One thing about hanging out with a dead cat in Parkdale is that people talk to you. “I went to try to get latex gloves,” said the burly guy with the Jamaican accent, who’d seen the cat get hit. But there were no gloves at the store, and by the time he got back, the time for helping the cat had come and gone. “It’s life, I guess,” he said.
I called 311 when I saw it, looking at first like a big squirrel in the gloom. I gave a yelp when I realized it was cat. It was almost gone, barely breathing, lying on its side. There was no collar. You could see how it had made it from the middle of the road to the curb, but no further. I’d never called 311 before. I understood that it’s the number to call when you think you need the city to do something, but you’re not entirely sure what. The operator said she’d pass me over to Animal Services. She said she’d need my name, and quoted me the bylaw that required her to record it. I told her she didn’t need to quote me the bylaw. She explained that she did, and quoted me the bylaw that required her to quote the bylaw. The cat gave a last spasm and died. We hung up, and then it was just me, and the body, in a puddle of shadow on King, waiting for something to happen.
People came and went. Some saw the cat and looked away. Some mumbled sadly to themselves. At least two passerby leaned in and gasped, “I hope that’s not my–no, no it’s not,” and walked on. A couple of younger guys passed by with their three-legged dog, a wolfy-looking mutt the colour of steel wool. They stopped and looked down, commiserating. The three-legged dog hopped over and gently sniffed at the cat, then looked up at its owner and backed away. The owner, in his toque, came back a few minutes later to ask if I wanted a coffee or something while I waited. “OH KITTY!” yelled a shrill, tall woman in heels, over her shoulder, but didn’t break her stride. Across the road, Nabi, the convenience store cat who sleeps on a flattened box atop the potato chips and serves as an ambassador of zen, peered out from behind bars.
This stretch of King is an anachronism in a gentrified Toronto, a block that makes a display of poverty, rather than tucking it away in living rooms and motel rooms and restaurants. A concentration of medical institutions and an assortment of housing for the challenged, the addicted, the ill and the down-and-out feed the establishments that cater to them. Even the dive bars are institutional: Spartan rooms with simple tables that open in the morning and host their charges all day long. They are not welcoming places. (“There is no pizza at Nick’s Pizza Bar,” begins an outraged review on Yelp.) Regulars cluster outside the front doors of each, all day and all night, smoking, yelling, hurrying from one to the next, working through the block’s dramas. At the payphones, a man will finger the coin slot for returns, or call the hospital and ask for a friend. At McDonalds, people hang around the planter out front, holding onto their medium-soft-drink cups so they can go inside and get another drink later. At the little plaza, sometimes people ask for money, other times they just fix you with stares. On good days, you can float past it. On bad nights, it will get to you.
City folk have a bad habit of making a fetish of the scruffy aesthetic and sneering at forbearers who fled for the suburbs. But people didn’t flee urban blight because they were unenlightened and had yet to receive the good word of Jane Jacobs. They left because urban blight can be genuinely difficult. The imaginary bohemian past is every bit as hollow as the lamented gentrified present. It’s 2011, though, and you can’t go too far wrong in downtown Toronto. It’s safe to live here. There are kids everywhere in the afternoons; the place is alive and they sell chocolate pastries at the Hasty Market. (In this way, I tell people, Parkdale is very much like Paris.) And if, at night, you sit on the curb with the conversation piece of a cat that looks like it could be asleep, but has clearly gone to mouse in the sky, you’ll see people skate the line between keeping to themselves and nosing in, like we all have to do each day, having made the choice to live so close to so many other people.
One man appeared behind me when I wasn’t looking. He nudged the cat’s paw with his boot, and I wheeled on him. He was rumpled, maybe drunk. “I had a cat,” he said, a bit apologetically, and stumbled onto the street. “I had a cat.” In Parkdale, you can see the grandness of people in close quarters–the group homes, the hospitals, the community groups, the tutoring centres, the soup kitchens, the churches, libraries, the merchants, the fact that you can call 311 in the middle of the night and the municipality will do a dead animal the dignity of collecting it within an hour, because–we can talk health and safety later–everybody’s dignity is bound up in it. And you can see that the world will take its course anyway. It doesn’t mean that any of it is futile. Sometimes life is a harm-reduction strategy.
Animal Services arrived within an hour, at around midnight. It was a van full of cages with police lights on top. They put the lights on, and an attendant in a blue work-suit hopped out with a bag for the cat. “It’s already stiff,” she said. “I’ve been here a while.” “We were up at Sheppard…” she said. And as she bent to gather it up, a young woman on a bike rode up, looking a bit gaunt. She was one of the ones who had wondered if she knew the cat earlier. This time, she looked closer. “Oh!” she said. “Oh no! Is that my kitty?” “Was he neutered?” asked the attendant. “My kitty! My kittybones!” she said, voice rising to a shriek. He’d never gone so far from home. The attendant assured the woman that the city would keep the body in case they wanted it. But the woman looked closer, and unsteadily reassured herself, unaccountably seeming cheered. “I think he had white on his paws. He’s a big boy. He’ll sit up. I have to check my apartment.” She smiled, and rode off.
Ivor Tossell writes the Urban Studies column for Toronto Standard.