The Cat in My Hat
by Jim Knipfel
The sun was up but barely warm, and I had somehow found myself on my belly in the gutter under a filthy red van on 7th Ave, 75 cents clutched tightly in my left fist, my hat somewhere under there with me.
Sissy winter that we've had this year, wholly lacking in the blizzards I so ache for. I've been spending my treks to and from the subway battling insidious winds and spitting rain. I've always hated the wind. The wind tears at my hat and drives filth into my eyes. Even if I can't see, filth in the eyes is still a painful ordeal that stops me dead.
I'd been lucky so far that Thursday morning. Made it all the way to the cart where I get my morning coffee without much of a hassle. But as I was reaching my hand forward to drop my three quarters into the waiting palm of the pleasant young fellow who chats with me about the weather every morning, that pernicious wind--which had obviously been waiting around the corner for just such an opportunity--whipped up behind me. I felt the hat slowly being lifted from my head, and as I groped my hand up to slam it back into place, it was snapped away from me entirely and went flying up 7th Ave.
I've said it before--the only thing in this world more embarrassing than a man running for a train is a man chasing his hat. Yet there I was, toddling stupidly after a piece of long-battered headware, bent over at the waist, vainly believing that I would actually be able to grab it before it turned the corner and hopped a cab.
After a few dozen steps, I came to my senses and slowed to a walk. The hat, rolling neatly on its brim a few yards in front of me, realized that it had won this little game and bounced off the curb into the street. Fortunately for me, it went under a van, cutting off its energy supply.
When I reached the van, though, and looked down, it wasn't there.
"Further to the back!" I heard a woman's voice yell. I looked up to see two middle-aged women standing in front of an office building sharing a morning smoke and watching my hat-chasing antics. I waved them a quick wave of thanks and stepped a few feet forward before bending over and looking again. Still nothing.
"It's by the tire! The back tire!" the other woman yelled.
I reached my hand beneath the truck and felt around blindly.
"Don'cha see it?"
"Umm...no," I answered, "I don't." I moved around behind the van and bent down again. Still nothing.
By this time, the two women decided to get into the game themselves and moved over by me.
"No, now it's right there in the middle," the smaller one said. "Can you reach it? I don't think you can. You might need a stick."
"Well, let me give it a shot first." I crouched down where she was pointing and made a few feeble swipes under the truck, finding no hat, but scraping my knuckles bad along the asphalt. I walked around to the back of the van again where there was more room to work.
"I'd offer to crawl under there for you," the larger woman said, "but..."
"Oh, ma'am, I'm not about to ask you to do anything like that."
"Looks like you'll have to crawl under yourself there to get it."
"Well, ma'am," I said, looking down at the gutter, "I guess that's what I'm gonna have to do then." I gave her a weak smile.
I dropped my bag on the sidewalk, crouched down and looked again, finally seeing my fucking hat. It was under there, all right.
"It's right under the middle of the truck," the smaller woman said. "Right there in the middle."
"Uh-huh," I said absently, as I pretended to gauge things out.
I could do this, I figured. I hadn't had my trenchcoat cleaned in ten years as it was. It was already stained and tattered and smelled bad. A few more scrapes, some more filth ground into it--well, it'll just give it that much more character.
Like a diver plunging head first into a lake of unknown temperature and unknown depth, I took a deep breath, flopped down on my stomach, and pulled myself underneath the truck.
The top half of my body slid under--if not easily, exactly, at least without too much effort. But then the license plate snagged my butt.
Well, I'm not going any further than this. I reached forward with my left hand--the one that still clutched the coffee man's quarters--and tried to grab the hat. It was still an inch beyond my reach.
Then I thought of something--down there on my belly under that van, inhaling the cold gas fumes and rubbing who knows how many diseases down the front of me, hoping desperately that the owner of the truck didn't show up right then--I have a long stick in my bag.
"Hey, wait!" I shouted from my compromised position to my two new compadres.
"Didja get it?" one of them shouted back.
"No, but--" I said as I began shoving myself backwards out towards the light again. That's when the license plate that snagged my butt caught me in the back of the skull and dug in hard, raising a welt that would stay with me for close to a week. I paid little attention to that, ducked my head around the plate, and sat up.
"I have a stick right in my bag that'll reach it!" Goddamned dead Richard Feyneman, eat your heart out. I was excited and strangely proud of myself
As I started to stand up to reach for my bag, the smaller woman came running out of the office building clutching a little broom. I appreciated her effort, certainly, but couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.
I thanked her cordially as I took the broom, dropped back down to my hands and knees, reached under with the handle and knocked the hat sideways to the curb. I stood back up and handed the broom back, thanking her again, as a third woman--just a passer-by, she was--reached down, snatched up my hat and handed it to me before continuing on her way.
I brushed the hat off. It didn't look too much the worse for wear (of course, it was in pretty rough shape to begin with).
"Y'know," I told me my two new friends, "it just ain't worth it."
"Oh, yes it is," the larger one said.
"Mm-hmm," her friend concurred.
"Sure is worth it," the first one said. "It's your hat."
"Your hat," the smaller one concurred again.
"Nobody'd know you without your hat."
What a very odd thing to say, I thought to myself but kept my mouth shut. I had no idea what she meant by that. Who would know me or not know me with my hat?
I placed it firmly back on my head, picked up my bag, thanked them again, and strolled back to the cart, half a block away, where my coffee was still waiting and getting cool.
"Sorry about that," I told the coffee man, embarrassed over the whole debacle, as I handed over the change, which had never left my hand.
"That's quite alright," he said. "You know what you need?"
Apart from some common sense? I thought, but instead asked, "What's that?"
"A string," he replied, making a looping gesture beneath his chin.
"I've thought about that. Like the cowboys used to have."
"Yeah!" He seemed excited by the notion.
"I've thought about it," I told him. "But I think I'm going to stick with glue."
"Yeah, glue, sure. Just glue the damn thing to my head every morning. Then everything'll be fine." I grabbed my coffee, continued on to the office, where I drank it with my morning smokes.
The next morning when the alarms went off, I rolled over, snapped them off, turned on the lights and sat up, wincing and shifting to avoid putting any undo pressure on the oozing cyst that had developed on my tailbone over the course of the previous few days. I popped my contacts in and put my feet on the floor, where my left foot landed on something strange. It wasn't a pile of sputum from one of the cats--that wouldn't've been strange.
I looked down on the floor and, under my left foot, found my hat.
Every night when I walk in the front door, first thing I do is hang my hat over the two whiskey bottles sitting on my kitchen table near the wall. I have no idea how it got from that perch to the floor next to my bed. Sure got me thinking, though.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.
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