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November 18, 2008

This post isn’t about how I eat ice cream even when it isn’t night. The baby makes do it, but this one isn’t about the baby.

Instead, it’s about other hungers. Maybe a hunger for connection with another being, or a hunger for being able to effectively help another being, however small. Lately I am too aware of the difference between situations that can be helped or things that cannot.

This is mostly because of my sister is under siege of ALS. It’s a disease that, with a medicine costing $1000 / month can sometimes be slowed by a tenth — but it cannot be banished in any sense. Whereas people whose ticket comes up saying “cancer” can sometimes cobble together a cocktail of hope and technology and diet and luck and come out kicking and even smiling — if exhausted, in pain, and possibly missing some important body parts — on the other side. I in no way mean to discount the horrors of cancer — it’s just that ALS is always described as a death sentence. When a person is diagnosed, the neurologist often doesn’t give more information than the patient asks for — because the trajectory is too grim. The introduction of ALS into my life underscores the difference between things that can be helped or things that cannot.

This leads us, if indirectly, into the cat problem.

There is the larger cat problem, which is rampant in our part of Brooklyn. I like to joke that we live on the inskirts of a cat compound, because if you have nothing better to do — like my cat, Georgekitty — then you can sit at the window and watch the action all day long. Fat orange stripey Toms looking for females in heat, a couple of new calicos — one now dead and lying on a lawn — and the matriarch Bad Seed Kitty, who has a torn ear but keeps watch on the tribes and subtribes all sharing her bloodline. But these brief character sketches don’t begin to explain the panoply in the neighborhood, which is (not quickly enough) trying to organize and implement TNR efforts.

Then there is the smaller cat problem, who is me.

To my great horror, I’ve recently become a gattara — which is a more interesting, ie, in Italian, way of saying a cat lady.

As my husband likes to point out, we’re now on the 3rd I’ve taken in since I got married — a year ago.

The first weighed less than a pound and had no eyes. I took it in in the brief time between wedding and honeymoon. Could you resist a howling, mud-covered runt crashing into a fence in the rain in your front yard? I should hope not. Rainy had to be medically boarded while we were in Turkey. I say she — but it was too tiny for them to actually tell. While we were away, someone who worked at the vet fell in love and when we returned, he adopted her.

The second was just a few months ago. He was laying in our front yard pretending to have a broken leg. (I must have a reputation in the neighborhood, because shortly after we placed that one in a good home, I saw a squirrel running along Newkirk Avenue holding its wrist in an awkward position. I could SWEAR that it was faking a broken wrist to get my attention.)

Most recently started to feed a very small, insistently friendly black and white cat. I’d walk by the giant white creepy house on the corner, which has been for sale for what seems like years. And the little cat would rush out to greet me and cavort around my ankles. Not like the ferals which populate, and populate, and populate, the neighborhood. But this one would walk alongside of me, standing on hind legs, pawing at me with soft white front feet. Like some sort of fabulous circus animal, which I found charming, but also desperate for my attention, which I also respond to.

It seemed reluctant to stray from the while house but one day it followed me 6 whole houses to my own. And galloped up onto the porch. Guiltily, I brought out a dish of food. When it finished, I tried to wash off its face and chest.

I was afraid to have too much to do with this one — who wants to jeopardize a marriage to a good man because of a dirty little cat? But there it was on the porch, all the time, and the nice thing about it was that it seemed to want attention as much as it wanted food. (Georgekitty, are you reading this???) The neighbors upstairs — who think I have a problem with cat stealing — actually urged me to take this one in. They also fell for the fact that it was pathetic and charming in equal measure — a la Oliver — but my nickname for her was Scrappy Doo. She’s a really striking looking animal — huge, round, sea green eyes in a face with a black mask and beard. The lightest possible pink nose, with a somewhat dramatic scratch drawn through it from life in the wild.

I did the routine: asked neighbors if it were theirs; called the shelter to see whether it was full, swung it by to see whether there was a chip implanted; got it checked for the basic bad diseases, established it was starving. Oh, and got it unflea-ed. I brought it home and left it in the bathroom in a carrier while it stewed in the de-flea potion. Then I left for the gym.

When I arrived home after the gym to get them for dinner, husband astutely observed:

“There is not only 1 houseguest: there are 2.” (He’d had a friend from Berlin arrive that afternoon.)

I’d be leaving the next morning for Connecticut to visit / care for family without him. “I just want to be clear,” he said, in his patient, mellifluous radio voice, “that you will be leaving in the morning, and that I will be looking after this rogue cat.”

He is not a cat person, per se.

But when I arrived home on Sunday night, he was already thinking up names. Since we’re in the process of naming the baby, there are lots of cast-off good names floating about. Champ, CookiePuss, and Oreo are some things we probably will not name the baby but might name the cat.

A sad cat is a fixable entity. Get rid of fleas, worms, mites; get it shots; give it love; fatten it up; find it suitable person and place. Fixing problems feels great and a cat is a manageable problem.

People are always harder than animals. You expect more, you see the nasty parts of yourself reflected in a difficult person. If they can’t care for themselves, or won’t care for themselves, or give you lip about caring for themselves. The payoff for fixing a human problem is of course bigger.

In my own defense, I also believe in feeding hungry people, but I often have a hard time doing it. Once, when a woman told me she was hungry, I offered her the container of yogurt I was bringing to work to have for breakfast. She scorned me. “I want a nice hot breakfast. Like from McDonald’s?” So do I, lady.

Another time I’d bought a banana, a bagel, and a coffee for a man in Fort Greene who asked me for change every morning. Ragged, skinny, darkness in his eyes, he looked like he needed some nourishment but refused the food when I offered it.

So recently when someone asked me for some money on my way out of a banking kiosk, I tried to avoid him. I’d been scolded and followed on the street a few nights before for dismissing him with the word “sorry” when someone asked me for money, and hadn’t yet revised my strategy. (He claimed it would be better to say — “No, I am not going to give you money,” than just “sorry.” Thoughts on this, anyone? I generally like to keep encounters with strangers brief.) Anyhow I sort of dodged this guy at the bank, when he asked me for money for soup. I was ducking away, when he said, sort of deflated, “or how about a banana?” And this man’s true wish for food struck me. We were next to a fruit stand so I took him over and we had a bonanza, starting with a bunch of bananas. “Can I get a container of strawberries, too? What a great day! How about these plums!” I bought him whatever he asked for at the fruit stand and it cost me all of $6 but I got so much more out of it. At the end of the transaction I suggested to him that he get some protein, and I pointed out a container of nuts.

“But I ain’t got no teeth, darling!” he said with a big, seemingly genuine smile, flashed to prove his point. He’s smarter than I am, because the next time I walked by that bank I looked for him to feed him — and my own desires.

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