First lived in a three story building across from NYC's Cooper Union. My father was a super, renting rooms to the homeless, authors, and at least one soon to be famous actor. My father had graduated years earlier from Cooper Union. Both my mother and father were artists.
I recall first holding a cat at the age of two. The cat's owner brought the cat over with every intention of leaving it with my parents. Hugging that furry cat was pure joy. Regrettably I never saw that cat again, because the owner feared I would squeeze the cat to death.
When I was 5 years we moved to the ground floor of a two story brownstone in the lower east side of NYC. My brother and I were lucky to have a backyard. No plants grew in the backyard, other than three Chinese Sumac trees. We lived next to a vacant lot. My father built a seven foot fence around our backyard using scrap wood from the vacant lot. Neighborhood cats would perch on top of the fence, but would mostly run in fear when approached.
The dirt in our backyard was actually black soot. My brother and I would dig till we reached orange soot, then yellow soot, the finally white soot and sea shells. (Learned years later that as the NYC industry changed so did the color of the soot). Occasionally a cat, perched and watching curiously as we dug, would accept an offer of food. Once in a long while a cat would jump down our side of the fence, allowed itself to be picked up, and carried into our home. Typically once a cat stayed the night, the cat would be back every night for food and sleep.
NYC can be tough on strays and there are many ways to die in the city: hit by a car, bitten by a rat, eaten by the homeless, or strung up and torched by a pack of children.
I befriended a stray black female cat and that cat moved in. She would lay down on my pillow draped on my head as if she were a hat; keeping both of us warm. She died of stomach cancer 3 months after giving birth to her first batch of kittens.
Found a nameless female cat one year later. She had given birth to 6 kittens in a NYC hotdog stand garage. Rats the size of cats roamed that garage and three of the kittens were picked off. Over night the mama cat carried the remaining kittens by the back of their neck to safety, under our stoop. She moved the kittens again and disappeared. Heard stories that she would return to the garage to kill the rats that dined on her kittens.
I attended a Catholic grammar school and auditioned in the school gym for the school chorus, but was rejected by the nun in charge. A year latter the gym burnt to the ground. My egg shaped forth grade teacher-nun announced my birthday to the class, knowing full well that the other children would find the need to punch me in the arm (one punch for each of my 9 years). After school I was grabbed by the class, knocked unconscious, with a blow to the back of the head, and held crucified for fifteen minutes as the entire school took turns punching my arms (a girl in class informed my mother). When I returned to school the nun looked at me briefly, but otherwise was oblivious to what she had done.
There was always a furry purry cat at home to make it all better.
I was 12 when we moved out of the lower east side. Just as well, because cats and kids who stayed in the lower east side were destined for a short life. Alcohol, drugs, and poverty claimed the life of all the childhood friends I left behind.
Off to a new life in Brooklyn where my father landed a job teaching at a well-heeled all boy college preparatory school. Back then the school offered a free education to teacher's sons. The head of school maintenance was known for drowning kittens. Over a week's span, three cats gave birth to kittens under the school's concrete bleachers. The maintenance crew kept quiet, but once the kittens started exploring it was only a matter of time before the head of maintenance took notice. My father and I grabbed all the kittens one weekend and brought them home. The kittens were confined to the floor bordering our bay window and away from our adult cats. After two weeks of nurturing we brought the kittens to an animal shelter, where they would be adopted.
To be continued …