In the winter of 2013, I started working at a small Italian restaurant. It was close to where I lived in the Upstate NY town that I had moved to in 2012. My husband and I had left NYC after Hurricane Sandy destroyed our home and everything in it. I was lucky to escape with just the clothes on my back and my little blind cat, Grumbles. Grumbles was a ginger cat that I had rescued when I found him on a Brooklyn street, on an unbearably hot summer day in 2010. Grumbles was hungry, alone, and obviously blind. He was very timid, but once I took him home and got him some medical attention, he became my constant companion. Although I had other pets, Grumbles never left my side. We had a special relationship, and even now, the thought of him, makes me smile and tear up.
Homelessness is a big issue in this town, just like it is in NYC and everywhere in the world. There was one homeless man, in particular, that I often saw near the only Walmart in the area. I would often give him what I could and sometimes, I would stop and talk with him. His name was John, a man in his late 60’s, with a very pronounced limp, and a soft voice. He had a small cat with him, named Princess. Princess was a calico cat with green eyes. The first time that I stopped to talk to John, I thought that Princess was a kitten because of her small size. John was never without Princess by his side. I could tell that their connection was unbreakable and that their love for each other was very strong. I knew that John cared greatly for Princess. I always saw him feeding her, and making sure that she was warm in the frigid weather. Whenever I saw John and Princess, I always tried to have a treat ready for the little cat.
A woman that I worked with at the restaurant had mentioned that she didn’t think that John should have Princess with him on the street. She didn’t think that it was fair to Princess to have to suffer hunger and homelessness, just because she was with John, who was homeless and struggling. She said that she was going to ask John if he would allow her to adopt Princess. She was going to offer John a “good price”, she said. The next day, my coworker came into the restaurant in a very bad mood. I knew that it had to do with John and Princess, before she spoke. She angrily yelled that she offered John up to $1,200, to allow her to adopt Princess, but he refused. John told her that Princess was his child and best friend. There wasn’t anything that she could offer him that would make him give up his beloved cat.
I understood how John felt. I had been in his place before, homeless and scared. My cat, Grumbles, was my best friend. He loved me unconditionally, and there wasn’t anything that would make me give him up, just like John would never give Princess away. In many ways, Princess’s love is what helped John face his everyday struggles and what kept him going for another day. I started to think about my own past and how an animal helped me when I had nothing to wake up for in the morning.
In the fall of 2012, my husband and I had been living in a ground floor apartment by the marina in Brooklyn. We had a quiet life with our four cats. My husband is legally blind and finding work was difficult. People saw his disability as a liability, some even said so. I had supported us throughout the years and I didn’t mind that I was the only one that was working.
However, in October of 2012, I was in between jobs and living off some savings that were quickly running out. The year before, in 2011, New York was hit by Hurricane Irene. We lived in Sheepshead Bay, a small “fishing village” in Brooklyn. Our apartment was down the street from the marina and it was one of the places in Brooklyn, where a hurricane can cause major floods. Everyone in the area where we lived was evacuated during Hurricane Irene.
I had enough money then for me, my husband and our cats to go to a motel and ride out the storm. After Hurricane Irene, We went back to the apartment, to find everything the way we left it. There was no flood, only a couple of lawn chairs that we had in the backyard were turned over, but nothing else was broken or flooded.
That was not the case the following year. On October 29th 2012, evacuations were not mandatory as they were in the year before. We were told that if there was no damage to our place in 2011, then there was nothing to worry about with Hurricane Sandy. At the time, my resources were quickly running out. I had been interviewing for positions, but nothing was offered to me, yet. We didn’t evacuate the apartment and just hoped for the best, when the storm came.
At around 7:15 in that evening, I watched as the front door and its surroundings, literally, caved in, as a wall of water rushed into the apartment. My husband and I had to move quickly. As I tried to grab my cats, the water was rising. I couldn’t get hold of them. I became trapped in the apartment, behind some junk and although my husband had very little vision, he managed to swim around the house, and get me out before I was electrocuted or drowned. I was able to swim out of the apartment as the water continued to rise.
We lost everything we had. Within seconds, our lives were underwater. Three of our animals drowned, but my blind ginger cat Grumbles, survived. He was intelligent enough to pull things from an open closet, clothes, blankets, etc. and he stood on top of everything till the water subsided a little. A neighbor took us in that night. I remember not wanting daylight to appear because I didn’t want to face the fact that we were, now, homeless and penniless.
I was able to get Grumbles out, three days after they pumped the water out of the apartment. Nothing else was salvaged. Grumbles was all I had left, besides my husband. We held on to each other while we lived in shelters and on the street. We had nothing but each other. Grumbles was a source of comfort to me whenever I was sad or scared. I would hold him close and cry. Grumbles would give me a couple of sandy kisses on my cheek and would snuggle closer to me. Grumbles never really connected with my husband, so he was truly my cat alone. He knew that I needed him, and he was there for me. A beautiful ginger cat that didn’t judge me on how much I had or any preconceived ideas about being homeless. An unconditional love that’s rarely found in human beings.
We started a Gofundme page, but that didn’t last long. Many people accused us of “begging” and said cruel things to us. I’ll never forget how people treated us, whenever they saw us on the street. We were no longer human beings, just trash that defaced the landscape. They accused us of using Grumbles to get sympathy and to beg for services. They didn’t see the love that I had for him. We only had each other in a cold and cruel world. Some people wanted to adopt Grumbles, to “save him” from the life that we were living. I never accepted any offers for him, no matter how much I needed the money. Grumbles was what I held on to, and he only knew me. No one could ever tear us apart from each other.
We eventually managed to get off the street, through some donations that were made by people that actually cared. We moved to upstate NY, because we could no longer afford the rents in NYC. We found a reasonable place to live and I found my job at the restaurant.
I had been homeless before Hurricane Sandy, due to other unfortunate circumstances. However, my compassion and understanding for the homeless was not a result of my own experiences of being homeless. I knew that homelessness, and poverty can happen to anyone, at any time. We are all one step away from being that person on the street, asking for change and a little empathy. This is hard to explain to some people, because many people are of the mindset of “that can’t happen to me, because I’m not an addict, lazy, or crazy”. I’ve heard that said many times in my life and I always try to explain how wrong it is to think this way.
Especially when a homeless person has a pet, people think that the homeless individual shouldn’t have the animal, because they’re abusing it by having it suffer along with them on the street, or that they are using the pet as a means to beg or to induce sympathy. In many cases, the pet that a homeless person has, is the only true friend that they have in the world. The love between them is strong and infinite. I have met many of the homeless who would rather feed their pet, and go hungry themselves, if they only had provisions for one. How can someone judge such a relationship? How can someone deprive another human being of the love they give and receive from their pet?
I tried to explain to my coworker who wanted to purchase Princess from John. She never understood what I was trying to tell her, and insisted that Princess was better off with her, and away from John.
It’s been many years since Hurricane Sandy. Grumbles passed away in 2015, from kidney failure. I held him in my arms as he passed, and told him how much I loved him. I still miss him everyday, and I will never forget how he was a source of light for me, when the world was dark and ugly. I honor Grumbles’ legacy, by donating to Pets Of The Homeless and I urge whoever is reading this, to do the same. For some homeless people, their pets are what keeps them going, and what gives them hope.
A few years ago, I ran into John, who was now living in assisted housing. He told me that Princess had passed away at the age of 11. He said that the light had gone out of his life, when little Princess died. He cried, and I cried along with him. I knew what he felt. I told him that there are other cats and kittens that need a home, and he can help one, by adopting a cat in need. He smiled at me and said, “Princess was one of a kind.” I agreed with him, and told him to just think about the love that he can give to a needy animal, just like Princess, and the love that he’d surely get in return.
I said goodbye to John, and I told him that I hope to see him again soon. As I walked away, I smiled to myself. I knew that John would probably adopt another cat or kitten. An animal that will bring the light back into his life, a reason to keep going in a world without love.
@2021 Johanna Elattar