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Cats and the City: 5 Lessons of Urban Life With Felines

Being a city mouse (with kitties) has its challenges; here's what my husband and I learned after moving to New York City with our two cats.

Lauren Oster  |  Jan 8th 2016


Thirteen years ago, on a sweltering summer evening, my husband and I arrived at JFK International Airport. Our two cats, ready to get the hell out of their carriers after flying all the way from California with us, performed a chorus of mourning in our laps in the back seat of a yellow cab. An endless concrete canyon swept past us, as did a hot, exotic garbage-wind I have since come to associate with the warmer months in Manhattan. Our cab finally stopped at 218th Street, at what would be our very first NYC sublet apartment, and we turned to each other with saucer eyes: What on Earth had we been thinking?

The four of us eventually made ourselves at home in the city: Joe and I found jobs and friends, and our cats Chuck and Jude found pigeon-watching and curling up next to the steamy radiator pipe beside our bed. Here are a few of the other realizations we made as we all became New Yorkers.

1. Expert juggling skills are a must

Cat graffiti and Chuck Taylors.

I am well acquainted with pounding the pavement with my cats.

Heading to the vet isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially stressful when you have to do it on foot in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. Due to a scheduling conflict after a trip out of town and the confluence of Joe’s birthday and our three-legged Manx‘s kidney checkup, I once found myself walking through Times Square with the cat in a carrier under one arm and a fresh key lime pie under the other. As urban pedestrians everywhere know, sometimes you end up dashing around town with all of the things for all of the errands all at once. (As New Yorkers know, there’s usually at least one random guy dressed as Cookie Monster or Spider-Man in your way when you do.)

2. Cab drivers can be your worst enemies (or best friends)

Like many big-city dwellers, we don’t have easy access to a car. Until we moved out of midtown — and 50 blocks away from the wonderful vet who took care of our cats for our first six years in the city — we didn’t realize how lucky we were to be able to just walk to his office (even though it was sort of at the other end of Times Square). When our older cat, Chuck, was in treatment for what turned out to be small-cell lymphoma, a livery driver once kicked us both out of his car in near-freezing weather; he just didn’t take pets, he said (even though his company’s policy clearly stated otherwise and he hadn’t even known poor Chuck was huddled in the carrier in my lap until I’d murmured some soothing words to him). I am not in the business of wishing other people ill, but I was shaking with anger when that man stranded us on the icy sidewalk.

An hour later, after we’d made it uptown and completed our appointment (and gotten our diagnosis), the cabbie taking us home heard me call Joe and tell him our beloved cat was dying. I thought I had been crying quietly, but when the car pulled up at our building, the driver refused to take the money I offered him for our fare. Apologizing for his broken English, he blessed us, and he said he would pray for us; I’m not religious, but I blessed him, too. I will always be grateful to the men and women who take me and my cats to their doctor. We depend on them.

3. Cat sitting gets more complicated

Leaving midtown also meant leaving the friend and neighbor with whom we traded cat-care favors; while our new apartment was worth the move, it was slim on nearby pet-sitting prospects. We eventually found a bonded and insured agency that sent a local sitter to meet us, and years later, we still like and use the same agency — but boy, did it feel weird to hand our keys over to a sort-of stranger that first time.

4. “Indoor-only” cats become “no, seriously, like 100 percent indoors”

Cats in bedroom.

Steve, Matty, and their view of the Williamsburg Bridge.

I’m tempted to laugh when my vet reminds me that our cats need to receive the rabies vaccine (which is required in New York); I believe wholeheartedly in vaccines’ importance, mind you, but the Department of Health reported examining a total of six raccoons, one bat, and one dog for rabies in our county in 2015 (and none tested positive). Our cats leave the apartment (zipped securely into carriers) approximately once a year, and they spend the rest of their time in our 18th-floor unit with screened windows; the likelihood of their throwing down with anything other than Joe’s neckties (poor ties; what did they do?) is very low. That said, I wouldn’t be much of a pet guardian if I didn’t protect our cat Steve — who is fond of galloping down the interior hallway in front of our elevator bank every now and again — from the possibility of contracting rabies in an illicit den of raccoons behind my neighbor’s front door down the hall. don’t know for sure what she does in there.

5. Your cats engage with the publishing world

Felines of New York book.

Steve, talking with the man in the mirror, in Felines of New York.

Jim Tews, the comedian and writer behind Felines of New York (a hilarious online chronicle of local cats and their deep thoughts that riffs on the street portraits and interviews in Humans of New York) came to photograph Steve for his Felines of New York book, because of course he did. (Actually, he came to photograph Steve and Matty, our younger cat, but Matty resists materializing for strangers). It feels right to me that, after spending his life in cabs and apartments, befriending an array of sitters and citygoers, keeping an eye on pigeons, and watching the sun rise over the East River thousands of times, Steve is representing the Lower East Side to the world. He’s a New York City cat through and through.

Read more by Lauren Oster.

About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.