Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Ballad of Axle: Part, the First


Find and Retrieve

My friend S. is anxious about driving. She’s anxious about driving at night, about parking, about spacing out and getting into a fender-bender. So she may have already been feeling a little rise of nervousness as we approached her car last Wednesday – a rise of nervousness even before we heard the frantic meows coming from underneath, beside, inside her car. We couldn’t figure it out: I looked under the car and alongside and we saw nothing, and it eventually became clear that a cat was somehow involved in the undercarriage of her vehicle and was pretty unhappy about things. Then, we saw a piece of paper clipped to the windshield wiper:


We popped the bonnet to look down into the engine- the meowing was louder now, but still no visual. We were fussing around, unsure what to do, when Good Samaritan #1 came up. Blond guy in an undershirt, athletic shorts, flip-flops: very much of an LA evening. He asks us what’s up and we tell him, and he tells us how his brother’s mother-in-law was in a similar situation and a random stranger came up and started meowing to the cat, and coaxed and cat-whispered it out. S. and I looked at each other – this seemed too much like a thing a dude in athletic shorts of an LA evening would say – but then I hesitantly started meowing and immediately our hiding cat went nuts, meowing back. I’d been making clicking noises with my tongue to no real result; I had always assumed that cats instinctively like tongue-clicking noises, but in that moment I realized that this assumption was borne of the fact that my father trained every cat we had ever had to respond to that noise, by clicking his tongue when he feeds them. Apparently, that was conditioning, whereas the meowing is truly instinctive.

But we still really weren’t getting anywhere. We’d spotted the cat’s face through the engine – a tiny little face, a kitten face. And we had stuck our arms in and harassed the kitten to see if we could grab it out, which had only succeeded in sending the cat scurrying back to somewhere else mysterious in the inner undercarriage workings of the car. So now P., the Samaritan in athletic shorts and flip-flops, was on his back underneath the rear of the car with his phone stuck further underneath the car, providing what little light it could. This was when Samaritan #2 came up, a kind woman named E. who assessed the situation and brought out more lights and some broomsticks and poles and other implements for reaching up under the car to goad the kitten loose. P. was really the active player here – we mostly stood back and watched as he, halfway under the back of S.’s car, nudged and harassed the kitten until eventually he had his hand on it he had his hand on it but he lost it and across the street just in front of a couple of cars driving past (we all gasped) shot this little mercury dark slip of kitten who then rocketed underneath another car and got herself cowering in the same damn position.

At this point it had been almost 45 minutes; S. had a flight in the morning so she left. P. had definitely done his part, and after some desultory assessment by him and E. that we indeed were back to square one they both reluctantly peeled off. We put the note that had been on S.’s car on the windshield of this new car, hoping that the drivers would see it, somehow treat the kitten right. The kitten, which was clearly very tiny from the look we’d all gotten at it, was still just scared nuts and meowing meowing meowing from underneath this new car.

I sort of found I couldn’t walk away. It was after eleven thirty – we’d been working to retrieve this little animal for over an hour by the time I was alone and realized I wasn’t going anywhere, at least not immediately. I sat down on curb next to the kitten’s new hiding car and made occasional lame “meow” noises, which would pretty reliably get “meow meow meow meow meow” responses from the kitten. After about ten minutes of that, I half-heartedly put my head under the car but couldn’t see anything. I think I was very close to giving up; perhaps I even had my bag on, ranging back and forth in front of the car. This happened twice, I think. But I sat back down both times, and then I had this moment of wondering what the fuck I was doing: okay so I clearly felt bad about leaving this kitten, but also what was I doing to effectively rescue it? Nothing, I was sitting here meowing. So I tried to up my game, my commitment; I semi-lay down kind of on the grass by the car, snaked my head underneath it and reached my phone out and turned the screen on to uplight the car’s bottom and there: the clearest look I’d had yet of the kitten’s face. It was a cute face: dark with tabby streaks, kind of tufted and long-hair looking and wild-eyed, staring back at me from its spot hidden amongst the complicated plastic underworkings of the Lexus.

This fortified my commitment to somehow figuring something out. I lay my bag down for good and put on my sweatshirt to semi-shield myself before laying down in the gutter (it wasn’t so bad, as gutters go; dry, no visible stuff although of course lots of stuff) next to the car. Now, lying on my back with my shoulder and arm under the car, I could reach up and not reach the kitten but at least be in a position where I could imagine reaching the kitten, under slightly altered circumstances. I did this for awhile, trying to figure out how precisely to alter the circumstances, until maybe 15 minutes later E. poked her head back out of her apartment – which was a ground floor unit right by this new car – to check up. She asked if I could use a light and a broomstick and absolutely yes I could, thanks – my phone’s battery was dying and I had had its demise in mind as the dark moment when I’d actually lose my only tool in retrieving this animal and perhaps have to actually give it up as hopeless. But now, thanks to E., I had several good lights (including this neat one on an adjustable tripod) and some broomsticks, &c.

I used the sticks to try to gently coax/pester the kitten out: I could get her to come forward but not far enough, and we went back and forth – me pushing her towards an opening where I could almost reach her, her going forward a bit and then hopping over the stick to sidle back into the recesses of the car. I took off my sweatshirt because it was hard work, and rode along on a shifting mix of three main motivations:
  •         This is a small frightened animal and it can be helped if I’m resourceful enough to figure out how
  •        This may be someone’s pet, and it can be returned to them if ditto       
  •     This is a challenge, and it is hard but definitely solvable, and there are people who solve unstructured challenges and people who say “oh well whatever” after trying their hand at unstructured challenges, and sometimes life gives you small chances to demonstrate which kind of person you want to be

These different motivations swapped pole position; the basic story I think – none of this was quite explicit – was that this was of course a small thing in the big picture but it was a situation that could have a happier ending or sadder ending, and it might actually be up to me to determine which it was.

Oh, this whole time – both under S.’s car and under the new car – we’d placed the leftovers from the fancy dinner that S. and I had just had, which we hoped (foolishly) would coax the kitten out.

Around maybe 12:15 or 12:30, E. and her husband J. reemerged. I think they had seen me out there and decided to help, because there wasn’t much awkward, “so, what can we do?” They just kind of went to work with lights and sticks and further coconut milk lures. The shape that “work” finally took was this:

E. very resourcefully found an LA DOT sawhorse and put it in the road, so that someone could more safely lie down on the side of the street with traffic to nudge the kitten towards the sidewalk side of the car with a broom handle.

J. lay in the gutter curbside, trying to nab the kitten.

E. stood by the LA DOT sign, adding additional protection from the cars going by by waving her flashlight along the ground kind of indicating “hey, person on the road right here.” It was still pretty nerve-wracking lying on the street side of the car.

I lay in the road street side, and figured out a way to push the kitten where we needed it to go – first snaking the broom handle through one opening in the car’s undercarriage, then out and into a second once the kitten had advanced beyond a certain point.

We were doing okay with this – J. said he came close to nabbing the kitten a couple of times (he had on gloves, for the inevitable scratching and biting; we’d actually instituted these gloves as early as P.’s attempts), but it wasn’t quite working. So J. and I switched; I showed him my one-two shove method, and then got down on the curb side of the car to see if his nudging would be more successful than mine.

AND IT WAS. J. had the great idea to switch to a fluffy feather duster thing that created a wall of stuff impossible for the kitten to navigate against, and back and forth we scooted the little animeal, getting it pretty close but not close enough to grab – close enough to touch but then the kitten would hissing and shy back extremely quickly (E. confided later that she was doubtful, at this point, about this cat being domesticated/domesticable). Then, finally, the kitten left an opening: an inch of her tail hanging down from the car’s undercarriage. I had the gloves on by now so I grabbed that inch and quickly but as gently as I could worked my way up so I had the whole tail by the base, something to hold onto. At this point the kitten is yowling bloody murder and E. comes around and very smartly starts telling me to ignore its yowling, you know you’re not injuring it (I wasn’t, I was confident about that), just hold on and get it out of there. By gradually moving my hand forward, without releasing the cat ever, I got it by the backside and was able to slowly extricate the yowling little mess from underneath the car as it clung to every bit of apparatus it could.

Upon which kitten removal E. and I were rewarded by a dark, bedraggled, spitting furball of a kitten trying to kill both of us (both our hands got a bit marked, although mine were really pretty fine as I had on gloves) and just protesting the world and also – as became clear a couple minutes later – freaking taking a huge poop right on my shirt. But I pressed the crazy little animal to my chest and we went into E. and J.’s house where they generously gave me a new shirt and we all waited to see how the kitten would respond, whether it was freaked out by the experience (as we all suspected) or really truly was a feral cat that wanted no part in us. 

Very quickly, it became clear that this cat was not feral, was not undomesticable, but was quite the opposite: she quickly switched from trying to kill me to trying to burrow into me, to the extent that once it was time to leave and put her in the cardboard box that E. and J. nicely set up we had a hard time getting her out of my arms, she was clinging so nutso.


I brought her home, by which point the clock said that it was a bit after 2 a.m. S. and I had approached her car and heard the meowing at around half-past ten. I put the kitten in the bathroom because I have cats from which she had to be quarantined and vice versa, gave her some milk and some food, and sat there as the formerly howling chaos became a very cuddly, very grateful kitten that sat in my lap and fell asleep, purring as loudly as the cars she'd been hiding under hours before.

I named her Axle.
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