The First Time I Saw Billie Holiday

The First Time I Saw Billie Holiday

Once — a week or so before a big trip to Europe and Israel, to perform music, learn music, unpack some poetry, do some busking on a bridge or outside an historic synagogue or an ancient gate to an old city, to unroll visions that I hold and have held for as long as I can remember – I ran into a series of obstacles.

Lost the passport. Hired an agency to walk through a new passport. Emergency doggie surgery, doggie thrived enough to entrust her care with a regiment of loyal helpers who saw her through the rest of her recovery.

Get that cat clipped, I was told. Don’t you leave before you get that greasy cat groomed. I have never groomed a cat, my entire relationship with that cat is ambiguous. I bought the cat for my daughter on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, so I figure the cat is eleven, twelve years old. It has always been a greasy and a mean mystery cat that most of the time lives in the basement, especially now that my daughters have moved out of the house. The cat follows me.

Groom the cat, I was told. It has long hair and now that it’s getting older, it’s not caring for its hair I guess it’s fur as well as it used to. The hair on the cat is long and it’s becoming dreadlocks. The cat is my responsibility, which is entirely the cat’s choice.

I allow the cat to slip out the front door when I see it lurking near half hoping it will take its freedom and find its way into the parallel cat world that I am sure exists in my neighborhood. It sits at the door waiting to return inside.

I can walk down the street and the cat will follow me like a dog without a leash.

But it has no interest in petting or touch or that kind of affection from me. It sits near myself and my Hebrew students and stares at me. I stare back at it, and that describes as accurately as anything our relationship.

I teach Hebrew to kids in my house. At every session the cat shows up, occasionally it will plop itself right down on the table that we are learning on. What – are you crazy? I say to the cat. I attribute a certain kind of intelligence to the cat that my dog does not have. My dog is compassion, my cat is some sort of steely clarity that I don’t quite understand but I sense its depth.

Sometimes the cat will lay down on the kitchen table while we are learning in the kitchen, where we are most often through the winter because it’s there we drink tea (the Jewish tea ceremony – a story I have written or will write in another place). Get off the table cat, I say, and it does, moves its bulk onto the floor or on the steps nearby and stares at me.

All the kids I teach are curious about the cat. It loves the sound of Hebrew, I say, guessing. I don’t know what that cat is doing.

My wife when she left the house said to me: get that cat cut. The woman who helps us around the house: clean up that cat, she said, its hair is everywhere. So I took the cat into the car and drove over to the pet emporium hair cutting parlor.

The cat sits on my lap, it will go with me everywhere without any hint of affection. I took the cat into the parlor, do you cut cat hair here?

You mean groom? Yes, groom. Do you groom cats here? Sure, do you have proof of shots? I was ready for that and I did.

What would you like done. Shave the cat, I said. Do you shave cats? Sure, we can give her a lion cut, with a little tuft on her tail and around her neck. That’s perfect, give her a lion cut. She’s an eccentric cat, I said, you might have problems with her. I can’t figure her out at all but . . .We groom a lot of cats here, don’t worry we know how to handle cats.

I came back an hour and a half later. She’s done, the groomer said. She wouldn’t let us dry her and I can’t get her out of the kennel in back, so I’ll have to call the manager and get permission for you to go in the back and retrieve her. The cat groomer had big industrial protective gloves on. I can get her I said.

The manager gave me permission to go into the back and get the cat from the kennel. I looked into the cage and the cat hissed at me. Hey, I said, it’s me, what the hell’s the matter with you. I grabbed her and I looked at her. Oh my God, I said, you’re beautiful. I had never seen the cat without all its greasy hair before.

I was stunned. I put the cat back in the cage and took out my phone and started taking pictures of her. I had never seen such a transformation of a living creature. It’s like she had been a make-over on Oprah. It was a different creature. I was stunned.

Uh, the groomers were watching me, would you like to take the cat home now? I was too transfixed to move, I took a few more pictures, grabbed the cat and took her into the car. In the car I took more pictures as she sat on my lap. Her fur, it was definitely fur now, was mottled in the most beautiful colors, lighter than all that hair, it was streaked with tan and a luminous gold, a crystalline blue and a light gray – she was beautiful in a way I had never seen. I have lived with this cat for eleven years and I have never seen her this way.

At home she languished on the floor the way she does, sometimes on her back posed naughty with her legs stretched out, she walked around the house looking for food and I gave her a few nuggets.

Her name, by the way, is Billie Holiday and for the first time she became Billie Holiday, lollying around the floor, swinging her legs up and out, Lover Come Back to Me and oh Billie, I thought, you are one beautiful creature. I wish someone of your species were near to enjoy your luxuriant beauty in a way that only your own species can. I have never seen such a beautiful cat.

Here is her picture, a few minutes after the first time I saw Billie Holiday.