Escape Artist

In my late twenties I was a drunk and I suppose I was what many like to call a functioning alcoholic, though for me the functioning part was mostly an illusion. But I did manage to hold onto a job, and a girlfriend for a little while, and I had two cats.

Hooper was my second cat. I named him after the stuntman character of the same name in the Burt Reynolds film from the 70’s that is mostly forgotten–probably for good reason–though I sure loved it as a kid. I was a fan of Burt Reynolds movies from the 70’s, movies like Deliverance, White Lightning, Shamus, and The Longest Yard. My first cat, pal to Hooper, I named Bandit, but not after Smokey and the Bandit—I picked Bandit because he was a black cat and I just thought it was a cool name.

Like Hooper the stuntman, Hooper the cat could jump up to, and down from, ridiculously high places. He was young, agile, and he even had an old injury, perhaps from a stunt gone awry—a tail that bent almost ninety degrees about five inches down from the end of his tail. I got him from a rescue organization and they knew nothing about his history but I always liked to believe he got the bent tail bouncing out of a near-fatality with a car.

Hooper was sweet and outgoing. He was the only cat I ever had who would go up to a person on the first meeting. He usually met them at the door. That is beyond rare for a cat—that kind of brazen openness is dog territory. He was a good friend and playmate to my cat Bandit, and when I spoke Hooper’s name he would flop over on his side and writhe happily. The more I chirped his name and the higher my voice went, the more he flopped around in what looked like utter joy, as if he just couldn’t believe how great his name was. Or maybe he was just celebrating being a cat.

And he was acrobatic. He provided endless entertainment with his somersaults up the walls onto shelves and cabinets and the top of the refrigerator. But a lot of cats are acrobatic.  Hooper, unlike most other cats, also had a special ability that I have not seen in any other cat before or since. Hooper was an escape artist.

In Los Angeles all my cats are indoor cats. There’s just too much traffic to even entertain the thought of letting a cat outdoors. But Hooper performed his first escape within the first week. Thankfully I had a second door behind my first one in the apartment I lived in at the time, at the bottom of the stairs. So when he flew by me, scampering down the stairs, he was stopped dead by the front door at the bottom. I was alarmed at how quickly he had moved.  It was as if his secret identity had been revealed. Sweet cat by day, then by night he would slip out to do some contract killing for the C.I.A.

He was a master of the feint, where I might be answering the door and he’d pad by in a casual way like, Hmm, isn’t this nice you have a guest, I bet he’s a very nice pers—and here I fucking go, you’ll never catch me!–and he’d easily dodge feet and legs and bolt through a narrow opening in the door.

Needless to say, I was very attached to him, and didn’t want him going anywhere. Nor did I take his constant attempts to escape personally, as a judgment of me as a caretaker. I just figured he was an outdoor cat in his past life, and at certain times, he just got the urge to be out there again. To get another taste of the streets, or the wild, or wherever he came from.

This was new for me, because at that time I took everything personally. My girlfriend at the time was young, creative, and adventurous. She was taking improvisation acting classes and she was good at it. I was insecure and wanted to level the playing field by weakening her. On a subconscious level, of course. With all the booze I was imbibing I hardly ever knew what I was doing, and loved her in my stumbling way.

So I was constantly argumentative. I froze her out at every slight or modest disagreement. I was moody (a necessity for an artistic life, I thought) and opinionated. My heart was ghettoized by self-loathing and jealousy moved in to build sleek black condominiums.  I was desperately anxious that she’d leave me.

One Saturday morning she left for work and after sleeping off the hangover as much as I could, I got up to feed the one cat. Wait–one cat? Bandit was there, but where was Hooper?   I combed my tiny apartment but I already knew Hooper had escaped, and this time, he got by the second door. He had finally made it. And based on the past attempts, and his wild impulse, he was probably far away by now. He had no collar, he was not microchipped.  And my girlfriend, who knew very well about Hooper’s secret identity, had carelessly let him out when she left the apartment. He was lost. I circled my apartment, dizzy, paralyzed. Color seemed to bleed out of the world.

I picked up the phone, and my first call was not on behalf of my lost cat, but to let my girlfriend have it. Anger for me was so close to the surface that I could go from zero to apeshit in no time. But something happened in the fleeting moments before she answered the phone. I simply told her what happened, my voice cracking with anxiety. She was mortified, and almost hysterical in her empathy for me. And it took her empathy to uncover in me what was buried beneath the mountain of booze and insecurity: love. Not just for my cat, either. For my girlfriend. For myself—allowing myself to feel grief and loss. Real love, not tainted by strings or conditions or what’s-in-it-for-me.

She helped me make lost cat fliers. In addition to the bent tail, Hooper had an overbite that made him look like he was part donkey. She drew the tail and the teeth perfectly. We paraded up and down my neighborhood calling Hooper’s name and putting up fliers. “$200 reward” I put in big bold writing. In those days, $200 was big money for me, probably a third of all the money I had to my name.

Two days went by and I got two calls. One only offered that they ‘maybe saw’ a cat that looked like Hooper about 2 miles away, which made me even more forlorn, and the other said the cat he saw was wearing a collar, so it couldn’t have been Hooper. It was not looking good.

My girlfriend hugged me.  “I can’t believe you’re not mad at me for letting him out,” she said through tears. I didn’t answer her. But she was right–I wasn’t. And I didn’t blame her. It surprised me as much as it did her. Hold on, how come I’m not being a self-righteous dick about this? I searched myself, and I saw there wasn’t any resentment or bitterness. Just grief… and something else… another ‘g’ word was sinking in.  Grace.

I hadn’t come within a hundred miles of grace in my whole life—didn’t even know what it really meant–but in this moment, with my cat escaping and sadness and loss whirling around me, grace found me, and I knew what it meant.

It was on this second day that a woman knocked on my door. She was my next door neighbor. I hardly knew her, because I kept most people at arms length.

“I think I have your cat,” she said.

Hooper was sitting there in her backyard. He meowed when he saw me and he took a weak step forward.  I saw that he had a terrible crooked limp. Later when I took him to the vet I found out his right rear leg was broken, and based on everything we knew the vet and I guessed that after scampering out my front door he had climbed up the rear porch of the apartment building, then jumped or fell into the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor heard him meowing and took him in immediately. This all probably happened within minutes of his initial escape.

Total distance Hooper had traveled while on the lam: approximately forty feet, with twenty-five of that being vertical.

Hooper had to be confined to a cage to immobilize him while he was recuperating. It took about two months and he played with his buddy Bandit through the cage. The leg healed completely.

Hooper lived many years after that and he kept trying to escape. The girlfriend escaped, too. It didn’t take her quite as long.

Hooper portrait

Pit Bull

A couple of years ago I was driving my car with a good friend in the passenger seat. We were on the way to a pickup basketball game, and we were running late. I live in Hollywood (my friend used to live just down the street from me), and the game was in Playa Del Rey. It was a Saturday, so the traffic in Los Angeles was much lighter, but it’s still a far drive. I have a very keen sense of gauging time to distance, that is I can estimate within a couple of minutes how long a given drive can take, so normally I am punctual down to the minute. But there is something about appointments on the weekends, or perhaps it’s something about basketball–because the start times are kind of fungible with a lot of people drifting in to play from various parts of the city–that I inevitably drag my feet, and end up having to rush to be on time. It might have something to do with a thing about the weekends being my time. That’s a peculiar trait that seemed to show up after years of long hours at the job I was doing. When we’re on my time we’re on my schedule. It’s childish but there it is.

I’ve known this friend for about twenty years, since the time he first arrived in Los Angeles and a time when Los Angeles was still a strange, confusing wonderland to me. We bonded over drinking at first (all my bonds began with drinking in those days), but it went beyond that over time. He seemed fearless to me, brutally honest, intensely silly. But we are different in many ways.

One difference is he doesn’t get my thing for animals. I don’t really either. I was not a good animal caretaker as a child. I had plenty of them—hermit crabs and gerbils and rabbits and dogs, but they were just kind of like more toys to me, I suppose, and they were all okay as long as they bent to my will.

But something has shifted and it keeps shifting. I got a cat in my twenties. That seemed to work out pretty well, so I got another cat. And another. And another. The second one died and I grieved from a very deep and honest place for the very first time in my life. The first one got sick and I quit my job to take care of him.

And I became a vegan—well technically I’m still a vegetarian—and my friend reacted as if I’d joined a cult. “Do you know what being a vegan even means?” he said, and I really didn’t. It wasn’t a decision that came from the brain or the ego. I didn’t think about people judging me, or what it would be like now to shop for food or go out to a restaurant, or how I would be thrust face-to-face with the fresh hell of a hundred different kinds of tofu. I had reached the breaking point, the outer limit of my practical brain, the place where fear just can’t reach. It was a moment of simple grace, it came from the heart, and it was like flicking a switch: When it comes to eating animals, I have to stop.

On this drive to the basketball game, I’m speeding down Crenshaw Boulevard, a sketchy part of town, and I roar onto the freeway ramp. We’re running about fifteen minutes late and the freeway is a good opportunity to make up some of it—on a Saturday morning, anyway.

I have to slam on my brakes almost immediately as my car skids onto the ramp. Cars are backed up on the ramp. Brake lights are flashing. There is some commotion. Something’s happening.

It’s a dog, a little grayish pit bull puppy at the bottom of the ramp, only about twenty feet from the edge of the freeway and the Saturday traffic rushing along. He’s emaciated, his drunken gait indicates he’s obviously fatigued, there’s a wild look in his eyes. He wanders in between the braking cars on the on-ramp, stumbles back toward the freeway (and probably certain death), swings back toward the steep hill that rises from the edge of the pavement to a seedy neighborhood above—probably his best move, if he had the sense or the energy to climb a brutally steep hill like that. He’s bewildered, helpless, this little creature looking up, lost and pleading, at these cars trying to wade through and get by him.

A million things race through my mind: because in my heart I am already getting out of my car, scooping him up, and throwing him in back. But my brain races to the scene, sputtering through the myriad of possible consequences and calamities: a car will slam into you as you’re trying to get him… he’ll bite you, and he has rabies… you have nowhere to put him… you have cats, he’ll eat them…  you’re an insanely impractical do-gooder… It’s frankly amazing how fast the ego-centered brain can work in such a short amount of time; must be that bottomless slag heap of fear that it’s chewing through.

“Should we stop? Should we stop? Should we stop?” I keep saying, my car creeping along.  I see the dog in my side window, stumbling out of the way of another car–like mine–creeping forward slowly. My friend looks at me like I’m insane for even considering the idea. But I realize I’m not really posing the question to him, it’s more like my heart asking my brain. Pleading. As if the brain is ever going to go along with what the heart wants.

I have adopted four cats (well six if you count the ones that have passed away) and I have joined a cat rescue organization. I volunteer, forward emails about animals that need rescuing, donate to animal charities, and it all works as long as it’s within these invisible walls that I’ve built up that seem to have a phrase spray-painted on them: ‘As long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much’.

I accelerated onto the freeway, watching the pit bull puppy in my rear view mirror. The guilt descended like a poisonous cloud almost immediately. “Dog like that, in a neighborhood like that, it did it’s thing and they just abandoned him probably,” my friend said, suggesting that he was a refugee from a dogfight. It sounded kind of melodramatic to me, but this was all very melodramatic. And if it was true, all the more reason to stop.

I played basketball with guilt gnawing at me, drove back two hours later and returned to the on-ramp. No trace of the pit bull puppy. Dead, hit by a car, and you could’ve saved him, my guilt chattered at me. When the guilt wasn’t eating me in the weeks that followed, the rationalizations came bounding in to help. Oh, someone else probably got him, you’re off the hook.

Driving home in the car, silent, my friend not saying anything and not looking at me, my heart seemed to poke up from the back seat. You’ve reached that point. Now you know.

Next time, I have to stop.