There are three cats living here now; there have been as many as four, but never less than two since the afternoon, so long ago and so just like yesterday, we came home to find the front porch carpeted in little black kittens. They had been born under the building to a stray a neighbor had half-adopted, and had finally grown big enough and brave enough to make their way into the courtyard, which is where I first saw them. I stood there like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters, surrounded by curious friendly aliens and unspeakably happy.
Also they were cute.
Nevertheless, an ad was placed. (It was a big litter.) Some were found homes, but a couple of them we had come to believe we especially understood, and possibly were understood by. It was as plain as the milk in your bowl that only our particular, inimitable love would do, and so on the very brink of giving them away — presumptive new family standing by, interested, willing, undoubtedly confused, having traveled miles probably, but clearly untrustworthy — we backpedaled: Oh that kitty no you don’t want that kitty that‘s not a very friendly kitty at all well thank you for coming isn’t it warm today have you tried the pound?
I have been writing this with a cat on my lap.
(And I am eating dry cereal out of the box. And I am barefoot. And need to shave. Just to give you the complete picture.)
I have been called a cat person — not in the Val Lewton horror-movie sense of the term, at least I thought not, but in the sense of someone who is . . . not a dog person. (Though like a cat — like a dog, for that matter — I am barefoot and, albeit temporarily, whiskered. And eating bits of dry food without a utensil.) I am not a cat person — just as I am not not a dog person — but rather a person who happens to live with cats. I could happen to live with dogs, but I don‘t happen to.
In my own, no doubt universally representative experience, it is people who consider themselves dog people who are the more likely to subscribe to this Manichaean concept, and it is with a trace of pity not untainted with contempt that they look upon the cat people, as if we personally lack the rough-and-ready spirit of their chosen totem. Everyone knows that dogs are the Boy Scouts of animaldom: loyal, steadfast, true, brave, reverent (not so sure about thrifty — though there is that whole bone-burying thing); they fetch your slippers and guard your gate. Dog people will tell you that dogs are smarter than cats, by some obscure yardstick of animal equivalence, but I have known a lot of 4.0 students in my life and brains aren’t everything. Notwithstanding having been the subject of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, cats consistently get the short end of the pop-cultural stick, which for that matter might include being the subject of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. As opposed to the dog‘s slobbery chumminess, they are seen as aloof, preening, distressingly independent yet in the thrall of basest instinct: I must eat the Tweety Bird, I must eat the Tweety Bird. They would not pull you out of a burning building. They would not run six miles to try to make you understand that Timmy is in trouble. On the one hand: Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Old Yeller. On the other: Garfield, Toonces and that puppet on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Meow meow meow meow, Mr. Rogers, meow meow meow meow.) Dog soldier but cat burglar. Thus is stacked the deck. But a cat will not chase you down the street barking insanely, or rip your throat out, except possibly by accident, if you‘re holding one when a car backfires, say, or someone coughs.
I love my cats, but I won’t pretend they aren‘t a little irritating from time to time to time to time, full of complaint, careless of my stuff, leavers of all manner of unwanted gift. They are inscrutable little things — though no more so than dogs and pigs and chickens and all the other not-human animals, whose Weltanschauung is as remote from our understanding, as permanently hypothetical, as the world of the dinosaurs or the end of the universe.
Before I ever knew a cat by name, we had a dog, an unkempt poodle my father brought home in his hat as a wee puppy before I was even a wee puppy myself; she lasted a good long time, though I don’t remember her as well as I feel I should. There was also (briefly) a goldfish I won at an elementary school carnival in a game of skill, which is to say I won it by accident. I don‘t remember having wanted a goldfish before then, or indeed the stewardship of any other living thing. (I certainly didn’t take care of the dog, and I could have taken better care of that goldfish.) Then someone gave my sister a kitten, which once given could hardly be given away, and there were other cats after that. So I guess we were dog people and then we were cat people (and we were raccoon people for a short time, too, but the truth is we were never really raccoon people).
As an adult I never looked to own an animal (a human conceit, in any case); possibly it had something to do with still-lingering goldfish-death trauma. I did once imagine I might have a dog, much in the same way I once thought I might grow up to be a famous architect (known for his secret passages) and marry Yvonne Craig andor Elizabeth Montgomery and get around town with a jet pack — as part of my eventual bitchen lifestyle. But I never could get that lifestyle stuff together. My neighborhood is full of lifestyle people and their lifestyle dogs, dogs on parade — you are what you walk. They know what they‘re about, these people, or at least what they want to be about, or want to be seen to be about. My life is perhaps not so doggedly intentional. All our cats have been strays; they came, they saw, they stayed. You can go out and choose your breed or you can welcome what scratches at the door, what jumps in through the window. I didn’t grow up to be an architect or marry a TV star or pilot a jet pack. I grew up to scribble words and marry Sarah and drive a 17-year-old Volkswagen. And to have cats — stray cats, street cats. By and large (it‘s too bad about the jet pack), it’s fallen out better than I could have devised.