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My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.

 

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Yesterday at 6 PM, we had our first barrio (neighborhood) meeting to discuss how we could keep our glue-sniffing (now mota-gulping) local teenagers from slipping over into the hands of narco subgroups. Mota is marihuana. Its new availability already means the kids are branching out, bringing in the pesos. Making wider connections. The more surface agenda for the meeting was neighborhood security in general. That included keeping the Army out—because the Army is a force unto itself and is credited with ham-handed tactics which include shooting people or, in some cases, it is said, disappearing them—all under the umbrella of pursuing the struggle against the cartels.

D and C had prepared intensively. They produced printouts: announcements, contact numbers and the names of agencies for help with alcohol and drug addiction, for how to communicate with your teenager, even an announcement of a meeting taking place in an adjoining barrio in a few days, so that those interested could attend—also, so that people could see that our off efforts to take matters into our own hands was not unique.

On the half–sheet of plywood I carried out, D and C taped the following agenda–on red poster paper:

Ventajas (advantages, things were like about our barrio).
Expectativas (our dreams, hopes, wishes for the barrio).
Problemas y Recursos (existing problems and already existing resources for dealing with them).
Acuerdos (agreements we reach for action)
Fecha de la próxima reunión (date of the next meeting)

D made popcorn. There was a bottle of hot salsa, the way some people like their popcorn. We carried everything out. It was a little after 6 PM. I had no idea what might happen. Two women approached from above, coming down the steps on the callejón, the alley. I had images of whacked out teenage thugs breaking up the meeting. To be honest, I even had a brief image of gunfire. There have been deadly narco attacks on drug rehabilitation clinics up nearer the border. I wasn’t sure we knew what we were dealing with by organizing against, for the most part, unchecked small-scale crime and addiction to inhalants and alcohol. I wasn’t sure whether D and C were misjudging the situation. I wasn’t sure to what extent there would be resistance. Or threats. I knew enough about culture to know I didn’t understand what I was happening around me.

Two more people should up. On of them Manuelito, D’s reading student, the boy no one washes. He has read almost every one of the thirty or so books D has accumulated. The last one was a book on how to play chess. I told him I would play with him sometime in the future. In the meantime, I pump up the younger boys’ ragged soccer balls. That is my work with the next generation as they prepare to run the drug gauntlet only a few years from now.

Manuelito stayed for the whole meeting. He was the only child who was actually participating. D had brought crayons and extra paper for children to draw or write their dreams (expectativas). He lay down on the sidewalk right away and began to draw.

In the end, there were something like thirty-five people. Under the category Existing Positive Things about the Barrio, people mentioned the beauty of the city, the presence of so many concerned neighbors, and the many children who played quite peacefully in our midst.

For Dreams, people wanted more religious holidays, the graffiti painted away, the nuisance vacant lot sealed off, more places for children to play, more police vigilance, more security in general, waste paper baskets for the waste created by snacks and soft drinks people consumed—in general, an end to the ugliness created by people who didn’t care.

The Problems, of course, had to do with the drug consumption, sniffing inhalants, the resulting violent and disrespectful behavior and the growing lack of security for everyone after sunset. Two of the mothers of problem kids were present. I took them small paper plates of popcorn. I notice one of them put hers aside. I had not consciously realized it before, but she had long since lost the teeth to eat it with. They had come, I suppose, to monitor our actions, to be on the lookout for any infringement on their sons’ right to sell mota–marijuana, or inhalants.

More people came–many I had never really seen before. They complained about trash being dumped in other nearby vacant lots. About mugger types ambling past their homes, keeping them from going out at night. What to do about the problems? Go to the Presidencia and get them to seal off the vacant lots. D and C emphasized that no one wanted to blame the juveniles or have them go to jail; that they should finish get an education and find jobs and do well earning a living. That it made no sense to call the police when you saw a drugged out kid who was being disrespectful, even threatening. That the concerned citizens should call the mothers instead.

In the end, we agreed to go to the Presidencia. We agreed to bring in experts on community education. We agreed to get the vacant lot owner to pay attention to the lot and seal it off so the kids couldn’t sell drugs there or get zonked on paint thinner, thereby destroying their brains at the same time.

The woman who had earlier told D and C she had been instructed not to reveal the name and information of the lot owner—the aunt or mother of one of the most problematic adolescents—volunteered to find out who owned the lot. C said she would write a solicitud (formal letter of request for information regarding the ownership of the lot. I had been to the Presidencia three times asking for help with the abandoned lot. With complete disinterest, the authorities told me I had to write a formal solicitud. That would be a written request for the information I had just asked for. Since I can’t write the tortured Byzantine language of Mexican bureaucracy, C wrote the letter. I’m not even sure I could write such a letter in English. I do not expect the aunt or mother of the problem kid to follow through. I do not expect the city to enjoin anyone to do anything about the lot. I am not even really sure the lot rightfully belongs to anyone, since the lot “owner” was squatting on it in the first place and has reportedly since died. (There is a legal path to ownership by which you build a fence around the land you’re claiming, post your name, and hang on to it for ten years.) In the meantime, the man’s widow may or may not have been “hanging onto the lot” in a way acceptable to the disinterested city bureaucracy. Hence, a property in limbo.

At one point, a couple of the local pre-hooligan lads crossed through the meeting, averting their gaze with studied non-interest—while everyone’s eyes followed them through. Younger children came and bought candy at the tiny store fifteen steps from out door. Some sat on the steps with the relatives. An hour and a half had passed. The participants agreed to meet again in two weeks. Some stayed behind to chat. The whole thing had come off as a kind of morality play with everyone playing a role. C and D were the organizers, G was the note taker at the paper on the sheet of plywood. The drug dealers’ mothers and aunts played the role of concerned good citizens looking out for their children’s rights. Most everyone else was an indignant citizen who, without any help from the city government, was trying to figure out how to gain control over the gone-to-hell neighborhood. I had played the role of popcorn server and alien gringo, with little noticeable social credit, in spite of all my afternoons of re-inflating the younger boys’ cheap, beat-up, half-dead, soccer balls. Manuelito, the boy no one washes—on the paper laid out for children to write their expectativas, their dreams—had written “No drogas,” no drugs! then a picture of a bottle of beer that said “Corona” and finally “…hay que vivir guntos (he meant juntos),” we have to live together (in peace). Mother Teresa allegedly wrote: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa and Manuelito.

A much larger crowed showed up at the community meeting the in the nearby Plaza Mexiamora. A city official attended but–we were told–looked away and chatted with someone else whenever a citizen addressed him during the meeting. At one point, three of the local trouble–makers strutted through. The crowd, angry and hostile, surrounded them. One of the punks, it is said, began to cry. Two policemen who stood nearby did not engage with either the citizens or the punks—who are also citizens but just don’t know it; and with luck will someday become leaders in their barrio.

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