Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Cats of Grayton Beach

More people owned dogs than cats in Grayton Beach, but there were more cats than dogs in Grayton Beach. That is, there were a lot of homeless kitties wandering the sandy streets of that little Florida town. I actually don't know how many of them were un-owned, or how many were out and out feral cats, but come nightfall, you couldn't go very far without spotting some feline or another skulking about like sad little orphans rummaging around for a tin of tuna or two. Maybe it's because I like cats so much that I noticed them all the time.
In Grayton I worked in the kitchen at the Paradise Cafe. The cafe was a semi-high end Cajun restaurant that was only open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday. It was about the only business in town back then, in the mid to late Eighties. But working in the kitchen--first as dishwasher, then as the salad man, then as prep cook--I was able to save scraps to feed the cats at night. I'd save shrimp and snapper, crawfish etouffee and crab claws, aged beef and old oysters; any small scrap that I thought the cats would enjoy. And after work, after the diners had left and things had been cleaned and kitchen work winded down and beer was drank, I'd take the scraps out back where a multitude of cats waited and I'd put it down for them and watched them eat like crazy. It was top-of-the-line good spicy fatty food. They all seemed to like it and they all seemed to know it was coming. I don't know what they did on Sunday and Monday nights when the cafe was closed.
There was one wild cat, an old orange Tom, who looked like Henry Miller, the writer. At least like Henry Miller when he was an old bald man (not that many people nowadays or anydays know what Henry Miller looked like). This cat was a fighter and had lost a lot of fur, especially around his head, a head which was big and beaten, hard and bony as a shell with a prominent jaw and shape to it--so he was Henry Miller the cat. I'd see him about town now and then, his orange-red tabby coat in shambles, his body language one of "leave me alone or else...", so I never tried to pet him or call him but he was a great cat nonetheless.
Holly had a cat. Holly lived in Pat's house just up from the cafe when I first came to town. One day we--Matt, Monica, Ron, Tommy, Sam, Jack (good ol' Jack)--were sitting around Holly's living room and she came in with this little grey kitten. We were all young people from somewhere else and Holly had the only working washer and dryer among us, so people were doing their laundry, the waiters and busboys and such bleaching their white shoes and shorts before work at the Paradise that evening, and Holly brought in the mewling kitten and proceeded to give it a flea bath while we all sat around drinking idle beers in the day's humid heat (very few had air-conditioning, even though it was summer and we were in Florida). I had not been in Grayton for too long, but as I sat there, listened to the tumble of the dryer, to the cats mew and Holly's loving attention to it, I felt a pleasant calm come over me, like I was home, like I was part of a family. That little cat was part of that equation for home, that sense of comfort and well being.
Later, during my days in Grayton, I owned two cats. I use the term owned very loosely here. This was when I came back to town and lived in a trailer. One cat had been Monica's at one point (we were basically unsettled people and those who had pets--cats--often did not keep them like they should have) but now it roamed town with the other homeless felines. (I think even Holly's gray kitten ended up in the streets of Grayton.) Since I knew the cat, I fed it and pet it and invited it into my trailer. This cat--a female, black and white and I can't recall her name, she was Monica's old cat--was very grateful and friendly. In fact, she was too friendly. She was one of those cats that had to be right up in your bed, right up on your chest, right up in your face every night. I had sympathy for her, but it drove me crazy. I tried to train her to stay at the end of the bed (and of course this cat spent the day outside, in dank dirty flea and tick encrusted land) but she would not learn. Eventually, I turned her out. Sorry. But she drove me nuts--I did continue to feed her, though, until she went away.
The second cat I owned was Snake. I named him Snake. He was not big but was all black and semi-feral, a smart cat that showed up outside my trailer one day and I fed him some food and he came back the next day. Snake and I had a pretty good relationship. He showed up when he wanted and I fed him. I could pet him, talk to him, but he refused to come inside the trailer. Snake came and went. I fed him some of the scraps from the cafe, good ones I brought home just for him. I'd put them in an old bowl out on my porch at night, whether I saw him around or not. The problem with that was, if he didn't come to eat it, by the next morning when I'd step outside, the bowl would be teeming with roaches, ants, centipedes and other whatnot of insectdom. Yeech. One day, after I'd been out of town, I came back to my trailer and there Snake was out in the grassless yard, killing a lizard. Man, he must have been hungry to kill a lizard--not too many animals will eat them--so after that I made sure to have some store-bought dry cat food around to feed him. But Snake, like Monica's cat, eventually drifted away--or maybe I drifted away or left town (which I did, going back to Iowa City before coming back to the panhandle once again--and once again after that once again). I did not see him for a long time, but he was still alive and so was Monica's cat . . . One day, Doug gave me a ride in Grayton and we rolled by the trailer and there Snake was and there Monica's cat was, both of them in the dirt and attacking each other. "Man, there's my old cats," I said to him, "they're fighting over my place and I don't even live there anymore." Doug found this very funny for some reason. We were probably stoned.
So, cats had a hard time in the panhandle. Dogs were treated quite well, but cats never got much long-term respect. But the cats did their best to survive. I know of a guy who told me that when he went out and grilled at night, about fifty cats came crawling out of the woods as soon as he put the meat on. Poor cats. I had two other cats, when I lived with Tee in an unfinished house right on the beach in Gulf Trace (about a mile up the road from Grayton), whose names were Lucy and Velcro. Lucy liked to ride in the car, Velcro couldn't control his claws and stuck to everything. But after I left Tee, she told me Velcro followed someone down the beach and disappeared. She kept Lucy, who had kittens, which got Tee kicked out of a rental and I don't know what happened to that cat after that. I don't really know what happened to Tee, either. But I'll bet Velcro went to Grayton Beach and lived in the streets.

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