I have a picture I took thirty years ago of a white clapboard house partially obscured by brilliant, blazing leaves of autumn. The photo, which I framed and hung in my Upper West Side apartment, represented something beatific, something out of reach. I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a house like that.

I looked twice before I realized it was a cat. Dumped and left for dead, at first he looked to me as if he might have been a raccoon. He was curled up in the leaves next to a walking trail, far from any house. His face was scarred and scabbed.

“This cat,” I thought, “has to be saved.”

A woman walked by and, noticing that I was extremely upset, asked what was wrong. Miraculously, her next words were, “I rescue cats. I’ll jog home and get a trap.”

She returned 40 minutes later with a trap and some bait (tuna fish). It was obvious by the way this cat walked into the trap that he was young, had strength to lick the plate clean and was not feral.

My husband and I went to the emergency animal medical center, where doctors triaged the cat with fluids and antibiotics. Since we were considered “responsible” for the animal, we had 24 hours to decide his fate.

“We cannot take in another cat,” my husband declared, citing our four felines.

“I know,” I said. “It won’t work.”

While the cat received medical attention, we rushed back home and called everyone we knew. Nobody wanted a cat. We knew he’d be put down at the local animal shelter.

“We cannot take in another cat,” repeated my husband as the day grew darker and things began looking more desperate.

“I know,” I said. “We don’t have a way to introduce him to the pack.”

The problem is we don’t have a basement, mudroom, garage or outbuilding. On top of that, our house is constructed like a bagel. The foyer leads to my office, which leads to the kitchen, which leads to the dining room, which leads to the center hall, which leads to the living room, which ends back at the foyer. The donut hole, so to speak, is a small, cramped laundry room. I couldn’t imagine putting a cat in there.

The upstairs bedrooms and bathroom weren’t options either — their well-worn perches belonged to our current cats.

Each time I’ve rescued a cat, he or she has been young enough to be read the riot act by the others in exchange for room and board. But the cat we found on the hiking trail — though small and the worse for wear — was a grown male cat. And you need to give a grown cat a separate space before the others will accept him.

We kept making calls. No one would take him.

“We are going to have to take this cat,” my husband said, as the sun started to sink.

“I know,” I said. “Can we build an extension overnight?”

I wished I could turn back the clock five years, to when all the walls were down to the studs and there was a chance to build a mudroom. I’ll know better next time.

After he spent two days in the hospital, we brought the cat home and named him Patch. Small and frail, he was treated by the other cats as if he were a Doberman. There was lots of hissing, growling, hair standing on end, stiff tails.

Our cat commune was perturbed. There was no way that Patch was going to be eligible to share their litter boxes or food court. My husband and I looked at each other with despair.

Then we both looked forlornly at the laundry room.

It’s roughly 9 feet by 6 feet, though most of the floor is occupied by appliances and storage cabinets. We set up a litter box, food and water bowls, catnip toys and a little straw basket with a towel for sleeping.

Keeping him behind closed doors felt cruel. It wasn’t. This little space, though hardly ideal, saved him.

Over a couple of weeks, he got stronger. In the meantime, our brood could sniff around outside the door and get used to him. Slowly, Patch was eased out a few minutes at a time until his eventual induction.

A month later, Patch has earned free passage, but he’s still like a reality-show contestant — most likely to be voted off the island. And thus the laundry room has become his lair, his safe place, his sanctuary. Except when I’m doing a load.

Get the entire story of Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb — complete with nutty neighbors, bumbling town officials and a plethora of domestic and wild animals — in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com.

E-mail: [email protected]

Burb Appeal Cover Image


Hey everybody,

My new nonfiction collection, Burb Appeal, is now available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99.

Note: You do not need a Kindle or e-reader to download an e-book. You can download ebooks directly to a PC.

Click for Burb Appeal: The Collection

And here’s a quick excerpt…

“It sounds like you’re planning a bat mitzvah,” my friend Monica said when I described the surprise party I was throwing for my soon-to-be 8-year-old.

“Oh no,” I assured her, a bit defensively. “It’s just a garden-variety garden party.”

Don’t you think the phrase “garden party” classes up an event? Maybe it’s those lingering images of Jay Gatsby’s lavish Long Island lawn affairs that get me. Catered food. Flowy dresses. A sun-drenched day slipping away into oblivion. So genteel!

Yes, throwing a garden party had been near the top of my bucket list forever.

But the idea hadn’t yet taken root, since our property has been a work-in-progress for five years. Finally, after a wet winter, everything bloomed in outsized proportions. And by May, we had done major landscaping improvements. Our house was ready for prime time.

At first, my husband thought I was kidding when I said, “Let’s rent a tent and chairs and tables.”

“Pretty fancy idea,” he said.

But it didn’t take long to rope him in. (Here’s a man who has lived in the South and is no stranger to the mint julep.) Enthusiasm stoked, he suggested lawn games — croquet, badminton.

And I set about planning a surprise-party extravaganza for 10 children and 25 adults.

First order of business: checking the town ordinances to make sure we could erect a tent and play music outside. All clear. Then I hired a tent company. The owner surveyed our property by walking off distances. He came up with a spot to pitch a 15-by-25-foot tent. I had no idea tents could be erected on such uneven terrain, but he explained how pulleys work and I began to see my dream take hold.

Then came the order for round tables and white lawn chairs. The sage-green tablecloths matched the trim on the house. I hired a caterer, keeping the menu simple: sandwiches and salads, along with a big chocolate birthday cake.

I wanted live music, and I remembered how much I’d enjoyed a local group I’d seen recently. The Grateful Strings is a ragtag bunch of musicians that perform Grateful Dead tunes. I enlisted Robert Politzer, the singer (who is also a friend), who rounded up cellist Aaron Minsky and guitarist Craig Graham. I booked the trio.

Meanwhile, my husband made the invitations and secured the soccer net and badminton set. (We couldn’t find a flat spot for croquet.)

Weeks into planning, my husband asked, “What are we going to do with the cars?” Hmm.

Our driveway fits five cars, about 10 too few to accommodate guests. We live on a fast-moving road where it would be lethal to park. So my husband lined up space in the neighbors’ driveways.

It was hard to hide my excitement from my daughter, who always expects me to do something unconventional for her birthday. She knows I reject those canned parties at playspaces and karate centers, so she’s been spoiled with sleep-away surprises and fairy parties in an enchanted forest.

For years, she’s asked to have a party “in the house.” But my house is a little too delicate for an army of children. A garden party seemed to be the answer.

The 48-hour countdown to the Sunday party was knee-knocking. Monica took my daughter for the weekend. On Friday evening, while my husband and I were setting up chairs and tables, we smelled sewer gas. We called Roto-Rooter.

“Your sewer cap is broken and is leaking methane,” said the service man, who explained it would cost $200 for a replacement. Instead, my husband fashioned a plastic and duct-tape remedy.

On Saturday, I checked weather.com obsessively and fretted about the threat of severe thunderstorms.

On Sunday, the day warmed up quickly. By 12:30, everything started to fall into place. The band arrived early. The caterers dropped off food. Every guest arrived on time to yell “surprise” when my daughter came bounding down the driveway.

Dark clouds dissipated. The kids liked the sprinkler more than the lawn games. And the band serenaded us with enough Neil Young and Beatles tunes to make us adults remember a time when a summer afternoon seemed endless.

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