For the uninitiated, a cat café is essentially a feline adoption centre which provides refreshments. I assume it's a mostly American thing but I could be wrong. Bess and I went to one in Austin. It was a large room, like a small department store filled with cats and furnished for the comfort of the same. There was a food truck parked outside but it was closed up, so that day we saw a load of cats but weren't able to get anything to eat; which was okay because we saw a load of cats and the shortfall is pretty much what we have come to expect from Austin which, for all of its admirable qualities, amounts to Texas for people who don't like Texas, in our experience.
The San Antonio cat café introduced itself through a facebook group promising that it would be coming soon to a then vacant premises very near where my wife works. We drove past a few times but there was nothing doing. Bess sank some money into the endeavour by paying in advance for a cat party. As should be obvious from the description, a cat party is simply getting the cat café to yourself for a couple of hours so you can invite friends who also like cats, and everyone gets to sit around petting felines while drinking tea and eating tacos or whatever. This kind of deal is central to the whole raison d'être of a cat café. The money goes towards the upkeep of the place and the care of the cats which have ended up there, everyone gets to hang out with the aforementioned cats, and hopefully one or two of them will find themselves adopted as a result.
We kept driving past, but the place remained vacant.
'I want my cat party,' my wife growled form time to time.
Summer turns to Autumn, and eventually the place opens, but in a different building a couple of miles down the road. We go along to the opening night. The new venue is a converted industrial unit divided in half with a wood partition. The café element constitutes the conversion of the space on one side of the partition to catering purposes. There's a small kitchen and a coffee machine. This being the opening night, they have ordered a stack of pizzas from Papa John's or one of those places, of which about three slices are left as we arrive, despite that we have arrived on time.
'Help yourself to nachos and popcorn,' our hostess suggests, breezily indicating bags of chips and one of those things dispensing the bright yellow chemical sludge everyone refers to as queso.
You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!
Well, never mind, because we're here for the cats.
Through the partition, the other half of the place is large with chairs all around, tables, cat trees and related fixtures. There are cats everywhere, all shapes and sizes, all ages, regarding us with bemusement as cats do. They look healthy and happy, and there's no weird smell about the place which seems like a good sign.
'Wait,' I say. 'Is this the cat party you were talking about?'
'No,' Bess tells me. 'This is the opening night.'
I realise this should be obvious from the fact that we're here with a whole load of complete strangers.
'So the cat party will be just us?'
'Well, we're allowed twelve people so there will be my mom and Andrea and a few others.'
We stay for about ninety minutes, playing with the cats, petting kittens, getting to know them. Our favourite is called Max, apparently the alpha male. He's constantly on the move, patrolling the room, making sure everything is in order. He has a peculiar stumpy tail, like that of a bobcat, but apparently he was born that way.
Just as we leave, more pizza turns up.
Weeks pass. Bess, sensing that the proprietors of our local cat café seem lacking in respect to certain organisational skills, makes a phone call to ensure that they haven't forgotten about our cat party on the Sunday afternoon.
Of course they haven't.
It's written down right in front of me.
We arrive on Sunday, Bess, myself and the kid, and strangely the place is already full of people.
'We're here for a cat party,' Bess explains. 'It's already booked, and I paid months ago.'
'What's a cat party?' wonders Spotty, who seems to be the one in charge. I remember her from last time, helping direct visitors towards the nachos and the popcorn. She calls the boss.
'They didn't know we were coming?' I ask.
Bess pulls a face.
'You paid, didn't you?'
She tells me how much she paid, and the figure is such that I'm not going to repeat it in case it makes us seem either crazy or like we have far too much money; but whatever happens, it goes to the care of the cats, so that's what matters.
I look around. In addition to nachos and popcorn, they now have candy bars. I get up and head for the coffee machine. Spotty comes over to see what I'm doing.
'I take it this works like the ones you see in hotels?'
She concurs, and points to where the creamer is kept.
'You don't have milk?'
She shakes her head. 'It'll be a dollar-fifty a cup,' she smiles helpfully.
'Okay. Forget it then.' I return to my seat. 'Apparently whatever you paid doesn't stretch to coffee,' I tell Bess.
Spotty hands me a tablet, a disembodied screen like the boy's iPad. I don't much like these things. 'What's this for?'
'We need you to sign a disclaimer before you go in to see the cats.'
'It's just for the sake of insurance.'
I look at the image on the screen, boxes in which I am supposed to enter my name. It has no keyboard.
'What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Do I just think my name at it?'
Spotty taps at the box in which I am expected to enter my details and a keyboard appears at the foot of the screen.
'I'm over fifty,' I can hear myself explain quite loudly to no-one in particular. 'Why would I know or care how these things are supposed to work? Seriously? I like to keep mainly just stuff which matters in my brain, and nothing of value has ever occurred within the vicinity of or by agency of an iPad.'
After five pages and the same count of minutes, I find I am required to suffix my petition with my signature, somehow written on the screen using my finger as a pen.
'Oh God - not this again.'
I sign. As usual the digital snail trail bears no resemblance to my signature.
The good news is that the woman who runs the cat café has turned up. She explains what a cat party is to Spotty, her employee, then checks emails and text messages and eventually confirms that we have one booked. She suggests that it would have been helpful if we had phoned to check beforehand, but never mind.
By now the rest of our guests have turned up, Andrea, Bess's mother, aunt, brother, and grandmother, people from her workplace - Alex, Tristan and Alejandra.
We go in to see the cats. Some of those we remember from before have been adopted, but Max is still in charge. The chairs are mostly occupied by grumpy teenage girls playing with their phones. I suppose they too have paid to be here.
We hang around for our two allotted hours, as though the timetable means anything, and our hostess provides a tray of lunchables around ten minutes before we leave. Lunchables are packages of crackers which come with salami and squares of cheese cut to size. They're what your kid would take to school.
You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!
We go home, happy to have spent time with unfamiliar cats, but glad to get back to our own. We find ourselves oddly glad that it's over.