A lot of what Nancy writes about in her forthcoming “Shop Tails” centers on conditions. The myriad conditions she lived in as a child and teen, from a traditional suburban two-parent home that went through some of the same cultural shifts as the world at large in the 1960s to an English boarding school to a small London flat. She writes about the conditions of her varied work environments, and the conditions agreed upon and sometimes imposed on by employers, employees and clients. She explores the conditions in which she found her human and non-human partners, and the way their actions and interactions helped and hindered, informing who she is today.
Film director Werner Herzog said, “I think it is a quest of literature throughout the ages to describe the human condition.” It’s perhaps the not-so-hidden quest of “Shop Tails,” too, even if that wasn’t Nancy’s initial intention. Her essays within will make you laugh. They will make you angry. They will inspire you to create something beautiful (a piece of furniture, a garden, a better relationship, a home). They will break your heart. And they will stay with you.
On the lighter side of the human condition here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14, “Alfie and the Cat Whisperer (2012).” It begins with working conditions that are utterly undesirable all thanks to a sweet and small pale-grey tabby with an oddly pinched face. Enjoy!
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
Not long after I adopted Tom, the gray tabby kitten I brought home with Lizzie in 2004, he developed a terrible case of diarrhea that sent us to the vet. It turned out to be feline infectious peritonitis. I did my best to keep him hydrated and comfortable, hoping he’d recover, but his condition just got worse. I had him euthanized when we were finally past the point of hope, then buried him among the daffodils behind the shop. Fortunately, Lizzie had escaped contagion.
I wanted to adopt another male tabby. I returned to the shelter, where the cat room was again beyond capacity. To accommodate the overflow, the staff had put a couple of crates in the lobby at the front of the building, across from some monstrous rabbits, evidently bred to exceed the size of the largest Maine coon cat. Perhaps the idea behind this exercise in genetic engineering was to improve a rabbit’s self-defense options by making a single bunny capable of smothering a cat to death simply by jumping on top of it.
In one of the crates nearby I spotted a small pale-gray tabby. “Alfie” was printed on the label. He was a skinny guy, his face oddly pinched. His eyes had a far-off look that struck me as wistful, as though he was begging Take me – though in retrospect I realize the look was a sign of ill health. I filled out the paperwork, and the next night I brought him home to be my shop cat.
When Daniel and I arrived at work the following morning we realized Alfie was suffering from some sort of digestive problem. Small brown puddles of diarrhea were scattered across the floor; the smell was so acrid it burned our eyes. “I’m not going in there,” choked Daniel, reversing back out through the door. After filling my lungs with fresh air, I dashed in and started the cleanup. I opened the windows and turned on a fan, but even an hour later the stench was enough to turn our stomachs.
I took Alfie to the vet, who prescribed a course of antibiotics – sadly, all for naught. The poor cat slept, ate and shat. This was no ordinary defecation. We’re talking epic shitting. One of us would turn off the sander, only to hear a sickening sound like that of a sex worker at an all-night pancake place attempting to squeeze the last dregs of ketchup from a plastic bottle at 5 in the morning. Twenty years before, a customer had told me to burn a candle as an antidote to nauseating smells. I took to burning crumpled sheets of newspaper, setting up miniature pyres around the shop and lighting them as necessary, hoping my insurance agent wouldn’t show up for a surprise inspection.
“You know, this is really not OK,” said Daniel after a couple of weeks. “You can’t expect people to work in these conditions.”