Sunday, September 9, 2012

Journey Into The Cat Jungle by Gay Talese

The year was 1957. It was a bad time for New York’s 400,000 stray cats. They were victims of their own overpopulation and the dearth of garbage cans in the city’s newly constructed apartment buildings; and I was researching my first full-length article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the cats’ struggle for survival. Other people were worried about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, or the lingering presence of the “Mad Bomber,” or the fact that the Soviets had just launched a dog into space. But I was concentrating on cats, and when my 4,000-word article was published on May 12, 1957 – under the headline “Journey into the Cat Jungle”- I confiscated about thirty copies from the Times’s printing plant and mailed them to my relatives and friends around the nation. It was my first fling with what Andy Warhol would later identify as a fifteen-minute fame buzz, and yet, like the initiation to love in early youth, its sweet memory can be sustained privately forever. That is how I recall the publication of that article about hungry cats by a hungry young writer. . .

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of buildings; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors, and other nocturnal wanderers see them – but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village, and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage cans abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhoods as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of them around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third rail. About twenty-five cats live seventy-five feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats. Most are flea-bitten. Many die of food poisoning, exposure, and malnutrition; their average life span is two years, whereas the stay-at-home cats can live ten to twelve years or more. Each year the ASPCA kills about 100,000 New York street cats for whom no homes can be found.

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island. The American Feline Society once moved two strays into the headquarters of the United Nations after having heard that some rodents had infested UN filing cabinets. “The cats took care of ‘em,” says Robert Lothar Kendell, society president. “And they seem happy at the UN. One of the cats used to sleep on a Chinese dictionary.”

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a “boss” – the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street cat’s society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types of cats – wild cats, Bohemian, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food and will have little or nothing to do with people – even those who would feed them. These most unkempt of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they are usually found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat lovers (mostly women) who call the strays “little people”, “angels””, or “darlings” and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as “alley cats.” So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturdays or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but usually uses the store as as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed – the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store cat – including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for handouts.

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York. With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods, and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

On the waterfront, however, the great need for cats remains unchanged. Once a longshoreman who was allergic to cats poisoned them. Within days rats were all over the place. Every time the men turned around they would find rats on crates. And on Pier 95 the rats began stealing the longshoremen’s lunch and even attacking the men. So the street cats were recruited from nearby neighbors, and now most of the rats are controlled.

“But cats don’t get much sleep around here,” said one of the longshoreman. “They can’t. Rats would overrun them. We’ve had cases here where the rat has torn up the cat. But it doesn’t happen often. Most waterfront cats are mean bastards.”. . .

There were Times editors, to be sure, who did not like what I was writing; they called them “ragpicker” stories and we would have polite but stubborn confrontations. To dissuade me they assigned me to the political beat in Albany to cover the New York State legislature, there to listen to the lies and pointless pronouncements of the politicians and to report this as “news”. I could not do it.

I wanted to avoid writing about political figures, for so much about them is of temporary interest; they are dated people, victims of the recycling process of politics, doomed if they openly say what they truly think. My curiosity lures me towards private figures, unknown individuals to whom I usually represent their first experience in being interviewed. I could write about them today, or tomorrow, or next year, and it will make no difference in the sense of their topicality. These people are dateless. They can live as long as the language used to describe them lives, if the language is blessed with lasting qualities.

There was a rule on the Times in those days that reporters’ bylines usually accompanied articles that were at least eight paragraphs in lengthy. During my time in Albany, I never wrote a political story longer than seven paragraphs. I did not want my byline on an article that was limited to the rulings and railings of the Albany legislators, and as a consequence, the Times editors discharged me and thought they were punishing me by bringing me back to the home office and assigning me to write obituaries. I was never happier. Obituary writing was in the realm of personal history, biography, a summation of an individual’s worth and consequence, and anyone who commanded an obituary in the Times was doubtless an individual of distinction and singular achievement – which was considerably more than I had seen during my brief career as a twenty-five-year-old political correspondent.

It was during my obituary-writing period that I also began to concentrate on writing for the Times Sunday Magazine, for I was in the ‘doghouse’ with the daily edition. After my cat story I did about thirty more Times magaziners in the months that followed. I wrote about silent-screen actresses in an age of sound, about old men who rang bells during boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, about the river captains of the Staten Island ferries, about the window designers of Fifth Avenue boutiques and the sculptures of the plastic but nonetheless alluringly realistic female mannequins. . .

Advice to young writers? The one essential quality is my curiosity, in my opinion, and the energy to get out and learn about the world and about people who lead unique lives, who dwell in obscure places. I’ve subsequently expanded this thinking into writing books about Mafia wives (Honor Thy Father), love advocates (Thy Neighbor’s Wife), immigrant tailors (Unto the Sons), and high-altitude steelworkers (The Bridge).

There are stories everywhere within view, within range; and the other advice I might offer (following my father’s advice to me): "Never write anything for money.” It is perhaps strange advice in this age of bottom-line rationalizing, greed, and gluttony; but it is the advice that has guided me through these forty years since back in 1957 (in the company of cats) I turned twenty-five.

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