IN fairly typical fashion for this Highlandtown neighborhood, there's a block near me where the alleyways are actually streets with names and addresses.
Houses either front or back on these narrow streets slicing through the middle of the block. There are also several garages, a small business and a colony of cats.
Not a family of cats, mind you. Just as sociologists have decried the breakdown of the traditional human family in the city, so these cats seem to suffer from some type of urban pathology.
The cats are truly wild creatures. "Here kitty kitty" means nothing in this corner of Highlandtown.
No one seems to know how long they have lived in the garages and other crevices they call home, but for years they've been interbreeding at an alarming rate. Two of the neighborhood women supply them food and water. The place is so well known that outsiders come to drop off unwanted cats, which is why I can't be more specific in describing it.
It's not exactly cat heaven. Cats have kittens when they're still kittens themselves, often abandoning day-old babies only to get pregnant again. One of the neighbors has successfully bottle-nursed some of the baby cats and found them homes. Many more have died. Still more are born deaf or go deaf from untreated diseases. One of the small business owners was heartbroken after he ran over a cute kitten who didn't run when he started his car.
After that, an employee decided it was time to do something about the cats. What happened is a Baltimore story, a city story:
He called Animal Control. Animal Control brought out a small wire cage much like the mousetraps designed so that the critter goes in for food and can't get out. Call us when you've caught one, and we'll come get it, Animal Control said. Minutes after the trap was set and baited with tempting food, it had its first victim, a gray striped tabby.
A moment later, the tabby was foaming at the mouth. Rabies, we wondered, or could fear and fury cause this?
The businessmen had mixed feelings about what they were doing, knowing that Animal Control would immediately put any captured cats to sleep. (At one time or another, all had adopted kittens from the street.) One of them let the tabby go. Another set the trap back up.
Then the "cat lady" came. She is a white-haired grandmotherly type whose backyard is right up the street from the shop. She saw the cage. She asked what it was. Then she picked it up and started walking away.
The worker who'd obtained the cage told her it belonged to Animal Control. She said she didn't believe him. He tried to grab it back. She slammed the cage into the street. He tried to get her to stop. She slammed it into the brick walls. She called him a "big hillbilly bastard" and other more unprintable names. He thought about forcing it out of her hands, but how would it look if police came along and found a strapping young man wrestling with a white-haired grandmother? So she walked off. With the cage.
The businessmen informed Animal Control the cage was gone. Animal Control said the cage had been signed for. Cough up the $40 for the cage, Animal Control said. The businessmen thought about calling the police, but, after all, this was a neighbor.
So next morning when tempers were calmer, one of the businessmen went to talk with the white-haired grandmother and get the cage back. She informed him that she had taken it to a thrift-store warehouse. The thrift store man told the businessman he hadn't known what the thing was and had put it in his trash compactor.
Then the businessmen called the police. After filling out a report, the cop told the businessmen how and where they could go to swear out a warrant to take the cat lady to court. That would take at least an hour, the officer said, adding that it would take a full day in court to recover the $40 from the white-haired grandmother who had stolen city property subsequently destroyed by a third party.
The businessmen were still pondering the moral and financial repercussions of their dilemma when Animal Control people came around to collect their money. They said they had been mistaken about the cage's cost. It was really $31.31.
But then the white-haired grandmother came in and handed the businessmen $30. They didn't ask for the $1.31. "So what's a dollar among friends?" commented one of the businessmen.
Relationships returned to normal at the alley crossroads, as though nothing had ever disrupted the rhythm.
The cats are eating, sleeping, littering and breeding.
Chris Schauble writes from East Baltimore.