back page neighbor’s pet


A good pet sitter is hard to find. Once, I hired a dreamy Gilman School lad to care for our cat for a weekend only to find that when we returned he’d forgotten all about his furry friends. (This may be why boys are not the best baby sitters?) The cats were fine, albeit grouchy and hungry.

Then I tried the boy’s father, figuring I might have better luck with an adult. We went up to Princeton to sponge off some old friends at Thanksgiving. We’d only be gone 48 hours. On the morning of Thanksgiving Day he called to report that a car had killed our cat. My wife and daughter were devastated. There was much weeping and rending of garments.

But I was suspicious. I asked my neighbor when he let the cat out of the house. He had not let the cat out, he assured me. Well, we left the cat indoors. So how was he outside and dead? My neighbor was no help. All cats looked alike to him. (He was a dog person, you see.) He’d found this one in the street and naturally, as he was supposed to be cat sitting, determined that he had a dead cat on his hands. He had respectfully placed the remains in a cardboard box from Eddie’s Liquors and put the box in his garage in anticipation of my return and the obsequies.

You can’t really call the police in Baltimore about this sort of thing. The fire department is stretched thin. Animal control is hopeless. There are not many people whom you can ask to get up from the dinner table on Thanksgiving to drive across Baltimore to look at a dead cat. But I know one such person.

I found my friend with his in-laws, an elderly couple that might be described as slightly addled. As it turned out, examining a dead cat was just the sort of digestif my friend needed. He went right over to view the corpse. The deceased was an enormous old tomcat that bore no resemblance to our cat. None. Wrong color, too. Our cat was just fine, still inside our house where my friend fed him.

The best cat sitter we ever had was a matter of pure luck. When we first came to Baltimore, we lived in a three-story rowhouse. And our next-door neighbor was an ancient woman who lived with her nephew, a recluse who rarely spoke. Eventually his sister and her husband moved in, too. I was not yet familiar with the novels of Anne Tyler so it took me a while to realize that some of her characters had escaped from one of her books and moved in next door to me. But they were perfect neighbors. The curtains were always drawn. Property was spotless. Never made a peep. We appreciated this because a block away some high-spirited Johns Hopkins lacrosse players were committing crimes against decency.

The nephew had done something in a factory in Baltimore when Baltimore still had factories. And now in retirement he went for walks, watched television and talked to his cat, Alexander. We called him Boo Radley, in deference to the greatest neighbor in American literature. He told me once that he had never been to the Inner Harbor, which was exactly 35 blocks away. I liked that a lot.

I told my wife, “I’ll get this guy to talk to me.” It took a while, but I’m persistent. And so it was that I became his friend. I do not believe he had any others. We were not discussing metaphysics but enjoyed each other’s company.

My wife and I never worried about going away—for a weekend or a month. Boo would be watching. Federal marshals would not have kept a closer eye on things. And in the evenings, weather permitting, he sat in the back- yard and sang to Alexander. I liked that a lot, too.

Boo never went anywhere so it was impossible to return the favor, but one Sunday (he always went for a drive on Sunday—alone) he called and asked me to help him. His car had broken down on old U.S. Route 1 south of the city. I found him in a pet cemetery where he apparently had been going every Sunday for all the years that I knew him. He was visiting the graves of his best friends. Family members, really. He’d had a dog named Buddy and there were various cats interred there, too. When I saw him at those graves, hearing his recollections of his long-dead companions, I realized: not only had we found the world’s best neighbor and cat sitter, we had become part of Baltimore. 

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