Apologies for the disappearing act, you probably robotic visitors you, but it’s happening again. The plague of my West Philadelphia residency has spread. No, I’m not talking about anarchist vegans on the prowl. No, it’s not bearded guitarists crooning from the front porch. No, I’m not even thinking about Omar, the neighborhood court jester. Please, I can brush those all off my shoulder without even breaking into a sweat. It’s those masked critters that are hunting me down--the kind that won’t back off in a draw. Their intimidation factor is at an all-time high, and as I see it, their only goal is to have me peeing my pants.
There’s no specific name for what we’re about to talk about today. There are at least five different big words to describe you if you’re afraid of cats: you have elurophobia, felinophobia, ailurophobia, galeophobia, or gatophobia. Take your pick. Maybe I could say I have agrizoophobia, the fear of wild animals. Maybe better, I’m lyssophobic. You know, afraid of rabies or of becoming mad. But really, I’m already mad and this is strictly about my (not so) irrational fear of raccoons.
Just look at those guys. People make stuffed animals that are fluffy and soft, comforting toys for a child to fall asleep cuddling. Calendar images with their lunar eyes gazing out into the evening sky, climbing trees, and nibbling on scavenged grub. Raccoons are portrayed as cute, cuddly critters and embraced as a symbol of curiosity and exploration. Those aren’t the bandits I know.
Let me explain. It happened for the first time over four years ago. A cigarette break on the front porch overlooking 44th Street. Midnight. Past bedtime. I was alone, inhaling tobacco and staring out at the street rather than laying in bed with a book or resting up for work like I should have been. Perhaps it was a warning: stop smoking, don’t go out alone at night, move closer to your parents. Suddenly, a thud to my left made me jump. My eyes met two more staring straight back, unnerving, a raccoon the size of a pit bull shaking menacingly before me. It felt like minutes that the two of us stared at each other, neither backing down. I refused to unlock my gaze as I slowly rose to my feet on the ledge I had been sitting on and began to back up, climbing slowly over the metal railing to the connected porch behind me. The monster kept staring, kept shaking. After what felt like an eternity, he ran away, down the front steps of my porch and up the sidewalk, looking as though it was running towards the porch I now stood on. I jumped and ran inside, slamming the door, myself now shaking.
Take two. A new apartment, a few blocks away. This evening it’s earlier but still dark. I’m walking home, planning to take the back gate in through the alley and make my way to the front door. There it is. Next to the gate. Smaller than the last, but just as bold. We meet eyes. It knows I’m trying to get past. Instead I briskly change directions, crossing the street and intending to make an unnecessarily large circle back around the opposite direction to get inside. The raccoon follows. I run across the street again, it follows! It’s only 7 p.m., where is the rest of humanity? I sprint back across the street, around, and inside heaving like I’ve just run a marathon. I now know their aggression is building.
Numbers three and four. Yet another apartment. This time and the next, it’s my back fire escape. Luckily, this time and the next, I’m not alone. It’s late. We’re loudly listening to music, debating a world full of sorrow and pop culture, and drinking too many beers, when I feel staring again. If I were to imagine a gaze more intimidating, I might believe I was facing pure evil itself. We stomp. It stays. We stomp again, louder. This raccoon is less ambitious. It backs down quickly and retreats. I retreat indoors, vowing to stay away from my precious fire escape.
Finally, we come to the most recent of encounters. Once more, a new apartment. Once more, a late night cigarette. It’s quiet out. We’ve yet to establish an ash tray out front, so I walk to the alley to toss my butt in the garbage cans. I lift the lid. Two masked eyes hiding in the trash! The lid drops with a thud. You know the rest.
I’m aware that, especially written down, it sounds like this feud is a fabrication that my neurotic self has created. A way of feigning fear and danger into an otherwise boring existence. A misunderstanding of a gathering creature that is simply searching out its next meal. An animal once at home, now being driven out of its neighborhood by the buildings and people and automobiles that have come to stay.
Or maybe I’m the raccoon whisperer. Perhaps I’m being called on a spiritual voyage, a mission of discovery or riches. The seeker in them is calling on the seeker in me. We’re sharing secrets, the things we’ve discovered. Even maybe, encouraging reckless abandon in one another, moving forward without fear of the unknown.
It’s all in my head. I’m being stalked! It’s pure coincidence. This I say to you, raccoons, whatever your intentions may be: It’s time to put an end to my raccoon chronicles. Stop following me, stop showing up at my home, and stop staring me down. Let a girl smoke in peace.
heavy heeled when walking; heavy handed when pouring a drink