Friday, June 25, 2010
Room 8, The Cat with Purpose, Chapter 1
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.