When we paws to remember those who made our world a more joyous, more loving place, it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear and Flushing.
The Aikens family of Seneca, S.C. had the right idea. One fall day in 1954, not long after the New York Giants swept the Cleveland Indians for the world championship, they had a son. They named him Willie — Willie Mays Aikens. In doing so, they guaranteed they would raise a baseball player. Willie Mays Aikens made the majors in 1977. You could look it up.
Names aren’t always destiny. I learned that personally. I had a young’n. Gave him the most baseball name I could think of. Yet I could never seem to get him immersed in the game I love.
Did I mention I’m talking about a cat?
On April 26, 1993, Stephanie called me from work. She had a proposition, a pretty straightforward one. There’s this cat, and he needs a home. He’s really sweet. Can we? Can we?
This was six months into my indoctrination as a cat person. It took nearly 30 years to get me to the platform, but only 30 seconds to bring me on board. When we moved to East Rockaway in October 1992, Steph asked our new landlords to add a rider to our lease. We wanted to get a cat. There were supposedly no pets allowed, but the mellow older couple that owned the house weren’t sticklers. Harold didn’t mind and Marge just asked that we keep it indoors, lest the birds who came to her feeder be disturbed. Stephanie agreed. I shrugged.
I did not want a cat. It’s not that I didn’t like them per se. I preferred them to one option — dogs — though not to another — status quo. I had never had a pet. The idea, like most things new, frightened me. I’m not cleaning the litter box, I said. I wasn’t quite sure what went on in a litter box and I didn’t want to find out. Stephanie agreed to that, all while reassuring me that cats don’t randomly scratch and claw their people, something I insisted was going to happen.
Oh, all right. I relented. On Halloween, we drove up to Port Washington and the North Shore Animal League to adopt a cat. One condition, though: I get to name him.
We got him and I named him. He was Bernie, a three-month-old black-and-white American shorthair kitten who showed the right mix of playfulness (he grabbed at the drawstring on my hood) and temperament (he was the only cat who didn’t seem suspicious of me). He was Bernie in honor of Bernard Shaw, host of CNN’s Inside Politics, must-see TV for me in that election season.
Bernie was less polished anchorcat and more myowling kitten as we drove him home. We stopped at a pet store to secure some supplies, including the litter box I had no intention of getting anywhere near. Bernie kept caterwauling. Is this all these things do?
The three of us arrive home. Stephanie places the box on the kitchen floor. No litter, just box. Bernie jumps in and takes care of business. WOW! He held it in the whole ride home! I was impressed by cats, especially this one. It was love at first whiz.
Still, the early Bernie days were a little mysterious for each of us, him and me. He spent hours hiding under the recliner. Then he came out and threw up. Then he returned to under the recliner. But he was a sport, considering the change of lifestyle he was undergoing. He posed for more pictures than Elle MacPherson. He was so small, so convenient to scoop up for seconds at a time, long enough for Steph to click the camera before he wriggled free. Slowly, we adjusted to each other.
I think the true turning point was Christmas Eve, when I brought him back to North Shore for his complimentary neutering. Now that resulted in a caterwauling ride home. While he expressed his dismay over the whole procedure, I talked him down, told him everything was going to be all right. Like I knew. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
We walked through the door, I released him from his carrier and just like that, he stopped whining. He just wanted to come home.
So that was us, our little family, me, my wife and our cat. What more could we need?
Not another cat. No. No way. No reason. I’m just getting comfortable with Bernie.
But this other cat, Stephanie pleaded. He is so sweet, so adorable, so cute, so loving, with a story to break your heart: One of her fellow case managers at the Upper East Side agency for the elderly where they worked, a girl from Italy named Noemi, had a client, an old man, who lived alone. A cat lover herself, she hooked him up with a tabby in need of adoption. The tabby was a year old when he moved in. He then spent a year in the company of the old man. Then the old man died. Nobody knew for a week…except for the tabby.
OK, my heart is broken, but why can’t Noemi take him? Noemi tried. But Noemi has a cat at home who, she said in a thick Italian accent, “ees a leetle beetch.” The incumbent cat vetoed a companion. It was Stephanie’s turn to step up.
What if Bernie reacts the same as the leetle beetch? Stephanie said this cat had such a wonderful disposition that Bernie had to like him. You should see him. He kisses everybody. In catspeak, that means licking. He liked to lick. He lived to lick. He could lick it up. But whether he was cleaning (cats use their tongues like people use washcloths) or being affectionate, calling a cat licky sounds unbecoming. That’s why, Stephanie said, the old man named him Kissy.
Well, I’ll think about it, I said. I thought about it. I called back.
“OK, you can bring the cat home,” I consented. “But one thing: I’m not calling any cat of mine Kissy.”
The next night, I walked into the living room, and staring up at me from the top of the couch was an orange cat I’d never seen before. He had never seen me. I walked over and said hello. He licked my face. He licked my hair. He licked my arm. Son of a gun, he really is kissy. But I’m still not calling him that.
Thus commenced the journey of Casey the Cat. Casey, so named because Kissy was repellent. Casey, so named because I’ve always done a pretty decent Casey Kasem impression (which morphed into Casey Kitty and American Top Kitty). But Casey, mostly so named because it is the greatest name in baseball history. And I’m thinking more than at the bat.
Charles Dillon Casey Stengel Cat Prince. That’s what I liked to call him. Casey didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He didn’t know about the rumpled Kansas City (K.C.) native born in 1890, a player of some note, a character of characters, a New York Giant, a Brooklyn Dodger and, if we can skip what he was doing in the 1950s, ultimately, the first manager of the New York Mets.
The Mets are who they are because of Casey Stengel. Without him extolling the worst club in baseball history as the Amazin’ Mets, we’d have been the Houston Colt .45s without mosquitoes, just another awful expansion outfit. There would have been no placards, no Youth of America, no “if you wanna be a sailor, join the navy,” no “we wuz gonna give you a piece, Marv, but we wuz afraid you’d drop it,” no “tell ’em I’m being embalmed,” no “can’t anybody here play this game?” no anecdotes for Ralph Kiner to dig up during rain delays over the next four decades.
The Mets would not have been the Mets without Casey Stengel. Mets fans would not have been Mets fans without that Amazin’ aura. And this Mets fan would not have truly become the cat person he became without Casey the Cat.
One cat makes you a that-cat person. Two cats means you’re serious. As someone whose calling card had always been baseball, it meant I was now something else. I was the guy with the kitties and I was enthusiastically putting my pussycats on a pedestal. Their pictures shared space in my office with those of Seaver and Gooden and Brogna. That’s how much they got to me, the law firm of Bernie & Casey. The Boys. When they merged their talents in 1993, it was an instant hit partnership. We have the pictures to prove it. Casey would nuzzle Bernie and Bernie would let him.
Stephanie was right. Casey loved Bernie and Bernie loved him back. Bernie had seniority in our house but Casey immediately took to the role of benevolent big brother. He taught Bernie the kitten how to be a cat. I don’t think Bernie ever purred before Casey showed him the vocal ropes. Casey knew how to purr — loudly and with affection. It was his avocation. Bernie loved him maybe because he could get him to scratch on the bedroom door on his behalf to wake us up to feed them (mostly Bernie) at three, four, five in the morning. It worked. Casey scratched, one of us woke, Bernie ate. It worked so well, that Bernie the tiny kitten became a photographic memory. Bernie The Cat became the biggest thing going in the animal kingdom by the end of 1994.
Casey loved Stephanie. That was the combo that really got me. He loved his mommy and mommy loved him back. They slept together. Sometimes I’d let him into the bedroom with Steph asleep. Casey thought nothing of climbing on top of my snoozing spouse. She’d sleep on her side and he’d sleep on her side that was available. Sometimes Casey’d curl up around her head. And to not make me feel bad, sometimes he’d come over and go kissy on me — my scalp, my arms, my feet. I think he had a cleaning neurosis, but at least he was built for it. He had a long, rough tongue that wouldn’t always fit back into his mouth. He was hilarious that way.
One thing he wasn’t, despite his pedigree, was baseball-savvy. A real shame. If only he’d understood who he was named for. Casey Stengel’s claim to fame before he managed the Yankees between 1949 and 1960 to ten pennants and seven World Series titles came when he played for the Pirates in 1919. Visiting Ebbets Field, he won back the hearts of his old fans by doffing his cap and revealing a sparrow which fluttered away. He pulled another bird out from his hat a year later when he was a Phillie.
Casey the Cat would’ve liked that. He would’ve watched the birdie and waited for its return. He’d do that. If a bird flew close to our living room window, Casey would hop up on the sill and follow its progress, whether it remained nearby or not. Marge was right to insist we keep them indoors.
I couldn’t give Casey a bird, but I could give him a cap. One of my many feline-related goals during the course of the 1990s was to catch Casey by surprise, sneaking a Mets cap onto his head while he watched me watch the Mets. He never went for it. As soon as it was on, he shook it off. It was OK for him to run that sandpapery tongue on me, but god forbid I annoy him.
Couldn’t tell you how many games Casey witnessed. About as many as I did during the seasons he was on the active roster. He liked joining me on the couch, particularly if mommy was there, too. He never booed and he rarely hissed. Few fans can say the same.
Casey Stengel was available to manage the Mets because the Yankees, spoiled by success, fired him after they lost the 1960 World Series. “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again,” he told the press. The Mets won the city’s PR battle by grabbing him as soon as they were invented. The first time the Mets faced the Yankees, in a spring training game in 1962, Casey managed as if it were the seventh or eighth game of the World Series. He played his regulars and his regulars won.
Casey the Cat would’ve appreciated that. He took the Subway Series rivalry very seriously. Shoot, he emerged from surgery in time to catch the first Mets-Yankees game of 1999, live from Yankee Stadium. Casey made the mistake of developing a bump on his back that spring. We were concerned. We got some pet insurance and took him to the vet in Island Park. She said it was probably nothing, but it ought to be removed. That was Friday, June 4. Casey, back shaved, was literally in stitches, wearing a cone to protect them from his tongue. He was disoriented from surgery. Put off by his cone, he kept backing himself into a corner. I think it was his tribute to his team. The Mets were disoriented. They were put off by David Cone who backed them into a corner. The Mets lost. But Casey won. Word from the doctor was the bump was a fibroma. Nothing malignant. She said he’d be fine.
And he was. So were the Mets. That Sunday, the Mets broke what seemed like a life-threatening eight-game losing streak, against Roger Clemens, no less. That started them on a 40-15 run that inoculated them against a September choke job that nearly cost them a playoff spot. Casey was on hand for the Wild Cards of 1999 and 2000. He and Bernie and Stephanie all joined me on the couch for the Subway Series, the real one. I got a new orange Mets cap for the occasion. Bernie, less mobile than he once was, didn’t budge when I placed it on him. We have the pictures to prove that, too. Casey still wasn’t going for it.
Come late November 2000, a bump reappeared on Casey. Probably just the fibroma, we figured. We hoped. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we brought him in, and for the second time in less than 18 months, Casey underwent surgery. Similar post-op experience: back shaved, stitches, the cone. Similar prognosis — benign. Our vet said sometimes you don’t get it all. This time, she was pretty sure, they did.
They didn’t. Or they did and there was something to more to it. In February 2001, as pitchers and catchers were returning to Port St. Lucie, a bump reappeared on our cat’s back. This was too much for the local vet. She referred us to a real hospital for animals with real specialists for animal diseases. Yes, they’d have to operate. On March 2, Casey went under the knife for the third time in 21 months. This was a cat, 12 pounds of fur and bone, and he was being cut into every 30 weeks.
The operation was successful, I was told over the phone. Casey is in the ICU. Can you imagine that? A cat in intensive care? We spent the weekend with just Bernie, who noticed something was missing. Don’t tell me cats aren’t aware. It was Casey who was the people cat. Bernie, I liked to say, was the star of the family, an absolute matinee idol but slightly aloof, a little unapproachable. But with Casey absent, he saw what he had to do. He nuzzled up to Stephanie, may have even licked her hand. As brothers go, they beat the Niekros, the Perrys, even the Aarons.
We fetched Casey a couple of days later and nursed him to what seemed like health. On a return visit to the hospital to have his stitches removed, we consulted with an oncologist. Coldest bastard in a lab coat I ever saw. He was all business. Your cat, he said, has cancer and nine months to live. The cancer will come back. Here are your options: You can get him a series of chemo treatments. That will buy him another nine months. Combine that with radiation and that could make it two years. The radiation can be on Long Island, but you’d have to go to Boston for the chemo.
We had already spent $2,000 on Casey at the hospital. That didn’t count the two previous operations. Money wasn’t no object. Casey came first, but geez, you wanna do what to my cat? Put him through chemotherapy and radiation? My mother went through that. She was a full-sized person and she couldn’t take it. You’re saying my 12-pound cat should go through it now?
The oncologist wasn’t saying that, not really. Steph and I realized a little later that when somebody tells you to take your cat out-of-state for expensive, complicated treatments to buy him a few more months, he’s probably telling you not to. But that wasn’t the deciding factor. The deciding factor was Casey’s eyes, Casey’s actions. Before the oncologist came into the room, he was purring and rubbing his face glands up against the nurse and then the examination table and then anything handy. That was Casey. Casey loved to scent-mark. (I still reflexively put my knuckles out waiting for them to be claimed by the first cat who will give them a good rub-up.) But when Dr. Cold Bastard came in, Casey jumped off the table down to the floor and cowered. No purring. No rubbing. That wasn’t Casey. He gave me this look…Please, don’t do this to me. No more procedures. No more intensive care. Just get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore.
We listened to his eyes. Casey never went back there or to another hospital.
But we didn’t give up. One of the good things about being known as cat people is you develop a pretty decent network of other cat people, cat people who know something. One of them was Stephanie’s director at her agency downtown, where she’d been working for a couple of years. She advised us to go holistic, recommending a vet who did some wonderful things for her cats. He came to her apartment. That was the catch, he only did housecalls, only in Manhattan.
We wanted him. We toyed with the idea of sneaking Casey into one of our offices in the city on a weekend when nobody was around or borrowing somebody’s apartment. None of it really made sense. Maybe I could talk this guy into coming out our way. I’ll double his price. I could afford it. Look at how much we saved on passing up those Boston trips.
I got ahold of the doctor, told him about Casey, told him he was highly recommended and we’d be deeply appreciative if you’d come out to us, even though we’re in East Rockaway. Wouldn’t you know it, he said, I’m headed out that way this Saturday, I’ll stop by then. Great! Need directions?
This is where I made a wrong turn. By telling him how to get to East Rockaway, I made the doc realize that East Rockaway was nowhere near where he was going to be this weekend. He was headed to Far Rockaway or Rockaway Beach or one of those damn Rockaways in Queens that people were always confusing with ours, which is nowhere near its namesakes. The vet said forget it, I’m not schlepping all the way to Long Island.
My whole life, I’ve taken no for an answer. I always feel I’m impeding on other people’s right to ignore me. But this wasn’t about me. This was about a cat whose only chance for survival lay in this guy’s bag of tricks.
“My cat has a death sentence,” I heard myself tell this doctor. “And you can do something about it.”
I guess my mother taught me how to dish out the guilt, because it worked. The holistic vet who never made housecalls outside the five boroughs grunted that all right, all right, I’ll come over Saturday.
We prepared for our first housecall, April 21, 2001. Steph cleared the coffee table of all its piles of crap, most of it baseball-related. I looked out the window. There was no sign of the reluctant medicine man. I peeked at the TV. The Mets were not scoring against the Reds, a symptom of their early-season, post-pennant hangover.
The phone rang. It was a clearly cranky holistic vet. I’ve followed your directions, but I can’t find your house, grumble, grumble. He described his position. It was like a block away. Stay right there, I said. I’ll come get you.
I threw on a Mets windbreaker and headed out and flagged him down. He and his girlfriend (this was a Saturday) emerged from their car. He was wearing a Mets cap.
“This place,” he fumed, “is no fun to get to.”
“At least,” I said in appeasement, “I know my cat won’t be examined by some Yankees fan.”
His eyes lit up. “You’ve got that right.”
A highly recommended vet and a Mets fan. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The vet and his assistant or main squeeze or whatever she was came upstairs. Casey was waiting on the table. He proceeded to receive an Eastern examination. This, it was explained, was different from a Western examination. It involved a lot of feeling the cat up. No squirming, no squealing, Casey sat still for it. The doctor was onto something. Until…
The Mets started to hit. We all looked up at the TV. Kevin Appier rounded third and headed for home. I had been concerned for my cat’s life. This doctor, on assignment, was confronting cancer. But we both remembered what was really important. The Mets scored. Wasn’t that something, we said to each other.
The Mets won. The cat — remember him? — he wasn’t immortal, but he was going to outlive the oncologist’s prognosis. He’s too healthy, our visitor said. That sigh of relief could be heard from East Rockaway to Cincinnati, where Armando Benitez would record his third save of the season. The vet recommended a bunch of herbs and chicken, baked chicken. Cook for the cat. Give him bottled water. It will help. You’ll see.
We would. How could I not trust a Mets fan who came all the way out to the apparent boonies? Especially a Mets fan whose girlfriend was impressed enough with our home to declare “you’re the only people with more Mets stuff than him,” the vet. Yeah, he allowed, you do have more stuff than I do. Do you have season tickets, too?
No, I told him, but I just went in on a partial plan with some friends, Tuesdays and Fridays.
So did he. Where were my tickets?
Mezzanine. So were his. Which section?
So were his. The vet, who couldn’t bear the thought of driving maybe 45 minutes out of his way, actually sat within five rows of me twice a week every week the Mets were home. That had to be a sign.
The 2001 Mets looked pretty sick, but Casey was looking better. The chicken and the herbs helped. For at least a few months, his recovery was, to quote the Ol’ Perfesser himself, amazin’, amazin’, amazin’. But another bump in the road was inevitable. It showed itself on him in July. I don’t remember if it was our holistic vet or on the Web, but we learned about a recently approved cancer drug. Our local vet could dispense it. She tracked it down and dutifully injected it every Saturday for five weeks. It didn’t help. The shots only bothered Casey, made him sore.
After the last of those trips, Stephanie and I knew that was the ballgame, so to speak. We could keep making with the chicken and the herbs and the bottled water (it certainly wasn’t hurting Bernie any) and we could let him have at our skin and our hair and all the things he always liked to kiss. But there was an air of inevitability to all this now. Casey was going to die soon.
I saw it with my mother. I rooted for it to happen. That sounds mean, but you had to be there. She was a wreck. It happened to her and it would happen to Casey. Yet he was still capable of amazin’ behavior. Stephanie’s director and her husband got the full Casey treatment when they dropped by unexpectedly in January 2002. We took pictures of her with the cat, Casey willingly being cradled in a stranger’s arms. That’s the Casey that made East Rockaway famous.
The 2002 baseball season commenced. The Mets, reinforced by Mo Vaughn and Robbie Alomar, were supposed to be good. They weren’t. Neither was Casey. The bump was the size of a pitcher’s mound. That May, my best friend Chuck came over. Bernie was always suspicious of visitors, so no biggie when he spit and growled and hid. But Casey was always friendly, always got jazzed by new people. This time, Casey tucked himself behind the TV. I don’t want anybody to see me this way, he told us.
It just got worse. The tumor was bursting through the skin. The smell of dead tissue permeated the apartment. Casey took to a spot in the kitchen near the garbage. It was too intentional to be a coincidence. Just throw me out. I’m done. We weren’t doing that. We got him a towel to lie on there. This always fastidious cat lost the ability or perhaps the will to groom himself. His exemplary cleanliness — he seemed incapable of slovenliness — was beyond his reach. He often couldn’t make it to the litter box. We sighed and picked up after him as necessary.
He still had his moments, almost as if he were tidying up his affairs. Because his control over his functions was, to be kind, erratic, we kept him out of the bedroom. But one Sunday night he just had to come in. He wanted on the bed. I helped him up. And he came over and licked Stephanie on the face. Then me on the arm. He hadn’t done that for I don’t know how many months. He had to do it one more time. It was his bottom of the ninth. He wasn’t going to not get his last licks. And I guess he never really stopped being kissy.
Neither of us was brave enough to do what pet owners are forced to do. We talked about it, of course. When should we call the vet? When should we make an appointment to, um, you know? Not as long as he’s walking, I said. He was walking, but less and less. Now he was limping. Not as long as he’s eating. He has an appetite. If he wants to eat, he wants to live. But he was eating less and less.
This couldn’t go on. On Tuesday June 25, I called our vet’s office and spoke to Lorri. The vet was all right, but Lorri was awesome. She was the office manager, the one who made sure Bernie and Casey got taken care of, got the biggest kennel cage available when we had to board them. She was Bernie’s champion. Both she and Bernie were, shall we say, full-figured, which is maybe why she always doted on him, whereas others in the waiting room kind of pointed and chuckled at that big cat. She felt for Casey, too, and she knew why I was calling. Lorri made an appointment for us to bring Casey in early afternoon, Saturday, June 29. That way all the other people and pets would be gone. You don’t want to have your cat put to sleep while somebody’s waiting to get their cockatoo looked at.
I couldn’t believe we were doing this. That very Wednesday, I came home late and dug some tuna salad out of the fridge. I sat on the couch, mindlessly shoveling it into my mouth with a piece of bagel when I heard stirring. It was Casey. Almost gone, he sensed tuna. He dragged himself from the kitchen to the living room. The hell with the herbs. I gave him all the tuna I could find. Stephanie took to feeding him ice cream.
That was a last hurrah and it was agonizing to realize it. I sought out everybody at my beverage magazine and via e-mail who was a cat person for advice, for a shoulder. To a person, they were extraordinary in their empathy. My Tuesday/Friday season ticket partners, Jason and Emily, husband and wife, didn’t have a cat at the moment, but they were beautiful about it. The disappointing Mets were preparing for their annual trip to Yankee Stadium that Friday night, the 28th of June, three years and three weeks since the Friday night in 1999 when Casey came home from his first operation. At this juncture, given my cat’s condition, to say nothing of the Mets’ recent nosedive (21-27 since early May), I couldn’t give a whit about what happened in the Bronx.
Jason saw some possibilities, though. “Mo,” he urged Vaughn in an e-mail to me, “hit one for Casey.” [Lest you think Jason is merely a terrific blogger, he happens to moonlight as a top-notch human being.]
I worked past the 7:05 first pitch. Nothing new there. I was trying to finish a Snapple cover story. It seems I’d been staying late to finish Snapple cover stories since I first became a cat person. This was the third one. Stephanie was home and told me Casey was still with us, that the trip to the vet would still be in order. I tried to forget all that. Finish the stupid story. Listen to the stupid game. The stupid Yankees did what the stupid Yankees tended to do. They scored five in the bottom of the third and took a 6-1 lead. Snapple, somewhere on my PC screen, was touting another innovation.
In the fourth inning, Mo Vaughn came up with one on. He got ahold of a Mike Mussina pitch and sent it over the wall. I’ll be damned. Mo did it.
Mo hit one for Casey.
I didn’t know what it meant, but I was glad it happened. The Mets were still losing and would go on to lose 11-5, but the final score could hardly matter less.
At 9:45, my phone rang. It was Stephanie. She didn’t have to say a word. I knew.
Stephanie was on the living room floor with him. He let out a little burst of noise, a last breath or two, and that was that. Bernie hovered. The three of them were together at the end. I was at work. Casey was twelve, approximately 64 in people years. Too young, but nearly seven months better than the oncologist’s prognosis.
I asked Steph when it happened. About an hour ago, she said, which would make it 8:45. Mo’s home run came around 7:45, no later than 8:00, certainly before 8:45. It didn’t cure him, but it somehow made me feel better.
Let me wrap this thing up, I said. I wrote real fast and took care of Snapple. At Penn Station, I stopped by the Central Market deli, the place that sold sushi to go. If Casey liked tuna, I decided, I should bring home some tuna rolls. Stephanie and I toasted him with raw fish. He would’ve wanted it that way. Actually, he would’ve wanted the fish.
Saturday morning, I called Lorri at the vet’s. Wouldn’t you know it, I said. Casey was considerate to the end. Sixteen hours before we were going to have our guts wrenched by watching our cat euthanized, he saved us the trouble. We won’t be needing our appointment.
Of course this left us with a dead cat in a Land’s End box. A fly was circling it. I was insulted. Get away from my cat, you vulture. We called the Bide-A-Wee home in Wantagh, about 20 minutes away. They offered cremation. Bring your cat over.
We delivered Casey to these people who said they’d have him back for us to pick up in a couple of weeks. And that was that. That was the life and death of Charles Dillon Casey Stengel Cat Prince. It was, to borrow from a chapter title in a biography I have of our first manager, An Amazin’ Exit.
We left Bide-A-Wee and headed toward home. Being Long Islanders, we marked one of the milestone days of our lives the way Long Islanders do. We stopped at a diner.
In the spring of 2002, Stephanie had started a new job, one that had her working most Saturdays, if not this one. Her new routine had me waking up early on Saturdays, too, which in turn got me into a radio show called Rhythm Revue on listener-supported WBGO, 88.3 FM out of Newark. It played lots of great soul classics, many of them I’d never heard anywhere else. One of host Felix Hernandez’s special mixes blended an all-time favorite of mine, “Mighty Love” by the Spinners, with an a capella cover of the very same song from Todd Rundgren.
That Saturday morning, June 29, 2002, Felix cued it up just as we were parking in the lot behind the Baldwin Coach on Sunrise Highway.
Once there was a boy and girl
Boy said “I love you so”
Girl said “I’ll never leave you”
They grew older and left each other
Addled, vulnerable and suggestible, I immediately identified “Mighty Love” as the story of my Stephanie and my Casey — Mighty Casey. I know Casey never meant to leave, but was there a mightier love on the planet than between the two of them? All those nights that he scratched on the door, not so I would fill Bernie’s dish but so he could to attend to the one true object of his affection in his own very feline way…the climbing, the purring, the rubbing up of scent glands, the settling down, the sharing of a pillow. She slept through it. I liked to watch.
We entered the diner, sat down and ordered. The waiter removed the menus. And in full view of the Saturday brunch crowd at the Baldwin Coach Diner, I was reminded anew what the Spinners and Todd Rundgren meant:
A mighty love
Will sometimes make you
Weep and moan
Let’s just say I could have filled my own water glass several times over.
When we got home, the three of us — Stephanie, Bernie and me — settled in on the couch. It was game time, the Mets and Yankees on Fox. I still didn’t much care, but there they were.
The Mets had been nothing but disappointing thus far in 2002. They were a .500 club and were lucky to be doing that well. But damn it, fellas, give me something today.
This is what they gave me five years ago next week; you could look it up:
One in the first.
One in the second.
One in the third.
Two in the fourth.
One in the fifth.
One in the sixth.
A catnap in the seventh.
One in the eighth.
Three in the ninth.
The Mets won 11-2. They absolutely embarrassed the Yankees on national television. Roger Cedeño, to this point an abject failure in his second term as a Met, tripled (more like a three-base error on emergency rightfielder Enrique Wilson, but we’ll take it) and stole home. It was the first straight steal of home by a Met in 31 years. The slightly less inept Jay Payton got three hits. Utilityman John Valentin and backup catcher Vance Wilson drove in two apiece. Al Leiter cruised. And Mo hit another one, all the way to the upper deck, only a little below from where a certain capless cat may have been taking it all in. I mean, who knows? At the end of a rainbow, sometimes maybe there is a sign in the sky to follow.
Amid the offensive onslaught, which made me smile more than I had planned on doing that Saturday, I thought that the 2002 Mets weren’t so bad. I don’t mean as a baseball team. This was just one game. But they didn’t let me down when I needed them. “They wouldn’t dare do that to me today,” I told Bernie.
Bernie didn’t disagree.
Next Friday: I didn’t hesitate to fall for the No. 5 song of all-time.