Circus of cats

A year ago I sat on a rooftop in Hong Kong and watched the cats roam Sheung Wan’s streets from far above as the day’s heat soaked back out of the concrete towers and into the sky.  In Houston this last month I have watched them again, how they prowl and play once evening approaches, content out of doors once the sun has fled.  In this complex of houses become apartments there are many, of all colors and temperaments.  With time, patience and an interest in their doings, we become familiar with one another.

Winnie, longer-haired orange and sleek, a rescue from Galveston who spent ten days on a rooftop post Hurricane Ike, is the new king.  The tufts of fur behind his ears attract attention, and he spends the evenings on his brick doorstep, content to watch others antics in the fading heat.

Magic, skinny young and short-haired black, chases a bullfrog into the shrubs, wild-eyed and bounding.  Winnie waits a moment and then ambles after, as though curious to see what Magic would do with this strange-sounding beast.  Unimpressed he slinks back to his stoop, and ten minutes later Magic is sitting on the wooden bench licking his paws, the bullfrog forgotten.

“How long do their memories last?” a friend wonders, sitting outside on the patio furniture watching a large orange and white cat flirt with Winnie, lured by his low profile and huge ear tufts.  “Do they remember each other or just vague impressions, do they know people or just where they are fed?”  None of us know the answer, and in the perfect warmth of ten pm no one moves to discover it.  Instead we speculate on their behavior, watching Boo Boo, an indoors-only Siamese mix with light blue eyes who has come to the window, his fur pressing through the screen as he watches Winnie and these people.

Milo is the old man of the neighborhood, in time here if not in years.  His family has cut a cat door into the building entrance, dignifying his comings and goings beyond meowing for a helping hand.  Yet he is uneasy as the population swells, Winnie’s arrival followed by another smaller orange and white, and then a black and white hunter, a grey tiger indoor cat, and more.  Milo eyes them from a tree across the street that only he seems able to climb. Finding him there one evening I think he remembers a less-crowded block, where he could prowl behind shrubs by his lonesome.

How long is a cat’s memory, we asked. Packing this apartment, with it’s squirrel highway and it’s windows, with it’s odd hiding places, I wonder instead how long is the memory of a place?  Will Winnie remember us when we leave?  Milo?  This apartment?  How long until no one remembers us standing here in the fading light, seeking out the hunters where they stalked behind the bushes?

The black and white, name unknown, chases a lizard as we pack the car, dropping it’s squirming body from mouth to pavement only to bound upon it again as it races away across the pavement.  It is a favorite activity, the lizards numerous and slow in the morning heat before all things retreat to shade near noon.  They do not remember, I think, these small creatures that flee vertically, climbing the brick out of the reach of Milo’s claws.  This apartment has no memory, save that of holes and scrapes, of hangars left in closets and marks where the dresser touched the wall.  Like the lizards it will be here tomorrow, no outward sign of vacancy.

How long do even we remember, though, haughty in our questioning of cats?  Hong Kong, a year ago, has already begun to fade, and this apartment too will be shrunk down, condensed to a smattering of images, like those cats seen from rooftops and visits from old friends.  We move on, inhabiting one place after another, confident in our memories, though less durable than these walls and their scars.  Maybe Magic will wonder where we’ve gone, lying mid-driveway in the morning light where we used both to watch the mail arrive.

For a little while so will I.

Our time is short

Spring is a time of transitions.  Summer hours are posted on the student center doors, and there is talk of trailer sizes around the dinner table.  The leaves are blooming, but in Houston the humidity is becoming oppressive.  For the first time in months we close our windows despite the shrieking protests made by their tracks, dust-filled and weathered open.  Air conditioning returns, bringing memories of Shanghai’s summers, and the weeks spent entirely indoors.

It is not just Houston, though, that is in transition.  The city’s occupants, or those I have met, are thrust headlong into summer, their collegiate careers ended in a flourish of family and mortarboards.  Watching them, in bars with friends who will soon be distant, I can almost feel experience relaxing me.  As they sit on the floor, those who still have housing hosting those whose who do not, making art in the long afternoons of the comfortably unemployed, I smile, and head to work.  It is a stark reversal of the past few months, where I would linger over coffee in the mornings as they rushed to class or to the studio, prepped presentations or wrote finals.  It is a good exchange we have made, them content and constantly smiling and myself just barely busy, biking to work with no hands and home again for lunch with good company.

The gift of age, then, has descended on me, eight years removed from my own panicked post-graduation summer.  “Don’t go home,” I can say with confidence to those debating their direction.  “You can go anywhere for a while, and you’ll miss your friends dreadfully.  Stay here and see people until you’re ready to leave.”  The advice isn’t novel, nor particularly family-oriented, but it comes from observation rather than prediction.  “You’ll get a job, you’ll still make art,” I offer, seeing nervous fears arise.  Somewhere in the future both are true, though difficult to keep in sight amidst a quest for housing and storage, for interviews and incomes.

Houston is a different city in the summer than the late winter and early spring, which were beyond treasure, and I understand at last some advice that was offered me a month before.  The woman had asked where I was from, the north east, and my opinion of my new home.  I was pleasantly surprised, I said, and am, and remarked at the glory of a February spent in sandals and jeans.  I would be moving on, I told her, but was happy for the months here.

“Then it’s time to go,” she said, “before the summer gets here.  Leave while you’ve got a good impression.”

We laughed, and two weeks ago some friends took her advice, departing post-haste almost without pulling off their gowns, their lives boxed and packed before the ceremony, apartments emptied and bare.

Yet here I sit, on the floor of my apartment while those who remain tell stories and grow closer over tattoos and adventures, and I am glad of it.  The month may have given me a taste of humid weather, but it has also given me a sense of time and composure, both good things to take from this city on our approaching homeless tour of the west coast.

And of Houston, like my own graduation years before, I still have fond memories.

Lived in bars

“They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  “And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

“It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

“It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  “It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

“Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the “American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

“There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

“We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,”

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s ‘Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest