Alex Chambers: The Funny Times is a newspaper full of comics. It's been around for about 40 years, and for most of that time it's only been in print, the newspaper but also all of their files. So, when it was time to pass the reins to a new generation it was hard to figure out how they would share the files.
Gabriel Piser: There was an idea floated by Ray, one of the two founders, to send by courier, to print out the cartoons that came in by email and then send them by overnight courier to Bloomington for us to then collect and select from.
Alex Chambers: When you've got a way of doing things it's hard to imagine doing them differently. This week on Inner States a conversation with the new publishers and editor of The Funny Times. And then Rita the cat goes missing in chapter one of The Third Time Rita left. That's all coming up, right after this.
Alex Chambers: Like daily newspapers, alternative news weeklies used to show up in print. In most urban centers you could open up a little door on a plastic newspaper box and pick one up. You get local arts and culture, strong opinions, reviews, columns and features about issues and people too strange or edgy for mainstream media. The one where I grew up was called The Valley Advocate. But there was another newspaper I would see around the coffee shops too. It was definitely alternative, it was mostly comics. Whether you could get the news from it depends on whether you think you can get the news these days from late night hosts opening monologues on You Tube. Because the point of this newspaper was similar, if a lot less mainstream than Jimmy Fallon. The point was to make you laugh and maybe make you feel a little less alone. More on that in a bit.
Alex Chambers: The Funny Times has been in print for almost 40 years now. Which is especially impressive considering how many print newspapers have folded in the past couple of decades. Get it, folded, you know, newspaper. Anyway, The Funny Times isn't just piddling along either. It has a subscriber base that's about a seventh of The New York Times, The New York Times print, but still. The reason I was reminiscing about finding The Funny Times in coffee shops and the college town I was growing up in, in the nineties. Is that I found out the paper has moved its base of operations to the college town I live in now, Bloomington, Indiana. The original publishers are passing the reigns to a new generation.
Alex Chambers: So I asked the new publishers, Renae Lesser and Gabriel Piser and the new editor, Mia Beach, to come into the studio. To tell me about the history of the paper, why they decided to take it over and what it means to have a print newspaper devoted to the funnies, in an age where everything else seems to live on line. In the spirit of The Funny Times let's start with a fun fact from co publisher Renae Lesser who in her current status as a PhD student in education, has to do coursework in a subject she thought there was nothing cool about.
Renae Lesser: Here is actually something really cool about statistics. Do you know that the etymology, people don't believe this, but the word statistics, the root of that word, is state. Because it was created in Scandinavia by state leaders who were trying to come up with the math that they could use to control the sovereign state, and understand demographic populations to better manipulate them. And so statistics has this really nefarious history and, you know, present.
Alex Chambers: That is cool, in a nefarious sense. So, I asked the group what was special about The Funny Times in contrast to a standard newspaper. Editor Mia Beach started and then Renae followed up.
Mia Beach: The great thing about The Funny Times is that it takes the most enjoyable part of the paper for most people, and just expands it across the entire paper. And so there are editorial cartoons, and if that's your only news source you will actually learn things about current events. But it doesn't have the journalistic integrity necessarily because the point is making people laugh. And so it does have left leaning politics,so it's a little different because it's politics are very known, and it's very playful. It has a seventh of the print run, of The New York Times which, in these days, is a really exciting thing, that there are still that many people out there who want to receive something like that in their mail box. I still remember being a kid and getting very excited about things like that, getting excited about the comics page in any paper. If it was only one page but the whole Sunday comic section and now we have a whole paper, that is like the Sunday funnies.
And that is really exciting and I know people look forward to that. Because what kind of bright spot do you get, when I get The New York Times I still get a print copy every Sunday, It's a bummer in a lot of ways, there are some joyful things thrown in there but it doesn't make me laugh.
Renae Lesser: We have always organized content thematically and each page has both cartoons and often written humor as well. And it used to be that the way that we would edit for that was, there was a physical filing cabinet, until very recently. And inside of the physical filing cabinet were files, and inside of those files would be like, cats. There would be a file for cats, so if you had a funny story and the story involves cats, but it's also Halloween cats or something, you would be like, I'm going to go into the filing cabinets and look under C for cats and H for Halloween. Pull those out and see if you could put together a page based on these themes. But we've actually being doing a lot more with thematic content because we've digitized recently and I think Mia would be a good person to speak to how the editing is happening now.
Mia Beach: Yes. Well it was pretty interesting because I'm a very analogue person. In all of my artistic practices I like things on paper, I still take notes by hand a lot of the time. And it was really interesting to come into a very analogue process that had been running for 30 something years. Running pretty well but also kind of held together with a lot of on the fly solutions that then became permanent solutions. So stop gaps that became permanent. And when you come into a situation like that it is a finely running machine but it is a Rube Goldberg machine. It works but if you accidentally, you know. The filing cabinet is a great example because in this digital age cartoonists were still sending in, they were still emailing their cartoons.
Mia Beach: But what The Funny Times needed to happen was, there was a person who would then file them on a CD and they would print a physical copy of every single one of those on the CD. And then the only way to know whether a cartoon was available for use was if it was in the filing cabinet, if there was a physical copy. And that was the only way that you knew that it was available for use. So coming into a situation like that, it's extremely hard to sort of wrap your head around what the organizational structure is. Because you're like, well, if it's here we can use it. Everything else is unknown, people had been running for so long, it's like when the machine is running it's really hard to make these adjustments. So I came in, and it was really strange, as someone who is so analogue, that I had to advocate for digital. Because people were literally having nightmares about this magic filing cabinet catching on fire.
Alex Chambers: I can imagine. Where was the filing cabinet?
Mia Beach: In our offices in Cleveland. The filing cabinet was in the offices in Cleveland and my parents' biggest concern in imagining that there could be an editor in another state was, how to safely transport and protect the filing cabinet.
Gabriel Piser: There was an idea floated by Ray, one of the two founders to send by courier, to print out the cartoons that came in by email and then send them by overnight courier to Bloomington for us to then collect and select from. And that would be every couple of weeks, couriers would be dispatched and it was like, yeah.
Alex Chambers: The couriers I'm picturing are pigeons in this case.
Gabriel Piser: That's right, yeah. That's about the speed.
Mia Beach: So I was like we could email them or we could have a drop box. So I created a virtual filing cabinet. Martin and I call it the virtual filing cabinet.
Renae Lesser: Mia invented the virtual filing cabinet.
Mia Beach: After a lot of deliberation and conversation I was able to move the physical filing cabinets to Bloomington. So they are here and I've read every cartoon in that filing cabinet, which is a lot.
Alex Chambers: Just another detail about the filing cabinet. Once the cartoon has been published, it gets taken out of the filing cabinet and burned?
Mia Beach: And thrown away, recycled. We are still a print publication but we do love trees so maybe we could cut out just the sheer volume of pieces of paper that are unnecessary. So we have a new system now where everything is digital and I can immediately pull, new cartoons come in and I read and I say, oh, this is a cartoon about cats, sure. But it's also a cartoon about threats because this cat is actually threatening this dog. What would it be like to have a whole cartoon spread about cats that are threatening, or things like that. What if you just change how we're describing these things. And basically what I did was, I came in and I had a fresh set of eyes. And so I wasn't really wed to the idea of keeping it exactly like it has been but exactly like the categories have always been.
Mia Beach: We didn't have as many creative categories and sometimes there could be a lot of cartoons about school but they're not funny if you say they're cartoons about school. But if you put a cartoon about school in a spread about boundaries, that somehow could tickle a different aspect of humor for people. Because the spreading of themselves can be surprises, because so much of humor is a surprise. And as I'm reading these submissions, several hundred every work day, as I'm sorting through these, I'm able to file them away in all these different categories. But tag them so that we understand and we can search for things and we can learn when we've published it before. Because it was really hard, you'd have to go through a physical copy and be like, we did publish this two years ago, I remembered, that kind of thing.
Mia Beach: And so reorienting these spreads to different types of themes that are, kind of, a little more creative or in and of themselves are jokes or puns, is kind of a fresh way to approach them as material that did live in a filing cabinet for a really long time. Which meant that it never made it into a spread. Because the ones that made us really laugh, they immediately crossed the desk and immediately goes into the paper, it never even makes it into the filing cabinet.
Alex Chambers: Whereas now some of those cartoons can be in conversation with each other, if they didn't necessarily on they're own, stand out quite as much.
Mia Beach: Yeah if they didn't have to live in a physical file folder where they weren't allowed to be in dialog log with the other ones. But digitally we're allowed to do that. So I had to be the weird gen x'er who was actually advocating for a digital change which was hard for me. But I think we're somewhere in between now. We can access the benefits of digital technology without some of the problems of analogue.
Renae Lesser: Yes and I think what your saying is always has been a strength of The Funny Times is that when you make careful curatorial choices on an individual page you can elevate an individual cartoon which may be funny on it's own, but is, kind of more thought provoking or it is a social commentary by being in dialog, like your saying, with other things on the page.
Gabriel Piser: And as I understood it, things could only be filed in two folders. So they would print two copies of the cats cartoon and they would put it in the Halloween folder and the cats folder. But now it can be tagged with multiple different things which allows you to just do such wonderful, creative, curation of these spreads. Where there is like, one that comes to the pride and prejudice spread.
Mia Beach: Well, actually, I will correct you, because it's crazier than that. It could only go in one folder. You couldn't put two copies in the filing cabinet because then you would have to remove both copies or else you would accidentally print. Because the only way to know that it was available for use is if there is a copy available. But once we publish it we don't publish it again. So actually it can only go in cats or Halloween and you have to make a decision and this way we don't have to make some of those tough decisions.
Alex Chambers: That's a relief.
Alex Chambers: It's time for a break. We're talking about The Funny Times, a print comics newspaper with editor Mia Beach and publishers Renae Lesser and Gabriel Piser who recently took the reins. Renae's parents started the paper. When we come back we'll hear how a psychic played an essential role in the paper's appearance in the world. Stay with us.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. The Funny Times is a comics newspaper that's still going strong after 40 years in print. Publishers, Renae Lesser and Gabriel Piser, recently took over from Renae's parents, who started the paper in part because of something a psychic said to them.
Renae Lesser: Throughout my childhood, we had a family psychic.
Gabriel Piser: As you do.
Renae Lesser: Who my parents consulted for many major life decisions.
Mia Beach: As one does.
Renae Lesser: As one does. Including the house that we lived in, you know, all kinds of things. And at this crossroads moment in their life, where my mother had had a stillborn and my grandfather was ill and needed care taking, there was a moment where they kind of needed to do some soul-searching. So, they went to Amal, the family psychic, and he kept asking them, "Tell me about this business you're going to starting in the fall." And they were like, "The fall? What do you mean the fall?" And he was like, "You know, spring, summer, fall." And they said what business, what are you talking about? So, I think that when they set off for this road trip, they had in mind: what is this business that we're going to be starting?
Gabriel Piser: So, they were on the lookout.
Renae Lesser: So they were on the lookout and that's why they were noticing maybe the Santa Cruz Comic News stood out to them.
Gabriel Piser: So, in looking, they got inspired in Santa Cruz, they came back to Cleveland and, as they describe it, the early stage of the paper, they were editing it with scissors and glue sticks. As Renae said, in the earliest stage of the paper they did have advertisements and they were bartering with the pizza shop, so they would have pizza every Friday in exchange for running a pizza ad in the newspaper.
Renae Lesser: One fun anecdote, I guess, is that my Mom, when she went into labor with me, was in her bathrobe trying to get the layout done for one of the issues before she went to the hospital. So, I was very much born into this space of the family business, which was actually in our house when I was growing up. So that created this extremely colorful, lively home environment where we had employees who were also my babysitters. I often would do my homework on the back side of rejected cartoons, the dining room table served as a place where we were doing layout and the phones would be ringing with subscribers calling. So, it was that kind of environment before we ended up getting the office, and the business grew.
Gabriel Piser: And so, after running it as an advertising based periodical for some number of issues, they decided that they wanted to experiment with it being ad free and subscription driven. In order to do that, they had to create a direct mail campaign, where they would mail sample versions of the paper really broadly, and see if folks subscribed. So, as they tell the story, they were ready to make a break with their back to the land past and, in order to buy their first list of addresses for that direct mail, they sold six pot plants and their tractor. They sold the land and used that money to buy the first lists, and they were wildly successful. They had return rates and subscription rates that were way above industry average. The story that they tell is, they had a shoe box full of subscribers checks. They didn't cash them because they were nervous, whether they would actually get this off the ground. And so, for a while they had these people who wanted to subscribe, but they wouldn't cash the checks. But ultimately, within the first year or two of being a subscription paper, they already had 10,000 subscribers.
Gabriel Piser: Basically, from that point on, they made a lot of good decisions and good relationships and were able to grow the subscribers from that initial 10,000, up to 50 or 60 by the 2000s.
Gabriel Piser: It actually holds a pretty significant place in political history and media history in the US. It's a publication that published pretty early work by pretty well known writers and cartoonists. We published Hunter S Thompson, we published Garrison Keillor, Dave Barry, Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel. Some really wonderful artists and contributors. Some of them got their start and some of them gained a lot of notoriety being published through the Funny Times. When you look at back issues, and you look at the way that it has tracked the political climate, political context through the 37 years it's existed, it feels really exciting to be part of this media object that has been quirky, weird little thread that's been running through the media landscape of the United States for almost 40 years.
Mia Beach: One of our staff ran into someone who grew up with the Funny Times in a really religious household, and he's gay in a household that was really not accepting of that, and so was closeted. His really religious family would allow Funny Times into the house, just thinking that it was this very benign, acceptable thing, because comics are for kids. And so, as a queer teen, this was some of his only respite. This was some of the only stuff that made it into the house. And that type of legacy is something that makes me really compelled to continue to find new and cutting edge cartoonists, and figure out what is appropriate now, what actually makes people laugh now?
Gabriel Piser: I think it's also really striking to think about, over the course of the history of the Funny Times, the way that media has changed. I think that we've seen, to some extent, a decline in print media in a lot of contexts. A lot of newspapers are getting rid of their editorial cartoons and it seems like a really important outlet for this really valuable art form of expression. But it also seems people really love the charm of a handmade, hand-curated object that has a smell and a tactile sensation of newspaper, that's produced by a small team of weirdos, distributed across the country. And it's been really striking to think about how the Funny Times evolves in a new media context, both the physical object, but also we've recently been doing some really exciting stuff to produce a digital edition of the Funny Times, and hopefully some other born-digital content that allows us to tell some of these stories in new ways. It's just an exciting time.
Mia Beach: We just signed cartoonist Asher Perlman, who's a writer for the Late Show, and he said that when some of his cousins, who are Funny Times subscribers already, saw his toons in the paper, they got very excited. And it's like oh, well he works for the Late Show, he's already doing something. But they were excited to see his cartoons in the Funny Times.
Renae Lesser: I think that's another thing about the Funny Times is, we do have this really tight-knit kind of cult following, and one of the main ways that people discover the Funny Times, aside from the direct mail, is that it's a really popular gift. I think that's another difference between most newspapers, is the way that most people came to experience the Funny Times, was that it was gifted to them. And so, our busy season is around the holidays, for that reason. A lot of people, we call them mega donors. What do we call them? Mega gifters.
Gabriel Piser: I wanted to call them super spreaders, but I was voted down. But they gift six or more.
Renae Lesser: A lot of people gift six or more, so, this is the main way that they share their love and the gift of laughter with their friends and family.
Gabriel Piser: I've heard, although I haven't looked in the data base to corroborate this, that none other than Bernie Sanders has received, I think, over the course of a number of years, at least six separate gift subscriptions to the Funny Times. Which makes a lot of sense to me.
Alex Chambers: I'd love to hear just a little bit more about why you think the Funny Times has been so successful, especially as a print publication, as so many newspapers have folded.
Gabriel Piser: I would say there's basically two main reasons. And the first is that I think it's just a really good product. It has been carefully edited and curated for decades and people really respond to newspaper that has funny and fresh content that's been carefully and thoughtfully curated, and just pleasant to read, a pleasant object to interact with. I think, like Sue and Ray found out on that trip, people love to read the funnies. So many people, that's the reason they look in an entire newspaper, is just to get to the funnies. I think that's a form that is in decline in other newspapers, but people really love it, and I think that's a piece of it. Because there's no ads, it's a lot of value. Subscriptions are $28 a year and you get ten issues with over 100 cartoons and no ads, and so, it's really dense, with really interesting content. I also think that, in a moment where political news seems important, but can often be a bit of a downer, I think people really value it as a place that gives them news, gives them commentary, but is also lighthearted and fun. So, you can stay informed, but you don't walk away like Charlie Brown, hanging your head at the gloominess of the world.
Gabriel Piser: And I think that we really saw that around the time when the pandemic began. There was quite a noticeable bump in subscribers, and the meaning that we made from that was that this was a means by which people could share love, share laughter, with people that they care about, in this very difficult time. They would get a gift subscription and they'd get a subscription for themselves, and then they'd be able to talk about the things they're seeing, and it was a really beautiful source of community and connection. Which was particularly visible in Covid, but I think is really part of what has sustained the paper throughout the 37 years it's existed. I think the second thing that contributes to its longevity and its success, is the subscribers, and the relationships between subscribers, relationships between the Funny Times and our contributors. Most subscribers have been so for many, many years. Most people don't really allow their subscriptions to lapse, they keep them going.
Renae Lesser: Just to piggyback on that, I think some of the ways we've built relationships with subscribers is part of what makes subscribers feel so loyal to the paper. For example, we have actual human beings who answer the phones, and they are not anonymous, random human beings, at some central location. They are long time staff members who have been with us for many, many years. There's subscribers who call every year and put their subscription in by phone because they want to have a personal conversation and tell a joke, and I think you see that level of a human touch throughout the way that we do customer service. When I was growing up, when we would travel, we would meet subscribers everywhere we went, all around the country. If we were in Vermont, we would look up the subscribers in the area, oftentimes we'd throw a subscriber party, something for us to host them. So, over the years, I've had the chance to meet so many people who are our readers, and they're just warm, funny, thoughtful, alive people, who I love. I feel like when you have mutual love, I think that's part of what has been the basis for Funny Times success.
Renae Lesser: I think people feel really comforted by the humor and that connection that they make with the paper, knowing that there are names and people attached to it, and knowing that they call into our actual land line, and they talk to someone that they probably talked to last year. Sometimes someone will write with feedback that's really specific, like, "I really like to tape this column on my fridge, and the way that you've started laying it out, I can't tape it up on my fridge the way I like it." And I'm, like, you know what, Mike Stevens and Duluth. Okay, that's fine with me, I was not wed to that. I think that he was extremely appreciative and he wrote back to say thank you. And I think that when they are comforted by something, it reflects in the way that they interact with us. I think that that personal touch, even if we're not directly speaking to them, it's shown throughout the paper. It's really clear that it's just some goofy, real people and so, people feel like they can connect with us.
Alex Chambers: Also be real.
Gabriel Piser: Yeah, I think that's right. And in particular, it makes me think about how, as political cultures have become more polarized and fragmented, it's much more common for people to feel isolated, especially if they aren't living in places where they're surrounded by people with progressive, or leftist, views. I think, especially for people who can feel isolated in those political commitments, it can feel really valuable and validating to be part of a community where we can be looking at the news, and this is a whole group of people who are the subscribers to the Funny Times, who all see that what Ron DeSantis is doing is absurd. Maybe everybody around you, in your real life, in person, doesn't necessarily see that, but you can know that there are people out there who see the world similarly to the way that you do, and I think that can feel really good.
Alex Chambers: One of the things that I have been thinking about, as I was thinking about this conversation, was what political cartoons do for us. You already kind of answered that, and I think the thing that I really liked is that it gives comfort actually. Political cartoons are not likely to change someone's mind or ideology, that's not what it's about. Clearly that's not what this is about, it doesn't feel like that's what it's about and it's not trying to make an argument. But I couldn't really articulate what it was doing. So, it's really great to hear, oh yeah, it's comforting the afflicted.
Gabriel Piser: I like to think it's both. There's the comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And I think the idea that it is gadfly, but in doing that, it's comforting to people.
Renae Lesser: For years on my Dad's wall, in his editorial office in Cleveland, he had an Oscar Wilde quote that said: "If you're going to tell people the truth, you'd better make them laugh, or they'll kill you." So, I feel that is the gadfly aspect, right? But then the other thing that you're speaking to, is that the Funny Times makes people feel less alone. I think, from my point of view, it's a community; but all the readers don't know each other, but they know that someone made this paper and it's comforting to them, and lots of other people are reading it. So, no matter where you live, you're living in a more rural place, or in a place where you're more isolated from like-minded people, it's this touchstone that makes you feel like quirky people are okay.
Mia Beach: One of the things that I was going to say, just in terms of the element of comfort, is that there are two things that I often keep in my head when I'm sorting through cartoons. One is this aspect of people feeling seen. I grew up reading cartoons. Calvin and Hobbes was my go-to, as many people of my age. But part of the reason why it's so successful is because you are personally touched, as a child, by Calvin, and you identify, and you feel seen. For me, a kid growing up in the country, not able to go out and there weren't other kids to play with. And there is that way in which you feel seen, and that's what that comfort is. The other element that I really do like to think about is the element of surprise. Given the sheer number of jokes that I read on a daily basis, when something catches me by surprise, I'm, like, wow, I've never thought of that. And the more cartoons I read, the less frequent those moments are, but it's really interesting because that element of surprise is very important to humor.
Mia Beach: It's very ever changing. But one of the things that I've noticed in this element of surprise, is you can see what's happening in the cartoonist Zeitgeist. People won't know what the other cartoonists are drawing, but why are there multiple cartoons with Mime Fight Clubs? That's very odd to me. And so obviously I'm going to notice things like that. Why do people like to draw snails and squirrels, but not elephants? No-one seems to find elephants funny. Why not? These are the tough questions I have to think about. But there is something to it. Like why do people draw on the same jokes? And then why are there other things that pass across my desk, or i Pad, and I'm truly shocked someone came up with this idea. Like what is the art that hangs on the wall of a house shared by two combs? There's just two combs in bed, what's the art that's hanging on the wall? It's art of a comb brushing a scalp. Why did someone make that? I'm not sure.
Gabriel Piser: You've got your finger on some weird pulses, I love it. It's critical.
Mia Beach: Why did someone make that? But then also, where do I put that? That's odd. I've never figured out, where you place that, you know. You're now thinking about the domestic life of hairbrushes and combs. That never crossed my mind before and so I'm really appreciative of that, and I'm always trying to surprise people with that. And then also show that connectedness, because some day there's going to be a Mime Fight Club spread. Some day there's going to be so many Mime Fight Club cartoons, that I actually have to make a spread of them, and that, in and of itself is also funny, because these people don't know, but there's something in the air. People want to see mimes fight.
Alex Chambers: I'm glad you have your finger on that pulse.
Renae Lesser: Thank you, yes, someone needs to.
Gabriel Piser: The first rule of Mime Fight Club is that you literally can't talk about Mime Fight Club.
Mia Beach: I get it. That's most of the cartoons. It's mainly that joke, packaged in different ways.
Gabriel Piser: I don't feel so original anymore.
Mia Beach: I'm sorry. There's other ways.
Alex Chambers: So little originality in the world.
Renae Lesser: There is a way in which, when your job is just reading cartoons all day, your sense of humor gets very warped. Cartoons don't land in quite the same way.
Mia Beach: Yeah, my poor husband can't make a joke because I'm not on the clock. That's why I'm like, that's not funny. Kind of like I don't have a sense of humor. I'm done reading cartoons. Please, why are you joking with me? I just asked you a question.
Renae Lesser: My sense of humor is a nine to five arrangement.
Alex Chambers: All right. The Funny Times is great. I'm so glad to have been reintroduced to it through this conversation and through preparing for this. Renae, Gabriel, Mia, thank you so much.
Gabriel Piser: Thanks so much for having us.
Renae Lesser: Thank you.
Alex Chambers: Publishers Renae Lesser and Gabriel Piser, and Editor Mia Beach. The new crew doing their best to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable at the Funny Times. You're listening to Inner States from WFIU, it's time for a break. When we come back, a cat goes missing. Stay with us. Unlike the cat.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. A few years ago, I was having dinner with Kayte Young, host of WFIU's Earth Eats, and her husband Karl, my partner Molly and our friends, Ross and Stephanie. Kayte and Karl ended up telling us a story. They had a cat named Rita, she went missing and the twists and turns their search took, it was wild. So wild that our friend Ross said, "Kayte, you should write that or turn it into a radio story." Kayte felt like she didn't have the time and I was out of work, so I did have the time. It blew up into a four-chapter saga and after a hiatus of a couple years I'm excited to finally be able to bring you the whole story. Chapter one is coming up and I'll air the next chapters at the end of the next three episodes of Inner States. Here is chapter one, Losing Rita.
Kayte Young: My name is Kayte Young, I am the owner of Rita. Let me start again, I'm not an owner. My name is Kayte Young.
Alex Chambers: Fours ago, Rita lived with Kayte and her husband, Karl and their son, Cosmo. They were happy together. Then one day, for reasons that are still hard to explain, Rita upped and left.
Alex Chambers: When I was five, my cousin's cat had kittens and they gave us one. It was our second time getting cats. The first ones had come a year or two earlier. I'd named them Bibby and Babba, they were indoor/outdoor cats, they lived with us for maybe a couple of months and then one day they went out and didn't come back. We never saw them again. So then we got Misty from my cousins. Misty was with us about a year and then she disappeared too. It was December, after she had been gone a week we assume she too was gone forever.
Alex Chambers: It occurs to me now that I don't remember my parents actually making much effort to look for her. I called my mom to ask her about it. Apparently we had looked for Bibby and Babba.
Alex's Mom: We went around the neighborhood looking, but no sign of them. I just assumed they'd found a new home, you know. We were all very busy because you were two little kids and dad had the restaurant at the time. We kept waiting for them to come back but they just never did.
Alex Chambers: And we looked for Misty too.
Alex's Mom: Again, we went around the neighborhood and I suppose we asked people. We didn't really... We were on the edge of a neighborhood, so we didn't really know that many people.
Alex Chambers: I don't know what that says about my parents compared to Kayte. When Kayte lost her cat, she looked for her for months. She went out night after night, morning after morning. That wasn't so much the case with Misty, but then on my sixth birthday, two weeks after she left, there was a meowing at the door and there she was. She had kittens a few months later, we kept one of those kittens. I named her Gray. Misty and Gray, mother and daughter, only about a year apart, lived with us for almost 20 years until they died of old age. Since they moved out I haven't had any pets. I'd like to think if I did had a cat and she escaped, I would be as dogged as Kayte was in her search. As dedicated to the possibility of my cat's return. As willing to enlist a whole community to bring a pet back home. Maybe if I'd felt like our country was falling apart and there was nothing I could do to save it, maybe then. In any case, we're not here to talk about me, we're talking about Kayte and her cat, Rita, who left four times. This is the third time Rita left. Chapter One, Losing Rita.
Kayte Young: We were taking our cats into the vet, not because anyone was sick or anything, but they just needed check-ups. Karl asked me, "Do you want me to come with you?" And I said, "No, no. I got it. I can handle it."
Alex Chambers: Kayte figured she could handle it, because they had this big pet-carrier they'd gotten from a yard sale. Actually, let's focus on that carrier for a minute. It had come from a family whose kid went to school with Kayte and Karl's son, Cosmo.
Kayte Young: I think it was meant for a medium-sized dog and so both of our cats could fit into it. I'm not sure that we had used it for both of our cats before, but we definitely knew it was possible.
Alex Chambers: I've just looked up dog-carrier brands and based on Kayte's description, it might've been a Great Choice dog-carrier. The top and bottom were separate pieces held together by clamps.
Kayte Young: So you can take it apart and clean it or something or I don't know.
Alex Chambers: But, relying on that carrier maybe wasn't a great choice.
Kayte Young: I should also note that we had had trouble with the pet carrier once before.
Alex Chambers: That time, it was Rita's sister, Pingu, who escaped the crate.
Kayte Young: She had gotten out of it. She just stood there, froze, looked around and walked very slowly. Karl managed to catch her and put her back in the crate.
Alex Chambers: But Kayte was mentally prepared this time. She and Karl wrangled their cats into the carrier and Kayte drove down to the vet, on her own with the cats in the carrier in the car. It was about three miles directly south of her house. She passed the high school, she passed the National Guard Armory, she passed the animal shelter. Was that the animal shelter that Rita had come from? No-one knows except for Kayte and Karl, they probably know. She pulled into the parking lot of the vet clinic, that same one where Pingu had gotten out. It's in a commercial part of town, pretty busy. There's a subway and a Kroger on the corner, funeral home across the street. Not a place where you'd want a pet to wander around on her own, but that's what the carrier was for. Kayte got them out of the car.
Kayte Young: As I was carrying them, I was a little conscious of the fact that those clips might not hold the weight of these two fairly large cats, so I was holding it from the bottom. I wasn't just carrying it by the handle. In any case it broke open in the parking lot. I screamed and fell down on top of it. It was like I knew this was going to happen or something. But anyway, I threw myself on top of it and it was too late because Rita had just bolted. I just remember looking up and seeing her backside just high-tailing it around the corner of the building.
Alex Chambers: She managed to get the other cat, Pingu, back into the carrier and then back into the car. She was panicking a little. She ran into the vet's office and told them what had happened.
Kayte Young: They were trying to help. I remember one of the vets recommending that you should use a pillow-case when you're trying to either catch or carry a cat because it's comforting for them and it's a way for you to really have good control.
Alex Chambers: By the way, remember this recommendation, it's going to come back. Okay, back to the story.
Kayte Young: Then I called my boss, Amanda, who's also my friend and she said, "Do you want me to come down there and help you look?" I said, "Yes." And so she came down there.
Alex Chambers: You were taking time off work at this point, to go do this?
Kayte Young: Yeah. Yeah, it was some time during the day and I should've been at work, but I was doing this. So, Amanda comes down there and maybe she brought some cat food with her or something.
Alex Chambers: So she was leaving work also?
Kayte Young: She was leaving work also, yes.
Alex Chambers: And so, they started searching. Rita had run behind the subway at the end of the strip mall, so Kayte and Amanda followed her path. At the back of the strip mall there were loading docks and a retaining wall, beyond that a field and a couple of houses.
Kayte Young: And they were both abandoned, there was nobody living in either of the houses which I thought was nice, because then I felt like I could traipse around there without disturbing anybody, and at one point Amanda was like, "I think I've found her." So I go over there to where she is and she's peering under the house and there is a cat under the house.
Alex Chambers: For a minute there Kayte thought that was it.
Kayte Young: I mean I was like, "Wow, that's amazing. We found her. Oh my God, you know." I mean, in those moments before I got over there I was certain that this was going to be a really quick situation.
Alex Chambers: Then Kayte looks under the house.
Kayte Young: It's not my cat and then there's kittens.
Alex Chambers: You know that feeling when reality is suddenly wrong? Like, when you were a kid visiting your grandparents and you'd wake up thinking you were in your bed at home, but the walls were in all the wrong places, or when everyone knows for sure who's going to get elected president. I mean there's no way, to the point where Kate McKinnon is doing pre-emptive victory dances on Saturday Night Live and you wake up in the morning ready for her victory speech and it turns out the orange-faced TV character is about to be the leader of the free world. Anyway, was it like surreal or anything, or weird to see this cat with kittens? Like, did you have to adjust?
Kayte Young: Yeah, it was like, wait, there's a cat but it's not mine. How can that be?
Alex Chambers: Throughout all this Kayte was panicked. She was crying, worried about Rita. Would she be okay? And then, at the entrance to the basement at one of the abandoned houses...
Kayte Young: Just hanging from a piece of tall grass.
Alex Chambers: She saw a chrysalis, a Monarch.
Kayte Young: I've never raised a Monarch butterfly from a chrysalis before. I've raised some other butterfly types, so I was kind of excited to see it and I picked it up and took it with me. I ended up putting it in a jar and watching it go through it's whole cycle. I don't know what possessed me to think that that's something I have time to deal with right now, while I'm looking for my cat, but I just really couldn't resist it. It was such a cool thing to see.
Alex Chambers: Kayte said she took the chrysalis, because she wanted to protect it from predators, but she never intended to keep the butterfly. You might say she was fostering it. Maybe she was missing Rita, but chrysalis notwithstanding, it was getting clear they weren't going to find Rita. There was just too much tall grass, brush, these wild abandoned yards.
Kayte Young: It just felt overwhelming and impossible to try to find a hiding cat.
Alex Chambers: A cat who'd tended to be skittish anyway.
Kayte Young: I just knew that she wasn't just going to come out and start meowing at us and we were going to pick her up and take her.
Alex Chambers: So they went back to the parking lot. Kayte stopped at every place on the strip mall asking them to keep an eye out and gave out her phone number. Then she went home and made a poster with Rita's photo and contact info for herself. She even promised a reward although she didn't say how much. She took the stack of posters back to that area, brought then into all the businesses, taped them to lamp-posts, put them up at the bus stop, anything she could find. That evening, she, Karl and Cosmo all went back, searched some more, got more worried.
Kayte Young: It wasn't the same as your cat's missing and you're just waiting for them to come back, we knew that she wasn't going to be able to come back.
Alex Chambers: It was just too far away. There was too much traffic. It was three miles of strips malls and high schools, armories and night-clubs. If she was going to make it home, they were going to have to find her.
Kayte Young: We also knew that she was scared, in an unfamiliar place and didn't know her way around and so she was going to be hard to find. But also, that she wasn't just finding another home or hanging out somewhere. Like it just felt like she was experiencing trauma and we needed to find her.
Alex Chambers: That's where the first day ended. She posted on the Bloomington Lost and Found Pets Facebook group.
Kayte Young: Rita escaped from a failed pet carrier. Round the corner of the building. Probably a large dilute Calico. She ran off Monday nine o'clock. Please call me at 940... Cash reward for information leading to her rescue. Thank you.
Alex Chambers: And went to bed, still worried. What would you do if your cat went missing? How hard would you search? How many months or years would you hold out hope? What I found amazing was in the days and weeks after that, Kayte's family didn't lose hope. They were convinced Rita was okay or alive, at least, and wanting to come home. There was some panic, plenty of worry, lost sleep. But at that point, it was still just about Rita. Kayte knew there were other problems in the world, but in some ways things were looking up. We were about to elect our first female president after all. The country she lived in was still recognizable, still something like home. But, as she kept looking for Rita, all of that would change.
Alex Chambers: That's it for Chapter One. Chapter Two will be out next week. Chapter Two has Rita's first and second appearances in Kayte's life. It also has strangers...
Kayte Young: I was texting with this person and at some point I realized, like...
Alex Chambers: ...and questions.
Kayte Young: ...how do I know who his person is? And what, you know...
Alex Chambers: Questions about strangers.
Kayte Young: ... could this be a trap of some sort? Like, I'm just... If so, I am falling right into it.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at WFIU.org/InnerStates. Okay, we've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forest, Luanne Johnson, Sam Sheminar, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolsteridge. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. Most of the music in the Reader's Story is by Ramón Monrás-Sender. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Backward Collective. Special thanks this week to Renee Lesser, Gabrielle Piser, Mia Beech, Kayte Young and the folks who helped me edit the Reader's Story, Molly Wiler, Ross Gaye, Essence London and yes, Kayte Young herself. Alright, time for some found sounds.
Alex Chambers: That was walking in snow, Western Massachusetts, Christmas Eve 2022. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks as always for listening.