Ewan Meiklejohn frequents the Park Heights corridor
, favoring the alleys and back streets. "Gran-be-bes! Gran-be-bes!" he calls out loudly as he approaches his spots, the same places he goes nearly every day as he plies his trade. In short order, desperate souls emerge from abandoned houses, stepping into debris-covered lots, eager to see him coming.
The call-and-response is not unlike what plays out over much of this stretch of drug war-torn Baltimore, where corner boys sling heroin and cocaine, calling out the brand names of the day's mind-altering products, doing their parts in an enormous underground economy.
But Meiklejohn, who goes by the nickname "Mike," is not selling heroin or cocaine. He's giving away food and water. His customers aren't junkies; they are cats and kittens. Thus, many who are aware of his mission in life simply know him as "Mike the cat guy."
Meiklejohn makes 27 to 30 stops nearly every day, he says, setting out about 25 pounds of cat food and 15 to 20 gallons of water in various containers around the trash-strewn properties the cats have colonized. On a typical day, he starts at eight in the morning and gets home around 2
, he says. After happily taking
's offer to drive him on his route on a recent morning, the whole outing took about three hours.
He's been doing this since he came to Baltimore, in 1997, in between working odd jobs as a shop clerk, laundromat attendant, and cleaner for a variety of Park Heights businesses, in addition to doing laundry for a network of nearby clients. His cat-feeding capabilities have been greatly aided in the past year, though, since a community of animal lovers stepped up to help him out.
"I'm in all these alleys all the time," Meiklejohn says. "When I came to America and I saw these dogs and cats that were being abused," he continues, "I said to myself, 'Wow, this is my time to shine.' Maybe I can put a damper on it and a little bit of awareness. I started feeding them, taking them to the vet, and getting them well, finding homes for them. Sometimes I trap them, get them neutered, release them again."
Growing up in Jamaica, Meiklejohn recalls a rough stretch he survived during adolescence. Though he says he grew up "privileged" before then, in the home of his adoptive parents, whom he describes as "jet-setters," Meiklejohn spent three years on his own between the ages of 14 and 17.
"I lived in the streets, eating out of garbage cans, sleeping in abandoned buildings, being raped, beaten up, stabbed up," Meiklejohn remembers, tears welling in his eyes. "So I grew up with this kind of abuse, sleeping in back alleys. I wasn't able to go to school, I never slept in a bed. I would roam around, find a big trash can close to a restaurant, search for food, and then I would go and eat berries and grapes and sugar cane and bananas on properties where I didn't belong."
Reflecting on this part of his life, Meiklejohn draws an analogy between himself and the animals he cares for. "I was an abandoned cat, abandoned dog," he says, "so there is no one better than myself to understand their plight. I lived it too. I'm  years old, not as young as I used to be, and I have aches and pains, but when I think about the animals, pain doesn't come anywhere close to me. When they see me coming, they come out and it brings a joy over me. I've found my niche in life, my purpose, and I want to do it for as long as I can."
Last summer, Meiklejohn was uprooted from his prior home base in the Park Heights corridor, after his abode and belongings were torn up by police conducting a drug raid. He says he neither does nor sells drugs, but that, thanks to his efforts to stop the drug activity in the house where he lived, he ended up as collateral damage.
He soon found new digs near the Mondawmin Mall and tapped into an animal-lover network that now supports his endeavors by helping with expenses and transportation. His two Facebook pages-www.facebook.com/ewan.meiklejohn and http://www.facebook.com/mikewestbaltimore-have fans such as Feline Rescue Association and volunteers and staffers at other animal-rescue organizations such as BARCS Animal Shelter. A recent post says, "Mike is in need of cat food! If anyone can help him out, please do!"
A recent tagalong with Meiklejohn on his cat-feeding routine shows he's a fixture on his route. Along the way, friendly folks with garden hoses let him refill his water bucket. He greets an apparent drug dealer as "soldier," and a postman is happy to see Meiklejohn, cracking jokes about his cat-tending ways. He tries hard to keep his stops low-key (he asked that no specific locations be disclosed in this article) for fear that someone might come to abuse the cats.
Over the years, Meiklejohn has met with some resistance-he recalls a woman chasing him with a baton, screaming for him to stop feeding the cats, and a man who showed him his gun, saying Meiklejohn was trespassing on his property-but such antics don't stop him. "You can kill me," Meiklejohn says, "but I'm not going to stop." He feels empowered now, thanks to all the help from the larger Baltimore-area community of animal lovers who know and support him.