A woman frequents a certain store. In the store there is a small black cat with white markings. The cat is very round, the kind of cat that will expand concentrically when she (delicately) gains weight. Everything about the cat is small and round, from her round feet to her round eyes and small, round snout. Even her tail is perennially looped. The cat’s roundness is perhaps partially the reason for her name, Panda, which the woman learns from the owner of the store. Panda’s coloring is the inverse of panda coloring, white circles on black fur.
Panda discreetly guards the store and expands roundly over the course of a winter. The owner of the store tells the woman, when she asks, that Panda is not pregnant, merely gaining weight. The woman occasionally makes videos of Panda standing on boxes of dishwashing detergent, preening herself against the corners of a rack displaying sacks of circus peanuts. These videos are sent, via MMS, to friends.
A summer passes, another fall, and then, during the course of the second winter of acquaintance with Panda, something happens. The woman enters the store to discover, on the floor of the store near the cash register, a large black cat with a white face and a surprising, bright pink nose, like a nub of chewing gum. This cat’s black fur hangs in grayish clumps, as if he has on a coat of dust over his regular black coat. He lets out a braying meow.
Another customer advises the owner of the store that it would be better to put ‘your lion’ elsewhere.
The new cat resembles Panda in that they are both cats. He also resembles Panda in that he is a black cat with white markings. But he is not Panda.
The woman asks the owner of the store where Panda is.
The owner of the store tells the woman that someone ‘took’ her. He says that this cat was left in Panda’s place. He knows nothing about the reasons for this event.
For many weeks, the woman, now avoiding the store, ponders the disappearance and replacement of Panda. The woman tells the story, up to this point, to a few friends, some of whom are already familiar with Panda, due to the MMSs. One friend begins referring to the replacement cat, the large cat with a pink nose and clumps of ungroomed fur, as Ersatz Panda. Other friends do not comment on the story or refer to the incident. The one friend continues, from time to time, to refer to Ersatz Panda. The woman thinks that this may have something to do with the fact that he, like the woman, was born and raised in the city.
At a second store the woman has begun frequenting, due to the need not to frequent the first store and in so doing be confronted by Panda’s replacement, there is a large orange cat. It drapes itself across a counter and stares dreamily into the ceiling.
The woman asks the person at the second store about the orange cat. The orange cat is a girl. She is called KC, short for ‘Kitty Cat’, which is not her real name.
The woman begins telling the story of Panda, ending on the encounter with Ersatz Panda.
The person at the second store says that this is very strange. She says that KC does not in fact belong to the second store but has for a long time been visiting it. Then last summer, the person at the second store says, a man began coming into the store, pointing at KC and saying, ‘That’s my cat!’
The person at the second store found this very strange. She was sure that KC was not the man’s cat. Subsequently, KC disappeared.
The person at the second store believed that the man who claimed that KC was his cat had taken her, but then, after several months, KC reappeared. And she has continued to appear at the second store. ‘There she is,’ the person at the second store says, pointing.
The woman observes that KC seems to know she is being discussed. ‘She won’t look at us,’ she says.
But now, as winter coasts into a long, slow spring, the woman becomes willing to return to the first store. Ersatz Panda’s fur clumps have disappeared and he appears smaller, if better nourished. He adopts a beatific hen pose.
Here the story ends.
Narration is the act of organizing discrete events into a series. Narration could simply be the act of juxtaposition, repeated, doubled and tripled. Narrative could be merely decorative, I sometimes think.
In the above story, Ersatz Panda is the name given to a cat of mysterious origins. Of course, we understand that the cat has no true name – at least, no proper, given name. In fact, the referent of the name, ‘Ersatz Panda’, is not even really the cat of mysterious origins. Rather, the referent of ‘Ersatz Panda’ is a tangle of social, economic and geographic relations. Some of these relations are mediated by MMS.
This story is interesting mostly because we know so little about what has happened. The story is also interesting because people in the story have so little to say about what occurs.
I think ‘ersatz’ is a beautiful word. And I think, at some level, I relate this story simply – and only – because it includes this word. ‘Ersatz’ first entered the English language, from the German, in the midst of the Victorian era, in the 1870s, a time of a craze for industrial substitutes, from so-called French jet (i.e., black glass) to photography. However, the word was apparently not much used by English speakers until scarcities of the First World War led to the advent of ‘ersatz coffee’, made from acorns, and ‘ersatz flour’, made from potatoes. These examples euphemize grimmer transpositions of mostly inedible materials (soil, paste). The ‘er’, of ‘ersatz’, is in fact an unaccented version of the more familiar prefix, ‘ur–’, meaning, ‘original, earliest, primitive’. The German verb, ersetzen, ‘to replace’, combines this prefix with a Proto-Indo-European root, sed–, which means ‘to sit/set’. There is a cruel element in this etymology, a sign of competition; a secondary thing is placed ‘originally’, in an ‘ur’ sense, belatedly obviating the first thing’s claim to be itself. (Why, we may ask, must the first thing ‘claim’ to be itself? It seems so unfair.) To return briefly to the story, which, in spite of its already having ended here, may be continuing elsewhere, the woman finds herself returning to the first store, warming to the somewhat retiring Ersatz Panda, a black tuxedo cat with a broad face and very pink nose.
I had to stop going to Ersatz Panda’s store for a little while because it all happened so quickly and I didn’t know what it meant. It was even difficult to write about. I mean, consider the situation: A beloved cat is replaced by a terrifying phony. An analogy with the severed horse’s head in your bed (Puzo) didn’t seem that far off. But I should be precise: I wasn’t thinking about retribution or criminal warnings. I was thinking about fate. Ersatz P. scared me, not because he seemed strange to me, but because I already knew him.
Someone once said that fate is ‘the reflection of the world in a raindrop’. This rings true to me but I have to unpack it. What I think this means is that everything that will happen is already determined. But everything is not determined from some future point of origin/view. This is why fate is weird. It is a pattern. It’s everything about your life flattened into an image and foretold in reverse, from this very moment on. Es rever nid loterofd na ega mina ot nide nettal fefil ru oyt u obag nih tyre vesti. That’s why you can’t understand it now.
Ersatz P. would always arrive at the corner store. Panda herself was just a delay, an adverb attached to the arrival of her replacement, since her replacement was her truer self. She was an image I sent to people without knowing the extent to which she already was an image. Ersatz P., on the other hand, is the kind of cat I would never photograph. When he showed up, at first I worried there was something wrong with the store. Later, I worried there was something wrong with me.
I am trying to stop worrying.
The truth is, a year and a half ago, I started making videos of this bodega cat. I made these videos from a swamp of loneliness and fear. I wanted to die but I absolutely wasn’t going to. I had already made up my mind. I refused to die, because dying would mean I had capitulated.
I tried to imagine a human being who was not cowed by failure. Since this was impossible for me at the time, I instead imagined a person who couldn’t really exist and endeavored to think of activities for this ‘person’. I imagined a person whose consciousness was a happy bobbing speck of fluff, a haze of light shimmering above the hood of a recent midsize vehicle. I did want this person to be, if not stupid, then mildly lacking in imagination. It was necessary that the person have no imagination. It’s counterintuitive, given that we’re prone to thinking about feeling as the result of what ‘really’ happens, and what ‘really’ happens is supposedly the opposite of what we imagine, but I’m convinced it’s people with no imagination who have the least idea of what’s going on and therefore live in bliss.
I have these smartphone videos I took of a cat.
The strangest thing was, it worked. Not that I lived in bliss, per se, but that I began to live among some other people.
Voiceover: Panda! Paaaaan Daaaaaa!
A very small black cat with white circles around her eyes walks along the top of a green box of dish detergent. The cat lowers her head and furiously grooms her cheek.
Voiceover: Panda! What are you doing?
The cat looks up. Her eyes are an impetuous dark yellow. They are the color of the petals of black-eyed Susans. The yellow of pre-Bloomberg taxicabs.
After Panda disappeared and the videos stopped, there came the period during which, as I mentioned, I stopped going to the first store at all. During this time, there were several miracles.
The first of these miracles was the painting of my downstairs neighbor’s door. From what I have been able to ascertain, my downstairs neighbor is retired. He does not seem to be entirely single, but he lives alone. He moved into the building last summer while I was away and occupies the smallest unit, whose footprint is partially eaten up by the building’s mailbox area. The first thing I noticed about him was a laminated sign he put on his mailbox. The sign had a bright red border. ‘Just Chillin’’ the sign said. Later, an identical but slightly larger sign appeared on the door of his apartment. This sign included additional information, that it was possible to obtain CD mixes and some sort of spiritual advising (I forget the exact wording) at this location. Sometimes, when I left the building in the morning, the door to the apartment was ajar and my neighbor could be seen working at his computer, his back to the door. The apartment was filled with boxes, stacked floor to ceiling.
Over the next six months, more signs were added to the door. I didn’t look very closely at them, partly, I think, because the door of the apartment was often open when I went by. The new signs included numbers indicating passages in the New Testament. Sometimes a brief portion of the passage in question was also included. There came to be many of these signs.
Then one day I came downstairs to find the building’s super and a younger relative of his painting the front door. They were also painting the door of my neighbor’s apartment, from which all the signs had been removed. They painted the door of my neighbor’s apartment brick red. The front door was painted white. For some reason, my neighbor never put his signs up again after this. It was an unusual (miraculous!) gesture on the part of the management company who collects our rent: In the three years I have been living in this building, I have never seen any attempt to improve it. All the windows are cracked and the floor tiles are coming up in the hallway. The place sways when a truck goes by.
Another sequence of events that seemed to result in something one could call a miracle was an interaction I had with the FedEx guy. When the FedEx guy comes to deliver things, he always calls me. This seems like a fairly recent change in procedure, but perhaps FedEx people have been calling cellphones instead of ringing doorbells for years, I don’t know. The FedEx guy always seems to call when I’m a few blocks away from the house. Sometimes I’m coming, sometimes going. If it’s coming, we chat while I sprint toward him. On the day in question I happened to be going so we agreed he’d leave the package downstairs. The problem was that when I returned home, the package wasn’t there. I did all the things you might expect, running around and checking behind corners and whatnot. I went outside and looked down the stairs leading to the basement. I left a sign in Sharpie for my neighbors on the back of the front door, advising anyone who’d picked up a package ‘by accident’ to please return it. I added that it contained nothing but ‘school supplies’ and other value-free crap. Thirty minutes elapsed. I remembered I had the FedEx guy’s number on my phone. ‘Hey,’ I said, calling him. ‘It’s me.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Hi. Did you get your package?’
‘See, that’s the thing.’
‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Thought I hid it. I put it on those stairs, you know? The downstairs ones? And there were people walking by, so I pretended I was looking for a buzzer, you know? And I found this old part of a broom and I put it on there? Did you see?’
I was running outside to the basement staircase. There was indeed the head of a yellow plastic broom sitting on something.
‘Got it!’ I yelled.
‘Oh good,’ said the FedEx guy.
This was the second miracle.
The third miracle I won’t explain at length, but something I figured out via YouTube is that you can cut your own hair and it does look pretty good. I’m not sure if you know how much a haircut costs in NYC.
The final miracle is more complex. It was a Sunday and I was walking in my neighborhood with my friend, the person who named Ersatz Panda. He and I had just had a big breakfast and were moving slowly. We went past a row of garbage cans and on one can was a black and white cat. It was a mostly white cat, with a black ear. It was sunning itself, panting lightly.
My friend reached out to engage this cat. Anticipating his touch, it inclined its large, flat head.
I reminded my friend about cat parasites.
We walked on.
Behind us the cat flopped off its can. It followed us to the end of the block.
My friend said, ‘Thank you for reminding me not to pet Garbage Cat.’
I’m not sure why he said ‘reminding’, but the thing about this statement was it indicated I am part of the process by means of which he constructs his narrative. I exist for him.
The other thing you need to know about me is that I have been the victim of some pretty extreme forms of deceit. Not scams or frauds but romantic infidelity. This is why I feel reasonably comfortable with the notion that narrative could be merely decorative. It’s how I try to feel OK with what has occurred. A narrative might just be something you casually attach to your real, lived life – a tail made out of a necktie or an unattractive paper hat. It might be an enormous joke to you, but it’s not an enormous joke to me. And now I know this. My greatest desire has always been to take people literally. It’s not the same as wanting to trust them, but it’s related.
The miracles I mention above take their form(s) as miracles, as such, from the fact that some negative expectation of mine was not fulfilled. So: insignificant improvements were made to the apartment building; I found my package; I saved $100 last month; someone knows me. Other people might have less tenuous relationships with the notion that events like these could come to pass. Admittedly, they’re no big deal. But to me they are extraordinary. They indicate that my life will not be an unremitting disaster.
Also my friend: how do I explain. I don’t know if I even sent those videos of Panda to anyone else. He is my closest friend. But I’m a creature of this century and it’s no longer entirely clear what human friendship is.
A woman frequents a certain store. It is a repetitive action and therefore non-narrative. However, inside the repetition, something has changed.
I used to think that what disrupts repetitive living is fate. Now I think that what disrupts living is other people.
Maybe Panda was sitting outside her store, contemplating the seductive greenness of an overturned Heineken bottle. Maybe this contemplation was interrupted by the seductive approach of some eligible cat. Maybe Panda, vacating her post for love, sent out word via local cat networks and a viable replacement (a needy case) was found.
But this doesn’t account for that ‘someone’. It also depends on forms of agency that make no sense, regarding cats. There’s a whole body of literature, not just children’s literature, by the way, about this. Cats make concerted choices; they go adventuring; they know how to read; they return; they give themselves complex names pertaining to their ancestors; they enjoy dancing; they sniff flowers; they cross-country ski; they live forever. The weirdest thing is that while we know many of the above activities aren’t possible, it doesn’t seem entirely true – i.e., faithful to reality – to say that they are, conversely, impossible.
By the same token, every explanation I can give of why ‘someone’ would replace an adorable cat with a weird, obviously abused cat with similar markings is pretty bizarre. In most of these scenarios, this happens because ‘someone’ for some reason wants either to abuse the adorable cat in turn or to threaten the adorable cat’s owners. Maybe it is a combination of the two. But we don’t really have access to these motives. They’re lost to us and to livable time, and now the world we do have access to contains only Ersatz Panda, along with KC and Garbage Cat, all of whom are merely tangential, alas.
Someday I’ll pet Ersatz Panda. Or, given the parasites known to dwell in cat feces, parasites allegedly capable of migrating into the human brain, maybe not. Someday I’ll take a smartphone photo of Ersatz Panda. And I will send it to my friend. And he’ll reply.
Photograph from Boccaccio ’70, 1962, dir. Luchino Visconti