Morning in Washington Square
Alarge, powerful bird gazed downward with the fierce eyes of a hunter. He was a red-tailed hawk and his stomach was empty. Peering at the rectangular field far below, he saw many small animals that would make a tasty breakfast. But he didn’t move a feather. Timing was everything and the right moment hadn’t arrived.
From his perch on the roof of the Bobst Library, overlooking Washington Square, the hawk had a clear view of the Empire State Building. He cocked his head slightly, listening to the sounds of the city waking up.
His eyes scanned the park’s graceful walkways. He checked out lampposts and trees from top to bottom. All he needed was one careless squirrel, or an absentminded pigeon. The hawk was so hungry he would even settle for a large rat.
Children’s voices floated skyward from a playground. The hawk ignored them. He also wasn’t interested in the musicians playing their instruments by the grand fountain, or the old woman pushing a cart piled high with empty cans and bottles, or the students practicing yoga in front of the Washington Square Arch. Likewise, he didn’t turn toward the yaps and barks coming from the dog run, where pets could play without being leashed to their owners. They were all too big for him to wrap his claws around.
The hawk grew impatient. His eyes darted back and forth, forth and back. His gaze flitted past something that looked like a wrung-out mop. Then he decided to take a closer look. The mop was a large cat sprawled out on a bench.
Finally! thought the hawk.
Every instinct told him that this fellow was an easy mark. His fur once was white, but now it was gray, dirty, and tangled. His eyes were shut tight.
What a lazy bum, was the hawk’s fleeting thought as he shook his head in disapproval.
His harsh judgment was unfair. The cat was simply worn-out. He had arrived in Washington Square in the middle of the night and hadn’t slept a wink. He was new to this part of the city and had never spent the night in the park before. Even for a streetwise fellow like him, it was terrifying. Every sound was magnified in the dark. Every rustling became ominous. Who knew what enemies could pounce out of the shadows? After pacing around the fountain and creeping along dimly lit paths all night long, he was a nervous wreck—and exhausted.
Now that the sun was up, this very tired cat planned to lie on the bench all day, enjoying the warmth. Just the thought made him happy.
He had one agenda; the hawk had another.
Sleep, thought the cat as he drifted off.
Delicious! thought the red-tailed hawk as he prepared to make his move.
Seconds later, the cat heard a whooshing sound and saw a shadow overhead. Without stopping to think, he leaped off the bench and shot underneath it as the red-tailed hawk swooped down from the sky. With his wings spread wide, he was an awesome sight, majestic and intimidating.
The cat remained where he was, shaking with fear. He overheard a man shout to a woman, walking a small dog.
“Watch your pup, lady!” the man yelled. “I saw that hawk grab a squirrel the other day.”
The woman scooped her scrawny Chihuahua up in her arms. As the tiny dog squawked with fright, the cat dove into a hole someone had dug beneath a fence. Heart pounding, he discovered the hole led into a tunnel. He crawled through and emerged on the other side of the fence, where he found refuge beneath a large tree.
He sat quietly for a minute or two, keeping his eyes closed as he tried to calm down. He thought peaceful thoughts. But he still found it hard to breathe. Even though he knew he was safe from the hawk’s reach, he felt uncomfortable, as if he was being watched.
“You’re being silly,” he told himself, but his eyes flickered open, just to make sure.
To his horror, he saw three sets of eyes staring at him with suspicion. They belonged to three enormous dogs, sitting on a park bench a few feet away.
The cat was proud of how tough he could be. He got a kick out of provoking dogs by arching his back and hissing. He enjoyed watching them start to chase him and then get pulled up short by the leashes that attached them to their owners.
But these dogs weren’t wearing leashes. He’d landed inside the dog run.
Worse than feeling scared, he felt defeated.
I can’t run anymore, he thought, and shut his eyes, waiting to be crushed.
As he crouched, shuddering with fear, he heard a not-so-terrifying voice.
“Look who’s over there,” growled a sleek brown mutt with alert ears and dark eyes.
Her name was Maggie. She was a long-legged and muscular dog who wore a jaunty bandanna. Her brow was wrinkled, giving the impression she was puzzling through a complicated thought.
“That self-satisfied fat cat,” sniffed her friend Roxie, an imposing brown beauty who didn’t like snobs. “What’s he doing in the dog run? What does he think? That he’s the mayor of Washington Square?”
The cat sucked in his stomach.
“Fat! Me?” he thought, feeling a little insulted. For a second, his fear was overpowered by his vanity.
“Look at him,” muttered Maggie, lowering her head so it wasn’t obvious she was talking about the cat. “He’s a mess. Maybe he’s in trouble. Should we go ask him?”
The cat rubbed his ears with his paws. Had she said what he thought she said? He blinked and looked at Maggie’s eyes. They seemed soft and friendly.
Just then, the third dog, a watchful fellow named Henry, offered a not-so-friendly observation.
“That cat is prowling around on his own,” he said suspiciously. “Look! He isn’t wearing a collar. I say it isn’t any of our business. He got in here didn’t he? Let him find his way out.”
Maggie groaned, “How can you say that?” she asked. “He’s in our neighborhood. Shouldn’t we offer to help?”
Henry’s face was thrust forward and his neck muscles were taut. He looked ready to pounce but held himself back. He had been working on controlling his temper. However, he couldn’t hide his natural dislike for cats.
Roxie turned to Maggie and sighed.
“You, my dear are an incurable romantic,” she said patiently. Roxie felt it was her duty to explain the way things worked to Maggie, who had moved to the city a few months earlier.
“This is New York City,” Roxie said. “Neighborhoods change. Shops open and then they close. People move in and out. Nothing sits still.”
Even though she knew Roxie meant well, Maggie hung her head. She was a sensitive type.
Roxie butted her friend with her head, her way of saying she didn’t mean to sound snippy.
“I love incurable romantics,” she said. “That’s why we love you.”
Maggie continued to mope.
Roxie knew how to put her friend into a better mood. Aware that Maggie couldn’t resist a good romp, Roxie flung herself into a mix of gravel, leaves, and dirt piled up by a hole someone had dug next to the bench. As predicted, Maggie followed. The two friends wrestled a while, then stood up and shook themselves clean, though a few twigs remained stuck in the bright pink strap Roxie wore around her neck.
“Feel better?” Roxie said, catching her breath.
Still panting, Maggie dropped her jaw into a wide, toothy smile.
Roxie remembered the cat and stared at him.
He pretended to ignore her.
“He is a mess,” she acknowledged, her voice softening.
A whistle sounded.
The cat watched all three dogs lift their heads in unison and race toward the entrance to the dog run. A handsome man was waiting for them, dangling their leashes. That was George, the dog walker, whose mere presence made them swoon. They sat looking up at him with adoration in their eyes.
As George attached leashes to their collars, Roxie glanced back. The cat looked so miserable Roxie couldn’t stop herself.
“Come with us,” she barked, nodding her head.
Henry started to object, but realized it was pointless to argue with Roxie. Maggie looked at her friend with admiration. Roxie didn’t waste her breath on cheap pity. She took action.
George led his pack out of the dog run. He was unaware they were being trailed by a large mass of dirty white fur.
As they left the park, the cat glanced skyward, in time to see the hawk sailing toward the rooftops, with breakfast dangling from his mouth.
They dropped off Henry and then Maggie. The cat waited patiently while George took the dogs inside, hiding behind a fire hydrant so that the dog walker didn’t notice him on the way out.
Finally they arrived at Roxie’s stop, a store called Pink Patti’s. Its bright pink awning seemed familiar to the cat, who had been roaming the Village streets for a few days. He might have stopped to check out his reflection in the window once (or twice), but hadn’t bothered to peek inside.
Roxie turned her head toward the cat.
“This is where I get off,” the dog said. “So long.”
The cat was startled. Even though he was accustomed to traveling alone, he had enjoyed the comfort of the cozy pack.
As Roxie followed George inside, the cat raised his paw in salute and called out.
Roxie stuck her head out the door and barked. “See you around,” she said.
The cat ambled off, fighting a vague feeling of disappointment. He told himself it had been a successful morning. He’d avoided being eaten by a hawk. He had made some interesting new acquaintances. What more could he ask for?
He shook himself from his shiny nose to the tip of his tail.
What he needed, he realized, was something to eat. He remembered spotting a café on the way from the park. After a wrong turn or two, he found the place, and congratulated himself for his astute sense of direction. He parked himself under a bench in front of the café, where people sat and sampled the snacks they’d bought. It didn’t take long for him to collect a pile of satisfying scraps. After arranging them just so, he stuffed himself with gusto.
“I do love a nice piece of cheese,” he said to himself, licking his lips as he swallowed a chunk of cheddar.
When his stomach was full, he felt better. He was not much of a planner but he was an optimist, the type of cat who always convinced himself he would land on his feet. He was also vain. He believed that appearance matters. Aware that his hair was his finest feature, he cleaned himself with his tongue. He fluffed his fur. He arranged his tail into a bouncy curve. Though he was still somewhat grimy, he felt refreshed.
With a light step, he turned the corner, feeling confident again. He wasn’t surprised when a stylish woman coming his way knelt down to pet him with admiration in her eyes. He often had that effect on people.
“You are gorgeous,” the woman said.
In response, the white cat purred and rubbed his head against her hand. He was so busy flirting, he failed to pay attention to her companion—a very large shaggy sheepdog.
While the cat preened, the dog bristled.
The cat pulled away, eyeing the dog nervously.
The woman laughed. “Don’t be afraid of Poochie,” she said. “He’s a big softie.”
Poochie growled as the woman kept on petting the cat.
“Don’t be jealous, Poochie,” the woman said.
The cat couldn’t resist. He stuck out his tongue at the dog, while taunting him in a silky voice.
“Overgrown hairy beast,” he purred.
That did it.
The big softie had a big fit.
Before the woman knew what was happening, Poochie lunged and the cat skedaddled.
The woman was so startled she dropped the dog’s leash. Off he went, ignoring her cries of “Stop!”
The cat zoomed and zigzagged until he ended up back in front of the shop with the pink awning. Even though the sheepdog was closing in on him, he stopped. He had to catch his breath.
A brief observation passed through his mind as he gasped for air.
“Maybe I am getting fat,” he thought.
Poochie was huffing and puffing, too, but showed no signs of slowing down. At wit’s end, the cat let out a wail that sounded like a desperate baby.
Once again, Roxie came to his rescue.
As if she’d been waiting for him, she pushed open the door with her head. The cat scooted beneath her legs, to safety, as Poochie was about to catch up with him. The dog planted himself outside and pressed his large head against the door window, glaring.
He found himself staring eye to eye with Roxie’s fiercest face.