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I only have the one and she's a rescue so it's okay. So goes the party line. Five years ago a pregnant cat was abandoned and locked in a North Carolina warehouse, where she gave birth to a small litter of kittens. For days the kittens survived without food or water before being discovered by a friend who knew exactly where the pictures of these destitute fur balls should be sent. By the next week I had a gray tabby with snowcapped paws peering at me from the laundry basket in the closet. I named her Mabel after a store that once existed on Madison Avenue in New York City. The store -- itself named for the owner's cat -- dealt exclusively in overpriced feline-themed merchandise. And it did so with no sense of irony whatsoever. There were cat-head mugs and wide-brimmed hats with knit Persians curled on their brims and museum-size oil paintings of cats lounging in the branches of an oak tree. I know, I can't believe it went out of business either. It was a retail Mecca for crazy cat people. I'm fighting the urge to call it a "Meowca" although, frankly, the store's owner probably would have wanted me to.
There is no such thing as a crazy dog person in this country. Are there people who are completely insane about their dogs? Hordes. But cats have unfairly become symbolic of a certain lifestyle that includes staying home, eating ice cream and watching movies on Lifetime. I chalk this up to the fact that cats and their owners are on a private, exclusive loop of affection. After all, cats don't have other cat friends. You can't take them to the cat run or go on a kitty jog through the closest state park. For women -- especially single women -- a cat's lack of social need taps straight into our worst fears about our own potential hermit tendencies. Cats represent the danger of growing so independent you no longer know how to need anyone.
How did this happen? For as long as I can remember, dogs have been the default and cats the deviant strain. In other words, if you are by all accounts normal, you'd be interested in petting any mutt that crosses your path. Dogs live their lives on display; they are flashy creatures, status symbols. Their breeds are well publicized and subject to trend, their owners bear a resemblance to them and vice versa. It's why cat people compliment their cat's personality when they say it's doglike but a dog owner would never flatter her dog by calling him catlike.
The upside to cat ownership is that I get to spend time with a dignified, intelligent, and well-behaved animal. My cat has never humped anyone's leg, at least not unsolicited. Nor have I walked into the kitchen to find her digging in the trash. The downside is that a cat is something hidden, a secret that needs confessing as the doorknob turns. By the way, I've been to the doctor and it turns out...I have a cat.
Even now I am a bit hesitant to extol Mabel's many virtues. And they are many. To wake up and see her belly up and demanding affection is to have your heart explode with the kind of joy that compels some people into painting those aforementioned large-scale feline portraits. Alas, I am loath to cheapen her existence by creating a doglike defense for her. What made the store on Madison Avenue so great is how entirely and unapologetically it gave in to the notion of cat craziness. It was refreshing in a world that normally suppresses cat love. (Hence the extreme popularity of cute cat videos on YouTube, meant to be enjoyed in the privacy of your own home.)
All one needs for confirmation of dog domination is to wander into a pet store. Inside each one there is an explosion of options celebrating dogs' existence. About cats, pet stores seem less effusive. If you throw a toy mouse and a scratching post in the ring with the splash and sparkle of designer dog collars and organic doggie bakeries, well, the kitty stuff will lose every time. Cats are the Hanukkah of the animal world in this way. They are fêted quietly and happily by a minority, but there's only so much hoopla applicable to them.
"Don't talk about your cat," a friend of mine said when I told him I was writing this. "People will think you're crazy."
"I know" -- I couldn't argue -- "but why? It's just a cat, not a sticker collection."
"Because you're too young to write about your cat."
Or, not young enough. As much as cats are unfairly associated with curmudgeonly shut-ins, there is something simultaneously sticker-collection-y about them. Acceptance of cat ownership is generally relegated to the bookends of life, while as a culture we never outgrow the joys of puppies. There is no break in our obsession. If a grown man walks down the street with an adorable puppy, it can only mean good things for him. But when it comes to kittens, we're supposed to have cut the cord by age 10 and reattached it around age 70.
As a woman, it takes a lot of self-confidence to own a cat and be content with publicly adoring it. Did you ever hear the one about the spinster found dead in her pink bathrobe, surrounded by golden retriever puppies? Me neither. I once saw a candid shot of a supermodel holding her brood of Siamese and Abyssinian babies and thought: Do you have any idea how attractive and cool and sexy you have to be to own that many cats?
This should all work in reverse, especially in cities. Cats are compact and quiet. You can leave them be for a night or two and they have a natural skill set that prevents them from urinating on the floor. As if all this weren't enough, their mere presence deters rodents. Yet we opt to praise dog owners, giving credence to the unnatural existence of a dog in a yardless landscape. When I see a Great Dane on a crowded downtown street, my first thought is: Where on earth is that thing going home to?
At least what cats lack in retail homage, they make up for in embroidered quotations and cheesy poetry. In her more flowery days, Drew Barrymore reflected that "if I die before my cat, I want a little of my ashes put in his food so I can live inside him." First of all, this is why the words "crazy" and "cat" are bound tighter than a spool of yarn. Second, unless you're only feeding your cat wet food, it's totally impractical. Finally, dear Drew, what goes in must come out. And there you'd be, stinking up some crazy cat lady's apartment, waiting to be scooped up and flushed away.
Adapted from an essay that originally appeared in the New York Times. Sloane Crosley is the author of the essay collections How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There'd Be Cake.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.