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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
7: Les compagnons de route

Les compagnons de route et voisins de Jimi: Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, at the W. 8th Street apartment nextdoor to Electric Lady in Greenwich Village, circa 2001, just before the departure for Paris.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

'Scuse me while I kiss the sky

At the risk of hovering too long in the land of the dead -- Paris is, after all, to paraphrase Malcolm McLaren, a city of ghosts and shadows -- I think it's time to introduce my feline co-stars, the ones who made it possible for me to make all these traverses, from Alaska to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies in the country's southwestern Dordogne region, Les Eyzies to Montpellier and Perigueux, and to Paris and back again twice: Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, my compagnons de route for two decades of adventures and escapades.

I liked to say that Sonia and Mesha were part wolf. This is because whenever I visited a home in Anchorage, where I adopted them in 1990, my host was likely to introduce the resident canine, usually a mangy mongrel asleep in a corner, as "part wolf," as if he'd been rescued from the tundra. In fact I rescued Sonia and Mesha from the Anchorage SPCA. Sonia, a talkative chocolate-point Siamese who won my heart by batting her eyes at me from her cage, immediately and improbably hid behind the stove when we got home, and deputy Mesha, a black-and-white European with requisite goatee who won me by rubbing up against the cage, immediately pitched in to help me find her. Mesha liked to go out in the snow, leaving little foot-prints in the fluffy white terrain while Sonia stood on the threshold of our apartment concernedly watching him until he stopped, petrified, and I retrieved him. As the sunlight dwindled and the cold increased -- the local public radio station, KSKA, liked to announce, "Today is Monday, November 2. There are 5 hours, 37 minutes of daylight," with the minutes dwindling every day, and by December, the Sun barely rose before changing its mind and beating a hasty retreat -- and the job, writing features for the Anchorage Daily News, turned out to be not what I expected, with no assignments to fly out to the bush in view, I scooped up my new-found family and took them back to San Francisco, where they enjoyed 4 1/2 years as outdoor cats and we picked up a new family member, Hopey, a brainy tortoise-shell calico with a amplified purr I'd found at an SPCA adopt-a-cat stand on Powell and Market as a gift for a girlfriend who'd been unable to keep her.

With free-ranging privileges from our home base in one half of the house I'd grown up in in the Mission District -- my retired architect father had turned the other half into an artist's studio where he could make fountains and animated figures out of wood -- Sonia chalked up the first two of the 14 lives she would lead, surviving a leg wound sustained while scaling fences to return from her daily visit with the Burmese four backyards away, and miraculously not running out into busy 22nd Street traffic from the front of the garage where I found her nonchalantly observing the scene on returning from work one afternoon. Mesha also survived two close brushes with death involving his internal plumbing. Sonia, much to her own surprise, once caught a tall yellow cockateel, that continued squawking as she looked at me as if to ask, "Now what do I do with it?!"; at the exact same moment, Hopey tailed a rat until the rat turned around and started chasing her. ("How about if I put poison out for it?" I'd asked the person who answered the phone at animal control. "Why would you do that? That's cruel." Years later, when we lived in the country in Les Eyzies, rifle blasts coming my retired farmer neighbor Mr. Marty's meant he had killed the rats invading his grange with a carbine.

Our NY adventure began in 1995 when we all descended on an apartment with bathroom down the hall on E. 88th Street and Lexington for a sublet with one very freaked out resident cat, a large tabby named Norton, who quickly found himself outnumbered by my three, who took turns hounding him. Most of the next six years were spent in a tiny tenement apartment on W. 8th Street in the Village, where famous cat neighbors included "Jimi," the resident feline of Electric Lady Studios, right next door to us and the fabled mecca where not just Jimi Hendrix had held forth but, more significant to me, where Carly Simon had recorded "Anticipation," which is what I hope I've left you with for the next chapter, when I return you to Paris after our move there in 2001 and, eventually, our demeure of six years on the rue de Paradis. 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky.


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