Two Gentlemen in Conversation by Madison Salters

Mr. Miffles was a man about town.

To whom did he belong? “To the people,” he would say, casting down his eyes modestly even as his tuxedoed chest puffed up with pride, pristine white with the care he took to press his shirtfront daily.

He used to be a man who joyrode around town, each day with a new partner, pair, or group, spending his mornings dozing at the cozy brownstone he was thought to be attached to, and his evenings sloping over the hood of a convertible, or better still, something vintage.

These days, he did less riding about town and more sitting about town. This was suitable to a man of his age and good standing; he no longer went sniffing out the newcomers. Now, new and old alike came to him to pay their respects. Often, they didn’t come empty-handed—what good guest would?—and brought him little gifts of food or drink that he quite relished and enjoyed at his leisure.

Mr. Miffles was one of those longstanding relics of a place that, over time, the people take a stubborn pride in. No one knew where he came from, nor were many questions asked. But all who had lived near him for any significant amount of time knew his name and tipped a hat or waved their fingers at him when they passed. Those he was most fond of, and children, were even permitted to give his whiskers a tickle now and again, without him grumping too much.

But there was no use in pretending the neighborhood wasn’t changing.

“Going to the dogs,” he’d grumble, watching with milky disapproval in his aged eyes as mothers with wide strides walking cocker-poodles carried home overpriced vegetables to feed toddlers who would never grow to know and love him—no, he’d too soon be gone for that; he’d be another name for the history books.

One day, when the rain was starting to come on very thick indeed and it smelt like thunder on the uneasy horizon, this Mr. Miffles was visited by a rare guest.

“Mr. Miffles,” greeted Todd, with nervous disposition. But then, the gutter rats always were anxious to begin with, and they became edgier still when their usual haunts were set to flood.

Now, fifteen years ago, it might have been too bold for a rat to greet a great black-and-white cat of Mr. Miffles’ stature. Such an attitude was now passé. These days, things were different, and at their ripe ages and New York sizes, Todd was too large for Mr. Miffles to take to task elegantly, and neither saw any whisper of supper in the other’s timeworn form.

So, with a sigh, and leaning down on his paws to remark at the tedium of this, he made a reply.

“Hello, Todd. And what is the news today?”

“Have you heard about the weather?”

“Heard about it? Why, I can smell it a mile off.”

“Is your nose so good still?”

“Of course it is, sir. I am a cat.”

“Yes, yes. So you are. And a fine one, at that.”

Flatterers always wanted something, Mr. Miffles noted, flexing his paw in a delicate, deliberate manner.

“And how is your health today, Mr. Miffles?”

“I am as sporting as ever. And you? How is the family?”

“All of the litters are very well. So far, a very high return rate on our investment.”

“And how many offspring does that make it, this season?”

“Why, surely over forty, though I do so forget their names, and to be safe I call all the girls Laura and all the boys Laurence until they make up their mind to survive to puberty. And then they become such a hassle that they assert their own names at me and make sure I cannot forget them for the headaches they cause.”

“Forty! Old Mr. Mason must be at his wit’s end. Do you have them nesting in his firewood again?”

“It is our winter home, you know. What’s one to do? One cannot move. Not in this real estate climate. There are very few rent-controlled areas anymore, you know.”

“I tell you, I agree with you upon this, Todd. Why, the other day . . . ”

But here, he turned his head away in shame, the deeper blush of his naturally pink nose and the voluptuous clearing of his throat by way of hairball the only signs of his distress.

(Truth be told, he’d been swept off a step he’d taken a liking to for its neat patch of sun the other day. The new mother on the block had shrieked something about a little child’s allergies. Well! Who had told the little child to try to touch him, anyway? And what right had she, and her broom, to bring such a painful taxation upon him? Who could tax the sun?

But the indignity was too great to share.)

“Nevermind.”

Todd seemed crestfallen at the lost story but carried on. “Well, we have talked of the weather, and of our health.” The two most important topics in polite society. “And our progeny. Have I forgotten any genres?”

“A true gentlemen is wise to ask after pets, gardening, and sports.”

“Have you been partaking in much sport?”

“I take a daily walk around the attitude of the borough.”

“And your garden, sir?”

“I visit it at the sill on 31st every day. There, there is a window, and beyond the bloom of my potted hydrangeas—which I am humble guardian to, you know, always chasing away butterflies and batting asunder little mealy bugs—there is the most delightful indoor cat who sits and waits for me. She is as a cotton ball, and very young, and the curtains inside are made of lace. Sometimes, they open the lattices a little, and she has very witty blue eyes, the same color as the hydrangeas, and I recite to her some poems which have come to me, and she listens with quite a gullible face, but an articulate movement of tail. She is very shy, and much too young for me, but I visit anyway.” He thought he had a very good chance at things, actually, were they to leave the lattice a bit more open one day. Prideful men cannot help but wonder at chances they may yet dare to take, and in the meanwhile must naturally assume splendid conclusions.

“She sounds sporting, at that! And what’s her name?”

“Her tag, poor dear . . . ” (Very bourgeois, to have a tag.) “ . . . says ‘Lottie’.”

“A splendid name for a pet!”

“She is a pet.” He purred, tone now complimentary.

“And then, on to your pets. Have you any, and how do they fare?”

“I am up to two fleas, which is twice as many as last night. They have this talent of multiplying by twos. I expect four by tomorrow.”

“Will you train them?”

“Yes, I always do. I will train them to leave. They immigrate, you know, always creating more and more children: and so they can afford the higher rent, if they all move at once. There is a cocker-poodle I have my eye on for them to move into, once they become four and two is eight and eight and two is sixteen and sixteen and two is thirty-two. Thirty-two.”

“My, you are wonderful at math! Should I have been born with hands, I would clap for you.”

“You do a fine job to appreciate arithmetic without clapping. Now, we have truly exhausted all the good topics, so on to the point. What have you come for, Todd?”

It was true, he was not without a request. New Yorkers were known to make their respects to acquaintances, but once the fountain of mannerly topics was drained, they quickly moved on to the main conversational of choice: complaints.

In complaining, real New Yorkers truly shimmered. They explored all manner of savory gossip topics, but always rowing in the same boat together, down the same river of misery, to decry the same demons and suggest similar solutions. An age-old bonding tradition. Nothing made two people feel more alike against the adversity of the world than to admire it together.

“To tell you the truth, I have come to speak to you about the neighborhood.”

“It is going to the dogs!” Mr. Miffles suggested, with a slap of his paw to the pavement which made Todd even edgier than prior. Miffle’s oratory prowess was legendary, and poor fellow Todd had to gather his courage.

“Even I so see that!” Todd stammered out. “And it makes me worry for the future. They call this dogged-ness Gentrification.”

“And what a strange name! As if we weren’t gentlemen before all this hassle and construction.”

“Indeed, indeed.”

“They wake us up at 7 a.m. with all the noise, and they don’t bother to work on days when it rains, hails, or snows; yet they always begin the madness in the winter, so that it’s sure to stretch on ruining breakfast for a decade! Before they gentrify, they leave us to deal with the pulverization!”

“Truly! Endless ruckus. It wasn’t always like this.”

“I should say not! When I was just a kitten roaming these streets, community and allegiance meant something. People recognized your face. They greeted you good morning. They granted you a word, or a crumb. Now?”

“Now it’s all epoxy and new paint and sniffing neighbors with turned up noses who don’t ever knock on anyone else’s door!”

“They don’t even know our names! Nor do they ask. And they call these gentlemen?”

“Outstanding!”

“I think you mean outrageous.”

“Outstandingly outrageous, in fact! And Mr. Miffles—why—have you noticed, it’s spreading?”

“Once it begins, it always spreads. Like my fleas. Two to four and four to eight and so on and so on . . . ”

“Goodness me! We haven’t enough cocker-poodles for all those fleas.”

“The cocker-poodle invasion is imminent.”

“A whole city of flea-ridden cocker-poodles! What is the point? Can you imagine what it is they are thinking?”

“Imagine? Pah! It takes very little imagination on the part of these brutes to ‘imagine’ us gone. They call this form of fallow cunning ‘urban planning.’ It is the very bane of imagination!”

“Urban planning? That is, a plan they make in the city?”

For the city! And what nerve is that? Icarus couldn’t have been more haughty, Narcissus couldn’t have been more vain! For what is the word ‘urban’ but the modernization of the Latin root ‘urb’?”

Here, Todd nodded politely, but it was clear in his faraway eye he did not follow. Still, it seemed only sociable to agree with a complaint made so loudly.

“Urb, meaning ‘city’, my good fellow.”

“Of course, of course . . . ” His tweedy voice repeated, as a mantra against his confusion.

“I shall explain. Can we, or anyone, plan a city any more than we can plan chaos into neat rows? I ask you, when they made Boston, did they not plan it as a city in which cows were principal, and horses the mode of transportation? They did! And now, the city of Boston, which for two hundred years has sprouted up all manner of new constructions over these old ‘plans’, we have the result: the zaniest, most zig-zagging city on the eastern coast! The traffic never lets up! This, the result of a plan. It makes not a lick of sense, and I should know it.”

“Because you do lick yourself regularly,” Todd agreed, in compliment.

“Another example. Do you family plan, Todd?”

“Yes, quite fastidiously in fact!”

“Tell me of such a plan you have made in the past.”

“Why, I planned just last week to take my oldest ones on a picnic.”

“And?”

“It rained, so we decided we must have the picnic indoors. A charming idea.”

“And?”

“And two of my children got sick, and five did not show up to the invitation, but still three made it.”

“And?”

“And when Mr. Mason found us on his carpet, having a feast for twelve split between just five—one of my wives was present—he hit us with his shoe.”

“And your picnic?”

“Quite ruined.”

“A lot of good that family planning did you! Why, Lottie’s owners—“ He sneezed the trifling word owner off his tongue like a bitter taste. “—spent eighteen years planning to send their boy to college, saving and cutting corners, and do you know what their son did when he turned eighteen?”

“Went to college?”

“He ran away from home to join a rock band! So much for saving up on a future doctor!”

“I did not know humans aspired to be rocks.”

“Nor did I, my good fellow, but humans haven’t a jot of sense to rub between them. Anyway, I put it to you: if one cannot even plan a picnic, or a future for their son in the surgery, then how is one supposed to plan an entire city, bearing in mind a million variables of hopes, desires, needs, and motivations? Indeed, such a plan only works if you select people with the same hopes, desires, needs, and motivations who already are in possession of the exact amount of wealth, ambition, social status, and other necessary capital to put the plan in motion at once. Not so much future planning as present planning, and mob mentality.”

“Gracious! Where are they importing ever so many clones from? Even my fifteen sets of twins are less alike than that.”

“Exactly!”

“So before they can even hire the construction crews to work during breakfast at wintertime, before they can put old buildings in new suits to make them gentlemen, they must first find a mob of people who are all, in every important respect, clones?” His lungs searched themselves for the capacity to gasp.

“They call these people ‘buyers and investors,’” Mr. Miffles snuffled with remorse over the term and shook his head quickly to clear an itch off his ear. “And when you have enough people buying and investing, you have the Avocado Toast Effect, ATE, where the people all eat different foods than what they once ate.”

“People do that?”

“Yes. Remember that delightful food truck at the corner, which used to sell soft tacos with the most pungent smell, powdery tortilla piled on high with tumbling meats that always found their way, in part, to the sidewalk for us to sample?”

“Why, of course.”

“It used to be, you could order one with avocado on top. Now, the truck gone, and in its place across the street there is a store where you can only eat avocado.”

“Without meat, cheese, and tortilla?”

“Without much of anything. It is like they do it in Mexico, except in Mexico they add it to things, so it is actually not very much like they do it in Mexico at all. But the logo is, stubbornly, a sombrero.”

“But what does the truck owner have to say about this?”

“Oh, he’s long gone. Evicted by the rising price of his home and his truck.”

“You mean to say that the same spaces can suddenly cost more?”

“Yes.”

“Have those spaces gotten bigger?”

“No.”

“Taller?”

“No.”

“Have they improved the air quality of that space dramatically?”

“No, it is still polluted by the usual.”

“Then what has changed?”

“The things we eat are not the things we once ATE! That is what has changed. The truck owner was evicted and replaced by men in tails.”

“Like your own?”

“Nothing like my own! They seized the very idea of my tail, and they applied it to a suit used for weddings and galas now.”

“And will the truck owner be back, do you think?” said Todd, getting very nervous indeed at the thought of those scrumptious morsels lost.

“Not at all. They have bested him through eviction. To evict. From the Latin evictus, evincere. To expel and conquer. One used to do this the manly way, with swords, and then sometime in the 1500s, someone thought the manliest thing one could do was to become a lawyer, and now the word means: ‘to conquer with legal fees!’”

“Perhaps Lottie’s owners should have saved for lawyer school, not doctor school.”

“Their boy still would have become a rock! He has all the attributes of one. He may have been one to begin with all along.”

“Well, it seems to me that to prevent the spread of this gentrification, we require our own lawyers to evict the evictors before anyone else is misplaced.”

Displaced. You misplace an object, but displace a person.”

“And what is the difference between the two, sir?”

“A very small d.” Mr. Miffles replied archly. “Good economics is when you displace enough people from a spot that it becomes very sought-after for its general intolerance. And when this happens, and a place is intolerant to the extreme, the place goes from low-value to high-value.”

“But this place, our place, is very tolerant and has surely never been of low value. It is our home. What could be more precious?”

“What is more precious than a thing one has is a thing that one earns. And what is more prized than a thing earned is a thing someone else has that you can take. Like the candies in the bowl at Ho Wan Little Dumpling. No one ever wants one of those stale candies, Todd. No one likes the powdery minty outside or the bizarre gooey center that sticks to one’s molars and makes one smack one’s lips. But because they are free, we spill them into our paws, and we suck on them with extra relish. What we get from working hard is satisfying; what we get for free but feel we deserve is more satisfying still.”

“Perhaps if we set many candy bowls at the border, they shall be satisfied and go away.”

“Until they run out of candies!”

“Well . . . perhaps leaving out candies for them will give us time to erect barricades and collect buckets of water to douse them with, when they march to evict. No one likes the rain.”

They both peered up at the impending clouds, and with a shudder, Mr. Miffles had to agree with that, at least.

“Your plan would work, should the invaders have swords. Alas, remember, they now have lawyers. And when it rains, there are umbrellas sold at the corner. And besides, they won’t be outside; those who do not march, email. They have lawyers with umbrellas who attack via email.”

“Then the course of action is clear! We must build a moat full or a barricade high of lawyers! And have them email quite aggressively!”

“But the lawyers cost more than the rent. Ergo, to afford the lawyers, we must give up the land.”

“Will the lawyers not do for free what is best for the people?”

“No, they do what is best for the State.”

“And is the State not the people?”

“Perhaps, but the invaders are also people.”

“That is true . . . ”

“So to remain unbiased between those people and our people, the lawyers use this system: whoever pays me more, I will represent.”

“And is this not repugnant?”

“No, it’s very New York.”

“Well, what if you were to be our lawyer, Mr. Miffles? I know you are a very busy fellow, but I can think of no one more heroic, and no one more capable of rallying together the resources of this neighborhood. I am very sure, if asked, that all of the mice, rats, and cats—even the pigeons, though their attention span is shorter even than their wingspan—would want you and help you.”

Mr. Miffles now thought about a career in activism and law. Such careers often led to politics, by a matter of course. He imagined Lottie’s face when he might tell her, flippantly, heaving a great sigh with the symbolic burden upon his chest, that he was running for mayor later this June. How impressed she might be. And perhaps willing to open that window a little bit wider . . .

“I say, Todd. If Mr. Mason is giving you troubles, what if you were to move your entire brood, all 672 of them, to the new development they are putting up two blocks down? And then, you might have another picnic, and invite every rodent in the neighborhood. You might do this, say, on inspection day.”

“What a wonderful idea! But moving into the new development, myself—is this not a betrayal?”

“It is for the greater good, I assure you. You must sometimes pretend to do one thing by really doing another.”

“And that is not considered future planning?”

“No, my dear Todd. That is considered lawyering.” The cat smirked a silky smirk and batted his eyes tiredly. “And now, go. I have a very pressing nap to attend to. But tell the roaches I would like a word with them later. If matters get dire, take a trip to the F train tunnels and have a word with the bed bugs. When in doubt, we must evict the aggressors: with the legal fees of the health and safety departments.”

“Then you will take the job!”

“I will.”

“You really are a wonder, Mr. Miffles! A legend!”

“Yes, yes . . . ” droned the cat, flitting off into a dozy dream about sharing Todd for supper with Lottie, in a pretty new apartment that would be left unfinished for a decade after he got his paws on it. Hero, man about town, man of the people, and now, lawyer. How often life takes us to strange new heights.

***

Madison Salters is the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ruminate Literary Magazine, Editor-in-Chief at The Toolbox, and a JOLT speaker on storytelling. An award-winning writer, essayist, and activist, she is the “2017 Wunderkind” in literature, a UN cultural ambassador, and is published in major outlets including HuffPo, TripAdvisor World, and the UNTITLED Magazine. She recently translated the documentary “Queer Japan”, and her first play, “An Infinite Resignedness”, was produced in Paris in 2018.

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