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

6 thoughts on “Escape Artist

  1. A story, honesty told, that exemplifies the action of grace; both in the story itself, and in the telling. I find myself reflecting anew on some of my own memories and experiences. Thanks Michael, for your openness, and also for the kind comments you post on my site from time to time.

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