By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
I figured this for a typical cat caper. One guy takes a strong liking to another guy's cat. Nabs it. Cops refuse to step in because of an entrenched anti-cat bias. Luckily a crusading journalist--moi--arrives on the scene in the nick of time, and the story has a happy ending.
As usual, nothing turns out the way I expect.
I already knew Johnny Miller. He called me last spring about a deal I assumed was going to be a typical bureaucracy caper, but it turned out to be something totally different ("Fatal Phone Tree," April 25).
An odd thing happened with that story. When we asked to take his picture, Johnny insisted on posing with his cat. I never heard another word from him until about a month ago, when he called me in bad shape. He's 42.
He's in the process of moving to Los Angeles. I don't quite get some of the details, but the big picture is this: A total stranger, guy named Jerry, asks Johnny if he can take Johnny's cat, "Mr. Kitty," inside his apartment for a minute.
Johnny says sure. Big mistake. Johnny tells me once Jerry gets Mr. Kitty in his apartment, he slams the door and refuses to let Mr. Kitty out.
Johnny calls the cops, naturally. The police show up but say it's not a kidnapping because Mr. Kitty isn't a kid. They say Johnny will have to pursue it as a theft, but in order to do that, he will have to prove Mr. Kitty is worth more than $25. Johnny goes to his vet and gets paperwork to show that he has spent more than $1,000 on Mr. Kitty.
Me, I'm sure about that. We spent money like that once on a cat at my house, and I always figured that made the cat worth negative-$1,000. Whatever. The cops still won't go get the cat back.
"I don't know very much about law enforcement or anything like that," he tells me on the telephone. "But I find it remarkable, even though there's a little life at stake, even though it's just a pet, and we know where it is, the police still haven't gone and gotten him.
"But I don't want to complain to the police about it yet, because I'm afraid that would make them mad or something, and they might not go get him. You know?"
But I'm sitting at my desk, wondering. I sense loose ends here. Why does a guy slam the door and refuse to return another guy's cat? No, wait: Even before that, why would you allow your cat to visit the apartment of a stranger? No, wait: Even before that, why does a stranger offer to let your cat visit his apartment? A lot of loose ends.
First thing you do on a case like this, you get the official documentation. The Dallas police incident report states: "Complainant advised that on 10-29-05 at approximately 4:30 p.m. he was visiting at the offense location where he used to live. Complainant advised he was talking to the listed suspect about his cat and how the complainant and the cat used to live in the apartment where the suspect now lives.
"The complainant advised that the suspect allowed the cat to enter the suspect's apartment, and the suspect immediately closed the door and refused to open and return the cat to the complainant."
Wow. If anything, based on the report I would say I now have more loose ends. Jerry lives in the apartment where Johnny Miller used to live? And guess what else? The report says all of this happened on Reagan Street, two blocks from the Dallas Observer's new offices at Oak Lawn and Maple avenues, almost in the shadow of the Observer building. I've got the chills.
Then I get an idea. Why don't I just walk over there myself, knock on this Jerry's door and see what happens? How tough can he be? A cat-napper, for gosh sake. Maybe I gain his trust. Maybe I nab Mr. Kitty, run back and return him to Johnny myself. Talk about a crusading journalist.
I walk over there. From half a block away I begin to get a bead on the little world I'm about to enter. The apartment building at 2429 Reagan Street is a lost archaeological remnant of wild and crazy 1980s pre-AIDS Oak Lawn.
It's a two-story brick barracks built around a long, narrow courtyard. Dusty, down at the heels and tucked away, with the dull roar of the Dallas North Tollway at its back and an abandoned hospital across the street, this cultural cul-de-sac somehow has survived Oak Lawn's bleak 1990s passage as a slum for white crackheads. Now it's typical of the worn-out, low-rent leftovers getting pushed out of Oak Lawn by rapid gentrification.
Knock-knock. A dog barks inside, and a gruff male voice shouts, "Down, Bear! Get back!"
BEAR? Poor Mr. Kitty. I start hearing the theme from Silence of the Lambs.
But the man who emerges is not Hannibal Lecter. He's Jerry Tucker, 55, stooped in a threadbare T-shirt, peering up pleasantly from behind pop-bottle glasses. Invites me to sit in a lawn chair at the little round table outside his door.
The doorway of each unit on the ground floor of the courtyard has a little table like this outside, festooned with ashtrays and empty glasses. Little dishes of cat food everywhere. Amazing how quiet it is. I imagine evenings, people sitting across the narrow courtyard from each other half-hidden by the huge, gently moving leaves of the elephant ear plants.
"Most of the people who live here are cat lovers," Jerry tells me. "Animal lovers."
As we sit and talk, I see half a dozen other people come and go, all late-middle-aged men, most of them with small dogs on leashes or cats in arms.
Jerry explains he doesn't know Johnny at all but had been told a certain story about him by another tenant. When Johnny moved out, Jerry was told, he didn't take Mr. Kitty with him.
His words softened by a few missing choppers, he tells me the story. "He took his things with him but brought the cat back and abandoned him here. And you have to understand, this cat has a long history of medical problems."
He says the cat has gone through several owners in the building over the years, where he was originally known as Morris the Cat.
Jerry tells me the apartment manager had asked him to take in the cat. He agreed but couldn't get the cat to come to him. One day Johnny showed up and agreed that Jerry could keep Mr. Kitty/Morris. It wasn't an abduction. It was an adoption, Jerry says.
I speak with another tenant, Larry Gilliland, who provides additional detail. Johnny agreed that Jerry could take the cat, according to Larry, but just as Jerry was disappearing into his apartment with Mr. Kitty, Johnny heard a dog growl inside Jerry's apartment.
"That's when he locked his brakes up, turned around and got crazy-acting," Larry says.
Believing he had surrendered his cat to a dog person, Johnny demanded the cat back. Jerry, believing he was rescuing the cat from a bad cat person, locked his door and refused to surrender Mr. Kitty.
Oak Lawn Standoff.
In between my several visits, a police detective does show up to investigate the theft charge. He and I speak briefly later on the phone. He is perplexed, but in a nice way. He agrees everybody here means well. But he must tell them all that this is not a police matter.
That leaves journalism, I guess.
I'm not at all sure about the abandonment story. I get the feeling Jerry may have been fed a line by people in the complex who are mad at Johnny over other business. But it's clear that Jerry means well by...whatever the cat's name is.
On one visit he shows me inside his apartment. In spite of multiple cats and Bear (a kindly old Chow), the apartment is neat as a pin and odorless. The cat is taking a nap in the back room. He looks up and blinks lazily at me.
"He's a great cat," Jerry says, smiling happily. "Last night my Chow and the cat--I call him Rex, now--they were lying about four inches from each other."
Jerry went next door to get Larry and his partner, Gary, to show them how well Mr. Kitty/Rex/Morris had adapted to Bear. "I said, 'Come see how much harm this cat is in.'"
On my final visit, Jerry tells me that he is HIV-positive. He believes firmly that the love he gives his animals and the love they give him in return are what keep him alive.
But I'm still getting the phone calls from Los Angeles, where Johnny is living now, bereft. My assurances that the cat is well cared for are of small comfort. He was unprepared for the pain of his loss, even if he gave up the cat voluntarily. Especially if he did?
"I feel like one of those people, when you look at a milk carton and you see a missing child," Johnny tells me. "I have never experienced or felt this ever before, but suddenly I so truly identify with people who don't know if their child is alive or dead. I can't imagine being in that hell with a child. It's hard enough and it's painful enough just with my cat."
So, you see. Now it's completely not what I set out to do. It's not even about cats. It's about love and parenthood, flowers of the soul, springing up here in a dusty courtyard at the far margins of the city. And I can solve nothing, because I'm just a reporter.
I misunderstand something new every day.
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