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December 26, 2003

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 26, 2003

Harley's big adventure Harley's big adventure (December 26, 2003)

Palo Altan chronicles the tale of cat who got shipped to Japan


When David Rapaport set out to write his first book, telling the story wasn't the hard part. It was illustrating the book that proved difficult -- so difficult, in fact, that it took Rapaport six years to find the right illustrator for "Harley," a book about the Palo Alto cat that got shipped accidentally to Japan, only to return triumphantly two months later.

"I'm a big believer in spontaneity and impulsiveness. I wanted to write it, get it to press, get it going. I had a vision of weeks, not years," Rapaport said. "I knew it was going to take some time, but not this long to find the right person."

The right illustrator, as it turned out, was Yu-Ting (Julie) Wu, one of Rapaport's social studies students at Bret Harte Middle School in San Jose. The first time Rapaport saw Wu's drawing of the Northern Lights, as viewed by Lewis and Clark, he knew he had found the right partner for his homage to Harley.

"She's the one, I thought" Rapaport recalled. "I wanted to honor her work. Julie's a brilliant artist, and I wanted others to see it."

But hiring Wu on the spot was impossible, as she was still his eighth grade student. Rapaport had to wait until the end of the school year to forge their working relationship. Once Wu agreed, Rapaport shared with her the text of the book, which he had started writing immediately upon learning of Harley's disappearance.

The story had affected many of the patrons who frequented La Creme de Cafe in midtown Palo Alto. Rapaport, a Palo Alto resident, would visit the coffee shop daily and was very familiar with the beloved black cat who lived at the store.

"You'd put your hand out, and he would give you his whole head," Rapaport recalled. "He was wonderful with adults and children. He was extraordinarily friendly."

One day, during the summer of 1996, Harley, who didn't wear identity tags, vanished into thin air. Kevin Kermanshahi, Harley's owner and the then-manager of the cafe, hung fliers, placed an ad in the paper and contacted the Humane Society, to no avail. When Rapaport heard the distressing news, he assumed the worst.

"I thought he was hit by a car -- he used to hang out in the parking lot on hoods, absorbing the warmth of the cars," Rapaport recalled. "He was an edgy cat."

Hundreds of concerned customers would ask about Harley every day, prompting Rapaport to put pen to paper. The result: A book with a rhyming structure, complete with a rich vocabulary and jokes for both adults and children.

"I envisioned reading it to my son and hearing him laugh and learn new words," said Rapaport, the father of 10-year-old Wes and 7-year-old Kenny.

Regardless of the ending, Rapaport knew he had a story worth telling.

"As soon as it happened, I knew this was a great story, and that more people should hear it, especially younger people."

The rest of the extraordinary tale unfolded a month later, when Kermanshahi got a phone message saying the cat was safe -- in Japan.

"We didn't believe him," Rapaport recalled.

It turned out that a former Palo Alto resident named Jeff Trabucco had moved to Japan and had asked his roommate to have Suki, his black cat, sent to him. But the roommate unwittingly grabbed Harley by mistake, shipping him 10,000 miles away to Shizuoka City, 70 miles from Tokyo. Harley, then 2 years old, was quarantined for a month in Japan.

The jet-setting feline returned via Northwest Airlines on Aug. 23, 1996, and was warmly welcomed back to his home at La Creme de Cafe. Rapaport's book chronicles the entire saga, from Harley's disappearance to his joyful reunion with his surrogate family.

Wu's six colorful illustrations also help bring the remarkable story to life. Using Rapaport's photographs of Harley, Wu succeeded in capturing Harley's likeness and his surroundings, including his fur-strewn basket.

"That's what people saw," Rapaport said, pointing to Wu's rendering of Harley's empty basket. "People would go in and touch this blanket. It was a gut-wrenching experience."

Rapaport, who had previously worked at KCBS, even contacted Charles Osgood's producer, leading to a national-radio broadcast after Harley returned.

Sadly, Harley met a crueler fate last February, when he was hit by a car in the cafe's parking lot. Rapaport called Wu, unsure whether to proceed with the project. But the duo decided to press on.

"It was awkward, but we decided the story was more important that anyone thinking it was craven," said Rapaport, who still teaches eighth grade social studies at Bret Harte.

Rapaport published the book himself, with the assistance of local printer Ray Azadan of Prodigy Press -- "the best-kept printing secret in this community," according to Rapaport. Priced at $5.95, the book is intended to be accessible for all budgets.

"It's meant to be disseminated, not to make anyone go broke," said Rapaport, a musician who has also released his own CDs. "I can't believe people spend $20 on books and CDs. It's mind-boggling to me, the commercialization of literature and music. I wanted to go against that completely."

Harley ultimately didn't have nine lives, but his story will live on, along with his basket, which is still on display at La Creme de Cafe, where it is covered with flowers and notes.

"Harley" is available at Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park; Linden Tree in Los Altos; Alexander Book Co. in San Francisco and La Creme de Cafe in Palo Alto.

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