Saturday Diary / Hunting for an apricot in the Strip District

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When I go Stripping, I can come home with just about anything. Especially when I go with my mother.

This time it was a cat.

Which I understand might not sound like food. Not quite. Though this particular cat is my little apricot.

Cheese from PennMac, andouille from Strip District Meats, coffee beans from 21st Street, fresh Shanghai noodles from Lotus -- these are what I usually bring home from a trip to the Strip District.

Or a Hines Ward "Twinkletoes" T-shirt for my grandmother-in-law, which made her happier than I've ever seen her.

It had just stopped raining on a Saturday a few weeks ago. My mother was visiting, in for a few days on her way back home to Portland, Ore., from visiting friends in New York. While looking at some of the dried snacks at PennMac, I mentioned the Turkish apricots that are sometimes at Labad's a little farther west down Penn Avenue. So we headed that way.

And there he was. The apricot.

This orange kitten was tiny, wet, starving, scared and making do in an unused lot between Stan's Market and what I can only call the "Here We Go" store at the corner of 18th Street, the one that plays that painful, banal Steelers-themed song on a loop. It makes me want to gently sob while rocking in a dark corner.

He looked sweet. I don't know how -- I'm no Cat Whisperer -- but I could tell. Peeking out of the chain-link fence, he looked like he didn't belong.

He walked back into the lot from the sidewalk. My mother and I walked to Labad's -- no apricots -- and then to Wholey's, talking about what to do. I asked a grocer for an empty cardboard box and we bought a little cheese.

Right about then is when I texted my wife. We'd been thinking about getting a second cat, a companion for the small, gray cat we got from a friend who found her in their snowy driveway two Januarys ago and called Azrael, both for Smurfs reasons and angel-of-death reasons, but that's its own story. But a new cat was not anything she would have expected me to bring back from the Strip.

My mother tried to lure out the apricot with the cheese. I drove home to the North Side to drop off groceries that would spoil and collect towels and my wife. There must have been something in my tone that made her quickly agree to all of this.

Back on Penn Avenue, there was my mother, sitting on the ground. Just sitting there. Box out and open. Occasionally a crowd would form around her when the apricot would poke his head out.

"I thought you were a homeless person," I heard a woman tell her later. "But then I thought, 'Nah, she's way too clean.'"

Great. Thanks Mom.

Someone bought sardines -- a better idea than our cheese. She got her hands on him twice when he came out to eat, but people in the crowd would always squeal -- "Oooh! Kitten!" -- and he would wriggle free and back away.

More than an hour of this went on, even when a Western Pennsylvania Humane Society vice president stopped to help and kept shushing them.

Then he stopped coming out. He ran to the back of a parking lot, where a kid named Geno jumped the fence to approach. My wife tried but was wearing sandals, so an employee at Stan's let her into the lot through the back door. She got the apricot into her hands, too, picked him right up, but he squirmed away and ran into a hole under large metal plates, unreachable.

Geno got a stick. Not to be mean, just to nudge him out. The flashlight app on a cellphone came in handy to keep an eye on him.

Then the apricot bolted right toward the fence, right toward my mother and her waiting towel. And right under the fence, right past my mother. Into Penn Avenue.

Into Penn Avenue.

My heart sank. He ran under the back wheels of a moving minivan.

That's it, I thought. We killed this poor thing trying to rescue it.

Then we saw a flash of orange running east, under parked cars. My mother and I ran into traffic after it. I'm a large mammal. It wasn't hard for me to get drivers' attention and stop cars. But I wasn't even thinking. We had to get this cat. People along the street were generous in pointing out where they'd seen him flash by.

We found him under a Cadillac Escalade, stuck in a wheel well. My mother got him loose, and pulled him out.

People applauded. I felt only relief.

Wrapped in a towel, his tail poked out the bottom as we walked back down Penn Avenue. He protested, but in voice only. He sounded tired.

"Is that the kitten?"

"Didja get him?"

So we took him home. He's already bigger. Out-eats most growing teenagers. Vet said he's healthy. And he snuggles like it's his job.

But what to call him?

The Latin name for apricot is Prunus armeniaca, because they were long thought to have originated in Armenia. The Armenian word for apricot: Tsiran.

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Jacob Quinn Sanders is the Post-Gazette breaking news editor:


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