March 25th, 2011

In Memory of The World's Greatest Bookstore Cat

Today the Iliad Bookshop lost its mascot, its cat, and part of its identity, with the passing of Zola the One-Eyed Pirate Kitty. Anyone who's been to the Iliad in the last five years probably encountered Zola, either snoozing on the front counter or a couch, or (if you came early enough) running up and down our aisles like a little demon. Zola was a true one-of-a-kind personality - one part natural comedienne, one part greeter, one part would-be helper, and the sweetest cat I've ever seen. Zola made work very, very special; how many people can't wait to get to work in the morning? If you were having a bad day, a few seconds cuddling Zola could change your mood.

Of course we're going to miss Zola terribly, but right now I'd rather celebrate some of the things we loved about Zola, and why she was so special. Here's my illustrated Top Ten list:

Zola liked to start her day with play. She adored soft rubber or sponge balls that could be thrown to her, and that she could chase across our wooden floors. She had a deadly hunting technique...which consisted of abruptly falling to her side and waiting for me to roll the ball to her. This was when she'd milk the amusement - she'd bat the ball, and then glance up to make sure her audience was amused. A few laughs from us, and she'd up the antics - rolling back and forth, waving her paws, and sometimes just leaping up to run off.
When Miss Zee was wound up in play mode, no human was safe. If she was ignored for a few seconds, she would just SHRIEK for attention. And in that mood, all ankles became her playthings - you never knew when she would abruptly burst out from around a corner, swat your ankles, and flee in victory.
We had several favorite stupid games. One was "The Silly Run" - I would do an exaggerated, cartoonish run down an aisle, and Zola would run next to me, looking up and doing her best to imitate my ridiculous motions. Another favorite was "Kill the Hand" - I'd wave my hand over Zola while she was on her back, and she'd shoot those paws up, grab that hand, and pull it down for a good tussle (thanks to years of untreated feline herpes infections before we got her, the kid had lost one eye and almost all of her teeth, so there was never any potential for real damage with this game). Zola was the world champion of "Kill the Hand".
Before she was rescued by our wonderful friend Christa Faust, Zola was kept by a demented animal hoarder for years in a tiny wire-mesh hamster cage. When we got her in May 2006, she had so little muscle tone from years of confinement that she couldn't even stand up without trembling. After a few months of our TLC, Zola developed a love of racing up and down Iliad's long aisles. We used to love watching her turn corners at top speed, when her little rear legs would slide a bit on the floors and twist her butt. And she loved that we loved watching.
We welcome canine visitors to the store, and Zola loved dogs. She apparently viewed them as big doofuses that existed only to be terrified by her. One of my all-time favorite incidents occurred just about two months ago: A woman had brought a huge dog into the store, and Zola had followed them all over the store, staying a few feet behind the dog, biding her time for the perfect opportunity. We were at the front counter when we suddenly heard that dog scream like a terrified human. We of course jumped out to look - only to see Zola happily walking away from the cowering dog, looking insufferably smug.
The Iliad is right across the street from a popular bike path, and on nice summer evenings a lot of folks walk their dogs. This was like Cat TV for Zola, who would come up and plant herself at the front door every evening. Occasionally someone would cross the street with their dog to browse through the boxes of free books we keep on our front steps, and Zola would have another chance to frighten an unwary pooch. Her favorite maneuver: Crouch low so she was mostly covered by the metal kick-plate at the bottom of the door, and then suddenly explode up, causing a dog heart attack. The little menace.
Zo wasn't all about comedy and play. She was also a mellow little girl who liked being near her favorite humans and helping out. She was a big help. Oh yeah. Especially when she managed to crawl up onto my workspace and fill it up. Biiiiiiiig help.
A few years ago, some kid left a large fluffy bat hand-puppet in the store. We made the mistake of setting it down on the front counter in front of Zee one day - and from then on that bat was hers. Mr. Bat became her toy and her bed. She'd knead that thing for seemingly hours, then curl up on it and sleep. Because the puppet and Zola were nearly the same color, the combination occasionally confusticated customers, who couldn't tell where the cat ended and the bat began. Now that Zola is gone, by the way, Mr. Bat's come home with me, in the hopes that my two home cats will enjoy him the way Zola did.
Every Halloween we talked about dressing Zo up in a little pirate outfit. Once we even tried making a tiny eyepatch for her, but of course she was having none of that. Well, a few years ago while shopping in a 99-Cent Store around Halloween time, I found this pirate bib that became the long sought-after costume. Zola doesn't look thrilled even with this relatively non-intrusive costume, but she tolerated it long enough for this swell snap (which wound up in the Los Angeles Times).
And here's Zola as she was most of the time - inquisitive, mellow, sweet, and loving. I once had an idiotic customer poke at her for a few moments and then blurt out, "This cat won't PURR!" I am here to tell you that Zola was a very selective purrer, but when that motor got going, it was mighty indeed. She loved to be picked up and held with her front paws positioned on my right shoulder, and carried around the store that way. She liked certain sections more than others - she was especially fond of the art books - and she loved it when I sang my own little version of the Kinks' "Lola" to her. "Zola, Z-O-L-A, Zola..."

Thank you again to everyone who donated to help with Zola's final medical bills. I hope you understand now why we wanted to make every attempt to keep her healthy and comfortable. She was genuinely unique and a constant source of amazement to all of us who were lucky enough to share her life.