MRS. WINGO'S CAT

by Joelle Steele

Managing an apartment building is not one of those careers of which a child's dreams are made. Ballerinas and cowboys always come to mind, but not residential property manager. That was my title, one I held for almost ten years.

I came to Los Angeles from Sacramento, newly graduated from Cal State with a degree in art. I had dreams of finding work in the entertainment industry and seeing my name roll by in the credits of every Oscar-nominated flick for the next thirty or more years. But things don't always turn out the way we plan. To begin with, the competition was much more than I bargained for. I was wet behind the ears and up against seasoned professionals. Worse yet, Hollywood is a town where who you know is far more important than what you know, and I didn't know anybody.

Finding a place to live was difficult. There are so many neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles area, and I didn't even know where I was going to be working. Then one day — it was a real scorcher — I left my motel room in West Los Angeles and headed for the beach. I had heard of Venice Beach, but I had never been there. In fact, I was never that much of a beach-going person. But something about the area, maybe its overall funkiness, just appealed to me.

I never even made it onto the sand. Instead, I found myself ambling up and down the walk-streets, soaking up the atmosphere of a hundred years of architecture, most buildings obviously neglected by human owners and ravaged into a state of decrepitude by the salt air, the sun, and the wind. The residents appeared to be a colorful lot, the sort of folks who painted flowers on their front doors and adorned their rickety balconies and weedy patios with wind chimes hand-made from rusty, tarnished kitchen utensils.

The one unifying factor in the Venice landscape was the presence of cats. Hardly a yard went by that was not home to a feline or two, some obviously strays, and others wearing collars with red, heart-shaped tags. Most of the cats seemed a little shy, but I managed to make friends with a giant brown tabby whose tag identified him as "Archie." I sat on the small stone wall outside the Westview Apartments and stroked his clean, shiny coat, as the sun faded and a cold wall of fog suddenly appeared in its place.

"Oh Archie, I have been so worried about you!" The words came from a living cartoon of a woman who rushed up to rescue her cat. She was probably about sixty years old, with bleached platinum hair that was in dire need of a touch-up. Her eyes were framed with black lines and false eyelashes, and her skin was deeply tanned to the extent that it was a veritable road map lined with deep fissures linked by thready trails. She wore a black tank top and lavender bell bottoms, and her feet were squeezed into white, strappy, high-heel sandals from which her crooked toes protruded, her overly long toenails painted a deep purple.

"We were just getting acquainted," I offered, as she reached out to retrieve her wayward companion.

"Archie is an indoor cat," she explained. "He got out about an hour ago while I was unloading my groceries. He's always getting out like that. You naughty kitty." She held the big fur ball in her arms and stroked him tenderly, then kissed him on the forehead.

"I was admiring your building," I said, nodding to the Spanish style stucco exterior and arched windows.

"Yes, it's quite a beautiful old place," she agreed. "I'm Mrs. Wingo, and this is Archie."

"Nice to meet you," I reached out and shook her hand. "I'm Andrew Sawyer."

"Are you looking for a place?" she asked.

"Maybe. Why? Is there a vacancy?"

"I think it's still vacant. A studio. Third floor. Has a view looking inland. Come on up. The manager's home."

Mrs. Wingo led me through the dimly lit hall and up the stairs to the third floor. I would have to get in shape fast if I lived on the third floor because the building had no elevator. Mrs. Wingo's apartment was next door to the manager's, and she disappeared inside as I stood in front of apartment number seventeen and knocked.

"Yeah, who is it?" asked a less-than-congenial voice from within.

"I'd like to see the apartment for rent," I said, raising my voice slightly to compensate for the heavy door between us.

The door opened after a series of sliding chains and thrown bolts. Standing before me was a tall man, forty-ish, with sandy brown hair just brushing his shoulders. He was barefoot, wearing a faded forest-green T-shirt and a pair of jeans that had a hole or a stain commemorating every year of his adult life. In his hand was an industrial-strength key ring that held at least fifty keys. He fumbled through them as he padded heavily across the hall to a door that was diagonally across from his.

"This is it," he said as he opened the door to apartment number twenty-one.

The studio was small, just one large room with a separate bathroom that still had all the original tile. The kitchen was a simple harvest gold Formica counter with a cabinet above and below, a small gas stove, and one of those little refrigerators that don't hold much more than a few sodas. There were no curtains or shades at the windows, and the hardwood floor was dark brown and heavily engraved with scratches and dents.

"How much?" I asked, hoping it would be within my pitifully meager budget.

"It's $270 a month, prorated. It's 'as is' and rent includes all utilities. Deposit is $200 and you can move in immediately." He jangled the keys and leaned impatiently against the door frame while I took another look around the place.

"I'll take it."

I moved in the following day, and for two years I barely got by financially. I took a few freelance creative jobs, but mostly I worked for a landscape contractor in Santa Monica, installing plants in the yards of celebrities whose garages were big enough to hold my apartment, bathroom and all, at least ten times over. But the landscape business was often feast or famine, and I was about to hit rock bottom. I eventually took a job working as a security guard. The wages weren't that great and it was mostly part-time, but it was more reliable than landscaping. It was shortly after that when the job as apartment manager presented itself as a welcome alternative to letting things take their natural course and eventually being evicted for non-payment of rent.

When I first moved into the Westview, I did not know that the manager, R.J. Duffy, was a local drug dealer extraordinaire. It was not until sometime shortly after I became firmly ensconced in my dingy little excuse for a home that I discovered R.J.'s other occupation was well-known throughout the neighborhood.

"Hi, I'm Jenna, Michael's friend,"

I had cracked the door slightly to see a petite blonde wearing a short top that exposed her naval which was encircled by a ring of tattooed hearts. It was almost eleven-thirty at night, and I had just dozed off after a long day of job hunting and interviews.

"I don't know anyone named Michael," I said groggily.

"Michael the carpenter," she restated.

"Still don't know him," I repeated.

"He told me to see R.J. if I wanted ... you know ... something special for a party of one."

"Well, I'm not R.J.," I said wearily. "He's right over there in apartment number seventeen."

I pointed at his door, and she looked embarrassed as she apologized for so obviously waking me up. I shut the door and went back to bed as she proceeded to knock on R.J.'s door.

I had mistaken the pounding on his door all day and all night as a sign that the tenants had an awful lot of problems. I was worried that perhaps one day I would wake up to find that there was no hot water, that the gas had been shut off, or that some other similar inconvenience was occurring. But, after other Jennas and Michaels mistakenly pounded on my door a few times — some at two in the morning — I came to realize that these were merely R.J.'s devoted customers, desperate for their daily fix of whatever substance he could procure for them.

Some of R.J.'s guests were, however, far less than congenial customers, and on at least two occasions that I recall, he ended up with a face that was a veritable artist's palette of blues, greens, purples, reds, and yellows. He apparently gave as good as he got, since he insisted that his broken hand was the result of fending off one of those assaults. But I never got involved and didn't really want to know the truth about R.J.'s activities.

One morning, I was formally introduced to the hard reality of R.J.'s world.

I had been working at the security guard job for a company in Long Beach. It was an incredibly boring job and I didn't like working nights, but I needed the money. My shift ended at six a.m., and because there was very little traffic at that time of day, I was usually home by about six-forty-five. One morning, I was walking from my car down the alley towards the rear entrance of the building, when I heard a cat growling and looked around to investigate.

Sitting on the battered wrought iron railing next to the basement stairwell where the garbage cans were located was Mrs. Wingo's cat, Archie.

"What are you doing outside, Arch?" I asked, as I approached the noisy tabby who was staring down into the well. It was rare to find Archie outside, and I wondered if Mrs. Wingo knew he was loose so early in the morning, or if he had been out all night. I imagined she would be quite worried.

The sun was just coming up from behind the apartment building across the alleyway. Archie was very intrigued with something down in the trash enclosure. I thought perhaps he had a lady love down there who was responsible for his loud vocalizations. So when I looked over the railing and down into the well, I expected to see some cute little feline face looking back at me. What I saw instead was R.J.

The concrete steps were littered with garbage, and some of the cans were tipped over. The combination of smells that drifted upward was enough to make me reel. R.J. was covered with papers and rotting foodstuffs, and his mouth appeared to be stuffed with a sock or a wad of paper. I tried to open the metal gate, but it was stuck. I grabbed Archie and ran upstairs to my apartment where I called the police.

To make what could be an exceedingly long and gruesome story blissfully short, R.J. had met his maker in a most undignified manner, but one not at all unconventional for your friendly neighborhood drug lord. The building's owner, Gary Lutz, seemed far less concerned about the demise of his tenant than with finding a willing replacement for the position R.J. had so suddenly vacated without notice. I took advantage of the fact that I was in the right place at the right time to convince him that I was the man for the job.

"I know I am young, Mr. Lutz, but I can do this job," I asserted, trying not to appear as desperate as I really was.

"This is a tough neighborhood. You don't look like a tough guy," he observed.

"No, I guess I don't ... or I'm not. But I can fix a leaky faucet, I know how to paint, and I'm honest," I argued, trying to appear as responsible and confident as I could at the ripe old age of twenty-four. When Lutz still did not appear convinced, I added, "I am working as a security guard, and I think that should indicate my ability to take care of things."

That seemed to do the trick. I managed to gain his confidence, and only one week later I moved into R.J.'s old and much bigger apartment. Thus began my illustrious new career.

My new apartment was a one-bedroom with a balcony and ocean view. Compared to the phone booth I had been living in, this apartment was a regular palace. There was plenty of room for me to set up my easel and enough light to actually work at it. For the first six weeks or so while I was still working as a security guard, I haunted the alleys on my way home from Long Beach each morning. I managed to find some old tables, chairs, and bookshelves to furnish my pad. Mrs. Wingo's cat, Archie, was a regular and frequent visitor, jumping from her balcony onto mine, and then parading through the sliding glass door and into my living room like he owned the place.

When I wasn't enjoying my new digs, I was acquainting myself with the building, its occupants, and my managerial duties. The Westview was a twenty-four unit building composed of fifteen studios and nine one-bedroom apartments. The studios came in three sizes: small, very small, and ridiculously small. The three ridiculously small studios were basement apartments designated as A, B, and C. They were accessed via the rear inside stairwell and shared cold stone walls and viewless windows with the laundry room, two storage rooms, and a utility room that housed the boiler and the assorted electrical, phone, and fire alarm boxes.

While the building had been originally completed in 1919, it had been upgraded and remodeled in the early 1960s and again in the late 1970s. As a result, maintenance was not that much of a challenge, and that was lucky for me, since I barely survived high school woodshop with all my fingers intact. All in all, I felt that I had made a good decision to become an apartment manager. I saw myself handling a few leaks, collecting rents, showing vacant apartments, and spending all my free time creating art.

Time for a reality check, Andy.

Maintenance was not much of a problem. Unfortunately, the tenants were. Had R.J. not dealt drugs, I felt sure he would have eventually sought out a drug dealer to find a means of escaping the daily headaches that came with tenants whose occupations were the stuff of which police blotters were filled. One of the basement apartments was a "shooting gallery," a place where the heavy-duty drug users all gathered to nod off. The name on the rental agreement was that of one Angela Martinez, but I never saw a woman in that apartment on the many visits I made to it in order to acquaint myself with the tenant. The rent was always paid in cash by a small, wiry Mexican who handed me the money saying, "I bring for Angela."

The first floor middle studios were occupied by hookers Chandra Hillie and Diane Franz. Their neighbor, Anton Marks, was a drug dealer, though apparently on a much smaller scale than his former competitor, the infamous R.J. Duffy. In the rearmost unit of the first floor was Javier Lopez, whose apartment was filled with every make and model of TV and stereo ever made. New shipments seemed to arrive daily, the same frequency with which they left the building. The second floor was a little quieter. Just one hooker, Janette Johnson. Without these six tenants, I am convinced that I would have had absolutely nothing to do during my first year as manager of the Westview.

If I wasn't calling the police, one of my tenants or one of the people in the neighboring houses or apartment buildings was. Someone was always getting into a fight with a pimp, a john, a junkie, or whatever. Add to that the problems associated with homeless people sleeping in the halls, and I really had my hands full. I couldn't figure out how I had not been aware of all these problems during the two years when I was merely a tenant. I wondered if maybe R.J. didn't have some agreement with them all, maybe to supply drugs in exchange for their good behavior?

It took me that first full year as manager to get rid of the six problem tenants. Anton and Javier were both arrested, so I didn't have to do anything at all to make them go away. Chandra, Diane, and Janette were another story. Chandra was the biggest source of complaints by other tenants. Noise from her nightly escapades and ensuing violent conflicts resulted in her ultimate eviction. I issued several noise warnings to Diane and Janette, and when Janette failed to pay rent, she went the way of Chandra. Diane was the last hold-out. I was in the process of evicting her when she overdosed on a prescription painkiller and alcohol. She never came back from the hospital, and her belongings were eventually collected by her son.

It was just a few days before the Fourth of July when Ms. Martinez' "shooting gallery" was vacated in what could have easily been a tragedy worthy of national headlines. I had just quit my security guard job because I was finally beginning to get more freelance work as an artist, thanks mainly to my vigilance at marketing myself by sending out countless letters and resumes. Anyway, I had fallen asleep on the sofa with the sliding door open and the screen closed. It was about five a.m. when I was awakened by Archie, crying loudly at the screen door. At first, his cries were uncannily mingled in with the last remnants of my dream. Then I finally woke and saw him pacing back and forth in front of the screen. Apparently, Mrs. Wingo had also slept with her door open to cool off her apartment from the heat wave we had been experiencing. I tried to recall if she had a screen door, or if Archie knew how to open one.

"What's up, buddy?" I opened my screen door, and the friendly feline dashed in, jumping onto the coffee table and sending magazines and papers flying. He continued his repetitive mewing as he arched his back and tried to keep my attention on petting him.

It was too early to get up, but I was now wide awake, so I started to tidy the sofa and put the dishes from my late-night snack into the kitchen sink. Archie followed at my heels, trying to wind between my legs as I walked, almost tripping me. I liked this cat, but he was suddenly becoming quite annoying. I wondered if perhaps Mrs. Wingo had taken ill and Archie was somehow trying to tell me this. I had heard of animals going to extraordinary measures to help their humans.

I didn't want to bother Mrs. Wingo needlessly. After all, she could be peacefully sleeping, and Archie could just be restless from the heat. But, I thought I should investigate.

I threw on my jeans and a T-shirt, and opened the front door. Archie ran into the hallway, and I knew I was in trouble. I tried to catch him, but I didn't want to chase him and perhaps frighten him and make him run even farther away from me. The halls were deathly quiet at five a.m. and I tried not to make any noise by calling his name. As we approached the rear stairwell, there was an acrid smell like that of something electrical overheated or burning. Now I was really worried. I had this runaway cat on my hands and something was definitely wrong in the building.

Archie would have to wait. I went down the stairs, listening for sounds and clues to where the smell might be coming from. As I approached the first floor, the smell became increasingly strong. It appeared to be coming from the basement, and as I reached the first floor, I saw that the entire first floor hallway was filled with smoke. Why hadn't the smoke detectors triggered the fire alarms? I ducked below the smoke level and headed for the back door to the alley where the manual pull switch was located. I tugged it downward and the alarms began to sound.

A tenant came running out of the building after calling the fire department, which arrived promptly. The other tenants all followed, congregating in the alley and on the walk-street with the people from the neighboring homes and apartment buildings. When it was all over, Archie, who had alerted me to the fire, had managed to find his way back to his own apartment without my assistance. I never did meet Angela Martinez, but the fire department said that the fire was an accident, probably a candle making contact with a combustible. Old wood-frame buildings like the Westview could easily and quickly go down in flames. Thanks to Archie, we all survived. I notified the owner of the fire and the non-functioning fire system, and he sent a contractor out to repair everything a few days later.

As the years went by, I had a more or less stable group of tenants, composed of the old-timers who had been in the building for ten to twenty years, and the newer young folks who came from small towns in Ohio and Nebraska, looking to make their big break in show biz.

The third floor where I lived was mostly retirees and a few of the old-time Venice denizens, including Mrs. Wingo, who I later found out was a former seamstress and costumer who worked at MGM during the cinema's golden days. She was eccentric but very quiet, and Archie continued to visit, lounging on my bed and sunning himself by my window.

My other next door neighbor was Jonathan Bassett, an English would-be actor who waited tables — like every other unemployed actor on the planet — in this case at the Sidewalk Café on the Venice boardwalk. Our balconies were also side-by-side, but I didn't know Jonathan very well, and we had only a nodding acquaintance. He seemed unfriendly, or perhaps he just didn't like me. I couldn't tell which, but quite frankly, I didn't care.

Across from the three one-bedroom apartments were four studios. The one closest to Mrs. Wingo's apartment housed the two beach brats, Mark Lowe, and his significant other, Debbie Matthews. They had lived in the building for sixteen years. Mark was a surfer who worked as part of a ground crew at LAX. Debbie was a registered nurse at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. When they were not working, they smoked dope, drank like fishes, and sunned themselves on the roof of the building. Both looked far older than their ages of 37 and 39. Excessive sun exposure and hard living, I guessed. Debbie was the building rabble-rouser, and for years I had to put up with her over-reactions to everything under the sun.

"A tenant petition?" I asked, examining the document which was duly signed by about half the tenants in the building.

"Yes," replied Debbie. "We want you to do something about the laundry room situation once and for all."

"I didn't know there was a problem. Why didn't you just ask me? Why a petition?"

"Because we want to make sure you understand the seriousness of the problem."

"I do, now, but you could have just told me, Debbie. This is an awful lot of work to go through just to get a washer fixed and a deadbolt lock installed."

She shrugged her shoulders and headed back to her apartment. "Then I hope you'll get right on it," she said in her snottiest tone of voice, as she turned back to face me and continued to walk backwards towards her door.

In the studio just past the stairs from Mark and Debbie was my old studio which was now housing Julian Kane, an older gay man who was recently retired from working as a set dresser. Like Jonathan, I didn't really know Julian, and he was never exactly friendly to me either. Next to Julian was Alex White, a Vietnam vet with a variety of psychological problems being treated by the VA with Prozac. Alex was usually quiet, with the exception of a few outbursts on the rare occasion that he dropped off his meds.

Alex had lived in the building for about ten years before I moved in, and I got to know him during my first two years as a tenant. But, for the first year that I was manager, Alex was downright cold to me, and I didn't find out why until one day when I was replacing the washers on his kitchen faucet.

"So you like this job?" he asked.

"It's okay. A lot of hassles with people that I could sure live without," I replied, trying to remove the recalcitrant top of the hot water tap without breaking it.

"I always thought I would get R.J.'s job, but Lutz wasn't interested," admitted Alex.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know." From that point on, Alex became his old friendly self.

The remaining studio just past the rear stairwell was occupied by Oda Villearde, a tarot reader who plied her trade on the boardwalk each weekend, and sometimes during the week at the height of tourist season. When I went to her apartment to unclog her bathtub drain, it was like entering a time warp back to the 1960s. The living room was decorated with a colorful array of beaded curtains, bean bag chairs, wall-to-wall tri-color shag carpeting, and macramé plant hangers filled with trailing vines. The walls were covered with rock posters that were probably valuable collectors' items. Tiffany-style lamps sat on orange crates that doubled as end tables for a futon sofa.

Oda read the cards for me on more than one occasion. I admit that while it all seemed so hokey, there also seemed to be a lot of truth in what she had to say. The first time she read for me, I was surprised at how insightful she was, but I still had serious doubts as to the veracity of it all.

"This is you, The Fool," she explained, pointing to one card in a layout she informed me was called the Celtic Cross.

The Fool was a young man in renaissance clothing standing at the edge of a cliff carrying a flower in his left hand and a staff with a pouch on the end of it slung over his right shoulder. At his feet, a small dog playfully romped. The card was upside down.

"The Fool is a naive and inexperienced young man who is on the verge of discovering himself, of entering a cycle of self-expression. But he is not there, not yet. You are the innocent."

I nodded as she turned over the next card, The Wheel of Fortune. The wheel itself contained a variety of symbols, none of which I could identify. Pat and Vanna were not pictured on this card, which was instead hosted by a variety of mythical creatures, including an Egyptian sphinx perched atop the wheel.

"This covers you, it is your current situation. It symbolizes the risks and the chances we take and the consequences we must bear as a result. You took a risk coming to a big, strange, city. You took a risk looking for work in a field where the competition is tough. And you further risked taking over the position of building manager, which could easily engulf your life, swallow you whole. But, luck is on your side."

I again nodded, not wanting to break the spell she cast as she continued through the remaining nine cards. When she came to the last card she paused, her bejeweled index finger resting on the back of it and tapping it thoughtfully.

"This is the result, how it will all play out in your life, these influences that we have just seen so far."
She finally turned over the card, the Knight of Swords. "Ah, yes. This is a good card for you. In the end, it all comes together. Courage. Bravery. You will vanquish all foes, within yourself and in the world. Most importantly, you will overcome all your demons, your greatest fears."

Oda held her hands out to the sides, presenting the cards to me in their entirety, looking down at them, and then looking up at me, directly into my eyes, and smiling a warm, toothsome grin that showed off a diamond embedded in one of her front teeth. I smiled and thanked her.

For days, her words played over and over in my mind, as I continued to wonder whether it all was as meaningful as I thought it was, and if it was not, why did it all keep running through my mind? My two greatest fears were having something happen to the building or its tenants, and not ever getting enough work in my own field to some day be able to retire as a residential property manager. My life, my very identity, seemed to have become so deeply entwined with my work.

One of my building fears was fire. After the blaze in the shooting gallery, I was ever-vigilant in my attempts to keep the building safe. When Mrs. Wingo's cat visited me unexpectedly early one Saturday evening, I took his anxious behavior seriously.

"What is it this time, Archie?" I asked, petting his glossy stripes, as his little, wet cinnamon nose tried to nuzzle my palm.

Archie stretched, then went to my front door and meowed.

"I don't think so, Arch. The great outdoors is not in your future."

I placed Archie on the balcony and closed the screen door behind me. Then I went to take a walk through the building, just in case Archie was again aware of something beyond my less enhanced human senses.

The halls were quiet, and I smelled something, just a whiff of an odor on the evening breeze. Then I didn't smell it again. Probably nothing. I walked each floor and even went down to the basement where I checked out the three tiny studios and the various other rooms. All quiet on the western front. I returned to the third floor, and as I turned my key in the lock, I again smelled the odor. This time I recognized it. Gas.

I walked towards Mrs. Wingo's apartment, but smelled nothing there. The smell seemed to be coming in on the breeze, and that meant it was coming from the opposite end of the hallway. I walked towards Oda's apartment, and the smell grew stronger. It was definitely coming from her apartment. I banged on the door and called her name. No answer. She was probably still down in front of the Sidewalk Café with all the other boardwalk fortune tellers.

I ran back down the hallway and got my keys, then ran back to her door and opened it hurriedly. She was not home, and the smell was overwhelming. I opened her windows and went to the stove and shut off the gas at the main valve. I didn't know enough about stoves to know if it was just a pilot that was out or if there was some other form of leak. I would call the gas company in the morning, and if they couldn't relight it, I would call Howard, a local repairman who had serviced some of the building's other stoves. After waiting for the air to clear, I closed up Oda's apartment, and went back to my apartment where I wrote her a brief note explaining what had happened. I taped the note to her front door. When the gas company representative came later the next day, he confirmed that it was just a pilot that was out. He turned the gas back on, relit the pilots, adjusted each of them, and went on his way. Another disaster averted thanks to Archie.

For several years, things were pretty much uneventful. Without problematic tenants — well, except for Debbie Matthews, who continued to plague me with petitions and nasty letters from time to time — I managed to get a few more freelance creative jobs, one of which I really enjoyed in an ink and paint department of a small production company. The project there lasted for almost a year, and I hoped they would invite me back, either for another project, or possibly in a full-time capacity. I knew they were happy with my work, and I made it clear that I really enjoyed the work and wanted to do more. But, the Christmas holidays were approaching, and I knew that nobody was going to be doing much work during that time, much less make a hiring decision. I decided to approach them in February or March.

Christmas passed, and in January I was without work. I sat down at my computer and knocked out a few letters and resumes, some of which I sent as reminders to a few companies I had done some work for during the past four or five years. I hoped one of them would remember me and throw a project or two my way.

As I typed away, Archie appeared on my balcony and I let him in the screen door. He walked over my desk, crunching papers beneath his paws, and finally curled up in a ball on a short stack of bills in one of my letter trays. He purred loudly as I typed. He hadn't left by sundown, and I hadn't even noticed he was still there until I heard Mrs. Wingo calling him. I looked and saw him still sleeping in the tray, and I went over and gently picked him up and brought him home. He repeated the behavior the following day, and I again brought him home. I sincerely hoped he was not ill. He was getting on in years, and I was pretty sure he was at least fourteen or fifteen years old.

The next day, there were two earthquakes, both centered off the coast in Santa Monica Bay. They were small quakes of about 3.0 magnitude, but because they were so close, they felt much stronger. I didn't see Archie at all that day.

A few days later, Archie reappeared. This time, he fell asleep after burrowing under my bedspread. He did this several days in a row, and I started to reflect on his behavior prior to the small quakes we had experienced. I now not only worried for his health, but for mine. What if this cat's peculiar senses could perceive some subterranean seismic activity beyond the range of human perception, maybe in an area that was not monitored for quakes by Cal Tech?

It was a long shot, but I decided it was better to be safe than sorry. I went through the building, securing anything that looked like it could conceivably fall during a quake. In my own apartment, I anchored my two tall bookcases to the wall and bought some new latches for two of my kitchen cupboard doors to secure their contents. Using duct tape, I strapped the base of my computer to the old table that doubled as a desktop. Secure in the fact that I had done all I could to be safe, I went about my daily business, the only change in my routine being the nightly removal of Archie from my bed.

It was about four-thirty in the morning when it happened. Like the rest of the west coast, I was fast asleep. I awoke as my bed shook slightly, then harder. I jumped from the bed and into my old loafers that doubled as slippers. I stood in the doorway to the bathroom as the building vibrated, the timbers creaking loudly as the wood-frame building swung back and forth. The water jug on my bottled water dispenser toppled over and crashed onto the trash can beside it. My dishes and glasses rattled in the cupboard. My framed artwork banged against the wall, and two pieces fell to the floor, the glass in the frames cracking.

The windows rattled, but did not break. In the distance I could hear people yelling and screaming, and from one of the beach parking lots at the end of the street came a chorus of car alarms. From where I huddled in the doorway, I could see out my bedroom window to the street. The power was off and everything was pitch black, an unusual sight to see anywhere in a big city where nothing was every completely dark.

The shaking seemed to last forever, and I had visions of the building collapsing at any moment. Adrenalin was surging through my body, and I prayed aloud, "Please God, don't let me die."

I didn't die. Neither did anyone else in the building, or in my neighborhood as far as I knew. The quake was a big one, but it was centered in Reseda and dubbed the Northridge Quake, at an estimated magnitude of 6.2 or more, depending on what source was quoted and when. Santa Monica was hit much harder than Venice. It looked like a war zone, with broken glass, signs, brick frontage, and a variety of other debris littering Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards. But you never saw any of that on the evening news. All they kept showing was the destruction in the immediate area of the epicenter.

The Westview sustained only minimal superficial damage. Once the 5.0 aftershocks had ended a week later, I spent several days patching and painting in the hallways and some of the individual units. Mrs. Wingo's cat had abandoned me immediately after the earthquake. Archie apparently lost interest in my bed, and I only saw him occasionally as he dozed on his own balcony in the afternoons.

"I think he's just getting old," remarked Mrs. Wingo one morning. She was doing her laundry while I patched around the doorway to the laundry room. "He seems to like staying inside more these days. It's probably just as well, since I don't think he's as spry as he used to be, and I don't really want him trying to jump from balcony to balcony."

"You could be right," I agreed. "But I do miss seeing his furry little face."

"Come and visit him anytime you like," she offered, taking her basket of clothes and squeezing past me in the doorway.

I never did get around to visiting Archie. After the repairs to the building were made, it was mid-February, and I was itching to find a job. On some level, I felt like the Westview Apartments had outlived their usefulness in my life. I started sending out more letters and resumes, and I followed up on each one with a phone call. I worked eight hours a day at looking for work. Bingo! I landed a full-time job with a major production company, the one with whom I had worked up until just prior to Christmas. The salary was far better than I could have imagined. In two months, I had given Mr. Lutz my notice, packed up my stuff, and moved to a beautiful apartment building on 14th Street in Santa Monica, only a fifteen-minute drive to my new place of work.

On my last day at the Westview, I knocked on Mrs. Wingo's door and bid my farewells to her and to Archie. The cat was getting on in years, but he was still curious and friendly as he purred and rolled over to let me scratch his ample belly.

When I look back on my ersatz career as a residential property manager, I remember Archie more clearly than anything else. After all, he was the one who led me to the job in the first place, and he was an able assistant manager! I miss him to this day.