If you’ve ever imagined a brothel featuring cats instead of people, head down to Hester Street and duck into Meow Parlour, which bills itself as New York’s first cat café. However, unlike a traditional brothel, you can’t just pop in when the mood strikes. You’ll need to make a reservation to guarantee a half-hour slot in a small room populated by thirteen cats and about as many cat lovers. Before entering, you’ll have to sign a waiver, remove your shoes, and Purell your hands. You’ll receive a laminated QR code. “It’s 2:57, so you have till 3:27, but there is a six-minute grace period,” the girl behind the counter will inform you.
From the sidewalk, there is no red-curtained shopwindow to hide the feline fondling taking place inside. Instead, there’s a picture window displaying cats provocatively nestled into the crooks of a 3-D MEOW.
On the day I visit, about ten people—almost all young women—are tiptoing around the room, wielding sparkly wands, and stalking the cats, who seem to be tantalizingly just out of reach. The clean, modern space is outfitted with boxes, cubbyholes, and a wall-unit jungle gym. The litter boxes are out of sight, but the space smells (not unpleasantly) like dry cat food. New-age music plays.
“This is like a whole new thing: cats in quantity,” someone says. “If someone put me in a big version of this, it’d be perfect,” says another girl, flicking her wand in wait. “Ooo! Here comes another one!” She tries to coax the cat toward her with one hand while taking a cell-phone photo of the interaction with the other. He skitters away. She sighs.
In the spirit of the popular Japanese cat cafés that inspired Meow Parlour, you can order drinks and cat-shaped macarons to be delivered from the café around the corner.
But it becomes evident that eating and drinking—especially on high tables, far removed from the cat action on the floor below—don’t mingle with cat-stroking, especially given the half-hour time limit.
If all the cats seem to be playing hard-to-get, the Crazy Cat Lady Game and Cat-Opoly might pass the time. To tantalize the imagination, there’s also a notebook of cats available for adoption: Allie Ann is on a raw diet; Bella’s a “party girl.” All the cats roaming the café are also adoptable, and Meow Parlour averages about one adoption per week. Amazingly, the staff said, all the animals seem to get along; there has been no marking or fighting.
A woman with a cat iPhone case videos her friend’s brief, triumphant encounter. “This cat’s my soul mate,” the friend reports from a floor cushion, where she’s succeeded in pinning down a cat. Less-successful patrons prowl the corners and cat boxes for a glimpse of willing fur. An acquisitive, competitive mood hangs in the air, mingling with an aura of faux camaraderie and shared interest, not unlike at a Manolo Blahnik sample sale.
I bite the whiskers off my macaron. A couple moves away from a white cat that’s snoozing in a wall compartment—I see my opportunity and home in. He ruffles when I pet him, then snuggles back into his cat scratcher and gently bats my hand away with his paw. I feel a flush of victory. His fur is as warm and soft and pliant as anyone could hope for. I’ve gotten my money’s worth in the final six-minute grace period.
As I leave, I see two cats perched in the window, resting on feather wands, waiting for their next customer with the same longing as their customers wait for them.