Chester to the Rescue

by

04/01/2023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Back then, I lived alone in a terrible apartment on the Upper West Side. I was twenty-six. After five years of shitty roommates, I’d decided to suck up the cost and make a go of it. The rent was $467 a month. This was actual money in 1985, which might be why I still remember the amount, when I’ve forgotten so many other facts. Like most of the names of the men I slept with during this time.

The apartment, a classic “railroad,” was laid out like four train cars. Very small train cars. A bedroom barely large enough for a futon on the floor, a living room, a galley kitchen, and another bedroom I used as an office. The tiny bathroom off the kitchen had pink and black tiles on its crumbling walls. I kept a tube of caulk at the ready.

The apartment had four windows, speckled with the black soot that covers all stationary objects in New York City. The view from the two in the living room was a narrow airshaft, so there was never sun in my rooms. Even in summer, the interior felt like an overcast day in winter, at four in the afternoon, when the weak sun has almost vanished.

Across the airshaft, a distance of maybe thirty feet, was another apartment in which there lived a pudgy young man, with a sad and rashy face. After I moved my boxes and furniture into the apartment, I saw this guy watching me as I walked past the windows in my living room. I bought cheap blinds, and when I closed them to remove him from view, the apartment was even gloomier.

Just like my mood, because I was still recovering from a love affair that had flamed out a year before. I was alone, but at least, I told myself, these rooms were all mine. Enough with crazy psycho roommates! And shitty men! Alone and lonely, I lived on take-out Chinese, packaged ramen, or sometimes, just a bowl of yogurt for dinner.

I spent a lot of time in these rooms, too much time. I’d only recently left behind my 9-to-5 design job at a publishing company for life as a freelancer. It had been my dream to quit my office job, but now there were many days when I saw no one else except my neighbor across the airshaft and the pigeons that roosted just outside my window. Their mournful cooing was the soundtrack of my days.

It was terrible, this apartment, gray and dark, but the worst problem was the undesirable fauna: cockroaches, prehistoric looking water bugs, and from time to time cute little mice that scurried across the floor, sometimes pausing to check me out, as if they were the ones paying the rent on this place.

I became obsessed with cleaning the kitchen to discourage the creatures. I bought Roach Motels and mousetraps. I caught some, but there were always more. I thought often about moving, but the rent was so cheap.

***

I hadn’t talked to any of my neighbors yet, but one evening after returning from the grocery store I found myself standing in front of my door alongside the young man who lived in the apartment next door. I’d heard his muffled voice and footsteps on the other side of the wall, but I’d never seen him. He was carrying a bag of take-out Chinese food. I was hungry, and the tangy aromas of hot and sour soup and moo shu pork made my mouth water. When our eyes met, he turned out to be as appealing as the food in his bag, my kind of very handsome, and well dressed. While I hunted for my keys, lost, as usual somewhere in the depths of my shoulder bag, we introduced ourselves.

“Hey, he said, as he unlocked his door, “if you want to come in, I got a bottle of wine somewhere. Or a beer if you want that. I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty of food here if you want to hang out.” He pushed his door open and turned on a light.

I was seriously thinking about eating some of his moo shu, but as I peered into his apartment I saw a battleground of domestic devastation. His kitchen countertop was covered with empty takeout containers and dirty dishes. I was looking at a 24-hour all-you-can-eat feast for the creatures that lived in the wall between our apartments. Fauna mystery solved.

“Oh, thanks,” I said, disappointed but mostly horrified. “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight. I’ve got work to finish. Maybe another time?”

He looked at me curiously. I understood that he was the kind of man unaccustomed to rejection. “Sure,” he said. “No problem.”

After that, when we met in the hallway, we smiled and offered each other a polite hello. He never invited me again and I didn’t want an invitation.

In the meantime, my war against the creatures continued.

***

I had a gay friend named Mike, on his own like me. Fear kept him celibate during this time when AIDS was hunting down the young gay men in our city. “Well, no one seems to want me anyway,” he remarked ruefully, “so I guess I’m safe for now.”

We went out to eat sometimes, a mismatched visual pairing, as he was tall and a bit underfed looking while I was petite. We shared the same gloominess about our romantic prospects and the harsh reality of the New York City rental market. On one of these evenings I told him about my handsome neighbor, the cause of the creature situation in my apartment.

“But why don’t you get a cat?”

“You’re joking, right?” Though I’d grown up with family cats, right now I felt like I could barely take care of myself, let alone another animal.

“Seriously, I mean it. I’ll help you. There’s an animal shelter near me. I’ll ask around.”

Sure, I told him, though I wondered how a cat would survive in my terrible apartment.

A few weeks later, Mike called to tell me he’d heard about a woman, whom I’ll call Suzy, who’d adopted a cat from his neighborhood shelter. It had turned out to be a disaster. Her apartment was even smaller than mine and the cat, left alone during the workday, had knocked over lamps and dishware and shredded her furniture.

I called Suzy and, without thinking about it too much, decided to adopt her cat, because I already felt sorry for it. A few days later I took the subway to her place.

The cat was an enormous male striped tabby. He was confined in a studio apartment with less than four square feet of empty space. If he’d been a man, imagine a pirate, a Wild West gunslinger, or maybe a pro wrestler.

I reached out to pet his head.

The cat spit at me.

“Don’t worry,” Suzy said. He’s really sweet.”

The name of this (supposedly sweet) cat was Chester. “I’d really like it if you kept his name,” she said. “It suits him. You’ll see.”

“Sure, absolutely.” I’d already decided to change the cat’s name, but first I had to save the poor thing from his situation and get him home. I’d worry about his name later.

Suzy managed, with difficulty, to get Chester into a carrier. The cat howled for the entire trip uptown.

Finally, we were back in my apartment, and as soon as I opened the carrier, he ran off to find a hiding place. He emerged, just to eat, before running off to hide again. I called to him, but not by his name, because I was already trying to come up with a new one. He deserved a better name, even if he was a brute. Like a delusional parent, I hoped that a more poetic name would somehow change his mien and his personality.

Outside the windows facing the airshaft, the pigeons figured out quickly that the new arrival was no threat to them and continued to roost and coo as usual. The cat was entranced. And he stopped spitting at me, so that was a start.

Suzy called a few days later. “How’s it going with Chester? Would it be possible to visit him?”

When she arrived, the cat recognized her. Suzy was so happy to see him in a larger home, with four windows. And pigeons to watch!

“Thanks for taking him,” Suzy said as she prepared to go back home to her cat-free apartment. “Bye, Chester, I hope you have a good life.” She seemed on the verge of tears. She patted the cat’s head and then she left.

For the first time I tried using his name, even though I didn’t like it at all. “I don’t think Chester will be your name,” I said to him as soon as I’d bolted and chained the door. “You need something more—elegant. I have to think. ‘Chester’ is too—I don’t know—it sounds like a Cockney guy drinking his sixth beer at the pub. We can do better than ‘Chester,’ right?”

The cat perked up his ears, turned his head, and looked at me with curiosity. And in that moment, I realized that he recognized his name. And therefore, his name would remain Chester. And in fact, this name suited him perfectly.

***

Pirate, gunslinger, or wrestler? Truly, Chester turned out to be a hunter with a capacity for patience that surprised me.

One night, I startled awake in the early hours and to my horror I discovered that an enormous water bug, the type with wings, was taking a walk across my face.

“Fucking fuck!”

Chester was sleeping, as always, on my pillow. But when I screamed, he awoke immediately. The bug was now airborne, flying towards the living room. The thing was fast. But Chester was just as fast. The bug landed and darted under the radiator. I saw two trembling antennae and then, in a flash, it disappeared.

Chester crouched in front of the radiator, alert and calm. I was also prepared, with the Manhattan phone book, 1985 edition, heavy as a brick, and a can of Raid. Chester closed his eyes, as if he were in a trance. I sat down beside him.

An hour passed like this, in silence. I was exhausted. I lay down on the wood floor and drifted off. A change in energy startled me awake a second time. Chester was wide awake, motionless as a stone Sphinx, only the tip of his tail twitching as if electrified. Sure enough, I could see those two antennae again and then the head of the beast peeked out, scanning for danger. I held my breath, waiting. The bug crawled out and Chester pounced, trapping the creature under his paw.

“Chester, you’re amazing!”

As a reward for his patience, I let him play with his prey for a few minutes and when he seemed bored, I dropped the phone book onto the bug, and just to be sure I finished it off with a foamy cloud of Raid.

Relieved, I went back to bed and Chester curled up on my pillow.
After that, the bugs, at least the disgusting flying ones, seemed to have gotten the message and retreated to the welcoming home of my handsome neighbor.

***

But every so often, I still saw a mouse scurrying across the floor.

“Chester, you were so excellent getting that bug, why don’t you go after the mice?”

“Meooow,” he replied. He rubbed against my leg and gave me that hopeful look I usually rewarded with a chewy fishy-smelling snack.

“Listen, pal. You don’t need a snack. Go eat the frickin’ mice if you’re hungry!”

***

One day I was on deadline at my drafting table with X-Acto knife and rubber cement (this was before the arrival of MacIntosh computers) when I heard the smash and crash of plates and glasses breaking, the dirty dishes I’d left in the sink. In the kitchen was a scene out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The mouse was perched on the rim of a cracked plate, his paws raised like a pugilist. Chester was balanced precariously on the edge of the sink, one of his paws outstretched to grab his prey.

“Good boy, Chester!” I shouted.

He turned his head and in that split second, the mouse darted away. I imagined him running back to a cozy nest tucked somewhere in the wall that separated me from my handsome neighbor. “Hey! Don’t go back to Apartment 3I! That cat is ferocious!”

Unlike Tom in the old cartoons, Chester had won the war, fortunately without shedding a drop of murine blood.

***

Who needed a man when I had such a brave and loyal companion? Chester was a bruiser, but he was my bruiser. He loved me, but my friends, my family, and even a series of gauntlet-armed veterinarians were afraid of him. My brother called him “Chester, the Molester.” I stayed alone for at least another year until I met a man I liked enough to bring home. Of course, the first test of entry would be meeting my bodyguard.

“I grew up in the country,” he said. “I love animals. And they love me!” His confidence was unconvincing.

I unlocked my door. Chester was waiting for me just inside, as usual, in his hyper-alert don’t-mess-with-me Egyptian cat pose.

“So, I have to tell you that this cat isn’t for everyone. Something of an acquired taste.”

“He’s a big boy, isn’t he,” my friend said, now a bit wary.

Chester took in the newcomer. And then he spit and growled.

“Take a chill pill,” I whispered to Chester, and rubbed his ears the way he liked until his growl softened to a steady purr.

Now it was time to check out the man.

After a few long minutes of careful sniffing and inspection, Chester concluded, “Well, he smells okay. Let’s give him a try.”

***

Julie Metz is the author of the New York Times bestseller Perfection and the memoir Eva and Eve. She grew up in Manhattan, spent some years in Brooklyn, and now lives in the Hudson Valley. juliemetz.com

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§ 3 Responses to “Chester to the Rescue”

  • TSB says:

    “Their mournful cooing was the soundtrack of my days.”

    The piece catches something essential about the privacy, even if it’s a kind of hellish (in a heavenly way) privacy, of an NYC apartment you have to yourself.

  • Julian says:

    Julie – Very entertaining read! I remember that railroad apartment – I think – 105th or 106th? And vague recollection of Chester….Enjoy Spring! Julian

  • Peg Patterson says:

    I love envisioning you in this apartment. I can relate! Such a sweet and lovely story.

§ Leave a Reply

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