A Cat in the Hood

When I was a married man, my wife and I owned a summerhouse on the south shore of Long Island which we sold so that we could have a third child. We were there for seven years, staying in what was essentially a vacation cottage from Memorial Day until early November. One of the few interesting elements of that salt and sandy neighborhood was the local cat, Sluggo. No one knew where he lived or to whom he belonged, if anyone. We did not even know who gave him his name. He was what is called in the Cat Fancy a mackerel tabby. Sluggo was a mix between a domestic shorthair, which is the timeless everyday cat, and who-knows what else. His fur was just a bit longer than usual and his coat pattern showed black vertical stripes on a dull tannish-gray background. He was shaped like a box with four legs and boasted a brawny, muscular chest. At certain moments when the sun hit his body at a severe angle, he was an extremely handsome animal especially if you looked into his intense eyes. I was his biggest fan.

Among those not acquainted with the intricacies of the cat world nothing is more confused and twisted around than the term tabby or tabby-cat. Many non-cat people I know think a tabby is a breed unto itself while others are convinced it represents a temperament of sorts. Of course, it is neither of these. The term tabby refers to a coat pattern and nothing more. Such coats are found in the everyday domestic shorthair, and in many, many purebred, pedigreed cats that can be seen in cat shows.

According to experts, the domestic cat we know and love, especially those that are pedigreed breeds, appear in five distinctive tabby types. These are mackerel tabby, classic tabby, spotted tabby, ticked tabby, and patched tabby. Without going into the specifics of each tabby type what is common for all of them is that their various tabby designs consist of two elements sitting one on top of the other. These are dense, clearly defined markings on the body that are darker than the ground color. They are attractive, interesting patterns. The markings may consist of swirls, spots, stripes and other forms of marking that vary depending on their category. In these days of sophisticated feline breeding, the colors also vary within cats wearing a tabby coat. But I digress.

Sluggo, as I said, was more or less a mackerel tabby which specifically refers to dense, clearly defined vertical stripes going around the body that are darker than the background color. The name in all likelihood comes from the coat’s resemblance to an intact set of fish bones although many of us prefer to think of them as tiger stripes. In the case of Sluggo, tiger stripes would not have been an inappropriate assumption. It was a lot closer to his wild lifestyle and disposition. He was some kind of cat, let me tell you.

Sluggo was one of those tough yet lovable strays even though he would never allow you to take him indoors without a big struggle. We wanted to give him a home and tried it once or twice but that scruffy bag of medium-length fur was not buying any. He simply waited for the door to open, ran out, and disappeared for a week or two. He was as patient as he could be with us but it took us a long time to get the message. It was hard to reconcile being attached to a stray cat and not being able to take him in. It was against everything we believed in. Nevertheless, that was how he wanted it and the only terms of the relationship he would accept. Sluggo made his own rules.

Maybe it was the cat’s total independence and his walk on the wild side that was so attractive or his nonchalant tolerance of our doting on him. Still, he was a special cat, one of the great ones of my life. Needless to say, he did not thrill everyone in the hood. He turned off a lot of people who saw him because he left deep scratches in the neighborhood trees as he marked them off as his own territory. He would also on occasion show up with mats of dirt in his coat. He could get himself so dirty that you could not see the black stripes of his tiger coat. We thought it was a pity that such a handsome creature looked so, well, ungroomed.

In those years, I truly believed that living away from the hubbub of Manhattan would help me be more prolific as a writer. That was a dream. I nearly went insane from the thud of the June bugs hitting the screen door at night, the total darkness of the countryside and then the roaring quiet that jangled my nerves. In the middle of all that, there was Sluggo, whom I always considered a city cat that somehow got hijacked to the country and was trying to make the best of things, like a character in a novel by Dickens.

Because he came to my window and brightened many mornings by interrupting the monotony of writing among the birds, bees and flowers, I felt I owed him more than a dish of food and a bowl of water. I wanted to do something important for him. My gift to Sluggo was a bath, a brushing and a combing. We snagged him with a large trout net and carried him into the bathroom where a tub was waiting with warm, soapy water. What an ordeal it was. My left forearm received three red scratches that went from my elbow to my wrist. Of course, my eyes burned from the shampoo. It was a holy mess with water, suds and fur debris all over the room. When it was over, we had one wet, scrawny cat with all the glory of his coat clinging to the form of his body. His eyes burned with rage and a look that indicated he would never trust us again. He didn’t.

Poor cat. I suppose he never forgave us even though it was for his own good. In the course of lathering him, I could feel old wounds, scratches and bumps. The next stop, in my mind, was a visit to a vet for a check-up. It was clear that he had been through a lot and it became our intention to find him a proper home, one in which he would get fat, happy and content.

After he dried off, we brushed and combed him out and made him look glorious. He was squeaky clean and shined like a new penny. After giving him a good meal, he went to the screen door and scratched it so hard it made permanent tracks from top to bottom. Shortly after, a mail truck drove up to our front door and delivered the copyedited manuscript for my first book, Good Dog, Bad Dog, in a large, enticing padded envelope. In my excitement I left the door open just barely enough for Sluggo to squeeze himself out.

He ran into a grove of trees across the road and we never saw him again. To my deep regret, he disappeared into the woods, out of the neighborhood and possibly out of the county. Eventually, we sold the little cottage near the sea, had a third baby and settled back in Greenwich Village with a dog and another cat. We were able to raise a family there and I could more happily write many, many other books.

But I often think about that incredible cat and imagine him playing by himself at the ocean’s edge, munching on an old fish head or digging into the sandy beach for the fun of it. I would rather think of his life like that than the awful possibilities that exist for a cat on his own, living a fearsome life in the wild. Would he have been better off in someone’s home? You bet. Somehow, though, I do not think Sluggo would have agreed.

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While in a wistful frame of mind I would like to say a word about my dear friend and colleague, the late Jack Mara, DVM. I met him just as he left his veterinary practice to be the spokesperson for Hill’s Science Diet® and Prescription Diet® Pet Foods. I was running a call-in talk show over WNYC-FM in New York called Vets and Pets and Jack was one of my first guests. As it happened, mine was his very first media interview and he was sweating bullets. For years, we laughed about it and mused over how nervous we both were. He was a lovely man and I only have warm, wonderful thoughts about him.

Mordecai Siegal’s next book will be, “”THE COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the Cat Fanciers’ Association,”” to be published by HarperCollins. His most durable book is “” Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt)”” and the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America.


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