Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Room 8, The Cat With Purpose, Chapter 3

Room 8's Grave Stone

As I continued my research into Room 8's history and legacy, I discovered a few unexpected and quite delightful treasures. One these was Roger Vargo. On one of my internet searches I came across Roger's website, Explore Historic California. There, I found a first-hand account of Room 8 from someone who actually knew him as a child. His story is filled with quotes from Room 8's surviving friends and a litany of extra-curricular activities whereby Room 8 reached out into the community and the world as an example of the best of human-animal relationships. I also found the Room 8 Memorial Cat Foundation, a no-kill shelter and adoption agency for special-needs cats in Riverside, California. The Historic Echo Park website has a short article on Room 8 which features a lovely photo of one of the students and the cat being entertained by one of his guitar-playing neighbors. He even has his very own Wikipedia entry. All this for a cat who passed on over 40 years ago.

Why does a little elementary school, hidden away in Elysian Heights, still celebrate the life and the accomplishments of a simple alley cat? How did such an unassuming little animal come to be so beloved, not just in his community, but around the world? What was there about this cat that endeared him to everyone who met him or even knew about him? Perhaps it's not just a quality in Room 8 that created this phenomenon, but a quality that all of us humans possess. Certainly, Room 8 had qualities which we humans admire -- loyalty and independence, certainly, but aloofness, too, and an ability to wordlessly express affection, distain, satisfaction and love. But what human quality caused the staff of the school to break the rules and adopt a cat? What need in all of us is fulfilled by such relationship? Do we have an inherent desire to nurture the helpless, to give shelter to the homeless, to adopt the stray animal, to return the baby bird to its nest, to rescue the cat in the tree. Perhaps we do.

Perhaps humans at their best are kind, generous, helpful, happy and loving by nature. If that is the case, then someone, or some cat, who needs help would appeal to the best in human-kind. Room 8, it would seem then, became the focus of this impulse to help and, thus, brought together a school and a community, the effects of which spread across the world via the print and electronic media. Room 8 got just what he needed, a very large, loving, extended family. His worldwide family in turn received the satisfaction of seeing the object of their help and affection go on to thrive and live a long, rich life as a result of their efforts.

It is a perfect example of what can happen when people get together with a common goal to do something good, good for themselves, good for Room 8, good for their city and good for their world. When your goals move you toward survival, toward a better life for yourself, your family, and your friends, it is very easy to get lots of other people to help you. That impulse to help, to do something good, is what Room 8 brought to Elysian Park Elementary School. That impulse lives on in the memorial etched in the concrete around the school, in the classroom where Room 8's story is read to students each year, in the Room 8 Memorial Cat Foundation, in Roger Vargo's Room 8 story on his website, and in every mention of Room 8 in articles and guidebooks. That is Room 8's legacy, that is why he came to Elysian Heights Elementary School. He brought out the best in his human companions, he enriched their lives, lightened their hearts, made them laugh and, then, left them to carry on his work.

The last thing I found in my quest for the history of this extraordinary cat was his gravesite. Room 8 was buried in Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in 1968 after he passed away at age 22. I drove out there the other day to see for myself the final resting place of this remarkable creature. His monument stands in the middle of the well-tended cemetery, under some beautiful trees in Calabasas, California. It's a bit off the beaten path, but it was well worth the trip to find the ending place of the main character in this story. As I approached the stone, a sparrow, who had perched there, flew off into one of the surrounding trees. I stood in front of the stone and thought about all that I knew of this cat and was struck by how much joy and purpose this one animal had brought into the lives of so many people. I thanked him then, turned and walked back to my car. May the memory of Room 8, and the legacy he left, never die. The world is greatly in need of you, Room 8, now more than ever. So, thank you, Room 8, you've gained another fan. Keep up the good work.

Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park

Monday, June 28, 2010

Room 8, The Cat with Purpose, Chapter 2

The Title Page from Room 8's Biography

I figured that my next step in my quest for more information about Room 8 was to find a copy of his biography, A Cat Called Room 8. I looked for it on the internet, but found only a listing with no copy for sale anywhere at any price. That was unusual. Very often, even a rare book is available for sale, though likely at a price I would be unwilling to pay. There didn't appear to be anyone willing to part with their copy at the moment, so I'd have to look elsewhere.

Los Angeles recently built a new library just a couple of blocks from my house. I had visited this new library on it's opening weekend and one of the most remarkable things about it was how few books there were. I was so disappointed that I didn't even bother to apply for a library card, seeing no reason to do so at that time. Now, I thought it might prove to be a source for the Room 8 biography. Again, I used the internet and searched the Los Angeles Library for the book. They appeared to be copies available, though the ones that were nearest were in the reference section of the main library in downtown Los Angeles. There also appeared to be a couple of copies available for lone from a branch library in the San Fernando Valley. I thought I'd try the library "hold" system and attempt to get the book delivered to my nearby branch. To do that, I'd need a library card, so I walked down to the new library, applied for and received my card. I took the card home, and using the number thereon, put in a request for the Room 8 book.

Over the next week or so, I'd check the status of the book through the library's website to see if and when it might arrive. The status never changed from "pending." I decided that I would now have to drive out to the San Fernando branch and get the book myself since the hold system didn't seem to be working. I got back onto the library website to make sure the book was still at that library. It had disappeared from that library and was now back to being listed at only the downtown location. Okay, I thought, maybe the Glendale Library has a copy. I found their website and, yes, they did, indeed, have a copy. There, too, the book was only available as a reference book. Well, I'd just have to go to Glendale and read the book right there in the library.

With a pocket full of quarters to pay for parking, I drove over the Glendale. I asked at the Reference Desk for the Room 8 biography. Yes, they had one in their Special Collection. The Special Collection areas weren't open that day, but the gentleman at the Reference Desk told me that he would go get the book for me and showed me where I could sit and read it. He also told me where the copy machine was and that I could make copies from the book if I need to do so. A few minute later, he came back downstairs with the book. I recognized the illustration on the cover as he was approaching the desk. At last, I had in my hands A Cat Called Room 8.

I took the book over to a nearby table and sat down to read. What I found was a beautifully illustrated and well-written children's book about the first fourteen years that the cat had lived at and near the Elysian Heights Elementary School. The book was only sixty-one pages long and it had a illustration on every page, so it took only a few minutes to read it. When I came to the end of the story, I was quite touched by how much this big, gray and white alley-cat had come to mean to the staff and students of the school. One of the great honors for students at the school was to be chosen to be Cat Feeder. Interestingly, the cat spent his nights somewhere other than in the school building. When everyone left school for the day, so did Room 8. In the morning, when school started, Room 8 was there in attendance just like everyone else. He would spend the day roaming the halls and taking cat-naps on various desks, sometimes having to be removed from a student's desk when he was preventing that student from working. There was even a designated Cat Mover that would be called in when needed. What a delightful relationship they had, this group of people and this cat.

It was rare enough for an entire school to adopt a cat that Room 8 became rather famous, world-famous in fact. In 1962, LOOK magazine ran a three page spread on Room 8. There was an article about him in the Weekly Reader, and he even appeared on Art Linkletter's "House Party" television program. This was quite an accomplishment for a formerly homeless cat who, some years before, had wandered into the school looking for something to eat and safe place to take a nap. It's no wonder there is a concrete memorial in the sidewalk outside the school. This was a remarkable cat, but the staff and students at the Elysian Heights school are no less remarkable for sharing their lives with Room 8, taking him into their hearts and, occasionally, their homes, and giving him a long, rich life he wouldn't have had as a homeless street cat. Not surprisingly, Room 8's memory lives on in the hearts of those who knew him. I discovered one of his old friends on another round of internet research. We'll explore that in the next chapter.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Room 8, The Cat with Purpose, Chapter 1

Mural Portrait

In a recent trip to one of my favorite used bookstores, I found a book called Stairway Walks in Los Angeles by Adah Bakalinsky and Larry Gordon. Carol and I like to take walks around the neighborhood and this book described several in our immediate area, so I bought it. One of the walks in the book is in Elysian Heights, which is just over the hill from our house. In reading the narrative that goes with the route instructions, there was mention of a famous cat that once lived at the Elysian Heights Elementary School where this walk begins. The book went on to describe a memorial inscribed in the concrete sidewalk surrounding the school. I was, of course, intrigued. Earlier this year, I had read Dewey, the Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicky Myron and I thought this cat might have a similar story, so I decided to find out more about this famous Los Angeles cat.

The first thing I did was to pull up a map on the internet to see how to get to the school. It seemed quite simple. All I had to do was get on Alessandro, turn onto Baxter and in a few short blocks I'd be there. One thing I didn't take into account is that road maps are flat; they don't show the terrain. I soon discovered that the section of Baxter Street that I was driving has some of the steepest paved hills I've ever driven up and down. That day I was driving our 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, a car which has a history of strange and dangerous mechanical problems, so navigating the nearly vertical hills made me a bit nervous. The car and I made it, though, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I parked on the street near the school.

I got out of the car and began my explorations. I walked around the school looking for the memorial that I had read about. I found a mural on the side of the school building and then another. I took photos of the artwork through the tall chain-link fence surrounding the school property. I still hadn't seen any memorial, though, until I looked down at the sidewalk at my feet. There in the concrete, barely visible under a layer of dust and leaf debris from the trees above, was inscribed a series of short poems and drawings in tribute to a cat named Room 8. The poems were simple and heartfelt expressions of the love that the students and faculty of the school had felt for this cat. The poems and drawings all appeared to be dated 1968, the year that Room 8 had passed away. I stopped at each well-worn slab of cement and snapped a photo. It was a touching shrine to this obviously beloved cat. I had to learn more. I got back in the car, consulted my map and found a way to return home without driving up and down Baxter Street. I figured I'd pushed my luck with that car enough for one day.

Over the next couple of days, I did a bit of hunting around on the internet to see what I could find out about this cat which they had named Room 8. I discovered that there was a book, published in 1966, about this remarkable animal. It was entitled A Cat Called Room 8 and had been written by Beverly Mason and Virginia Finley and illustrated by Valerie Martin. I put it on my list of books to look for on my next trip to the book store or library.

Three days later, I was back at Elysian Park Elementary School, this time with my wife, Carol. I wanted to show her the Room 8 Memorial and she wanted to take on the stairway hike as described in the book. I shared with her the forty-two year old poems and drawings which weather and foot traffic were gradually wearing away. She admired the mural on the side of the building, a much more recent work, and remarked that after all the years, this cat was still a very prominent figure in this school's history. I snapped a few more photos, hoping for a better shot of some of the sidewalk drawings. We went on with our hike up and down the stairways of Elysian Heights and along the edges of Elysian Park, and as we walked, I kept thinking about Room 8 and the effect he had upon the students and faculty of that school. I wasn't done with this cat, yet. I knew there was much more to learn from him and I was determined to find out as much as I could about him and his life.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Hand-Me-Down Cat Settles In . . . Sort of

Settling In

The newest member of our household is starting to settle in. It hasn't been an easy transition for him. Ebony's a bit of a grouchy old man and moving in with the ever playful and active Quint and Hedge is sometimes a bit too much for the old guy. He'll occasionally hiss and growl when one of the youngsters gets too enthusiastic about encouraging him to participate in the day's activities, but, for the most part, he's doing okay, and is slowly starting to establish himself in the group.

Part of the reason he's a bit growly is probably due to his hyperthyroidism and his bad teeth. I'm working on getting his thyroid under control with medication, but I got a bit too enthusiastic at the onset and started feeding him pills before he got over the stress of moving into his new surroundings. I think he was a bit overwhelmed for the first couple of weeks. At this point, though, he's explored the house, found a few good napping spots, a hiding place or two, and is pretty sure about what time breakfast and dinner are usually served. Now that he's feeling a bit more secure, I started him back on his thyroid meds. I'm doing it gradually with just one pill a day for a few days. After we see how that works, then we'll try getting him up to the two per day he's supposed to be taking.

I tried brushing his teeth during his first few days with us, but his gums are quite sensitive and bleed very easily so I'm going to have to approach his dental problems a bit more gently at first. In the next week or two, I'm going to take him back to the vet and see if we can get his teeth cleaned. Once we get that done, I'll be able start rubbing his teeth and gums with a bit of gauze to handle the plaque and apply a bit of antibiotic gel to help with the gum problems. He's not very difficult to handle and doesn't try to bite me when I open his mouth, so with a little practice we should be able to establish a daily tooth cleaning routine just like I have with Quint.

I noticed today that Ebony is starting to mimic some of Quint's behaviors. He's begun hanging out in some of Quint's favorite places, and was even playing with Quint's favorite purple toy mouse this morning. I think Ebony has made excellent progress in settling into his new home and I have every hope that in the near future he'll be a healthier and happier cat. If he isn't, it won't be because we didn't all try to make him feel at home.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Cat Who Forgot Where She Lived

My Toy!!

There really was no way for anyone but Carol and I and our friends to know how old Müss was, no one could tell by looking at her. You certainly couldn't judge her age by her actions. She was as lively and eccentric at 19 as she had been at 3. Just because she no longer hunted and captured socks, or slept in trees, didn't mean she had settled down to a dignified and sedate old age. No, Müss must have gotten bored, or decided she hadn't done enough with her life. Whatever her reasons, she took to visiting the neighbors with a mind to having a bit of a slumber party at their house.

She would wander off into one of the neighbors' yards and seemly forget to come home. At suppertime, we would have to go walking around calling for her. We'd find her in someone else's yard, or asleep on someone else's porch. She'd be fine for a couple of days and then she would disappear again. At one point, though we looked and looked and called and called, we just weren't able to find her. We suspected that a coyote had gotten her, or a car, but we never really gave up looking for her. After a couple of weeks, though, it seemed likely to us that she was gone for good. She certainly wasn't anywhere we could find her.

For some reason or another, in a conversation with one of the neighbors, the subject of cats came up. This neighbor said that a young cat had just wandered into her house and made herself at home. Upon hearing a description of the cat, we knew it was Müss. Apparently, she had decided she needed a new home, or forgotten that she already had one, and had found our neighbor's house to be a great place to live. We disagreed, of course. We gathered her up, took her home, and closed up the cat door.

She was quite content to be an indoor cat from then on. Eventually she went deaf, so someone had to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention when it was time for breakfast or supper. In her last year she began having occasional convulsions. Whenever she had them and I was with her, I would hold her and tell her that it wasn't time for her to go just yet. She was in her 20th year the day I came home and found her on the floor, cold and stiff. It was the one time I wasn't there to tell her not to go. I put her little body in a shoe box and put the box in the freezer. Then I sat and cried for awhile.

I just couldn't bear the thought of having her little body in the freezer, though, so I called a friend who works for a veterinary hospital and made arrangements to bring Müss's body to her that evening. I had a very hard time talking to my friend as I made the arrangements and it was very hard to drive the 20 miles or so to where the hospital was, the tears made it very difficult to see where I was going. Still, it was better to take her body to a place where it could be properly disposed of, and I felt a bit better after I left the hospital and drove back home. It was a difficult evening, but by the next morning I was at least able to talk about her without breaking down.

It's been quite a few years now since we lost Müss. I still miss her, of course.
She is a cat of legend now, climber of telephone poles, mighty sock hunter, sleeper in trees, adventuress. Her adventures make for wonderful stories that we can tell to our fellow cat lovers as we talk about our beloved pets past and present, and, thus, she lives on in our memories and in the stories we tell. I take some comfort in that.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Cat Who Slept In Trees

Muss Up a Tree

Müss, after she passed through her infamous sock-hunting phase, began sleeping on a variety of perches at various heights from the ground -- table tops, dressers, shelves and, eventually, trees. She started with Edges. Edges: as in as close as possible to the edge of any horizontal surface on which she happened to decide was a perfect napping place. If she was on the table, where she wasn't supposed to be, she would lay right along the outside edge. If on the bed, she would carefully position herself on the very edge of the mattress. Occasionally, she would forget where she was and fall over that very precarious edge. Whenever that happened, her body language said it was obviously the table's fault or the bed's fault that she had ended up on the floor. She would sit where she had landed and lick her fur back into order, all the while radiating indignation at the offending object. She would then avoid that particular place for a time and find some other napping place that she considered more trustworthy.

When I would see her laying on the edges of things around the house, I would point out to her the safer middle area and encourage her to move inward.

"Edge, edge, middle," I said, as I pointed to those places.

She didn't listen. Müss was a very stubborn cat.

During this Napping Dangerously period, we had to move from the house in Hollywood to our present location in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake. There were, in addition to the usual furnishings inside the house, several small trees on the property. There was a spectacular Hibiscus in the yard, just off the front porch. It featured quite lovely leaves and flowers on the outside and a tangled network of bare branches inside. As soon as she adjusted to her new house and yard, Müss decided that the Hibiscus tree was the perfect spot for napping. We would often find her asleep inside the web of branches in that tree. She paid little attention to the sparrows that perched on branches nearby or to the hummingbirds that whirred from flower to flower just a few feet from her perch. At first she would sleep in branches five feet or more from the ground, but as she inevitably found herself rudely awakened by crashing through the foliage to the grass below, she wisely chose lower and lower branches for her arboreal napping. After she had fallen off all of the accessible napping spots in that tree, she'd give one of the other trees a try, always progressing from a high perch to a lower one until that tree has also proven completely unreliable.

Eventually, she retired completely from naps in the trees and chose indoor places that were softer and closer to the ground. In spite of, or, perhaps because of, her penchant for high-risk napping places and other sorts of adventures, Müss went on to live with and entertain us for a very long time -- twenty years, which is very old for a cat. The day she lay down for her last nap was one of the most difficult days of my life. Even though she turned rather grouchy in her later years, her determination and her spirit of adventure never left her. Those were the characteristics that made her unique. In addition to forgetting where she was while she was napping, later in life, she sometimes forgot where she lived. But that's another story.

Thursday, June 3, 2010



When Carol and I first moved to Los Angeles, we rented a room from her sister, Terry. Part of Terry's household included three cats - Max, Müss and Scooter. When Terry moved away, we took over the house and adopted the three cats. The two boys, Max and Scooter, were the same age. Müss, being their mother, was a little older. The two boys were quite normal indoor/outdoor neutered male cats. Müss, by contrast, had a few little quirks. The most remarkable of these was her affinity for socks. Not our socks, please note, but the neighbors' socks. When it was laundry day next door, the clean, wet stocks would be hung on the line to dry. Once they were dry, Müss would slink over and nab a few off the line and carry them home. She would march triumphantly into the house with a nice clean, dry sock in her mouth, mewing her little heart out to let us know that she had once again successfully brought down her prey. Yes, she would leap up from the ground and drag those socks right down off the neighbor's clothes line. I guess she thought they were alive, waving there in the gentle breeze.

We would praise her when she brought one home, telling her what a mighty hunter she was, and then we would take the sock and hang it over the fence between the two houses for the neighbors to retrieve. We thought that this was a pretty clever solution to a rather embarrassing problem and everyone seemed happy with the arrangement.

What we didn't realize was that the socks Müss was presenting to us were just a small percentage of those she was actually capturing. One day, the sink in the kitchen became clogged. I tried to unclog it from above but to no avail, so I decided to crawl under the house to see if there might be a clean-out below the floor that would allow me to clear the blockage and get the drain flowing again. With my trusty pipe wrench and a flashlight I proceeded to crawl under the house. That's when I discovered the true extent of Müss's sock predation. I would estimate that there were at least 100 socks on the ground under the house, big ones, small ones, white ones, black ones, argyles and even baby socks. I was horrified. I left the socks there under the house, but that Christmas we gave the neighbors a large bag of clothes pins to use to keep their laundry on the line where it belonged. Once they started using the clothes pins, the sock ravaging stopped and Müss found other ways to amuse herself.

A few years later, after we moved from that house, Müss took up sleeping in trees, but that's another story for another day.