Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
I’m infatuated with bodega cats. These plucky furballs can be found leading a working life at corner delis and late-night convenience stores across the country — although I’d chance that New York City is their spiritual home. Taking on a role that’s part hostess and part security guard, these sociable kitties get free rein to frolic among the boxes of bottled water, six packs of domestic beer, and racks of cheesy snacks with the intention of warding off undesirable critters and bugs. Naturally, they quickly ascend to a level of local celebrity, and the finest bodega cats are as happy to spend time engaging with customers as tending to their official duties.
My first bodega cat love was Nola. A bijou gray kitty with alluring green eyes, she lived in a 24-hour produce stand nestled among the hustle and bustle of rowdy Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Whenever I’d pop in on the way home to pick up a seltzer or some soon-to-be-regretted late-night snack, I’d usually find her hanging out toward the back of the store, sometimes perched on a freezer full of ice cream. We struck up a trusting bond. She let me pick her up, pet her, and — at least the way I envisioned it in my head — would come running over when I called out for her.
When Nola became pregnant, I asked the store owner if I could take one of her kittens. He said
yes but added that there was quite the backlog of requests from local residents. He wasn’t kidding around.
For a few days, little Nola tended to her babies in a back storage room, in a bed flanked by crates of beer. In that brilliant feline way that seems to fly in the face of most genetic assumptions, she’d birthed a clowder of kittens that looked nothing like her, including one fluffy black-and-white chap I affectionately called Beast. After we shared a moment together under a package of what were allegedly double-dipped milk chocolate peanuts, I declared that I would like to adopt the kitty.
By the next morning, Beast was gone. He’d been scooped up from his bodega life and taken to what I’d like to hope has become his forever home.
Since my days of being smitten with Nola, I’ve become something of a bodega cat addict. A trip to the store to pick up some mundane item like garbage bags or an onion suddenly becomes an opportunity to catch up with the cats.
My current favorite bodega cat is called Pounce. He’s a sprightly fellow with an athletic frame who likes to nap on the lottery console next to the door. I’ll sometimes throw one of those generic tiny toy mice around for him to chase as we shoot the breeze.
My phone is filled with pictures of bodega cats past and present. At my last apartment, the local deli also had a hardware store downstairs. This curious retail enterprise was overseen by a champion ginger tabby who — for reasons known only to himself — had a habit of hiding among a bunch of plastic flowers. I also once saw what I like to think of as a real gem in any collection — a full-on supermarket cat. This off-white creature was sitting atop the wooden frame of the refrigerated cheese section. A genuine collector’s item.
Beyond my own experience of neighborhood bodega cats, the concept has caught the imagination of the wider world. A spoof wildlife documentary about them has racked up a quarter of a million views on YouTube; sample dialogue includes the explanation, “The bodega is their terrain. It is an urban outpost and they are the sentries.” The short also features a picture of an imperious-looking cat sitting in an empty Corona box and some kittens hanging out in a Sunkist crate.
Building on the bodega cats’ infamy, New York’s public access radio station has run a competition to find each neighborhood’s most notable bodega cat. I’m partial to Carmel, a young dude with a particularly intense face who lives in a Polish deli in the Ridgewood area of Queens.
So why does everyone seem to love a bodega cat? I think the answer is simple: Their presence adds an almost cartoonish excitement to what are otherwise boring errand runs. There’s something endearingly comical about the idea of the noble and finicky feline dwelling in a world consisting of cheap convenience foodstuffs and everyday goods. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be served their bottle of seltzer by a cat?
Once you’ve spotted your first bodega cat, here’s how you go about befriending the feline.
1. Exercise caution
Most bodega cats are outgoing and friendly — but they’re also working cats that might be used to a wilder lifestyle than the average house cat. so approach carefully and calmly.
2. Stay chatty
Ask the store owner if it’s okay to pet the bodega cat and also his or her name — most times there’s a fun story behind it!
3. Be respectful
Cats are territorial animals — and so are shopkeepers! Remember: If a bodega cat retreats behind a counter or into a storeroom, that’s not an invitation to follow the feline.
4. Keep it regular
There’s nothing wrong with popping into a bodega just to see the cat — make it part of your routine.
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