A friend in the underground

The afternoon we met, A. C. and I got off on the wrong feet. Both of mine and all four of his.

He was known in those early days by the more formal name of Alley Cat, for he had been observed only in the alley alongside the office parking garage. No one knew where he lived. His daily rambles took him from the dumpster behind the cafeteria to a theater trash barrel in the middle of the next block.

No one recalls, either, exactly when he took up residence in the parking garage. We assume he selected the site for its proximity to the theater's stage door, just across the alley, because he loved stale popcorn better than anything.

I had the dubious pleasure of introducing A. C. to civilized human contact, which in the beginning was all but the end of me and in the end threatened to finish him off.

My parking space is in a dim nook at one end of the garage. Nonetheless, I should have seen the dusty paw prints on the car hood, and I might have, except I had been in a distracted frame of mind all day. Arriving late that morning, I did not bother to roll up the driver's window. Departing at five, I tossed a briefcase through to the front seat. I had never known that briefcase to utter a serenade of snarls and hisses, so even then, I should have paused to consider. Instead, I reached for the door handle.

Suddenly, a creature that appeared roughly the size of a hairy brontosaurus leaped through the open window, galloped up my arm and disappeared, while I fell to my knees in a smear of grease, preparing, so far as I can recollect, to plead for my life.

Although our paths crossed frequently in the garage after that, A. C. and I were a bit standoffish. If he saw me coming, he would quit the open passageway and resume his journey, leaping from car hood to car hood like a gazelle. If I saw him, I would saunter out of his way and inch along between garage wall and rear bumpers.

For a time I did not see A. C. and thought he might have moved on. He had found another place to take his cat walks. One morning my brisk march from car to office halted abruptly when A. C., with hiss and snarl, pounced from a rafter to a spot three feet in front of me. It was noon before I could concentrate at all well on anything.

The rafter-plummet ritual became a nerve-racking nuisance to me, although it apparently boosted A. C.'s self-image of feline machismo, knowing that a simple little pounce could elicit from his fearless foe a quavering ''Aye-yi-oh, golly, cat, you startled me-yi-yi!''

Bracing myself psychologically and physically for the pounce was not difficult. The trouble was, he never plummeted from the same rafter twice in succession. It was impossible to ignore him, until one day at a traffic intersection a block from the garage. . . .

It was five-fifteen. I was waiting for the light to change in my favor when a motorcycle patrolman, passing through on green, suddenly made a U-turn and coasted up alongside my car.

''Say, fella,'' he inquired, ''you think that's some kind of smart?''

The question baffled me at first, but then I saw what the officer meant. He was wearing a pair of silvery sunglasses which reflected a clear image of A. C., lounging atop my car and grinning like his Cheshire cousin.

''Your cat, is it?'' the officer asked.

I stepped out of the car, glared at A. C. and turned to the policeman. ''What cat?'' I said as nonchalantly as I could.

That really got A. C. It apparently got the policeman, too, because for quite a while I stared at the image of me staring at him in those sunshades.

A. C. vanished. Either he could not stand being ignored, or he was driven away by the racket of auto horns, a cacophony orchestrated by several irate motorists who had to sit through two changes of the light while the officer wrote me a warning citation for obstructing the flow of traffic.

A week or so later, things began to change. Others who parked in the garage became acquainted with A. C. On a ledge near the door between garage and office building, someone left him a cardboard box for a bed. Someone else brought an old pillow for the box. A food dish and a water bowl soon appeared, and there was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cat food cartons nearby.

One by one, the old habits atrophied. No more saunters along the alley or even in the passageway down the center of the garage. No more pounces. No more standoffs. As I passed A. C.'s luxury suite coming to and from work, I began to notice he looked more and more like the plump Garfield emblazoned on his homemade lounge chair. My calling this to his attention elicited the merest blink.

Frankly, I've never cared much for cats. I'm a dog man, myself. Still, I hated to watch an old adversary succumb to such indolence. He was smothering under attentiveness.

The other night I went to a movie and - I don't know what made me do it; sentimental, I guess - next morning brought A. C. a box of popcorn. When I was certain we were alone in the garage, I sat down on the ledge. A. C. rolled over and looked up at me. He sniffed the box.

''Aha,'' I said, ''you do remember, don't you? The good old days. I'll bet it's been six months since you ventured out to the alley. Middle-class comforts are fine - but A. C., there's more to life than eating and sleeping and being pampered all the time. Human or cat, it kills the spirit. What d'ya say . . . give me a snarl?''

I do not know who observed and blabbed, but I have had a terrible time lately with people wanting to know if I'm the guy who was sitting in the garage with the cat actually chatting, as if to an old down-and-out Army buddy, and sharing a box of POPCORN?

Well, let them talk. It doesn't really matter, because today . . . A. C. pounced!

As I told him, too much of a good thing can be damaging to one's stamina, but golly, it's nice not to be ignored.

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