The Fur Person

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This book was a prize when I discovered it and gave it to my mom, back when I was in college. Mom was reading May Sarton’s poetry and journals at the time. Being a keeper of kitties herself, the slim volume discovered in a used bookstore, devoted to and written from the perspective of Sarton’s adopted stray Tom Jones, was a score for a holiday gift for mom and quickly became a family favorite.

Some of the phrases Tom Jones uses to describe his world quickly integrated into the cat lexicon of the Butler family home and remain in use for many a subsequent generation of cats, both in New Jersey and the Manhattan branch, of which of course I am in charge. The kneading paws of our kits became starfish paws and a cat sitting in his or her favorite window, watching the world go by, is reading the newspaper. Even before discovering the book my mother had already christened our inordinately smart girl cat, Winkie, her Fur Child, and would allow that the sixth chair at the kitchen table was hers and Winks would perch there, ever politely. These phrases have been used so often I had somewhat forgotten their origin, traced to this book.

I hadn’t thought of the book in decades, but recently when researching and writing a Pictorama post, the memory of it nagged at the edges of my memory until I finally remembered it. The edition I gave my mother was a hardcover, early edition, much like the one I purchased for myself recently. I located an inexpensive copy online, hardcover and illustrated as I remembered, and it arrived quickly, a gentle explosion of mothballs and mold when opened. (It is still in print and also available in inexpensive paperback form, I believe, complete with the original illustrations by Barbara Knox, which I think you want to complete it, although I find them a tad uninspired.) I recommend it as an absolute must read for cat lovers.

Tom’s story is one of a stray tom cat who, as he comes of age, realizes the attraction of living with a housekeeper and sets off in search of an appropriate set-up. After abandoning the small boy who claims him as a kitten, briefly considering life in a grocery store, he ultimately determines that an old maid with a garden would be best suited to his needs. After some trial and error, he finds his home with not one, but two, old maids – presumably May and her partner, Judy Matlock, although only identified here as Gentle Voice and Brusque Voice.

Judy, Gentle Voice, is the first to invite Tom into the house and the one who names him; she is the cat lover in this family. May, Brusque Voice who smokes and is less likely to pet and coddle, eventually grows into loving the critter in their midst. She is the one who works at home all day, forging a special bond as shown when they both care for him during a serious illness – my guess would be a bad case of ring worm from the description. It is clear he has become central to their lives. (I can tell you that the cats here have an entirely different relationship with Kim who is central to their all day every day, although perhaps that is shifting some now that I have been pandemic installed here now for several months. That is a long time in cat days.)

May Sarton’s tone is indeed a tad brusque which keeps the book from falling into the saccharine, maudlin or childish. Tom Jones is a un-spayed male cat and Sarton gives a fair, if comical, view of what was on the mind of a young boy cat who came in off the streets. She also relishes describing the kitty joys of digging, tree climbing and has an especially entertaining interlude with his introduction to catnip. A novella, barely topping 100 pages, it is a quick read. It is a book that could be enjoyed by younger folks, but is written for adults.

My copy of this book, is inscribed on the inside cover with the name Mildred Krainock, Aug. 1957 in a neat script, written in pen. Despite a 1957 copyright, the fly leaf announces that this volume is in its third printing so the book was popular from the first. (May Sarton had already published a clutch of books – novels and poems – and was an established writer.)

As a book penned in the mid-50’s Sarton is both tongue in cheek with her language – she would have only been 45 when she published this book – but probably also accommodating a time when old maids would have been the most acceptable way of looking at two women living together. I don’t think Sarton was much bothered about keeping her sexuality under wraps even in those early years, but she assumes the mantel of an unimpeachable role for the times here.

I am happy to tell readers this isn’t one of those awful books where the denouement is the death of the pet in question, but while researching this book I realized that Sarton wrote it either just before or during the time she and Judy separate, as noted by Wikipedia, was in 1956. The book is dedicated to Judy and while the back fly leaf assures us that Tom Jones and Sarton continue to live together in Cambridge, MA, evidently in reality Sarton had left for New Hampshire after the death of her father by the time of publication.

While it is unclear where Tom Jones would have landed in their parting, the book implies that he is somewhat more fond of Judy than of May. I realized that I was enjoying the idea of their happy household, ruled by Tom at the the helm, continuing for years beyond the book, and was sadden by the knowledge that it was most likely written in remembrance and tribute, honoring days now passed, or passing.

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We Work Each Day: Clivette Cont.

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I stumbled on the tale of the huckster magician artist Clivette last week when researching my post of the dancing white kitty card of his creation. (It is called Always Cheerful and can be found here.) Meanwhile, I found this card while searching Google Images – and to my delight it was for sale on eBay. I scored it quickly and thought it would make a nice birthday gift for Kim if it came in time. To my delight it arrived on Wednesday evening, his birthday eve. So today it serves as the jumping off point for a part-two post, although I confide that I have already told everything I could find on Mr. Clivette and his fascinating life last week.

However, today’s card is an excellent foil to last week’s dancing duo – these two snoozing pusses look like they just want us to go away and leave them be! The poem that accompanies them is:

We work each day
With a cheerful heart
For we are always together
And never apart.

Their green kitty bows are somewhat at half-mast. They look annoyed that the viewing might potentially wake them – sleep is a serious thing for these cats. Unlike last week’s kitties, there is a vague sense that one is male and the other female. They are well settled into a long nap. The card was never mailed, but there is a somewhat unintelligible and garbled note, written in penciled script on the back. It is addressed to Mrs. Lillian Harter. From what I can puzzle through it says, I will write a letter in a few days/nan glad to get the recite (stet?) for E Bertha Ronsh (?) the catsup, thanks for the…cards.

This card seemed like an especially appropriate bunker birthday gift for my mate, with whom I have spent the past three months (and counting) existing in our 600 square feet of heaven and working hard. Happy Birthday Kim!

Nothing much about our version of life during the pandemic is especially noteworthy. Comics continue to be made by Kim at one long table. I have reclaimed a drawing table directly behind him and from there (and occasionally when my back needs a break, from the couch which I mentally think of as my conference room), I continue to raise money for Jazz at Lincoln Center. With the concert hall dark, no concerts, no tours and no Dizzy’s club, these contributed funds are more important than ever before, and so days have rapidly melted into nights, and then weeks, now months.

It has been a pleasant existence in many ways, I have to admit. I commute ten feet from bed to desk. I have taken the reins of the kitchen in hand and am cooking much more often, which means we will eventually emerge heavier, but hopefully healthy.

We continue to work out and I am backing to a routine of weight lifting, which my previous schedule had interrupted, so I will be fat but buff. And I tag along for the trip up our 16 flights of stairs a few days a week for a bit of cardio – whenever I go outside – but Kim keeps to his much more regular routine up them six out of seven days a week. There have been weird shortages of some food and items (for example ice cream, largely unavailable for awhile seems to have been somewhat restored, flour remains at a premium), but no real hardship. We have always liked being together and here we are. We are lucky.

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An early experiment with root vegetable stew – the dumplings got a bit aggressive!

 

I do not mean to imply that the horror of the situation escapes us. Like many, we exist on a steady diet of CNN and the news is horrendous. For many weeks the sound of ambulances on York and First avenues were constant and haunting, especially at night. Like everyone, we have lost friends to the virus, directly and indirectly and others have been sick with it.

We remain very grateful to the folks who risk themselves to continue to fill the shelves of our grocery stores and deliver our mail and make appreciative forays to the few restaurants to pick up food from those who have hung in with take-out business. A low point was when our favorite pizza haunt closed down for several weeks after a valiant effort to remain open, a symbolic low. Happily we hailed their recent return and celebrated with a mushroom pie. A trip every week or two to Bagel Bob’s around the corner cheers me greatly, and the Gristedes across York has done their best for us. It seems strange to contemplate a return to leaving the house daily and re-entering the world. Meanwhile, our Yorkville corner of Manhattan remains strangely under-populated, sort of like a never-ending holiday weekend.

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Arturo’s Pizza, this taken just pre-plague.

 

Kim and I had hoped to spend more time together this year, with the months earlier having been very travel intensive for me at work, and now we certainly have. I miss seeing my mom in NJ (I fear infecting her and remain unsure how we will resolve that), and of course there are things and people I miss in the outside world, but am mostly able to patiently look forward to seeing them in person when the opportunity arises again. For now we are here and doing our thing. Kim’s world has changed very little aside from my omnipresence and endless nattering on the phone Monday through Friday.

Winter clothes still hang in the closet, frozen in time to mid-March Miss Havisham-esque, despite the weather having turned very warm. (An army of moths has invaded which I am unsure how to oust. We can’t deal with mothballs so please send any less toxic suggestions. Blackie snacks on the occasional one but is of little real help.) I am clad in entirely in a rotation of work-out clothes, an ancient black cotton hoodie the only constant. Make-up is an alien concept (why on earth did I do that every day I wonder now) that I may never really go back to. Like everyone, my hair has grown shaggy and I twist it up in a hair tie. (Luckily I had accepted my gray hair as it came in when it arrived as I hit 30 years old, and so I am not among those growing out gray roots.)

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An unusual moment of togetherness, Blackie and Cookie on the bed, looking nothing like those contented white kitties.

 

The cats, Cookie and Blackie, are the big winners. An extra set of hands constantly at disposal and inclined for petting they take full advantage. Blackie has made numerous appearances on Zoom, but as he is all black and so are most of my allotment of t-shirts and tops, it is only those with sharp eyes who have caught a pair of pointy ears, a tail waving, or perhaps a serious green cat eye peering up. He demands attention, in particular, between 3:00-4:00 daily, but he likes those Zoom calls on-camera and will magically appear for them. He precedes his leap onto my lap with a little meow and stretch up to tap me with a claw paw, ever politely, before making the jump up. Instagram followers know that he is also partial to taking possession of my desk chair when I am not in it – which isn’t often these days.

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So, as we celebrate Kim’s Natal Day for 2020 I provide an idea of what daily life looks like here at Deitch Studio and Pictorama during what I have termed as our bunker days. I fervently hope you are all as comfortably situated in your own.