Issue 9, Summer 1955
I like cats as far as creatures go. I like almost any animal that does not have horns or scales on it for that matter, but I especially like cats. Any sort and denomination: spotted or solid, fat or thin, with and without fleas. I like them and admire them and almost anything they do is a pleasure to me.
The way they can walk around the rim of a bathtub, for instance, without falling in and the way they can get comfortable in any old place. There is nothing better than a cat looking out from behind a pot of geraniums on a windowsill or walking slowly down a country road of a summer evening. There is something at once comforting and disquieting about a cat which makes him attractive.
They are wonderful when they stick their noses cautiously into a hole and then back out again, and when they flatten down their ears the tops of their heads look like giant bumblebees. Also they have marvelous feet. When a cat puts his paw on the head of a half eaten fish it is at once delicate and dainty and fierce and when he retracts his claws again he is most beautifully innocent like firearms in a shop window or a pin-cushion with no pins in it.
A cat has hundreds of games inside his head and anything that casts a shadow or leaps across his path becomes his toy. He does not have to spend any time deciding what he likes or what is good for him and so he is never awkward.
Of course I know a lot of people do not share my sentiments. For one thing they do not think cats are affectionate enough because they don’t bounce up and down or try to lick your face for you. They remember you though in their own way and purr and rub against your leg which is about all I expect, except from people. Nor is a cat very useful when you come right down to it unless you count catching rats which they do on their own or making hot-water-bottle covers and violin strings which you do out of them when they’re done for, or providing sport for small boys. And as far as brains go I’d be the first to admit they haven’t got much, at least the human way. If a cat thinks at all it is mostly about problems like how to get off a roof or if a piece of paper is living, but even this has its advantages in the long run. No cat will ever trouble you by bringing your slippers when you’re ready to go out or insist on fetching the paper in the pouring rain.
In fact you might say one of the best features of a cat is that it is in every way an animal. A baboon for example can never be really lovable because of the way he uses his fingers (but not his napkin) and even a dog is maddening when he understands a little yet misses the point. With a cat there can be no deception. A cat is just a cat from start to end and does not even trouble himself to find out which of you is master.
I have about a dozen cats in my country place outside Paris that live more or less on my side of the road. Most of them I inherited from a nearby farm and they go back and forth as suits their convenience, stopping along the way to look for frogs and mice. Our relationship is simple but agreeable. I build the fire and they sit in front of it. I wash the floor and they make tracks. They are good walkers too and like to go for a stroll in the evening. I have one cat who is fond of mushrooms and he is much better at looking for them than a hog. He makes less noise and is just as efficient without being so disgusting. In the morning when I get up there are generally four or five cats at the door waiting for their breakfast and it’s fun to see them eating. They ring around the plate side by side with their paws tucked up and their heads together like a kind of furry flower growing close to the ground. A country house is not complete to my way of thinking without a few cats to sit on the gate and lie in the dahlias. It is like a room without cushions or ornaments. Functional but dreary.
I never had but one cat in town. A big grey tom with a square head. At first we got on fairly well together—he thought me a fair substitute for his next of kin without having much idea where I began and ended and later he had an even better opinion of me because I pulled strings with pieces of newspaper attached to them and opened and closed cupboards and ran water in the sink which is interesting to a cat. Then all at once he began to suspect me of going places he didn’t go and seeing things he saw only through glass, and worst of all he got the idea he wasn’t the only one of himself in existence.
I did not live in the kind of apartment where I could let him out and so when he was feeling grumpy or looking sad I felt obliged to do something about it. To produce some of the excitement he was missing by whatever means I could bring to mind I would run the vacuum cleaner to give him the pleasure of putting his hair on end and scare him by leaping out from the kitchen and banging the pots and pans. Everything I did whether I was repairing the doorknob or peeling potatoes I tried to arrange for him to get some satisfaction out of it. Finally I even went so far as to buy a fake mouse and a tinkerball and made a tunnel of boxes that ran from the livingroom straight through the hall, but while he admired and appreciated my efforts I could tell that he was still more interested in what was going on in the street than anything else.
It made me very unhappy because it gave me the idea of what it would be like to be a prisoner and so when I had the chance I gave him to some friends who lived in the suburbs, which he didn’t like either. By the end of the week he had gnawed a hole through their toolshed and chewed up the curtains and jumped into the washing machine and scratched the baby and about every other thing he could think of to make himself disliked. One of the better qualities of people, though, is that they are kinder than animals and in the end he calmed down and enjoyed himself walking along the back fence and climbing in trees and doing things cats ought to do until he got run over by an automobile.
Street cats, which are the ones I really know best, differ enormously in different countries and those I admire the most are the cats of New York. There is something very rakish and devil-may-care about them. Something sportive and tough and prepared. People are inclined to play tricks on animals in America as well as to be more sentimental than in other countries, perhaps because we like them better at heart, so between the hecklers and the members of protective societies who want to give them a better life a cat has to be on the lookout.
When I think of cats in New York I generally think of them howling terribly or streaking along very close to the ground or up under the lid of a garbage pail with their tails hanging out like the handles of umbrellas. I remember the last long looks of abiding mistrust as they disappear over a wall or the bold look of a cat that knows his own territory. Or the way they will stop to lick themselves hastily and furtively before rushing on through feet and traffic. It is only at night down by the wharves and in secluded places that they come out and walk around slowly and gracefully as if they had a right to a way of their own.
New York cats are night cats. They grow up in dark holes and live in dark alleys. A cat that has managed to get into the world and stay there has achieved a certain standing and he shows it. I’ve never seen a policeman in New York stop to pick up a cat the way I’ve seen in Paris or kittens being born in front of a department store the way I’ve seen in Rome. New York cats have to fight for all they get and I respect them for it.
Probably the city that has the greatest cat population in the world is Rome. I guess I should have been prepared for this because almost anybody who has the courage to write about Italy at all writes about the cats—how they go slipping through the night treading the path of the Caesars and sit on columns of broken stone and hunt mice in the Forum. I didn’t realize until I went there though that it is the headquarters of the feline.
Everyplace you go in Rome from the smallest passageway to the main street there are cats and more cats. Sitting and walking and waiting and licking themselves and wondering vaguely where the next meal is coming from. You can’t go to the cinema or a cafe or walk in the ruins without seeing cats and if you stop for a minute to look about they will begin coming up to you. Not quickly or eagerly or even as if they had much interest, though actually they do. People in Rome are aware of cats and often feed them like we feed pigeons.
Once in the Coliseum at night I saw over fifty cats in all stages of starvation and friskiness. Some of them were barely more than a head with nothing attached but they’re not afraid. All over the ground in places like that you will see little pieces of newspaper that have had food in them and I’ve often watched people making donations, calmly and peacefully like lighting candles or crossing themselves.
The cats of Rome are without exception very long and lean. Even the ones that live in shops and houses. They have wedgedshaped faces and tall ears and when they sit on their haunches with their heads forward they look Egyptian. This may be because they are more primitive than our cats or maybe they are just built for existence, I don’t know. Anyhow there are a mighty lot of them living on a mighty little and taking their ease in the sun and it is pleasant to climb up to the entrance of a temple that has been deserted these many years and find a cat on the doorstep waiting. In one place where I went there was a statue on a pedestal that was scarcely more than a belly but it had a cat on its lap and looked rather comfortable.
Paris is the paradise of cats though if you count a full plate of liver as the end in life. Nearly everyone here has a cat and you can’t go into a triperie without hearing at least one person laying down the specifications for their nourishment. “Your cat eats lung!” one cat owner exclaims to another. “Eh b’en, le mien ne mange que du foie...” and you know who won that round.
Concierge cats are about the best off because they have windows that give on the street and if the lady is not of a nervous temperament he can come and go at will. I like to pass down the street where I live and admire the fat backs pressed up against the bars along with the cactuses and cushions and old magazines. The normal color for a concierge cat is a decent grey and black stripe and if he does not weigh at least as much as a small sack of potatoes you can be sure something is wrong with him. It is an impressive sight to see a concierge cat get up slowly and lower himself carefully to the ground, and when he goes up the block he walks slowly and steadily slinging his great rope of a tail from side to side. Even opening and closing his jowls or licking his feet is an operation to be taken seriously for these kings among cats.
Café and restaurant life is not bad either. Cats seem to grow bigger and stronger and sleeker on French cooking than on any other and a restaurant cat has his pick in both food and customers. People like cats in France and the bigger they are the more they pay them court.
They are not so many strays as there are in Rome and New York and some of them of them are even better off than if they had homes. There is a white cat that lives on the quai in front of my place for instance and although I contribute to his support from time to time he is not always interested in what I bring. He brightens up when I speak to him and if he sees I have something in my hand he will come down off the canvas car top where he hangs out but it is mostly curiosity. He gets his main living from a large lady who lives in the rue des Deux Ponts. When she sees me passing the time of day with her charge she gives a stiff little smile. She doesn’t like my infringement on what she considers her property and for two francs she wouldn’t mind telling me so.
One of the favorite places for stray cats in Paris is the parks. I got to know the cats in the Jardin de Luxembourg fairly well because for a while I went there every afternoon to sketch. At first I used to wonder why there were always so many old pieces of excelsior and straw covers of bottles lying on the ground beneath the hedges of a certain entrance and later I found they were put there by the concierge of one of the houses nearby to protect the cats from the wet. In the winter she comes and shakes the snow off and lays down more pieces of excelsior and more bottle covers and nobody complains because she is a friend of the superintendent.
The cats that live in the park are rather savage and do not come up to you the way they do in Rome. They are more or less taken care of by the women who run the kiosks where toys and candy are sold and people who leave pieces of sandwiches, and by an old lady, very thin and bent up wearing a thin old coat. She would turn up every afternoon about the same hour I did with her black oilskin bag worn to cloth at the handles and first she would sit on a bench backing continuously up to it and lowering herself into place with her stick—ugh—as though the two inch drop quite knocked the wind out of her and there she would stay for a moment staring out in front of her before she would arrange her bag on her knees and take out her newspaper parcel.
By the time she got the papers off the contents would seem to have dwindled to almost nothing and she would look and look away again shaking her head, as though something had happened since the time she laid her tid-bits on the paper. “I’ve been robbed,” her expression seemed to say, and she would glance fearfully toward the hedge as though to commence her explanation. By then the furtive shapes of her savage pets would have begun to creep along the naked stems and branches toward her, their tails out stiff watching silently with an intent mistrustful gaze as she began talking to them.
“Come little ones, come my pretties, viens Minette, viens viens viens, see what I’ve brought you...”
If she overestimated the contents of her offering it was in her eagerness to please I guess because no one looking at those cats could have hoped to mislead them by so much as the left fin of yesterday’s herring. They had long ago appraised her down to the last fishbone and soggy crumb of bread.
All the same she would tease them for a while before getting up to approach the hedge, promising this and that, as though in an age of plenty she were coaxing a fretful child at the table. Then just before she laid her little offering on the ground she would look it over once more and extract a few morsels for the lame one. Down the hedge a way she would give him his, the cat darting forward to her hand, seizing the remnant of food and darting back again, eager but afraid, and if by any chance one of the vigorous ones should already have finished and trailed her and snapped the piece from her fingers there was such distress in her face, such a hopeless dejection before the bobbing and darting and asking that I could not bear to look.
At moments like this I would have given anything to have handed her a beefsteak or even myself perhaps cut into pieces and wrapped in a Figaro. Time after time I would make up my mind to bring something or save my sandwich in case she needed it like a handy life preserver in the middle of the ocean, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. She was just despaired and despairing and this was her way of showing it. Probably it wouldn’t have pleased her to be relieved of her last responsibility either, no matter how hard it seemed.
Cats are different. They have different aims in life and different joys and sorrows. They like to be warm and clean and have people take care of them, but I do not feel too sorry for them because they do not feel sorry for themselves.
A cat lying on a stone is not thinking of another cat lying on a radiator and a cat licking himself in a patch of sun on a winter’s day is inclined to feel cheerful about it. If he finds an old piece of fat fallen into a crack in the pavement he thinks it is all to the good and it tastes better to him than liver twice a day. A cat does not look forward or backward or worry about his sins the way we do. I would not like to be a cat I don’t suppose because I’m used to my miseries and I would feel lost without them, but to a cat the best of our lives would probably be an utter tragedy.
Illustration: B. Whistler Dabney.