COLUMBIA WATERFRONT DISTRICT — Eshete Woldeyilma rapped on a nearby lightpost, his daily call to the neighborhood's hungry strays.
Almost immediately, cats of all colors and sizes emerged from the gates of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway construction site, responding to his dinnertime alarm.
“Hello, hello,” he cooed from behind the fence, greeting the animals.
“See that one is Rico,” said Woldeyilma, pointing to a stone-colored cat. “He’s the trickiest. He’s always alone. He’s always by himself.”
So too is Woldeyilma, an unemployed refugee from Ethiopia who treks every day from Manhattan to the construction site to tend to an urban feline family that fills his dreams with worries for their safety.
“I had nightmares last night,” said Woldeyilma.
The family of about seven cats, not including a fresh litter of kittens that recently joined the group, made a home on Columbia Street before construction of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, which will become a 14-mile long walking and biking path, began around them.
Two years ago, after Woldeyilma was evicted from his apartment on the same street, he moved to an apartment in Manhattan. Since then he’s returned every day to make sure the cats are alive and well fed.
The commute usually begins in the late evening, around 6 p.m., as that’s when the cats like to eat.
Sometimes he rides his bike. Other times he commutes to Brooklyn on foot, but he never fails to make the trip.
Each cat has a name, and they flock to him when he calls out to them.
"This one is Esahi, the rocket," said Woldeyilma, gesturing towards a small black and white cat, who he said was big with pregnancy just the day before. Judging by her flat stomach, he guessed that she had given birth.
"She's the fastest. She's conniving, you know!"
Woldeyilma said he used to think of cats simply as animals that catch mice but, since he’s met this family of strays, he’s realized that each cat has a different personality. He said he is in awe of how united they are.
Woldeyilma was born and raised in Ethiopia, and escaped to Sudan on foot as a fugitive about 20 years ago. He eventually made his way to New York City, and studied office technology at Baruch College.
He worked in construction for a few months before he was injured on the job. He said he was barely able to walk after 300 pounds of bricks fell on him while he was working a construction site.
Since then, Woldeyilma hasn’t been able to work and has poured his energy into protecting the stray cats that have become his family.
He is currently living on welfare and food stamps, but he said he uses it mostly on food for the cats. He pulled out a Ziploc bag full of sliced turkey and a can of Friskies wet food, as examples.
Nubia, a cat with gray stripes and gold eyes, is his favorite. He compared him to an American icon.
“He's a great leader, like John F. Kennedy," Woldeyilma said. "He leads with gentleness, not aggression."
Over the years, Woldeyilma himself has become well-known, at least in the area, and passersby waved to him or greeted him.
He also maintains friendships with some of the residents along Columbia Street, who regularly come by and visit him.
"Eshete Woldeyilma is a facinating person in the neighborhood," said local artist Michael Hafftka, a resident of Columbia Street who has known Woldeyilma for several years.
"He is a survivor of great hardship and tragedy, he walked 2,000 miles through the harsh Sudan desert to saftey during the Mengistu genocide in Ethiopia.
"Since coming to the United States he has made the feral cats of the Columbia Street waterfront district his family."
Brian McCormick, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Initiative, whose office sits across the street from where Woldeyilma is stationed every day, said he has seen Woldeyilma occupy the space for years.
“I see him every day,” McCormick said. “The cats are his family. He’s making do, and the cats have, throughout the years, lived in the construction staging site.”
As for Woldeyilma's improvised dinner gong — cobblestone against a lamppost — McCormick shrugged.
“The sound might be jarring to anyone who’s new to the neighborhood,” McCormick said. “But no, that’s just what he does.”