private – but in the middle of everything. Safe – but within steps of danger. Kind of like each of us.
The bench was on the Upper West Side. Close to school, close to where we each lived. It was on the relatively wide median of “land” that separated the northbound Broadway traffic from that heading south. The cross-street was 113th, which made it conveniently close to the Yum-Yum ice cream shop, where we each had zeroed in on our favorite frozen treats.
We would end up on that bench many a night that summer, enjoying the late, late night air, enjoying our Yum-Yum purchases, anxious to talk further about the subject that was foremost on our minds: Boys. (Guys.) ( Men.)
Robin always seemed so much more versed in this arena. She definitely had more experience. And she appeared, to me, to have more confidence, too. She dressed sexily – in mini-skirts and heels. She spent time on her hair. And she seemed to flirt with ease. I, on the other hand, always was more the comfort-seeker when it came to such matters. My clothes generally flow. My shoes rarely change my height much. If I can't “do” my hair in two minutes, then it's the wrong style for me. And while I enjoy titillating conversation, I enjoy it most with people I know – well.
Regardless of those differences, Robin and I had become close. We would grow along together for several years. And for several summers, we would return to the bench. We would eat our frozen treats and explore the mysteries of life – which were, particularly in those years, all about our lives.
During the summer of 1981, I was job-hopping as a waitress, trying to find a restaurant where I could hang my apron and then focus on other, more creative things. Robin, who also had donned an apron recently, was taking a break from that aerobic career to attend journalism school. Doug was living with her then, which added a new topic to our girl talk.
One night on the bench, we heard a mournful sound. It was coming from the sidewalk across the street. We looked east to trace its source and saw a grey tabby cat begin to head toward us. Sauntering as he bellowed, he safely made his way across the three lanes of northbound traffic. And although we had cheered him on, he didn't immediately jump into either of our outstretched sets of arms. Rather, he made a bee-line for the shrubbery that was behind the bench. (He was a cat, after all.)
Was he afraid or just being shy? Regardless, there was no way we would leave him in the traffic's median. There was no way we would leave him to tempt the fate of another three lanes of Broadway. He had made it thus far, so the least we could do was make sure we got him to safety. Surely, the person who had put the flea collar around his neck would appreciate our efforts.
Yes, this cat was wearing a flea collar, which – in Robin's and my vernacular – meant one thing: he was not available (as it were). He was going to be a “one-night stand.” The question then became: which one of us was going to take him home?
Robin and I each already had a single cat at home. But, in addition to that, Robin had her boyfriend, Doug, and they had their boa constrictor, whom they cleverly called “Snakey.” She knew it would be dicey to walk home with this new rescued cat. And while I wasn't particularly looking to provide refuge for a second cat (I knew that the cleverly-named Kitty, with her Siamese roots, had no desire to share me), I figured I could at least give this wanderer a place for the night. I'd post signs the next day. Surely, the person who put the flea collar around his neck would be looking for him...
And so, in a rare instance in Robin's and my friendship, I was the one who took the guy home. And, in a rare instance in my life generally, it turned into a long-term relationship. I guess whoever put on that flea collar simply didn't care. If they had, they would have looked for the signs – the ones I posted the next day, all over the neighborhood surrounding 113th Street and Broadway.
I must admit, though, it also took me a while to see the signs. It took me a while to accept that this cat was mine. For the longest time, I was hesitant even to name him. But, one day – three or four weeks into our relationship – he weaved his way into the kitchen on 108th Street, and I heard myself say, “Hello, Mort.”
I didn't know where the name had come from, but it seemed right. And it stuck. Later, I would notice the tag in my black wrap-around waitressing skirt. The tag showed a jungle cat in full-leap mode. The tag said “Mr. Mort.”
So, I had named him, but still, was he mine?
Mort would leave the apartment often, exiting by way of my bedroom window, which happened to lead to the fire escape. Sometimes, he would be gone for a few days, and I would just assume that he had gone home.
One evening, after he had been gone for a particularly long stretch, the building's night doorman appeared at my apartment door. He was holding a very dirty Mort. “Is this your cat?” he said.
“Well... I guess.”
I brought him inside and gave him a jump start on the bath that he would ultimately self-administer.
Another time, I came home in the late afternoon, returning from my waitressing shift. My roommate was sitting in the living room, and she looked less than pleased. “There's a dead pigeon on your bed,” she announced.
I didn't feel immediately concerned. I had grown up with cats who were outdoors a lot and whose access included the cow pasture that was adjacent to our house in Virginia. I'd thought I'd seen it all.
But I'd never seen a dead pigeon on my bed.
Fortunately, it wasn't a bloody mess, but oh, what plumage! There were feathers everywhere. I hadn't planned on doing laundry that night, but suddenly, that was at the top of my agenda.
Oh, and I had to scold Mort. I looked at him, shook my finger and firmly said, “Bad!”
( But through my eyes, I probably couldn't hide the other thing I wanted to say. It was, “Thank you. I love you, too.”)
What was left of the main part of the pigeon was smack dab in the upper middle part of my bed – where the bed's heart would be, if it had one. I knew Mort had brought the pigeon to me as a token of his affection. Not only was I touched by the gesture, but I also was quite proud of my little hunter. He had captured a large bird, actually killed it, and then negotiated its carcass through the steel labyrinth that had become his playground. You just can't help but be impressed.
Shortly thereafter, I bought a screen for the window, but Mort still found a way out. He'd bend the screen's corner and slide right through. He'd then go off on his excursions, accessing the roof as well as the other fire escapes that were installed strategically around the 8-story building and within its airshafts.
And over the course of the next several months, he would bring home two more pigeons. Maybe, though, he had heard some of my scolding, as I noted how the trail of feathers carefully circumvented my bed. Cleaning up those second two wasn't such a big deal, and luckily, I made the discoveries before my roommate came home. We never told her about those pigeons.
to be continued on March 1st.