Someone (OK, it was me) has fed my cat Bengali food and now, when he smells it cooking, he meows out the window toward the neighbor’s house, running to me if I move or change positions or even glance up from my desk. Anne, someone is cooking my lunch! is what he believes he is communicating. We’d better go see if it is ready, together, here let me get the door!
My cat is 20 years old. He has lived with me all over the country, including in Seattle and Boston and then for a long weird summer in the bed of the ’92 Ford Pickup in which we traveled the country. He’s striped, like a tiger. A Bengal Tiger. He probably knows how funny this is, between his stripes and his recent food enthusiasms, and thinks of it as “our little joke.”
His name is Thurber, although the neighbors call him Turber. Some of them call him Herbert. He doesn’t care as long as he gets hand fed small bits of spicy chicken, little bits of curried chickpeas, a fried vegetable dumpling. He’s not terribly interested in rice, because he hates eating off of a fork. (I, however, think it’s hilarious, and can often convince him to have a single bite before I can’t hold the fork any longer for the laughing.)
My other cat, All Girl Metal Band, does not care for Bengali cuisine. She doesn’t like people food at all, nor unusual cat foods. She doesn’t even like treats or catnip. She likes Purina One, served in a bowl and placed on the ground. The neighbors call her Metal Van. Why not? To ten-year-olds, a van made of metal makes a lot more sense than a joke about a historically masculine western musical genre.
She’s never been terribly fond of people en masse, but has tended to pick and choose those upon whom she would prefer to lavish her attentions.
Until we moved here. Now she likes everyone.
"You're so Detroit now," my friend George says to me at the Toronto Art Book Fair, where I am giving a brief talk on my latest book. "Can you ever imagine life without it?"
He’s teasing, mostly, since I have seen him twice in the six weeks since I moved to Detroit and neither time in Detroit. Still, I test it on the return trip. Do I feel like I am returning home when I board my flight? How about as I land? Am I Detroit? What is it, to be Detroit?
Maybe I’m not Detroit. Maybe I’m still Chicago, but naturally look the part. Or maybe it doesn’t matter, and the value of George’s query lies in trying to imagine a life without the move, which of course I can’t do, although that may be a personal failing. I have a hard time remembering my life prior to anything new I have experienced, which may be why I make for a suck fiction writer. I have a terrible imagination.
“Do you even like it here?” My bank teller asks me, examining my Illinois driver’s license. “After Chicago, isn’t it sort of like living on the farm?”
She means this as a metaphor, as if I have moved from the big city out to some quiet rural habitat with only a cow for a friend. She doesn’t know I had just gotten back from the garden center, where I re-upped my strawberry starters, picked up some manure, and grabbed a new packet of spinach seeds. She doesn’t know that the night before I’d eaten my first meal comprised mostly of greens I had grown myself, topped with a salad dressing I’d concocted from homemade vinegar. She doesn’t know that before I unpacked a single box inside this house, I dropped several beans in the ground in my front yard, hoping an elaborate growth of vegetable-giving vines would curl up my porch, or that my neighbor side-eyed me then, and asked why I didn’t want pretty flowers in front of my new, pretty house. Later, this same neighbor found some beans from her country abandoned in my backyard, and shelled them into my hand, mostly conveying through gesture what I was to do with them. I planted some in my front yard, too, and now that the Bengali beans are coming in alongside the Kentucky ones, she couldn’t be more excited. “If your beans come in first, I will borrow them,” she says. Even the across-the-street neighbor, a man of some stature, has come by to express his enthusiasm for the front-yard bean-growing project.
“It is a little bit like that,” I tell the bank teller. “That’s what I like about it.”
The bank teller doesn’t know that most of my adult neighbors speak only a few words of English, so they communicate primarily through the growth or preparation of food. When I am handed a new dish or armful of cilantro, I communicate my gratitude by way of elaborate physical comedy. Silently, I will my beans to come in then, or my chives, or spinach. I would like to repay these gifts in kind: “Here are some strawberries,” I will say, perhaps in Bengali. Or, “Good afternoon, I made you some pesto.”
Or possibly: “My cat Turber very much appreciates your fried chicken, and asked me to whip up these pickles for you.”
Maybe that is when I will be Detroit, or at least feel Detroit: when I can respond, in-kind, to wordless, heartfelt gifts. But my terrible imagination means I won’t know until it happens.