At Large in Ballard: New cat on the block
After 20 years in Ballard and a half-mile move I'm the "new kid" again. I have never liked being new. As I learned in elementary school when I was the only 4th grader affected by changing the town boundaries, a half a mile can make a huge difference. At least I have distant moving experience whereas the cat has only known one home since leaving Seattle Animal Shelter. Unless her reputation as fiercest cat on the block has not preceded her, she too can make a new start.
Moving could present us both an opportunity to start afresh, me to remake myself into a more dignified version, appearing in public fully dressed rather than in mismatched pajama bottoms and robe. I would like to become the type of Ballardite with a tasteful Volvo and the ability to do Scandinavian dances. I could even become the person who doesn't let newly delivered phone books sit on the front porch for weeks as a form of resistance. I could become one of those intrepid bicycle commuters that I see pedaling north past the house.
Unfortunately I don't seem any more capable of changing my ways than not driving past the old house every day.
I remember being new on the old block and to Ballard. Many of the original homeowners still lived on the street when we arrived. Mr. Nelson sniffed when he saw me checking my own windshield wiper fluid; his wife wore an old-fashioned tie apron. My neighbor to the south introduced himself by saying, "Hey neighbor, your fence is falling on my yard." The little girl on the north (now a mother herself) let me know that the former owner usually gave her money on her birthday. On May Day there were flowers on the doorstep. On the 17th of May there was no parking as Scandinavians in traditional dress made their way to the parade staging ground at the end of the street, already waving their Norwegian flags.
The few neighbors on this new block that I've met seem friendly, although at first everyone was preoccupied with shoveling their sidewalks and securing uncollected garbage. A couple stopped to idle in their car on the way down the alley and lowered their driver's window, "You must be the new neighbors." This couple reported that along the alley it has always been like family, people in and out of each other's houses, borrowing sugar and the like.
The cat made the move on Christmas Eve, hand carried in a cardboard box along the snowy streets. Curious about the new surroundings and hints of long ago cats she prowled the old fir floors like wariest of beasts. The minute that I slid under the covers she burrowed there with me, trembling against my knees. Would she miss her old nemesis Sheba, I wondered, and the territory that each considered their own? At first she showed little interest in the outside world, treading the new interior as though it was booby-trapped.
But on the third morning, well before sunrise, the cat signaled it was time to be allowed outside. I pulled on boots and went out with her in my bathrobe. She sniffed the fresh air as though she had never smelled air before then crept paw by paw towards the stoop. Slinking along the house, lifting on her back legs to sniff she seemed the picture of caution. She reached the alley, looked left and right then took off like a streak uphill in the direction of the old house. "Come back," I wanted to shout, "I'm your home."
So there I was in hastily pulled on boots, pink bathrobe and flashlight trudging in the snow before dawn along an alley. So much for new standards - I was just the same old Sturdivant with a new address in the same zip code, trailing the cat all the way to an arterial.
Having fallen so far so fast there seemed no point in further pretense. In the following weeks I've stomped boxes clad in plaid flannel and left the new phonebooks to rot on the front porch. (Why are there always new phone books? Why can't we make them stop? ). I've vacuumed the moving debris out of my car and watched an avocado found beneath the seat roll towards a storm drain.
Some days the mail forwards, other days it doesn't. The unpacking continues as does the sense of not even belonging inside this newly merged household. But on that cold snowy morning the cat finally crept back, flashlight at last catching a glint of golden eyes as she realized that perhaps the old house was too far away. Since that day she has barely left the house. The same is true for me. We are lying low, observing our new surroundings. Tugboats moving through fog on Puget Sound; a Bald Eagle nest visible with binoculars; a new parade of neighbors walking their dogs. In February the trees will bud; neighbors as yet unmet will emerge from their winter shelters - all of us renewed for spring - and Ballard will still be home to the cat and her owner.