Basie in Bobos box

This morning my cat, Basie, got me up at 4am, incessantly meowing, crawling all over me, poking me in the face, and generally being a nuisance. As he gets older, and especially after our other cat, Lena, died, his nighttime behavior has become increasingly obnoxious. He also tends to climb on my laptop as I’m trying to write, likes to flop on top of whatever book or magazine I’m trying to read, and has a dangerous habit of being directly underfoot in the kitchen.

Basie can be annoying, but I love him. Sometimes his antics infuriate me, but I like having him in my life. I’ve almost always had cats in my life. Two years after my parents got married, they got a cat, Sam. Two years later, they had me. Sam was there throughout my childhood and school years. The family joked that Sam was my older sister. I can’t imagine what growing up would have been like without her. She died just a few months after I left home for college. Basie looks a lot like Sam.

It has always bugged me that Hollywood finds it acceptable to hurt or even kill cats as means for a laugh. I’ve seen movies and TV shows where cats have been thrown, sat on, run over, and kicked—always presented as something that is supposed to be funny. You would never be able to get away with that with a dog. I’m not anti-dog, but I strongly anti-anti-cat. As a kid I could never watch Tom and Jerry, and in fact a recurring dream I had involved me heaping revenge on mice on Tom’s behalf. (These days I’m not anti-mouse either. In fact, my wife and I have rescued more than one mouse from Basie.)

Much more than dogs, cats polarize people. So why is it cats have become such internet superstars? I think it is precisely because of their mystery and unpredictability. (I think the brief trip inside the mind of a cat in the movie Inside Out explains cat behavior better than anything else I’ve ever seen.) Cats are eccentric and ever-shifting. One moment they can be the very picture of soft, purring comfort; any time advertisers want to make something look especially cozy, they add a cat to the picture. But the very next moment, without warning, that demure bundle of fluff can switch gears and become an insane wildcat. A special I once watched about cats said, “To have a cat is to invite a little bit of the wild into your life.” I couldn’t agree more.


Tino on cat tree

The most remarkable thing about Tino was his voice. This cat, this funny old orange tabby with the huge vocabulary; he loved opera, and vocalized accordingly, from basso profundo growls to soprano coloratura arias. He squeaked, chirped, barked, sang, and yowled. The one noise he didn’t make was “meow,” save for two times. The first time came immediately after I said, “Yeah, he can say a lot, but he never says plain old ‘meow.’” Tino looked directly at me and said, “Meow.” The second time was years later. My wife and I were reminiscing, and she said, “He only said ‘meow’ that one time, just to prove he could do it. He hasn’t said it since.”

“Meow,” said Tino.

He talked on the phone too, a fact no one believed until they heard it for themselves. One time, we ordered some cat food online. When I called later to order a refill, the lady taking my order asked if my cat had enjoyed the first batch. “Hold on,” I said. “I’ll put him on.” I could imagine the thoughts on the other end of the line until Tino actually did get on the phone to voice an opinion.

Tino was a character. At a routine trip to the vet’s, he discovered a jar of dog biscuits, and ate half-a-dozen of them during the course of his examination. He loved to travel. He went for walks, like a dog. He liked Brussels sprouts and biscotti.

Tino was nuts, but he was also very sweet, with the loudest purr I’ve ever heard. And he loved people. Always the center of attention, he had to be part of any crowd. But sometimes, even surrounded by adoring fans, you could look in his eyes and see that he was somewhere else, entirely alone; remembering the shelter, the cage; and before that, an abandoned kitten – a Chicago alley cat, not knowing if he would survive another day.