Mai Tran began catsitting in 2021 while Tran was on pandemic unemployment, often staying overnight in people’s homes. Tran has now cared for twenty-two cats and traveled to ten apartments all over New York City, observing the interior lives of cat owners and appeasing their neuroses. From home vet visits to black eyes to refugee cats, Chronicles of a Catsitter documents the most memorable days on the job.

- - -

My name is Turkey. I am a cat. My human says I am from the streets of “Colorado,” but now I live next to “Sugar Hill” in “Harlem.” I live an ordinary life: eat, sleep, treat, roll on floor, eat, sleep, run, sleep. My human lives in one big room. Her bed is in the sky. I climb skinny wooden stairs to get there. Sometimes I sleep on a stair and my human has to climb over me. The room has big, curved windows. I like to lie on my red cushion and watch people walk by. The people are very close. My human keeps the curtains wide open.

It seemed like it was going to be a normal day until this morning. My human fed me different treats that made me feel funny. My human says I have to relax because someone new is coming to stay with me while she goes to “Greece.” This person is too early. Or my human is late. “I’m Mai,” this person says. Mai stands there while my human packs things into a large box on wheels. The people don’t say anything. Just vibe. My human shows Mai where she keeps my food. One pouch of wet food twice a day, with dry food sprinkled on top. One or two Churu treats if I am nervous. Mai tries to give me a Churu. I don’t like Mai, so I don’t eat. Mai squirts the Churu in my bowl instead. Mai will never give me another treat.

A car pulls up outside. My human leaves me with this person. Every time Mai comes near, I run until Mai gives up. Mai turns off the TV and the LED strips and unties the curtains so people can’t see in. Mai opens the fridge, freezer, and cupboards. Mai picks hair out of the ice cube tray and throws wilting food into the trash. Mai takes things out, turns them over, makes a face, and puts them back. Mai washes the dishes in the sink. Mai will go outside and return with foot-long turkey sandwiches in green and yellow plastic bags.

Mai sits on the big chair and puts Mai’s things on the floor and coffee table. There is no other furniture. I pretend that I do not see Mai’s food. I get closer and closer until Mai pushes me away. I walk around the table, and then I approach again. I do not give up. I scream. This is how I survived the streets of “Colorado.”

My human and I moved here two years ago. My human may not have a lot of things to climb on, but she has a lot of things to remind her that she is a human. There is a lock of hair taped to the wall and a pair of stuffed boobs that are soft like me if you poke them. Once, my human went to “Asia” and brought back four Buddha statues and two blue and white ceramic vases. She keeps these next to a wooden plaque of the character “Betty Boop” that says “ANUS” underneath. Mai is sliding down the chair because Mai is sitting on a fake tiger pelt. That one is my favorite because it reminds me of my second cousin once removed.

The days go by and Mai is okay, but not as good as my human. Mai does not put dry food on top of my wet food, and Mai does not give me treats. Mai sits on the floor with Mai’s computer on the big chair and talks to it. Mai is writing a high school lesson plan for the Department of Education. When Mai’s neck hurts, Mai and I stretch together on the floor. It is the hot season, and Mai has the big fan and air cleaner rumbling loudly. The air is still muggy. Mai takes the trash out every day, but fruit flies sprout from nowhere. When Mai washes in the shower, I go to keep Mai company. The water pools around Mai’s ankles. One day, Mai brings a bottle of smelly liquid from outside, pours it down the drain, and then flushes it with hot water. I don’t know why. Nothing changes.

My human and Mai look like they are the same age, around two or three in cat years. They don’t know anything about each other, but Mai is good at the internet. Mai looks up the apartment because Mai wants to know how much the rent is. Mai finds my human’s last name on “Venmo” and enters it in “Google.” Mai clicks on her “LinkedIn” to find out what she does for work. Mai can’t figure it out. They say “curiosity killed the cat,” but Mai is not a cat. Mai is a human, one of the most questionable species one can be. Mai says Mai knows a human who became a moth, and a cat who thought he might be a horse. The cat’s name was Gato and he wrote a children’s book called Not a Cat: A Memoir, with his human Winter Miller. If I wrote a book, it would be called Going Cold Turkey: Why Mai Never Gives Me Treats Even Though I Deserve Them.

Mai shows me a book Mai checked out from the library around the corner because Mai is researching writing about cats. The book is called Open Throat by Henry Hoke. It is about a talking mountain lion who lives in “California.” Mai doesn’t usually talk to cats, but Mai is pretending to for this conceit. Mai recently learned that there are more books featuring talking animals than there are books featuring “people of color.” While Mai type type types, I perch by the window. I do not know about “cats of color,” but I know Mai and my human do not look like the other humans who go in and out of the building or the two humans who like to sit on the stoop and talk. They look like the people who go into the store across the street, the one with string lights in the window and a big picture of a teacup.

Sometimes Mai stays with me and types. Sometimes, Mai goes away when it is light and doesn’t return until it is dark. On a day when Mai doesn’t type, Mai opens the door at the same time a woman comes down the stairs. “Oh, hi,” says Mai. “You look so good.” The woman says thank you. She is wearing a cowboy hat, jacket, underwear, and cowboy chaps, all hot pink. It reminds me of “Colorado.” They walk outside in the same direction, a few feet apart. Men call out to the woman from across the street, and she smiles and waves. They disappear down the block. A man on a motorcycle pulls onto the sidewalk and chains his bike to the gate. People who wear bags on one shoulder go into the teacup store. A few see me on my cushion and go psp psp psp. It means nothing to me. What I really need is a treat.

Mai is home after a few hours. Mai says Mai was at the state park, where Mai saw people grilling by the water and doing group exercises in the grass. Mai ate clementines on a bench and journaled, probably about a man, because Mai is a girl and she and her journal don’t pass the Bechdel test. Mai looked across the river at “Jersey” and watched cars drive over the “George Washington Bridge” until it got cold and windy. On the way back, Mai visited the “West Harlem” cat colony.

Unlike me, these cats don’t want to be inside a human’s home. They live in an abandoned lot next to four row houses built between 1900 and 1926. In 2017, the “land developer” “Soma 142, LLC” purchased the buildings and lot, evicted the tenants, and made plans to demolish the homes so they could build a seventeen-story apartment complex. The humans of “Community Board 9” successfully fought “Soma 142” to regulate the height of whatever they “developed,” but the existing row houses weren’t landmarked. They could still be razed.

In 2023, “Soma 142” (which, by the way, is a terrible name, coming from me, Turkey) received a permit to begin demolition. The evicted tenants who had managed to stay nearby rushed to move the cat colony somewhere safe. The cats, like the humans, had lived there for more than a decade. The humans fed the cats, and the cats caught rats. Several miles away in Mai’s neighborhood, the local community board is also rushing to landmark an old theater that is up for sale, before someone outside the community can turn it into a “tower” or a “Shake Shack.”

At the lot, Mai does not see many cats, so Mai moves on to the library. When Mai gets home, Mai pulls out the children’s book Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford. Mai reads to me. I learn about people who once lived in the area, including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Zora Neale Hurston, Faith Ringgold, W. E. B. DuBois, and Thurgood Marshall. If Mai were teaching the book to a class, Mai would ask the students, “Who would you put into a book about your neighborhood?” Mai would encourage them to start small. Think apartment, building, or block. Family members, neighbors, and familiar faces. A tree even, or a cat like me.

I sit in the window in the place where I have lived for two years and watch people go by. I see the men on the stoop shift when people climb over them, just like me on my stairs. I see the cowgirl walk outside when she is not a cowgirl. I see the biker cover his bike when it rains. I see Mai return Mai’s books and leave. I see my human come back. I see I finally get my treat. I see I eat and eat and eat.