Editor's note: This is another in a series of essays by veteran Phoenix New Times contributor Robrt L. Pela on the people and places that make the Phoenix area what it is.
Ms. Fallon O’Malley was gone, and the others — Milo, Lyle, Bunny, and especially one-eyed Johnny Cash —seemed to feel her absence. Asked about Fallon’s disappearance, a small black girl named Sarafina looked concerned. “Wow,” she ventured. Perhaps fearing she’d said too much, Sarafina’s sister, Stella, smacked Sarafina in the face.
In the fragrant, cement-floored room that is La Gattara Cat Lounge and Boutique, this was just another Saturday afternoon. As Sarafina and Stella rolled on the floor, joyfully clawing at one another, a recently-shaved long-haired tuxedo named CJ sauntered past, headed for the corner where a young couple lay sprawled on the floor, stroking and murmuring to a pair of teenaged tabbies.
“Did you want to join us?” the female half of the couple asked CJ, who averted her eyes. “Don’t be shy. We’ll pet your belly!” CJ glanced disdainfully at the ceiling, then settled near a middle-aged woman from Paradise Valley who grew up next door to Sandra Day O’Connor.
“Hi, kitty,” the woman from PV ventured. “What’s your name?”
“Pam,” CJ lied.
“She hasn’t been here very long,” a La Gattara employee named Caitlin explained, maybe in defense of CJ’s harmless fib. “When she arrived, she was so matted we couldn’t brush her, so we shaved her. Now she’s so much happier.”
Most of the 30 cats now living at La Gattara, opened last year by animal fan Melissa Pruitt, also appeared content. The felines, Caitlin said, go directly from foster situations to this storefront in Tempe. “They never see the inside of a shelter,” she said. “This is a safe space for cats, but it’s also a place where people can come and unwind, relax. Cats are very much relaxing.”
They appeared to be very much relaxing. In a box near the cash register in La Gattara’s gift shop, where visitors could buy artwork and cat toys by local artist Kate Benjamin, an extra-large marmalade tabby snored audibly.
Near her, a pair of tiger-striped kittens laid curled together, one with a foreleg clamped over tight-shut eyes.
Cat cafes became popular in Japan early this century; the first American location opened in Oakland, California, in 2014. Most big cities have at least one public place where one can order a latte and an hour with a Maine Coon.
At Chicago’s CatCade, visitors can play Ms. Pacman in the company of a Turkish Angora or a Cornish Rex, but Tempe’s La Gattara takes a simpler approach. Stuffed mice and feathers tied to strings lie about a brightly painted room, its longest wall muraled with a kitten’s silhouette, its main feature a grove of cat trees and a tiered table resembling a giant wedding cake. A grey-and-blonde puss named Precious stood at attention, wide-eyed and hopeful on this particular Saturday, beside a basket of brushes.
In this room full of cats, things were unusually calm. “It’s only when we have an event or an activity where they get upset,” Caitlin said as a well-fed calico rubbed against her ankles. Those events have included decorative sand-carving classes, an evening of drag queen bingo, and something called Meowdidation, a yoga class at which feline residents lounged and gamboled while attendees held Nidra poses. In November, La Gattara will host a meet-and-greet with a cat whisperer known as the Kitten Lady.
“When we have a yoga class, we have to move all the kitty furniture and toys,” Caitlin said, “and usually there are some fights about that.”
Lyle, a muscular, silver short hair, usually oversees and sometimes instigates these rumbles. “He’s a bit of a bully,” Caitlin said. Lyle slowly closed his eyes in agreement.
Like the humans who pay $10 an hour for the privilege of dangling yarn scraps, Lyle and his bunkmates are only guests here. To date, La Gattara has found homes for 246 felines. Among them, at last, was Ms. Fallon O’Malley, an 11-year-old contrarian who lingered for seven long months.
“She’d beg for petting,” Caitlin remembered, “but if you went past her shoulders she’d scratch you.” Ms. O’Malley waited patiently near the treat jar on the coloring book table before finding, in La Gattara parlance, “her very own purrfect furrever home.” The cat’s new owner renamed her Flossie.
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On their way out the door, the couple who’d been lounging in the corner stopped to talk to Lyle. “We’re sorry we can’t take you home with us,” the young woman said. “But his mom is allergic and I live in the dorm.”
A black-and-white spotted kitten swatted at the young woman’s shoelace. “I’ll be back,” she promised the kitten, squeezing out La Gattara’s front door.
Lyle watched them go, glaring. Finally, he turned back to the room full of cats.
“Fanff,” he said.