How I Got Into This Kooky Business
Cat Calls is my story of over thirty-five amazing years as a cat sitter in the “city that never sleeps.” It’s been quite a journey, filled with hundreds of fascinating felines--each with a tale to tell. I am happy to share my stories with you and, along the way, provide some sound, practical advice for cat lovers everywhere.
I am often asked what it is like being a full-time cat sitter, entering people’s homes all over Manhattan to care for beloved felines while their owners are away. I usually say, “I love my job and it’s never dull.” Let me assure you this profession is not for wimps. I have been called upon to scramble up high-rise fire escapes, break into apartments, dodge tarantulas, feed pampered kitties in Waterford goblets, help correct some pretty bizarre behaviors--both feline and human--and cope with the unexpected.
I remember a sweltering summer day during a massive blackout that crippled most of the East Coast. I had a cat-sitting house call in a high-rise building, and somehow, I had to get there. Waiting for me was Sabrina, the thirteen-year-old gray and white cat for whom I was caring. She was frail due to kidney problems, and in the intense heat with no air conditioning, I was very worried that she would not have enough fresh water to drink.
I have claustrophobia, so with the building elevator not working, I asked the doorman if he could loan me a flashlight. Armed with his small penlight and weighed down with my usual back filled with treats and toys, I gingerly climbed the emergency stairs in pitch blackness trying to find the tenth floor.
Praying I would not break my neck, I steadied my nerves by trying to imagine myself walking along a sunny beach so my claustrophobia would not get the best of me. I finally found my way to the right floor, opened the apartment door, and there was lovely little Sabrina, waiting for me.
“Sabrina,” I said, “you have no idea what I went through to get to you today!” She stared back at me in that self-assured feline fashion and, with a tilt of her head, indicated that I should hurry up with the food. Cats always know the bottom line.
Exhausted, I remember thinking, “How did I ever get into this kooky cat-sitting business?”
Cleveland Amory and Me
I grew up on Ninety-sixth Street and Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side of New York City. We lived in a wonderful old brownstone. One day when I was nine years old, I found a tiny kitten crying on the stoop. I remember quickly running upstairs to fetch a cardboard box, a small blanket, and some food. I was going to rescue this kitty and make sure she was okay. Well, when I got back outside, my heart sank. The kitten was gone. I hoped her mom found her and brought her back to wherever the little family called home, but I have never forgotten that experience. I think I knew from that day on that cats would play a part in my life, and it has certainly been true.
After I graduated from the School of Art and Design in New York City, I landed a job at a trendy fashion boutique called Fancy That on Seventy-second Street and Lexington Avenue. My mother worked in the fashion industry, so I had it in my blood.
One day, Cleveland Amory walked into the store with his wife. At the time, he was a popular reviewer for TV Guide and later became even more famous for his best-selling books The Cat Who Came for Christmas, The Cat and the Curmudgeon, and The Best Cat Ever. I told him how much I admired his Fund for Animals rescue work. He said, “We could use volunteers,” so I signed up.
Six months later, Cleveland offered me a job. I even cared for his beloved Polar Bear, the cat he rescued and made famous in his books. In fact, I am mentioned in The Cat Who Came for Christmas. Polar Bear was a very shy kitty. He liked to be petted, but I got the feeling he could take it or leave it unless Cleveland was petting him. Their bond was deep.
Cleveland was an outspoken man with lots of wild hair to match his flamboyant personality. He once came back from California with a rescued kitten he’d smuggled onto the plane. Apparently, because he was so large, no one noticed that he had the kitten safely secured inside his jacket. Those certainly were different days! We all were very upset with him, and he then had the gall to say, “Who wants this kitten?” You guessed it. I ended up taking her and named her Bananas because I thought that what he’d done was bananas.
I had a nice garden apartment at the time, but once, I feared I’d lost the cat. I ran outside yelling across the fence, “Bananas! Bananas!” The neighbors probably thought I was bananas. It turned out she was inside the apartment the whole time. I was very lucky; I had Bananas for twenty years and she never was sick a day in her life. Old age just crept up on her. She passed away peacefully right at home.
Although the Fund for Animals did a lot of good for animals, it was a tough job for me. The stories of cruelty and abandonment were very painful. One day when I picked up a file, an assistant flew across the office and ripped it from my hands. “You don’t want to look at this, Jeanne,” she said, and she was right. There are things I would rather not know.
A friend then told me, “Jeanne, you either have to learn to deal with it, or you have to get out of this job.” I knew he was right.
John Lennon and Cats
I left the Fund for Animals and on November 1, 1974, I opened The Cat Cottage, a gift shop for cats and cat lovers where I also boarded customers’ cats.
Although I custom designed two-story wooden cages for my charges, I ended up giving the kitties full run of the store. I made my own cat toys, which I sold along with treats, stationery, and kitty-themed gifts. I did very little advertising, but word spread throughout Manhattan because having a store exclusively for and about cats was unique at the time.
One day, I looked out the window to see a big stretch limo pull up. Out ran John Lennon! He flew up the stairs. Apparently, he had seen the cat tree in the window display, because he went straight for it. It was full of cat hair because my furry boarders were always climbing all over it, but that’s the one he wanted.
As quickly as he came in, he dragged the cat tree out of the corner and, in doing so, got cat hair all over his dark clothes. I apologized for the cat hair and he said, “Not a problem.” He put his cash on the counter and dashed out. “Keep the change,” he said, so I did.
Lennon came to the store with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean several times. Each time they dropped by, they would draw a large crowd. I had always loved Lennon’s music, but who knew he was a cat lover as well?
Once, a striking young woman who looked like a dancer or a ballerina asked if she could observe the cats in my store. She said she was going to be appearing in a new Broadway show called Cats.
I chuckled a little and said, “Sure, be my guest.” I thought she was nuts. She just walked around and watched the cats, who gave her plenty to watch, believe me.
At the time, nobody knew that this would be such a big Broadway show. I went to see Cats several times and loved it all--the music, the costumes, the makeup, everything.
A Cat Sitter Is Born
One fateful day, a woman asked me if I would go to her house to watch her cat because she didn’t want to board him at my store anymore. I said to myself, “Wow! What an interesting idea!” That was the first cat call I made, and the rest is history.
The cat’s name was Marcel Marceau. When I boarded him in my store, he was very aggressive and territorial, but in his own home, he was a real mush. It made me realize that cats are really better off in their own territory, and that going to them was best, even if it meant traveling from the East River to the Hudson River. I named my new traveling business Cat Calls.
I put Cat Calls on my business card and encouraged clients to pass the word--and they did. Little by little, my new cat-sitting business started to grow. People knew I was a real cat lover, and they could trust me in their homes.
Back to the Future
I have some amazing cat tales to tell! This book presents true accounts of what I have gone through to care for the kitties entrusted to me. As you will see, I take that trust seriously--to an extreme, in some cases--and always with a deep sense of love and commitment. I once trekked through a blinding blizzard on Christmas Day with a stress fracture and heel spur to make a house call. My foot was in a cast and I hobbled along with a cane. As I sank down into each snow drift, I laughed at myself. Sometimes, it’s all you can do, and I know that’s what kept me going. I was thinking I must take care of the kitties, just like the U.S. Postal Service, whether rain or sleet or snow, I must deliver the TLC--and I do.
I have continually been asked for advice on all kinds of cat care, both by my clients and by the weekly readers of my column on www.CatChannel.com. It’s all here to help you live a better life with your kitties, so please enjoy. This book is for all the wonderful cats out there and the people who love them!