Saturday, August 13, 2011

Archy and Mehitabel

Does anyone remember archy and mehitabel? As you can see from the back cover of my book, "Don Marquis first introduced archy the cockroach and mehitabel, a cat in her ninth life, in his newspaper column, The Sun Dial, in 1916." Archy is a poetic cockroach who hops around on his boss's typewriter at the newspaper office at night. He can't do the shift key so everything is in lower case. Mehitabel is an alley cat whose soul "once belonged to Cleopatra" in another life.

How do I know about archy and mehitabel? Well, it is kind of a long story. Back in the 70's I was living at my mom's apartment and was the single mother of a little boy. I had a series of jobs as a typesetter. Back then, before desktop publishing, being a typesetter meant typing on a keyboard with no screen and producing a computer tape. Point size, font, line length, etc were all inserted with key combinations such as "p24" for 24 point type. Line length was measured in picas. The computer tape was run through a reader on a photo typesetting machine. The photo paper was developed and then the pieces of type went to the "paste up" department to be included with art and photos in the finished ad or book. (I can't imagine how I did it now.)

My typesetting jobs were definately "blue collar" back then, not the glamourous graphic artist jobs of today. Often we labored in little rooms near the big, dirty, noisy presses, huge paper cutters and other printing equipment. We punched a time clock, sometimes even to go to the bathroom. You can imagine what a step up it was when I got the job at Florida Trend magazine working on the beautiful top floor of an old remodeled cigar factory with brick walls, expensive art, hardwood floors, outside glass elevator, boutique shops, and wonderful restaurants, but that is another story.

So I got a job at night in a very rundown building in an old part of downtown Tampa. It was near the Tampa Tribune building, the University of Tampa and the old Valencia Gardens restaurant, but it was a slum. In fact a homeless man was found dead under our building one time and someone jokingly suggested we should advertise a "room for rent". I worked in a long, windowless room with cement walls and floor. At night. It was scary and depressing, but I needed a job. And that job eventually led to the Florida Trend job so I guess it was worth it.

One of the night managers had a brilliant idea. He read to us while we worked. It was kind of fitting since the "lectors" used to read to the cigar makers in the old cigar factories in Tampa. The book he read was "archy and mehitabel". I loved it.

Archy, the poetic cockroach wrote free verse about his life in the newspaper office and his friends. He would beg for an apple core or scrap of bread now and then. I'm going to offer some excepts of one of my favorite columns about mehitable and her kittens. Mehitabel is a free spirit of a cat and not a very good mother, I'm afraid.

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she said to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyway
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself

Don Marquis


  1. Shari, this is a fabulous story and writing. I ate up every word of yours, from the beginnings of your knowing archy and mehitabel, to the press job, all of it. My favorite post of yours ever, and one of my favorites of all blogs ever. I'd love to hear more of these stories.

    What drew me in at first . . . you're not gonna believe it, well I can't anyway. Just a few weeks ago, my husband was looking through old family ancestry documents and found a couple by the name of Mehitabel (b. 1646) and Eldad. At first we thought Mehitabel was the man, but apparently it is a woman's name, one neither of us had ever heard before. When we moved our daughter and her husband from NYC last week, he teased them that they should name their baby Mehitabel. He kept at it mercilessly, and finally he succumbed to their refusals. Then I had the brilliant idea to name one of the stray barn cats Mehitabel. And he was appeased!

    How crazy is that, now seeing you post about a cat named Mehitabel!


  2. Ruth, thank you so much for your comment. I confess to hoping you would see this post and wondering if you would like it. It seemed like something you would enjoy. As for the ancestor named Mahitabel and the barn cat, that whole thing is amazing! Eldad and Mahitabel - what a couple!

  3. i have never heard of it...but will try and stop back by to read this over the weekend...

    happy to see you at farmhouse kitchen, my friend

    and thanks for the kind always

    kary and teddy

  4. i have an intersting connection in that i lived in Tampa...fine bit of story telling and did not know it...thanks for the introduction...