Gambrels of the Sky

Katten and the City: Some Thoughts on Risk

These are cat days. For one thing, it’s the start of the academic year, but I’m not teaching, so I have more time than usual to laze about during the day.

For another, we’re cat-sitting for little “Poes,” aka “Cat” the cat. Poor Poes. In addition to the obvious problem of her name, she has a meow like a rusty hinge and hangs out all day in the bathroom. When it’s hot, we leave the apartment door open, but Poes only ever takes a few timid steps toward the hallway before rushing back in to hide in the sink. As her owner put it in an email, “she lacks the adventuring spirit.” I once gave her a tiny piece of salmon from my plate, but not only did she turn her nose up at the fish, she also refused to eat from the offending bowl until it had been washed in the dishwasher. She hates cheese and butter, ignores the laser pointer, and generally eschews every typical cat indulgence—except naps. Just dry kibbles and naps, and lots of them, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, our next door neighbor has a friendly reddish cat who roams the apartment building and courtyard like some kind of feline Oscar Wilde. He’ll sidle right up and follow you all the way to your door, chatting the whole time and posing coquettishly at intervals.

So here we have Poes and Red Cat on opposite ends of the cat behavior spectrum. And, while I’m sure there are Poeses aplenty tucked into the homes of Amsterdam, I’m going out on a limb to argue that Red Cat is more emblematic of the city—a claim backed up by the fact that there are free-roaming cats all over the place in Amsterdam. Cats on the sidewalks, crossing streets, in the cafes. Cats with collars and without, though none of them seem feral or hungry. It must be common practice here for cat owners to neuter their pets, give them generic names, and let them do as they please with the hope that they’ll survive and one day come home.

On one hand, loose cats are a problem. They run away, get hit by cars, kill songbirds, and poop in planters. There are risks to laissez-faire cat ownership. But, and here’s the point you knew was coming, cats who can roam get to be…free. Similarly, there are risks to loading your children in a basket on the front of your bike and hauling them to school. Maybe this mode of transportation is not as safe as strapping them into car seats in an SUV, but the bike saves money and time. It’s slightly riskier, but simpler and cheaper. And with simplicity and cheapness comes a certain freedom. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not arguing that car seats are bad. It’s just that there sometimes seems to be a safety-driven arms race in the US (particularly in regards to children) that, while well intentioned, can chip away at other important parts of one’s quality of life.

A few weeks ago, Dave and I wound up barhopping around the city with some friends. Midnight, 12:30, one by one, the bars closed their outdoor patios and asked the patrons to come inside so as to be less disruptive to the neighbors. It was a warm Friday night in August, and we happened to be in the red light district, where the smell of marijuana wafts through the streets from the “Coffee Shops” on every corner. The street was busy, packed in fact, but not particularly rowdy. No one was fighting or even yelling. One after another, bartenders made their polite requests and customers complied without snide comments or standing up menacingly. Nobody threw beer bottles. Underneath all that Grolsch, it seemed people had nothing to prove. It was all quite civilized, and I’ve been through enough bar-times in my life to know this is frequently not the case.

This is not to say that everyone in Amsterdam behaves well. There is a small amount of crime and a healthy portion of stupidity in the city on any given day. Every year, about 15 people drown in Amsterdam, most of them men who fall while drunkenly peeing into the canals. As a response, the city has added public urinals along popular thoroughfares. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps. The attitude seems to be this: people will do what they will do, so regulation, not condemnation, is the best tactic.

While I’m at it, I can’t help but push the comparison a bit. As most people know, marijuana and related products have been tacitly legal here since the 1970s. Sure, there are risks to legalizing “soft” drugs, but the city is no den of crime because of it. What’s more, although they have the right, fewer Dutch people than Americans smoke marijuana by a significant margin.

But back to cats.

For all her milquetoastishness, Poes can, with one maneuver, give me heart palpitations. We’re staying in a third floor apartment, about 50 feet up, with huge screenless casement windows above a vertical drop to the sidewalk. Sure, sure, cats can assess heights and supposedly know when not to jump, but…

And this isn’t even the worst of it. In a move reminiscent of a bad police thriller, Poes sometimes actually steps out onto the 6” widow ledge. I have never gotten a picture of this, however, as such behavior triggers me to fly from wherever I am in the apartment to rustle her food bag, thus prompting an immediate retreat from the window ledge and circumventing tragedy for one more day.

Dave takes a predictably more blasé attitude about her window gazing, and I think he’s ultimately right. After all, Poes should have the right to look at the rain or check out a child whose cries sounds suspiciously like a yowling cat. When I’m not home, no measures or limitations assure Poes’s survival, and yet she hasn’t fallen out yet. So maybe Poes is also emblematic of Amsterdam in her own way. Her trips to the window ledge freak me out, but they aren’t actually all that risky. And they do allow a tiny bit of freedom in her self-circumscribed life. I’ll call it the Dutch risk-release valve: when the rules are loose, there’s less to rebel against. And I’ll try to stop rustling Poes’s food bag—lest she feel the need to defy me and, worse, gravity.

During my daily wanders around the city, I’ve taken to snapping photos of cats also wandering around the city. I’m sure Dave will be relieved to see this blog post published so I’ll stop whipping out my phone to take pictures of other people’s pets. Here’s a quick montage to send you on your way.