We Went to the Cat Café and (OMG) Here’s What Happened

It was 2:30pm on a Friday and I was at the tail end of a line that wound around the block, waiting to get into a coffee shop. To be clear, this line wasn’t just for coffee, it was for coffee and cats. The Cat Café — a 3-day pop-up shop on New York’s Lower East Side, co-sponsored by PurinaONE and the North Shore Animal League — could best be described by SNL’s Stefon. It had everything: coffee, couches, and cats to curl up with — and even adopt. Of course, everyone in the city showed up for the short-lived event, and getting in was a challenge.

While I waited on line, a security guard in a suit and tie walked up and down high-fiving anxious guests, who had all come to get a free cappuccino (or, custom-made CATachino, with a cat-face drawn into the foam) and to spend a mandated hour or less socializing with felines. Two customers on the back of the line asked the guard how long they’d have to wait to get in. Three hours, he said.  Three hours? We’ve established that kittens are fantastic, but were they really worthy of a three-hour wait?

The answer, of course, was yes. In this chaotic city where people are always surging around you, breathing down your neck, the thought of taking a break to sit on a couch with a warm animal was overwhelmingly comforting. Rita, a friend I made on line, informed me that she was here the day before and didn’t get in. “I wasted a little less than three hours, waiting,” she said. “I had a friend who waited four hours!” Rita adopted a cat from North Shore last year, so she had an affinity for the rescue mission. “It’s also free coffee,” she reminded me.

Timothy and Dani, both college students, saw the event in the newspaper. “We are looking to adopt, but more so the reason is just hanging out with cats,” Dani said. She was also hoping the gimmick would catch on throughout the country. “How nice would that be? Say you’re having a bad day — you come to the Cat Café!” Meanwhile, Timothy marveled at the fact that cats roaming through a cafe wasn’t a health code violation. (Most of the actual cats were cordoned off from the food in a separate room.)

The crowd was mostly students and young people. We were moved in little mobs of four closer to the entrance, and I continued to overhear snippets of conversations about how much people wanted to cuddle the cats. A Purina volunteer named Shy (who described himself alternately as “the live entertainment” and one of the “blue shirt grand ambassadors”) was keeping the crowd buoyant and chipper. “Who’s here to adopt a cat?” he bellowed. Only one girl in the long line raised her hand. Later, Shy leaned over to me and confessed that he’s actually allergic to cats. “Me and oxygen are not friends anymore when cats happen,” he murmured.

A Fox News van pulled up on the street, and a crew began to set up their cameras. One rare, lucky lady emerged from the Cat Café, grinning. “I adopted one!” she exclaimed. Since I’m still stuck on the line, Cindy Szczudlo of the North Shore Animal League, described to me the scene inside. “The cats are hanging out on people’s laps, and Purina has built stuff for them to climb on,” she said.  Szcudlo hand-selected all the café’s cats herself, and had been working with them for the past few weeks in a North Shore “cat habitat” to ensure that they were a social, friendly group. As of Friday, 10 of the 21 pets had been adopted.

After a couple of hours, I was close enough on the line to look into the cafe window. I could see the baristas in blue shirts whipping up lattes and peddling sour cream coffee cakes with apple filling. For a second, I imagined sipping coffee with a cat curled up in my lap. Then I overheard a pow-wow between Shy, a PR contact and the security guard. They were making a plan of attack in order to gently tell half the line that they wouldn’t be getting in today. One volunteer informed us that our best bet would be to arrive the next day at 9:15am, almost an hour before the café opened.

That wasn’t going to happen. I took one last, curious look through the windows of the Cat Café.  I wanted in. Instead, I turned around and meandered back through the overcrowded streets, headed for work. I bought a latte on the way and dreamed of cuddling Lucy, my own rescue cat. Perhaps we’d make our own café later, away from the world.