By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Maybe, I thought, the answer could be found at the end of the road, on the tip of the continent. Things are different there. I pick up Stephanie in my rented Suzuki Grand Vitara, and we begin our journey, cruising down Interstate 95 until it becomes U.S. 1.
The road takes us low. In Homestead flimsy prefab housing tracts sprawl like cats in the sun. It's a while before we even reach the southern edge of Miami-Dade County, much less drive the 189.7 miles to Key West. At sea level, wind whips the landscape, blowing ubiquitous American flags nearly to shreds. We are all vulnerable, I think, as a gust nudges the Suzuki from its lane: hurricane bait.
I overhear a man in the hotel swimming pool say he came to Key West for a wedding; he's getting married at the celebrated moment of sunset. It doesn't occur to me that his nuptials could interfere with my own raison for visiting. It isn't until later, when I notice rows of black and gold chairs arranged on the pier, that I begin to worry.
I phone the Catman, but he doesn't answer. I dial the concierge. Surely he will know if the Catman has moved or canceled his show. After all, the Catman is pictured in the Hilton Key West brochure in front of a vibrant sunset, smiling and holding a ring of fire while a tabby leaps through the hoop.
The concierge is no use. Anxiously I wait until late afternoon, then set out for Mallory Square. I know the Catman arrives about an hour and a half early to set up his show. I think maybe he will return to his former venue.
The air is thick and stiflingly hot. Whirling ceiling fans seem not to cool but rather to induce vertigo. I feel sick to my stomach; maybe it was the conch. Summoning my strength, I approach two men sitting on a brick step. "Have you seen the Catman?" I ask.
"The Catman. The man with all the cats," I snap, exasperated. They glance at my reporter's notebook and stare at me like I'm from another planet. Finally the men shake their heads no. It's Conch logic, of course: Of all the freaks and exhibitionists that populate the island, I, with my notebook and Catman quest, am the crazy one.
Standing at land's end, I look out on the harbor to the bright-blue Gulf of Mexico. Overhead, wind whips the Florida state flag, the American flag, and the cobalt-colored flag of the Conch Republic. I wonder if the Catman, who was born in France, considers himself and his cats Conchs. Then I worry that I might never know.
Turning back to the street, I hear a glorious sound: my cell phone. The Catman says he will be performing at the Hilton pier after all. I tell him I'll meet him there. "OK. Byee, Ameee!" he says brightly.
Though small in stature (about 5-foot-6), Dominique LeFort, a.k.a. the Catman of Key West, is hard to miss. When he buzzes up on his purple scooter, his silvery, Gallic mullet flying behind him like a banner in the breeze, he has a certain je ne sais quoi, not to mention a cargo of surprisingly quiet cats. The lilac-colored plastic cat carrier and a wicker basket strapped to the back of his scooter contain three cats each. Two cats, he reports happily, sit in a gray carrier at his feet.
Dominique motors his cats -- Piggy, Sharky, Oscar, Sara, Cosette, Chopin, Mandarin, and George -- into the Hilton's cool, cave-like storage space, which calls to mind the dingy backroom of a department store. Catering carts are pushed against the walls; a makeshift break room is set up in the corner.
He wears faded gray wide-leg pants with cargo pockets on the sides and a white shirt that has been torn and tattered by his cats, "but it's clean," he says with a shrug. On his feet, flat black slip-on shoes fit snugly, like Aquasocks, with actual black socks underneath. (Later, for an easy laugh, he will pause to ask audience members if they like his costume, pulling up his pants and exclaiming, "I have new socks!")
Dominique hurriedly wheels out his props, an elaborate set of metal stands with steps, tightropes, and padded pedestals that he designed nine years ago and had welded together by a local shop. He's designing new ones now, for his new-and-improved show.
"I like to design," he says simply. "I like that."
He designed his brochure, too, a trifold pamphlet used to order his T-shirts and videos, but unfortunately, the section with the picture of Mars (who has since been lost) jumping through hoops is the part that was to be torn off and mailed away. "That's the part everyone wants to keep," he complains. "The printer is in Miami," he said with a shrug. "What can you do?"
Then, inexplicably, Dominique bursts into laughter. An animated man, he laughs frequently and heartily, usually at himself. It's a gesture that seems to say, " C'est la vie."