Grandpa said: When I was a young man I lived in the city, in one apartment or another. Once I had to leave the apartment I had then, and I had no other place to go. A friend of mine had just bought a little building, called a “brownstone” for the color of the stone it was made from. For some reason he couldn’t move into it right away. So he let me stay in one of the apartments, the one on the ground floor.
So I packed up everything I could take to the new place, including my two cats — a black one named Mao, which means “cat” in Chinese, and a white-and-black cat named Punky, which doesn’t mean anything. Where did they come from? From the street. Many cats in the city weren’t wanted, and owners often just put them out to make their own way.
Mao was a grown-up cat when I adopted her. Punky was just a kitten, and she came from the street too. I was out on the street one day when some local kids came up to me, offering to sell me this tiny kitten, which was silly — who would buy a kitten when there were so many wandering in the city? So then they just gave her to me and I brought her home..
Now I had to bring both of them to my new place.
I found an orange crate at a market, which made a good cat carrier — it let in air and light, but you could keep it shut tight. I hired a little van to take me and the cats and all my stuff uptown to where we’d all live for a while.
When I had unloaded the van the first thing I did was to get Mao and Punky out of the orange crate, which they hadn’t liked at all, and let them explore the place. I made sure there was no way they could run away — cats don’t like to be moved suddenly to new places. And it was all fine. The big front window had a sort of metal cage sticking out from it, where you could put an air conditioner if you had one, but I didn’t. I could leave the window open and the air-conditioner cage would keep the cats from getting out.
So by then it was late, and we all had dinner. And pretty soon I went to bed. For a while I heard the cats meow-ing or jumping up on things I hadn’t unpacked. Then they were quiet and I went to sleep.
In the morning the cats were gone.
I couldn’t believe it. Every door was shut, every window was shut except the one with the air-conditioner holder. But when I looked at it now, I could see that the cage had four sides — but no bottom. The cats had gone out the window. Maybe they wanted to go back home.
I got dressed as fast as I could and went out to look for them. I went down one street and across another and up another. I saw a cat that wasn’t Mao or Punky. They might be close by, or they might have gone a long way. They might have stayed together — but maybe not.
Finally I gave up. I left the window open so they could come back in; I listened for meows from the stret, but I didn’t hear any.
My cats were gone. They were out in the streets of the city. I hoped they would find places to hide, and that they’d find new homes.
A couple of days later, I was in my kitchen when I heard a funny scratching at the door in the hall that led to the basement, where I’d never gone. I opened the door, and a cat came out from the basement. A skinny and very dirty cat. A dark gray, almost black cat — but it wasn’t my black cat. It was obviously hungry, and trembled pitifully. I stroked it, and found that it wasn’t dirty — it was filthy.
What should I do? Where had this cat come from? Had it been in the basement the whole time? Should I take it in? No! I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready for a new cat, especially one as dirty and scrawny as this one.
I did let the cat into the kitchen, and put some leftover dry cat food I still had into a bowl. It was certainly hungry. But I wouldn’t keep it. I shoo’d it back out and down into the basement.
I went on feeding it, my basement cat. I’d put food on the top step of the basement stairs, and close the door when I glimpsed it coming up.
Meanwhile, my friend who owned the house and had let me stay there was now ready to bring in the carpenters and the others who would fix the place up. I had to leave. I started looking for somewhere else to go. It didn’t take long, really; in a week or so I found a place I liked, and started packing up to move.
But what about the basement cat? I just didn’t know. I decided I would take it to the animal shelter. I didn’t want to. But it was the best I could do. I called the same guy with the van who had brought me uptown, and he’d come and get me and my stuff. I told him we’d have to make a quick stop on the way to the new apartment.
That orange crate I’d brought my cats in was still in the hallway. I’d use it to bring the basement cat to the animal shelter.
Everything was ready. I went and opened the door and turned on the light. And as the basement cat came racing up the stairs for its dinner, I saw that she’d changed. She wasn’t a black cat. She was a white cat, filthy dirty. With black markings just where they were on my cat Punky. It was my cat.
Not quite believing what I saw, I picked her up and took her to the sink and turned on the water to wash her. Cats hate being wet, but she didn’t fight. I washed and washed, and the more I washed the more I saw my cat. When she was clean I wrapped her in a towel and held her a long time, laughing. My cat! Punky!
The guy with the van arrived. I told him we didn’t need to make a stop. The two of us were going home together.
Here’s what I learned later from my friend, the building owner. In the week when I moved in and the cats escaped, when I’d gone out house-hunting, the furnace in the basement had an explosion of some kind, spewing thick oil all over everything. By then, Punky –I’ll never know how — had found her way back to the building and into the basement, just in time to be coated with greasy oil and turned into a black cat. And because cats are so tidy, she’d started on the long process of cleaning herself, until at last I could just recognize her on the stair. Poor thing! She’d had this terrible adventure, and then I’d found her and even brought her in and fed her — and then put her out again!
But we were together again. I never found out what happened to Mao — who was a black cat — but Punky and I lived together for many more years in several houses.
And, Grandpa said, that’s the whole story, and it’s all true.