I’ve always been kind of a cat man.
I didn’t have pets as a child because I suffered from Responsibility Deficit Disorder, but I started having cats in college, soigné creatures with names like Odalisque and Mrs. Miniver. I had a long-term cat relationship when I first moved to New York: a brother-and-sister pair of tiger stripes, Queenie and Spike. They lived forever (I swear Queenie had dementia), and then they died. And after they died, I never got a pet again. I just never wanted to be bothered with food, litter and death again. For that matter, my life had embraced an instability that could barely sustain me, much less lower life forms. And then there’s the whole thing about smaller creatures depending on you. I don’t know how people with children do it. I mean: there are days when I resent my plants.
Once, there was a fly in my room, over a month, maybe two, and I kind of started to think of him as a pet. I didn’t name him or anything. But I’d say hello when I came home. And I’d let him know when there were orange peels in the wastebasket. I told myself I was nurturing a Buddhist respect for all forms of life, but really, I just couldn’t afford therapy.
The good thing about having a fly for a pet was that I didn’t talk about it to anyone, didn’t tell any stories about it at work. People always tell stories about their pets at work. But no one wants to hear about flies. Which was fine with me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to sound like a Pet Person. I didn’t want to stand around the water cooler telling stories that started out reasonably enough and then suddenly veered into the most cloying sentimentality. And then, of course, you get those people on Facebook who not only talk about their pets but as their pets. That sort of thing gives me the chills.
Now, I like other people’s pets. I’m a pet sitter. And I like pet sitting. I like being the fun uncle who doesn’t mind if you get fur on his sweater. I like the limited responsibility, the promiscuity of pet sitting. The affection is all the sweeter, the cute-kitty moments all the more piquant, knowing it’ll be over at the end of the week.
It started innocently enough with a friend’s cat—Thomas, a super-cute gray-and-white, most of whose nine lives have been plus-sizes. For years, I stayed with him when Ann went out of town, and even lived with him for a while when I moved in with her after losing my apartment. Then a lesbian couple down in the Village with a cat named Junior started using me regularly. Junior and I really get along, and the couple tells me I’m the primary male influence in his life. Which is great, I guess. I always wanted to be a role model. I just never thought it would be for a cat.
I had an Upper West Side job with a cat named Mittens, a name I refused to call the animal. A couple of nights into it, I suddenly realized I had no idea where he was and, while I knew he hadn’t gotten out, I really wanted visual confirmation. But when I opened my mouth to call him, I found it refused to form the requisite syllables. I couldn’t, as an adult, walk around an apartment calling, “Mittens!” I finally settled on calling out (softly) “Kitten!” figuring that, as a lower vertebrate, he could be easily duped by assonance. I was wrong: he had no sense of poetry at all. I didn’t see him until breakfast the next day. And next week I have a meet-and-greet in Chelsea with Taylor, a cat I’ll be staying with for a couple of weeks in January.
So: mostly cats. I don’t do a lot of dogs. They’re so needy. It’s always feed me-walk me-feed me, just me-me-me-me, 24/7; it’s exhausting. And speaking of me, I have to watch out for myself as well. Neediness is a two-way street, and dogs and humans have co-dependence issues that go back to prehistory. Dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, and they quickly made themselves indispensible to humans—hunting, herding and so forth—in exchange, of course, for food. It was in part the stability they provided that allowed humans to finally settle down, establishing villages and, eventually, cities. In short, without dogs, there’d be no New York; you have to wonder if instinctively they knew it would be a great place to shit.