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Creek Running North

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September 19, 2005


A week ago I finally dusted off my old turntable and plugged it into the Mac. I have spent the last few evenings playing LPs, digitizing the music for more convenient listening.

I have not listened to some of the albums in many years.

Elissa, with whom I lived for most of the 1980s, disliked my music intensely. This was not particularly a character flaw; I like some odd stuff. Last night I had on one of the LPs, field recordings of folk musicians in Chile from the early 1970s, and the first track was an elderly woman with an accordion, and a voice that both wavered and wailed all over the place. Coming into the room, Becky listened for a moment and asked "Are they serious?"

Elissa liked her R&B, a few early-1980s Los Angeles bands, Grace Jones, Romeo Void, and that was about it. She eventually made it clear that she would be happier if I never played my music in her presence.

In 1984, waiting for my niece to be born and reeling from the loss of someone I loved, I lived in my father's basement for a summer. I had no money. I spent my time borrowing old LPs from the local public library and recording them onto six-for-a-buck cassette tapes. That summer, in between complaints about my sponging off him, Dad bought me a small boombox. I wore it out - and the tapes as well - in the next few years. I'd taped Andean folk music, chants of Indians of the Brazilian Amazon, old recordings of Pete Seeger before his voice changed, jazz remastered from 78s, angry 1970s feminist and labor folk songs, obscure and more or less untalented Cajun fiddlers. By the time four years later when I bought a 70-dollar turntable-cum-tapedeck, Elissa had long since gotten utterly fed up with my cheap, hissy, wavering music collection.

But she was in law school, so I had plenty of time at home alone to listen.

Well, not alone. There was Zoom, the orange cat who had adopted us in that neighborhood in West Berkeley, and who followed us to another house cross town and then across the country to Arlington. He sat on my lap as I listened. A few months after we'd moved, in late November 1984, I realized he wanted to do nothing but sit on my lap. It was kidney failure, and he died the day after my 25th birthday.

An appropriate period of mourning passed, and we went to the District of Columbia Animal Shelter. Two cats there caught our eye. One was a tiny gray female, the other a big orange male who nearly busted open the cage with his head in his urge to be stroked. The social workers came to interview us at home, decided we were worthy, and approved the adoption. Elissa named the cats, of course: the female was Phoebe, the male Jasper.

Jasper had lied to us, in his desire to be sprung from the hoosegow, about his actual sweetness content. No sooner was he let out of his carrier at his new home than his real personality became obvious. He attacked Phoebe, not a trivial matter given her recent spaying and attendant sutures. He attacked Elissa when she had the temerity to try to pick him up. Worst of all, he attacked me. He would lurk atop the refrigerator and attack passing scalps.

In short, my new cat was a dickhead.

Over the next few weeks, he and Phoebe reached an understanding. Their treaty split the house between them, upper floor for Phoebe and lower for Jasper, with safe passage allowed for each to the kitchen food bowls and upstairs litter box respectively. When we moved back to California two years later to a studio apartment, they were able to inhabit the same coffeetable without blood being spilled.

Jasper and I had our rapprochement as well. Months of sitting together in an empty house, listening to Andean melancholy, and drinking beer warmed him to me. By our six-month anniversary, he would head-butt my knee and scrape himself along my shin about once a day. Within the year, he would sit next to me on the couch, only hissing when I foolishly attempted to move in any direction whatsoever. By eighteen months, he would actually purr when I petted him, and there was a spot on the couch where, if I sat there at the right time of day with the right music when we were alone in the house, he would run over and jump into my lap, curl up and go to sleep.

He was in my lap one night when Elissa came home early. She walked in through the front door. Jasper turned, glared at me, and hissed nastily. Taking only a moment to shred my forearms, he was off the couch and racing for the top of the refrigerator.

As I write this twenty years later, I can still see the scars in my arms from that night.

I should point out that Jasper, while he had not a single extra ounce of fat on him, weighed in excess of twenty pounds. Oddly enough, only about half a pound of that was teeth and claws. The rest was muscle. angry, bitter, livid muscle. And fur. Jasper's fur was tenacious, infiltrating into every available crevice, able to work its way into airtight containers.

His menace did not, of course, keep me from babying him. Nor did the giant red sticker on the outside of his file at the vet's office. Alone among the six billion people on the planet at the time, I was able to pick him up - pointing that half-pound of teeth and claws away from my face and viscera - and kiss him on the head, on the back of the neck. He would growl threateningly, drop to the floor and rub against my leg. Then it was off to the row of LPs, to shred the covers just a little more. I would scold him, then kiss the inverted "V" on his forehead, where white face met orange head.

That studio apartment, with a vegetable garden overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, was just up the hill from an excellent world music store. I walked past a few others ever day on my way back from work. A dollar here and a dollar there, and evenutally I had a bit of a collection. I could gauge their tenure in my possession by the intactness of their spines. The older ones were a wad of shredded paper pulp. I was forever pulling Jasper's little white hairs from my clothing.

We moved LPs and cats and ourselves to a house in East Oakland, and within a year Elissa had asked me to move out so as to provide her new boyfriend with unlimited Elissal access. Our angriest fight ever concerned custody of the cats. I lost. Jasper stayed with Elissa and the new boyfriend.

The last time I saw Jasper I was in Elissa's yard picking up the last of my garden tools. we'd arranged it for a time when she and her jealous now-fiance wouldn't be there. Jasper was sitting in the window sill, and I talked moosh to him through the screen. He looked affronted, hissed nastily at me, vanished into the dark of the house.

It was a year before the last of his hair vanished from my clothing.

At Matthew's wedding a few years later, Elissa took me aside and told me that Jasper had contracted FIV. She'd started to let him roam outdoors, and he fought with every cat he met. She was afraid for her other cats. she gave me that look, and said "I think it's time that Jasper went to live with his Dad for a while."

It took me a moment to realize she meant me.

"Not gonna happen," I said. "Becky's seriously allergic."

She glared at me, walked away without another word. We've spoken since, once or twice, and on relatively friendly terms. I assume Jasper is dead. I haven't asked. I want to know how his life ended up. I just don't want to have the conversation.

This weekend I ripped an LP by Facio Santilan, forerunner of the urban panpipe bands that seem to play in every major city. I hadn't listened to the album in a while. The music was nostalgic, sweetly familiar. On the last cut on side one, the record started skipping.

I went to investigate. The needle was clogged with fine white hairs.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 19, 2005 02:07 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I should have known, based on my personal feline history and today's crappy mood, that I shouldn't read a piece named 'Jasper' tonight. I should have known that a piece named 'Jasper' was going to be about a cat, and was going to make me cry.

Posted by: Stephanie at September 19, 2005 04:45 PM
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Posted by: dale at September 19, 2005 05:08 PM
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As I neared the ending, I couldn't imagine what the connection between the music and the cat could possibly be.

Then I sobbed.

Posted by: Nikki (Fox's Vixen) at September 19, 2005 06:32 PM
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Like Zoom, my Bella slowly went from being a sooky evening lap-lover to being all laps all the time, getting more and more gaunt: she died over a year ago. I found many Bella hairs on winter-clothes this year, and I'm sure I haven't nearly got them all.

My neighbour Vera has an orange cat who, while not quite as big as Jasper, has the hiss-purr dichotomy down to a fine art. Apart from Vera I am the only one from who he suffers stroking. He takes some getting used to, but he ain't no ordinary cat.

My Poco is 15 years old. I will miss her when she goes.

Posted by: Viv at September 19, 2005 07:37 PM
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I had feral cats in Boulder, Co, when I was in college. They adopted me. Their mother was as wild a cat as I've seen, bordering on seriously deranged. Could not be petted or in any way touched. I called her two offspring AllGray and GrayChin, and learned to pet them only two strokes and then pull my hand away before they would hiss and scratch me. It is interesting to let something wild into your heart. They ask for very little, and yet it takes so much to really get a hold of them.
It is a shame that you didn't get custody of Jasper. The little inroads you made into his heart were probably the only roads into that territory.

Posted by: Rexroths Daughter at September 19, 2005 07:39 PM
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Yeah, I still have the scar on my chin from when I tried to "rescue" Jasper after he escaped from the house. When Elissa got home I was a blubbering idiot. Heh. She went and got him, and took him into the house, no problem. Figures.

Posted by: Carrie at September 19, 2005 08:05 PM
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Figaro, Sam, Snowball and Minky are still in my heart. How I miss them.

Posted by: Space Kitty at September 19, 2005 10:50 PM
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I know enough about your writing style, Chris, to know there WOULD be a connection between the music and the cat -- but it still got me. Great piece.

Posted by: Pica at September 20, 2005 07:12 AM
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jjesus...... I'm sorry about you're cat but come on..... there are a lot of things wrong with the world and youre complaining about a cat..... I dont see any posts here about Cindie Sheehan for instants..... some "progressive" you are..... you complain abot Kos but he never asked for money for posts about dead cats....

Posted by: sethster at September 20, 2005 08:25 AM
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Chris, have you ever had a troll before? Except for the Morin thread, I mean. Looks like you've got one now.

Posted by: Stephanie at September 20, 2005 10:31 AM
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You have a troll! And, it seems that he has a unique theme. None of this "Left bad, right good, ad hom, namecalling, can't you be civil, why do you hate freedom?" crap. I'm not even sure what the theme is supposed to be, and I'm finding it refreshing. Of course, I expect no less from this blog; that even your trolls have something of a mystique.

Posted by: Erin at September 20, 2005 10:35 AM
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Jinx, Erin, I owe you a coke!

Posted by: Stephanie at September 20, 2005 10:48 AM
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Stephanie, we have in fact had troll outbreaks before, during and in the aftermath of this Ward Churchill piece.

Erin, I think Sethster's theme is ellipsis abuse. Ellipses flanked with extra periods, that is. And out-lefting the leftist.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 20, 2005 10:50 AM
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Nah, the troll's problem is that he can't conceive of people who can care about more than one thing. It's like the brains of this kind of troll are too small to hold more than one idea at a time, so they assume that this is true of everyone else too.

Add in a dollop of Likes To Tell Other People How To Blog, and there you go.

Thank you for sharing Jasper, in all his irascible glory, with us.

Posted by: Rana at September 20, 2005 11:00 AM
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Another wonderful and surprising post, Chris.

Posted by: beth at September 20, 2005 11:00 AM
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Where....does the ellipsis...come from? Is it meant to mimic the author's speech pattern? It one of the most bizarre punctuation forms to have emerged since the birth of internet speak.

And is there any coincidence between people who use the ellipsis in this way and, say people who "highlight" words using quotation marks (a problem discussed earlier on this blog).

Posted by: SneakySnu at September 20, 2005 11:09 AM
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Ah, before my time then, Chris. And I would have stayed out of that one anyway, given the subject matter.

Posted by: Stephanie at September 20, 2005 11:19 AM
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and i thought our cat was aloof. he just makes a funny sound and walks away when he's annoyed.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at September 20, 2005 12:30 PM
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Hee. "For instants"

Posted by: Space Kitty at September 20, 2005 03:13 PM
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I think that's supposed to be slang for insufficient sex, SK.

As in: "Sethster asked her back to his place 'for a quickie,' but it turns out he ought to have said 'for instants.'"

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 20, 2005 04:12 PM
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His place? You mean his room? Or the couch in Mom's basement?

Posted by: Stephanie at September 20, 2005 04:19 PM
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There's something about orange male cats that epitomizes cathood.

My wife and I have a big orange male cat too, but he's a real sweetie. His original name is Kashmir, but that evolved over time into Kashmeow, then Mr. Meow, and finally Misto -- a name that catches him perfectly.

We're pretty close, but he's predominately my wife's cat; she had him before we met, and I suspect she still loves him more than me!

I'm intensely dreading the day he dies, in large part because I know how utterly devasted my wife will be. She has a way of making special connections with animals, like they're literally her children (perhaps because we have none). Misto's her favorite creature of all.

Chris, I recently arrived back in the Bay Area after a year away. We'd love to take you out for lunch or dinner sometime for all the fine writing you've done here. In any case, you sound like a pretty interesting guy, and our kind of people. We'd love to meet you. Drop me a line.

Posted by: Mike Anderson at September 20, 2005 04:36 PM
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I've wondered about the rise of ellipses too. Maybe they come from television and film habits of mind? They're pauses for the the quick tearaway shots in between bits of dialogue?

Posted by: dale at September 20, 2005 04:56 PM
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*hangs head*

I will admit to the occasional misuse of ellipses. My paltry defense is that when I'm writing in comments threads I tend to type my words as I would say them, and, well, sometimes the rhythms of my speech demand some sort of symbol to indicate that I just trailed off at the end of a sentence because I was rapidly realizing that I didn't really have something useful to say.

Kind of like now...

Posted by: Rana at September 20, 2005 07:17 PM
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But that's what they're for. They're not supposed to be used in place of periods by people who are afraid of making simple declarative statements.

Last I checked, Rana my dear, you had no such fear.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 20, 2005 07:33 PM
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Nope! That is true. I do not.

*wink grin*

Posted by: Rana at September 21, 2005 08:24 AM
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ellipses used to be used by the late herb caen. they were to suggest that the blurb was just part of the larger, ongoing, funny and sad, on-the-street and high-society story of SF and surrounding areas.

maybe his blurbs tended toward the high end, but he once posted about the time my sister's little house in berkeley was burgled -- the idiot bandits tried to steal a 5 gallon water jug 2/3 full of pennies, breaking it and cutting themselves in the process. [this was 1981-2, so fear of aids wasn't even in the picture, but -- ya know, it was a really, really stupid crime...]

my daughter and i are trying to catch up with the local cat rescue person. we fostered some feral kittens for a few weeks recently, and my daughter NEEDS to have some baby cats to care for right now. high school sucks. but kittens don't, even quirky ones. even if the bite hard and hide. they'll come around....

we got a little dose of superb cat love today, just visiting the rescue place [which is, in its money-making persona, also a posh cat resort]. both of us emerged covered in long white fur, with that great purrrrrrr resonating.

Posted by: Kathy A at September 21, 2005 05:30 PM
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There's a great troll on the Massachusetts political blogs who calls himself "The troll."

Posted by: Abby at September 21, 2005 08:02 PM
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ellipses...go read Celine...Louis Ferdinand that is...not Dionne...

Posted by: nobody at September 21, 2005 09:56 PM
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hi Chris,

I've been lurking here for a few weeks, so hi. Last night I learned from my neighbor that a beloved neighborhood cat who used to come in through my window and nap in my armchair was hit by a car and has died. I'm terribly upset, and while reading your story got me crying some more, it was also very satisfying and strangely consoling to read right now. Thank you.

Have you read Breakfast At Tiffany's? As I read about you talking to Jasper through the window I couldn't help but think of the very end of Breakfast at Tiffany's, when the narrator sees Holly's cat in a window in Spanish Harlem.

Posted by: Hissy Cat at October 6, 2005 10:11 AM
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