During the day, Juan was the type of man nobody noticed in New York . He was in the country illegally, so he had to keep his head down and work hard.
At 5 am every morning, he was working with a team of other laborers unloading fruit and vegetables from the Fresh Direct trucks and sorting them for delivery to the various apartments in Tribeca.
Usually he did not get to make any deliveries. Only the guys the boss liked the best got to do that. Deliveries meant tips at the wealthy apartments, and so everyone fought to be the delivery guys.
It was a bad winter, which was good for Juan. After helping to unload the trucks, Juan could pick up some extra cash by shoveling and salting sidewalks for the stores. Sometimes the store owners paid in full, and sometimes they said the snow was not really that deep and they paid less than they had promised. But there was a really nice old woman on Greene Street who had a little cafe. She always found some small job for Juan to do. She would have him sweep the cafe, or clean the windows or empty the trash. She always paid in full in cash and always gave him a little snack when he was done. She reminded him of his abuela back home.
Juan tried not to think about home very much. When the Narcos started moving in to his town he made the mistake of not showing them the respect they demanded. He would not pay any tribute no matter how small. He had wanted to fight them but it was his abuela who had convinced him to leave and run to the U.S. She told him that if he fought the Narcos, not only would he die, but that the Narcos would take revenge and kill the whole family including her.
Feeling like a coward Juan had slipped across the border into the U.S. Like most other illegals he took whatever job was offered. He kept moving further and further north, until finally he found himself in one of the richest sections of New York. He was one of the many invisible people in Tribeca who took care of all the menial tasks for the very rich.
He had found small illegal sleeping quarters in the basement of a clothing store on Spring Street. Years before, the manager of the store had paid a plumber to hook up a shower, sink and toilet in the basement, and had been renting it out for cash ever since. Juan not only paid cash, but also cleaned the store and stocked the shelves for free. Despite this, Juan still thought he had a good deal.
The only drawback was that when the store closed for the night, Juan was locked in his windowless basement apartment. The manager probably could have rented it for a lot more money except for this. When people wanted apartments in Soho they wanted to be able to go out at night.
Juan did not mind being locked in at night. He was so physically exhausted by the end of each day that he was happy to just sleep on the little army cot tucked in beside overflowing boxes of women’s overpriced shoes.
How the cat got in Juan could never figure out. There must have been some small secret hole to the outside somewhere in the basement, but Juan cold never find it. All he knew was that one night he was scared half to death when the cat woke him from a deep sleep by jumping on the cot. It was only five degrees outside that night and the cat’s fur was very cold. The cat meowed and meowed and Juan realized it was half starving. Juan rummaged though the mini fridge which also served as his bedside night table. He gave the cat some milk and pieces of a left over roast beef sandwich. The cat wolfed it down and purred loudly. Then the cat jumped back to the cot, curled into a ball and fell promptly to sleep.
Juan did not toss the cat out of the cot, but just squeezed next to it on the bed. Juan found the cat’s presence oddly soothing, and soon Juan fell back asleep.
In the morning the cat was gone, but it returned each night for dinner and a nap on the cot. Juan sadly realized that the cat’s visits were the best part of his entire day.
That’s when Juan started dreaming about being someone important. The dream about Cat Heaven seemed so real that when Juan woke up he was sure he had actually been there. It was a beautiful place.
Cat Heaven was in a giant field of green grass where it was sunny and warm during the day and cool and pleasant at night. The field was full of mice and butterflies which the cats would chase. In the middle of the field was a large Victorian Mansion with the doors open. Inside the mansion there were comfortable couches and easy chairs for the cats to curl up and sleep on. There were bowls of fresh water and other bowls with crunchy cat food nuggets.
The cats were very happy there but there was one thing missing. There was no human to pet them and brush them and speak soothingly to them. So out of all the people in the world, the cats chose Juan to come to cat heaven and take care of them. He wandered through the mansion, petting and talking to the cats, periodically picking one up to give it a big hug.
When Juan woke up the next morning he felt that he had really been there. It did not seem like a dream at all. Then he started worrying that he was going crazy. He realized that since he left Mexico he had had no friends, and usually went through the entire day without speaking more than a few words to anyone.
The next dream was even stranger. He was the most important man in a small village in Japan. He was still Mexican, but no one seemed to notice since he spoke fluent Japanese There were two Sumo wrestlers who lived in the village and they needed to get to a big tournament in Tokyo to defend the honor of the village. People had cars, but they were all too small to fit even one Sumo wrestler in.
Then Juan had an idea. There was one big flatbed truck in the village. The Sumo wrestlers could ride on it, but if it bounced around on the rutted dirt road they would bounce off the truck, or at the very least get injured. But Juan came up with the idea of taking a big fiberglass pool and securing it to the back of the truck. The villagers filled it with warm water and the Sumo wrestlers climbed in and floated comfortably while Juan drove the tuck.
All was going well until Juan came to the last sharp corner on the road out of the village. The combined weight of the water and the Sumo wrestlers caused the truck to tip. Water flooded the village and the Sumo wrestlers rode a wave through the village, finally ending up safely in a muddy rice paddy.
That’s when Juan woke up an realized that he was simultaneously drowning and choking. The store was on fire. A raging inferno had caused the sprinklers to turn on. But they had not been tested in many years, and the sudden pressure caused a pipe to break in the basement and the windowless room was fast filling with water. It was already higher than the side of the cot, and water had been getting in Juan’s mouth while he slept.
He ran up the stairs, but the steel door to the main floor of the store was bolted shut. A thought flashed though Juan’s mind how unfair it would be for him to have worked so hard to escape the Narcos just to drown in the basement of a women’s shoe store.
That’s when he heard the cat meowing. It was swimming in frantic circles in the cold basement water which was already as high as Juan’s chest. Juan scooped up the cat and held it in his arms. The cat stayed there for a minute and then jumped out of his arms to a little brick ledge near the top of the wall.
Juan watched the cat intently. He knew it was his only hope. Somehow it got into the basement every night. It must know a way out. It would be big enough for a cat, but what about a man?
The cat ran along the ledge and then Juan saw the hole in the bricks in the top corner of the basement. The cat scampered through the hole, but just as Juan had feared, the hole was just barely wide enough for the scrawny cat.
Juan reached down into the freezing cold water and found the mini fridge. He dragged it to the corner and stood on it. He pulled himself up the brick ledge and put his mouth to the hole the cat had gone through.
Then he screamed. He screamed louder than he ever had in his life. He let out all the fear and anger and frustration he had kept pent up his whole life and just screamed over and over and over. He had left Mexico without a fight, but he was damned if he was going to leave this Earth without one.
He was still screaming when the water reached his chin, and the light shined in his eyes almost blinding him. From the other side of the hole he heard the fireman yell, “Chief! There’s someone in there! Jump back buddy! We’re going to use the jackhammer.”
The rest of the night was a blur and he didn’t remember much about it later. He remembers the sound of the firemen breaking in, and the ride in the ambulance. He was only in the hospital overnight for observation since he had not sustained any injuries.
Juan assumed he would be deported back to Mexico, but that was before he understood the power of becoming a celebrity. He ended up on all the New York news stations, both English and Spanish. He became the “poster-boy” for the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, although he was not really sure what that meant.
People kept wanting him to talk about how he had been locked in a basement and left to die, but he would not. He did not think he had been mistreated, and he knew the fire was an accident. People kept wanting to give him money but he would not take it. For hundreds of years his family had been hard workers and had never taken a handout from anyone.
All he wanted was another place to sleep and to find his cat. After a while the public lost interest in him and assumed he had moved back to Mexico. He did not. You have probably passed him in Tribeca or Soho many times and never noticed him. He is still one of the anonymous men unloading trucks in the morning. He has found another illegal place to sleep, this time in the attic of a grocery store. He figured it is easier to get out of an attic than a basement if there is ever a problem.
After work Juan wanders near the burnt out building on Spring Street where the shoe store used to be. In his pocket he has a small bag of dry cat food which he shakes periodically while searching for the scrawny friend who saved his life by showing him the hole in the basement.
After a long day of unloading trucks Juan is glad to get back to his attic room and flop down on the bed. He always falls asleep immediately, and always dreams of Cat Heaven.