THE CAT LADY VANISHES
No one is likely to forget for a long time what happened that day. That it was a hot, miserable July seemed only appropriate.
The eviction of Helen Whitney had taken months, and this, the final step, was beginning to seem like it might go on nearly as long. Helen was not about to leave on her own. There were clearly too many people to be comfortable in this tiny apartment, what with the police and the constable and the manager and the two men from Animal Control with their gunny sacks.
Everyone's patience was wearing thin.
And no one really wanted to do this, anyway. Helen had paid her rent, even paid it on time. Her apartment was clean. The cats had more or less organized themselves into groups, each group sharing a scratching pad and a few dishes of food. It was evident that there were rules in this household and that they were, for the most part, followed.
So why didn't Helen just follow the rules? If she'd left the cats behind and gone quietly to one of those places for "sprightly seniors," no one would have to feel bad. But Helen was not one to follow other people's direction.
Instead, she flitted around the apartment without any particular focus, still trying to hold her ground, halfheartedly packing her few things into a suitcase. But forced to leave behind a home and a family of sorts, there was little else that really mattered, except for maybe more time.
And there was no more time.
As Helen continued to fight with the clock, the men from Animal Control started capturing the cats, putting each into a separate gunny sack. The manager and the constable took a more serious tone, telling Helen she had to leave. The police finally physically removed Helen from her apartment, but not without one last fight.
She hurt her hand when it hit the door as she tried to struggle away from her escort.
Helen left her home in a patrol car, taken to a shelter on Van Buren Street to stay with strangers who had nothing in common except their lack of a permanent home.
The men from Animal Control bagged 28 cats. The manager and the constable consoled each other. They had done everything they could. There was no other choice. The law is the law. Somehow, Helen would be okay.
Helen had spent more than ten of her 74 years at the Park Lane apartments near 32nd Street and Roosevelt. Sometimes she took the bus, but usually Helen walked. No one ever really knew where she traveled, but she would often mention how quickly the pavement wore out her shoes.
Manuel Fierro was Helen's neighbor at Park Lane for more than a decade. In earlier years, he would hear classical music or the television coming from Helen's apartment downstairs. Sometimes she would invite him to dinner. He could never make it.
Every once in a while, Helen would show off her portfolio of pencil sketches, mostly of the cats. People who've seen the sketches say they're beautiful. Sometimes Helen talked about her "little cat family," the ones who shared her apartment.
She'd fed them, trained them and watched them grow up. And they, in turn, grew to dominate her household in the same way children do as they become teenagers. They determined Helen's schedule. They kept her from basic luxuries, like intact upholstery on the furniture. She watched them go out the door every day, never really knowing when they'd be back. But Helen was always there when they returned.
Outside Helen's insulated world, Park Lane slowly deteriorated around her. Young men on their way to nowhere lurked around Helen's apartment, until a neighbor shooed them away. Without maintenance, the buildings began to age. Things left outside were stolen.
In 1988, a young woman who lived across the hallway was found murdered. Helen installed more locks on the door.
After Park Lane slipped into receivership, it was purchased by a new owner who set about renovating the place, renamed it Palm Oasis and brought in new management.
Along with the face-lift and the cleanup came the enforcement of rules. Helen's many cats were no longer approved residents.
The neighbors were complaining.
Samantha Fox, manager of Palm Oasis, says she repeatedly explained to Helen that the cats would have to go, but Helen wouldn't hear of it. "We didn't want to do what we did," Fox says. "I've been in this business for 25 years, and this was the worst situation I've ever been in." Fox contacted a couple of relatives Helen had listed on her rental agreement. Helen was her own woman, they told Fox. She would choose her own path. Helen was furious at the interference.
Palm Oasis began legal action.
The court contacted a couple of government agencies. But they couldn't help Helen if she didn't want to play by their rules. Helen made every court appearance in the East Phoenix Justice Court. Judge Rebecca Macbeth remembers her as confident and articulate. Helen graciously explained to the court that she was responsible for the cats. She had spent a great deal of money caring for the cats in her neighborhood. And she could not abandon them.
"It was very much an ethical issue with her," Macbeth recalls.
Even so, the judge ruled against Helen and explained again that the cats could not stay. Outside the courtroom, Fox and her attorney offered Helen a ride home, but she refused.
"I have my own way," Helen told them, holding up a bus pass.
For about a month after she was evicted from Palm Oasis, Helen would come by and leave food and water for the cats. And then, it seemed, she just disappeared.
Fierro doesn't know where Helen went. He saw her in the market at 32nd Street and McDowell not too long ago, but she didn't speak to him. Maybe she didn't recognize him. Maybe she was angry. Georgie Ruth, another neighbor, remembers giving Helen a ride home from the store from time to time. They shared a few short snippets of conversation over the years, visiting the way neighbors do without ever really getting to know each other. Helen tried to convince Ruth to take in a cat or two, but she never did.
The last time Ruth saw Helen, Helen was walking under the freeway overpass carrying grocery bags to some unknown destination. She was living in the shadows. A February advertisement in a newspaper in Las Cruces, New Mexico, sought heirs to the estate of Bertha Elizabeth Lavin, who died last August. One of the heirs is Helen. The state, it read, has named a local bank as executor of the estate, unless the heirs object.
All except Helen, that is. And who knows what Helen thinks. At a time when civic leaders are trying to force-feed a sense of community into neighborhoods across the country, Helen managed to fade into the landscape in Phoenix.
No one even realized she was unaccounted for until her sister's death thrust Helen into a probate case. And then she became an uncomfortable, perhaps familiar character--an older woman alone, a face in the crowd.
The image was disturbing. Unthinkable in modern society. She had to be found. Saving Helen was like saving the world. She was the quintessential good deed.
The probate attorneys in Las Cruces began asking around for her. People whose lives Helen had brushed began to be concerned. People who still felt bad. And people whose jobs it had been to disrupt her life wanted to provide a happy ending.
Clerks at the market where Fierro saw her know Helen. She pays close attention to how the groceries are bagged because she's carrying them home on foot.
But the clerks don't remember when she came in last. There are too many Helens in and out of their market to keep track.
The Whataburger across the street regularly has a few Marys and Margarets come in, the manager says, but no Helen. Lucy, a large woman with bright lipstick who works at Circle K at 32nd Street and Roosevelt, knows a tall lady with glasses and two shaggy dogs, but not Helen. She'll keep an eye out for her, though. So will a man who works at the VA Market at 32nd Street and Garfield.
A young girl playing outside one of the endless apartment complexes south of the Red Mountain Freeway and west of 32nd Street thinks maybe Helen is the lady in number 16.
Behind the drawn curtains in number 16 is a very nice woman who seems as though she'd like to be found. She's up in years and lives alone, but she isn't Helen. She'd sure like to help, though, if she could.
A man named Terry with a ponytail stops mowing his lawn long enough to say that he just moved here in August and is sure he's never seen Helen. But he'll keep an eye out in the neighborhood and he'd like to help if he can.
Maybe the man who lives down the street might know her, Terry says.
But, no, Harold doesn't know Helen, although they have a few things in common. Harold is a man of white hair and many years. He lives in a little white cottage with green trim down the street from Helen's former home.
And he doesn't think that 28 cats is a lot. He has 20. Some of them likely were once members of Helen's cat family.
The manager of a complex next to Harold says nearly all of the tenants in the two-story apartments across McKinley from her came from Palm Oasis. They'll know Helen if anyone does--how long has she been gone? Few of the residents speak English, she says, but a woman named Rachel in number 2 can translate.
No one at the string of motels along Van Buren seems to remember having seen Helen, either.
Finally, a break. The manager at El Nuevo Motel near 32nd Street and Van Buren says that Helen is in number 16. Behind the door in number 16 is a tall woman with gray hair.
But her name is Patty.
As a young girl, Helen earned a scholarship to art school in Colorado, where she studied the masters. She absorbed them, tried to glean their thoughts and their passion. It wasn't until some time later that Helen grew confident enough to let her own expression fill the canvas.
Her beauty once made heads turn. Her tall, thin frame and confident, graceful bearing are reminders of the young woman who modeled clothing for department stores.
She was once a dancer, too. But that was a lifetime ago.
Helen and her mother came to Phoenix from Southern California sometime around 1940. Not long afterward, she met Harold Whitney at a party thrown by mutual friends. Whitney was an up-and-coming attorney, the son of former Phoenix mayor Louis B. Whitney. After several months, the two married. With Whitney, Helen attended elegant parties and afternoon teas. They moved in prominent Phoenix social and Democratic party circles.
She and Whitney had two sons, who are now nearing their 50s. But the couple divorced, and the children were raised by their father. Helen and her sons kept in touch periodically, but weren't what folks term "a close-knit family."
Helen had her own life. But she was in their thoughts.
Her life after the divorce is a mosaic of random and sketchy details.
She taught dance to preschoolers. She volunteered at a convalescent home. On at least two occasions, she lived for about a year with her sister Bertha in New Mexico. Bertha was an elementary school art teacher who shared Helen's love of cats.
Bertha was social and outgoing. She moved in the art circles around Las Cruces. Helen came with little notice and left the same way, keeping to herself and concentrating on her artwork most of the time.
She was harshly critical of her own work, sometimes tearing up a painting just as soon as it dried. Helen painted murals on the walls of various restaurants and businesses in Phoenix. A bird of paradise on Mylar at a restaurant, a seascape on the wall of a home in north Phoenix.
It's still there.
"I wouldn't dream of painting over it," says Becky Chapman, who now owns the home. She doesn't know Helen. Neither did the owners before her. It just seemed appropriate to preserve the mural.
Harold Whitney died in January. His obituary listed Helen as a survivor and invited friends to a celebration of his life. But she didn't show. A son looked for her to no avail. The separation troubles him.
"I think about it every day," he says. About a month after the newspaper ad, the gumshoes showed up--the kind of square, barrel-chested guys who start conversations with, "Is there someplace we can talk?" Occasionally, private investigators do pro bono work for the court and, well, Helen certainly seemed like a worthy cause. Heaven knows they've chased enough of the bad guys.
Using the kind of "confidential sources" that investigators prefer to keep mysterious, they had found an address for Helen.
It turned out to be a ramshackle yet charming group of six cottage apartments in one of downtown's historic neighborhoods, an area where young couples pour money into refurbishing vintage homes.
Helen had been found. She just didn't know it yet.
On a truly lovely day at the end of February, the birds outside Helen's apartment alternate in song and chirp as though performing in some grand musical production. They hang around the palm trees because they're regularly fed by Ellis Bidwell, who owns the apartments where Helen lives.
Helen is not home. Bidwell says she went to the store. She always tells Bidwell where she's going, although he's not the sort of landlord who monitors the whereabouts of his tenants. That's their business.
She addresses Bidwell immediately, mentioning a problem in getting her telephone connected and asking where, exactly, is the office that handles such a thing?
Another neighbor talks about fixing the lawn mower. Helen leads the way to her little apartment in the back, where light strips from the Venetian blinds make a pattern on the green carpeting in the afternoon.
A piano and a big-screen television and a few other pieces of furniture are neatly arranged in the living room.
Nearly everything about Helen, her continental poise, her refined diction, rise above this corner of downtown Phoenix. She is pretentious without apology.
Bidwell has a strict rule about "no pets, no noise, no longhaired boys." But a black-and-white tabby from across the way makes a habit of napping in a box outside Helen's front door. A gray cat that belongs to a neighbor has become a regular, as well.
Helen spins quite a yarn about her "little cat family" at Palm Oasis, peppering it with anecdotes to explain the unique personality of each one. It's immediately apparent that she misses them dearly.
That her real family is looking for her, that Bertha has passed away and that Helen is an heir to her sister's estate may be overwhelming, but she doesn't miss a beat.
How ridiculous, Helen announces, that she was not informed sooner. It has been just one thing after another during this last transition. She had wanted to buy a house for herself and the cats, but it was just too much to negotiate. She spent six weeks in a motel on Van Buren Street while she was between apartments. She still doesn't have a phone.
But she'd bet "a dime to a doughnut" that the post office would have forwarded a letter if it were made clear that the issue was urgent, even though it had returned her mail undelivered. Helen hadn't called her family because she was waiting to get settled. It's not unusual. They've gone for years at a time without being in touch with one another.
Certainly, Helen would never consider herself missing, like some common bag lady. She doesn't need to be rescued. Go save someone else.
Her life is her own and she prefers not to discuss it. She might talk about her artwork, but not now. Not when all of her work is still packed away. Her paintings are all over town, but nowhere she'll say.
The sun gradually gives way to dark clouds and startling thunderclaps. Rain pours down hard onto the dirt yard outside Helen's apartment. Helen produces little white plastic grocery bags and quickly fashions them into a covering for a visitor who must run through the rain. The inheritance doesn't mean much. She's done just fine without it. She'll thank you to stay out of her business. And here's the door.
Maybe they could meet again. Maybe they could start over sometime on a more pleasant note.
Or maybe it was arrogant to think that Helen somehow needs help because she's chosen her own path. And that there is only one possible happy ending to a story.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.