A tale of a cat born to the Bay
by Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor
Bay Weekly gave Mr. Boy his happy home.
Not that we were happy to see him. He came at a bad time, and his arrival was bad news. The neighbor who delivered him has not lived down his bad name, though 161⁄2 years have passed since he turned up at our door with a Pennzoil box full of kitties.
“Are these your cats?” asked Jack Brumbaugh, the kind-hearted artist across the street who noticed the squirming box atop the right front fender of Bay Weekly’s white Chevy Suburban.
In the Beginning
The Suburban was new — to us — bought to carry New Bay Times to distribution spots from Severna Park to Solomons. We were proud of that big old truck, and had a sign painter emblazon it with our fledgling paper’s name. That sign must have read good homes for abandoned kitties to the scoundrel who left the Pennzoil box on the New Bay Times Suburban outside our house.
In August 1993, everything was new at New Bay Times, as Bay Weekly was named at birth. We were four months old, and we’d published nine issues since our premier edition on April 22, Earth Day. Getting the paper out every two weeks — our original publication schedule was fortnightly — we felt like Atlas hoisting the Earth.
Workdays at our office stretched past midnight. When we finally went home, we filled my house like the fairytale home of the old woman who lived in the shoe.
For husband Bill Lambrecht and I ran the Bay Weekly rooming and boarding house for family and friends who had joined us to make a newspaper from nothing more than wordsmithing credentials, determination and the family fortunes, small as those might be.
Son J. Alex Knoll, who evolved into our chief operating officer, came with his new journalism master’s degree from the University of Illinois. Three more 20-somethings came to do something as exciting as it was enterprising. From Illinois with hopes and baggage, they overflowed our once-upon-a-time beach cottage. We had two bathrooms, but finding a sleeping spot to call his own — away from the snores of the others — drove poor Bob into a tent in the yard.
The animal household was pretty full, too. With Alex came Kali, a big black kitty who’d been born right down the street, though she’d grown up in Illinois as a college cat. Her brother, Corker, another big black guy, was our top cat and got to boss around another brother-sister pair, gifts from another neighbor: sweet-tempered Clapper, an orange tabby; and gray tiger-striped Zulu. Her offspring made five.
The cat pressure was so intense that Corker, normally a mild cat, had sent Kali to the vet, who’d sent home a patched-up kitty and a big bill.
Corker must have attacked when the sheriff wasn’t looking. That would be our 100-pound yellow Lab, Max, who loved order and did no wrong, though he took up plenty of space.
That’s the family who was at, or underneath, the Saturday morning breakfast table when neighbor Jack knocked at the door.
Jack had been welcomed in before he spoke, or else Boy might have been his cat instead of ours. Had we known what Jack had in his box, we’d have locked the door.
“Of course those aren’t our cats,” I shrieked.
By then a white head had pushed through the folded top of the Pennzoil box and a kitten had struggled out. As he leapt free, he landed on the breakfast table. We’d been eating pancakes, and he’d landed in a plate streaked with syrup. Glaring at us, the tiny white creature licked his feet clean. Then he licked the plate.
Thus Boy became the lucky 13th member of the Bay Weekly founding household.
Which is why Boy isn’t one of the four adorable kittens pictured on New Bay Times’ cover for the week of August 12, 1993. Those four kitties still needed homes. So neighbor Sonia Linebaugh, another of the original New Bay Times team, recruited a pair of neighbor girls and posed them on her porch with arms full of kitties. We advertised in our classifieds and twisted arms, and all found homes.
As the little girls grew into women and New Bay Times into Bay Weekly, Boy made Top Cat.
If I’m to tell the truth — and this story is as true as I can make it — Boy grew only in size, into a light heavyweight in fighting trim. As for character, he popped out of that Pennzoil box fully formed.
Other kittens had cowered for days, under the bathroom sink or in the deep, dark recess between kitchen cabinets.
Not this hellion. Room to room and corner to cupboard, he investigated every space and claimed his favorites.
Even as a little bit of a thing, Boy slapped the face of every cat in the house. He arched his back and hissed, no sniffing, at Max the humongous Lab, in whose dinner bowl Boy could have fit as a snack. So bold was that kitten that he’d hold the huge dog at bay while he sampled his dinner.
Eventually, Boy would curl up for a nap with Max, and later Moe, nearly identical. Never did he seek out the company of the other cats. He’d fisheye them, and he might take their place as soon as they moved. He’d often box them on the side of the head or sneak a bite of their flank on passing, but he never exactly brutalized them.
Boy never lost his cool, not even years later when a new cat came out of the woods into our home. He was expedient, not emotional. Why bother with violence when he’d made his point?
The Kitty in the Kitchen
Boy sealed his dominance by proclaiming himself king of the mountain. The mountain in our house is the kitchen cat-food counter. The view is good, food is served there, and, if a cat perseveres, he can often claim it for hours before getting swept away by the keeper of the kitchen. Boy persevered. From his summit, he might hook me with a claw to urge me to get on with fixing his breakfast, lunch or dinner. I’d scold him, wagging my finger. Chastised, he’d avert his eyes. When I turned, he hooked me again.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. High among Boy’s many pleasures was food.
The opening of a new bag of cat food would bring him from any room, waken him from any but the final, deepest sleep. Bill played the bag like an instrument, and Boy responded like a music lover. He’d leap solidly onto the cat-feeding counter, purring. Then he’d rub against Bill and stick his head in the big storage container as the nuggets rained on him.
Of canned cat food, Boy was a connoisseur. He also grew into a skilled shopper. Bored over the hours we were away at work — journalists always keep long hours; that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned in 17 years at Bay Weekly — Boy would read the newspaper circulars. Then he’d call Bill on his cell phone to report the best price on his favorites. Or at least that’s what Bill says. When Bill came home and unbagged the cans, Boy watched in satisfaction.
Cats aren’t much for facial expression. They don’t smile like dogs or frown like humans. But you could read Boy’s pleasure in the nod of his head, the measured closing of his eyelids. And in his behavior when he didn’t get what he wanted.
He’d grab your arm and holler.
Since his first act of landing in the syrup — real maple syrup — he’d known that humans save the best food for themselves. Unless a wily cat cons them out of it.
We were easily conned. When Bill filleted a rockfish or perch, Boy got the scraps. When Bill opened oysters, Boy got a share. The share got ever bigger. “I’ve fed him a dozen oysters on the half shell,” Bill admits. If you were eating blue crabs outside, Boy would have to be inside. This was a cat in harmony with the Bay and its bounty.
Fish was great, but Boy was no piscatarian. Cut up a chicken or trim beef, and Boy was at your side, reaching up with a claw. Mairrwwwww, he’d say. Cut up your pork chop at dinner, and he’d somehow stretch high enough to claw at your fork. At vegetarian meals, he’d settle for cheese or bread or pizza crust. Sometimes all three. If a bowl of cereal was being eaten, he’d demand the sweet milky dregs. But he outgrew milk early in life and soon demanded cream in his personal crockery.
Ruler of All He Surveyed
As Boy grew, he extended his habitat. In the front yard, he’d sit under the bushes where he could look into the house, at the birdfeeders (television, as far as he was concerned) and into foreign territory.
He was on guard the day Salty showed up. The neighborhood scrounge, Salty might sneak into the basement and make off with a boot. But he was a fun pooch so that nobody much cared. Except Boy, who caught him nosing the compost trench. Like demons, he hurled himself at Salty claws forward, attaching himself to the yipping, fleeing trespasser.
Bright as Boy was, only snow gave him camouflage. He glowed under moonlight on the beach, where he followed on dog walks. On his first visit, he watched the Bay a long time, from the top of the cliff. When he finally came down, he rolled in the sand, rushed at shadows and climbed trees. He often returned, but never touched the water.
Because everybody could see him coming, reports of his lone adventures returned to us.
“He watches my birds, drinks their water and sleeps on my deck,” reported neighbor Farley.
“He swaggers down the hill to taunt my cats,” complained neighbor Lee, rolling her shoulders in imitation of his bully walk.
At the Fausts’, he played Goldilocks. Entering by the cat door, he ate their cats’ food and slept in their beds.
Every cat in Fairhaven Cliffs hid when Boy was coming, and probably some possums and raccoons did, too. Inside or out, I’ve never seen Boy yield ground — or seen either cat or dog dare to attack him.
The mockingbirds were another story. Boy’s ears were pocked with scars from being dive-bombed by a species as willful as he.
Brains as well as brawn (I’d say balls, but Boy lost his at an early age) kept him safe. He seemed to learn from the experience of other cats, accumulating wisdom. Boy didn’t travel the busy road that borders Fairhaven — as if he heard the screams of all the cats that had died there.
Close to a dozen cats had lived in our home before Boy. Only he figured out how to enter and exit by the huge maple tree outside our third-floor bedroom window.
Only 41 percent of us say we really like cats, while 15 percent really dislike them. I’ve had a lot of cats since my earliest days — another white cat, Snowball, came into my life briefly when I was about seven — and those numbers hold for me. Somewhere over 40 percent of my cats I liked a whole lot; about 15 percent I disliked.
How much we like cats is a simpler question than how much cats like us.
“Is it only tunaffection?” Bill asked as he unpacked a case of tuna with egg and cheese flakes.
There was probably of lot of tunaffection in Boy’s attentions to Bill — winding through his legs, covering his black Merino wool sweater in white hair, curling up for naps.
But food also has a lot to do with why Bill likes me. The way to a man’s heart is his stomach, my mother told me, and Bill says she was right.
We all love one another for our soft laps, heat-producing bodies and fine pelts. As the poet Yeats wrote: “only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your golden hair.”
Why have we loved white-haired Boy?
Perhaps a creature draws love proportional to his self-valuation. Boy, who thought the world of himself, is king of our cat mountain.
Bill believes Boy loved him. His final proof, the icing to the cake of 161⁄2 years of intimate circadian interdependency, is Boy’s last act: Lifting his weary head onto Bill’s leg. Boy died January 5 by the fire he loved, with his humans and his dog.
We are bereft. I have written too long because Boy is not here to mark the movement from day into night with his call for dinner. The day has to begin without the creature who used to start the movement downstairs for food and coffee. The first person home at night comes into an empty house and hears no greeting.
Boy always had something to say. Without him, life is too quiet.