When you’re down, you relate to the Cat Lady. Perhaps a little too much. I first crossed her path before I knew she was the Cat Lady, in the wintertime around dusk.
I’d just moved to New Orleans with my husband, formally, and we were running low on funds. Rather than have one of those pathetic marital arguments about bills, overheard through the walls of our shotgun, Ryan had sent my ass to the liquor store with ten dollars. “Come back with solutions,” he’d ordered.
Ten dollars is a godsend in a liquor store, for those uninitiated to “the struggle.” Ten dollars, in the right place, will get you a pip of green Evan Williams and a sixer of High Life. From that vantage point, solutions abound.
As the smoking cashier rang me up behind bulletproof glass, I looked out the store window and watched the local crackie, who’d threatened to hurt my dog the previous day, dance with her arms in the air to a tune only she could hear.
“You could do worse,” the smoking man spoke, as if reading my mind, perhaps interpreting the look on my face, perhaps commenting on the quality of my purchase. I’ll never know. “Trust me,” he continued, sliding the dark bag across the counter.
This was my new neighborhood, I rued as I crossed St. Claude and made my way down our new street, eyes on my feet in defiance of the pink sky bursting above me, which was when I met the Cat Lady.
“Good evening,” a female voice hailed aristocratically, the consonants drawn out with faux-sophistication like a British countess. I looked up and took in a thin woman, well past middle age, wearing an oversized plush coat that hung open and covered a pink slip. This tiny slip hid very little of her nipples, I must say, and what I took to be once-compact breasts marred by time and gravity.
She wore a hat of lavender yarn that looked, unmistakably, self-knitted. Beneath the hat dangled curls and bright eyes offset by aquamarine eye shadow. She carried all the energy of a Mountain Girl hippie who’d once been the center of every orgy.
And rightfully so. She was almost gorgeous, striking for her age, faintly beautiful with an almost-beauty that read like a fragment of poetry. I was reminded of that Rodney Dangerfield joke, “Man, you must have been something before electricity.”
She walked towards me and I her. I acknowledged her salutation with a nod and grin, as I felt appropriate for two strangers in an urban landscape, as I’d never actually heard someone say “good evening” to me before (I imagined someone saying “good morrow!” at a renaissance fair).
It came off so refined, the way she’d said it, so out of place with the way she presented herself, and the former New Yorker in me told me it wiser to keep a distance than welcome in some Edie Beale from Grey Gardens. We passed, and I noticed a black cat with a white tufted chested following not too far behind her. The cat almost pranced, its head aloft.
It was about 10 steps away from this random encounter when I heard the shout. “We speak here!” the female voice screamed. I turned to find the goddess irate, eyes squinting, mouth creased up in crow’s feet. “We speak!” she said, pointing her finger accusingly at me.
Then she huffed and spun. As she did so, the black cat with a white tufted chest leapt on her shoulder, as if equally incensed. The cat lifted its tail and showed me the white patch of its ass. And they headed together to the liquor store I’d just left, eventually crossing the street and high-fiving the crackie doing her dance.
Maybe it’s because I was already low, in the way that being broke makes you feel exposed. Maybe it’s because I was still green to this foreign land. Maybe it’s because the interaction felt cartoonish. Maybe it was the darkness setting in and the shitty booze in my bag. But I felt like a pauper of spirit.
I had the sense that I’d just been given a vital test, that the fates had graced me with a meeting of my first genuine New Orleans eccentric, some mystic being sustained on sweat and madness, someone unsuitable for the rest of the planet, someone whose blood pumps to a Conga beat. Standing there with my bag, I overwhelmingly and inexplicably wanted to run after her and apologize and explain my existence.
I wanted this strange woman to like me, to embrace me, to accept me as part of these streets. More than anything, I wished I could go back and be a less suspicious person, a better person, and just fucking say, “Good Evening!” I had the unmistakable sense that I’d failed some test—and made two enemies.
Outside my house, I caught my landlord taking out the trash. I told her what had just happened and how it made me feel shitty. “Oh, she does that!” my landlord said, almost doubling over laughing. “You just met the Cat Lady.”