In the fall of 1972 I was fortunate enough to begin my junior year of college at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California. Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Highway 101, about one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sonoma State was the newest of the California State Colleges then and there were no dormitories yet, so students were left to find lodging as best they could in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, or somewhere in the rural countryside where the locals would take in a student or two to augment their income.
By pure luck I was able to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field from the college. A narrow asphalt path led from just across the street to the west parking lot of the school. This complex housed something like 200 students and was conducive to almost anything except studying. My unit consisted of a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and one bath. Three of us were lodged in that unit, and on a roll of the dice I ended up alone in one bedroom while my roommates Roy-Boy and Animal shared the other. It was a good arrangement, from my point of view, and we all got along very well, considering that each one of us was, in our own very unique and individual ways, crazy as loons.
The focus of community for the residents of Building A, where my apartment was located, was the swimming pool. The pool was in a concrete courtyard area that also contained a fire pit, a picnic bench and several deck chairs. On nearly every evening, whether during autumn, winter or spring, many if not all of Building A’s residents would be found by the pool. Many of us would swim, some in swimsuits and others in a state of nature, while others would tend a roaring fire and still others would talk politics or flirt or weave dreams about where they hoped to be in five or ten or forty years down the road.
On several occasions we would decide to make music. A couple of the students possessed and were able to play instruments. Roy and Jan played the guitar. Lenny played a clarinet. I pounded on a big, red conga drum. Others played pots and pans and telephone books and anything else that they could turn into an improvised musical instrument. On such nights the cacophony produced by anything that could be blown into, scraped across, plucked, thumped or tickled would waft out into the dark Sonoma night, accompanied by the voices of those who’s preference for instruments of auditory torture ran to the vocal cords. As a result, our courtyard would frequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.
One of the members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack. Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat. I assumed that he had once been somebody’s pet because he was not overly skittish once he became accustomed to us. Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or any morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area. We would also frequently find him diving in our dumpster looking for gustatory jewels which we had carelessly thrown away out of the ignorance of our abundance.
Jack was a large cat but there wasn’t much fat on him. Lean at the hip, with a ragged coat and a tattered ear, he was a veteran of many a scrape with plenty of evidence of battles lost as well as battles won. The most visible of his battle scars was his right eye. That eye always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from one day to the next, and was always tearing or weeping a fluid which made it look like he was crying. The wounded eye neither got much better nor much worse as time went on, and we just accepted that feature as part of his essential ‘Jackness’.
A couple who lived in my building, Jan and Sheila, took a particular shine to Jack and began to feed him when he wasn’t out catting around, and eventually the attraction of a warm bed and steady meals was sufficient to entice Jack to more or less move in with them. These two people were some of my best friends at that time, so I got a chance to get to know Jack pretty well. One afternoon we were sitting in their living room petting and sharing treats with Jack when Sheila said “We ought to take Jack to a vet and get him checked out. He probably has worms, and maybe we could get his eye fixed.”
“I would love to Honey”, responded Jan, “but how are we going to do that? We’re eating on food stamps as it is, you know.”
“It couldn’t cost that much” I chimed in, demonstrating how little I knew about such things. “Maybe if we just squeeze a few bucks out of our food budgets next month we could get a little done for him. Then we could do more for him each time we scraped a some more money together’.
“I think it’ll take more than that” said Sheila. ‘I’ll call a vet tomorrow and see what this kind of thing would cost”.
“That sounds like a plan Babe” said Jan, and then we dropped that subject in order to pursue weightier matters, such as the dull roar that was beginning to pick up over at the poolside.
It was actually a few days later that Sheila obtained the information that we needed, and the number set us back on our heels. “The vet said it would take anywhere from $80 to $150 to do the kind of check-up that we talked about. Any work that he had to do on the eye would be more.”
We sat there thunderstruck, looking at each other in bewilderment. Jack sat over on a pillow, fresh from having a mouthful of dried food and looking at us with his perpetual ‘wink’ as Jan called it. At that time my entire budget was $125 from the G.I. Bill check that I got every month. That included rent, food, and the all-important beer ration. Jan and Sheila had less than me, therefore having to rely on the already-mentioned food stamps.
“Maybe we could take up a collection” offered Jan. “Everybody else likes Jack too.”
“Yeah, they like him as long as they don’t have to pay for him” I said. “Their budgets are the same as ours; beer, rent and food. Taking care of Jack probably isn’t a line item on too many of their budgets.”
Jan, Sheila and I fell to cudgelling our brains, trying to find a way to squeeze enough money out of our budgets to give some veterinary attention to a worn and dusty old tomcat. We sat silently, each in his or her own thoughts, and I reflected on my own necessities. Beer, of course, came first. I was 23 years old and a student, after all. Rent was also non-negotiable, so I began to review my food budget.
I was already very thrifty in the food department. My mother had grown up in deepest Appalachia, and my father in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Both of them knew how to stretch a penny; in fact, Dad used to joke that Mom could squeeze a nickel so tightly that an Indian would come out riding a buffalo. Dried rice and beans, cheaper cuts of meat and other inexpensive products would be prepared by Mom in such a way that I grew up eating tasty meals and never knew that we would be considered by many to have been marginally poor.
While attending Sonoma State I put that tradition to good use. Pinto beans were 19 cents per pound. Ham hocks were 25 cents per pound back then, before white people outside of the South discovered them. Garlic and onions and salt and pepper were almost as good as free. With no more than 75 cents I could cook a pot of beans that I would eat out of for three days, if that pot was otherwise left alone. Usually, however, it was not left alone.
First my roommates discovered my beans, and then the word got around to the others in our community. The beans were available to whoever wanted to come in and enjoy a bowl. Another bowl was placed on the counter next to the refrigerator, where people would leave whatever change they had in their pockets so that I could keep the bean pot full. This was a generally agreeable situation for nearly everyone in Building A, but one day a glitch appeared in our well-oiled machine.
One afternoon when I was working on a paper on Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the site of the ancient city of Jericho, I heard the door open and close and a female voice cry out my name. “Back here!” I shouted, wondering about this innovation of any female person looking for me. I heard rapid footsteps and soon found myself confronted by an obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe. Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment her Irish was up.
“You have got to stop Joe from eating here!” she barked.
“What are you talking about, Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.
“I’m talking about your damned beans,” she replied. When Joe’s been eating them I can’t be around him. He’s peeling the paint off of the walls.”
“I’m sorry Mo, but that’s something that you guys are going to have to work out. I can’t very well share my food with everyone else but tell Joe to bug off.”
“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something that he could take to tone them down? I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up.”
I invited Maureen to take a seat and tried to calm her down. I was somewhat successful and we talked for a while. Maureen and Joe were two of my favorite people in that complex and I didn’t want to cause a strain in their relationship or a rupture between Maureen and myself. Finally I threw out an idea.
“Why don’t you have a couple of bowls yourself; you know, fight fire with fire? I’m getting hungry and wouldn’t mind some company.”
Maureen looked at me blankly for a moment, and then a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth. She then said, “Sure. Who knows, I might like them too.”
Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the more unpleasant components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field of lush grasses and wild flowers in the springtime. Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution, Maureen returned to their desecrated love nest and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of pay back potency.
All of building A knew when the knockout blow was delivered. In the still of the early evening, before the nightly party began by the pool, Joe’s tortured voice cut through the cool, late autumn air. “Jeez, Mo. Did something crawl up your ass and die?” His question was answered by a fiendish cackle, followed by another sound which was something like ‘braack!’” A moment later we heard their door open and then slam shut as Joe exited from their apartment in search of relief and a breath of fresh air.
From our patio we could hear all of this transpire, and the three of us were soon laughing so hard that we were almost crying. Once I had composed myself enough I went around our patio toward Mo and Joe’s front door. As I looked through a window I could see Maureen dancing gaily in the kitchen. I knocked on that window, which was open, and got Maureen’s attention. She broke into a big smile when she saw me and waved for me to come in. I declined that invitation, which made her smile even more broadly. She gave me a double thumbs up, which I returned with a smile of my own, and retraced my steps back to the relative safety and breathability of my own apartment.
Peace did eventually return to the Mo and Joe unit, and Mo came over often to learn from me how to make those wonderful beans and other cheap meals. It was always a little dangerous to go over to Joe and Mo’s place, however, after she began to cook that wonderful stuff herself.
This and other food memories ran through my mind as Jan and Sheila and I thought about how to get Jack patched up. As I pointed out earlier, my beer budget was untouchable. Everybody has priorities. Rent, too, was a dead-end street. And as for food? Well I had to eat. Everybody has to eat food. Everybody needs to eat food. Everybody – – -. Wait! Everybody has to eat but not everybody likes to cook food! They like to eat it but they don’t like to cook it.
There the answer was, staring us in the face from the very beginning. “Let’s have a benefit dinner for Old Jack,” I said. Jan and Sheila saw the wisdom of that suggestion immediately.
“What will we cook?” Sheila asked.
“What will you two cook?” Jan asked. “You know that I’m useless in the kitchen.”
“How about spaghetti?” I asked. “I know how to make a lot of it, and if I go cheap on the meat I can stretch it even further than usual.”
We struck hands on the deal and began to make plans for our dinner. We started saving our pennies wherever we could, and Jan and I even cut into our previously untouchable beer allowance, so powerful was our determination to make this dinner happen. Jan was a gifted calligrapher, and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack. Interest ran high, additional dimes and quarters flowed into the fund, and the progress began to make it look like the enterprise might really work.
On the morning of the big day I began to prepare a large kettle of my own sauce recipe: ground beef and pork, tomato sauce and paste, onions, garlic, mushrooms, olives, peppers and a pinch or two of various spices, simmered for a few hours. In the afternoon, in an even larger kettle, we threw the noodles into the boiling water as the time to serve drew near. After letting them boil for a few minutes I began to pluck individual noodles out and throw them on the wall. When the noodle would stick to the wall it was done.
Sheila opened the door and the first of a horde began to file through. Jan snatched noodles out of the kettle and I applied dippers full of sauce while Sheila passed the hat. Technically the food was free, but Sheila put a serious stink eye on any chiselers who thought that he’d get away with a free meal. People filled every corner of our unit and spilled out into the courtyard and beyond. We served every bit of that spaghetti except for the plate that I saved for myself. Jan and Sheila did not indulge, as they were vegetarians. After the last diner had left we counted our take. Minus the cost of the raw materials we had raised $78 and some change, not a small amount in those days.
The next day Sheila made an appointment with a vet, and on the appointed date we cornered Jack and wrapped him up in a towel so that he wouldn’t do too much damage to us on the way. We piled into my old Dodge Lancer and began the trip to the vet. Jack liked this idea about as much as Joe liked Maureen’s revenge, and he was pretty edgy when we carried him into a room filled with other cats and some dogs too. Our turn finally came and we stepped up to the counter and met Doctor Hendricks.
“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked.
We looked at each other and said, “Well, Doc, he’s nobody’s cat, really”.
He looked at us kind of funny and said “So you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”
“Well Doc,” I explained. “He’s a stray that we all have come to like, and so we want to fix him up some if we can.”
Sheila then told him the story of the benefit dinner and added, “We raised $78 and some change and can each of us add a few dollars more if we have to. What can you do for Jack with that?”
The doctor stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it. Once he decided that he did understand it he said, “OK. Let me keep him until this afternoon and I’ll see what we can do”. We thanked the doctor profusely and then went about our day’s business.
About four in the afternoon we returned to pick up a bathed, wormed, vaccinated, and thoroughly mortified Jack. The veterinarian told us that the damage to his eye was permanent, but that he could see out of it well enough and that it did not seem to cause pain and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors. Jan and Sheila decided then and there that Jack would be their indoor cat from that moment until the end of his natural life.
“How much did this cost?” asked a nervous Sheila. She knew that the extent of the doctor’s work was probably a good deal more than we had.
“How much did you say you raised?” the vet asked us.
“Seventy eight dollars and some change,” Sheila answered.
“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars,” he said. “And change”.
With profuse expressions of gratitude we returned to Jan and Sheila’s unit and turned Jack loose to sulk in his corner and lick his wounded pride until dinnertime.
I remained friends with Jan and Sheila for a few years until my gypsy lifestyle led me to new fields. The last thing I remember of Jack was him doing one of his favorite things. Jan and I had opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar. We were enjoying both, while Jan’s excellent stereo boomed out album after album of Pink Floyd. Jack loved that band and would sit still as a statue about four feet away from a suitcase-sized speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys for as long as the music would play.
I was told that Jack lived a couple more years after I left the scene. He died a happy and loved cat.