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Looking for Cats in Cupboard

It wasn’t so much her 20 cats or even her overnight jail term that got me interested in Beth Kurrus. It was the immensity of the mess in her mobile home.

The floor and every shelf was jammed with books, papers, candle holders, clothes, vases, statues, shopping bags, yarn, toys, purses, baskets, letters, lamps and things in boxes I doubt an archeologist would ever be able to identify.

It looked like the back room of a museum.

There was only a narrow pathway through the collection leading from the bedroom of the small trailer to the kitchen. All of the items were stacked around a piano and an antique desk which, along with a new, unpacked vacuum cleaner, were the centerpieces of the home.

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The vacuum cleaner never got unpacked, Beth explained, because there was no available floor space and therefore no place to vacuum.

“My God,” I said, looking around, “how did it get this way?”

Beth is 66 and a school teacher. She is also slightly eccentric and more than a little disorganized.

“Well,” she said, “it just sort of happened over the years.” Then, looking around, she added unnecessarily, “I guess I’ll never make House Beautiful, will I?”

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For those who missed it, the Cat Lady of Newhall is not going to have to go to jail again and, in fact, may have even won the right to keep a messy home. She is, however, going to have to give up the last of her 20 cats and will probably never own another one.

It all began a couple of months ago. Divorced after several years of marriage (she can’t recall how many), Beth lived alone in a quiet trailer camp down a tree-lined street. Well, alone except for the 20 cats.

Her landlord complained one day about the mess in Beth’s trailer and the smell being caused by her abundance of animals. When Beth seemed disinclined to do anything about it, Animal Control officers were called in.

They took one look around the trailer, ran to the door for air and Beth ended up in court and then in jail for 48 hours. A pair of cotton underpants issued during her incarceration and stamped “L.A. County Jail” hang on a shelf today as part of her collection.

She was then placed on probation and told to get rid of all but two of the cats and clean up. That’s when I stopped by to visit.

You could not invent a Beth Kurrus. She is a good-natured woman with a pleasant, slightly bewildered expression that speaks more of a free spirit than an uneasy grip on reality. Things just seem to happen to Beth.

For instance, she likes cats and somehow, she doesn’t quite know how, one cat became five cats and five cats 12 cats and 12 cats 20 cats.

She also likes collecting. And somehow, she doesn’t quite know how, trips to thrift shops and bookstores and antique stores and just plain stores evolved into the calamity of artifacts that surrounded us in her Newhall trailer the day we discussed her predicament.

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I sat on the only chair in the place, awed by the enormity of the collection. Beth sat on a waste basket turned upside down. She held a basket of plastic flowers in her lap because there was no place else to put them. Curly-haired and benign, she looked a little like something made of glazed pottery.

Beth had already given up all but two of the cats and admitted that at one time the cats and her collection had combined to pollute her trailer home to a degree that was probably not sanitary.

“But now,” she said, “I’ve gotten rid of most of the cats and cleaned up the feces. Isn’t it my right to live in a mess if I want to? The last time the Animal Control officers came they looked in my cupboard. Did they expect to find cats in there?”

Forget for the moment that the trailer smelled faintly of cat urine when I was there and that those who lack Beth’s easy attitude toward chaos would probably be driven mad by such an unsightly stew. The trailer is a tidy housewife’s vision of hell.

But, still, Beth is perfectly correct in maintaining that her mess is her business, so long as she is not keeping cats in the cupboard.

She sees herself as a collector. The cats were just, well, part of the collection. So were the candle sticks and the statues and the old clothes and the plastic flowers.

Having realized, however, that her retentive self-indulgence may have been somewhat excessive, Beth will give up the two remaining cats and is even toying with the notion of unpacking the vacuum cleaner. One can only hope it will not seize her at some future time to start all over again.


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