I scanned a wall of cages with active adolescents, their tiny paws with needle-sharp nails batting the air, seeking any shred of attention and pleading “pick me, pick me” in high-pitched mewls orchestrated to break the hardest of hearts. My condominium doesn’t allow pets, but it was a restriction this animal lover could no longer tolerate. So, on a rainy Saturday in July 2007, I visited a shelter to get a kitten.
And that’s when I heard it, an odd, husky noise that resembled the tailpipe exhaust of a dying moped – that smoked two packs of Marlboro Reds each day. “Reeeeooow” droned something from a bottom corner cage, all but tucked out of sight.
“What is that?” I exclaimed to the shelter worker with me.
“Oh, that’s just Harry,” she said, as if nobody would consider taking him. “He’s become our mascot. When they come to take the others away, we hide him because we’ve grown to love him so much.”
She opened the cage door and out ambled the biggest cat I’d ever seen, all dark orange and white fluffy fur and fat folds. At my feet he stopped, let out another deep and throaty “reeeooow” and turned onto his back. He was 8 years old, and his 30-pound body rolled around like a playful seal in pure ecstasy. I could feel the motor of his purr on my feet through the girth of his pumpkin-shaped body.
From the beginning, Jack Kerouac Caliendo became a pop icon. Even cat haters loved him. He developed a Facebook following, and everyone had their own pet names for him: Jackson Hole Wyoming, Jack Attack, Jackie Pants, Jay Jay, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (only when in trouble), and most often Baby Jack or Baby J.
He followed everyone everywhere, often tripping you by being so underfoot. He wouldn’t let anyone go to the bathroom alone. The second you sat down, he jumped into your lap, rolling and purring and shedding whether you wanted him there or not. He never stopped purring or roaring that signature “reeeooow.” Even with an endless well of optimism, I wondered how one could be so happy all the time. He was needy, for sure, starved for attention, if not for food. It all made me wonder where Jack had been before I tripped upon him.
He hated being left alone. Because of this, every time I traveled, I had to get a cat sitter. My sister, who is not a fan of pets anyway, would say, “Isn’t that why you get a cat? Because you can leave them alone?” A long list of friends, family, co-workers, and professional cat sitters spent weekends with Baby Jack.
Jack wouldn’t drink out of a water bowl, preferring to steal sips of water from the Tervis tumblers I used. I gave in and bought him his own with an orange cat on it. When not home, we always left the TV on for Jack so he wouldn’t get lonely or bored and the AC on to keep him cool.
When we sat on the porch, Jack would scratch to come out. He’d sit for a second, then scratch to go back in. Over and over. We just kept getting up to open and close the door.
He would spend endless amounts of time with his upper body propped on a step, staring into a reflective sliding glass door, mesmerized by himself. Every time he jumped off a couch or bed, it sounded like sandbags hitting the floor. He never minded letting you use him as a pillow for hours on a sleepy Saturday or, if he did, he at least never stopped purring.
When he got excited, which was when anyone came in or when it was time to eat, Jack tore up the Berber carpet or a neighboring couch or chair leg with his long claws, talons really, as he hated having his nails cut.
A few times he escaped out the front door. Jack would saunter, big belly swinging, about two doors down the hallway and roll onto his back. That’s where I’d find him – spread-eagle in the hall, asleep. When he ate he would lie on his belly, legs splayed, face in bowl. Occasionally I caught him sleeping like this.
Every July we celebrated his adopt-a-versary with pizza, Fancy Feast, and wine (for me). Just shy of this year’s, I was holding him until the end, when his sweet fluffy head peacefully and finally rested onto his favorite catnip-stuffed mouse and the palm of my hand. His eyes closed, and for the first time I could remember, his purring fell silent. Before he was even gone, I missed him. More than anything though I felt so lucky that five years earlier Jack had chosen me and, if only for a short time, I was able to care for such a character, such a presence as Baby Jack.
Christie Caliendo is a Fort Lauderdale native. She graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School and University of Florida and is now the public relations lead at JM Family Enterprises. She’s considering whether to break the condo rules and find her next 8-year-old kitten.