Let us re-visit West 12th Street one more time, probably not the last. As you should know by now we grew up in a classic railroad flat building in the West Village; it wasn’t quite a brownstone, just a very nice normal building for its time. The apartments were long and narrow and are bound by the street on one side, adjacent buildings on either side and at the back, a very large dark alleyway. Clotheslines hung from every window; a pulley allowed you to bring back in your dry laundry after having let it flap in the sooty New York air. No one at the time owned a dryer; I am sure a few of our neighbors didn’t know what one was; there were Laundromats but for the most part, as generations did before them, wash was done by hand and then put out to dry, hanging over the alleyway and raining on the cats.
Oh did I mention the cats? These were not your cute little kittens that loved to chase yarn. These were huge, hairy, ferocious creatures pissed off at the world, but secure in their alley domain. No one, not even the Janitor who lived on the first floor and whose job it was to take care of the building dared to go into the alleyway for fear of being torn to shreds by the gang of cats that lived there.
Of course, they were hard to spot; you heard them mostly, howling at the sky, fighting each other with abandon, living on the garbage that people would toss out the windows. I remember looking down into that abyss, me, of course, being an animal lover, anxious to see them. But the bottom was dark, I could hardly see anything save a flash of grey fur as it darted from garbage can to abandoned tire. Who knew how many there were. No one was going to find out.
And I am sure by now, you see a potential problem. Every now and then whether due to clumsiness or a faulty clothespin, a piece of wash would fall, plummeting into the darkness with a giant splat, accompanied by the angry howls of the cats it almost hit. Those pieces of laundry were collateral damage; lost forever. I remember hearing Mom calmly say one day as a pair of BVDs slipped through her hands:
“Oh well, I’ll have to go to John’s Bargain Store tomorrow to replace that one”.
The idea of going down to retrieve something as expendable as a pair of tidy whities was unheard of. All of us had strict instructions from Dad to never venture into the alley, and this coming from a decorated Marine; even he drew the line at maniacal felines you couldn’t see.
Every once in a while Mom would suggest a foray into enemy territory.
“Ton, I think I will go down and get your handkerchief; it’s one of your favorites”.
And Dad, always the pragmatist would respond logically:
“Favorites? It’s a handkerchief for Christsakes; I’ll make one of my others my favorite. “
And so it went.
Until one day when somehow, my favorite one-piece pajamas with the cute yellow Duckies on them took the dive. I watched (I was always by Mom’s side when she was putting out the wash), as my beloved pajamas sank into the primordial darkness, and I started to cry. Well, that was enough for Mom; she wasn’t going to just let her little boy cry at the loss of his favorite pajamas just on account of a bunch of mangy cats. Luckily Dad was at work. Mom turned to me and Don who was in the room behind us and said:
“I’m going down”
No hero in any Western sounded as determined and we knew she would do it, even as we protested and reminded her of Dad’s edict. I think it backfired however as we were stunned into silence by what she said next:
“We’ll all go together”.
Don and I looked at each other. “All”? As in us?? Go down there?? Just the three of us against twenty or thirty of the toughest cats this side of the Bronx Zoo??!!
Don looked pale; I started to whimper.
“Sush,” she said, “It will be alright….just don’t tell your father”.
With that, she marched out of the room, went to the closet and brought out her favorite broom. Good thinking I thought. I raced back to my bedroom, determined not to be a coward and let her go alone. I grabbed the only thing I had that resembled a weapon, my plastic Wiffle Ball Bat. When we reassembled in the hallway, Don was there, as I knew he would be, but strangely he had chosen as his weapon his Pitchers glove. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with that, maybe use it as a shield in case one of the monsters lunged at us, but I like him, put my faith in the Gods of Baseball and decided he knew what he was doing. Off we went.
Once we opened the door to the alley, we realized it wasn’t dark at all at least when you were in it; it only looked dark from up above. It was light enough that we could clearly see the wet lump that was my pajamas and the ten or twelve gargantuan cats that sat, lay and walked around it. When we entered the alley, all eyes turned our way; these guys were sharp. They watched us warily, ready for anything, though I am not sure they were ready for a grown woman and two boys wielding a broom, a Wiffle Ball bat and a baseball glove. One, in particular, looked at us like we were the crazy ones, not him for living in a garbage-strewn alley. Another yellowish one let out a mighty growl and I was immediately ready to retreat; I mean there were other pajamas in the world right? But Mom would have none of it. She slowly advanced taking the lead, Don and I flanking her. Don held his mitt out in front of him like it was some sort of Talisman to ward off Evil. I held my bat at my shoulder as if I were in the On Deck Circle waiting for my chance at the plate. Mom, the only one with any real sense, slowly waved the broom back and forth, low to the ground. She did it calmly and without any aggression and for a few minutes the cats just followed the languid movement of the broom and seemed content to do so.
Maybe this would work after all, I thought to myself. Who knew Mom was a cat-whisperer?
We moved closer to the wad of pajamas, Mom totally keeping her cool, me beginning to get a little nervous as the deeper we went into the alley, the cats did what all intelligent warriors do, and they spanned out to outflank us!! Damn these guys were good!! Patton himself couldn’t have done it better.
So after a few minutes, we are now surrounded by the cats, but still making steady progress towards my Ducky pajamas. Don kept the mitt in front of him, and I thought he would have been better served with a Catcher’s Mitt instead of a Pitcher’s glove but what the Heck, the Talisman was working so far.
I heard Mom quietly, soothingly say:
“Nice Kitties…there you are…arent you pretty….you’re so pretty you are….nice Kitty Cats”.
Damn, she spoke their language too!!
Then suddenly she shouted, startling us and the cats:
“Donnie…run…get the pajamas!”
He didn’t hesitate; glove out in front of him to ward off any flying attacks Don ran to the pile and grabbed it, still soaking. The cats hissed and crouched down, tails puffed out; now they were pissed.
Don wasted no time in getting back to us and then Mom was her cool calm self again.
“Ok now boys, just back up slowly; don’t make them angry.”
Make them angry??! I think we had crossed that line about twenty minutes ago, but Mom had done great up to now, so we just did as she said; the only sounds were the hissing of the cats, the shuffling of our feet and the drip drip drip from the wet load Don carried.
We made it back to the door, Mom kept guard with her trusty broom; I went in first, then Don, and she brought up the rear slamming the door just as one of the cats jumped at us in attack. And if he had timed himself a little better, there would have been quite the battle between fur and straw. But thankfully we were back inside, and they were outside, and we had rescued my pajamas.
When we got back upstairs Mom reminded us:
“Not a word to your father, you hear me?!”
Tell Dad we both thought – are you nuts??!! He would do the job the cats couldn’t and kill us all!!
That night when Dad got home and we were sitting around the dining room table eating supper, he asked his usual:
“So what did you do today? Anything exciting?”
Don choked on his pasta, I stared down at my plate and Mom, as cool as ever said:
“Oh nothing much, the boys and I just took a walk”.
Well if that’s what she wanted to call it. To me, we had fought the Little Big Horn and won this time. And after that when I would look down into the darkness of the alley and hear the cats, I felt a sense of pride. We had done what no one in the neighborhood would dare to do. We took on the mighty Ferals of West Twelfth Street and lived to tell about it.
Just not to Dad.