PEEWEE THE MUSIC CAT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
The instant I met Peewee, I knew he was extraordinary. My daughter Alexandra was a student at SUNY, New Paltz, at the time, and she adopted Pee from a litter of kittens, advertised by a local Farmer. She’d had him, only a few weeks, when Thanksgiving vacation came around, and, of course, as we had several cats, already, Peewee was more than welcome to accompany her home, for the Holiday weekend.
We drove to New Paltz, the day before Thanksgiving to pick them up. And it was love at first sight for Pee and me. Brave and spunky little kitty, he no sooner got into the car, for this, his first ride ever, than he placed his four small paws on my left shoulder, braced himself against my ear and stood there, facing forward, like winged victory or a ship’s figurehead, fascinated by every detail of the road ahead. He remained there, as my co-pilot, for the entire 40 minute journey.
The minute he set paw in the house he made himself at home, and we played games and hung out together all weekend. When the time arrived to drive Alex and Peewee back to school again, I dared to ask her if Pee could stay with me. My daughter is extremely generous. Without a moment’s hesitation, she agreed: “Of course, Dad!” And thus, began a fabulous friendship that I fondly look back upon, as the best I ever had.
In the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I came to the conclusion that Peewee was a feline Einstein. Everything he did was a joy, and wonderment to me. Of course, he had to sleep in bed, between Eunice and me. And would you believe he insisted on having the covers up around his neck and his angelic little head resting on the pillow? He reminded me of a favorite icon of my childhood, Chessie the Railroad Cat, the 1940s advertising mascot of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Chessie’s slogan was: “Sleep like a kitten!” In those days, there were sleeping cars on trains.
That Christmas, Eunice’s nephew and his family were visiting from England, and I had a new video camera. The two hour tape that I recorded that Christmas Day turned out to be hilarious. There must have been some malfunction in the camera, for it was drawn to Peewee, like a magnet. His antics, underneath the Christmas tree, opening and playing with his presents, and everybody else’s, and doing many remarkable things, accompanied by my adoring running commentary, occupied three quarters of the tape. Here, below, are, Eunice and Pee, up late, enjoying the Yule Log on TV, when all the family was asleep, on Christmas Eve.
Peewee’s favorite gift was a funny little furry fish, a small stuffed cat toy, to which Eunice had attached a two foot length of wooly lace. As anyone who has ever had an ordinary kitty knows, cats are generally unimpressed with toys. They are likely to play with a new one for five minutes, or until the scent of catnip fades. Then, they become bored, and either rip the toy to ribbons to extract the cache of catnip, or cast it aside, never to be touched again. Peewee, on the other hand, couldn’t leave his fuzzy fish alone. He played with it, not only all Christmas day, as the video graphically displayed, but day after day, throughout, the weeks and months that followed.
The game, which he made up himself, consisted of holding the end of the wool in his mouth and running madly through the house, with the fish bumping along behind him. He would often turn his head around, without breaking his pace, to catch a quick glimpse of the fish, and make sure it was still following. This merry romp went on for hours, particularly when there was music playing.
Years before I began collecting toys, my pride and joy, and first obsession, had always been my State of the Art Stereo and LP record collection. It predated collecting Mickey, and, in fact, began when I was just a kid, growing up in the Motor City. In Detroit in the 1950s, a young person, like me, could learn to drive at 14, and by 16, qualify for one's own driver’s license. This was a major milestone in the automotive world, in which I lived. And it was usual, and indeed, expected, in my middleclass neighborhood, and the predominately Jewish high school I attended, that this occasion would be rewarded by the gift of a car, from one’s proud parents. Ironically, this was a development that I dreaded!
I had escaped the pain and anguish of a bar mitzvah, when I was 13, Thank God! And now, that I was approaching 16, I knew my father was just itching to add another Cadillac to the fleet that, to my embarrassment, and his pride, already stood out in the driveway. And so, I bargained with my father: “Pop, I really don’t want my own auto. Please save yourself a lot of money, and if you believe my 16th birthday calls for a gift that would really make me happy, get me the Hi-Fi of my dreams, instead.” He did! We went together to the Audiophile shop, the only one, then, in Detroit, and for a fraction of the price of a new car, I picked out the best Hi-Fi set in the store.
And so a massive Klipsch Corner Horn filled the corner of the rumpus room, where one could easily shut the door, then turn the volume up to rattle windows and shake the floor. This cathedral of sound, actually a giant organ pipe, folded over, with a huge horn perched on top, became the love of my young life. Disguised in blonde mahogany, it was my most cherished obsession! And from that moment on, the sound of music filled the air and occupied much my time. I sat before the giant speaker, for hours, every day, and let great tidal waves of sound wash over me, and carry me away. It would be hard to explain all that this music meant to me. Back then, living in Detroit felt like being marooned on a desert island, in many ways. And Music became the means, by which I kept the faith, and continued to believe that there was more to life, out there, someplace.
When I was 19 my father passed away, and a year later, my mother sold the house, and all its contents. On the day of the big sale, my beloved Hi-Fi was the first thing to go. And, so, that was the end of that! The next ten years I lived without it; unable to replace it, and unwilling to settle for less than its sonic equal. To spend my meager money on something mediocre would only make the sound I hoped to recapture, someday, all the more distant, and difficult to obtain.
In 1968, the Outer space Men made acquiring a new one possible. This time it was a “Stereo”. No longer clad in blonde mahogany, the speakers were two large unfinished wooden boxes, called JBL studio monitors. Although there was little there to please the eye, the sound, itself, was heavenly. The stereo moved up here to the country with me in 1970, where I added an 800 pound subwoofer that I built myself, and later still, acquired and installed an amazing device that digitally replicated the acoustics of a concert hall.
The controls were, and still are, located up here in my studio, while the speakers were positioned carefully in the big room below. From here I could still hear them, well enough, to play the radio. But to seriously listen to a vinyl LP, I would put it on the turntable, up here, set the needle in the grove, then quickly run downstairs, and park myself in the precisely placed easy chair, with the two studio monitors, before me, on either side, and the subwoofer [masquerading as a pedestal] in the middle. While, high up in the rafters, two smaller speakers that were almost inaudible, recreated the realistic resonance of Carnegie Hall. And so, in those delightful days, from early in the morning, until late every evening, the sounds of WQXR and WNYC radio, piped in over the TV cable, played all day.
One evening, a few weeks after Peewee’s first Christmas, I walked over to the Stereo controls to turn the system off, before going downstairs to dinner. Hearing a noise, I looked over the balcony. There in the big room, below me, was Peewee running around gleefully, playing with his favorite toy, with the yarn grasped firmly in his mouth and the fish bouncing along behind him. I watched him for a while, enjoying his antics. He didn’t know that I was there. Then, I reached over to the switch, beside me, and, silently, turned off the music.
Peewee stopped dead in his tracks. His jaw dropped open in astonishment, and let the length of wooly yarn fall to the floor. Standing in the room alone, he turned his head toward the nearest monitor, some 15 feet away. Then he walked over and stood before it, staring quizzically at the very center of the grill cloth, behind which the main speaker hid. I could see that he was wondering “What happened to the music?” He stood there for a moment waiting for it to return again, and then he calmly walked around the monitor and looked behind it, as if, he might find the music, hiding there.
How extraordinary is that? Have you ever had a dog or cat that reacted in any way when music suddenly appeared? Most would not even turn a hair. But this amazing kitten did a double take, when the music went away! Furthermore, he knew exactly where it had been coming from, and abandoned his favorite toy, to go in search of it.
Over time, I began to discover that Peewee, truly, was a Music Lover.
In those days, Eunice would be gone from dawn to dusk, making her rounds, beginning with the post office and then the shopping center, or gallivanting with her friends. And she would rarely return home again, until the sun was just about to set. This gave Pee and me the opportunity, to enjoy a concert, nearly every day.
Whenever I was working at my desk, the radio was always on. It was like treasure hunting, in a way, for, every once in a while, a melody would grab me, and I would stop what I was doing, and take a cigar break to hear the music through, until the end. If then, it struck me as extraordinary, I would jot the title down, and on occasional trips to NYC, I’d drop into Sam Goody’s, or Tower Records in New Jersey, and purchase the LP.
The concerts that ensued were not to be taken lightly. Each one was very special. I knew, full well, that every time a vinyl disk was played, it deteriorated slightly. Eventually, it would never sound the same. So, whenever I played a recording, it was a special occasion. I parked myself in my perfectly placed chair, with my feet up on the ottoman, and more often than not, Peewee on my lap. We both gave the music our undivided attention. I kid you not! I could tell that he was listening. First of all, he always faced the speakers; secondly he never fell asleep. Third, and above all, his ears were a dead giveaway. They moved automatically to focus on the exact direction from which the various sounds were coming. So, looking at him from behind, I would often watch with fascination, as his little ears literally danced to the music. Each ear moved independently, this way and that, as one tracked a sudden drumbeat on the right, the other, twitched to the tinkling of a triangle on the left. And, Oh, the violins! He liked the violins best. I never told him that they were reputed to be made of catgut.
As an audiophile, Peewee was every bit as discerning as I was inclined to be. He could instantly tell the difference between the sound of the radio and that of an LP. Therefore, whenever I put a disk on the turntable, no matter where he was, or what he happened to be doing, even sleeping, he would recognize that it was music time, and come running to me.
If, on the other hand, we were upstairs, hanging out together, I’d say to him, “Pee, do you want to hear a record?” He’d instantly agree, and stand there, patiently, watching me pick out a recording, run it through my special dust removing vacuum cleaner, and place it on the turntable. Then, he would run downstairs, ahead of me, wait for me to adjust the chair, then, jump up on my lap, ready to listen to the music.
Each side of the record was 20 minutes long, so when it ended, I had to go upstairs, again, to either change the disk, or turn it over. Pee always knew when it was time, and he would automatically, step off my lap to the adjacent footstool, and wait there, watching me as I climbed up the spiral staircase. I would look over the balcony, and see him standing there, looking up at me. When I returned to my seat, he would hop back on my lap again, and the concert would continue.
Peewee would never tire of a piece, or walk out in the middle. Well, come to think of it, that is not altogether true, there was certain music he didn’t like, especially, very loud passages, which, sometimes, frightened him a little. On these occasions, he would jump off my lap and go out to the hall, where he would wait for the scary part to be over, then, he would cautiously return again.
There were some pieces he could not stand, altogether, like Charles Ives’ 4th Symphony, in which two marching bands, each playing different melodies, loudly cross and intermingle. For this, and other pieces that were atonal, he would simply leave the room, with no intention of returning. But he had favorite selections, too, anything in which a violin was prominent, and really luscious melodies, like Korngold’s violin concerto, or the ravishing Chinese masterpiece, "The Butterfly Lovers". These would never fail to start him purring. I could imagine Pee, having his own TV show: “Purr along with Peewee”.
These precious moments were among the happiest of my life. I’ll never forget the music, soaring all around me, with my best buddy on my lap, purring gently, while his little ears listened so actively, so attentively. These cherished memories remain, as close as I will ever get to Heaven.
After Peewee passed away, I rarely played the stereo. And, these days, I play it, not at all.