Friday, June 10, 2011

Another One Like Me

In which we set out on a small journey, encounter a sage, and receive a gift.

I have never known a cat, or a toddler, who would not greet one of their own. The greeting may not always be friendly, but always there is acknowledgment. A fellow cat, a fellow toddler, is never ignored.

Watch two toddlers encounter each other in a room of adults. Each child may be oblivious to the other adults, save their own caregivers. Or not. Some children seem quite gregarious, greeting and interacting with everyone in sight, true sanguines. But even the shyer, more reserved toddlers will seek out other toddlers, will want to play, to interact. It's as if there's some deep recognition: another one like me.

In my decade of feral cat watching, I've noticed the same phenomenon amongst my feline neighbors. Let two cats pass one another in  yard or alley. They will acknowledge one another.  The greeting may be friendly: tails held vertical, at right angles to the body, happy sniffings and rubbings. It may be grisly: backs arched, yowlings and growlings and hissings, a display of force, a statement of territory. Or it may be something in between: an ear twitch, a rump wiggle, a tail flick. There are many gradations, and the language of cats is subtle.

Only humans know to shun their neighbors.
Only humans, I think, can learn to truly not see one another. Given the behavior of toddlers, I can't help but think it is indeed a learned behavior. By middle school we have learned to torment one another; by high school some of us make the shift to shunning. We serve our apprenticeship during the young adult / college years. By the time we reach full maturity, we have become masters. There are entire demographics of humanity that simply no longer register on our radar.

Monday of this week, I found the stores of cat food to be running rather low.  Normally, I place a monthly order for cat supplies - food, litter, flea treatment. This is delivered to the front door by a charming young man with a deep Bosnian accent, who, without complaint, carries all these heavy bags inside to my living room, speaks courteously to Treasure Cat (who is always present to supervise), and calls me "ma'am." It's a monthly ritual, and I am fond enough of this young delivery person, whose name I do not even know, that, around Christmas time, I fret about whether or not it would be appropriate to bake him "a little something." I've never yet done so, but I think I may this year.

Still, on Monday, it was yet a week away from our monthly cat food delivery; a small bag would be plenty needed to fill out the stores so we could make it through the week. It was a sunny morning; it had been a few days since I had last enjoyed a walk. I gathered up sun hat, cash, shopping bag and keys, and set out for the grocery store. The housecats, lounging under the air conditioner, blinked at me to wish me well. The colony cats were lounging on the back deck, in the shade. They too, yawned and blinked, wishing me well. Hurry back, I think they thought. Bring Tuna.

It is a strange and dangerous thing to set out on any road, at any time, no matter how mundane the journey nor how well know the path. Roads, like doors, are places between. They are mystical places; they are places of power. Adventures haunt the roadways, and may strike without warning. Travelers must be on their guard. Unless they have learned the knack of not seeing. Then it will not help to be on guard. There will simply be no hope for them at all.

The grocery store is a scant mile away from the House of the Thirteen Cats; a comfortable stroll for a day. Not quite halfway between lies a coffee house, one of my favorite places for people watching. I stopped, as travelers must, for fortification. A cold drink and a pastry did wonders to bolster my courage, endurance, and sugar levels. In high spirits, I set out for the remainder of the journey.

Arriving without mishap at the destination, I soon acquired the needed supplies. By this time, however, the journey had taken its toll; heat indexes and temperatures had risen. I was also now carrying eight pounds of cat food in my shoulder shopping bag. Deeming discretion the better part of valor, I determined to take the bus home. And thus, Gentle Reader, I was waylaid by adventure.

There is a gem of a bus stop just outside the grocery store; it boasts a bench and a covered shelter, and a small area of grass and trees. It's also a rather crowded bus stop, being next the grocery store. There are always people milling about, waiting, for the bus that comes every ten minutes or so. People have been coming together in The Marketplace for millennia, greeting one another, exchanging news and gossip, as well as coin. I think of the Athenian Agora, the Roman Forum. And although our sanitized, pre-packaged, mass marketed super markets have wandered a long way from such honored beginnings, still, the true spirit of the marketplace is alive and well, in pockets here and there. You can find them if you look. If you can see.

Three men already occupied the bench that day; an elderly black man and two young men. The heat was oppressive. My fingers had begun to swell. The two younger men mopped dark faces with white hand towels. The elderly man stared into space, lost in thoughts of his own. He had been there, in that same spot, when I entered the store a half hour ago. Several buses had come and gone since then. Who knew what he was doing there?  Certainly not waiting for a bus.

I slipped in, nodding my respect and thanks to the young man who scooched over to make room for me. It was too hot to stand in the sun. Having lived a long while among cats, I find it difficult to ignore, to pass without greeting, those I meet out in the wild world. I commented on the heat; in the time honored rituals of the marketplace, we, strangers to one another, made that initial connection by complaining together about the weather.

"I was going to walk home," I told the air. "But I think it's hot enough, I'll wait for the bus." I arranged my heavy shopping bag at my feet.

"Too hot to be walking today, baby!" One of the young men shook his head, mopped the back of his neck.

"Mmmmm, hmmmm. It show is that." This from the elderly man to my left.

"I feel bad for people out working in this today." I wished I had remembered to bring a water bottle. Silly not to! Growing up in the desert, I should have known better. I'd pay for it with a serious dehydration headache later.

The man next to me shook his head. "Mmmm, mmmmm, mmmm. Too many people out in this who have no where to go. Homeless folk. Street folk." My ears perked up. Here was a compassionate voice. I looked closer. I spied Adventure peeking out from behind a spindly tree. 

"That's true." I shook my head as well. I waited.

"For thirty years, baby, I was a trashman. I walked behind the trash truck, me and another guy, up and down dem alleys, emptying the trash cans into the trash truck." I held my breath as he paused. We were on the brink of story. I didn't want to frighten it away. "Thirty years."

"That's a long time!" I turned to face him, to make eye contact. In the knowing way of the elderly, he nodded, met my eyes, and looked away, far away into the distance. What did he see?

"Mmmmm, hmmmm. It show is. A real long time."

The young men fell silent, letting the older people talk, but listening, listening, keenly aware, ears perked. Someone said, once, that when tales are told, no matter where, no matter when, there is always a fire; there is always starlight. In the humid heat of a summer day, I felt the stars gather overhead; I smelt a quick whiff of woodsmoke.

"Must've been awful on days like today." Gently, gently. The words of the ritual. Ancient. Binding.

"That is the truth." He nodded. And then he began, "I remember one day....."

It had been a terribly hot day. He's 75, he told me. I calculate, as I write. His story must have happened in the 1950's. I grasp the setting, settle it in my mind. St. Louis, before the civil rights movement. A black trashman, working for The City. Day after day, walking behind the trash truck, up and down the brick paved alleys, or unpaved alleys, emptying trash bins by hand into the slow moving trash truck. It was before the days of dumpsters, and the machinery that lets one man sit, without leaving the airconditioned cab, lifting dumpster after dumpster mechanically and emptying them into the huge truck that can sometimes barely navigate the narrow alleys of the old city. As I sat on my deck this morning, the Colony Cats and I, them having a snack of dry cat food, and me my morning coffee, we watched our own faithful trashman drive down the alley in his magic machine. In the 1950's, it was a different world. I can barely imagine, but I try.

One horrible hot day, walking behind the truck, he noticed, he said, a woman in her yard, gardening. He asked her for a drink of water; she brought him lemonade. She was, he said, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, her lustrous dark hair and gentle brown eyes. He had flirted with her. She had seemed to flirt back. Over the course of time, they met again, over the back fence, she in her vegetable garden, he, walking behind the trash truck.

"You seem like an honest and a hardworking man," she had told him, after their acquaintance had grown. "Would you like to come to dinner some night?"

He went to dinner; eventually, they were married. They stayed married, too, never divorcing, raising daughters and sons. He retired from the city, after a lifetime of service, keeping our alleys clean, taking away the things we throw away. They had a bit of time together, after he retired.

Eight years ago, she died, and now he's alone. Sons and daughters have moved away, to different parts of the country. It's a big country. He misses her; her name was Barbara. His voice grew raspy, and a little bit hoarse when he said how he missed her, his Barbara. I think of the gentle woman in her vegetable garden, more than half a century ago, offering up some cool lemonade to the man who walked behind the trash truck.

The tale winds down, and I find, despite the oncoming dehydration, that I have tears in my eyes. He lives down the road a ways, he tells me, in a retirement village (I know the place); he has come down to the store to have a prescription refilled.  The pharmacist had said it would be ready in a couple of hours. And, so, for that time, he sits at the bus stop, in the summer heat, watching the world go by. It is another ancient, unchanged thing. Old men, sitting by the sides of the roads, the wide world over, sitting in the sun, watching the world go by.

The bus comes. The young men and I, and others who have arrived while we listened, we queue to board. I thank him for the story; announce that it was nice to meet him. I offer my hand, which he honors me by taking. We smile. And then I am away. The road has claimed me again.

It is a strange and dangerous thing to set out on any road, at any time, no matter how mundane the journey nor how well know the path. Roads, like doors, are places between. They are mystical places; they are places of power. Adventures haunt the roadways, and may strike without warning. Travelers must be on their guard. Unless they have learned the knack of not seeing. Then it will not help to be on guard. There will simply be no hope for them at all.


 stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!


  1. What a neat story. I sure do love our writing.

  2. That's beautiful. I got a little teary eyed reading it.

  3. I am undone. Beautiful story.