The Cat and the Old Man

“I found old Whitey behind a gas station,” said the old man, stroking the cat who lingered beside his feet. A white cat.

We were sitting together on John’s porch at dusk on Halloween. The neighborhood was steadily being overtaken by trick-or-treaters with dangerously low blood sugar. I was returning a borrowed weed eater to John’s house when the Pabst loosened the old man’s tongue.

John has a bushy white beard, unruly eyebrows, and he usually has the whole unkempt-old-man thing going on. His hair was disheveled, his shirt was stained, and his ratty sneakers looked like they had more mileage on them than my truck.

Kids in costumes stopped by John’s porch during our conversation, dressed as officially licensed cartoon characters, half blinded my misaligned plastic masks.

John had placed a barrel of candy on his steps and told kids they were free to help themselves.

“We operate on the honor system around here,” said John between swills.

I watched one kid who was dressed as Uncle Fester Addams take an armful of candy the size of a bowling ball and run like hailfire.

“When I met Whitey,” John went on, “the gas station people were feeding her behind the Dumpster. Only problem was, not all the store employees actually cared about cats. Usually they forgot to feed her.”

The white cat knew we were taking about her. She crawled onto John’s lap and leaned into John. Whenever John stopped moving his hand upon the feline’s slender body the cat would weave beneath his hand and force him to keep stroking.

“She loves to be pet.”

It sounded like Whitey had a small motor beneath her hood.

“Lemme tell ya,” said John. “This girl was hard to catch. Harder than most cats.”

John ought to know. He has fourteen cats including Whitey. They all have stunningly creative names like, Brownie, Blackie, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Susan.

“Why Susan?” I had to ask.

“It was my mama’s name.”

“Ah.”

Catching a renegade cat behind a Shell station is tough business. Cats can be standoffish creatures. To win the cat over, John bought fresh salmon filets and left them on the pavement for Whitey. Then he hung around the Dumpster so she’d get comfortable with his company.

“Don’t care what the books claim,” John says, “cats are smarter than humans. I been rescuing feral cats since I was a ten-year-old. You gotta respect their intelligence if you want a cat to trust you. They know who loves’em and who don’t.”

John left food for Whitey twice per day. Every morning, and every evening. The gas station employees would often see this unkempt, bearded man hanging out behind the store and mistakenly think he was homeless.

Employees brought John spare change and shriveled up gas-station hotdogs that had been spinning on the roller grill since the Punic Wars.

“The hotdogs are actually pretty good,” says John.

Although it bears mentioning, appearances can be misleading. John might not be a sharp dresser, but he’s doing okay. He still works as a computer consultant for a large company, he lives in a nice house, and in a decent neighborhood. His house has oak cabinets and central vac.

Central vac.

Anyway, after six months of feeding Whitey, the cat finally came to him.

“It took six months?” I said.

He nodded ominously. “Six. Long. Months.”

The day Whitey finally broke through the barriers of feline caution is one John will always remember.

It was nighttime. And when Whitey came trotting out of the shadows, she had an open gash on her face, her skin was dangling. She’d either been in a catfight or fallen into a heated disagreement with a lawnmower.

“Broke my heart,” recalls John. “So I reached out my arms to her.”

Whitey practically fell into him that night, passing out from exhaustion. In his sixty-five years of rescuing feral cats, a cat has never collapsed in his arms like Whitey did.

He took her to the doctor to get her fixed. When Whitey awoke from anesthesia, she was on a pallet in his garage with the doors wide open.

I asked why the doors were left open.

“Because. Ain’t no creature gonna live with me if they don’t want to.” He chuckled. “My first wife taught me that.”

The rest, of course, is history. Whitey has been living with John and his gaggle of cats for nine years now, eating salmon by the metric kiloton. The vet thinks she is about sixteen years old, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Today, Whitey has a hard time getting around on her old joints, but she is loved, and content. Also, she is the only cat among John’s crew of strays allowed to sleep in his bed.

“Don’t know what I’ll do when she leaves this world,” John said. “She’s one of the best friends I ever had.”

Before I left John’s porch, a young trick-or-treater dressed like Darth Vader interrupted us to ask John what kind of Halloween costume he was wearing tonight.

John smirked, then glanced at his own wrinkled T-shirt and ratty jeans.

“Can’t you tell?” he said to the kid. “I’m the crazy neighborhood cat guy.”

25 comments

  1. Suzi - November 2, 2021 11:20 am

    I’ve read the high lights in the New York Times this morning, then Sean (sorry, Times 1st in).
    The Cat and the Old Man grounded me, makes me know the world is going to roll on no matter that the politicians are trying to stop it.
    Your stories give me hope for humanity and tomorrow. Gonna keep reading you 2nd though, you drive all the boogeymen away. Thank you 😊

    Reply
    • Janet W. - November 23, 2021 2:52 pm

      Sean DOES drive the boogeyman away, doesn’t he! Perfect description!

      Reply
  2. Kay Britton - November 2, 2021 12:15 pm

    Warms my heart. Such a good description, I had no problem visualizing this adorable scenario! Thank goodness for men like him

    Reply
  3. Debbie g - November 2, 2021 12:27 pm

    At our neighborhood candy party. I didn’t dress for the occasion So one of co workers threw a loud polka dot cover around me and put a piece of tinsel in my hair the first child ask what I was. And I told them a Christmas tree. She was happy with that. And the rest of the night I was known as the Christmas tree lady Children and cats are so forgiving. The crazy cat guy and me would hang good together 😊😊well… maybe cats aren’t that forgiving 😀😀love you Sean and Jamie and love to all 😀sweet story

    Reply
  4. Allison Cobb Gilmore - November 2, 2021 12:32 pm

    As someone who is about half a cat away from being a crazy cat lady, I’m delighted to read that a man finally admits to being “a crazy cat guy.”

    Reply
  5. Paul McCutchen - November 2, 2021 12:47 pm

    He is right about cats. My cat doesn’t like to be picked up or handled but loves being petted. I got him from the humane shelter. The vet said they lied about his age and he was more like six months than eight weeks so he spent most of his juvenile time in “jail”. They lie about their age hoping they would get adopted,

    Reply
  6. Richard - November 2, 2021 1:36 pm

    and they don’t yap at you. ever.

    Reply
  7. Suellen - November 2, 2021 1:52 pm

    We’ve rescued all our dogs and all of them have been dachshunds except one and she is special for a reason. We were coming back from lunch at Five Guys and a van was blocking the country lane ahead. We got out to see if we could help and they were trying to catch a beagle that was in the corn field. It was a cold February day and she was skin and bones. We lured her in with some leftover french fries. Then with her caught we all looked at each other. The other couple said they lived on that road and they already had 4 dogs that had been dumped there. Well we only had two so the beagle came to live at the dachshund ranch. She was afraid of EVERYthing. Now that she was in she didn’t even want to go out again to do her business but she wasn’t too sure about us either. She slept for the first three days. We just gave her space. It took six months before she jumped up into my lap for the first time. Even longer than that for her to trust my husband. Now he’s her favorite person. When you earn an animal’s love and trust it just seems to mean so much more.

    Reply
  8. Deborah - November 2, 2021 2:01 pm

    I married a “I don’t like cats. I’m a dog man” guy 38 years ago. He currently, religiously feeds 14 ferals daily, worrying if one does not show up to eat. Six more of the ferals have been tamed for house living. At this moment he is at Walmart buying cat food.

    Reply
  9. G - November 2, 2021 2:20 pm

    God bless the people who care for all God’s creatures.

    Reply
  10. Shelton A. - November 2, 2021 2:31 pm

    John sounds like a good man. God bless him and Whitey…may she live long.

    Reply
  11. sholmes53 - November 2, 2021 2:49 pm

    Good one, Sean! Guess I’m a crazy old dog woman.

    Reply
  12. Becky J - November 2, 2021 2:56 pm

    I love this for so many reasons, and made me cry. I am feeding a feral behind a Shell station. Have for about 5 years. He comes to me and loves on me and wants me to love on him. But I can’t trap him, he is way to smart for that. The best I can do is give him food and water and set up a shelter (he never uses). Thank you for sharing John and Whitey’s story – it hit home!

    Reply
  13. Larry Wall - November 2, 2021 3:10 pm

    We all need those feral cats, although they all need to be ‘fixed’. We would be overrun with mice and rats without them. Don’t make them lazy house pets. (:-))

    Reply
  14. Tanya - November 2, 2021 4:50 pm

    I’m grateful to know a kindred spirit and grateful to the man who wrote about him.

    Reply
  15. Peggy ALEXANDER - November 2, 2021 5:07 pm

    I always feed stray cats. I don’t have mice when I have cats around. I have learned they they do things “when THEY get ready 😂😂. One day after months I think of being around I was on the porch in my rocker and all of a sudden she jumped in my lap for the first time. I was thrilled 😁 she had finally ACCEPTED ME.

    Reply
  16. Peggy ALEXANDER - November 2, 2021 5:15 pm

    I always feed stray cats. I feel sorry for them. I have learned they do things when THEY get ready😂. After her being around for months it seems I was sitting in my rocker on the porch and all of sudden she jumps in my lap. I was thrilled. But she did it when SHE decided to 🤣

    Reply
  17. Dean - November 2, 2021 6:08 pm

    Never had cats until about 8 years ago and it wasn’t my desire to get one but it came and never left. Now I have my second one because it was cold and hungry. I love dogs but because of my age I can’t take them out at night.
    Cats are less trouble just not quite as loving.

    Reply
  18. Nancy - November 2, 2021 6:23 pm

    I am allergic to cats and try to avoid them. I have realized that cats are psychic and sadistic. They KNOW when you’re allergic and want to wind and sit on you.

    Reply
  19. Rita walling - November 2, 2021 8:35 pm

    We have had a cat for four years now. Never one to sit on our lap but liked to be petted. 8 weeks ago something SCARED him & now Kenny stays under the bed all the time. The vet even prescribed Xanax to be rubbed on his ear to calm his anxiety. ( not too successful yet). Your article & the comments renewed my hopes that one day soon it will be HIS time to come out & see us again. Rita, Slidell la. 11-2-21

    Reply
  20. Linda Moon - November 2, 2021 9:55 pm

    Most of my day today has been spent with a young gingerhead man, an old once-gingerhead-now-bald man, and two furry cats. Much of our day was spent on the porch. Nice. I just came in and read about John. Thank you for loving Whitey, John. And than you for telling his story, Sean.

    Reply
  21. Linda Moon - November 2, 2021 10:00 pm

    ‘thanK’ you…too much fun for me in one day with cats and guys….the crazy cat-and-family lady (me) needs some rest…..

    Reply
  22. Karen Snyder - November 2, 2021 10:06 pm

    🐈🐈‍⬛❤️ I, too, am allergic to cats. I adopted one anyway. She has been a delightful and extremely loving companion. Occasionally she sleeps in my bed, but the current favored spot is dead center on top of my desk! 🤷‍♀️ No rhyme nor reason with cats!

    Reply
  23. Kathi harper-hill - November 5, 2021 1:26 pm

    Our white cat, Frost, was rescued from the local shelter. His days were numbered (they are now a no kill) . I saw his photo in the local paper and knew he should be living with us. They told us he liked men, as a man had raised him. The family lost jobs and couldn’t afford to feed him. He hadn’t been fed enough in a whiie. Frost loved my husband beyond measure. He’d stand at the door or part the blinds and peer outside till my husband came back in. Sometimes he’d bring his frog to the door to present it to my husband when he walked back in. He sat in his lap and looked lovingly into his eyes. Frost died year before last. Just about killed my husband. Well, it just about killed me too.

    Reply
  24. For Will a MInor by Thomas Barnett his grandfather - November 16, 2021 1:27 am

    It was very good
    Thank you Sean of the south.

    Reply

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