"Hurry up! Take your time!" he called as a middle-aged man rushed forward with a white plastic Bic. The Catman lit the wire and tossed the Bic back quickly, yelling, "Go back to your seat!"
Flames flickered along the hoop, which was otherwise invisible in the new night. The Catman poked his head through it. Eerie shadows danced across his face. He removed the burning hoop and held it high. In his thick French accent, he coaxed a cat to jump through the fire. "You can do eet," he told the tortoise-colored feline. "Eet's all in your mieend!"
As if hypnotized, the cat froze. ³You¹re OK,² the Catman reassured him. He explained that the cat, named Mandarin, came to him as a stray after Hurricane Georges. Suddenly, Mandarin leapt from his perch with such force, he nearly knocked it over, sailing through the flames to an identical pedestal on the other side. In that moment Mandarin was not a cat but a blur on the horizon, a bright star shooting across the sky.
The crowd erupted in applause. "That's amazing!" someone gasped.
The Catman then signaled his four cats to leap onto his chest. He jogged in a wide circle as they gripped his shirt with their claws. Night had fallen like a curtain on his show. It was time for the final bow, but the Catman just kept running gleefully, his cats clinging to him desperately, his arms outstretched to the sky.
"Thank you the hurricane!" he cried.
The Catman seemed to come to me in a dream, like fog of the Carl Sandburg poem, on little cat feet. Reality is rarely so poetic, though, and in fact the Catman came by word of mouth. I dreamed of seeing him for real.
I learned of the Catman through my friend Erin. "He's bizarre," she gushed. When Erin gets excited, she slips into a Southern drawl, stretching out her vowels like taffy. "He's just so weird." A native Alabamian, Erin has a healthy appreciation for eccentricity. She has been visiting Key West for years, since the days when the Catman performed in Mallory Square.
These days the Catman can be found in the rosy glow of nearly every sunset at the Hilton Key West Resort and Marina pier, exhorting his house cats to leap great distances in a single bound, walk a tightrope, even, yes, jump through flaming hoops. While these feats are extraordinary, it is his words that linger long after the show. Erin and her family returned to Fort Lauderdale repeating the Catman's irresistible, French-fried phrases. Soon those of us who had never even seen the Catman began to mimic him, too: "You can do eet," we cried in unison. "Eet's all in your mieend!"
Would that it were true.
The truth is, I am not exactly a cat person. I'll take a wet dog nose against the palm of my hand over the mewing aloofness of a shedding feline any day. It wasn't cats that drew me to Key West on a partly rainy, partly sunny Friday afternoon in early October. It was the man.
The Catman is touched, improbably, by the kind of fame that spreads suddenly and unexpectedly. When one is so delighted by a person or an idea, she feels compelled to share. There is no accounting for this sort of phenomenon; it can't be planned or bought. Erin and her brother, Patrick, are crazy for the Catman, and her family is hardly alone.
The Catman is a cult hero, drawing audiences from all over the country and the world to Key West and commanding radio and television appearances on networks foreign and domestic. Sadly most of these stories fail to capture his true appeal. The shows and articles debate cats' propensity for tricks, consulting veterinarians and experts and interviewing animal trainers for tips. What they miss in all this kitty-centricity is the Catman's oddly liberating existentialist bent. It is psychology, not Whiskas, with which the Catman urges his felines through rings of fire. "There is no flame," he tells them, "only on your mind!"
The idea of writing about the Catman came to my mind in another season. It was mid-August, still relentlessly sunny, still summertime. I was standing waist deep in a pool with Erin and our friend, Stephanie, preparing to swim as far as I could underwater. As I sucked in my breath, they cheered, "You can do eet! Eet's all in your mieend!"