Though I am a cat lover, my asthma makes it impossible for me to own a cat, so I fell into an ill-advised relationship with some feral cats who live in the vacant lot next to my little grocery store. Our relationship lacks synergy and it works like this: the cats yowl and I feed them. They’re tough and sleazy, not cats you can cozy up to. They’re GCs – Grocery Cats. Feeding them is a thankless job, a job motivated by coercion and blackmail. They’re shaking me down daily and I can’t escape.
Grocery Cats can be calico, Manx, Siamese, Persian or Tabby. What sets them apart is not breed but attitude. Among cats who have raised attitude to a fine art, Grocery Cats have gone a step beyond.
Perhaps I can explain Grocery Cats by contrasting them with well-bred cats who are indigenous to bookstores. My favorite bookstore has a Siamese named Desdemona. She rubs against friendly ankles, allows her ears to be scratched, and sits in the check stand to supervise cash transactions. She dozes in display windows and bats feathery catnip balls to entertain customers.
Desdemona stares at display books as if she were reading them and probably she is. I would guess that her taste runs to English literature – Shakespearean tragedies and T.S. Eliot.
Desdemona would never live at my grocery store. Even if she were allowed inside, and the health inspector says she is not, she would sniff and make a haughty exit. We don’t have the cushie chairs, soft carpets, or sunny display windows a bookstore cat requires. At dinnertime, she eats cat food. That makes her different from Grocery Cats.
GCs care only about groceries. They don’t know about cushie chairs, soft carpets, or sunny display windows. You can’t get close enough to scratch their ears, and they can’t be bothered supervising anything. They don’t read either. If a cookbook with a photo of fettucini Alfredo fell open in front of a GC, he might notice. He might even chew up the page. But if you think GCs read for self improvement, forget about it.
Every night at 10 o’clock a pack of GCs, led by a cross-eyed tabby I call Kitty Wampus, stands under my front portal and yowls. We have an understanding. I deliver dinner, and they quit panhandling my customers.
In the past I fed them from broken bags of cat food, bent cans of spaghetti, and outdated dairy products. If I didn’t deliver on time, they took matters into their own paws. They would dash into my store (a feline beeline) and bite open a bag of Purina.
But they settled for Purina only because they weren’t able to open a refrigerator door and bite into a ham. They have attitudes about what they will eat. After all, they have an entire grocery store full of goodies from which to choose.
One night last summer I made the mistake of giving them a barbecue sandwich that was out of date. Kitty Wampus dug in, followed by his brothers Dutch and Bugsy. They would have fought over it, but they couldn’t stop eating long enough. All I saw was a blur of fur. The way they ate that sandwich and licked the cellophane, I knew they wouldn’t be settling for any more Purina.
From that day forward, the GCs have stood over full bowls of cat food and caterwauled for barbecue. One night when I couldn’t stand the racket, I grabbed a broom and chased them through the ragweed in the vacant lot next door. In no time I was doubled over, gasping, suffering the worst asthma attack of the season. As I sucked on my inhalers, I knew Dutch, Bugsy, and Kitty Wampus were catnapping under the cottonwoods, grooming themselves, and smirking because they’d taught me a lesson.
Now every evening the GCs stroll along my front porch as if to remind me they’re running a protection racket. The Cosa Nostra of catdom. If I feed them barbecue, they won’t run me through the ragweed.
They’re giving me nightmares. In my dreams Dutch and Bugsy drive up to the store in a gangster car. They get out, slouch against my lamp post, smoke Lucky Strikes, and cast tough glances that say, “Barbecue. Make it snappy.”
It’s an asthmatic’s worst nightmare – cats, ragweed, Lucky Strikes. So I cave in. I deliver. I consider it asthma prevention. The problem is that barbecue sandwiches aren’t covered by my health insurance and they’re becoming a sizable out-of-pocket expense. Sometimes when I’m lucky, a customer will bear the cost.
Here’s how it works:
Customer: You have hungry cats yowling outside.
Me: I beg your pardon. I can’t hear you over the hungry cats yowling outside.
Customer: Poor things. I’ll buy them some Purina.
Me: Don’t bother. They want barbecue.
Customer: Barbecue cat food?
Me: No. Barbecue sandwiches.
Me: If you don’t want to buy barbecue, they might settle for sardines in tomato sauce or white tuna packed in spring water.
Customer: Those scruffy strays?
Me: They’re hungry. Poor kitties.
Customer: Okay, I’ll buy three barbecue sandwiches.
I heat the sandwiches in the microwave and the customer lays the open packages on the sidewalk. The cats eat the meat, shred the bread, and tear the cellophane into a thousand pieces. It gives new meaning to the term “kitty litter.”
When the cats finish, they slink away. Then I breathe more easily and enjoy a rare moment of peace. I’ve survived the GCs for one more day. But I know they’re out there, relaxing in the ragweed, smoking Luckies and working up an appetite.