Among the Cats of Manhattan there is one called Rocky, barely out of kittenhood, who is rapidly becoming a whiskered Nancy Drew.
Although it wasn’t clear at all to Rocky why she should go to the 42nd St. library to find a lost cat from New Orleans, she set off on the first leg of the journey. She trotted through the narrow space between the Singhs’ dry-cleaner’s and a bakery. She had no worries about reaching her goal, because her mother had trained all her kittens in the safest and shortest ways to get around midtown. All she had to decide was where she was going to have her nap.
Half a dozen blocks later, which Rocky negotiated by zigzagging through back alleys and courtyards, she was at one of her favourite napping places. It was a tiny yard behind the smallest shop on 47th St., the street of the diamond merchants. The shop had a back door and a rear window with a row of thick bars across it, but a person inside could still see out.
Rocky had no sooner gotten there than she placed herself on the ground right in front of the window, beneath a row of geraniums. She gave a piercing meow. In a few moments, there was the sound of the door being unbolted and unlocked. Out came a fourteen-year-old boy named Aaron. He had curly black hair and a warm smile, and he was still in his school clothes of white shirt and black pants. He was carrying a dish of tuna in his hands.
“Hello, Rocky,” he said in a kind voice. He squatted down and watched her while she polished off the tuna. As soon as the bowl was empty, he scratched her between her ears and very gently all around her face. Rocky purred loudly. She brushed him with her whiskers and danced her figure-of-eight dance beneath his hand. She was telling him, “The tuna was heavenly.”
He was stroking her back, from her neck to her tail, when a woman’s voice called from the shop, “Aaron! AARON!”
“I’ve got to go,” said the boy apologetically. “Make yourself at home.” He pointed to the small recycle bin that stood in a corner of the tiny yard. A beam of sunshine was touching the edge of the bin, but Aaron shoved it over until it was completely in the sun. Then he picked up the dish and disappeared through the door.
Rocky put her paws on top of the bin and sniffed the insides. To her sensitive nose, it smelled of paper and ink and cardboard, although the contents had been removed this morning by the garbage men. All in all, however, it was a clean, comfy little cat basket. Rocky poured herself inside and settled down for a good long snooze. But to her surprise, she had barely curled up, when a familiar face appeared over the rim. The face had yellow fur and warm amber eyes. It was Catnip.
Catnip lived in a café on the Upper East Side, but on beautiful days like today, he roamed widely. He and Rocky had often played together in Central Park.
At the sight of her best friend, Rocky squeezed aside to make room for him. Catnip jumped into the bin, nestled his face against her soft warm back, and the next thing either of them knew, they were fast asleep.
An hour later, they both woke up. They gave each other the Rating Look, by which cats rate their naps, and agreed that the recycle box was a perfect ten. After that, Catnip went back to Bemelmans Bar, and Rocky felt refreshed enough to tackle the trip to the library.
Always have a plan! That was the motto of Sgt. Pinky, and Rocky was not about to forget it this time. To get to the library, she would have to cross five streets between 47th and 42nd. They were five of the busiest streets in Manhattan.
Five times she would have to dodge cars, trucks, taxis, and bicycles, and on one street, buses. And that meant, five times she would have to slip beneath a parked car and sit down behind a tire on the street side. From there she could watch the lights change and map out the traffic patterns of that particular corner. Then she would have to sit down behind a tire on the curb side so she could identify a pack of humans that she could merge with, preferably in the middle of the pack. Once she had done all that, she would still have to steer clear of squashed cans and ketchup-stained napkins in the gutters near the pushcart vendors.
It shouldn’t be a problem.
Ten minutes later, with her paws and whiskers unharmed, Rocky arrived at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd. To maintain the cat’s always desirable Low Profile, she insinuated herself between two women heavily laden with packages, who were walking close together. Trotting between their shoes, she looked, she hoped, like a four-legged shopping bag. When the library terrace came into view, she zigzagged out of the main pedestrian pattern and headed toward Fortitude, the uptown lion.
Three pigeons, who were investigating the crumbs of a cookie that a toddler had dropped on the terrace, lifted their heads. At the sharp clang of their internal Cat Alarm, they flew off quickly, but with no reluctance. Six little red eyes had spotted a golden opportunity. An open-roofed, double-decker tour bus happened to be going by. Inside the bus, people were pointing out the sights to one another, while munching potato chips and trail mix. The pigeons settled themselves for a moment on the top railing of the bus and then dived down into the feast on the floor.
Paying no attention to the pigeons’ antics, Rocky leaped onto the seat beside Fortitude’s pedestal. She crawled into a corner and waited for her mind to tell her the next thing to do. But before her mind had time to say anything, she saw Pup slipping around the base of the pedestal.
A broad-shouldered, raggedy-looking orange cat, Pup got his name from the fact that he lived more like a dog than a cat. Out at all hours, even in the rain, Pup hardly ever napped. He seemed to have no nerves at all and always kept one paw on the pulse of the city. For that reason, he had made the library his home base. Now that she remembered it, Rocky had seen him there before, sitting up on top of Fortitude’s mane.
There wasn’t much that went on in midtown that Pup didn’t see or didn’t know.
That made him an excellent ally in the search for Gris-Gris. Besides, Pup had a soft spot for Rocky, and she knew it. Sticking one leg up in the air and licking her bottom, she waited for Pup to leap up beside her and settle down.
As soon as he was sprawled out a few inches away, Rocky decided to try something her mother had told about. Positioning her head in such a way that Pup could look straight into her ear, she posted her mission on the Feline Bulletin Board. This was an older version of the Feline Internet. Most cats were now using the Internet, but there were some technophobes in the cat community who disliked its speed and its availability even to humans.
Since it relied on the software of a cat’s velvet ear, the Bulletin Board could be read only by a cat physically present to the one who was using it. In that respect, it was more personal than the Internet. Sentimental cats even saw it as a bonding device. Cheerfully and hopefully, Rocky posted on the board in her mind all the information about her search for Gris-Gris and the details that Mrs. Castle had given her.
She just finished listing the last entry (“has crumpled back foot”), when she felt Pup’s thoughts passing through her ear and crossing the board. When he finished, she knew it as clearly as if she had heard a click signalling, “The End.” This was the moment she had planned for a nice little chat about strategy and what angle of approach to take to the problem. To her surprise, however, Pup wasted no time getting into gear.
Uncurling himself, he shot back to the corner of Fifth and 42nd St., where he paused long enough to make sure she was following him. Obediently, Rocky dashed to his side. Her mother always said, there was no point in asking someone for his help and not taking it.
As they trotted along toward Sixth Avenue, Rocky learned something new about Pup. He showed none of the usual signs of Cat Caution – hugging the walls of buildings, pausing under parked cars, or putting on the Cloak of Invisibility. Usually, cats who disregarded the rules of caution were regarded by the entire feline community as dimwits. But Pup was no dimwit, even though he proceeded down the middle of the street in a straight line, cutting right through the ranks of business people, shoppers and students, not caring who saw him.
Nervously, Rocky noticed a man approaching them who was wearing dark glasses and a three-cornered hat folded out of the New York Post. He was arguing vehemently with somebody who wasn’t there. Dressed in a black t-shirt, he had skull tattoos down both arms and about twenty small rings in his nose, ears, lips and eyebrows. If she had been alone, Rocky would have darted behind a trash can or a fire hydrant and hidden there until he passed. In Sgt. Pinky’s experience, humans who looked like that were either a Cat’s Worst Nightmare or a Fanatical Friend of All Animals. Unfortunately, she taught her kittens, it was impossible to tell who was which.
But Pup went forward with so much ease that his tail brushed against the Skull-man’s jeans. Rocky, who was nose-to-tail behind him, felt a sudden uprush of the same confidence. She realized that Pup was a cat in a thousand. He could steer himself and his convoy safely and fearlessly through any situation.
With one stop to pee – by taking turns jumping into a round cement pot filled with pink impatiens that was outside the glass doors of an office building - they got to Times Square in double-quick time. Rocky had no idea why there were there, but before she could ask, they were threading their way between the chairs of mostly middle-aged people, who were easing their swollen feet out of shoes and fanning themselves with brochures.
A class of second-graders were squatting on the curb, all in a row like birds on a wire, and licking their ice cream cones. Rocky let the little girl on the end pet her for a moment with loving, sticky fingers, but she couldn’t lose afford to lose sight of her leader. Giving an apologetic meow, Rocky dodged out of the child’s grasp. Leaping over a pile of backpacks, she marched up Broadway behind Pup, crossing street after street until she found herself standing outside a restaurant. The restaurant was next to a jazz club, and a neon sign outside the club said “Iridium.” Why had Pup brought her here?
© Lynn Schiffhorst