|Publisher:||New World Library|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
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Call of the Cats
What I Learned about Love and Life from a Feral Colony
By Andrew Bloomfield
New World LibraryCopyright © 2016 Andrew Bloomfield
All rights reserved.
Welcome to LA
When I was seventeen, my mother asked me to drive her to see a psychic in our hometown of Tucson whom everyone was raving about. I had never known my mother to see a psychic and have never known her to see one since. But for some reason, she felt drawn to meet this woman. I waited in a dark overstuffed chair in the living room while Violet gave Mom her reading in the next room. I could see them huddled together but, despite my best efforts, couldn't make out any words until Violet stopped midsentence, looked over my mother's head at me, and blurted, "You know, your son's going to Hollywood. And he's going to find his true calling there."
Well, then I knew for sure she was a fake, and I walked out to the car to wait for my mother, determined not to spend another moment in that deluded woman's home. Hollywood! I couldn't believe Mom was in there paying real money for such crap. I had, somewhat inexplicably, set my sights on the Far East and would spend hours in the library poring over picture books of the Himalayas. Not long after, I found myself living in Nepal, spending the better part of two years researching a seventeenth-century pilgrim's guidebook and traipsing across the Himalayan foothills exploring the route described in it, as part of my Asian studies undergraduate degree. Hollywood was the last place on my mind. And yet it is where I eventually landed after all.
After Nepal, I opened a bookstore in Seattle but left it behind to work for an astrologer in Los Angeles. It started out grand. My first LA experience was at daybreak, a few blocks from Santa Monica Beach. A quiet and serene Sunday. I sat on a bench, watching dawn colors toy with wispy clouds. I'm going to like it here, I thought. Then, in the distance, I heard the squealing of tires and a car engine being pushed beyond its limits. I saw a small red Toyota coming my way whip around the corner, jammed to the gills with desperate- and dangerous-looking men. Behind them raced five squad cars, sirens blaring.
I couldn't believe my luck. They were shooting a movie right where I sat! The red car kept going around in circles while being chased by the cops. Then one of the men positioned himself out the Toyota's rear window and aimed his gun at the pursuing police cars. Seeing the gun, the driver of the patrol vehicle veered out of the way, sideswiping the car parked in front of me. An officer from the passenger side leaped out and pulled me to the ground, yelling, "Get down, you idiot! They just robbed a bank!" That's when it dawned on me. I hadn't seen any cameras or production crews. I just assumed everything about Los Angeles was movies. It was my first lesson that the veil between real and make-believe was paper thin in this town.
The following evening, I made my first pilgrimage to the Sunset Strip. I passed the location of the old Cafe Trocadero, an upscale nightclub once frequented by major stars and host to Saturday night high-stakes poker games between studio moguls. I walked by the Roxy and Whisky a Go-Go, and crossed the street to see what had once been the Melody Room, where Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel ran a gambling parlor. I walked by the slab of concrete where River Phoenix died of an overdose. Then slightly up the hill past cofounder Elton John's Le Dome restaurant.
Crossing La Cienega Boulevard, I approached the Mondrian Hotel, where a tuxedo-clad security guard whisked me through a side door. I was hurried past the luxurious pool and led upstairs to the grand opening of the Sky Bar. I suddenly found myself at a table, sitting across from Adam Sandler, who was enjoying a cold bottle of beer, Jean-Claude Van Damme, two coked-out producers with white flake residue on their faces, and two enormously buxom blondes who kept lifting their shirts high over their heads, exposing their naked breasts to revelers by the pool below.
After leaving the Sky Bar, I went next door to the House of Blues. It was jammed with people, and I found myself propelled upstairs and under a red rope into a VIP section. I bumped into a guy who happened to be Sylvester Stallone. He looked over and said, "How you doin'?" as he danced with his wife, Jennifer Flavin. How you doin'? Rocky just said, "How you doin'?" to me? Are you kidding?
People tended to mistake me for a "somebody," and landing in surreal scenes seemed a recurring theme for me. Even Steven Spielberg. We stood outside a karate studio in Brentwood one afternoon, a few feet apart, just the two of us. Apparently his son was in the class, but Steven kept watching me, not his kid. I didn't return the stare, as I felt gaping at celebrities was rude. When I did glance over, he wore a quizzical look, as if trying to place me. He took a few paces my way, and I said, "I'm sorry, Steven. We've never met." He looked relieved.
Since Violet had proved right about Hollywood, I figured she must be right about my place in the movie business. She said I'd find my calling here, and what else is Hollywood but movies? But I couldn't act, direct, or produce. And I had no contacts. Strolling the Hollywood Walk of Fame one afternoon, gawking like a tourist at each star embedded in cement, I spotted a crumpled flyer for a screenwriting seminar. It read in bold letters, "Want to break into Hollywood? Write a great script!"
I decided the best way to learn to write a screenplay was to read a lot of them. Good ones. I pored over scripts at the Writers Guild and Motion Picture Academy libraries. I wrote scripts. Lots of them. In all genres. I entered screenwriting contests, queried producers, managers, and agents, and attended screenwriting seminars. I soon learned that Hollywood was a closed network. If you didn't know somebody, your screenplay was going to sit in the slush pile, along with the other fifty thousand or so screenplays that are registered with the Writers Guild every year.
I came to realize that my auspicious first days in Hollywood were in fact my peak experience. It all went downhill from there.
After a few years, I was broke and homeless, living in my car. I often parked by the ocean so that when cops came at daybreak, I could feign being a surfer preparing to catch early-morning waves. I huddled around beach campfires at night, joining revelers as if I were part of their group, finding food where I could, usually a plate of beans from a taco truck. I was another Hollywood statistic.
Finally I contacted a woman I had dated after first arriving in LA. I used to visit Sophie and had become friendly with her sister, Heather, with whom she shared a 1930s bungalow ten miles from downtown. Hearing of my predicament, Sophie and Heather offered me their sofa for a few days.
That lumpy sofa felt like the Ritz. I couldn't fully relax — I was used to sleeping with one eye open, wary of thieves and cops — but what a relief it was to have someone offer refuge when every door had seemingly been shut in my face. I reassessed my life while living on that couch and decided to get back to basics. Write what you know, screenwriting instructors always said. Well, I knew something about Asia. So when I stumbled across the true story of a smuggler whose life was transformed by a chance meeting with a Tibetan lama, I thought I had hit pay dirt.
I borrowed money to fly to San Francisco and meet with this smuggler in person. After several days spent recording his story, I felt fully in my element. Returning to Southern California, I felt enthusiastic for the first time in years. About the project, certainly, but also about my upgraded living quarters. Noticing how well the three of us were getting along, the sisters suggested we should be housemates. They offered me their spare room, and I gratefully accepted. Now that I had a safe place to stay, I could also practice astrology, which I had been introduced to years before. Reading astrological charts was a way to help pay my share of the rent and utilities. And ironically enough, it would prove a way into Hollywood. Within a few months, some of my clients included executives at the very studios I was trying to impress as a screenwriter.
After my San Francisco trip, my head was swimming with ideas for the potential film project. Needing some fresh air and wanting to stretch my legs before starting what I was sure would be my breakthrough screenplay, I opened the back door and walked into the yard. I was brought to a standstill by the sight of a dead kitten.
* * *
During the time I had dated Sophie, and even more since moving in, I had become aware of a large feral-cat colony that haunted the lush boundary between the sisters' backyard and the neighbor's yard beyond. The cats were a myriad of colors, shapes, and sizes. They were stealthy and skittish, shadows at night, ghostlike flashes in the trees, peering under the high wooden fence that separated our yards.
Occasionally I would spot a startled eye, a black nose, a wispy tail through the broken slats in the fence. The felines were as wary of human contact as any wild animal. Though to the untrained eye some might be mistaken for domesticated house cats, they were unequivocally feral.
I came to learn that their predators, coyotes and raccoons, lived in the latticework of dried arroyos that ran down out of the San Gabriel Mountains. And they knew where to come for fresh meat. Newborn litters and young kittens were particularly vulnerable. Their numbers would grow and then diminish. We reasoned — albeit uneasily — that this was nature at work and none of our business. The cats had been there before the sisters moved in and would probably outlast them.
On the other hand, the creatures looked half-starved and desperate. After watching, helpless, as a delicate white cat choked to death on a bone she had scavenged from a neighbor's trash, we felt we had no choice. We took to putting out food to ensure the felines had some type of decent nourishment (and then cleaning up after every feeding so as not to attract other wildlife).
I remember Heather standing with a handful of cat food for nearly half an hour, absolutely frozen, unable to place the food outside because she understood the ramifications of getting involved at that level. Soon we'd begun feeding what we assumed was a population of about fifteen cats twice a day, morning and night. Then we began naming the cats in order to keep track of their number. Despite these interventions, we were determined not to get any more involved. Sophie and Heather both worked full-time and enjoyed busy social lives. We were all basically self-absorbed — single and childless. And we weren't, by any stretch, cat lovers.
* * *
The dead kitten at my feet was a stunning mix of tortoiseshell and tabby markings, patches of chocolate and cinnamon melded with royal-orange stripes down her legs that would've made her lion ancestors proud. Just the day before, I'd observed this little sprite dancing with joy in the backyard, spinning and leaping in air, the enthusiasm of life surging through her tiny body. As my gaze lifted from the lifeless creature, I saw eight feral cats looking up at me. They sat on their haunches in a perfect semicircle, each so quiet and perfectly positioned it seemed as if someone had hand-placed them.
I recognized these cats: there was Caliby, Snow White, Crazy Calico, Shadow, Beige, Juniorette, Baby Gray, and Marble. Two males and the rest females, ranging in color and appearance from pitch black to Siamese. I was stunned that they were out in the open and not fleeing from my presence. More significantly, each cat stared me dead in the eye. As I turned my head to look at each animal, it would fiercely hold my gaze. This feral cats do not do.
Something was happening here. Something big. I became nervous. This had all the familiar earmarks of the universe stepping in to supplant my personal plans. Though I knew it was nobler to put another being's concerns ahead of my own, I rarely had the inclination to truly do so. Putting out food was one thing, but real commitments eluded me. Yet I felt that these cats were asking for my help. I looked down at the carcass, and their eyes followed mine; and then I looked back at them, and they held my gaze again. Are you sure you have the right guy? I wondered. Did they, too, think I was somebody I wasn't?
I tried choking back the tears running down my face as I contemplated the radiant spirit that, only the day before, had animated this kitten but now had departed, leaving her cold and still. It seems clichéd, but I wondered about a world where in one moment delicate, innocent beings expressed life with carefree abandon and in the next were viciously struck down. By what or whose design?
I remembered attending, some years before, a talk the Dalai Lama had given. Suddenly, in the middle of it, he began to weep. I thought at first he was laughing, as he is known to do. But then I realized he was crying. The audience sat in stunned silence. Then cries turned to sobs, and he seemed inconsolable. After some time, he blew his nose and wiped his eyes and continued his spiritual discourse. I found out later a close friend of his had died shortly before his talk. At the time, I reflected on the difference between contemplating death intellectually and having your heart torn apart by it in real life.
As I crouched next to the kitten, wiping my tears, I noticed she had suffered a violent death. She had been disemboweled; blood was splattered across her singular markings; a paw was missing. The circle of cats came close as I examined her body. Then I sat down on the ground and took a deep breath. When I exhaled, the animals recoiled as if to run but held fast. I addressed the group with my gaze, turning my head to look at each quivering creature before finally saying aloud, "Okay, I'll help." Maybe Violet had been right. I had found my true calling in Hollywood.CHAPTER 2
When I was growing up, my family had dogs. Big ones. My father was allergic to cats. That didn't stop my younger sister, who loved all living creatures, from bringing home a stray feline she named Rifka. Seeing how much distress the cat caused my father, my mother promptly tossed it out back. Our yard was overgrown with plants and trees, and my parents figured the cat would find plenty there to keep her occupied. She would eventually be given to a friend for care, but not before giving birth to a litter survived by a single male, a cat my parents named Pifka (yes, my parents really are that funny).
After my time in Asia, I returned home and rented a small cottage near the house I grew up in. I thought it might be nice to have a cat for company, and I spent hours in my parents' backyard looking for the legendary Pifka, spawn of Rifka, who they were sure was "back there somewhere."
I imagined how this goblin might look after years of being alone in the "wilderness." I pried under bushes, took apart the woodpile one log at a time, and poked under the old playhouse, until finally I spotted what looked like a matted weed. Except that it moved.
As I came closer, it moved faster, and away from me. I couldn't stop laughing. Unable to locate his head, eyes, or any other part of him, I saw this scurrying matted blob as more cartoon creature than cat. I bought an animal trap and patiently waited several days, hoping the aroma of the salmon I used for bait would be so inviting that the little guy just wouldn't be able to resist. One afternoon, I saw the piebald mound slinking toward the trap. Given the full head of Rastafarian locks he was sporting, he was surprisingly spry. He gingerly entered the trap, grabbed the fish (ah, I thought, that's where his mouth is), then started backing his way out, but the fish fell apart. He lunged for the largest piece and stepped on the trigger. Wham!
I've never seen anything quite like what happened next. That cage jumped around the patio like it was spring-loaded. Banshee screams accompanied its dance, and had there been YouTube then, I'm sure this bouncing, shrieking cat cage would have received millions of hits. I managed to maneuver the trap into the backseat of my car and sped off toward my cottage. In my rearview mirror, the trap bounced up and down and smashed against the doors. I prayed it would hold; I didn't want to think what might happen should this maniac get loose.
Once I arrived home, I placed the cage in my enclosed yard and carefully opened its door, then sprinted across the yard. Nothing happened. The cat just lay there, flat on his belly, completely inert. Figuring the poor guy had had enough excitement for one day, I left food and water by the cage and went inside. The next morning, nothing had changed. The moving weed continued to cower; the food and water remained untouched.
The following day, however, the cage was empty. And though I didn't see the cat again until days later, I did notice that the food and water I put out were being consumed.
The weeks went by, and I'd observe him watching me from afar. If nothing else, my time in the East had taught me patience (ever try boarding a local train in Mumbai during rush hour?), and I made a practice of never making eye contact or letting on that I was aware of him.
Excerpted from Call of the Cats by Andrew Bloomfield. Copyright © 2016 Andrew Bloomfield. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Welcome to LA 1
Chapter 2 It Begins 9
Chapter 3 Tiny: A Kitten in the Fog 17
Chapter 4 Rehab 27
Chapter 5 Sleepless in SoCal 35
Chapter 6 Intervention 47
Chapter 7 Dr. V, Miracle Worker 69
Chapter 8 Supporting My New Family 79
Chapter 9 The Naming of Cats 87
Chapter 10 From the Fertile Crescent to Hello Kitty 101
Chapter 11 Protecting the Colony 115
Chapter 12 Interrupting the Cycle 127
Chapter 13 Three Sisters 147
Chapter 14 Indoors and Out 159
Chapter 15 Daily Grind 177
Chapter 16 Loss 181
Chapter 17 Tiny and Leo's Ordeal 185
Chapter 18 Moving 195
Chapter 19 Present Day 217
About the Author 237