He calls himself Pops. I call him The Cat Man. Pops lives about four blocks up from me in a neighborhood of bungalows and red brick homes in a shady, oak treed, two-laned suburb that qualifies as a historic preservation zone. Around the corner, on the other side of the four-block span of grassy park, where the owls hoot at night and folks walk dogs during the day, the area is less vintage by twenty years or so and the construction is a motley tour of happenstance materials and irregular design. Over there, the small streets are littered with grey cars and motorcycles, the houses are unremarkable and dreary, dogs bark behind chain link fences. Over there, things are a purgatory. That’s Trump Town.
Almost daily, Pops walks our street. He pulls a light metal cart, large enough for a bag of cat food and books, which are always loaded. For years, we would wave, me from my front porch and he from the street. His first advance toward me was indirect, taking my neighbor’s driveway as a route to ask about a newly discovered kitten. Our neighborhood is a favorite spot for drop-offs, which can grow feral and live under the azalea bushes at the park or roam from home to home, rubbing their bodies against calves, earning pets and food and names and occasionally, permanent homes. Had I seen the all-black kitten? And from there, a tumble of innocuous subjects until he returned to his walk. I’d learned from a neighbor that his destination is the branch library, a gentle pursuit that includes aerobic exercise and the nourishment of stray cats. This is just the sort of thing that makes me happy. It clarifies my neighborhood.
Several months back, Pops became bolder in his approach. It was the weekend and my brother was over. We’d finished a bowl of cannabis and sat in the freshly painted, bright yellow aluminum lawn chairs on my porch, loudly garrulous and cheerful. He pulled his cart up my sidewalk, parked it at the foot of the concrete steps, and talked up at us. C’mon up, I said, and then, Have a seat!, gesturing with my foot to the empty stool. He declined the seat and chatted with us in his soft, inquisitive manner, a book tucked under his left arm.
That’s the day I learned his name. That is also the day my impression of Pops wavered. He offered me his library book, a thick hard cover with a title that sounded something like The History of White Identity. I saw the title, flipped through its pages and offered a few uncensored adjectives about the subject. Oh no, says Pop, laughing softly. No, it isn’t a study of white supremacy, not at all. He emphasized the historical underpinnings, appealing to objectivity and facts. I accepted the book, warily. The three of us chatted about quotidian stuff and then he was gone, leaving my brother and I free to exchange looks and wonder what the hell?
You have to understand our perplexity. Pops is a shuffleboard kind of retiree, probably late 60s, impeccably dressed down to buckled belt, with white hair and goatee and crystal blue eyes. He is a short, docile man on good terms with the neighbors. Pops is aligned with the neighborhood spay and release champion, a notary public who is also a state lobbyist of some sort. He passes the smell test. Pops is a perfect fit for this neighborhood of old hippies and new millennials.
He is a kind man. I know this because he did a welfare check after I broke my shoulder, surprising me in my back patio, inquiring about my well-being. He hadn’t seen me in a while. Truth is, after the History of White People book, and then more visits and invites, I began avoiding him. I think he knew this and while I felt guilty about his hurt feelings, I also followed my own gut check that said something’s not right.
The week after the Kavanaugh hearing, more specifically, a few days after Dr. Ford spoke, Pops found me on the front porch. He had another book, one by Dave Eggers named A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He shows me an inside page with its idiosyncratic passages. My interest is piqued. Plus, I’ve heard of Dave Eggers.
What’s it about?, I ask. Pops asks if I’ve read Proust. I tell him about my attempt, unable to get past the first 50 pages of disjointed memories, mother fantasies anf fantastical images of the boy-mind narrator. Nonetheless, I’m an advocate of right brain writing. Stream of consciousness appeals, so I take the Genius book. It’s due back in seven days, says Pop.
Saturday. I am reclining in one of those hard plastic chaise lounges on my patio, listening to S*Town for the first time. I’ve reached the chapter where John B takes his life by swallowing cyanide. It’s a mild, end of summer, start of fall Florida afternoon. The hurricane has devastated the Panhandle. Kavanaugh got confirmed. The Genius book repelled me with its casual description of a dying mother puking green stomach fluids. The tale has a fetid tediousness to it, much like Capital Hill politics.
I hear Pops from my carport before he approaches. He is here for the book. Did I read it, he wants to know. Again, I offer him a chair. Again, he refuses and for the next twenty minutes stands over me as I lean back in the plastic seat. His stance gives me a chance to really look at him. I notice a penchant for stroking his right ear lobe, the puffed upper chest, the baggy pants and how he stands just inches from my personal space, unaware of its implication.
We talk about the Eggers book a bit and the repulsive green puke. He didn’t read the book. Then he tells me he does not read. I am puzzled. Why do you go to the library? Now he is stumped. He smiles, looks off, says nothing. While I wait for an answer, another topic is introduced. And then, somehow, we are talking about climate change.
Perhaps the hurricane was the catalyst. Pops is explaining how the climate is cyclic – the arctic circle melted before – famine and pestilence wiped out civilizations eons ago – and in his roundabout, innocent way, he is denying the immense crisis we on earth are facing, using some improbable historical data as his bulwark. He makes no accounting for the poisons spewed by vehicles, the human mechanics of it all. I want to talk about these realities. Draw a distinction between rats and The Plague and the destruction caused by humans. I am annoyed. Yet he talks on, pulling his ear, pausing with hems and uhs, making a case that is eerily familiar to the ignorance I’ve heard from the Trump/GOP enclave.
We talk about the man in the White House, the upcoming Midterms. Make sure you vote, I say and he answers affirmatively before moving into a codswallop of remarks about Hillary Clinton. The Democrats didn’t like her, he utters in the midst of this line of chatter. They didn’t really have a choice. My head jerks back. I can feel the inflammation swell in my lower back. I hear myself defend Hillary, cite her millions of votes. He backs up. Mentions the electoral college. It’s as if he forgot himself momentarily and is now resuming the persona of political peer. I press on, recounting the abbreviated tale of the roofer, who declared Trump a genius. Ridicule and distaste ooze from my words. The Cat Man looks away, up at the clouds, silent. I mean to press him, force some truth about his preference by insulting Trump.
Why do you know all their talking points?
My question gets answered without a syllable. I screw my eyes onto him and watch as a swell of red surfaces, first on his exposed chest then up his neck. A scarlet flush colors his cheeks, his nose even. He turns away, looks to the sky, pulls and caresses that ear lobe, stutters and chuckles.
In that moment I knew. The white wisp of man, this Saint Francis of cats is a Trump guy.
I caught myself in the moment, picturing my angry stare and my demand. Who had I become? Had I transformed into this grim partisan, unforgiving, relentless, hard core? In the way that so many of us hope for reconciliation, want harmony, believe in the best, I doubted my own perception, second-guessed my fury.
No. My anger has never been so righteous. This duplicitous fellow walks about with his big books, which he does not read, with his St. Nick eye-smile, his treats for the kitties, and all the while, he is a secret ambassador for Donald Trump. Thus, he covertly agrees with the debasement of women, the denial of science, the enslavement of children, and the steady annihilation of the exercise of democracy.
I have not seen The Cat Man since that afternoon. He likely still feeds the strays. But he belongs in Trump Town, that other neighborhood. I have thought off and on about how he deceived me. I have wondered more about how seemingly nice, seemingly smart people can accept and regurgitate the Trump drivel. You don’t know what you don’t know. But I am reminded of the German citizens who lived blocks away from those concentration camps and for years, thought nothing was awry.