Tuesday, June 10, 2008
I entered cyberspace as alley cat. It is an odd sobriquet for someone who grew up on West 44th Street in midtown Manhattan. My block is home to the Actor’s Studio,
and the New Dramatists in the once tough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, home of the murderous Irish gang, the Westies.
City slicker, Broadway shuffle, forty-deuce, floozy, over-the-pan (our version of stick ball), stoop ball, knickers, (my grammar school, Holy Cross, made us wear them until the second grade) would have made sense. Friends laughed when I made my Internet debut as alley cat. Some thought I gave them a link to a porn site or a Chelsea boy hustle club.
Many assumed I liked cats. I never had one. I had hamsters, turtles, parakeets, a rabbit, a chick, (my mother baked it, by accident, in a hat box. A twelve-year-old friend told her to place a heating pad under the box to keep the chick warm) a dog, goldfishes and a large snapping turtle my mother made me toss in the rowboat lake at Central Park.
In my first apartment I unknowingly had a five-foot snake. The green, yellow, black serpent belonged to the previous tenant who left in a hurry. He owed six months rent, plus the cops wanted to ask him about his son’s “side business” as what else, a cat burglar.
One night the tenant left and took all his belongings. Well, almost everything. He left his pet snake behind. The serpent used to slither around the apartment freely. It disappeared a week before the dude departed and nestled itself behind the refrigerator near the motor. Two weeks later it emerged from its hiding place and startled my friend and super of my building, Francis, as he replaced my living room window. What happened next, you may ask? Alligators are not the only things floating in the city’s sewers.
Let’s return to the name game. I picked alley cat because as a kid I enjoyed watching the cartoon cats - Felix, Sylvester and Krazy Kat. (Years later I loved Broadway’s Victoria, the fetching white feline in the musical Cats. The beautiful, talented Cynthia Onrubia, a neighbor from long ago, originated the role on Broadway.
I liked Top Cat more than any other cartoon. Sassy, smartalecky Bowery Boy with whiskers and tail, Top Cat schemed his way around town and usually outsmarted Officer Dibble. Top Cat made me laugh. He also tweaked my imagination about the world that existed behind the six-story apartment building where I lived. For a seven-year-old boy this world contained mystery and an element of fear.
Many nights long piercing wails, similar to the cries of hungry, sick babies, sliced through the glass panes of my bedroom window. I woke up terrified. Scared and shivering I buried myself deeper under the covers. I knew babies did not live in the basement. Or did they? Hard to imagine these frightening human-like cries or caterwauling came from the alley cats living in the backyards of my block.
Huck Finn had the Mississippi. I had my backyard, a world far different from the busy, noisy streets out front. Not as long as Huck’s River, my backyard extended from Ninth to Tenth Avenues and stretched 21 buildings, including The Actor's Studio and The New Dramatists, two churches originally built for the Presbyterian and Lutheran faiths respectively.
Back then the city’s streets had no trees and flowers, a sharp contrast from today. In a thirty-block stretch we had only one green, leafy, shady oasis, DeWitt Clinton Park.
Hell’s Kitchen, and 44th street in particular, had many trees. They grew tall and lush hidden behind the century old brownstones and apartment buildings on my block. These trees often soared four, five and six stories high.
Ailanthus, the Tree of Heaven, the Poverty Tree, Frances Nolan’s tree in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, grew everywhere. It popped from the sides of buildings, cracks in the ground, from basements, and sewer gratings. It had big leaves and long branches, some extending the width of buildings.
One day I finally found the courage to leave the comfort of my building. I descended the rickety wooden stairwell connecting my building’s lobby to the courtyard and walked thirty feet to the catacomb-like passageway that led to the backyard. When I exited the walkway I discovered a magical place filled with these trees. I found sun-drenched gardens, waist high grass and shrubs and wild sunflowers. In this new playground I climbed old wooden fences and scaled ragged rock walls, some dating back to the 1850’s, which separated the yards.
Behind one building, my current home, my friends and I used to time our climbs or jumps from the six-foot high wall as we ran from one end of the yard to the other side ever fearful of the monster who lived inside the basement, an aging Doberman Pinscher. Once when the super spotted us climbing the fence, he yelled in frustration “Next time I’ll let my dog loose you brats. He eats boys like you.”
Even with this threat we knew this place belonged to us. Boys ruled. No parents to yell at us. No cars racing up the block to run us down. No traffic lights to limit our crossings. No one could stop us; not this super or the old man, who lived in a building in mid-block, the one we called the mad man, the deaf mute, with the large peach-sized lump on his head and a gimpy leg who always tried to whack us with his stick as we ran past him. He could not stop us. Nor could the drunken, chain-smoking, toothless, man who spewed cuss words in between his hacking cough while tossing cigarette butts from his second floor window as he constantly let go with cup-full globs of phlegm scraped up from his mucous clogged lungs. No one stopped us, no one except Big Red.
Red belonged on the Serengeti and not in a city backyard. A domestic cat discarded by his owner Red was a big cat in a little cat’s world. Long haired rusty colored, twice the size of any cat I had ever seen, Red led a colony of 20-30 throwaways.
They all belonged to Red. At least a dozen red colored cats lived in the backyard. Even years after his last sighting, cats with red streaks mixed with their black-gray charcoal colored fur lived on. You knew Red made his mark. Whenever we spotted Red our adventure ended for that day. Red had a tough, mean streak and he scared us.
One summer evening, I watched from the safety of my bedroom window, as a German Shepherd entered the courtyard - a fifty-by-fifty foot space between two buildings, named the Alton, my home, and the Lorraine. About ten cats slept on the wooden staircase. Others rested on metal storage containers, an old refrigerator and trashcans. All the cats scattered quickly when the crazed dog appeared.
Red stayed in his corner, the place where he had humped many a scraggy looking cat and virgin cast-offs. It was the same corner where a few years before the organ grinder and his monkey would sing and dance performing for pennies and nickels tossed down to them by the woman hanging their wash from clothes lines crisscrossing the courtyard from the apartments above.
Trapped between a wall and the garbage chute, Red had no room to run. Before the shepherd pounced on him, Red arched his back, his fur stiffened. As the dog moved closer Red hissed loudly, bared his teeth and swatted his big paw at the dog’s face. With one quick powerful stroke he ripped opened the shepherd’s nose. The dog’s fury disappeared. He whimpered loudly then turned and ran chased by Big Red. The cat earned his place in block lore.
I am no longer an alley cat. I have graduated from email to web searching to the blogosphere. Now I have my own bog and dallied about with many names. I liked streetwalker. It is a perfect fit for me. I have walked all over my city and a few others, but a Filipino office worker already snatched it. His blog www.manilastreetwalker has great photos of Manila and his travels abroad.
So I remain a cat but I have renamed myself stray cat. Alley cat is provincial, territorial. Stray cats roam the streets searching for something different, just like Top Cat. It is a reflection of me, a stray cat in the big city. Hopefully I can skillfully capture and write about what I find and learn from my wanderings and share these things with you.
This blog is not just about my block or Hell’s Kitchen. You will read stories about New York City and points beyond. I shall report, interview and write about people, places, neighborhoods, buildings, urban issues, new developments and the social and historical fabric of this city – things that interest me and hopefully will interest you too.
Please drop in whenever you have a chance. Comments and insights are encouraged. Photos by Straycat
Monday, June 9, 2008
Perhaps it's the red storefront with large picture postcard windows filled with eye-catching merchandise. Possibly it’s the fragrant scent and the eclectic mix of music that embraces one upon entering this homey setting filled with many colorful and splendid items.
One thing is certain Domus; a home/lifestyle boutique is a retail experience unlike any in midtown. Domus, Latin for home, is the creation of Luisa Cerutti and Nicki Lindheimer.
"We enjoy entertaining friends. Domus is an extension of our home," Cerutti said.
Cerutti, from northern Italy, and Lindheimer, a Californian, got the idea for Domus after visiting a boutique in Connecticut. Intrigued by the concept they thought about opening their own store but the economy soured after 9/11.
Cerutti, who worked in fashion, and Lindheimer, a chef, left successful careers and gambled. Their efforts paid off. O, The Oprah Magazine, Country Living and In Style have featured their products. Lucky Magazine placed Domus on its list of 100 city boutiques and praised its “reasonably priced decor and hostessing accoutrements."
Their mission is twofold: share their passion for good taste and improve conditions for marginalized people through fair trade. They do this by traveling to places with rich traditions of art and crafts and buy directly from cooperatives.
Domus prefers handcrafted to mass produced goods.
They are one of twenty shops in the U.S. to sell Arghand soaps from Afghanistan. Creamy, rich in natural oils these long-lasting, hand-molded soaps resemble polished stones. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR correspondent, and author of The Punishment of Virture, started the Arghand co-op to help the local economy. When Oprah featured these soaps and mentioned Domus on her tv show orders orders flowed in for weeks.
Domus carries La Chamba cookware from Colombia. Baking dishes, plates, pots, soup bowls and tureens all made from black clay, burnished and suitable for stove, oven and microwave.
From Kenya they sell stuffed animals made by a six-year-old women’s cooperative. The village has built a clinic, school, and offer literacy classes with the monies earned.
"This is empowering. We help the people who need it most." Cerutti said.
At Christmas they sold ornate glass ornaments from a co-op in India. These women support families and avoid working long hours in sweat shops for far less money.
Domus has table runners, blankets and decorative merino wool pillows with vibrant colors from a Peru cooperative. Four men work nine months to weave one blanket. "We have seen them work. They use only natural materials: flowers, tree bark, leaves, insects and flowers," Cerutti said.
Domus is a treasure chest of wonderful ideas. They sell elegant but moderately priced silk blend shawls from a family in China, and finely-crafted stone boxes, ideal for jewelry and keys, from Vietnam.
They have Vosges chocolates from New York, single-sliced pies from Beatrice Bakery, Treleela teas, beautiful letterpress greeting cards, classic Italian throws made of merino wool or washable acrylic, Voluspa candles, picture frames constructed from broken doors designed by a California artist, stationery, music CD's, sweaters, blankets, cotton organic hoodies and shoes for tots, and much more.
Finding an affordable space and good location proved difficult. It took Domus three months to locate their current landlord and even longer to finalize a lease. They worked around the clock for weeks, up until the night before their 2002 opening, painting, hauling bags of debris, reconfiguring the store, laying new floors, ordering and stocking shelves. “That first day we wondered if anyone would show up,” Lindheimer said.
Each year at the West 44th Street garage sale, Domus, with help from neighbors, raise thousands of dollars for charity. This year they raised over $6,250 dollars for the Global Medical Relief Fund which arranges transportation to the U.S. for children from war ravaged countries in need of prosthetic limbs and medical help.
When asked about doing business in Clinton, Cerutti said, “This a community of artists who appreciate and understand creative work. Even before we opened people offered to help us. This is where we want to be. "
Domus Unaffected Living, 413 West 44th St., 212-581-8099
(Stop by and check out Luisa and Nicki's wonderful new selections from their recent trip to India)
Photo by Straycat