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Critters of New York

Small Claims NYC: Did This Bodega Cat Beat Up a Pit Bull Puppy?

“The cat is famous, a part of the neighborhood, a mascot,” one woman said of the alleged assailant.

Negrito, pictured here with Ari Vail and Megan Chase, stands accused of a brutal assault. (Kelly Grace Price)

On a recent Friday in Manhattan, six people and two dogs walked into Manhattan's civil courthouse to determine who was at fault for a sudden and brutal uptown assault. They brought surreptitiously recorded videos and time-stamped evidence; one carried a reinforced legal folder stuffed with astronomical bills issued by two different medical institutions. The mediation process, all parties agreed, hadn't gone well. It was time for the justice system to determine whose version of events was more credible, and who was ultimately responsible for the violence of that spring afternoon.

The case of interest was an entrant into the surprisingly robust world of bodega cat case law, a curious claim that interrogated both the character and origin of a black cat dubbed "Negrito" by his neighbors in Washington Heights. By most accounts, the cat has been hanging out on the corner of Audubon and West 187th, also the site of G & J Deli, for years. On April 3, some time between 2 and 2:30 in the afternoon, a local named Joseph Blanco and his girlfriend were walking their three-month-old pit bull when two women standing in front of the bodega asked to say hello to the dog. "While we were conversating," Blanco told the judge, "the cat comes out of nowhere, scratches her all up." He'd come to court to extract $5,000 or so—the cost of his puppy's ensuing veterinary bills —from the manager of G & J.

The manager in question, Jose Lora, had been unaware of the incident until he received a notice in the mail. He maintained a position best summarized, through a translator, as: "I'm not going to make myself responsible for what an animal that is not my animal does out on the street."

"It has a collar," noted Blanco during a brief pre-trial conference.

"Did you see that the collar had the name of my store?" Lora countered. "No? Am I supposed to mistreat the cat?"

"You're harboring that cat," Blanco's girlfriend said. The judge looked down from her bench: "We're not getting anywhere arguing." She'd bring them to trial later in the day.

Two service dogs—a German Shepherd named Artemas and Frank Sinatra, a white boxer —had come along with their owners in support of Negrito. The animals sighed and shuffled under the court benches while the judge ran through dozens of cases of varying merit. At 9:30 a.m., she looked tired; by noon, she was slumped over the podium, hands cupped around her face, telling participants she wasn't allowed to give them legal advice for perhaps the twentieth time.

Small claims court is often referred to as "the people's court," which makes the whole enterprise sound much more romantic than it is. It developed to provide an approximation of justice to people without legal knowledge or formal representation; accordingly, attorneys are discouraged and procedural rules are relaxed. But of course, there are actual people in the people's court, and people are messy as hell. What you usually get, if that morning was any indication, are two individuals furious with each other sitting just a few feet apart as the judge attempts to wrangle their iPhone videos and invoices and cross-court bickering into something resembling, however loosely, a trial.

Small claims is also a weirdly intimate venue, and all kinds of personal details (or, to a cynic, excuses) shake loose—sitting in front of the judge, New Yorkers spoke of recent deaths in the family, brain surgeries, paperwork lost in the mail. The scene was vaguely anarchic from the first case, a wage-theft dispute. A defendant attempted to Zoom into the hearing and asked to present her evidence by sharing her screen, incensing the judge so intensely she crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it over her shoulder before rescheduling the whole thing.

A man who said he'd been assaulted wanted $10,000 from the business in which the incident took place. (In Manhattan, small claims top out at $10,000, and court fees are capped at $20.) An apartment tenant submitted a claim for damages to her home when an upstairs neighbor flooded the place. ("He's lying," she said, when a rare attorney present told the judge his client was out of state.) An elderly defendant in silk scarves and sunglasses said she was completely, totally unavailable during the summer to schedule a time to address the back-wages claim her former personal assistant brought; the judge, smiling but not meaning it, scheduled it for September 1. "I don't know and I don't care about this essential worker stuff," said a middle-aged man who paid a Montessori school tuition for in-person learning in 2019, only to receive, like most every other parent, remote learning the next year. "My wife and I are consultants," he added. He wanted his damn money back.

After three hours of technical glitches and halting procedure, the judge called "the case about the dogs. I mean the cat." A court officer wearing a bulletproof vest and sporting frosted tips began to swear six people in, including the owners of Frank Sinatra and Artemas. "The dogs are adorable," said the judge, beaming down at their owners, who had made it their mission to clear Negrito's name.

Kelly Grace Price is a former journalist and an activist working to close the Rosie M. Singer Center, the women's jail on Rikers Island. She also happens to live on the block where the incident took place—a block she recently captured in a painting, which included a rendering of Negrito standing next to former Yankee player Henry Rodriguez and his pet macaw. (According to Price, the cat has never once tried to mess with the bird.) When Price learned of the claim against Lora, she offered to testify. "There's just no track record that this pussy is aggressive," she said, which seemed relevant given the last case against a bodega cat she could find.

In 2014, the Kings County Supreme Court issued its final judgment in Napolitano v Alshaebi, a case in which Eileen Napolitano sued the owner of a bodega in Borough Park after what she described as a "large, grey, opposum-like cat" emerged from behind a pile of Entenmann's cakes and attacked her miniature schnauzer, and then Napolitano's leg. The case was eventually dismissed when the court found Napolitano couldn't prove that the animal had "vicious propensities," and that these were tendencies of which the bodega owner was aware.

Lora's defense relied on two assertions—one, that he really didn't believe he owned the cat, which had been hanging on the block since before his boss bought the store, and secondly, that this particular bodega cat was really quite sweet. Price had come to the courtroom to describe Frank Sinatra's benign interactions with Negrito; she also brought Ari Vail, a 21-year-old former Tennessee beauty queen dressed for court in glittery green eyeshadow and a long yellow dress. "I see the cat all the time," said Vail. She added, "Nobody owns a bodega cat." Plus, her own service dog, Artemas, had never had a problem with Negrito, a fact she was willing to assert under oath.

The plaintiff and the defendant exchanged harsh words in Spanish while the court waited for a translator. When he arrived, Blanco ran through the details—the sudden appearance of the cat a few feet from the bodega door, the scratch on the dog's eye, the credit card he pulled to cover the IVs and anesthesia from a subsequent visit to an animal hospital. The girlfriend was called to testify the dog had been minding his business when the cat launched his brutal attack. Blanco said he'd subpoenaed surveillance video from the deli but hadn't received the records he'd requested. Instead, he brought a series of photos of his dog before and after the incident. In one, the pit bull, innocent and unaware of the violence her future held, sat winningly in a pink sweater. The plaintiff also submitted a video he'd taken with his phone, which the judge watched with the device propped up on her bench after an audible sigh. In the video, a man in a hoodie—a former employee of the bodega—popped open a tin of cat food behind the store's beverage case. "Wherever I go, this animal is following me," he said in Spanish, smiling. "I've already given him two kinds of food, he doesn't want any."

"I still maintain that cat does not belong to me," Lora testified. "They can investigate if they wish to see who the owner of the cat is, but it's not me." He was just the manager, working for an owner who hadn't been to the store since it was purchased four years ago, and anyway, the animal had been hanging on that corner since long before the bodega changed hands. The collar had been purchased by a bleeding-heart neighbor who occasionally took the cat to the vet. When Price took the stand, she handed the judge a print-out of an Instagram post from 2019 and pulled up the accompanying video on her phone. In the clip, Frank Sinatra weaved and barked in the direction of the cat, who did honestly look pretty unperturbed. "The cat is famous, a part of the neighborhood, a mascot," said Price. The primary caretakers, she said, were a woman across the street and a man down the block who walked with a cane. The animal had been there since she moved to the neighborhood in 2013.

The proceedings went somewhat off-script when Blanco cross-examined Price and accused her of saying the cat had ripped up a dog's tongue, a version of events Price vehemently disputed. Both sides accused each other of lying about several key facts. Vail, the former beauty queen, and her service dog never even made it to the stand—the judge had seen enough, she said. She'd review the evidence and the decision would come in the mail. It was almost time for lunch. The six humans and two dogs filed out of the people's court, everyone fairly confident in the integrity of their respective case. Negrito, meanwhile, seems to be in good spirits despite his legal troubles. Vail spotted the cat in front of the bodega a few days ago, lying in the sun.

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