There Is Nothing You Can Do About It
I am a huge animal fan. I adore them all: dogs, cats, mice, even rats, believe it or not. Yes, I befriended a few rats when I worked at the New York Subway. When I was a 6-year-old kid in the countryside I made friends with a chicken. It became my pet and followed me wherever I went, even upstairs to my room. Once on a late fall day, when I was a kid, I was sitting in the room with a book when a lonely fly, probably last one of that year started playing “run and catch” with me, swear to God.
I think I know how to approach animals; I believe I understand their emotions, intentions and psychology, and they sense it.
Among all pets, black cats particularly gеt my sympathy. Perhaps, because many people avoid them as a bad omen. Especially, if such a cat crosses their path.
At one time, in Russia, I was working at a Telecom Equipment factory. I loaded and unloaded metal frames to and from the electrical cart to be delivered from the paint shop to the assembly line. The cart’s driver was a big macho guy. One day, while driving the cart, he abruptly stopped, turned the cart around and said that we were done for the day. To my question what’s the matter, he answered: “Black Cat!” and pointed at a mangy dark creature that just had crossed his path. Since there was no detour, the load wasn’t delivered.
Poor black cats, I feel so sorry for them. They have such a bad reputation. They have been treated worse than India’s “Dalits,” i.e., untouchables.
Next to my apartment building there runs an old abandoned railroad track sunk in the ground. It‘s surrounded by vegetation and trash scattered all around. Nobody has ever tried to clean that place. The entire area is fenced. A small community of stray cats use it as their shelter. At night, one can see a racoon or opossum sneaking behind the fence. They never cross the fence, while the cats freely wander around the neighborhood.
There is a cat lady living in my building. No, she is not crazy. She is an attractive middle-aged married career woman with a good heart. Her cats are her darlings. She cares about them, gets them fixed, takes them to a vet when they are sick, and, of course, feeds them twice a day. She is a saint. I think that all the people who care about stray animals will certainly go to heaven.
All cats in the stray community, including one black cat, are of the ordinary domestic non-pedigreed kind. Most of those poor creatures were abandoned by their owners, some were abused; no wonder they are wary of people. Somehow, I manage not to scare them. They respond to my “here, kitty, kitty”, and come to me for a snack and /or small talk. Most of them like to be petted, and even follow me for a while. Yes, most but not the black one.
Didi, that is his name, is not a social cat. He never lets anybody (except the cat lady) approach him. When I tried, he looked at me with his half–opened green eyes as if asking: “What do you want? Leave me alone.”
The cat lady provided him with a cushioned mat under our building’s canopy by one of the building’s walls. There Didi sleeps curling up into a ball protected from vestiges of weather. I never saw any other cat from the pack challenging him for this privileged piece of luxury real estate. According to the cat lady, Didi is an Alpha male.
The cat lady feeds the cats near the fence surrounding the abandoned railroad area. There, the cats eat together peacefully. There is enough free food for all, including the opossums and racoons. But Didi never eats with the other cats. The cat lady brings him food to his lair.
Once I observed the ritual of Didi’s feeding. The cat lady placed a small plastic tray with cat food near Didi’s cushion and was pouring water out of a bottle into a shallow container. Her slim graceful hands the color of dark polished bronze were moving slowly as if in a dance. Didi was watching her still as a statue. He didn’t begin to eat until she had left.
Didi eats with incomparable dignity. He does not show appreciation to his caretaker, as other cats do. He takes it for granted. He seems to feel entitled to his privileged position and he despises people as well as the other cats. But why?
Does he feel that people owe him for treating him as an evil creature that brings bad luck? Does he resent that he was deprived of his manhood? When he sits on his cushion, sleek, graceful and immobile as a statue, he seems to say silently: “Yes, I am fixed, black, spooky and scary, and I hate all of you!”
One night I woke up, hearing a terrible screech outside. “Cat fight,” I thought dreamily. “What’s the matter with them? It cannot be sex rivalry – they were all fixed. May it be about cat’s hierarchy inside the pack? May they have racial issues like us, humans, since we are living in such racially turbulent times?” The thought gave me a jolt. Maybe Didi is a victim of xenophobia and racism? “Black cats are so unfortunate,” I was thinking, “not only are they subjects to the human prejudice, but, apparently, they suffer from their own kind.” As a Jew who grew up in the antisemitic Soviet Union, I understood Didi only too well.
The cat lady suggested that I should adopt Didi. She told me that a guy from our building had tried to lure him to his apartment, but Didi hadn’t given him a chance - he bolted. Apparently, Didi valued his freedom and privileged position in his community more than a cozy life of a pampered domestic pet. “I am sure, you would have a better chance,” – she tried to encourage me. I said that I was flattered but, alas, my wife was allergic to cats.
My heart went out to Didi. I really wanted to befriend him. Several times I attempted to approach him; I was moving slowly, talking softly, and showing him my adoration and peaceful intentions. When my hand was about a yard from his head, he abruptly jumped from his cozy bed and ran away.
I could not stop thinking about Didi. I even had a dream about him. In the dream, Didi safeguarded my apartment, fought with other cats and dogs. I gave him some valerian root extract. He began to behave like a drunken sailor, then, somehow, he turned into a huge black man. He got into a car, was chased by the police, was caught; his breath was checked with a breath analyzer. The result wasn’t good. So, a white cop was going to arrest him. Didi the Man momentarily turned back into a cat, jumped onto the cop’s head, but was shot and killed by another cop, black one. I was delivering a speech at Didi’s funeral when all of a sudden, a voice shouted at me to lie on the ground. At that moment I woke up. And, while I was still in bed trying to recover from the dream, it suddenly hit me…
It was about ten years ago on a weekend. I was in my favorite Prospect Park, the best place in Brooklyn. I was strolling along the park’s lake when I heard rhythmic beats from the other side of the lake. It sounded like drums overlaid with abrupt military commands coming out of a loudspeaker. I realized that I had heard it before but never paid attention. It was a beautiful Sunday evening just before sunset, so I decided to investigate. The sound came from Breeze Hill in the middle of the park. Over there, about thirty tall athletic men, all in black pants, leather jackets and black berets, were marching as if at a military drill. In the crimson glow of the setting sun they looked magnificent. On a side, five drummers were playing. It was almost hypnotic…
I was standing and enjoying the show when a rather minuscule man, who obviously didn’t fit the main participants' physique, came to me. Looking straight into my eyes, he said quietly: “Get the hell outta here!” His brown eyes radiated intense hatred.
“Why?” I asked. Really, I didn’t understand his fury. He looked at me as if I was an idiot. His hatred turned into contempt.
“Because you don’t belong here!” he snapped.
I still didn’t get it. Was it my accent? I looked around and realized that except myself there was only one other white man watching the show. The other white man moved hastily away.
The small man came closer to me: “Did you hear what I said? Leave now!” A threat in his voice was unmistakable.
“I’d better get myself out of trouble,” I thought and left, walking slowly, pretending that I wasn’t afraid of him.
I could not understand such hostility. Did he think I was making fun at his people with my sincere admiration? It didn’t even register that the marching men were African- Americans.
Yes, I am white, but I have nothing to do with slavery, I am not even a descendant of slaveowner. Furthermore, having been a Jew in the xenophobic Soviet Union, I never felt I was part of a privileged group. To the contrary, I’ve had enough experience with constant discrimination, humiliation, and cruel mockery. That’s why I have profound compassion for a people who have had a history of discrimination and abuse.
How could I explain to that guy that I rather felt like a white skin “bro” of his? That despite my skin color, I have never belonged with the “privileged” people. And why should I whitewash – in this case rather darkwash – myself? The guy only hated me for the color of my skin. Or not only…
A memory from my Russian childhood came to me. I was seven-year-old and waiting for my mom near a plant’s gate at the end of her workday. Suddenly I felt something - about twenty feet from me there stood a middle-aged man staring at me with unmistakable hatred. When we locked our eyes, he, still not averting his eyes, began walking slowly towards me. He looked like he was being possessed and had brazen determination. I managed to escape and hid in a small building nearby. Long after that, I was still feeling helpless and terrified in front of such unmotivated hatred…
I asked the cat lady why Didi was so hostile to people. She told me that some time ago, a man kicked Didi hard with his boot while leaving the building. Did she know who the guy had been? “According to the doorman,” she said “it was a delivery man.” After a pause, she added: “Black guy - that’s what I don’t get.“ She said that cats by nature have long memories and such type of trauma may stay with them for the rest of their life.
I wonder why this man did such a senseless cruel thing to an innocent animal.
Was he prejudiced against black cats? Did he do it because he subconsciously associated Didi, on his cozy cushion, with the “privileged?” Or maybe he felt an uncontrollable urge for destruction that sometimes leads to violence even within a community. Or maybe he thought that harming the helpless creature would somehow make up for the cruelty and indignities his people had suffered.
I thought about some of my compatriots from the former USSR. We escaped from our old country, where we were treated as second-class citizens. But why here, in a democratic society, some of us grow arrogant and intolerable to people different from ourselves.
Was тhe Roman Cicero right when he allegedly said that slaves dream not of freedom, but of becoming masters? Is it cynical or realistic observation?
I remember a shocking scene that occurred to a friend of mine, his wife and myself when we were shopping at a Brighton Beach store. My Russian friend, after two unhappy marriages to his compatriots, married a pleasant Filipina lady. Fiona had this quiet friendliness and tranquility that made her very comfortable to be with. We were standing in a line behind a flamboyantly dressed middle aged Russian woman and were speaking in English. Suddenly she turned, apparently surprised by the sound of the English language. Her face became heavy, she glowered at him and hissed an insult about Russian men marrying “chernaya suka,” meaning black bitch. “No wonder,” she said “that our women cannot find a man. Shame on you!” She turned her back to us. I was dumfounded. My friend was calm and Fiona, sensing the atmosphere, was quiet. After we had left the store, my friend remarked that it had happened before. “Thanks God,” he said, “Fiona doesn’t understand Russian.”
Chekhov wrote: “We need to squeeze every drop of slave’s blood out of ourselves.” Is it just a fine metaphor? Does a change in a slave’s social status makes him/her truly free individual? Can we get rid of a burden of hate for and anger at our former humiliation and suffering in order to build a better life for ourselves and our children? Or will this hate transform into a never-ending lust for revenge? What do centuries of the Jewish genocide and of slavery of African people teach us? We must not forget but must we continue living in the shadow of grief and despair?
I felt so sorry for Didi that I had to try one more time to make friends with him. He was luxuriating on his cushion, when I began to approach him with a piece of my favorite Dutch Prima Donna cheese. I was moving slowly, talking soothingly. He was watching me warily with increasing sense of alarm and disgust. When my hand reached his invisible safety threshold, he hissed and swatted at me. I backed off.
“There is nothing you can do about it,” I said to myself.
As they say in Russia: “Nasilno mil ne budesh,“ meaning: You can't force someone to like you.