I read on the internet the other day that Europeans brought the rat to Hawaii, and it took over the island in a New York minute. But what exactly it took over isn’t clear to me. Alleyways? The space between walls? Everyone has space between walls. That’s where the outside meets the inside and they find their balance, like in a decompression chamber. You don’t want to let the outside in.
The government, in its infinite generosity and wisdom, decided to send in mongoose to hunt all those rats, but I guess rats like the daytime (news to me) and mongoose prefer the night. So the twain never met, as the saying goes, and the mongoose ate everything else up, like all the “beautiful” types of animals that people like. You know—birds with too-bright feathers, tree animals with big baby eyes – and that always gets people upset.
Now the problem of animals, and our relationship with them brings me to the matter at hand, albeit in a roundabout fashion. I was walking down Lewis Avenue on my way home from work recently. The night had not fully descended, and the sky was purple – at the tail end of the sunset by the time I got to my block, which is unlit in all the worst spots.
There is no streetlight by the abandoned building where I look through that broken window everyday and still can’t make out what is piled up in the shadows. Are those the wheels of an upturned grandma cart or a wheelchair? It’s like the fading imagery of a dream you can’t quite remember up in there, out of focus – it irks me.
So after all these years I have managed to memorize the sidewalk’s busted lips, the spots where the concrete has buckled up and shown its teeth. I suppose I’m responsible for the situation in front of my building: it seems the roots of the big, big oak are trying to free itself from the concrete and run off to wherever its ancestors came from.
The oak was planted back when Mayor Lindsey was handing out free aluminum garbage cans with his name stenciled in bright yellow paint. I saw one rolling across Lewis Avenue recently and daydreamed about what I would do if I traveled back in time. What would I tell myself as a kid? Maybe I would just go bet against the Yankees in the ’64 series, when the city didn’t deserve to win anything and the police shot that boy and the projects broke open and poured down the avenues and their sounds came through the space between my bedroom walls, and found my ten-year old self with comic books, pajamas and sleep-caked eyes, and kept me wide awake all night along.
My sister had an orange calico named Lawrence. He was a stand-up type of fellow, and after about 16 months of non-stop sneezing I seemed to develop some sort of immunity. I think I respect cats because they have a sense of dignity about them. You don’t have to pick up their shit, or reassure them like dogs.
It took me a while to figure out who was feeding all the stray – or feral, lest they take offense – cats on my block. Stray implies that they are on the wrong moral path, when in fact one could argue that they’ve returned to their natural state. It’s as though they’ve returned to Eden, or Chaos, except they lay on engine blocks instead of beneath trees in a post-industrial slumber. They slip beneath fences and dart between cars, flashing their night eyes while they piss all over my stoop. The stench of ammonia follows me inside while they cavort and mewl their way up and down the block.
As it turns out, the lady two doors down is the culprit – down on one knee, she spreads a pile of Soap Opera Digests out on the sidewalk and spoons out a few cans of Krasdale brand cat food each night. And she wasn’t as old as I expected— just past the hump like me. Old enough to remember old days, but not so old that she shouldn’t know better. Maybe she never had any children? But I think that’s too simple. That always seems to be the answer men give to why old women get lonely and crazy. Shit—having children can turn you old and crazy.
So on this particular night, I had just passed the abandoned building when I made out some sort of cat gathering beneath the big, big oak in front of my building. The scene came into focus gradually.
I could tell that there were three cats, and of them, two were close together. A few steps later, I saw the third cat was lighter in coloring than the other two. As it turned out in the next frame, he was spotted, and so I’ll refer to him as Spotty.
A door swung open nearby and I waved to a neighbor, half-expecting for the scene to have ended in the interim, but when I refocused they were still there. Spotty seemed to be patrolling the perimeter of the action, while the two other cats, one black, one brown, seemed to be going at it, doing the nasty right in front of my building.
By now I was right on top of the scenario, which I can only described as “cats get down, violently, while third cat stands guard.” Or maybe Spotty was waiting his turn, because the look he gave me was all, “Nothing to see here, buddy. Keep it moving.”
Now, anybody familiar with feral, stray or alley cats knows they are a skittish bunch – apt to disappear at the first notice of a human, very much unlike their domestic counterparts. Yet, these two just kept going at it like I wasn’t even there. Now, I existed in their world, they were no longer in my way, but it was I who had invaded the privacy of this intimate moment.
The crazy thing is, for a moment I felt it. I felt like this wasn’t a world of people, but a world of feral cats and we’re just lucky they’re letting us live in it.
Alexios Moore is a featured fiction contributor on BrooklynTheBorough.com.