RALEIGH, N.C. -- On Raleigh's busiest street, a 24-pound cat lumbers down the sidewalk twice a day, poking his head into bank lobbies, padding through sidewalk cafes, catching smiles from the high-dollar attorneys and hot dog vendors.
To Tucker, Raleigh's 20-year-old feline-about-town, Fayetteville Street serves as a concrete backyard -- a kingdom of sandwich smells and passing poodles, his to explore with keen whiskers.
About a year ago, Ron Kirk set his pet on the street and let him wander, hoping to whittle down his weight. As a sedentary cat upstairs in The Hudson condominiums, Tucker ballooned to 31 pounds, bigger than a pair of Christmas turkeys.
Once released, he took a few tentative steps, then wandered a few buildings down the block, then gradually learned to recognize the Fayetteville Street landmarks -- especially the red door at Sono Sushi. Now Tucker might amble a block ahead of his humans, tail swishing.
"He walks into the bank," said Kirk, 40, a database analyst who works from home. "He walks into every single place that will let him in. People will stop their cars. If he wobbles away, he's easy to find."
In his life as a downtown flaneur, Tucker has not only shed 22 percent of his bulk but slinked his way into downtown celebrity. At last count Tucker had 650 friends on Instagram as oakcitykitty. He appears there curled up on a sidewalk mural during SparkCon, resting next to a shelf stocked with pumpkin ale, trotting between a Fayetteville Street bride and groom, bowtie fixed around his neck.
"He knows all the people who work in the restaurants," Kirk said. "He has just under 650 Instagram friends. He's got some dog friends even though he doesn't consider them his equal."
Other than sirens and motorcycles, nothing frightens Tucker. Half-tabby, half-Maine coon, Tucker got adopted from a shelter in Orange County, where he'd served as a test cat for the staff. When the shelter took in a Rottweiler, the staff paired the 100-pound dogs with Tucker to see if they were feline compatible.
"He was a terror," Kirk said.
Downtown, he inspires a hundred questions: Is that a cat? Is it a raccoon? Is it a bobcat? Is it pregnant?
But their questions fade with a scratch between Tucker's ears, a soft place on Fayetteville Street where bad days turn good.
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