Every spring, the company I work for gives employees a paid day off to go out into the world and volunteer for pre-arranged community service projects, possibly on account of their awareness that New York is filled with career-driven narcissists who don’t give enough of a shit about philanthropic causes to volunteer their actual time to them.
This year, my work-wife Jenny and I signed up for a project called Walk and Play at the Humane Society. This was a major accomplishment for us, as the pet shelter-related opportunities are limited and always the first ones to get filled up. Because puppies.
Jenny and I were elated about having managed to snag not one but two of these highly coveted spots. It was like being awarded VIP status on the guest list to one of those super posh nightclub openings that used to happen on Sex and the City all the time but happen infrequently (and also, suck) in real life. (Remember the place with all the beds? There were so many beds.)
“WHOOMP, THERE IT IS! PUPPIES ALL DAY, E’RRY DAY!” I proclaimed to Jenny as we victoriously high-fived each other post-sign-up. “Or at least puppies from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Friday, May 16th.”
“Okay Nic, let’s make a pact,” Jenny replied. “Neither of us is allowed to adopt a dog. No matter how much we may fall in love while carelessly frolicking with them through parks, we can’t afford to just be adopting creatures willy-nilly.”
“Deal,” I said, relieved that there would be a formal checks and balances system (did I just misuse that term?) in place to combat my probable impetuousness amongst puggles.
Friday morning came quickly, and Jenny and I found ourselves on the fourth floor of a rundown Midtown East building surrounded by donated doggy clothes (because that’s what rescue pets give a shit about) with nine other volunteers from our company, none of whom we knew personally.
The volunteer coordinator was a petite young brunette with leggings and a nose ring who instantly reminded me of delightful country breakout starlet Kacey Musgraves.
“Okay, so we need two volunteers for the kitty hospital room,” she said.
Everyone immediately looked down as if to say, “Hell to the no; I’m holding out for a hero the cute, non-hospitalized dogs.” But then two brave souls looked up and sacrificed themselves for the greater good and I pitied them a little but mostly just felt major relief because (a) I’m vaguely allergic to cats, and (b) I’m made up of twenty percent Selfish Asshole. (And eighty percent Mariah Carey.)
“Now we need five volunteers to play on the roof with the large dogs.”
At this, the remaining people threw their hands up in a tizzy. Not Jenny and I, though; we just looked at each other and came to a mutual telepathic understanding that we were going to be savvy and save our hand-raising for the small (or at least medium-sized) dogs. Ain’t nobody got time for large dogs, we told each other with our eyes.
“Great!” Kacey Musgraves said, selecting the first five volunteers to play with the large dogs. Then she motioned toward the rest of us. “Now you four will have the pleasure of cleaning literal shit out of cat cages for the next three hours.”
She didn’t actually put it in those words, but she should have because that’s exactly what ended up happening. WE WERE BAMBOOZLED. Why the dogs were qualified as “large” before is beyond me. THE LARGE DOGS WERE THE ONLY DOGS.
I considered sticking my neck out and saying, “Ohhh, sorry, I’m allergic to cats,” but then figured that that’s exactly what someone who’s not allergic to cats would say. (Kind of like in movies when the killer is all “I’m not a killer!”) Plus I didn’t want to face the possibility of them saying, “Well then why didn’t you raise your hand for the dogs?” and me instigating a whole argument over how Kacey’s categorization of the dogs as “large” was misleading and cruel.
So I just accepted my fate and planned to avoid directly touching the cats/my eyes.
We were soon escorted to a room filled wall-to-wall with cat cages. The cats were cute enough, but the stench in the room was gross and a problem. It smelled like someone had murdered a carnie, locked it in a closet, peed on the body every morning for approximately a full year, and stuffed its pockets with Gouda at some point around the five-month mark.
(Wow. That was some fucked up and macabre imagery, and I apologize. I hope I didn’t ruin Gouda for you. Or carnies, for that matter.)
We were instructed that every cage had to be cleaned, and it was best that we split into pairs so we could tag-team the cat piss. The cage cleaning process entailed setting the cats free to roam around the room while we dumped out the litter boxes, sterilized and refilled them, brushed hair off the cat beds, and cleaned/disinfected the messes on the floors of the cages. These tasks involved maneuvers like bending down. And reaching for things. And lifting things.
Also, getting dirty.
Jenny and I smiled enthusiastically as we put our disposable gloves on and prepared to get to work, but deep down we were both spoiled, ungrateful bitches who were not amused.
“I bet HR has diabolical intentions with this whole community service thing,” I later whispered to Jenny as she scrubbed a cage floor and I lined a freshly treated litter box with newspaper. “They’re probably all, ‘Oh, our employees want to complain about their cushy jobs? Let’s have them perform manual labor while locked in a sauna of broken dreams and cat shit for three hours! That’ll take care of that problem!’”
After I said this, I realized how ridiculous and first-world-problems-y of me it was to be wasting my words on complaints.
And I wasn’t giving the good side of myself enough credit – there was a part of me that truly didn’t mind the work and was genuinely pleased to be helping out. Like, it felt awesome to get outside of my ego for a little bit and put my energy into something that didn’t benefit me directly.
But then I also had to acknowledge that if I weren’t receiving compensation (a whole day’s worth, nonetheless) to do this project, there was no way in hell I’d have opted myself into it in my cherished free time – which I think makes me a horrible, entitled person and also what’s wrong with America.
As we neared the end of the shift, a charismatic orange-haired kitty named Felipe started eagerly sticking his little paw out of his cage and trying to latch onto my shirt/generally touch me everywhere. And so I promptly forgot about all the philosophical issues the day’s activities were raising in my mind and just fell in love with him.
I’m not much of a cat person, but Felipe was really cute and I’m not a heartless bastard. Felipe was precious. Precious enough to melt my heart and make me glad that I got bamboozled into the miserable cat sauna, even. As I lovingly gazed into his tiny cat-eyes, I thought about how much it would pain me to see him alone on the streets. Or worse, hungry. Or worse, abused.
It was in this Scrooge-at-the-end-of-A-Christmas-Carol-y moment where I realized why one might willingly choose to volunteer at the Humane Society. Because Felipe (and every other cat ever) deserves to be loved. They deserve to not live in cages. Or at the very least, they deserve to live in fucking clean ones.
Then Felipe got all scratchy on me, but I secretly liked it.
“Friiiskey, are we?” I said, masterfully replicating the voice of Fat Bastard from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. “Jenny! How CUTE is this little guy? Take a pic!”
When Jenny and I returned to our normally scheduled lives in the office on Monday morning, we learned that as a gift for all our hard work on Friday, the building was going to transform into a funhouse of treats and refreshments – stations with free beer, margaritas, wine, tacos, fries, sushi, Pinkberry frozen yogurt, and hot dogs were being set up for everyone who volunteered. Because America is nothing if not dependent on questionable motivation techniques and absurdly lopsided reward systems.
“Well, they did bamboozle us into busting our asses and cleaning up cat feces in a stench-filled shitbox for three miserable hours,” I said to Jenny. By then I had forgotten what Felipe even looked like. “It’s the least they could do.”