I sort of knew a cat named Bogart back in the Sexy Sixties, and now it can be told that he sort of lived at a very popular hangout, a restaurant and bar on a busy avenue in Greenwich Village. It was a sort of secret at the time because the Health Department Code of New York City forbids animals from habituating or even sitting with their owners within the confines of an eating or drinking establishment. Try explaining that to Parisians where pets are welcome in all the restaurants and cafes. This is a stupid law, if you ask me, one that is more honored in the breech than the observance. Of course, no one ever asked me.
The prohibition is presumably based on health considerations, but every illness I have ever caught from another living thing came from two-legged animals with questionable habits. A lot of people never wash their hands after all sorts of activities, but cats always do. People do not pay attention to what they step in and transport it indoors all the time, but every cat I ever knew was quite cautious about that. And cats just never shake hands with anyone and hardly ever spread viruses or bacteria, at least not like that. They are perhaps the cleanest of all mammals, cleaner than any person I know with the possible exception of the late Howard Hughes, and he was nuts. As far as I’m concerned, the New York Health Code pertaining to this is ludicrous. I’d rather dine out with a nice cat rubbing against my leg than half the people I know and the irony is that it is probably healthier in terms of reducing stress. But I digress.
Bogart spent all of his days and most of his evenings going up or down the stairs from the office where he guarded cases of whisky and then to the store rooms in the basement where the large meat lockers and perishable foods were kept. He must have given more than a few rodents a heart condition and kept the booze rustlers away. He was a diligent worker because he knew he lived there on a pass and did not want to be… ah….. ratted out by the Cat Nazis, who could have been city inspectors or self-appointed vigilantes. Bogart was more or less on the lam and knew to stay out of sight until the place closed after three in the morning and to stay away from most people, especially drinkers, diners and revelers. He was a feline fugitive in an occupied country. The manager, who most of us thought of as a mean-spirited bully who treated many customers with unfriendly contempt, was the one who invited the brusque, independent cat to leave the garbage cans, come in off the street and then gave him a home, a job and a name. Few knew the cat was there until months after the fact. It seemed completely out of character and inconsistent with how he treated most humans who worked for him. It was also a violation of the law.
Those of us who knew of his presence thought Bogart was a great name for this big beauty with a white face and half a black mustache, smeared from his nose to his mouth. Like his namesake, he was a tough customer, a loner that everyone admired and would have liked a lot had they been able to get to know him. Some of us thought he should have been named Rick after the character in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s defining role that was enjoying a renaissance at the time. All that was missing was the trench coat, the cigarette and Ingrid Bergman. The interesting thing is that few people liked the manager, Bogart’s redeemer, except that big, black and white cat. For some reason Bogart related to him with tolerant amusement. He is the only human to my knowledge that he rasped and purred for and offered up his belly for scratching. Maybe it was because he brought him in from the cold, or because he fed him every day, or because the manager revealed to Bogart a soft, vulnerable part of himself that he never allowed anyone else. They were both very careful to whom they revealed their feelings. A cat can do that. I used to know a tough, miserable plumber who soaked his customers for as much money as he could and then insulted them in the bargain. And then one day, he rescued a kitten that was stuck in a drain pipe, and from then on his behavior melted like chocolate in the sun. He became a momma cat, a real softy. Yes, a kitten can do that to a person.
Bogart’s presence in that particular hangout made him and the manager vulnerable to the wrath of the health department because it was a very popular and busy place. Over the time he was there, it seemed a miracle to the few of us who knew it that he was never caught by a health inspector. It was the Sixties in Greenwich Village, a mortal coil of runaways, rebels, artists, wannabe artists, politicians (Robert Kennedy was down there looking for votes for the Senate), fame seekers of every stripe and many popular musicians of the time. In the middle of it was Bogart, avoiding it all, hiding out, but doing his job.
I remember sitting with an underground radio commentator and disk jockey with a huge following, Bob Fass, when a young man with an Afro bigger than his head sashayed in and sat down at a table with someone who turned out to be his new business manager. He wore a buckskin jacket with fringe down the sleeves and the tightest fitting jeans I have ever seen on a man. I asked Fass who that was and he looked at me with disgust for not knowing. “My God, that’s Dylan, you dope.” “Dylan who?” I replied with annoyance. “Where are you living? Under a rock? That’s Bob Dylan.” I looked again. I was into my own thing, writing the great American novel, and newcomers to the Village didn’t mean a thing to me. Years later, when I think about it my face turns red with embarrassment. Who knew?
This particular hangout was a focal point for a lot of people who wanted to be in the center of whatever was going on in “the Village.” The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem used to come in after midnight wearing their white turtlenecks to play their pennywhistles as they sang their entire repertoire until there was more slur than song. They drank a lot of beer. Theo Bikel hung out with them and played his guitar and sang gentle folk songs. Norman Mailer dropped in on occasion and so did some of the newspaper guys like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, although they preferred The Lions Head, a hard drinking joint around the corner. I remember the day that Gordon Parks, Jr., one of our regulars, died in a plane crash in Africa while making a documentary. He had just achieved a byline in the New York Times, too. They sent him off with a load of wistful toasts.
I think the one person who hung out there one summer who fascinated me the most was Pat Ward, who had just been released from a long prison sentence for being part of a prostitution ring run by her friend, margarine heir, Mickey Jelke. Their arrest and trial had been a front-page sensation for weeks while I was still in high school. She looked like everybody’s older sister with horn-rimmed glasses, a conservative maroon sweater and a white blouse with a round collar. In a quiet, subdued way, she was quite attractive. I liked her and found it hard to imagine her previous life considering her quiet dignity. She hung out at our place because it was teeming with writers and she was looking to hookup with a coauthor for a book about her life. I remember asking her if it was worth all the troubles and misery she put herself through, and she said yes because she wanted to be famous, a statement that blew me away. “Fame at any price?” I asked. She gave no answer.
Al Pacino used to scuffle in before he was Al Pacino and bum cigarettes and an occasional five dollar bill from people he knew from the Actors Studio. He still owes my ex-wife some money and packs of cigarettes he never repaid. We used to call him Al Pachinko when he scuffled out. I remember one afternoon when the bouncer wouldn’t allow the singer Tom Jones in because he didn’t have an ID to prove he was old enough to drink. Jones pointed to the juke box and protested in an English accent, “You probably have a couple of my records on that machine.” We did. “I’m Tom Jones.” To which the bouncer answered, “I don’t care if you’re Henry James. No ID, you can’t come in.” We were a very literary crowd.
It was a scene, but I swear, like other parts of the Village, I had no idea it was a scene. It was where I had dinner, met my friends, got my mail, cashed my checks, and even put myself on the payroll to make up the missing weeks for my unemployment claim. A scene only becomes a scene after it’s over and gone and all that’s left is a wistful memory of the fun and the fervency. In this wonderful place, I met some of my best friends and someone who eventually became my wife. And in the middle of all this commotion was Bogart, the outlaw cat, whose presence was in violation of the laws of New York City and was aided and abetted by a soft-hearted manager, who was not to our knowledge prone to sticking his neck out for anyone. Our perception of him was that he got a sadistic pleasure out of hustling bad guys out of the joint. He did his job quite well, but let’s just say he was not a people person.
And then I received that phone call in the middle of the night. It was the manager who sounded nervous and quite upset. He told me that Bogart was lying on his side and breathing hard and there was a huge swelling, about the size of a peach, above his neck. I was asked what it was and what to do. He knew I was somewhat informed about cats. I asked if he could see any bite marks on or near the swelling. He said he did. “Okay, Bogart has probably been in a fight with another cat or had a sexual encounter and has been bitten on the neck. This is probably an abscess and has to be drained. He also needs antibiotics. And it wouldn’t hurt to get him vaccinated for everything,” I said. He needs professional care. It should have been done months ago. I told him how lucky we were in New York to have a 24/7 veterinary service in the Animal Medical Center over on the east side and to get the big guy over there right away. The manager hailed a cab and got the big cat the medical attention he needed. They got him fixed up within the hour and took him back to the restaurant.
He appeared to be okay for a while. He ate, he drank and he looked restless just lying around, not working. It didn’t take too long before he pulled the bandage off his body with his teeth and his nails and sort of wandered around like a boxer who took a hard punch. Everyone assumed things were going to settle down and return to normal. Odd how in that celebrity soup of energy and frivolity the focus (for a few) settled on a cat. I lost my work rhythm thinking about him, and the routine at the restaurant was interrupted with concern for the wounded watch cat. And then it all came to an abrupt ending. A couple of months later, after his illness, Bogart just disappeared as suddenly as he showed up and no one knew what happened to him. We looked for him up and down the streets, but he was gone and gone permanently, never to be seen again. He was such a great cat with all the qualities we admired most. He was an independent cuss, yet grateful to those who were generous to him and he always returned the favor in his own way. God, we missed him, even though he could be quite irritating like a beloved uncle who lived with you and insisted on doing things his own way no matter who it inconvenienced. The tough guy manager swallowed hard on those rare occasions when Bogart’s name came up. Someone said she could have sworn she saw tears trying to get released from the corners of his eyes. Who knows? Now and then, after all these years I still hold my glass high and toast that big cat, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
(The name of the restaurant has been withheld to protect the guilty.)
“I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?”(Simon & Schuster/Fireside) is Mordecai Siegal’s latest book and is available wherever books are sold. He is also the author of “”The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,”” (HarperCollins), comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book; “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year” (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (Henry Holt); “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” (Little, Brown); the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do?” (Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “”The Cornell Book of Cats” (Villard); “”The Davis Book of Dogs” (HarperCollins); and “The Davis Book of Horses” (HarperCollins). He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association. Mordecai resides in New York City.