Winter of 1973 found your humble author pursuing a higher education at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California. Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Route 101 about one hour or so 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.
I was fortunate enough to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field with a narrow asphalt path that 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 just about anything but 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.
I can safely say that every night in that complex when school was in session there was at least one party going on. Many times the entire complex was a party. My crew in building ‘A’ would frequently be at the poolside, winter or spring, skinny dipping and making music. Some of us played actual instruments and the rest of us would improvise. On such a night a cacophony produced by anything that could be blown, scraped, 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 not infrequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.
One of the earliest members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack. Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat. He was probably once a pet because he was not overly skittish around us once he became accustomed to us. Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or some morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area. More often we would 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. Chief of his battle scars was his right eye, which always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from day to day, and a tearing or weeping of fluid which made it look like he was crying, or got something irritating stuck in the eye. The wounded eye never got much better or 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 move in, more or less, with Jan and Sheila. These two people were probably my best friends there and 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, and then more each time we scraped a little 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 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, just 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 monthly 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 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, and pretty much in that order of priority”.
Speaking of food, I sparked something of a revolution in the food habits in our building. Being of Southern and Appalachian extraction I learned early on how to eat cheaply. Beans, rice, ham hock, greens and various inexpensive soups were the mainstay of my diet, and my body was well accustomed to eating these low-budget delicacies. Such was not the case with many of my neighbors. We would leave our doors unlocked and people would routinely enter my unit and heat up a pan of soup or beans. My only request was that they leave some change and a little bit in the pot, and clean the pan so that I could use it when my turn came around.
One afternoon when I was actually 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 what this innovation of a female person looking for me could be about. I heard rapid footsteps and found myself confronted by and obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe. Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment in time her Irish was up.
“You stop letting him eat here” she barked.
“What are you talking about Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.
“It’s your damn beans” she said. “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 with everyone else but tell him to bug off.”
“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something he could take to knock the edge off? I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up”.
I invited Maureen to sit down and I tried to calm her down, with some success, and we talked for a while. Maureen and Joe were another couple of my favorite people in that complex. Finally I threw out, only half in jest, and 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 just looked at me blankly for a moment and then as a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth, said “Sure. who knows, I might like them too.”
Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field in spring with lush grasses and wild flowers growing in profusion.
Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution Maureen returned to the desecrated love nest of Joe and Mo and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of payback potency. All of Building ‘A’ knew when the knockout blow was delivered.
Jeez, Mo, did something crawl up you and die?” cried Joe. He was answered by a fiendish cackle and ‘braack’.
Within minutes we heard a door slam as Joe exited their unit to find succor and a breath of fresh air in the field between our buildings and the college. Roy Boy, Animal and I were lying on the floor laughing until I thought that we would pee our pants. I arose after I composed myself and went around the corner of the building to look through the window into Joe and Mo’s unit. Maureen was dancing gaily in the kitchen as I looked in and I knocked on the window. Maureen turned, broke into a huge smile, and waved for me to come in. I declined that honor and she smiled even more broadly. She gave me a thumbs up which I returned with a smile and retraced my steps back to my unit. Peace did 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 after she began to cook that stuff herself.
Anyway, Jan and Sheila and I were cudgeling our brains trying to figure out how to raise the money to give old Jack a tune up. Beer, rent, and food was pretty much all of our budgets. Beer was untouchable. Everyone has priorities, and beer was top priority for most of us. Rent; everybody had to pay rent, so that one was no use to us. Food; everybody needs food. Everybody eats food. Everybody – wait! Not everybody likes to cook food but everybody likes to eat food! There it was, starring us in the face from the beginning. “Let’s have a benefit dinner for old Jack” I said. Jan and Sheila’s faces lit up with big grins and we struck hands on the deal.
Jan was useless in a kitchen, so the best he could offer was to stay out of the way. Sheila was by far the most skilled cook of the three of us but she was more oriented to a delicate kitchen and palate. What we needed was bulk, and that is where I shine in a kitchen. We laid our plans and started saving our pennies, and Jan and I even cut into our beer allowance. Jan was a passable calligrapher and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack.
Interest ran high, and 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 an even larger kettle we threw the noodles 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 the 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 and 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 all 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 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 with Doctor Hendricks.
“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked. We looked at each other and said “Well, Doc, nobody’s really”.
He looked at us kind of funny and said “so you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”
“Well Doc, he’s a stray that we all have come to like and so we want to fix him up some if we can” Sheila said, telling him the story of the benefit dinner. “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 just stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it. He decided that he did understand it and 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 doctor said that the damage to his eye was permanent, but he could see out of it, it did not seem to cause pain, and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors. Jan and Sheila decided on the spot that Jack was their indoor cat from that moment forward.
“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?”
“Seventy eight dollars and some change.”
“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars” he said. “And change”.
With further 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 opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar and enjoyed 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 the speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys 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.