Monday, October 27, 2008

Cat-alog Cat: Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron

It was the coldest dawn of the new year in Spencer, Iowa,--18 degrees below zero--when a library clerk heard a strange sound inside the book drop. "I think there's an animal in the drop box," she told Library Director Vicki Myron. Hoping for nothing more daunting than a chipmunk, Myron got down upon her knees to open the pull-down lid.

The first thing I felt was a blast of freezing air. Someone had jammed a book into the return slot, wedging it open. It was as cold in the box as it was outside; maybe colder, since the box was lined with metal. You could have kept frozen meat in there. I was still catching my breath when I saw the kitten.

It was huddled in the front left corner of the box, its head down, its legs tucked underneath it, trying to appear as small as possible. The books were piled haphazardly to the top of the box, partially hiding it from view. I lifted one gingerly for a better look. The kitten looked up at me, slowly and sadly. Then it lowered its head and sank down into its hole. It wasn't trying to appear tough. It wasn't trying to hide. I don't even think it was scared. It was just hoping to be saved.

In the kind hands of the staff, the rescued kitten amazingly survived its cold introduction into the world of the Spencer Public Library and grew into a glowing ginger tom endowed with more than the usual measure of mellowness peculiar to his type. Christened "Dewey," for Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, (formally named "Dewey Readmore Books") in a "name-the-cat" contest, Dewey's protector coaxed the reluctant library board into allowing him to become the official Spencer Library cat.

It was 1988, and Spencer, Iowa, needed Dewey. It was the time of "Farm Aid," when half the local farmers were forced off their land by an array of market conditions. Vicki Myron needed Dewey, too. A novice head librarian without a graduate degree, she had bravely talked her way into the position with a promise to get credentialed, despite the fact that the closest accredited graduate school was five hours away, and despite the fact that she was a single mother already stretched near her limits. But Dewey took to life in the library like a fish to water, and his ability to charm and adore a wide range of patrons--from severely handicapped children to resistant businessmen--won the library new fame and many new users in the region.

Like all good cats, Dewey was funny. He loved napping in boxes, even working his fluffy body into a half-full Kleenex box, hind feet first, then front feet, and finally wedging his body inside with only his tail and head visible. He learned how to circumnavigate the entire library from aloft, climbing graduated book shelves to leap to the top of the hanging fluorescent light panels and deftly hopping from one to another. A long-haired cat, he was obviously embarrassed by his substantial hairballs, which he tried dutifully to hide inconspicuously. He shared yogurt and Arby's beef and cheddar sandwiches with the staff, and was not above filching the fillings from their sandwiches if the diners weren't vigilant.

Dewey also had that uncanny ability of some cats to know exactly how and where he was needed. He was always at the front door at 7:00 a.m., waiting and "waving" his front paws to meet Myron each morning. He positioned himself there at nine o'clock when the library opened to greet the early patrons one by one. He did rounds with the staff, riding on his favorite book truck as the staff shelved returned books each afternoon, and he attended all committee meetings, jumping up and circling the conference table to greet each member and choosing selected laps to grace with his gorgeously furry self and welcome purr. When Myron slaved over her library school papers on the library's one computer late at night, he always knew when she needed a quick "hide and seek" break among the book shelves to restore her soul. At story time he joined the preschoolers, who were told that Dewey might choose their laps if they were quiet and still, and seemed always to know which one needed special attention, and he even brought forth the first smile of a severely handicapped child who could not speak or move to stroke him when he unfailingly chose her lap when she arrived.

Myron called him her "publicity director," with good reason. Dewey, it seemed, could rise to any occasion. One day a family with a young girl arrived after a long, long drive made to see the now-famous library cat. The little girl had a wrapped present for Dewey, a toy mouse. Now Myron knew that Dewey would only deign to play with cat toys if they contained catnip, and she feared that the child was going to be sadly disappointed in his reaction:

Dewey was asleep in his new fake-fur-lined bed. As I woke him, I tried a little mental telepathy: "Please, Dewey, please! This one's important." He was so tired, he barely opened his eyes. The father sat down and put both Dewey and the girl on his lap. Dewey immediately snuggled up against her.

They sat like that for a minute or two. Finally the girl showed him the present she had brought, with its carefully tied ribbon and bow. Dewey perked up, but I could tell he was still tired. "Come on, Dewey," I thought. "Snap out of it!" The girl unwrapped the gift, and sure enough, it was a plain toy mouse, no catnip in sight. My heart sank. This was going to be a disaster.

The girl dangled the mouse in front of Dewey's sleepy eyes to get his attention. Then she delicately tossed it a few feet away. As soon as it hit the ground, Dewey jumped on it. He chased that toy; he threw it in the air; he batted it with his paws. Dewey gave that mouse every ounce of energy he had. The girl giggled with delight. She had come hundreds of miles to see a cat, and she was not disappointed.

Why did I ever worry about Dewey? He always came through.

Dewey did. From a town favorite to a state phenom to a nationally lionized lbrary cat, as his fame spread Dewey charmed them all--newspaper reporters, magazine writers, radio and television hosts. During the 19 years he lived in the small-town library in Spencer, he grew to be a genuine cat celebrity. When he died in 2005, his obit appeared in the New York Times.

But his truest obituary is Vicki Myron's.

The most important thing is having someone there to scoop you up, to hold you tight, and tell you everything is all right.

For years I thought I had done that for Dewey.

But that's only a sliver of the truth. The real truth is that for all those years, on the hard days, the good days, and all the unremembered days that make up the pages of the real book of our lives, Dewey was holding me.

He's still holding me now. So thank you, Dewey. Thank you. Wherever you are.

In Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World Vicki Myron skillfully weaves Dewey's story into the story of her own life and that of her small town. An account of an ordinary, yet extraordinary cat and woman and library and place, this is a wonderful memoir, a testament to the joy at the heart of life.

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