‘The cat has changed my life’: how Bootsy turned a street of strangers into a community

Everything changed with a voicemail. I was used to my cat getting into trouble. Bootsy always had a tough time respecting other people’s boundaries. When a concerned neighbour called the number on his collar I assumed the worst; that he had snuck in and eaten their roast dinner or some such.

That wasn’t the case – it was a courtesy call. Bootsy was sleeping on a back veranda chair, the caller said, and was more than welcome to stay as long as he liked.

I ventured to the caller’s house nearby. It was a fortress. The large steel sheets over the windows that blocked out the world were a jarring contrast to the gentle woman who opened the door.

This was my first time meeting Enid Morrison. “I was so helpful, wasn’t I?” she recalls.

This would be the start of a friendship that helped transform a street in Sydney’s inner west into a community. This is the cat who has created a sense of home that expands well beyond a house. “I think it’s quite an honour, really, to be accepted like this,” Enid says.

I had lived for six years in nearby Newtown; a trendy, cultural hub that pulses like a beacon for the youth of Sydney. But my life there had become at best a routine, at worst a rut. A baffling and cruel medical diagnosis – late-onset type 1 diabetes – was the final straw. At 28, I packed up and moved to Rozelle, a sleepy haven for well-to-do young families and retirees. I planned to build a life of solitude. Now that leaving the house required minor medical preparation, I decided it was far easier simply to not leave at all.

Bootsy on the strut. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Enid, now 87, was in a routine of her own. Aside from regular trips to the grocery store or a solitary glass of prosecco at the pub, she had become uninterested in socialising. She had moved to the neighbourhood in her 20s, after a stint in London, to look after her ailing mother who had bought the house in the 1950s for £600. She has lived there ever since.

Before she retired, Enid had a busy career working in magazines. She did not have time for community: “I just went to work, that’s all I did.”

Before Bootsy, she says, she didn’t know anyone.

“The cat has changed my life.”

It’s been four years since that voicemail. Bootsy wanders off to Enid’s most mornings when I leave for work, returning in the afternoon before being locked in overnight. His comings and goings have become a part of Enid’s day.

“I’ve come to depend on him,” she says. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”

With the RSPCA warning of dangers both to cats and native wildlife by letting felines outside, the once-common roaming cat is becoming a rare sight in neighbourhoods. The risk Bootsy poses to potential prey is one we mitigate with a belled collar, with a GPS tracker that provides notifications when he ventures where he shouldn’t.

Enid is sharp and insightful, with a wicked sense of humour. My quick visits to pick up the cat turned into long chats, punctuated with kerbside banter throughout the day. We became friends.

This was certainly not part of my solitary master plan – it was much better.

These days I have a key to Enid’s fortress, should Bootsy decide to sleep through his regular departure time. I also used it to help feed her dearly departed cat GG – help often repaid with a bottle of prosecco.

And now when I go out I leave my headphones at home in the hope of an encounter with my neighbours. Because Enid isn’t the only one to have fallen for Bootsy’s charms, nor the only person he has brought into my life. And I am not the only person he has brought into hers.

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As Bootsy patiently walks beside Enid down the street, neighbours and onlookers stop for a quick hello. Bit by bit, the wanderings of the cat have led Enid to be more open with others. “I’ve become available to be liked,” she says. “I couldn’t receive it before.”

Sara Thorn, Claudia Daly, Mike Hohnen and Enid Morrison in Rozelle. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Sara Horn, Enid’s nextdoor neighbour, remembers Bootsy’s arrival into the area. “I would go outside and there’d be this beautiful tabby, flopping over wanting a pat.” Sara also recalls a hooded, tattooed man – me – coming and going from her octogenarian neighbour’s house.

“I thought, how great is that? You were complete opposites.”

And for months Bootsy was laying the groundwork to introduce me to the Clarences. Vicky Clarence had seen me walking up the street, and had seen Bootsy wandering around. But she had never connected us until Enid helped join the dots.

Vicky moved to the area in 1979 and can speak to the mood shift in the street. “Bootsy does make a difference,” she says.

Now it is a rare, and frankly grim, day when I don’t get stopped for a conversation. Usually they revolve around the cat but it’s bigger than Bootsy now.

The once ideal notion of solitude is so removed from my life I’d have to drive several streets away just to feel it.

Sitting in Enid’s kitchen while she fields questions for this article, she takes a moment to reflect about me or, more specifically, “the way you have changed”. “You now are out there and you are ready for anybody to be, not necessarily a friend, but to be known,” she says.

‘I can’t grasp the universe in his head,’ Enid says of Bootsy. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

She’s correct. Between her house and mine there are a dozen welcoming homes, full of neighbours more than willing to help each other. In the short term, these interactions pull me out of my negative thought loops. In the long term, they have rewired my brain to not just understand but to crave the joy of connecting with others. I’m now volunteering at the Rozelle Neighbourhood Centre to get my fix.

And what does Enid think Bootsy would make of all the fuss around him? “I’m only a human,” she says, “I can’t grasp the universe in his head.”

Bootsy isn’t a young cat any more and his trips to Enid’s may need to be supervised. But for these humans, for now, his work is done. He has shown us the way towards community – and there’s no going back for any of us.


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