GRAY CAT CAME IN THROUGH OUR PET FLAP. WE LIVE NOT FAR FROM Griffith Park, in a border region where many animals don't know they're wild, where they stop scrounging for bird eggs and beetles when they discover warm places with piles of free food. For years, we have entertained opossums, skunks, even raccoons, on top of the expected neighbor cats. Until Gray Cat.
Gray Cat kicked them all out. He was wilder than the rest put together. He was monochrome, lean and mean, with a long head like a snake and one tiny nick in his right ear, which he must have gotten young, before he became the baddest creature in the county.
Gray Cat came in every day and ate all our cat's food, which was okay. We microwaved six chicken thighs for our cat one time, left them on the counter to cool, and came back to find every one gone, bones and all, like they were never there. That was okay, too, because it was so impressive. The bangs in the night and the screams of other cats thrashed by Gray Cat were not okay, because they woke me up a lot. Our cat, unscathed due to his cowardice, nevertheless became permanently terrified. And then Gray Cat started spraying, leaving big orange acrid stains on doors, walls and bookcases.
I decided Gray Cat had to go.
One day I heard him crunching on our cat's kibble. I sneaked out the front door and around to the back, where I stuck my foot through the pet flap so Gray Cat couldn't get out. He looked up at me through the glass in the back door and ran farther into the house.
I followed, closing the metal cover of the pet flap behind me. I got a broom and chased Gray Cat from room to room. He was fast and quiet, hard to find. He fled into the bedroom, and I shut the door.
That's when we really got into it. Gray Cat bounced around the room, flying up the walls, climbing up the curtains; the curtain rod bent, and cat and curtains tumbled down. He slid under the bed; I yanked it up onto its side. He ran under an end table, and I dived after him, knocking off the lamp and breaking it. I pulled the mattress into a corner and pinned Gray Cat behind. Then I came at him with a cylindrical wicker laundry basket and a pillow. I pushed the mattress closer and closer to the wall, till there was no place for Gray Cat to go except where the laundry basket waited. He didn't want to go in. But I squeezed the mattress tighter and tighter against him, and he had to. I scooped him up into the basket and stuffed the pillow down on his struggling head. I jammed another pillow in on top of that. Gray Cat could not move.
I knelt on the floor, holding down the pillows. I was panting heavily, shaking violently. My heart was hammering. My arm was bleeding where I'd cut it on the bed frame. The room looked like a tornado aftermath — furniture upended, books and sheets all over the floor. Holding the top of the basket against my chest, I carried it to my tool shelves, grabbed two bungee cords and strapped them across the top to hold the pillows.
I knew what I was going to do next. I would not take him to the pound. I didn't want to kill Gray Cat. I admired him. I would just drive him far away and let him go.
I got almost to the car when I realized I didn't have my keys. I thought Gray Cat couldn't escape. He hadn't moved since I'd trapped him. So I set the basket down and ran for the keys. I returned just in time to see him squeeze his head from under the pillows, pop out and streak down the street.
Gray Cat didn't break his routine; he was eating our cat's food the next day. He was cunning, but not smart. I trapped him again soon after, using the same method as before, but this time with less damage, and in a secure cat carrier. He looked at me from behind its wire grate and let out a low moan. It was the only sound I ever heard come from his throat. He was sure he was going to die.
I drove Gray Cat to Glendale, five miles away, and opened the cat carrier. He bolted out, zigzagged down the road and disappeared. It was the last time I saw him.
Now we have skunks again. Many, many skunks.
ANNALS OF FANDOM: The Weird Al Experience
IT WAS WITH A MIXTURE OF NOSTALGIA and trepidation that I approached the helium-filled figure looming over the midway at the Orange County Fair. Hawaiian shirtclad arms pointing heavenward, poodle perm plastered to plastic skull, he beckoned. I'd have thought that the accordion-playing satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic had fallen off the cultural radar, but looking up at his giant inflated likeness at the entrance to the Weird Al Experience, I began to realize that I must be mistaken. And then a docent confirmed it: “He's big, bigger than ever!”
Al's appearance at the fair two years ago had broken all previous attendance records. “He was so popular, people would stand in line for two hours just to get into the show,” said Kevin Cable, a Yankovic look-alike from Santa Ana. “The line stretched all the way across the fairgrounds!” And this year's Experience, which combined a huge collection of memorabilia and a week's worth of sold-out appearances, broke records yet again: 163,000 people pushed through the turnstiles. Obviously, “Weird Al” deserved another look.
Inside the exhibition hall, a time line took us through Al's humble beginnings in Lynwood, California, straight through to the gold and platinum albums. An endless loop of videos, both old (“Eat It,” “Like a Surgeon,” “Fat”) and newer (“Amish Paradise,” a send-up of Coolio's “Gangster's Paradise” and “Bedrock Anthem,” which melds the glitter-desert stylization of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' “Give It Away” with the story of the Flintstones), seemed to transfix all who entered. Most were long-time devotees — like Amanda Cohen, the organizer of fan convention Alcon III, who flew out from Chicago — but not all. “[The Experience] has shown a lot of Al to a lot of people,” said Cohen. “Some of them know him, and some of them . . . their jaws are just agape! It's wonderful to watch people discover him.”
You began to get a sense of “Weird Al”'s appeal when looking at the costumes used in his videos and stage show. The black, buckled “Fat” getup, the Devoesque hazmat suit of “Dare To Be Stupid,” the torn jeans and blond wig from “Smells Like Nirvana” provide a sort of cracked illustration of pop music history in reverse. Yankovic's success, by and large, has outlived that of the artists he's parodied. His true accomplishment might well be, as one fan put it, “to humble all the big-egoed rock stars, knock them off their soapbox.”
But can one seriously ponder an artistic legacy built from goofs on computer nerds (“All About the Pentiums”), Star Wars (“Yoda,” “The Saga Begins”) and processed-meat products (“My Bologna”)?
Apparently so. “He's sort of got his own little world,” said Julia Reines, an original fan who has passed her enthusiasm on to her young son. “I think because he's so intelligent in the way he uses words, he seeps into peoples' conscience . . . that it's so incredibly . . . beyond pop culture. It's parody on a whole other plane.”
On that score, surely everyone can agree. And speaking of planes, “Weird Al” fans flew in from 13 states for the experience of taking snapshots of his high school cap and gown, pointing at the original single of “Another One Rides the Bus” (recorded live on Dr. Demento's KMET show in 1980) and admiring dozens of Yankovic's gaudiest Hawaiian shirts. And some went beyond: “Just today, we went to Al's boyhood home, his high school, his junior high, we did a full minitour of his background,” enthused Cid Strickler, a local woman who organized out-of-town fans.
For Fred, a convenience-store manager from Chicago whose van is adorned with album covers and portraits, this was her 65th “Weird Al” show. She first discovered his “genius” in 1992, when a friend left a tape in her car. “I took a month off work for the Running With Scissors tour. Forty-eight shows.” To illustrate her dedication, Fred pulled out a scrapbook containing dozens of photos taken at the various shows. “Remember the version of Peter and the Wolf he did with Wendy Carlos? I have the cover tattooed on my leg. Al signed it.”
At the end of the day, I still didn't have a handle on what makes “Weird Al” such an enduring figure. Then, a 20-ish hipster named Gabriel provided an answer: “He's nutty, funny, kooky, zany all rolled into one frickin' ball!” Which is probably why Gabriel's father predicted his son would outgrow “Weird Al.” Gabriel wasn't having any of that though. For one thing, his father listens to Kenny G. For another, he said, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”
DEAD AIR: Flight Canceled
IT WAS DIFFICULT TO HEAR OUTside the Museum of Flying last Sunday, with the Harley-in-the-round drone of an elderly radial engine passing repeatedly overhead. The engine powered a lemon-yellow biplane that dipped to Earth now and then to give dozens of passengers free rides over Santa Monica Airport's milelong runway. Inside the three-story museum, you could make out the murmur of old men in baseball caps, telling stories of their lives in aviation. Toddlers towing parents lined up behind cockpit simulators. One kid rhythmically slapped the 1931 Schneider Trophy Seaplane on its vast aluminum float, just below the DO NOT TOUCH sign. Attendance, according to one docent, was at an all-time high.
It was a great day for the 13-year-old temple of aviation, which opens directly onto the airport's runway. Unfortunately, it was also the last. Pending the possible move to a new location, this was the last the public would see of the collection that includes half a dozen restored and polished WWII war birds on floor display, scores of older and newer craft hanging from the ceiling, and thousands of bits and pieces of memorabilia — cutaway rocket motors and earthbound flight simulators, old uniforms and helmets, oxygen masks and Hit Kit pocket song books, and hundreds of models and cinema displays of WWII action. This well-organized attic even includes the boardroom of aircraft titan Donald Douglas, complete with a Star Trekstyle conference table and a vintage Hammond chord organ for Cold War sing-alongs.
Downstairs, the museum's executive director Dan Ryan was trying to explain the museum's possible future, and wasn't having an easy time of it. “We're in conversations with several different sites,” Ryan told a man named Walter Downs. “I don't yet know whether we'll go to an extant location or start our own. You can trust me.”
Downs, whose uncle flew P-51s with the pioneering African-American Tuskegee Airmen, looked skeptical. “The number-one reason for my being here is to assure the future of the display up on the third floor,” he told me, noting that the collection includes many irreplaceable memorabilia.
Downs wasn't the only skeptic at the museum. Some wonder whether the official explanation for the closure jibes with the facts. Ryan has claimed that since a sudden rise in local insurance costs after September 11, “we've had to ground our entire fleet” of vintage aircraft. But a Santa Monica Airport official, not speaking for attribution, noted that most of the museum's flyable vintage fleet moved to Mojave Airport in the mid-1990s. At Mojave, a sparsely populated longtime haven for unorthodox aircraft of all sorts, flight insurance ought not to be much of a problem. And despite the promise that a new location will be found, some of the museum's memorabilia collection is already for sale on its Web site (www.museumofflying.com).
Others say the museum's fate could be linked to fiscal problems of its key supporter, David Price of American Golf Corp., who had an agreement — under the name of Supermarine of Santa Monica — with the city to lease space for both the museum and the associated, now-defunct DC-3 restaurant. It isn't clear now what will happen to the lease, which apparently remains in effect, and there is some speculation that Price will find higher-paying tenants to replace the museum.
In any case, its passing signals the end of a Santa Monica aviation era that began when Donald Douglas set up operations on this same site over 70 years ago.
Docent John Quinley hired on at Douglas as a young engineer in 1941: “I thought I was in heaven, making 80 cents an hour.” The 83-year-old recalled that, while it stamped out thousands of the planes that fought in WWII, the entire vast plant (long since demolished) was camouflaged to resemble a Westside suburb: “They even had fake laundry on clotheslines.” He said he'll miss the afternoons he's spent as a volunteer, teaching the history of flying to the young. But at his age, Quinley has learned to put things in perspective, even the death of a favorite institution. “I'm happy still to be on the right side of the grass,” he said.
–Marc B. Haefele