Only the Cars Outnumber the Cats

MY friend Daphna is given to impulsive gestures. One day, in the Arab quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, she insisted on buying me an ankle-length, V-necked turquoise dress of gauzy cotton. It flattered me about as much as it would have flattered a camel. Nevertheless, the next time I saw her, I made a point of wearing it.

We met in the center of town. Daphna was carrying a large box. What could be in it? An imperial headdress, to go with my gown? "No more gifts," I begged.

"This is no gift" she said. The box thumped. "It's a wayfarer. Come with me; my car's around the corner." As we walked I noticed that there were holes in the box. Daphna unlocked her car and urged me into the passenger seat and thrust the box on my lap. The lid lifted by itself. "Put your elbows on it," she ordered.

The box thumped again. I maneuvered it onto the floor of the car, and planted my feet on top of it. I could feel the pulsing of life within.

Daphna, now driving, explained the situation. She had just paid a call on a solitary old woman who was fond of cats. Many strays found a meal on her porch. But she was no longer able to care for them, and the crew of helpers who came to care for her had no affection for the cats. Get rid of the creatures, they implored Daphna. At least some of them. Snatch one each visit - you make the choice.

"I chose the fittest," Daphna told me. "I hope that's the right principle."

"Isn't there some agency for them?"

She gave a spit of disgust. "Jerusalem has more cats than humans. The agencies can't handle even the people. Cats have to fend for themselves."

We rolled slowly through the busy city. The streets were already filling with cars in preparation for the late afternoon jams.

I had been in Israel for several weeks; I was used to Jerusalem traffic. But I wasn't used to enduring it in a car with a cat as a footrest. Usually I looked down on it from a public bus. Each day I granted my favors to a different bus route. I rode No. 48 to the Promenade, 24 to the Knesset, 9 to the university, and 27 to the Chagall windows. I visited friends by bus, too; even when they lived in the farther neighborhoods, there was always a route that stopped near their door.

A Jerusalem bus ride resembles a family reunion. There's lots of feeling during the event, and by the conclusion several members are no longer talking to each other. But the family is amiable toward strangers, especially toward a flustered woman speaking unlyrical, not to mention ungrammatical, Hebrew. The foreign giveret (that means Madame) is advised where to sit; advised where better to sit; invited to tell her history, not omitting medical details; and informed, b'kol ram (that does not mean sotto vo ce) that her slip is showing.

Daphna, like too many Jerusalemites, scorns the buses. "Eh, a nuisance," she says, though the nuisance for her, in getting to work, would amount to a short wait and a single change of buses. The whole trip would last only slightly longer than the one she makes by car, and it would afford her the opportunity to read or think or shout, rather than to ruin her disposition on the high-speed thoroughfares. These roads are grandly named. Herzl. Herzog. Ben Zvi. Shmuel HaNavi (Samuel the Prophet.) What a peculi ar memorial to heroes and holy men - to be driven upon in a perilous manner by a heedless populace.

If Jerusalem has more cats than people, it has more cars than cats - or so it seemed to me that afternoon as we whizzed toward Daphna's neighborhood, two meters behind the car in front of us, and who knew how many meters in front of the car behind us. I was afraid to look back, afraid to move at all, afraid that if I shifted a muscle the box beneath my feet would spring open and a striped tabby would leap diagonally across my lap and out of the open window and onto the highway with all its hazards.

We arrived at Daphna's neighborhood, a hillside of terraced apartments. She parked in her reserved space. Even the parking lot had a breathtaking view. Daphna got out and opened the door. I got out. Daphna lifted the lid of the box. A ginger cat streaked past us toward a low stone wall, as if late for an appointment. Instantly a second cat appeared from nowhere. They seemed to know each other; at any rate they were indifferent to preliminaries. They sped off shoulder to shoulder and rounded the corner of

the building.

"See!" triumphed Daphna. "He'll survive."

He will. The cats in Jerusalem do survive - on wildlife, on garbage, on scraps tossed by kindhearted residents. I've seen cats everywhere - lounging about the German colony, skulking in the Russian compound, sunning themselves in Armenian windows, composedly washing their paws on the hillside that slopes past the Montefiore windmill.

But will the city survive? I fear that its automobiles will destroy it sooner than its political and religious troubles will destroy it by making it unlivable. Every new building or project is constructed with a parking lot or garage, thus accommodating cars rather than discouraging them. Streets are hard to cross. The number of accidents rises every year. Citizens wring their hands - and return them to the wheel. Near the Bethlehem Road there is a shopping area of several square miles, where groups of l ow buildings rise like islands from a sea of parked automobiles. Here Israelis shop for bargains. The place is blighted. The blight may spread.

I refused Daphna's offer of a lift to my residence. I wanted to show off the turquoise caftan to my fellow bus riders. Once aboard No. 31, I indulged in a fantasy.

The cats of Jerusalem have risen against their benefactors. Wearing fedoras and smoking cigars, they commandeer all the cars and drive them out of the city - east toward the Dead Sea, or south toward the Red, or west toward the Mediterranean. The cats, impassive, drive the vehicles into the water, jumping out at the last moment in the confident manner of the cat of Daphna's friend. At the head of this feline procession prances a human female garbed in turquoise. Giveret the Prophetess, they'll call me.

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