Smokey the Cat

“Jordan, have you ever done an eviction before?” my boss James asked me. I had been working for a small firm in suburban Pennsylvania for about three years now, and was beginning to hit my stride as a lawyer. James was letting me handle files from start to finish with more regularity.
“Nope. But I’m sure it’s not rocket science. Just give me the file, old man,” I said with a grin. “This one sounds boring.”

The case was simple enough. A woman named Agnes was renting a house from one of James’s biggest clients. She hadn’t paid her rent in a long, long time. The client decided he didn’t want her living there anymore. Too easy, or so I thought.

I drove to the courthouse that day and filed the paperwork. A few weeks later I had a default judgment and a writ of possession, meaning I could have the constables remove the tenant with force, if necessary. The constable posted notice on the house, and we made arrangements for the eviction. Again, too easy. Chalk this up as another win.

“How is the eviction case coming along, Jordan?” James asked me a few weeks later.
“Great! We got a default judgment. I’m going to the house tomorrow morning to remove her. Next time consider giving me an interesting assignment, old man,” I said laughing.

As James left, my phone rang. A meek voice began to speak…

“Is this Mista Jordan?”
“Yeah. Who is this?”
“This is Agnes. You’re gonna kick me out of my house tomorrow? What am I gonna do?”

For a brief second, I could feel a knot in my stomach. Keep your composure.

“I’m sorry, but you haven’t paid your rent in months. I wish you would have called me earlier, but there is nothing I can do about it now… you gotta leave. If you don’t, I need to come there and remove you tomorrow morning.”
“I lost my job! And my kid’s got school tomorrow. Can you at least wait until I put him on the bus? Where am I gonna go? Where are we gonna live?” Agnes was sobbing.
“Why didn’t you call me weeks ago?” I asked her.
“I didn’t call you because I’m so embarrassed. What am I gonna do?”

I didn’t have answers for her. At least any good ones.

The next morning I showed up to her house with the constable, as late as I could, to allow her time to get her kid to school. I hoped Agnes had managed to put her son on the bus, and he wouldn’t have to see this.

Thankfully, Agnes was gone by the time I got there. Me and the constable routed through the house and changed the locks. All Agnes’s worldly possessions were still in the house, and two half eaten breakfasts were still on the table. Guess they had left in a hurry. It all felt so surreal. This was someone’s home just hours ago.

I wondered where Agnes had went… and I hoped she was okay. Maybe she had family she could stay with. Maybe she had friends. Agnes would be fine, right? What a pleasant fiction.

As I was leaving, I heard something rustling upstairs.

“Constable? You hear that? Let’s go check it out.” The constable drew his gun and asked if anyone was there.

A giant, grey dirty kitty cat emerged, staring at us from upstairs.

“Don’t worry, it’s just a stupid cat,” the constable said to me laughing.
I felt a strange twinge of concern. I don’t know why. “Wait, who is going to feed the cat? Who is gonna change the litter? Where is it gonna go?” …and why the hell did I care about a damn cat so much?
“I dunno, but it’s not our problem…” the constable answered, looking at me like I had asked a stupid question.

Maybe it was a stupid question.

When I got back to the office, I banged on James’s door.

“Well? Is she out?”
“Yeah. But James, I don’t feel so good about this one.”
“Jordan, look. I can see that in your face, and in a sense you shouldn’t. But did you expect our client to let some woman live in his house without paying rent forever? What else can you do?”
“Well, no…” I said, looking down, feeling silly.
“Kid, we represent clients – not causes. And you got your client a good result. That is your job as a lawyer. Not to save the world. Never forget that.”

James was right. I guess.

“Um, one last thing, James. Agnes’s cat is still there in the house. What should I do?”
“Take it to the SPCA. You don’t want it destroying the house or something. Not our problem.”
“I’m not gonna take her cat to the SPCA.”
“Why the hell not?”
“…I have my reasons.”

At that moment, something sort of clicked in me. It was one thing to kick someone out of their house for not paying rent. It was another thing to kick someone out of their house and take their cat to the pound. That just felt wrong.

For the next two weeks I drove out to the property every day and fed the cat. Call it guilt, call it whatever. The cat was big, grey, and smelled like cigarette smoke. So I named her Smokey. Smokey the Cat. I ended up taking Smokey and putting her in my house until I could find a good, permanent home for her. Eventually a friend of mine from college agreed to take Smokey in. It was the least I could do, I guess.

At that point, I thought I could put this case behind me. But six months later I got a call from Agnes. She was living at a woman’s shelter with her son. She wanted to know when she could get her cat.

“Agnes, look. I’m sorry about what happened. I am. But I have a little good news for you. Your cat is fine. I found her a really nice home. She’s living with my friend from college in a big house in the suburbs. When you’re back on your feet, maybe you can come take the cat back.” I knew Agnes would never see the cat again. But at least the cat wasn’t at the pound.
I could hear Agnes crying through the phone.
“The cat has a name you know. Did you re-name my cat?”
“Yeah, she was big and grey when I found her. And she smelled like cigarette smoke really bad. So I named her Smokey. I’m not all that creative…”
Agnes started sobbing…
“Her name is Merlin. Like the magician. My son named her Merlin. We watched Sword and the Stone together…”
“Well don’t worry. Merlin is gonna be just fine. And so are you.” It’s all I could think to say.
“I just want my cat back. I just want my house back. I just want my life back…”
I was at a loss for words. “To quote Hemingway, ‘the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.'”

I hoped someday I would be strong at the broken places.

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4 Responses to Smokey the Cat

  1. I’m so glad you don’t represent landlords anymore. Think of all those shops near Municipal Court that do nothing but bulk file evictions all day.

  2. I.M. Mongusa says:

    God bless you for going out of your way and doing the right thing for Smokey and showing some compassion for Agnes. I hope they are both doing well.

  3. I appreciate your excellent posts.

    On this issue, from a sympathy standpoint, I see both sides. It is tough for anyone who loses their job, especially if they have dependents.

    At the same time, according to the post, the tenant had gone several months without paying rent. Most landlords in my area begin eviction proceedings within 10 days after rent is delinquent. A responsible tenant would notify the landlord – preferably before missing a payment – to try and work something out. Some landlords may even give the tenant some time if they think the tenant is making a diligent job search. Even a lower paying, part time job may allow the tenant to pay rent if they bring in a roommate, or to rent a room elsewhere. If necessary, a negotiated exit avoids an eviction on the tenant’s record, and the landlord avoids the associated eviction costs and hard feelings.

    In my area, quite a few landlords are both underwater and cash-flow negative. Right now, a 4% cap rate on condos and 6% cap rate on single family houses is common. Property taxes in some areas are high – in mine they are about 25-30% of gross rent. Given these margins and the fixed costs, several months of a non-paying tenant can wipe out several years profit.

    Our society wants people to be able to find housing, even they have had prior financial problems. Often a landlord can choose between taking a tenant who is well-intentioned, but has a less-than-perfect rental history, or keeping the unit empty for possibly a few months while waiting for more promising tenant. For landlords to be willing to take a chance on a tenant with a less-than-perfect history, they need to be able to evict tenants that don’t pay.

  4. I also applaud your treatment of the cat. Many animals that wind up in shelters are euthanized, so it’s nice to know this cat found a new home instead.

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