Larry & Banana

The first time we saw Larry he was rolling around in the dirt. Scott and I were on one of the long morning walks we had resolved to start taking when we moved into our current neighborhood. Before moving here we had been living in a tiny condo in a concrete building near the (then-future) site of the Olympic Village. At the time we bought the place, the area was essentially an industrial zone: ours was the only residential building on a blighted landfill along False Creek covered with car repair shops, restaurant supply emporia, and decorative wrought iron dispensaries. After nearly four years in a 600-square-foot sixth-floor apartment with nowhere to walk to but the Starbucks in the lobby of our building, Scott and I were just about ready to kill each other. And we were eager to have a neighborhood we could stroll around in. We would have been happy enough to enjoy wandering the shady residential-ish streets with their dusty pocket gardens and disused tire swings, but we soon discovered that our new neighborhood near Commercial Drive came with a bonus we hadn’t counted on: cats. People—insane people—actually let their cats outside in this part of town, and for every heart-rending “HELP US FIND SNOWBALL” poster plastered to a lamp post, we would see one or two still-alive cats strutting on the street or splayed on the sidewalk for a death-defying nap. We quickly developed favorites, discovered who liked belly rubs from a couple of strangers and who did not, and learned to give wide berth to those who were on a songbird-murdering spree in their front yards. But no one compared to Larry: the Champion, the King, the Platonic Form of neighborhood cats. He had it all: laziness, softness, benign friendliness combined with gentle contempt, and an utter lack of dignity. That first day we met him, we thought he was perhaps a squirrel. It was a bright sunny day in mid-summer, and as we rounded the corner onto Charles Street we saw some kind of animal burrowing in the traffic circle in the middle of the road. The circle had just been constructed, and nothing had been planted yet in the giant mound of soil in the middle of the concrete barrier. Larry was rolling blissfully on his back in the hot dirt, clearly enjoying the hell out of his life. Of course we didn’t know his name yet at that point. After we approached him and offered a belly rub (which he, no idiot, gratefully accepted as the perfect add-on service to his dirt spa treatment), Scott reached out for the name tag dangling from his collar. This is always a tricky moment—I have said many times that I don’t think he should do this, as it startles the cat and invites nipping. The cat doesn’t understand that you’re trying to learn his name, I would remonstrate; he just thinks you’re going for his carotid artery. But Scott never listens, and thus we learned that day that the name of our new feline bestie was Larry—or as Scott immediately dubbed him, “Dirty Larry.” From that day forward we would watch out for him on every walk, ridiculously gratified when we saw him and got a minute or two of his attention, crestfallen when he didn’t appear. A morning with a Larry encounter was sure to portend a good day. We soon learned that he had a companion cat named Banana, also a sweetie who loved belly rubs, although somehow not as compelling a personality as her louche, rakish brother. Typical. We also learned that we were not the only regular victims of Larry’s lackadaisical magnetism: one day when we were walking past what we assumed was his house, I noticed that on the bollard at the end of the block someone had scrawled “Larry and Banana ==>” in black magic marker. This should not have surprised us, but I have to confess that it made me feel a little jealous. I started working harder on my belly rubs, really going for the under-chin scritch, trying to jostle my way to the top of the cutthroat tournament bracket of random strollers who stopped to pet him. There is, apparently, nothing that I cannot turn into a competition.

A year ago, when Scott and I left Vancouver to spend our sabbatical in Philly and Asheville, I was worried about Larry. He was starting to get on in age, and in the past couple of years I noticed that he was growing skinnier and was obviously slowing down. He spent more and more of his time on the narrow strip of grass directly in front of his house, and didn’t move very much when we stopped to pet him. He accepted the attention gratefully, but was distracted: his eyes remained fixed on the mountains on the horizon as he allowed us to stroke his fur, one paw in this world and one in the next. So on our last walk around the neighborhood before leaving last August I worried that this visit with Larry might be our last. It crushed me to think that we would return a year later and he simply wouldn’t be there any more. We might see Banana, I fretted (who seems much younger and more robust than her companion), but Larry will just be … gone, and we’ll never know what happened to him. We don’t know who his people are or even which exact house he lives in, and there will be no one to ask. We don’t know who wrote “Larry and Banana ==>” on that bollard, or how to contact them. One day we simply won’t see him any more, and eventually the magic marker will start to streak and fade and then disappear. Unfortunately that last walk was a rare Larry-less one, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Probably this was for the best, as his people might not have appreciated the sight of a strange lady in workout clothes hanging over their prostrate snoozing cat, weeping like an anguished Victorian mother over the sickbed of her consumptive child. We went off on our year-long adventure, and I even made another good neighborhood cat friend, a slim orange number with light silver eyes, who spent hours in the backyard of our rented house and clearly thought he owned the place. Unfortunately he didn’t wear a collar, so we never learned his real name. Our friends Trish and Thomas’s daughters also became obsessed with him, and eventually Juliette, age 6, grew tired of his moniker-less state and dubbed him “Esthurd.” “Esther?” we repeated, puzzled. “No, Es-TURD. Like the name Esther, but with TURD at the end.” So Esthurd it was. A grand cat, an officer and a gentleman, whom it was also difficult to leave. So many departures, so many wordless goodbyes. And so much uncertainty about what awaits one’s return. So it was with much trepidation that Scott and I embarked on our first neighborhood walk since coming back to Vancouver the other day. Neither one of us said anything in advance, but we both knew what the other was thinking about: Larry. As we rounded his usual corner, I caught my breath, bracing myself for the sight of the empty stretch of grass in front of his house. There was a lot of glare coming off the asphalt from the hot, bright sun, so it was hard to make it out clearly from a distance, but it looked like there was some kind of shadow, perhaps a shape in the grass? We quickened our steps, and then suddenly—there he was, stretched out in his usual spot, napping in the heat. We made our way to him as quickly as dignity would allow, and then our hands were in his belly fur and he was purring and rubbing his cheeks against our fingers and vaguely wondering who we were again? And then Banana came too.

The Tenants

Tenants-PotSurely there is a medical term for the unholy rage one feels upon returning to a house that’s been sublet for any length of time. For it’s clearly a psychological complex, an anger wholly irrational and out of proportion to the perceived offense. As I ransack my kitchen looking for the measuring spoons and nearly have a stroke when I discover that the cookie sheets been moved one cupboard over (“How dare they?! What kind of animals live this way?”), I remind myself that my tenants are perfectly delightful people whom I lovingly hand-selected after a rigorous interview process designed to identify the most boring people available. Casual chat about seemingly random topics like shampoo brands (“How much do they care about their hair? Are they likely to take hour-long showers?”) and oil-and-gas pipelines (“How liberal are they? Are they too liberal? Will they let their friends detox on our sofa?”) can tell you a lot about potential tenants, and helps identify exactly those people I would never want to hang out with in my actual life. All my lefty political convictions are revealed for the shallow sham that they are when I’m forced to choose someone to live with my Rancilio espresso machine and vintage LP collection while I’m away.

Scott thinks I am insane.  He does not at all understand my outrage at finding that our renters have been using our tiny, elegant stainless-steel condiment cups as votive candle holders, insisting that it’s a reasonable mistake. (Maybe if you live in a CONVENT, I mutter.) But then we are not a particularly good fit when it comes to the question of managing stuff. While we have very similar tastes and love choosing the crap that goes into our house to begin with – Scott is one of the few non-French straight men I know who can get really worked up over table linen – we part ways when it comes to the care and organization of household paraphernalia once it’s actually in the household. I like to sublimate my simmering OCD tendencies into hyper-rigid organization schemes. While I often joke that it’s not hoarding to keep 27 years worth of journals, desk calendars, and beside-the-phone memo pads as long as they’re chronologically organized in neatly labeled boxes, I am not joking. My first year in college I would regularly bust my roommate for using my expensive facial moisturizer, astonishing her with every accusation. How did I know? Because it had been moved one inch to the left of its usual spot on my dresser, that’s how I knew. Scott, on the other hand, subscribes to the “flinging” method of organization. I have seen him do it: when it comes time to return, say, the Windex to its home under the kitchen sink, he will open the door and sort of toss the bottle in the general direction of its proper place. (He will then leave the door open. For the life of me I do not understand how someone can open a cabinet door or drawer, do one’s business therein, and then stroll away without closing it, but if I had to guess how often he does so I would say it’s 99.99987% of recorded instances.  He might reply that it saves time since then you don’t have to open it again later, but this is the rationale of a madman. We might as well all walk around with our pants permanently down to save time in the bathroom.) Of course I’m just as bemused when things that don’t bother me piss him off; this is a man who regularly yells at his FitBit, “I just moved 2 minutes ago you motherfucker!”

So imagine how bad things must be in our house for Scott to be in a similar state of apoplexy with our renters as I. A few days ago we returned home after a year away to find a house where every single light bulb had burnt out and not been replaced. I shudder to think of our tenants huddling in the slowly gathering gloom, confused as to where the light has gone, drawing together under the weak sunshine filtering in through the (now filthy) skylight. Perhaps they didn’t understand where the light normally comes from, or even the concept of electricity? I am leaning toward the latter explanation, since our power bill tripled while we were away. Every month since we left I would get a threatening email from BC Hydro, warning me that we were only halfway through the billing cycle and yet on track to leave in the dust the “preferred lower rate” we had previously enjoyed. And while we’re at it, the emails seemed to imply, we would like to let you know that while you used to be Good People, you are obviously now very, very Bad People indeed. (Is there any other industry that relentlessly shames you for using too much of their product?) I forwarded these emails to Ollie – the only official tenant left after his new girlfriend, who had co-signed the lease, took off after two months of connubial bliss that apparently included a lot of candlelight dinners – with increasingly desperate cover notes. Are you perhaps running an air conditioner? I asked. Using fans all day? Leaving the lights on all the time? (This last theory of course rendered invalid by the absence of working bulbs after a couple months into their stay.) These questions are all polite code for, “Are you running a meth lab in our 1200-square-foot condo?” If he was, then he obviously used our pots and pans in his operation, for most of them were ruined: burnt black inside and with chunks of what look like … carbon clinging in the corners and to the sides. Probably, though, he used them for the usual food preparation but had no earthly idea how to clean them: one of them had a hardened piece of what clearly is diced onion – still translucent and recognizable – bonded to the inside, like the single tile of an ancient Roman mosaic. On the other hand, the stove and oven no longer work.

Other mysteries abound. The upstairs toilet now rocks back and forth on its stump, and so does our coffee table: one of its industrial tempered-steel legs seems to have been bent. The sheer strength required to effect these changes (and: how? and: why?) gives me pause. (Perhaps I should rethink the various revenge strategies I’ve been mulling in the sleepless wee hours.) Even more odd, to my mind, is the fact that there are thirteen new umbrellas in the stand in the front hall. Thirteen. Granted, it rains here 364 days a year for 23.5 hours a day, but still. They range from a decorative child’s version — a miniature number in clear plastic with a bright pink handle – to oversized doorman’s models that could shelter a small rugby team. While I don’t find it at all mysterious that visitors might deposit their umbrellas in the stand after coming inside, I cannot for the life of me figure out why so many of them abandoned them when they left. Perhaps they got overheated from a vigorous session of meth cooking or coffee table calisthenics and welcomed the cooling rain. One other significant item has been left behind: a very elaborate, quite lovely, ceramic bong with a ceramic frog clinging to its side, as if trying to crawl its way up to the mouthpiece for a hit.

Even though Scott and I are sharing a companionable state of boiling outrage over the state of our apartment, we are incensed over completely different things. He has focused on the fact that someone has thoroughly encrusted the downstairs bathroom and his study with heart-shaped plastic stick-on hooks decorated with a pink argyle design. I mean, they are everywhere: on the back of the doors, on the doorframes, on the side of his bookcase. How many things can one person possibly need to hang on hooks? Is there some new organizational scheme we haven’t heard of yet, like that closet system with all the boxes, that involves suspending all your possessions in mid-air? He is also disgusted by the twist-up air fresheners (“so … American!”) and the slow-dissolve toilet tank tablet that renders the flushing water blue.

How do we piece together these shards of evidence to form a picture of our tenants? Clearly they are drug addicts and hardened grifters obsessed with offensive smells.  Who knows what has happened in our house for the past year?  What tales could these walls tell? One thing is obvious: whatever happened here happened without us. We abandoned our lovely little gem of an apartment to the depredations of two twenty-something maniacs, and we (and our condiment cups) deserve everything we get.