Got into Berkeley at 8 in the evening. I had been living in the middle of the desert in a small town in Arizona for the last 10 months. As I got off the bus at Telegraph and Haste my plan was to hide away for a couple days and ease my way back into the scene. But Hoody Dave was panhandling on the corner across the street and he immediately spotted me when I tried to sneak by him.
“Ace! Ace! Long time no see, bro!” called out Hoody Dave.
“Yeah. Yeah. Good to see ya’, Hoody. It’s like welcome back to Berkeley!” I said.
“You want some food?” said Hoody, holding out a to-go container of restaurant left-overs.
“Nah. I just got into town. I’m rushing all over the place trying to take care of stuff.”
The street scene grapevine is an amazing thing. Within an hour everyone in town will know I’m back. Bunch of fucking blabber mouths. Ha ha.
The first day back on “the streets” is always a total shock for the mind and senses. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of a pool full of sharks. Course, after two days it’ll feel like I had never left.
It was crucial that I get to my campsite in the Berkeley hill before dark, and there was only a half-hour of light left. The last thing I wanted to do was to try and set up my campsite in the pitch dark. For one thing, I wanted to make sure there weren’t any strange people camping there, and there weren’t any weird scenes going on. But first I had to get some food for my feral cats. I popped into Walgreens. They didn’t sell cat-food, so instead I got 20 bucks worth of tuna, pink salmon and Vienna sausages. I figured the scent of the pink salmon should draw any feral cats within a mile.
I made it to my campsite with 5 minutes of daylight to spare. Set up my stuff and had a pleasant night sleep.
In the morning the first thing I did was set out the cat food. It’s a moment I had been both dreading and looking forward to for 10 months. I had been feeding them feral cats for the last 6 years, some of them since they were kittens. So they were pretty dependent on me. I wondered if they had survived in my absence. Would my four feral cats still even be there? Had they died? Or would they show up half-starved with their ribs showing? Or would they even remember me? 10 months is like 10 years in the life-cycle of a feral cat.
I had dreamed about my feral cats constantly during the 10 months I was gone. They were always fat and well-fed in my dreams, and the dreams usually involved me feeding them, while they scurried around my ankles. But this was real life not a dream.
I knelt down and opened up a can of food with my can-opener. A ritual I had performed a couple thousand times. But before I had even got the food into the dish I looked up over my shoulder and there was a cat, sitting about 30 yards up the hill, watching me. A black cat. Is that Moo Cat?! It’s like she had been sitting there for ten months just waiting for me. Actually, she was probably waiting to come down and get a drink at the little pool of water in the creek that had, much to my surprise, survived the California Drought of 2004 that I had heard so much about.
Moo Cat was my favorite of the feral cats. Well, actually, they were all my favorites. I never used to believe it when Mothers would say: “I loved all my children equally.” But maybe it’s true, because all those cats were my favorite. But Moo Cat was a special favorite. Because she was so neurotic and high-strung. The most emotionally volatile and unstable and needy of all the cats. Guess I could relate. “Agro Moo Cat” I used to call her.
I dumped all the food in the dish. Then I stepped across the creek and laid down on the ground, pretending to ignore Moo Cat. I knew if I made one move towards her, she’d probably sprint up the hill. Cats have that strange mixture of extreme caution and extreme curiousity that is usually warring in the cat psyche. Almost immediately Moo Cat trotted down the hill and started going at the food. That showed she still recognized me. Because if it had been any other human she would’ve been gone like a shot. Moo Cat worked at the food for 20 minutes non-stop, eating quickly and methodically. Only pausing regularly to stare over shoulder as if on the look out for any predator that might try to take her food. Occassionally she’d glance over at me, give me a funny look, as if she was trying to process whatever goes on in a cat’s memory. I called out once, “Big fat cat. You big fat cat.” Which is how I used to always address her. Just to remind her who I was. From a distance she looked in good shape, fairly well-fed, just like she had 10 months ago. Mostly she went for the Vienna sausages. Which was symbolic. Because that’s what I had first fed her when she was a four-month old kitten and first being weaned from mom’s teat. Her mother, Blondie, would daintily take the sausages in her mouth and troop up to her secret nest to feed them to her kittens.
The moment of truth was when Moo Cat finished eating. Would she trot over and say hello to me, like she’d done a thousand times before? Instead, she sauntered back up the hill 30 yards, and did her usual post-feeding grooming ritual from a safe distance. Which I could understand. She probably wanted to factor this new and sudden information before making any commitment. You know how cats are.
Suddenly Moo Cat darted up the hill and disappeared. Had I startled her? No. Turned out a hiker was approaching which is why she dashed. Cats make great watch dogs. They always alert me if somebody is coming, at least 30 seconds before they arrive.
But then it occurred to me: Moo Cat had been hanging at Blondie’s old nesting territory. Cats are very territorial. What had happened to Blondie? The beautiful white feral cat. Was she dead? Or had Moo Cat run her off. Moo Cat used to constantly feud with Blondie. Trying to run her off the cat food dish. But it never got serious. Probably because there was always plenty of food to go around. But in my absence, with the food supply much more scarce, maybe Moo Cat had run her off. People have this image of cats as “cute little kitties.” And they are. Even feral cats. But in the deep dark woods, in the land of feral cats, it can be a brutal struggle for survival. It’s every-cat-for-himself.. And they can get nasty, them cats.
Still, it was great to see Moo Cat.
I spent about an hour loitering around my old campsite. Everything was pretty much the same as I left it, aside from a fair amount of litter scattered around the grounds. I spent a half hour picking it up. Not so much out of goody-goody motive. But more like an archeologist searching for clues. The litter gave me a good sense of who had been lurking at my campsitr while I was gone. And I also noticed this. When I bent over to pick up the litter I noticed my back was aching in ways that it hadn’t ached 10 months ago. It occurred to me: Living on the streets can wear you down. But in-doors living can make you soft, too.. . . And this too: I spotted a full can of ice cold beer nestled among the litter. I considered this a gift from the gods for my cleaning job, as well as an omen of welcome.
A young deer suddenly darted across my campsite — another good sign that people hadn’t been around much. And then one of them wild turkeys sauntered across the woods, with two little turklets following behind her. I threw a couple rocks in the general direction of the turkeys to run them off. I’ve hated those turkeys ever since I stepped into some turkey shit in my bare-feet. Plus they try to steal the leftover catfood, On top of that, the bastards look and sound like goons.
I dumped out the rest of the catfood into the catfood dish, in the hopes of attracting the other cats. Then I packed up my camping gear and headed back down the trail. I wonder if Blondie and the two twins Mick and Keef are still around. Not to mention Tom, the feral tomcat.
Well, I’m back in Berkeley.