November 22, 2012
Life Imitating Art With a Cat

You’ve seen this scene in almost every crime movie:   The hero is walking down the street when he passes a parked car with a crooked cop and his muscled sidekick and they invite the hero to “Go for a ride” so “We can talk to you.”  Then, after traumatizing him with threats while circling several city blocks, the crooked cop and his muscled sidekick drop off the hero in the exact same spot where they picked him up.  

One very hot summer day, John and I were walking through our neighborhood on our way to lunch when we passed a utility pole stapled with the usual Lost Pet flyer.  I did what I always do which is to stop, study the picture, learn the lost pet’s name and characteristics (“Cuzco is very skittish and may scratch”  ”Lily is excessively shy and may bolt” “Buttons is deaf in one ear” “Arnold takes anxiety medication”).   The personality portion of the flyer always begs a few questions:  Maybe Arnold needs medication because he doesn’t exactly enjoy your company?  Is Cuzco “skittish” or trying to claw his way to freedom?  And why, seriously, do you want this pet back when the whole relationship just sounds like a 1950s prison movie with Susan Hayward?

It turns out that this Lost Pet was non-neurotic young tabby who was simply new to the neighborhood and somehow slipped through the door.

Later that same day, my teenage son and I were driving about a dozen blocks from the posted flyer when we came upon a group of young girls on a sidewalk, playing with a young tabby that was the exact image of the Lost Pet Cat.  I say ‘playing’, but the scene more accurately resembled a dinner party of dissolute French aristocrats months before their unfortunate introduction to the guillotine, as they sat around ridiculing someone who had just left the room to use the chamber pot.  That is to say, they weren’t handling the little cat as much as they were carrying on a kind of running commentary.  I’m guessing that some think tank is studying this tendency of Children in the Computer Age right now.

Now I’m disinclined to involve with seemingly unaffiliated animals because of the possibility of the encounter turning into something like an adult version of Hot Potato at the moment when the music stops.  I dread an adorable cat following me down the street, or making eye contact with some friendly dog on the loose.  For some reason, ‘acting like you don’t care’ is kind of a cross-species turn-on; nothing says pursue me like pretending to check the gum on the bottom of your shoe.

It was with great resignation to the vagaries of life and loss that I leaned out my window (but compromised by keeping the engine running) to ask about the little cat.  I am no expert when it comes to nine year old girls, but their excitement at being asked about the cat was pretty impressive.  They all spoke at once.  They didn’t know who it belonged to; it just showed up.  Why did I want to know?  Where was the pet flyer?  What was it’s name?  What was my name?  Where did I live?  Did I have any cats?  They liked Persians.  Didn’t I think it should have a collar?  A diamond one, in purple.  They told me their ages and pointed out their houses. This cat had a home. Was I looking to steal this cat?  Someone used to have a cat. Could this be their cat?  Could they have the phone number on the flyer?  It was an exchange that made little sense, offered no concrete information, was frequently contradictory and was full of more than a little informational one-upmanship.  

In short, they so exhausted me that when they offered to return the cat, I said, good and started to leave.  Wait!  They cried. Where was the flyer?  Trying to follow their conversation was nothing next to trying to give them directions to the flyer.  It was like talking to aliens.  ("Walk up the street two blocks."  "What street?"  "This street."  "This street?"  "Yes."  "What about that street?"  "That street is the wrong direction."  "But I live on that street."  "But the flyer isn’t in that direction."  ’Which direction is it?”  ”Up that street.”  ”Can I go down that street?”  And so on, culminating with my favorite comment, "What’s a flyer?")

Their final remark to me, as I tried to pull away from the curb was that they wanted me to return the cat for them.  Actually, they were quite emphatic about it.  In popular parlance I believe this is known as “acting like the boss of someone.”

My son retrieved the young tabby, bringing him back to the car, where I had rolled up all the windows despite the blistering hot day.  We had just begun our search for the flyer when the cat, docile up until now, let out a yowl and leapt from my kid’s hands while demonstrating a claw dexterity on par with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.  All I could think was please, not the eyes.

If you have never been in an enclosed car on a very hot summer day with a really angry cat, then you really haven’t experienced the dual discomfort of cat pinball as all its hair is now being transferred to your sweaty self.  And, as with most highly charged moments involving two or more human beings, someone is yelling directives  (“Hold on to it!”  ”Keep it away from the accelerator!!”  ”I said, hold on to it!”) while the other is saying, “I’m trying” but really thinking, Don’t you think I would IF I could, if only to smack you with it.  You have like, twenty seconds before everything devolves into petty criticisms that have nothing to do with the current situation.   

We found the flyer.  I got out to read the phone number, leaving my son in the car.  Okay, before you judge, hear my reasoning:  He’s young.  He’ll heal faster.

No one answered. 

The end of the story is that I brought the cat back to the place where I snatched it.  A neighbor, who also knows me, explained that the little cat belonged to her neighbor and why was it in my car?  This was when I realized that the answer was, Taking it for a ride.  

All I could think about was the little cat telling its other cat friends, “Yeah, I was hanging around, you know how I like to do my business at the green house,  when this blue car pulled up.  I didn’t think anything of it, until this kid picked me up and there I was—in the car!!”

"No way!" said the other cats.

"I was cool with it until the car started moving." 

"Where did they take you?"  Then one cat’s voice drops to a whisper,  "Was it the vet?"

"No.  They drove to a far street corner."  

The cats said nothing.

"Then brought me back here."

"Wait, I don’t understand," said one of the cats.  "They took you for a car ride?  On a ninety-three degree day?"

"Yes."

"How far?"

"Up by Cuzco’s house."

"Then brought you back to where they picked you up?"

Then there is more discussion of what it all meant, with one cat saying that he hoped you released more hair than normal, and what a drag it is being domesticated, and how they don’t find people as amusing as people finds cats entertaining, which led to the obvious theories of evolution and wondering what’s for dinner.