Brain Pickings

Gay Talese’s Field Guide to the Social Order of New York’s Cats, Illustrated

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A rare and wonderful 1961 taxonomy of Gotham’s feline fraternity from the godfather of literary journalism.

Cats, not unlike dogs, seem to have claimed the role of literary muses, from Joyce’s children’s books to T. S. Eliot’s poetry to Hemingway’s heart, by way of various other bookish cameos. In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — an obscure out-of-print gem, in which the beloved icon of literary journalism paints an immersive, vibrant portrait of Gotham’s secret life, from its 8,485 telephone operators to its 5,000 prostitutes to its one chauffeur who has a chauffeur, and the entire bubbling cauldron of humanity in between.

Among the singular subcultures Talese explores is the city’s feline fraternity:

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of building; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them — but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage can abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhood as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of then around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third Rail. About twenty-five cats live 75 feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats.

[…]

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within the blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island.

Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey

Talese goes on to illuminate the hierarchy of the feline social order:

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a ‘boss’ — the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street’s cat society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types’ of cats — wild cats, Bohemians, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food, wand will have little or nothing to do with people — even those who would feed them. These most unkept of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they usually are found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat-lovers (mostly women) who call the strays ‘little people,’ ‘angels,’ or ‘darlings,’ and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as ‘alley cats.’ So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat-lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturday or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but it usually uses the store as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling in the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed — the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store at — including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for hangouts.

Having just finished an advance copy of the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton’s forthcoming Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology — a heartbreaking, heartwarming, hopelessly hilarious treasure of a tale, penned by writer extraordinaire Caroline Paul and tenderly illustrated by Wendy herself — I couldn’t resist asking Wendy, a frequent collaborator, to illustrate Talese’s feline archetypes. She kindly and brilliantly obliged:

UPDATE: Lost Cat is here!

But, of course, this being Talese, we soon realize cats are but a vehicle for driving home a larger point about New York changing landscape and the era’s tectonic cultural shifts:

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York, With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

Wedged between E. B. White’s indispensable 1949 classic Here Is New York and Jan Morris’s 1987 literary travelogue Manhattan 45, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey is exquisite in its entirety. Its title, aptly so, is an allusion to the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who in their travels were constantly finding splendid and interesting things they didn’t expect or seek.

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