From Magonia 93, September 2006
In Magonia 92, Peter Rogerson reviews Merrily Harpur’s Mystery Big Cats, and says:
“What could be more symbolic of the ordinary, secular, profane, and artificial than a black plastic bag? But this bag, like a deserted old house, is going to the wild. Perhaps in that setting there is dropping of the of the guard and a momentary apprehension of what a truly awesome terrible and wholly other thing a black plastic bag really is, an experience which evokes “massive shock and awe”. Such an emotion is quite inconsistent with our idea of a black plastic bag, and indeed if plastic ba-s routinely evoked feelings of shock and awe we could never deal with them on a day to day basis, therefore the image is replaced by something much more appropriate to the feelings evoked.”
This powerfully evokes memory of an experience of my own, which I know you will deeply ponder for minutes.
In the wee hours of a March morning in 1994, I ate at an all-night restaurant at the intersection of Western and Montrose Avenues, Chicago. At about 4:30 a.m. I left, to walk east four blocks to Lincoln Avenue, where I would turn south to get to an all-night supermarket.
My reason for thusly shopping was threefold: a) I’ve always been rather nocturnal, b) it’s really a safe area, especially on a very cold, windy night, and c) I’m nuts. I was on the south side of the street, and across the street is a biggish park (Welles Park) with a lot of space open for winds.
As I was crossing the side-street bordering the last of the four blocks, I looked ahead and saw something at first delightful. I must here describe this last, short block before Lincoln Avenue: on one half of the block are two or three storey buildings, set back behind small lawns. A grassy strip with regularly spaced trees borders the curb. An alley cuts the block in half. The second half-block is a single, cliff-like eight-storey apartment building (shops and restaurants at ground level). There was nothing but concrete and a couple of lightpoles from building to curb.
Some of this half-block length is a bus stop; for some reason, there were no cars parked in the two legal parking spaces near the alley. This clean sweep was part of the micrometeorology that produced a very neat little whirlwind taking up over half the width of the sidewalk.
I could see this “debris-devil” because it swirled, counterclockwise, a load of trash just above the sidewalk: urban grit, last year’s leaves, scraps of paper, a few small bags, and one long length – maybe six or eight feet – of what looked like black tissue paper (but I suppose it was ultra-thin plastic). The debris-devil was slowly coming towards me, and I remember wondering what it would feel like to walk through it, if it lasted.
At that moment a cat walked out of the alley.
Even in the sodium-light of our streetlights, I could tell it was an orange-and-white-striped tabby. It walked a few feet, stopped, and casually looked at the advancing debris-devil as you or I might look at an odd truck. But as the whirlwind neared the alley’s mouth, microconditions changed. It sped up, and tightened, like a whirling skater drawing in her arms. That stretched-out swath of black tissue-plastic was drawn together. One end curled around itself. The other end was caught in the ascending vortex, and (very like a cobra rearing on a turn-table) began rising up, higher, higher.
That cat went absolutely rigid. I could hear it thinking: “Oh. My. God!” Instantly head and tail changed places, and the cat bounded into the alley.
As it came to the alley, the whirlwind collapsed, and its debris (tissue plastic and all) slid into the gutter. When I passed the alley, I looked into it. A few hundred feet down was the cat, looking back over its shoulder at me.
I am always polite to cats (they are Royalty), so I thought but did not say: “You shoulda called Ghost Busters!”
If I’m asked, I say that I’ve never had a Close Encounter, but I have observed someone else having one.
Mr. Rogerson may existentialize the incident (“wholly other”?). He may psychologize it (innate cobra template?), or psychosocialize it (too many TV wildlife programs?). He may Meadenize it (electrifying, if not electrified?) He may de-scientize it (since the city put up a handsome inadequate shelter at the bus stop, will the micro-meteorology ever repeat?). But damn it! there was something technological involved – way beyond the technology of the witness’s species – even if any question of “intent” is … rather theological.
P.S. I suppose I gotta clarify. If you occupy my Standpunkt, you have a mildly amusing anecdote. If you occupy the cat’s Standpunkt, you are in a desperate muddle as soon as you are tossed any of a variety of challenges. Such thoughts may give paws to the critic.