This is currently my favorite real-life story. Some of my friends have already heard me recount it. My wife, bless her heart, has heard it several times, patiently and without protest. But what is marriage, if not an agreement to listen to someone tell the same stories over and over and still not kill them?
We live next door to a couple with a three-legged cat. (These are not the owners of the white whale. Different guy.) The cat spends much his day sleeping in a bed by a window that faces our house.
Our cats can see him in his bed from one of our windows. They take his presence as a great affront, a malicious swipe at their very existences. How dare he sleep so blatantly at them? They mount occasional protests. In the past, they would even paw at the window screen, until I put a stop to that by playing “Tears in Heaven” for them.
The three-legged neighbor cat ignores them. I’ve never seen him so much as glance at our cats while they’re standing in our window trying to hate him to death. He goes about his business — sleeping, the true occupation of all domestic cats — unperturbed by his high-strung neighbors. With his silence, he makes it clear that they are the crazy ones, scowling and yowling ineffectually at a window from across six or seven feet of open air.
His stoicism comes across as noble — at least as noble as a crippled old cat can be. He is above the impotent fury of our cats; they are by contrast very low indeed.
Last Saturday, one of the three-legged cat’s owners (are we saying “guardians” now?) returned from running some errands to find the cat in the street, a few doors down from home. They do let him go outside, but they don’t like him to wander too far away. They worry (rightly) that in his elderly, three-legged infirmity, he’ll come to injury among the spry, street-wise strays that live around us. Rather obligingly, he seems to stick mostly to their yard.
But that day the cat had gone a-rambling, and my neighbor was none too pleased. He got out of his still-running car and started harrying the cat back toward their house. He even took off a shoe and began waving it menacingly, but not in fact harmfully, at the cat in order to move it toward home. Maybe he was taking the word “shoo” as a phonetic literalism.
So here was this grown man, standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, one shoe off, freshly-lit cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth, yelling at a three-legged cat to “get on back home,” while his car idled in the middle of the street with the door ajar.
As he was putting on this ridiculous display, a woman who had been engaged in a long phone conversation in her car, parked in front of our house, decided that his behavior was unacceptable. I’d never seen this woman; she doesn’t live around here. She couldn’t know of the relationship between this one-shoed man and this three-legged cat. But she was nonetheless incensed. She stood up out of her car, one arm on the driver’s door and one on the roof, and began shouting at my neighbor in distraught tones.
“What are you doing? What’s going on? Why are you bothering that cat?!”
His reaction — and I still grin at the memory — was to ignore her entirely. He said nothing; he didn’t even look at her. Once the cat had slunk home, he put his shoe on and got back in his car. He turned it around in the street and parallel parked directly behind the woman. He unloaded his groceries. He talked to his wife. He never acknowledged the existence of this shouty stranger — who got back in her own car, shaking her head, still bewildered by what she had witnessed.
In that moment, he went from neighbor to role model.
I know that he looked crazy, waving a shoe and yelling at a three-legged cat. And I know that she thought she was doing a good thing, trying to protect an innocent animal with a substandard collection of legs. But when she started yelling at him about a situation that she didn’t understand and in which no actual harm was occurring, she became the crazy one. By ignoring her, he assumed a kind of nobility.
My neighbor was acting in the best interests of his sad old cat, if perhaps a bit clumsily. Engaging in a shouting match with a stranger wouldn’t have helped anyone.
I could not have done it. I know that I would have said something to her, probably along the lines of, “Okay, first of all, this is my cat. Second, I haven’t hurt him. Third, who are you, and why are you yelling at me, crazy lady?” This might have felt good in the moment, but it would have been self-indulgent and unproductive.
I have a lot to learn about tactical ignorance. Sometimes, when you’re in Golden Gate Park for a one-year-old boy’s birthday picnic, a man will come around a corner shouting about the imminent advent of his Dark Lord, Satan, who is the Devil — just as a for-instance. The smart play here is to ignore this infernal herald and keep eating your cake. What you should not do is grumble and grimace and treat this stimulus as if it deserves a response, because then his problem has become your problem. (It might already be. Satan and all that.)
Then there is arguing on the Internet, which I’ve been trying to train myself in recent years not to do, with mixed success.
Now I have new role model — two, in fact. I’ll try to remind myself to be more like my neighbor and his three-legged cat: ignore the shouty strangers. They cannot hurt me. Their words are as wind … annoying, ill-informed wind that I can probably correct if I just take a few minutes to reply! Hang on.