The arrival of the uninvited visitors was both subtle and coincidental. The first sign was the battered pair of reading glasses I found on the back porch. The thick lenses were fogged by scratches and held together by duct tape and safety pins. After being left unclaimed for months, the glasses were eventually thrown out with the garbage.
A week or so later, two black and white kittens with tuxedo markings showed up, peering through the side office door of the restored 1920s bungalow on the outskirts of Tampa's Hyde Park. They were as hungry as they were cute. Before long, 30-pound bags of cat food crowded the kitchen. Outside, plastic pet bowls cluttered the office patio.
Meanwhile, my early morning clients began to complain about having to step over a homeless man when entering the office. Determined to investigate and perhaps negotiate, I practically tripped over the middle-aged man curled into a fetal position in the office entryway.
"Sir, you can't sleep here!" I said. Startled, he grabbed the large black plastic garbage bag that had doubled as his pillow. Hastily, he crammed his meager bedding into the already bulging bag and hurried toward the street.
As summer progressed, so did the collection of empty bottles of beer, wine and liquor, cigarette butts and food containers littering the office's entrance. I marveled at the inventive individual who had set up a blue tarp, complete with sleeping bag, a spare T-shirt, mirror and a collection of medicine bottles. My heart sank, at the same time, as I realized when the office closed someone was actually living there, not just crashing on the porch.
Meanwhile the kittens were no longer just "the cats," but had been christened Kenmore and Athena. Athena's namesake was the Greek goddess of strength. Kenmore earned his name from his habit of hiding under the dishwasher whenever corralled inside for trips to the vet.
My daily interactions with the homeless guy, as he was less than affectionately referred to, were becoming more and more of a nuisance. Neither negotiating with him ("You can sleep here if you leave by 7:30 a.m.") nor bribing him (I left him a coupon book to McDonald's, hoping he might move closer to the restaurant) changed his attitude or sleeping arrangements. I was running out of patience and ideas.
Throughout all of this, he would never acknowledge me. "Do you know about the Faith Cafe? They'll be open in an hour or so, serving free lunch," I announced one morning. Ignoring me, he threw the plastic garbage bag containing his possessions over the fence. As I stammered through another early morning monologue, he jumped on his rusting bicycle, without as much as a nod in my direction.
A rash of unexplained events continued throughout that summer, including a jammed outside automatic timer for the lawn sprinkler system. Instead of going off at 3 a.m., the irrigation system began spewing water on the wrong watering day at the wrong time, soaking my afternoon clients. I fumed, convinced, without proof, that the culprit must be the homeless guy, intent on keeping the porch where he slept dry and undisturbed.
Kenmore in a very short time had become miraculously docile. His companion, Athena, had mysteriously disappeared, which might have explained his new-found affection. Curling up in my lap when I sat outside, he'd nudge me to share my lunch with him. One afternoon as I fed him the dregs from my yogurt container with a plastic spoon, I marveled at what a tame little kitty he had become. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Maybe the homeless guy was feeding him too — what else might explain the cat's domestic mannerisms?
The homeless guy, whose name I never learned, eventually disappeared, as did Kenmore. The squatters' community was replaced by a quad of townhomes. Not long after that, I arrived at the office one morning greeted by the unmistakable stench of decay. A hired man in a bright yellow hazmat suit crawled under the building to remove the rotting carcass of an animal. I never had the courage to ask if it was a cat. I didn't want to know.
Sometimes on the way home from work I drive north on Florida Avenue, past the missions, homeless shelters and dive bars, and as I pass the scores of homeless people who are either hoping for a bed or a drink, I scan the crowd for a familiar face. I hope he and Kenmore found a home, together.
Kathy Baker is a licensed clinical social worker who recently began work as a family therapist at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center's Poly-Trauma Unit.