I’d thought at first that the work-worn man in the tan leather vest sported a coonskin cap; its lushly banded chestnut and sable tail dangled down his back almost to his waist. Then the cap moved, the man turned…and there was a cat on board.
They were peering through the window of Fireborne, my friend Becky’s downtown glass gallery. It was my afternoon to mind the store–a bunch of us pooled our free time this week to babysit the gallery and give Becky and her hubby a much-needed vacation–and part of the fun is watching the slice of Portland that strolls past that window.
They came on into look at the glass; Shirley, the woman accompanying them, was a new glass fuser and she wanted inspiration. (It’s worth looking at–there are some remarkable pieces in Becky’s collection–come visit!)
The man was Jim, the cat was Bing, and Bing was huge and gorgeous. He had curiously bold markings, more wildcat than housecat. “He’s a Bengal,” Jim explained, “he has wildcat blood and he loves to be petted. Go ahead.”
I reached out a hand; Bing sniffed, then tilted his head for a scratch and closed his eyes, purring. His fur was soft, like mink. “He’s my marble, but I’ve got three more at home. They all take turns riding with me all day,” Jim explained, “They’re my service cats.”
“Like a guide dog for the blind?”
“What service does Bing perform?”
Jim turned to face me. “He gives me love, he’s a good companion,” he said levelly, almost by rote, “and he keeps me on an even keel.”
“And you never have problems taking him into restaurants and stores and stuff?” I asked.
“Oh no. He’s a service cat and most people love to have him,” Jim said, very seriously, “There’s only been one place we were ever kicked out of, a little grocery store owned by this Chinese guy.”
“He comes up screaming when we walked in, going ‘get out get out bad luck!’ I try to tell him that it’s OK, it’s legal and all but he won’t listen.”
Jim shakes his head. “He says cats are, like, real bad luck in China and now he has to close the store for a whole day and get it cleaned or prayed over or something.”
“I’m thinking about turning him in. Yeah, his customs are different and all, but this is America and that’s the law.” He tilts his head toward Bing, and man and cat share a quick head-rub.
“It’s remarkable that he just stays there like that,” I said, and as I said it, we reached the jewelry counter, where glass pendants spun and glittered in the light. It offered a nice, cat-sized jumping spot, and I saw Bing consider getting within paws-reach of all those irresistible cat toys. He slipped a paw down Jim’s chest and made ready…
“Nope, stay put,” said Jim quietly and Bing settled back onto Jim’s shoulder, head-butted his cheek. “Good boy,” said Jim, and gave the cat a quick kiss. I could hear Bing’s purr from across the room.
“See, Bing knows that my shoulder is where he’s safe. Anybody trying to get him has gotta come through me first,” and Jim grinned suddenly, eyes gleaming. He patted the long dagger tattooed down his forearm. “They wouldn’t get far.”
We picked through a basket of borosilicate pendants and Jim selected one with a miniature jellyfish inside. “That looks just like the big squid we saw in Alaska, on the boat,” he said, “Fishing boat. At night somebody would put the spotlight on the water and these squid would come up to the top. Looked just like that.”
I stroked Bing as we moved down the wall of glass bowls and lamps, pointing out my favorite artists and discussing process with Shirley. Jim pointed to a cat-head mask, high on the wall. “That’s like my Sonya,” he said, “She’s a snow leopard Bengal, she’s silver and white with spots just like a snow leopard.”
I mentioned that I was currently catless, having just lost Rajah a couple of weeks ago, and Jim put a hand on mine. “It’s hard, I know,” he said softly, and Bing tilted his head down for more petting. Naturally, I complied.
$800 for a snowy or marbled Bengal, believe it or not, is a remarkably good price, and if the kittens looked and acted like Bing, well… Bengals are still pretty rare and much in demand by cat fanciers; their temperaments are probably closer to dogs than the average cat. They fetch and carry, are more trainable than the average cat and can be taught, apparently, to play mink stole all day long. I was sorely tempted.
“They’re hypo-allergenic, too,” Jim promised, “They don’t have the dander problems that bother allergic people, and they’re really good companions. I know.”
I was sure he did, and Bing kept up a sensual, purring salespitch while he talked, butting insistently against my stroking fingers.
“Think about it, anyway,” he urged. “There’s a big waiting list for these guys, so it might take a year, but you never know. I’m at Saturday Market most weeks, doing stuff, and then I hang out around Pioneer Square when I have time. Stop in and say hi.”
Someday I just might.