The Purrfect Story
Change comes on little cat feet
By Maria Johnson
We ambled past
a new storefront on South Elm Street, my pals and I, on a charity walk through downtown Greensboro.
The signs on the plate-glass windows said Crooked Tail Cat Cafe.
“What’s a cat cafe?” someone asked.
“I think you take your cat in there and play,” someone offered.
“Anyone can take a cat?”
“What if your cat isn’t friendly?”
“Do they serve food?”
“Yuck if they do, with cats around.”
We were engaging in a favorite pastime of individuals who have no clue: trying to come up with an answer by engaging a committee of individuals who have no clue.
The fact was, none of us knew what happened inside a cat cafe.
I made a mental note to find out. A few weeks later, I enlisted the help of a real investigative pro, my dear friend and former newspaper colleague Jerry Bledsoe.
You might remember that in 1970s and ’80s, before he became a best-selling author, Jerry informed and entertained the stuffing out of Greensboro with a thrice-weekly column.
You also might remember that one of his favorite subjects was cats. To wit, he made the fur fly by trashing cats and defending dogs. He regularly squared up against fellow News & Record columnist Jim Jenkins, who declared the superiority of cats and offered little consolation to canines.
The game was good for two or three columns, complete with reader feedback, every time they growled and spat at each other. Dog people chewed on Jim. Crazy cat ladies called and cussed Jerry. They confronted him in person.
“I’d be out eating, and some woman would come up and hiss in my ear,” Jerry recalls fondly.
In truth, Jerry didn’t hate cats. But he didn’t have one either.
Then something happened, something named Pookie, a beautiful Burmese cat who sauntered into the Bledsoe home and never left. Today, Pookie lives a pampered life, along with two other feline foundlings. They co-exist peacefully with an atomic-powered dog who was discovered, along with his littermates, in a dumpster. Another whiskered ward, a feral cat that lives nearby, survives thanks to Jerry’s faithful visits.
You heard it here first: Bledsoe, now 76, is a bona fide cat man, and a dog man, with well-bred nose for news. His forthcoming memoir, Do-Good Boy: An Unlikely Writer Confronts the Sixties and Other Indignities, covers the tumultuous first decade of his career, including his work for Esquire magazine.
But Bledsoe’s enchanted by small stories, too, so it didn’t take much convincing to arrange a meeting at Crooked Tail. It was a weekday afternoon and cat-lovin’ spaces were available, according the online reservation schedule, so we walked in. We paid the entry fee ($10 an hour per person), sanitized our hands (for the cats’ protection), and signed our waivers.
“Our cats are super friendly, but they do have teeth and claws,” explained employee Taylor Freeman.
She let us through a gate into the cat lounge, an airy, modern and noticeably non-smelly space, thanks to top-shelf cat litter and air purifiers.
She explained that all of the cats in the lounge — up to 10 at a time — come from the local adoption outfit Red Dog Farm, which spays, neuters, vaccinates and screens the candidates before sending them to live in the comfort of Crooked Tail until they find a new home.
Indeed, cafe owner Karen Stratman, who dumped the corporate life for her own business, has created one cool kitty orphanage after discovering the trend online in 2011.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” says Karen.
Crooked Tail is the first cat cafe in the state, though others are scheduled to open soon.
With its hardwood floors, modular seating, soft music, indirect lighting, pop art (see the picture of Kitty Gaga), and wall-mounted catwalks, the feeling is contemporary cathouse.
Occasionally, the room jingles and thumps with bursts of feline activity, but overall the vibe is chill.
When they’re not pouncing and tumbling, the residents doze in fleece-lined baskets, hollowed-out shells of old TVs and streamlined sofas draped with fuzzy throws.
Humans are welcome to pick up, pet and play with the cats — providing the cats are willing. As anyone who has lived with a little tiger knows, you can lead a cat to affection, but you can’t make it accept it.
Bored or ignored? Read a book (Does This Collar Make My Butt Look Big?), watch a TV that actually works (a flat-screen model is bolted to the rear wall) or slip through a door to the backroom cafe for a decent cup of joe. The health department won’t allow food to be prepared on-site, but you can buy pre-packaged drinks and snacks, including locally made baked goods, and enjoy them inside the cafe.
We happened to visit on a big day: The first shipments of beer and wine arrived in the cafe that afternoon, but, like most visitors, we were more interested in mousers than merlot.
We spent some quality time in a window seat with Stash, a 10-year-old gray tabby who let me smooth his spine. He rubbed against me before a flick of his tail said, “Enough.”
We met 7-month-old Bean, and his sidekick, 4-month-old Leo, who would be leaving together for a new home soon.
We lingered over 4-month-old tortoiseshell Nola, a frisky lass who’d also captured the
attention of High Point University sophomore Isabelle Germino.
It was Isabelle’s second time in. The first time, a couple of weeks earlier, she’d visited with a friend on a busy night, been put on a waiting list, went to catch dinner at a nearby restaurant and returned a couple of hours later for a one-hour kitty fix.
“They were all jumping around,” she said. “It was so much fun.”
Now, she was back with a camera, shooting video for a school project. Nola was getting a lot of screen time.
“I’m in love with this kitten,” she finally said to Freeman. “What’s the adoption process?”
Crooked Tail works, averaging more than two adoptions a week. It’s no surprise that the spry kittens like Nola go quickly, and the older cats wait.
Jerry and I settled on a sofa with 6-year-old Benji, an orange-and-white gent whose former family surrendered him because someone in the family developed an allergy to him. They did not part lightly. The family boxed his toys and food, and they wrote a letter to be opened only by the person who adopts him.
Curled in his soft doughnut bed, Benji showed little reaction as Jerry massaged his ears.
“He seems sad,” another woman observed.
She was right. You could feel it, and the one who felt it most keenly was the one who’d once made scratch by making fun of cats.
He leaned over and cooed into a velvety umber ear.
“You will find a new family,” he pledged. “You’ll get to know them, and you’ll like them. Yes, you will.”
Spoken like an old mewsman. OH
You can reach Maria Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find Crooked Tail at crookedtailcatcafe.com or 336-550-4024.