*names were changed
It was the Fall of 2004 when God told me to sit on my front porch. Or something like him. It was a whisper in my mind but strange enough to feel like it had been said to me. I lived in what was once called Regina East when it was full of the first wave, turn of the century Polish/Ukrainian immigrants and everything past Winnipeg Street still belonged to the plow.
The area has no official name anymore. Today Regina East is generally synonymous with the big box stores that have popped up on that end of Regina’s expansion. They called our area “the other ghetto”. It has prostitution and drugs but little to no gang activity. It’s most famously known for being the abduction site of Tamra Keepness. It was also the neighbourhood where Pamela George was picked up, before she was sexually assaulted by two affluent U of R sudents, beaten to death and left face down in a ditch outside of the city.
The houses are generally run-down century homes, mostly rentals, as my house was. I sat on my front porch for a few minutes when a strange kitten nudged my feet and hopped on my lap. Alley cats were common but his affection was not. I took this as a sign and brought the stray in. I found out from my roommates that this cat had been living under our porch for a month. He was underweight, lethargic, scared and shivering. His matted fur moved as one.
We named him Julie, a bastardized combination of the names Jack and Hurley, characters from the TV show LOST.
Julie had worms, ear mites and everything in-between. When I found out it was going to take $300 to get him treated I decided to put him down. A bleeding heart vegan who I was half-dating protested putting the cat down. I told her
“I’m not spending $300 on a cat.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“I don’t take money from people.”
She took Julie to the vet while I was at work and saved his life.
Julie grew on me. He slept with me sometimes and woke me up every morning by clawing my feet. I hear that cats are usually distant and aloof but Julie was loving, if not needy. I’d tell him:
“I hate cats, but you’re ok.”
I lived in the upstairs apartment with two roommates. Roger lived on the main floor. One night Roger went to the door at 3a.m. Someone was knocking on the door, hard and desperate. He’s kind of a zombie when he wakes up. So he wasn’t fully cognizant when the prostitute pushed her way into the house and accused him of stealing her cat. She had picked up Julie and left before Roger was really aware of what had happened. He later recognized her as a prostitute that frequently walked the streets adjacent to ours.
Julie was gone. I had to start setting an alarm again.
Two weeks passed. There was a knock on my door just after supper. It was the prostitute. She explained that she couldn’t afford cat food at the moment and asked if I could take Julie again. I agreed.
The cycle repeated like this over the course of about six months. The prostitute picked up and dropped Julie off, depending on her finances. I had a joint custody agreement with a woman I had just met. We’d chat in my doorway about what Julie liked to eat and I asked her what she thought about declawing. The conversation never strayed from the topic of the cat.
This small kitten that could fit in a boot was the only thing that tethered our lives to each other. Eventually she stopped coming and Julie was all mine.
When I moved out of 1949 St. John Street, I left the cat with my roommate, Jeff, thinking that maybe Irene Stonechild would show up again. It had been a year. She was in a dangerous profession and I worried about her. I hoped that she had just given up on being a co-cat owner. Jeff had Julie declawed even though I told him that’s not what Irene wanted.
The last time I saw Irene I was back in the old neighbourhood. She was working. Her pimp was watching from down and across the block, smoking cigarettes in the cold. I knew I couldn’t take up much of her time but I wanted to say hi.
“Hi, Irene. How’s it going?”
She was underweight, lethargic, scared and shivering. Her matted hair moved as one. Her clothes were dirty, torn and unsuitable for the weather.
“What? How do you know my name?” My greeting was strange to her. Maybe she hadn’t expected to hear her name while working. Not something she was used to hearing.
“Who are you?”
“Dustan…we used to live on the same street. We shared a cat.”
She didn’t recognize me. She didn’t remember our cat. She was out of her mind on drugs. I cried all the way to my car.
I still think about Irene sometimes. I wonder what happened to her. And I think about her when I hear people argue for full decriminalization of prostitution. I think about the brothels filled with young, good looking former escorts and the violent men who will quickly be barred entry to those clean, legal establishments. I think of how they will drunk-drive across Broad Street to an area of Regina that used to have a name. I think about how they will pick up Irene. My imagination gets a little blurry after that as my fears for her block out her possible reality.
Irene and I were not friends. I did not attempt to save her or better her life in any way. I took a cat into my life. I saved a cat. But I couldn’t bring myself to do the same for Irene. We lived in the same neighbourhood but she was from a world of poverty, abuse and exploitation. I was from a world of bachelorhood, rock and roll and bohemian living.
Even now as I write this I know that I am white and privileged enough to have the education, time and opportunity to reflect on her life. Something she may never get to do. But still I reflect. I hope she is safe. I hope she is happy. I hope but I don’t know if I believe.
ENDNOTE: Today I looked up Irene on Facebook. She hasn’t posted anything since 2010. We don’t have any mutual friends.