Toilet training a cat (if you’re crazy)

http://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/15/magazine/charles-mingus-toilet-train-cat.html

LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION

How to Toilet-Train Your Cat

Tired of an overflowing litter box? Charles Mingus has a pamphlet for that.

By Brent Katz

March 15, 2022

Sometimes, at Charles Mingus’s apartment, you would have to wait outside the bathroom as a cat finished using the toilet. The legendary jazz composer and bassist had grown tired of coming home to an overflowing litter box. So he devised a solution. And in 1954, he wrote it up on a single sheet of paper and began handing out copies. A pamphlet version followed.

“The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat” arrived in my mailbox in the second year of the pandemic. I learned about it after Topos, a bookstore and small press in Queens, reissued it — a piece of paper folded into three parts, its title in Cooper Black font, a photo of Mingus’s tuxedo cat, Nightlife, on the cover.

It took Mingus three or four weeks to toilet-train Nightlife. His method, in a nutshell, was to fill a shallow cardboard box with torn-up newspaper, instead of litter, which can clog the pipes. He placed the box far from the bathroom to start, then began inching it closer. “Do it gradually,” he writes. “You’ve got to get him thinking.”

Step 2 was to start trimming down the brim of the box as he moved it. Eventually he affixed it atop the toilet with string. “Don’t bug the cat now,” he writes, “don’t rush him.” The third step was to cut a plum-size hole in the box. The cat came to expect the hole. “At this point you will realize that you have won.”

Mingus then slipped the remaining cardboard under the toilet seat. Eventually, with a magician’s flair, he disposed of it completely so that the cat was just using the toilet. “Don’t be surprised if you hear the toilet flush in the middle of the night. A cat can learn how to do it, spurred on by his instinct to cover up.”

I first discovered Mingus in middle school. His music was spontaneous yet composed. He took the listener to the brink of cacophony but always maintained a handle on things. Now, years later, my five-year relationship had recently ended. I was lucky to be employed, but I was definitely in the wrong job. My life was taking another turn toward the unknown, and I didn’t feel I had much control over it. Mingus’s pamphlet seemed to be filled with little glimpses into his worldview and his creative process. After all, a cat, like inspiration, is a mysterious force. It cannot be commanded to sit or roll over, like a dog. Somehow, it felt as if Mingus could see right into the mind of the cat, to work with the enigma.

I started buying copies for friends, as gifts. Then I decided to test the method myself, to see what it might teach me about Mingus’s gift for making things happen that shouldn’t be possible. I haven’t had a cat since we lost Cleo, the Abyssinian, who went crazy, my mom claims, from licking the sticky side of Scotch tape. So I enlisted the help of my friend Madden, a writer and organist who has a tuxedo cat, just like Nightlife. She picked up a cardboard box, and the journey began.

The first hiccup came swiftly. Her cat, Reilly, didn’t want to go on torn-up newspaper. And so, nary a week in, we reinstituted the Pine Pellet sawdust that Reilly trusted and that Madden hoped would not gunk up her pipes.

The box crept closer to its destination, and Reilly began using it in the bathroom. But three weeks in, when Madden put the box on the toilet, Reilly wouldn’t make the final leap.

A few days before our four-week deadline, I texted, “Has he gone on the toilet at all yet?”

“Not yet,” Madden wrote.

We had reached an impasse. What’s more, we seemed to be confusing him. At one point, Madden scooped Reilly up just as he was about to do his business in a guitar case.

About a week before the experiment ended, the Charles Mingus Institute connected me with Eric Mingus, Charles’s son. He told me he used to watch his father compose at the piano. “People have this impression of him thinking about every chord and every detail, but he just played,” Eric said. “And playing would lead to an idea.” It was not something he tried to force.

Mingus also had a gift for inching musicians out of their comfort zones. He would often arrive at rehearsals with unfinished compositions, according to the jazz scholar Krin Gabbard, then sing the band members their parts, not allowing them the crutch of sheet music. “He could read people very well,” Eric said. “And that goes for cats, dogs — everyone.”

But my conversation with Eric also complicated the picture. For instance, he told me that, even for his father, the Mingus method wasn’t foolproof. “Sometimes the cat would miss, and there’d be cat poop on the seat or on the floor.”

The creative process can be messy. And apparently, Mingus was ambivalent about this messiness — about whether his method even should work every time. When John Cassavetes asked Mingus to score his 1959 movie, “Shadows,” Mingus agreed — but on one condition, according to Cassavetes. Mingus told him he had all these cats that were defecating on the floor and wanted Cassavetes to send some of his people over to clean it up. “I can’t work,” he said. “They [expletive] all over my music.” So Cassavetes and a few others went to Mingus’s apartment with scrubbing brushes. Afterward, Mingus said: “I can’t work in this place. It’s so clean. I’ve got to wait for the cats to [expletive].”


Brent Katz has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer and other publications. He works as head of development at Best Case Studios.

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