The Wandering King of NYC Cat-Sitters
David Gordon's Decade Among the Cats of Bohemian New York
Between 2003 and 2013 I lived in 18 apartments. Why did I move so much? I was a writer living in New York City. I was working most of that time at a frantic and scattered pace, adjuncting up to five classes a week in four different schools, tutoring from Riverdale to Flushing, freelance writing, copyediting, copywriting, and ghostwriting. Heading to work, I would get on the wrong subway, thinking it was Tuesday instead of Wednesday, then, leaving night class, forget where I lived. I traveled with a shoulder bag full of socks and my unpublished novels on my laptop. I read whatever books were on the shelves of my hosts.
I could not afford a security deposit, nor pass a credit check with my cloud of student loan debt looming over me. I was at the end. Then an acquaintance, a well known art critic, asked if I might be able to stay at her place and cat sit when she was traveling for work, a week or two every month. Of course I might! Then a friend who played drums in a noise-punk band asked if I could watch his cat while he was on tour. Pretty soon I was the floating cat sitter of bohemian New York, living with about a dozen cats in all. I had no money and no address, but my pockets were heavy with other people’s keys.
I began living with Prema when we lost the loft on Greene Street and I moved into a friend’s spare room across town, in a lovely apartment on Sullivan. It was no longer the old-school Italian street I remembered, where I saw Vinnie the Chin, a Mafia boss who fought prison for years using an insanity defense, wandering in his pajamas, but there was still Joe’s Dairy for fresh mozzarella and Rafetto’s for linguine cut right out of the machine. The landlord had been a legendary local attorney, known as the Mayor of Soho, for settling art-world disputes and taking payment in trade. His retirement fund was a stash of art—he’d just sell a Cy Twombly. My roommate was often at her boyfriend’s in Brooklyn, so it was just Prema and I. She was a small black cat and the first I’d met to have a water obsession. I’d known other cats who took a fiendish delight in knocking over drinks, or wanted to hop on the sink and slap their paws through the faucet’s stream. But Prema would madly stir her water bowl, and knock it around like a hockey puck, until it spilled, every single time she drank. I was constantly stepping in puddles barefoot. We tried using a heavy stone bowl and talked about those little fake rock waterfalls you can buy in Chinatown. The best explanation I heard was that it’s an evolutionary atavism: Long ago, the cats that drank from running water lived, those who drank from still and stagnant pools died. I like this idea because it reminds me of what is so fascinating about these creatures, so close and yet so alien, who have lived among us forever, from the plains and jungles to a Soho kitchen, like little lions hunting on the living room carpet.
I moved in with Norman when I sublet the room of a friend and former teacher of mine who was on sabbatical in Europe. I was living with several of his roommates and family members, so I didn’t really need to care for the cat, but I got to know him. Norman was old and wise and mellow, though used to having his way, claiming his hair-covered spot on the couch or parading across the table as you ate. Cartons he took ownership of became pieces of furniture as if by squatter’s rights. When he finally died, his family wanted to bury him upstate, near his happy hunting grounds, and ended up keeping him wrapped in the freezer for months. I would smile wickedly to myself when party guests rummaged for ice. Though it was fitting, thinking of how the Egyptians mummified their cats and immortalized them in sculpture as deities draped in jewels. One find, dated to sometime after 1,000 BCE, contained 80,000 cat mummies. Norman was bundled in a shopping bag and taped, then driven north in a Volvo, but he was as loved and honored as Mafdet and Bast were by the Pharoahs once.
It was after Norman’s owner came home that I began looking after my art critic friend’s cat, Bibs. Like many romances, it started cute, with purrs and cuddles, and ended in anger and sadness. A tiny puffball, black with a white bib and socks, Bibs was a sweetie, purring in my lap as I typed, climbing into file-holders to be adorable, and getting trapped in sock-drawers. At first she lived in a ground floor studio, with a small yard where she could come and go. Once she even brought me a dead sparrow, with its feathers blowing around the floor. Later she and her owner moved to a large airy place near the river, a really beautiful space. Then our relationship changed. She’d always been a bit demanding, whining for her food, refusing to use the litter box unless it was scooped out daily. But now she pissed on the duvet or sprayed right into my suitcase, ruining a silk tie. I had to spread a plastic tarp over the mattress each morning, tucking it in when I made the bed, and keep my own stuff on hooks off the floor. Her owner tried many things, including therapy, but finally, unable to cope, had to give her away.
Although I love animals, I have never been any use at training them, and I tend to regard them as I do people: I like or dislike them on an individual basis—and it doesn’t make sense to me to say “I love dogs” anymore than to say “I love people from New Jersey.” I do love some people from New Jersey very much, others I really dislike, and most I have no opinion about. So when a dog snaps at me, or a cat hisses or scratches or pisses in my shoes, I tend to just think, “What an asshole!” Still, I do wonder about the crazy cat phenomenon, their tendency to sometimes become so strange they are unreachable, and I think of it as evidence of their animal nature, their ultimate otherness. But then I realize, this sometimes happens to people too.
99 was my musician friend’s cat, named after the Get Smart character, and like her namesake, she was graceful, swift and sleek. She’d dash over the floorboards to catch her pingpong ball, then crawl under my sleeping bag on cold mornings, when I had to fight for the willpower to leave the house. I was shuttling back and forth, doing laundry at Bibs, storing stuff at 99’s, like a stray cat myself. Years before, in LA, we had a cat, Lenny, who had such a crazy wanderlust, you had to hold him every time you opened a door or window. We finally just turned him loose. Amazingly, he thrived: he’d disappear for days, then come home, filthy and tired, once with a cut on his neck like he’d gotten mixed up with a feline gang. People would spot him blocks away, yet when I drove down my street, I’d see him pop out of a neighbor’s bushes and follow my car home. It turns out, like other traveling men before him, he had another family on the side. Two elderly sisters, who lived across the street, had been feeding him and keeping him too. When we moved, my roommate left Lenny with them.
The Three Kittens
I barely met the people, friends of a friend, with a great apartment up in Washington Heights, except to pick up the keys. The kittens, though, were amazing. Three tiny, wild cubs that swarmed over me constantly, mewling, crying, playing, clawing, crawling under my T-shirt and climbing up my jeans. They were adorable, except when it came time to eat. Then it got really animal. Primal. Like cavemen, or some sort of Greek tragedy, brother against brother. I had to lock them out of the kitchen while I filled the bowls and set them out or they would leap all over me and try to storm the counter. Even then, they would all go for the same bowl and fight over it, while the rest of the food sat untouched. So I had to pick up each kitten and set him over his food, which he would gobble down ravenously like the growing young beast he was.
I met Oliver when, in search of a stable living situation, I moved to Harlem, to a room I found on Craigslist. At first the guy seemed nice, a self-employed caterer who’d lived on the block for years and would cook in a flowing silk robe while gossiping and playing old music. Oliver was an orange tabby who was mild and quiet. He’d come to my room like a polite neighbor, poking his head in to see what was new, then coming to sit on my lap and visit. Unfortunately his Dad had issues. Shortly after I moved in the power got cut off because he hadn’t paid ConEd. Weird people came and went all night. It became clear he had a crystal meth problem and I ended up having to bail, moving out in an hour while my Dad waited in the car.
Professor was a Bengal, a magically beautiful being. He looked like a real leopard, big and muscular with black spots on gold. He belonged to friends who lived back down in Chelsea and I would sit and work in their quiet one-bedroom, surrounded by records and plants, while Professor lounged like a prince in his cat-tower above me. Once I even glanced up at the mirror across the hall and realized he was regarding himself, green eyes gleaming. However, it turned out that at night Professor was what they call “vocal.” He would howl and cry, relentlessly. I suppose it was his leopard nature, a nocturnal hunter on the prowl. I played with him a lot during the day, to tire him out, and tried earplugs at night, to no avail. The secret, I learned, was to trick him by leaving the lights on at night and darkening the rooms when I went out. I still see Professor sometimes, when I visit his loving family at their new home in Williamsburg.
Grand & Gates
I finally landed back with Norman’s family, in a different room in the same apartment, up by Columbia, where I would remain for a couple of years. There were six of us in all, plus various significant others. Then one of my roommates, my teacher’s son, brought home two stray kittens, a girl and a boy, little twin tigers in black and gray. Once more I lived in happy kitten madness, with the mewling babies scampering up my legs as I worked and under my covers as I slept, attacking toes as if they were mice popping out of the sheets. To sleep, I sometimes had to bar them from my room, and their little pale paws would appear under the door, like gloved burglars trying to sneak in.
I’d lived with cat/dog combos before, but I had never really lived with two young cats at once and it was a bit of revelation. We think of cats as loners, fine on their own in small spaces, perhaps to rationalize the way we keep them, but seeing this duo showed me how social they are. They fought, played, snuggled and mugged all day and slept in a cozy pile at night. Sometimes I would come home to find them literally hugging, as if they had heard my key and, whispering “here he comes,” had prepared the cutest pose possible. When Gates, the boy, ran away, Grand appeared in my room, crying, and led us on a tour of the apartment, meowing plangently before each shut closet as if calling to him. (A neighbor soon found him one flight up.)
They fought of course, like all siblings, and as he grew larger, Gates became a bully, making Grand cry when he had her cornered. But she was smarter, and would consistently find ways to reach spots he could not, leaping to the top of the fridge, then to the high ridge of the cabinets, while he gazed up in admiration from the floor.
Brooklyn, Kingdom of Cats
My friend eventually gave up that huge, rambling apartment, I was back on the move. Fortunately it coincided with an improvement in my own fortunes, and I was able to get a place of my own. There is no name on the buzzer, I admit, but I am on the lease, for the first time since I came home to New York. It’s in Brooklyn, not far from where Gates and Grand were born, and I realized, they are descendants of the Grey Tigers, one of the great cat tribes that rule this part of Kings County, along with the cool, black and white Tuxedo Mob, and the strange, beautiful Calicos, who are small with patchy orange-brown splotches and glow-in-the-dark green eyes.
Today I live alone, without mates, two or four-legged, but I am still surrounded by cats. It turns out, Brooklyn has more cats than any town I’ve seen besides Rome, and my street in particular is full of them. It is, while it lasts, a block of warehouses, collision shops and metalworks, of half-fixed cars parked on the sidewalk and empty lots, and a lot of cats find steady jobs here, catching mice and rats in exchange for shelter and food. Actually, it is cat heaven: they are wild but not stray exactly, coming and going as they please, sometimes through little cat doors, hunting and wandering, fucking and fighting. I meet them blocks away, sitting out a rainstorm under a parked car, or waiting to be fed by someone’s door. I meow and they answer. I see them out my window now as I write this, patrolling the roof of the Hasidic toy warehouse. Sometimes, when I come home, there are three or four cats just hanging on my stoop, stretching and enjoying the evening. Once in awhile, one does get hit by a car, and the thought that they are going un-neutered is troubling, but then again, they are living their own cat lives by their own cat laws. As the Jamaican owner of the repair shop next door tells me his mother taught him: No one really owns a cat.
One evening, soon after moving in, I was walking down my block, on my way to meet some friends. It was one of those long summer twilights. As I passed the weedy lot on my corner, I saw that all the cats on the block had gathered, maybe eight or ten of them, to chase fireflies. They jumped and ran in circles, flipped and rolled, stalking and leaping, together. They seemed to dance around the flickers, tracing the sparks, eyes lit with their glow. I felt like I had happened upon some secret ritual, joyous but of grave importance. I remained there, staring, unable to break the spell, until it grew too dark to see. The ceremony ended, the cats wandered off, and I too hurried on my way. Night had already fallen, and I was late.
Illustrations by Lulu Krause.