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Fencing Kitties

Jeannine Wooten was a dreamer.  Like many dreamers, she was given to the get-rich-quick scheme.  This may imply to you a generalized lack of energy or effort on her part, but to that I must reply, oh, contraire!

She labored for years writing a book, the publication of which would have lifted us right out of our “American Poverty” (different from other forms of poverty, we did always have a home and enough food to eat).  At the start it was supposed to be a pretty small novel, but it just kept growing and growing.  It bridged our move from California to Florida and wore out miles of ink ribbon along the way.  I think we could have extended the used ribbons in a line from East LA at least to the outskirts of Naples, Florida.  This was no small tome.

It was called “A Dream is Forever.”  It was about a young woman with humble, even tragic beginnings; through many ups and downs, finding eventual happiness and success.  It might have fallen under the genre of “yearning autobiography,” for the author, my mom, was always restless, usually poor and never satisfied.

Fear of success and/or failure kept her from aggressively pursuing publication after it was finished.  She was not helped by her kids’ quasi-apathy over the whole endeavor.  Me especially, surly teen that I was, I could only be grudgingly made to proofread the occasional chapter.  It just seemed like work and I wanted no part of it.

But she had a little side racket going, at least in California.  My sisters and I were enrolled in acting classes; it was mom’s fervent hope (like so many others in Southern California) that we would “get discovered” and then find that vaguely defined “eventual happiness and success.”

Though we all did get a little work, this dream, too, was not to be.

And in between these macro-plans fell little ideas that rose and fell like bad soufflés.   They didn’t “make the cut” either to her a day or two later, or to whoever she bounced said idea off of.  Most of them are today unremembered by my sisters and I; and that’s too bad, because she’s been gone 17 years now.

Then and now, I always thought of her ideas as “get rich quick” or as “rackets,” the methods as “fencing” and the merchandise as “goods;” in doing I always mentally employed the language of the 1930’s gangster.  I picture/d her talking in a Bogarty voice out of the side of her mouth, as in, “yeah, ya shee, I got this idear, gonna make us a lot of money, we just need a fence to get rid of the goods.”

I couldn’t help it; for all I could see was her trying to come up with ways to get out of working a regular job like everybody else.  It usually embarrassed me. What I didn’t see until much later was how she was sometimes shut out of regular employment because she was either too old or too female.  And not to mention the amount of effort and energy she put towards those “rackets.”

Back then I misunderstood, but now I just think of her as “Bogarty” because to me it’s kinda funny.

An example?  OK-here’s a good one; the “Rock Band.”  After we’d moved to Florida Jeannine came up with an idea for a novelty item.  She gathered a few river stones, some googly eyes, and fashioned tiny guitars and drums out of cardboard.  “Rock band, it’s like a band, but they’re all rocks, ya shee?”  She excitedly made a few, but only the template survives today.

Rock Band

Rock Band

I think in this case she never found the right people to tell her it was a good idea, to support her, and “rock band” floundered.

She did have something though, that found some monetary success, if not wealth.  Maybe that was because it was not “pie in the sky” type thinking.  For this we turned to our middle aged Persian cat, named The Great Gatsby.  It was time to turn him into a stud.

Mom shopped around to find a suitable mate, a lady not only of fine breeding and with all the “Persian paperwork.”  The way I understood it, these cats were classified by their “Persian-ness” and so their “Hi-I’m-an-official-Persian” paperwork had to indicate this.  There was a rating system and it went by how far the cat’s nose appeared to be retreating back inside its head.  The further in the nose, the more desirable and expensive the kitty.

But those highly rated cats were really expensive.  We wanted someone of equal breeding to Gatsby, who had a pushed in nose but wasn’t sneezing cat snot all over our furniture like those hoity-toity felines.  These really fancy pure bred Persians also had respiratory issues.

Persians are a little weird.

Gatsby was a long haired all white colored cat we’d bought in California.  Like most cats, he was a yarn ball entangled day sleeper.  He was also deathly afraid of other animals, but maybe that’s because several times we brought huge dogs over to visit him, like the St. Bernard we found once in a park and brought home.

How would he react to another cat?  Could he not only coexist but maybe find love?  Did he even know what that meant?  We wondered about all of these things as our mom concluded her search.

She found a moderately priced and moderately rated kitty (just out of kittenhood) with paperwork indicating just that.  In our price range that was gonna have to be good enough.  She was a silver-tipped, what they called a “Persian Smoke.”  Grey and white color, cute cat.  In keeping with the family tradition of modest pet names, my mom had her registered with the name “Her Royal Highness Victoria.”

HRH Victoria, meet The Great Gatsby.  We had to keep twice the number of tape rollers on hand now to remove Persian fur from our clothes.

We brought her home; they were scared of each other.  She was still very young so we kept them kind of sequestered for a while.  Gatsby could care less either way as Vicky adjusted herself to her new surroundings.

Vicky got bigger fast and Gatsby lost his wariness and accepted that her presence was going to be permanent.  But they were by no means great friends.  We wondered if they’d eventually find that little something that constitutes cat attraction.  Gatsby was no Tom; with his spoiled “only-child” upbringing he was actually kind of a priss, if I have to be really honest about it.

Time went on and nothing was happening, we wondered if it ever would.  Then one day my sister and I came home from school and found our mom elated.  “He mounted her!” she exclaimed.   Indeed he was following her around, stalking her really, ears down and riding low in the back, like a low-rider car in East LA.  She wanted no part of him; she seemed freaked out by his newly discovered attention and abilities.  Frankly, she just wasn’t that into him.

Mom, sensing her plan was unraveling, decided to simply let them alone and see how it all played out.  And play out it did, Vicky finally got tired of running and he got on board, biting her neck and drooling, and then…..

(Alright, alright, this story’s getting a little TMI, let’s fast forward a bit, shall we?)

Somehow she stayed put long enough and got pregnant; maybe Gatsby’s ethereally creepy yowling finally won her over, who knows.  As the weeks went on she got bigger and grouchier, and Gatsby went back to avoiding her altogether.  Finally she gave birth to five closed eyed little kittens on our kitchen floor.  After that Vicky wouldn’t even let Gatsby in the same room with them.  Honestly,  I thought that was pretty cold on her part.

This, of course, is where mom’s plan to make a little money came into play.  The kittens were the merchandise that we could fence.  Though I persisted in thinking of it this way, everything was on the up and up, except for the fact the kittens didn’t have their registration papers.  It just seemed weird to me that we sold them right out of our apartment; our place was like a speakeasy, strange people knocking on the door, coming in to see the “goods.”

That first litter had two white kittens with black patches of fur on top of their heads.  We were expecting this seeming anomaly with any white cats, having learned it was an indicator that the cat would have normal hearing.  Apparently white Persians have a recessive gene for deafness.

Man, between that and the respiratory issues Persians can be really weird.

We sold each kitten for $500 a pop.  That was really impressive, and I’m talking 1983 dollars, that would be worth thousands of dollars today!  Well, ok, maybe $650.  So the litter of five netted about $2500.  That money really came in handy, almost all going to bills.  Mom thumbed through her newfound Benjamins and cast her gaze over to the temporarily bereaved Vicky, knowing it would soon be time to “tart her up” again.

Every time a cat was sold Vicky would mope around the apartment, crying, walking around and looking for the kitten that was gone for good, having become part of another household somewhere in the Greater Miami area.  She’d get over it in a day or two and when the litter was gone, Gatsby would suddenly notice there was a female cat in his house (I mean, a day later even!) and the stalking, avoiding, yowling low-riding pattern would begin anew.

This happened four more times, and every time Vicky got pregnant she produced litters of five.  Brown cats, black ones, white and smoky, each one seemed cuter than the last.  Sometimes they sold for $500 but never lower than $350.  The last litter produced a white kitten with no black patch on the head so mom let me keep him.  As he got older it turned out the little guy could hear after all but that didn’t stop him from ignoring me about 80% of the time the next few years, til I moved to New York and had to leave him behind.

One day, about a year after all five litters were sold and Vicky was retired, one of our “clients” brought back an adult cat from back in litter number 2.  He was really beautiful and we thought, “Wow, Vicky’s going to be so proud of him!”  I’ll never forget this because Vicky walked up to him and sniffed him.  Then she went berserk and literally tried to kill him, it took two of us to pull her off and get her into another locked room.

Weird, Persian cat, freaky and weird!

I don’t know if five litters of five (for a total of twenty five cats), meant that Gatsby and Vicky had found love, for they never really showed affinity for one another.  But I did know this, they sure looked tired all the time.  Vicky caught a break when mom got her fixed after litter number five; mom loved her and hated how weary she had become.

Jeannine Wooten then turned her attention to other projects like a genealogy business and then a book about the Mafia.  She also tried to get her boss to break down a wall at Silver Paint and Hardware (where she was the bookkeeper) because she’d heard a rumor that “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky had hidden a trove of money in one of the walls.

And so it went on until the end of her life, mom planned and plotted, with Vicky, her only tangible money maker, loyally at her side.  Curiously, at the end she was visited at the hospital several times by Meyer Lansky’s daughter, always wearing oversized sunglasses and carrying around a little Pomeranian, even inside the hospital (what are they gonna say, no?).  Hmmm, maybe mom was onto something after all with that Mob book……  It’s too bad she ever had to stop trying, and so we will never find out.

(Alright, alright, let’s not end this on such a downer, OK?)

I guess the appropriate conclusion here is that we should listen to the stories of our loved ones.  Take a little time and look them in the eye and really let the person’s thoughts and dreams soak into you.  People just want to be heard, after all.  And usually the crazy ideas of the dreamer are really just attempts to help, to make the world, at least in some small way, a better place.

4 replies
  1. Mare
    Mare says:

    I loved those kittens! My favorite was Fozzy Bear….. The blue one ….
    Did you mention that we marveled over the fact that Vicky didn’t know to eat the placenta and mom showed her…. Not with her mouth but hands….
    I forgot about the money in the wall at SP!

  2. kathcom
    kathcom says:

    “And in between these macro-plans fell little ideas that rose and fell like bad soufflés.” That’s poetic.And you’re right: Persians are weird. (I didn’t know Luis’s rock band was a prototype.)

  3. Laura
    Laura says:

    This was an excellent trip down memory lane. But the most profound is your last paragraph. That is so true. Why don’t we ever know to pay attention to people while we’re young and they’re still with us?

  4. Alannah Murphy
    Alannah Murphy says:

    Your mum was truly a wonderful woman, I remember her almost on a daily basis, and the few years I had her in my life, she was like a light that lit my path. I miss Junior and Vicky and Mimi, her little cute dog. She had a heart of gold, and so nice to have found this on her birthday.


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