BEFORE I GET to the main story, I want to give you a little background about my neighbor, Gary, one of the central characters in this unfortunate little drama. I imagine that almost every neighborhood has a Gary, the kind of guy people might refer to as a “character.” At other times they might refer to him as a “sleazy jerk” or a “weirdo.”
Gary lives directly across the street from my house. He spends a lot of time outside on his stoop. He is gregarious and loud. He and Rico, another of my neighbors, are buddies, and rather than call each other on the phone, as normal people might, they yell across the street to one another, and the nearby residents get to listen to their inane conversations.
Gary does not have a regular job. He and Rico seem to support themselves with a small-time gambling operation. And judging from the parade of odd and unsavory-looking characters who stop by Gary’s house at all hours, I suspect that he deals some dope as well.
When Gary has been drinking, he gets even louder than usual and curses quite a bit. I can tell from the volume of his voice and his vocabulary whether he is a little tipsy, halfway gone, or completely blotto.
He often comes home very late at night, quite drunk, and parks his car with two tires on the sidewalk. He stumbles to his door and struggles for minutes to get it unlocked. From inside my house, I can hear him cursing the lock.
On one such occasion, he knocked on my door at about 1 AM and asked to borrow a ladder. I asked him about his plans for the ladder. After lots of mumbling and slurred speech, I realized that he intended to break into his house through a window. Rather than getting him the ladder, I opened his front door with his keys and gently nudged him into his house.
Gary is short, about five foot seven, and has a large, round belly and short skinny legs. He is mostly bald and about fifty years old. He is usually dressed in sweat pant-style shorts, which extend to his knees. He wears them pulled up onto the crest of his stomach. In the warm months, he almost never wears a shirt, which exposes a large scar on his stomach, which he tends to caress while talking to people. He struts about, which makes his stomach protrude even further. He seems proud of it, as if it were a hard-earned trophy.
One night, as my girlfriend and I were entering my house, Gary approached us. “I gotta talk to you for a minute,” he said to her. I could see he was plastered. “If you have any trouble with this guy, you have an open invitation to stay at my place,” he mumbled. She didn’t know what to say.
“And you know what,” Gary added with an dramatic wink, “I won’t charge you any rent.” After a pause, he laughed uproariously.
On another occasion, at about 11 PM after I had parked my car and was walking toward my house, he attempted to engage me in a conversation.
“Gary, it’s a little late,” I said. “I’m going inside.”
“Late?” he barked. “Me and my buddies are going out, and we won’t get back till 3 A.M. That’s late.” Then he added, “Oh, I know what’s going on. I’m not stupid. You got a broad in there.” I nodded and smiled, as if we were sharing an inside joke, just to get away from him.
He also seems to consider himself something of a lady’s man. An attractive, young woman lived alone in an apartment on the block, and Gary was on to her like a leech. He stopped her on the street to talk at every opportunity, even though she was clearly uncomfortable with the attention and tried to avoid him. It wasn’t long before she moved to a different neighborhood.
One morning I heard him out on the street boasting to someone that his ex-wife had stabbed him in the leg during an argument the previous night.
“Look at my leg,” he said loudly. “And get this—she said she’d do it again if I didn’t take her to the shore today. Some chicks got bigger balls than most men.” I haven’t met his ex-wife, but I’d like to meet the woman who willingly exchanged marriage vows with Gary.
These are just a few “Gary” examples. I could describe others, but I think you get the idea.
Now here’s what happened. One afternoon I glanced out my front window and watched a grey, striped cat drag itself from the street, across the sidewalk, between the bars of the gate that separates my house from my neighbor’s, and into my back yard. Its back legs were not working at all. I had never seen the cat before, and I assumed it had been hit by a car.
I went out back for a better look, and the injured cat hustled under my deck, which has about a foot of clearance. I stooped down and looked at the cat. It lay a safe distance away in the leaf-filled space and stared at me. It didn’t show any signs of being in pain. I felt sorry for it, so I put some cat food and water out for it.
While I was growing up, my father was very good at these kinds of situations. When an animal was seriously injured, he put it out of its misery, quickly and efficiently. He usually shot the animal in the head with a twenty-two. On some occasions he placed the wounded animal in a cardboard box and suffocated it with car exhaust piped into the box with a vacuum cleaner hose. It always seemed like the humane thing to do. Plus, it saved money on vet bills.
But he was not just the Kevorkian of the animal world. He also stitched animals when they got cut, cleaned and bandaged infections, set broken bones, and amputated the occasional paw or tail. Not all of his patients survived, but he saved the lives of many cats and dogs.
So that evening I called a few friends from the neighborhood and asked if anyone had a gun, preferably a twenty-two-caliber rifle. I pictured myself lying on the ground near the edge of the deck and killing the injured cat cleanly with one carefully placed shot to the head. However, none of my friends owned a gun. I knew my father would’ve driven into the city and shot the cat if I had asked him to, but I didn’t want to put him through the trouble.
The next morning I called the SPCA, and late that afternoon a bright red SPCA truck arrived. The truck had several doors on both sides, and I could hear dogs barking and jumping about inside. The driver was a short, skinny old man in a brown uniform. His face was red and shriveled.
I lead him through my house to the back yard. He looked under the deck and shook his head, which I took to mean that this was a difficult case. I asked him a few questions, but I could get nothing more from him than a grunt or two.
After a few more minutes of looking at the cat, he went out to his truck and returned with a pole about six-foot long. The pole had a small noose at the end, which the man could tighten from the handle
He tried to grab the cat by slipping the noose over its head or some other body part. Unfortunately, the cat dragged itself further under the deck, and the man could not reach it. We tried scaring the cat out by banging on the deck and squirting water at it. The cat dragged itself from one spot to another, but it never got close enough for the man to loop it.
When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to apprehend the cat, the man lit a Camel and inhaled on it deeply. He stared off in the distance, seemingly lost in thought. He had a strong, silent manner that I admired. He offered me a cigarette. I declined it, but I too stared off at nothing in particular.
He finally said, “I wish I had the long pole in the truck, but I don’t, and I’m not coming out here again tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow, and we’ll get ‘im. He ain’t going nowhere.”
I was disappointed, but his confidence reassured me. The cat had food, water, and shelter, and it could stay under my deck for another day, peaceful and safe. Tomorrow the skinny old man would take it away, and the SPCA would put it out of its misery. So everything was set, cat-wise, or so I thought.
At approximately 7:30 that evening, I responded to a knock at my front door. It was Betty, the elderly woman who lived in an apartment next door. She explained that a cat was caught in the iron gate that separated our houses.
I stuck my head out the front door, looked to the side, and saw the front half of the injured cat. Evidently, it had tried to climb over the bottom crossbar of the gate and had gotten only the front half of its body through. Since its rear legs no longer functioned, it couldn’t get the back half of its body over the bar. From my vantage point, it looked like a hunting trophy that had been stuffed and mounted on a wall.
Betty went inside, so it was just me and the cat. It looked at me calmly, as if getting stuck in a gate was an everyday occurrence, as if it was waiting for me to handle the situation.
Something had to be done. I couldn’t leave the cat stuck in the gate all night. Other animals or some kids might prey on it. Pulling it out of the gate was also out of the question. It was a wild, injured cat, and I was worried about its claws. It might have a disease or virulent germs.
Then a terrible thought occurred to me—I might have to put this cat out of its misery. Panicking, I tried to think of a quick, efficient way to do it. I visualized myself whacking it with a two-by-four or with my tennis racket. I thought about choking it to death with my foot, but I knew I couldn’t do it.
My father could have, but I couldn’t. No other viable option occurred to me. Why couldn’t you have spent just one more night under the deck, I wondered as I looked at the cat.
Just then Gary approached from across the street. “What’s the problem?” he asked loudly. He was dressed as usual with no shirt, baggy shorts pulled up over his stomach, his back arched.
I pointed at the cat and explained the situation.
“Want me to shoot it?” he asked.
I suddenly envisioned the problem going away—short, sweet, and clean. One little bullet. It was like Gary had been sent to solve this dilemma. In retrospect, I should’ve noticed that he was a little tipsy.
“Do you have a gun?” I asked. “A small one, a twenty-two?”
He smiled confidently and winked. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it,” he said as he headed back across the street and into his house. He came out a moment later with one hand in his pants pocket. He strutted calmly across the street, braced himself on the edge of the sidewalk about five feet from the cat, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. He acted like he knew what he was doing. I backed up into my doorway.
Gary pulled a small pistol from his pocket and fired. Then he fired several more times. The shots were much, much louder than I’d expected. I’m sure they were audible for blocks. And there were more of them than I’d expected.
Gary put the gun back in his pocket and calmly walked across the street and back into his house. Unfortunately, and I mean “unfortunately,” the cat was not dead. It had not been put out of its misery. Its situation was now much more miserable. Gary had missed with most of the shots, and the others had only wounded the cat. It thrashed about and drops of blood fell to the sidewalk from one or two wounds near its neck.
I was in a state a shock. I couldn’t accept that the situation was turning so ugly. I felt guilty and helpless, and I regretted letting Gary get involved.
Gary came out onto his stoop a minute later. “It’s not dead,” I said.
“Give it a minute,” he answered, but a minute later the cat was still thrashing about, although it stopped occasionally and rested its head on the sidewalk, breathing heavily.
Gary walked back across the street. Again he had his hand in his pants pocket. I saw about a dozen neighbors at each end of the block come out of their houses to see what was going on. Gary positioned himself, pulled the pistol from his pocket, and again opened fire. He shot another five or six times.
As he walked back across the street to his front stoop, he said to me, “You didn’t see nothing, right?”
I nodded, numb at this point.
Unbelievably, the cat still wasn’t dead. With whatever psychic powers I possessed, I willed it to die, but it was no use. The animal refused to cooperate. The will to live is evidently a strong one, especially in an alley cat.
I suppose death is a line, and once you cross it you can’t go back. But like this cat, you can approach the line, you can even be pushed toward it, but you can refuse, absolutely refuse to cross it. Either that or you can run into someone like Gary, who, through sheer ineptitude, can extend your last few moments of misery.
I couldn’t stand to watch any longer, so I went inside to get a box, assuming optimistically that I would soon need it for the cat. By the time I got back out my front door, at least fifty people were slowly edging along the sidewalks toward my house. Another fifty had gathered on the corners at either end of the block. One man moved carefully down the street toward my house with a video camera on his shoulder, his eye at the lens.
At that moment five or six police cars with their lights flashing and sirens blaring came to a screeching halt directly in front of my house. A dozen or so officers jumped out with guns drawn and began scouring the area. Crouching behind parked cars, they peered up at rooftops evidently looking for a sniper. I felt as if someone had slipped me some LSD. I would’ve laughed, but I was afraid one of the nervous cops would shoot me.
A few of the police officers approached Gary. I had to diffuse the situation before someone besides the cat got shot, so I said to one of the cops, “It’s all right. My neighbor just shot this cat. Its back legs are broken, and it was stuck in the gate.”
“Who?” he barked in my face. “Who shot the cat?”
“My neighbor over there,” I said nodding toward Gary, who was already being frisked by two policemen. “He was trying to put the cat out of its misery.”
“Well, this ain’t Dodge City,” the cop said. “You can’t just go around shooting whenever you feel like it.”
He was right, of course.
The street had become a traffic jam, and numerous drivers leaned on their horns. Both sidewalks were filled with curious pedestrians. Some of them walked by my house and looked from me to the cat and back to me with expressions of horror and disgust. It was as if they blamed me for the cat’s wretched condition. I felt like I was about to pass out.
Soon the police had Gary in handcuffs, and I saw an officer come out of Gary’s house carrying a small black handgun. He carefully placed it in a plastic bag.
The cops put Gary in the back of a squad car. Ten minutes later they took him out of the car and paraded him up the street in front of the entire neighborhood and put him in a different squad car. Five minutes later they paraded back down the street to the original patrol car.
Several pedestrians yelled at the police to do something about the cat. After donning gloves, one of the officers lifted the cat out of the gate. Despite its gunshot wounds, the cat hissed and clawed at him. Several times a crowd of onlookers pressed in on the policeman to see what he was doing, and each time he loudly ordered them to move back.
He placed the cat in a cardboard box and put the box in the trunk of his car. He then announced that he would take the cat to the SPCA to be put to sleep. Several pedestrians sneered, and I heard one remark that the cop would probably drop the cat off the nearest bridge.
It seemed like forever, but finally the police left, and the crowd dispersed. I hosed and scrubbed the sidewalk of the poor cat’s blood. Several people passed by my house gawking. Two neighbors from the other end of the block asked if I was all right.
“We thought that idiot was shooting you,” a middle-aged woman told me.
“Everybody knows he’s nuts,” the other woman said.
I told them about the cat, and one said, “That dumb ass, he could’ve killed somebody. What if one of them bullets hit a little kid?”
“I hope they lock him up, that creep,” said the other. “Let him stew.”
Later that night, I called the local police precinct for news of Gary’s situation. I felt responsible, although I didn’t know what I could do. An officer told me that he had not yet been booked but that he would be charged with reckless endangerment, cruelty to animals, and various weapons violations.
The next day I called again, but he still hadn’t been arraigned. I fretted constantly about the situation. I was most worried that Gary would blame me for his arrest. After all, I had told the cops that he had shot the cat, even though there had been plenty of other witnesses. He was taking the fall for the whole mess, and I was getting off.
He was a nut, and he might have another gun. I pictured him shooting at me from across the street whenever I left my house. I knew he was a bad shot, but I also knew he was capable of rapid fire. I’d have to buy a bulletproof vest. I’d have to stay away from my front windows. I’d have to make a run for it with my head down just to get to my car.
On Saturday morning, thirty-six hours after the incident, Gary was finally arraigned. I saw him that afternoon. He was out on the sidewalk in his favorite shorts with a cheap beer in his hand yakking away with Rico.
“When I told the judge what happened, he laughed it out of court,” he boasted. “No bail. I’m on my own recognizance. How do you like that? Told me I’m getting a public defender. Won’t cost me nothing.”
“I told them you were just trying to put the cat out of its misery,” I said.
“Aw, it was my own dumb fault,” he said. “I shouldn’t of done it. You know something. Those fuckin’ cops took my gun, and I want it back. They went in my house without a warrant. They can’t get away with that bullshit.”
Gary tried for weeks to get a public defender, but after waiting for hours in several offices, he finally gave up and hired an attorney.
When his court date was set, Gary told me it’s “no problem. The judge’ll throw it out of court.” He also told me that I would be subpoenaed to testify on his behalf.
The lawyer told Gary to forget about his gun. “I’ll never see that again,” said Gary. “The cops will grind the serial number off and sell it. That’s how it goes. Everybody’s on the take.”
I was subpoenaed, and I went to City Hall the morning of the assigned date and waited in a large, crowded, rundown courtroom. A half-hour late, the judge, numerous clerks, and a parade of lawyers began going through a log of cases. Almost every case was postponed for one reason or another, the
main one being that the defendant had not bothered to show up. In a few instances, neither the judge, lawyers, or clerks could determine if the defendant was incarcerated or not. This chaos made me wonder if I had wasted my time by showing up.
Then Gary and his lawyer appeared. Gary introduced us, but before we could discuss the situation, his name was called. The prosecutor, several police, Gary, and his lawyer filed into the tables in front of the judge, and just that quickly Gary’s trial was underway.
The first thing the lawyers did was argue over who could call me to the stand. Finally, the judge allowed the prosecutor to call me. I was sworn in. For the first time that morning, a stillness overtook the large courtroom. I was the first witness of the day.
The prosecutor asked me what happened. I began telling him about the cat, but he interrupted and told me to talk about the shooting. I tried to do that, but he interrupted me several times with questions like, “How many people were on the street?” “What kind of gun did he have?” “How many bullets did it hold?” I didn’t know the answers to those questions.
Gary’s lawyer objected several times. “You honor, the District Attorney won’t let the witness tell the story.”
Soon the two lawyers were arguing over whether the gun could be introduced as evidence. The judge ordered the lawyers to shut up and asked me to tell him what happened. I began a summarized version. Everyone in the court listened intently.
At one point the judge said, “You mean, he shot five or six times from a distance of five feet and missed the cat with most of the shots?”
“Yes, your honor,” I said. Everyone laughed. I continued with the story, explaining the second volley of shots.
The judge interrupted me again: “He reloaded, fired some more, and still couldn’t kill the cat?”
“That’s correct, your honor,” I said. The courtroom burst into laughter. Everyone laughed except Gary, who sat red-faced. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen him keep his mouth shut.
I felt confident. I was working the audience. They were hanging on my every word. I wanted to tell the rest of the story, but the judge brought the gavel down, dropped the charges, and threw out the case. The prosecutor jumped up to object. Gary and his lawyer scurried from the courtroom. When I left, the prosecutor was still arguing with the judge. I overheard a policeman complain bitterly about the judge.
“He’s out on the street shooting like a nut, could’ve killed somebody, and the judge let’s him off.”
I felt sorry for the cops. I’m sure such outcomes make them feel that their jobs are pointless. But Gary didn’t get off completely. A few weeks later he got a bill from his lawyer—$2500.
Of the cat’s fate, I don’t know. All I can say is, I will always remember it with admiration. After all that cat went through, it seems like the least I can do.