|I'm sleeping. Go away.|
I have been asked many times by no one about hoboes' pets. I'm always quick to recount to whoever didn't ask the stories of Marlon Fitz-Fancy's Miracle Dog, or Ol' Woozy, and that usually makes the asker roll his or her eyes and leave me alone. Every once in a while (which here means never), no one puts a thoughtful fingertip to thoughtful, pursed lips, and takes it a step further. "Were there ever any hoboes who had cats," those same nonexistent people ask, "Or, were there any hobo cats?"
I always sigh heavily (or would, if any of this ever actually happened), and recount the following story, hoping that it will appease them - or at the very least, make them go away and leave me alone:
When Monkeybars Matthew Manx met Ms. Mary Manx, The Tailless Cat, they both hissed and ran off in opposite directions.
At the time, Matthew was living in a makeshift tent - a steel jungle gym draped in old burlap and discarded bed sheets - situated between the primary school and the B and O railroad tracks that bisect Laurel, Maryland. It was spring of 1938, and he was known in hobo circles as "Monkeybars Matt," on account of his penchant for camping beneath playground apparatus.
|New school building; same old monkey bars.|
On returning to his temporary home late one night, to retrieve his meager belongings before heading south to Richmond and points beyond, he nearly stepped on a sleeping cat. They hissed at each other and ran off in opposite directions. An hour later, lugging his tiny sack of sad stuff down the tracks toward Hyattsville, Matt lost an additional ten years of his life when the same feline sprinted through his feet.
"Son of a-- What's the matter with you, you stupid cat?" he bellowed.
Ms. Mary Manx, The Tailless Cat sat down in a moonbeam and casually licked a paw. "Meow," she said, matter-of-factly. She had stripes of black, grey and white, and in the moonlight only her lighter areas were visible, making her look rather like a cat being viewed through Venetian blinds.
He stared at her for a moment. "Say, what happened to your tail, puss?"
"Meow," she replied. It's possible that this translates to "I'm a manx, idiot. This is all the tail I ever had. Duh," but as no translator was available at the time, we'll never know for certain. She sauntered up to the hobo and bonked his shin with the top of her head, then proceeded to rub up against each of his legs in turn, which might have been her way of saying, "I have decided that you are now my human," or perhaps, "I have an itch."
He saw that she was wearing a collar, and he crouched down to get a look at it. It was old and weathered and had possibly been made of leather, at some point. There was a rusty tag on it, which he strained to read in the moonlight: Ms. Mary, aka your problem now, pal! was all it said. "Swell," he grumbled. The cat took advantage of Matthew's crouching position, and in the blink of an eye she reached up and snatched a bit of squirrel jerky that had been sticking out of a hole in his sack. "Hey! Give that back, you little thief!"
Ms. Mary raced away and sat down in another moonbeam, where she hurriedly began to eat the dried meat. He stormed after her and clapped his hands angrily. She darted just out of his reach, but dropped the jerky. He picked it up and inspected it in the pale light. "Look what you did to my dinner, you mangy thing," he complained. "I'll probably get distemper if I eat this."
"Meow," she said, possibly explaining that he'd better go ahead and let her finish it, just to be safe. She came back and sat at his feet, staring hungrily at the meat.
"I know," he said, "but I'm hungry, too. Tell you what - you can have this piece on the end, where you got all your cat germs on it, and I'll have the rest..." He carefully tore the jerky in two, and held the smaller piece out to his new best friend for life (or until the food was gone - whichever came first).
The cat stood on her hind feet and reached up for the meager meal, taking it carefully in her teeth. "Mmf... meow," she said as she chomped, which could have been a compliment on his meat-drying skills, but who could say?
Monkeybars Matt finished his hobo dinner, shouldered his stick and bindle, and tipped his ratty cap toward the cat. "Welp, nice meeting you, Ms. Mary. Good luck to you." He shuffled over to the train tracks and turned toward D.C. and points south.
She trotted after him. "Meow," she said, perhaps in an attempt to remind him that he was hers, now.
"Go on," he insisted, waving her off, "Get!"
She paused for a few seconds, then resumed following him at a slightly greater distance. "Meow," she said - probably some cat-variation of "Fat chance, my good human," but more likely something along the lines of, "Hey - is there any more of that squirrel meat?"
He ignored her and kept walking. She followed him quietly. They each employed their respective strategies for the next two days until, somewhere south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, Monkeybars Matt accepted the inevitable and became Monkeybars Matthew Manx. He shared his food with Ms. Mary, and in return she kept his feet warm at night as he slept.
For the next ten years, they were inseparable, and were frequently spotted walking the various railroads of the southeastern United States, from Baltimore to Florida - although much of the time, only Matthew was walking, as the cat often stood on his shoulders, like the lazy freeloader he lovingly called her.