Revision Street: Abby Smith, 45
One of the things frequently noted about Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America is that there weren’t any touchstones in American culture by 1967. There was the Vietnam War, about which event many people had strong feelings, and World War II before that. Yet many of Terkel’s subjects had no opinions on either. Jan Myrdal’s 1963 Report From a Chinese Village, the book on which Studs’ original Division Street: America project was based, was a deliberately uncritical (“impartial”) look at China following the Maoist revolution. It was an event Myrdal’s interview subjects all related to, in one way or another. And in the days after September 11, everyone agreed: this was our touchstone. She runs a cat shelter in Edgewater.
Felines, Inc. was started in 1977 by a couple of women that saw some stray cats on the street. They wanted to help them so they brought them into the basement of their apartment building.
It moved to this location about 20 years ago and up until about the last 8 years it was run as a sanctuary and there would be about 250 or so cats here. When I came on board we decided it should be more of an adoption center, we could help more animals that way, and we went from 40 adoptions a year to almost 400 a year.
Our mission right now is to take animals that are in kill shelters and to get them off death row and bring them here and get them into homes. I started 8 years ago.
You started right after September 11?
Which is exactly what brought me here, it did. I was in retail for many, many years. For 18 years. I was working three days a week having a very hedonistic wonderful life traveling all over and my partner worked three days as well, three nights as well, and after 9/11 she was like, Our life has to have meaning. I was like, No, no it doesn’t, this is awesome, we don’t need meaning. [Laughs.] We just went to Mexico, that had meaning! We decided what we really wanted to do was one day, buy a big plot of land and have the unwanted animals on there. I thought, What better opportunity to learn about animals and how to house them, etcetera, etcetera, then come into a shelter? I tried to volunteer at another shelter and we found it to be very unfriendly and almost hostile. When I came here, there was a great need for some new organization and changing of the guard and stuff like that. So yeah, my life has plenty of meaning right now. No money, but plenty of meaning.
I’m allergic to cats and we currently have 130 of them so Zyrtec is my best friend sometimes. I don’t have a lot of sympathy when somebody calls and says they need to get rid of their cat because they’re allergic. I’ve always liked animals and I’ve always cared for them. I picked up strays when I was little, my mother didn’t allow us to have many animals, but my partner had two cats and I had a dog when we merged homes and it’s been great. Animals rights is—it makes sense, it just makes sense. It’s like, of course we shouldn’t abuse these animals. They trust us, we domesticated them.
I am probably nicer now than I ever was, at least people think I am. I used to tell people when I was in retail when they’d ask what I did—because my partner’s a nurse and it’s always, Oh that’s nice. I used to tell people I made prosthetic legs for cats. Just because I wanted somebody to think I was doing something nice instead of, I’m in retail. It was really funny because now what I do is, I take the busted cats that nobody wants and I love them until they’re healed emotionally and then I put them in a home. So my life does have meaning now where it didn’t before. I think that for me it’s been so great because we change lives here. We change lives of the cats, we change lives of the people that we put the cats into the homes of and it’s a remarkable thing. It’s a building filled with love and it’s a building filled with cats that, um, I think are pretty lucky that they’re in this building—and we’re very lucky that they’re in this building. Even the untouchables get an enormous amount of love from us. I mean, they want to kill me and I’m like, Oh that’s fine, just eat more food.
I actually I had surgery September 12, 2001 which was really interesting for me because I was sitting there September 11th and we were watching TV going the world is over—the world as we know it is completely gone, and what does this mean for tomorrow and what does this mean for the future? I think that everybody has changed somewhat some way. For me it was, I left a job which was very financially fulfilling and a life that was very carefree. In the beginning I used to work seven or eight days a week here. This place had a lot of issues and I threw myself into this with everything that I had and everything that I was worth. I’m very proud to say we almost closed down in the beginning and now we’re a really strong, viable organization. But it really means, I go home everyday laughing, crying—whatever but it’s so much more, like I tell everybody I never cried about a pair of shoes coming back. I was in shoe sales, and it was like, Oh the shoes didn’t work out. Whatever. Here the cat comes back, and it hurts me. So everyday I’m feeling in my life, which I probably didn’t before.