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December 4, 2008
The Alarm Cats wake us at ten before seven. Both Ben and Santana are native New Yorkers: at any hour of the day or night, they can tell you within a five minute margin of error exactly what time it is. 7 am is their favorite time, of course, since it is the breakfast hour, so they thoughtfully wake us daily a few minutes early, in order that we might have time to wash our faces, get our robes and slippers on and still serve them on time.

Ben takes the lead in waking us. He makes his way to my pillow and quacks once, then reaches out one paw and pokes me in the face. Time was, he would just quack; the paw thing is new. I suppose I ought to be proud that Ben has mastered a new rung on his evolutionary ladder, but being punched in the face is a rude awakening for anyone, and I find it hard to summon much enthusiasm for his new trick.

Not that they turn down food at other times. We set up coffee, tea and cookies on the hall table for Wednesday Bible study before we leave the house, so that everything will be ready to serve when people come back to the rectory after the healing service. Yesterday a ruined tea table greeted us when we opened the door -- cocktail napkins on the floor, and cookies scattered everywhere. Did we have an intruder? Cats don't eat cookies, do they? There is no tea setup on Thursday, but I noticed Ben up on that table this morning at precisely the time when Bible study begins on Wednesdays. Just in case.

They assume that the tea table is for them. They assume that we will get up and feed them at 7am, and stop whatever we're about to do it again at 7pm -- and they're right about that one. Ben's quack has a certain baritone dignity about it, once you're used to it; Santi, on the other hand, is cursed with a high-pitched meow which always sounds like a rebuke. Like all chronic complainers, he makes a person want not to honor his request.

For many years, I had a small sign on the desk of whatever office I occupied. Thank you for not whining, it read. I liked the cheery menace of its banality; it was like those Thank you for not smoking signs we used to see, before we put up the firmer ones that simply read No Smoking.

Here in Italy, beggars employ a standard voice: a low, repetitive whine, slipping up and down a range of a few notes. They keep their shoulders hunched and their backs bent, with their heads heads twisted upwards, so that they may meet your eyes from an inferior position. Their need may be real, but the posture and the voice are theatre. They are always the same.

Once, in New York, I was accosted by a young woman who used the European beggar's whine to ask me for money. She surprised me; you don't hear that tone in New York much. And she didn't look the part; she was a tall, young African American. Can I pleeeze have some muuhneee? she mumbled, over and over. Hmmn. Somehow, it didn't hang together.

I decided to take a bold approach. Listen, I said, I'll give you five bucks if you stop that awful whining.

she said, in her own voice. Five bucks?

You bet,
I said. It's really obnoxious.

Hey, thanks, Ma'am!
she said brightly, as I handed her the fiver and walked on.

You bet. I never saw her again. I wonder if she was able to annoy anyone else into bribing her to stop whining. An interesting technique, if that's what it was. Hush money, in a way.

It doesn't work that way for the alarm cats. Stop your whining, I tell him as he threads his way in and out of the space between my ankles becasaue I have been foollish enough to walk into the kitchen at sometime other than seven o'clock in the morning or evening. I can walk into my own kitchen if I want to. You have to wait until seven o'clock.

Are you haunted, as I have been, by the story of the young WalMart employee trampled to death in a shoppers' stampede last Friday? Read economist Carol Stone's fine essay about it in Ways of the World at, and leave a comment of your own.
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