In September of 1964, my parents rented a small apartment on New York’s Upper East Side so that my mother could get to her graduate classes in sociology more easily than she could have from our home in Darien, Connecticut. I was delighted with the new arrangement, but our two cats, Gypsy and Rhody, were less than enthralled. Instead of a three-acre property filled with trees to climb, a huge lawn to roll around on, and birds and small rodents to hunt, they had only a four-room apartment to explore. Gypsy and Rhody soon discovered that there are only so many different ways to climb a curtain, and that killing cockroaches on the kitchen floor really wasn’t in there with hunting moles and Flickers.
We didn’t dare let the cats go outside, for fear they’d be hit by a car. But as they grew more and more restive, I started to take pity on them. People (including us) took their dogs for walks on the sidewalk all the time. Why not cats, I reasoned? And so it was that one mild, pleasant day over Christmas vacation, I attached two of the dogs’ leashes to the cats’ collars and loaded them into the elevator. My plan was to walk down 89th Street, where we lived, east as far as Park Avenue, and then to turn right on Park and walk down as far as 86th Street. Then we’d turn right on 86th, and walk back west to Fifth Avenue, where we’d again turn right and walk back up to 89th. From there, one final right turn would bring us back to our apartment building.
Ignoring the stares of our fellow elevator passengers and the snickers and guffaws of people entering the lobby, I got the cats out of the elevator, through the lobby, and out onto 89th Street relatively easily. The walk down 89th to Park was also uneventful. Perhaps the experience of walking on a city street was novel enough to the cats to keep them from trying to break away.
We then turned onto Park for the walk down to 86th. Not only did we make the turn without incident, but Gypsy and Rhody continued to behave as we walked down to 88th Street. It actually seemed, for a moment, that the two cats were enjoying themselves. I began thinking about longer routes we might take in the future. Once again, I wondered why more people weren’t taking their cats out for walks.
It didn’t take me long to find out. No sooner had I stepped off the curb to prepare to cross 88th Street than Gypsy and Rhody suddenly turned wild, pulling and tugging at their leashes so violently that it took considerable effort on my part to get the two across the street. Gone was my vision of peaceful mid-afternoon strolls with the two felines. Now I was beginning to wonder if I could get them home without help. I had (and still have) no idea what made them change their tune so quickly. Nothing about 88th Street seemed particularly threatening, or even unusual. To me, it looked pretty much the same as 89th Street had. Perhaps Gypsy and Rhody had simply tired of the venture as such, and were letting me know in the most direct way possible!
The two behaved better once we stepped back onto the sidewalk after crossing 88th Street. Maybe the incident at Park and 88th had been just an aberration, and we could actually finish the walk? But just before we reached 87th Street, the cats started pulling and hauling at their leashes even more violently than before. This time, they pulled so hard that I was surprised one or both of them didn’t break their leashes. It was all that I, a strong, fit 200-lb. college boy, could do to keep them from breaking away—and in all likelihood getting run over.
With herculean effort, I got the two cats turned around and headed toward home. Possibly sensing that the end of the walk was close at hand, they behaved somewhat better on the homeward journey, though every so often they would pull and haul quite strongly, as if to remind me not to attempt such a venture again. I needed no such reminder. What I needed, I told myself after I’d finally gotten the cats through the lobby, up via the elevator, and back into the apartment and off their leashes again, was a hot bath. And some physio for those aching arms.
I wasn’t, and still am not, generally a believer in the conventional wisdom. But every so often, it does have its uses. There was some reason, I reflected, as I sipped a badly-needed bourbon highball in the bathtub, why most people didn’t take their cats for walks on city streets. Taking leashed cats for an urban walk might not be quite as difficult as herding cats. But it would definitely come a close second.