The ancient Irish believed that cats were mysterious and omnipotent creatures capable of amazing feats. They believed cats could talk (in English and Irish!). They believed, too, that cats were emissaries from the other world.
They had that part right.
In the bleak midwinter a long time ago, I was walking home from John Gach, the legendary, much-lamented, used-book dealer on Greenmount Avenue, when I saw a small, gray cat cowering in a window well.
My kinsmen in Ireland believe that kindness to animals brings good luck. Here was a cat in need of kindness. And here was a man who could never have too much luck. I was wearing a heavy peacoat and gloves, and I scooped him up under my arm and carried him home.
He was filthy. He was rail thin. He had wild, yellow eyes and hair like a fright wig. An early misadventure had resulted in a broken tooth at the front of his mouth, leaving him with a weird and evil grin. He looked like a cat out of a George Booth cartoon in The New Yorker. I called him Diesel.
Diesel was unprepared to live in a house so I set up quarters for him in our garage. I hooked up a heating pad and put it in a box with some old beach towels— an improvement over the window well. And I fed him. That meal sealed the deal. Although he would live in our garage for some two years before I felt he was prepared for the house, Diesel never left. My daughter was 6 the winter I met Diesel. She was 22 when he died.
Diesel had a hard look to him and even though he ate voraciously he maintained his slim figure over the years. He moved in a kind of stalking crouch and he did not like to be touched. He loathed children. It took years before he would allow me to pick him up. And I was the only person he’d allow to take such a liberty.
Diesel was a Baltimorean in the truest and best sense of the term. He was of Baltimore. He had withstood the hard Baltimore life. When I took him to Vinson Animal Hospital, a few blocks south on Greenmount Avenue from where we met, the opinion was that he had been on the street his entire life. He was maybe 4 or 5 years old at that point.
Other than the most perfunctory and absolutely necessary visits— rabies and distemper— Diesel was not the man for the vets. Getting him into a carrying cage was a two-person job. Getting him out was a three-person job. Once out of the carrier, he was nimble and quick. If he was sick a day in his life he never mentioned it. And yet, an endless number of earnest young veterinarians scolded me about allowing him to go outside. He had come off Greenmount Avenue! I figured he could handle a backyard in Roland Park.
Diesel fought with every one of God’s creatures great and small until the day he died. Other cats were wary of him. Dogs, even quite large dogs, more so. He was a fierce and battle-hardened old warrior who would stand down a German shepherd or a Lab with his scary stare and his weird teeth, making a low growling sound that really was alarming. Unsuspecting dog walkers would be at first amused to see this small, ratty gray cat hop up off a wicker chair on our front porch and approach their dog, which outweighed him 10 to one. But it was the dog who would back down. Diesel was insanely territorial. Our property line was not to be crossed and most surely not to be crossed by man’s best friend.
I had Diesel professionally groomed a few times and it cost me a fortune because they needed at least three attendants to deal with him. Even then, he was never a beauty. With time he showed himself to have four white paws, a thing that had not been discernible on the evening that we met. Still, grooming was something he did most casually.
Diesel tolerated our other cats— first Grace, who was with us when he arrived and seemed startled but accepting of him. She lived to be 22. After she died we acquired Luke from a contractor who had found him and his mom and a half-dozen kittens in Hampden. Diesel did not fight with Grace or Luke, and they regarded him as an eccentric relative who had to be tolerated.
Diesel never went on any trips with us. I put him in a cardboard carrier once (talk about stupid ideas) and he literally clawed his way out as I drove and then ran around inside the car like a demon.
Diesel liked to sleep. He liked to sit in the sun. He was a solitary fellow. I would guess he slept 22 hours a day. But he was nocturnal and would go a-roving in the wee hours if permitted.
I think of him everyday. I still see his gray ghost lurking at the corner of my eye. I am absolutely certain that he was an emissary from another world and I have no doubt that he brought me good luck.