Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Neighbourhood Cat

Neighbourhood Cat #

I am not sure when this story begins; for all I know the grey cat may have been one year or three years or eight years old when I first met her. I first stepped into the story in late 1999 or early 2000, a short time after moving to Kitchener-Waterloo. Not knowing any better, I rented a room on Eby Street in Kitchener, walking a total of two and a half hours a day to get to the University of Waterloo and back again. I liked my apartment; I had a big room to myself with a fridge and a sink and a hotplate and a big window looking out onto a beautiful garden of perennials somebody had planted and then left to grow free. All spring and summer flowers would bloom, pink and purple and yellow and red. Even as I battled thorny bushes to hang up my laundry, I knew I was the luckiest tenant in the world. To this day I regret not taking pictures.

The houses on Eby Street are old; my house dated back at least to World War Two, and it may well have been older. Houses huddle close to the street; front lawns are small or non-existent. There are some bushes and a sad strip of lawn beside the house, and a small terrace of plants to the front. Five or six steps lead to a tiny porch and the front entrance; on mild evenings I enjoyed sitting on those steps reading or staring off into space. Laneways ran beside many houses; some of them were parking spaces, but I think others led to dwellings set farther back from the road. I suppose I lived in suburbia, but it was old-school suburbia, before developers discovered the virtues of winding cul-de-sacs and big front lawns and two-car front garages.

Over time I learned that my neighbourhood had a bad reputation, housing drug addicts and prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells. Despite this, for the most part I felt safe. Certainly I would never have left a bike on the front porch -- bike thieves run rampant in downtown Kitchener -- but I never felt threatened when exploring the neighbourhood or coming home late at night. I had heard of the prostitutes soliciting on Church street, but I never saw any. Similarly, I was rarely accosted by ne'er-do-wells; once some guy asked me to hide his booze for him so he wouldn't get in trouble with the cops, but that was about it. I think that before I moved to Waterloo the City of Kitchener had cracked down on the prostitution and the drugs, making it more pleasant for bourgeois folk like me to come in and gentrify the area. Despite hearing of weekly fights and police interventions a block away on Cedar street, for some reason I never noticed such events on our road. Maybe I was fortunate or maybe I was blind; I couldn't tell you either way.

Nonetheless, I felt safe, and my impression is that others felt safe as well. People walked outside and sat on their porches. Sometimes I would hear a woman practicing her guitar in her backyard. I would even hear small packs of children playing outside on the road or in somebody's yard. Old people would sit on the benches outside the Eby Village apartment complex, chatting and gossiping. By no means was Eby street a New Urbanist utopia, but you could tell people lived there, getting on with their lives in relative peace.

During those first few months I mostly kept to myself, dealing with my Algorithms and Data Mining and Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science courses during the day, and reading in my room on the weekends. My landlord lived in the bottom half of the house, and for a term I had a roommate who shared my bathroom, but none of us interacted much. Being the insecure introvert I am, I did not go out of my way to meet people, and despite my schooling I met few aquaintances and made fewer friends. For the most part I was content to be alone, but from time to time I would feel those familiar pangs of loneliness. Maybe that was one reason I was so grateful to meet the grey cat.

Like many neighbourhoods ours was blessed with a few outdoor cats: felines who would wander the street making mischief or napping on people's porches. We had three or four such cats -- one was calico, and one was a dark grey shorthaired kitty, and one was a light-grey longhaired cat who was the friendliest cat I had ever seen. She would wander up to all sorts of people and rub up against their legs, and when they stooped to pet her it would not be long before she would plop over for a tummy rub. Enviously, I would watch other people petting her and playing with her, but for a long while I did not muster up the courage to say hello myself.

Growing up I had never been much of a cat person. My family never had pets, and although I loved animals and Ranger Rick magazine I had always wanted a cockatiel or a chameleon or a wood turtle, not a boring old cat. But when I ran away from home and ended up in a Toronto room for a few months, I met my first housecat -- a white cat with black spots who wasn't allowed inside the house. That cat caused me a lot of grief, because he kept slipping inside when I was going outside. However, he caused some joy, too, because from time to time he sit on my lap and drool and let me pet him a little. I grew to enjoy the company of friendly cats, but at the same time I knew I was far too irresponsible to have a cat of my own. When I saw those people on Eby street enjoying themselves petting some strange grey cat, I wanted to pet her as well.

Eventually I found enough bravery to take a chance. I was walking home from school when I spotted the grey cat sitting on the sidewalk a few houses down. Cautiously I approached the cat, who looked at me with her big yellow eyes. I stooped and stroked her back. She accepted my offering, and didn't run away or bite or scratch or hiss at me. And thus a friendship was born.

From that day on, I greeted the grey cat when I saw her on the street. Eventually she got to know me, and would greet me with a mewl when she saw me. She further blessed me when she started visiting me on the front porch, and blessed me further still when she would follow me to the porch for some attention. I would rub her back and tummy for a while, and when she got bored of being petted she would walk out of arm's reach and wash herself. We spent many pleasant hours on that porch, enjoying each other's company and letting the world go by.

Baby was never a very vocal cat. Sometimes I would feel her body rumbling, but she never purred very much or very loudly. She expressed her appreciation in other ways: by returning for visits, by kneading her paws in and out, by smiling big wide cat-smiles, and by grooming my fingers and knuckles with her raspy tongue. I always felt comfortable when she licked my hands -- at first I thought she was biting me -- but I tried to accept her affection with as much grace as she accepted mine.

The grey cat had many other friends as well. Sometimes she would hang out with the other neighbourhood cats, and at other times she would hang out with the other neighbourhood humans. I figured out that the grey cat's name was Baby when I heard people inviting her into their homes: into the boarding house across the street, the apartment building next to us, and other residences along Eby and Church streets. She was welcome at so many homes I never found out who her real owners were, or even if she had a single set of owners. For all I knew several different households offered her meals and shelter enough to keep her healthy. Sometimes this worried me. One year I read about a cat flu that was decimating the local feline population. Veterinarians urged cat-owners to have their kitties vaccinated against the disease. I worried about Baby; She was so sociable she might easily get the disease from other infected cats, but I did not know whether her owner or owners knew about the disease or had money to spare to get her vaccinated. I daydreamed about playing the hero -- of finding out whether Baby had been vaccinated, and magnanimously offer vaccination funds if her owners couldn't afford the shots. To nobody's surprise, I chickened out, thus jeopardizing my grey friend's life. I did not know who owned Baby and was too chicken to ask around and find out. If she had died I may never have forgiven myself, but fortunately the flu had spared her. Maybe somebody else had shown more responsibility for her well-being than me. For all my daydreams, I did not once offer her a meal, never mind a trip to the vet.

One afternoon Baby and I were lounging on the front porch when a woman and her husband walked by and spotted us. The woman scooped Baby into her arms and held the grey cat as if she was an actual baby. Baby didn't even flinch. She sat in this woman's arms and looked on placidly as the woman gushed about how sweet and friendly Baby was, and how everybody in the neighbourhood loved her. I couldn't agree with that final statement -- I had once seen a grumbly woman across the street angrily shoo Baby away from her front porch -- but overall I couldn't agree more with her sentiments. The woman and I had a short but enjoyable conversation about the neighbourhood before she let Baby go, collected her husband and continued her walk. In some small way, the grey cat brought her humans of the neighbourhood closer. Probably two-thirds of my neighbourhood contact was thanks to that cat.

Aside from her unusual friendliness, Baby was all cat. She took cat naps and washed herself meticulously -- and engaged in other behaviours I found less charming. She stalked birds and hunted rodents. When she was hunting she had no patience for humans; she devoted all her attention to her prey. Once I caught her terrifying some poor rodent, repeatedly pouncing on it and batting it between her paws. I did not intervene, but I didn't stick around for the festivities, either. I slunk home, hurt that my friend behaved so cruelly. Of course, I was being silly. Cats are carnivores. They eat meat and hunt prey, and only silly humans who are out of touch with their own food would forget that. Nonetheless, I did hurt. It took some time to reconcile the affectionate grey cat with the ruthless hunter. To this day I struggle with that lesson, that the people and felines we do like do things we don't like.

One chilly November, Baby disappeared. She did not show up on my porch to be petted. I did not see her visiting other houses on the street. I no longer heard people inviting her and calling her name. She simply vanished. All fall and winter I kept an eye out for her, and I worried. Had she moved? Had her owners kept her indoors for a while? Or maybe something worse had happened? Maybe she had gotten sick? Maybe she had been abducted? Maybe she had frozen to death? As usual, I did not address these fears constructively, by inquiring if others had seen her. I just waited, and worried.

By the spring, I had grown resigned to the idea that she had disappeared. I hoped that she was well, but I doubted I would see her again. Then, one chilly April, she reappeared. I saw her walking along a garden ledge in front of somebody's house. She saw me too. She mewled, and trotted up to be petted. I felt my heart flooding with relief and joy -- relief that she was healthy and well, and joy that she had recognised and remembered me after all those months. I never found out where she had gone; she never told me and neither did anybody else. I simply gave thanks that she was well, and that she had returned to grace me with her presence a little longer.

In the spring of 2002, I pulled my own disappearing act. I lost my apartment, and had to leave Eby Street. I am pretty sure that I bid Baby farewell the last time I saw her, but I don't think she understood. I rented a room in a small house on Gildner street, behind the Grand River Hospital. Maybe people in those houses kept cats, but either the cats stayed indoors or they kept to themselves, because I made no cat friends while living there. Once or twice I went back to the old neighbourhood to walk around and look for Baby, but I never saw her. I wondered whether she was well, and whether she remembered me at all.

I never saw Baby again, but a few years later I did learn what happened to her. A man who lived in the boarding house across the street once came to Recycle Cycles to get his bike fixed. He told me that he had adopted Baby himself. He gave her food and shelter, and when he had to leave the boarding house he took the grey cat with him. Eventually he moved to a place that did not like cats, so he gave Baby to his brother who lived on a farm. Baby moved to the farm, and apparently befriended a horse. The man thought that Baby was still doing well, but he had not seen her for a while and so did not know for certain. I suppose that's a happy ending. At least somebody had cared for Baby, and perhaps she liked her new life on the farm. I hold hope that she is happy and healthy still. But the ending makes me sad, too. In taking Baby away when he moved, the man took Baby away from her neighbourhood, and from the many people who loved her. Certainly, the man offered food and shelter and some security in exchange, but I wonder whether Baby would have approved of this tradeoff had she been given a say in the matter.

For my part, I am grateful to have known Baby. She was a good friend to me and many others who lived on Eby street. I am a lousy community member. I don't get to know my neighbours (or often, my housemates). I don't greet people passing by or engage in neighbourhood-strengthening chitchat. I certainly did not contribute a fair share in keeping Baby alive and healthy. Yet for all my failings, Baby befriended me and made me feel more welcome in that community than in any neighbourhood I have lived in before or since. Thanks to her I felt some connection to my neighbours, and my neighbours felt much connection to each other. That's a big accomplishment for somebody ten pounds heavy.

The era of the neighbourhood cat may be drawing to a close. More and more I hear rumours of bylaws to imprison cats as we have dogs, to keep them indoors, restricted to a single dwelling so they won't hunt songbirds and dig up gardens. Certainly, cats are hunters and diggers, and it's good to keep songbirds in our cities. All the same, whenever I think of these bylaws I think of Baby. She certainly was a hunter, but she was also a neighbourhood cat. She loved many people, and many people loved her, and she brought people together because she was allowed to wander. If and when we pass these bylaws, then some of us will be worse off for it. Neighbourhoods like Eby that benefit from friendly neighbourhood cats will lose those benefits, and introverted, irresponsible people like myself will lose the companionship of neighbourhood cats we aren't capable of caring for. I can't argue that loose cats are more important than the damage they cause, but I think we will lose another element of city living that can quietly and inexpensively bring people together.