All photos by Stephanie Mercier Voyer.
I have a broken relationship with cats. Once in a while, they take a moment from shitting in boxes and lurking in dark corners to glare at me with indifference or distrust, but that's about it. Up until now, we've been working under the unspoken agreement to not really give a shit about each other. So when VICE asked me to visit the new cat café that had just opened in Montreal, my dysfunctional relationship with cats came to the fore.
Café des Chats is the first establishment of its kind to open in Canada. If you're not familiar with the concept of a cat café, it's basically a coffee shop with a bunch of cats living inside it. The concept seemed a little contrived to me, and the thought of drinking espresso in a room that's crawling with eight unimpressed and distrusting creatures initially sounded like a bit of a nightmare. But framed the right way, this could be a great opportunity to face my fears and heal my relationship with felines. Maybe throwing them into our neighborhood cafés is actually a great idea.
Either way, I probably wasn't going to enjoy myself or learn anything by going in my current headspace, so I decided to take some mushrooms before crossing the cat café threshold.
I spoke with the owner Nadine a few days before my visit, and she agreed to have me come by half an hour before it opened on Friday, at 9:30 in the morning. I met up with Stephanie (our photographer) beforehand to drink mushroom tea and have some grounding, sober thoughts while I still could. I sat on the edge of her couch at 8:45, taking careful sips as the sun reflected off her bookshelf. I watched the cluster of green mushroom bits swirl into the tea, thinking of how the fate of my morning rested in its murky depths.
After I finished my cup, we biked over to the café, in Montreal's Plateau neighborhood, and stood outside to take a photo of me nervously laughing outside.
I was still clear-headed but knew by the way my fingers were tingling that I was on my way to ShroomTown. I watched Stephanie fiddle with her camera and realized that while we were in there, she would be the only other human who knew I was tripping. I made a mental note to remember that if things got out of control.
The co-owner Youseff saw us standing outside and came out to greet us.
"Welcome," he said. "Come on in."
On the way to the door, I locked eyes with a white kitten staring ominously by the window. I wondered if he could sense my duplicitous intentions.
We walked through the door into the waiting area, where framed black-and-white photos of the cats lined the wall. We browsed with our hands behind our backs like we were in some kind of art gallery.
Nadine came in wearing a big warm smile and a collared polo cat shirt and let us into the café. Without anyone there it looked like some kind of private cat academy with a fountain, shiny bowls, a climbing gym, and an inscription on the main wall that read "Le chat est roi" ("The cat is king"). As I took it all in, I started to see sparks at the corners of my vision, like little fireflies popping in and out of the air.
Nadine led me around and told me about the cats. I was feeling a little bit giggly, and the whole place was starting to crack me up. What was this ridiculous cat oasis? Where did these delightful little furry dumplings come from? Nadine carried herself like the lord of the cats; she picked the feline creatures up at will as if they were fruit baskets. It was fucking amazing. My mouth was drying up, and I asked for some water. It felt like a cold hug rushing through my body.
At that point, things shifted, and the room felt like it was slowing down—like an engine gearing down or the lights dimming at the start of a movie. The walls were starting to get glossy, and her voice was acquiring a weird, wavy texture. I was trying to hold it together while also maintaining eye contact and appearing present, but I could feel myself slipping into the rabbit hole. I was very aware of my skin, like it was some kind of elastic frog suit. I watched her eyebrows jump up and down like two excited caterpillars as she continued talking.
"I have to go to the washroom!" I said in my most composed voice.
I closed the bathroom door and took a deep breath. I went to the sink and splashed water on my face. How cool is water? No, come on, focus, I told myself. You came in here to get it together. I glanced up at my reflection, which was a mistake. The skin on my face was breathing in and out like some kind of fish gill, and I felt like a Na'vi from Avatar. My eyes had dilated into two black saucers.
I spun around and got a sense of this sink/toilet box I was in. The morning light was filtering through a small window like golden angel fingers, and the toilet was smiling at me like a piece of furniture in the Brave Little Toaster. It felt so nice in there, and I really didn't want to leave. But my sense of responsibility outweighed my immediate obsession, and I burst back out the door into the café.
Youssef sat waiting at a table for me with a coffee and a snack by an empty spot. I sat down as casually as I could and stumbled through a question: "So how did this idea of yours that you have now get started?"
I wasn't making any sense.
He told me that he and Nadine had been planning it for a while, and that he slept in the store for three months with the cats before it opened, to make sure leaving them there at night could actually work. I was preoccupied with my coffee and pastry, and I hadn't really looked at him yet. After some time I knew I couldn't just stare at my pastry forever, so I finally looked up at him. His eyes were spinning slowly like disco balls, and his cheeks were flapping around off his face like two pieces of lunchmeat. He looked like he was from a Wallace and Gromit cartoon, and I stared at him, equally terrified and fascinated, trying to figure his face out as he told me passionately about his business.
I decided to compromise by keeping my head at the same angle, while occasionally shifting my gaze to the brick wall behind him. As I kept watching, I realized the bricks were playing some kind of musical chairs game; they kept rearranging themselves, but one would always getting left out, and would have to join a game somewhere else.
Yousseff had stopped talking, which I realized meant he'd just asked me a question: "How do you like your pastry?" his lunchmeat flapped at me. "We get them imported from Italy."
I realized I had scarfed that down while watching the bricks and remembered it being delicious but that it felt strange going down my throat. I really wanted to ask him if he was aware that his bricks were moving, but I just told him that the pastry was good.
Yousseff had to go, so we shook hands, and I wondered if he suspected anything or whether I was just the strangest interviewer he had ever met. I felt love and a little bit of guilt toward the well-intentioned duo, but was exhausted from the mutating-face interactions and needed a change of pace.
I was immediately drawn to the sunny carpet tower with cats lounging on it by the window. I stood a few steps away, and watched them lounging in the sun. What magical, majestic creatures. What hopeful beacons of life. They hung off of different platforms of the carpet tree, stretching their magnificent paws out to readjust themselves and recharge, so they could prowl nobly over their kingdom. I was feeling much less panicked than when I had to deal with people.
The people were secondary to the reign of the cats. As Nadine put it, "They are the stars of the show." I thought to myself: What were these strange flesh monkeys with giant teeth doing stomping around your home, opening up doors and being loud?
As I shared a cup of water with one of the sun-drenched kittens, he started telling me about the recent tragic death of Joan Rivers. It felt like he understood the fragility of life better than anyone I'd ever met. As I stared into his eyes, it became clear that he was Joan Rivers's reincarnation and that this great lady of comedy was letting me caress her all over, which felt weird and comforting at the same time.
I was a bit reluctant to manhandle these magical creatures, but Stephanie egged me on to approach one and began piling cats on me. One glided across the floor and climbed on the back of the chair like a walking carpet. How could I have been in a psychological war of attrition my whole life with these endlessly wonderful creatures?
I got as close to the tree as possible, to feel like I was part of the community. I was catching the attention of some of the customers, who were about as low-energy as the cats, but were shooting me disapproving looks. I noticed one guy sitting nearby with an awesome aura, so I pretended to read a cat book and talked to him for a bit.
He was wearing open-toe sandals and was diligently sipping the straw of an iced coffee while reading a book. He told me he had been a writer for a very long time, and that he had spent about $600 on vet bills for his cat because it kept shitting outside the box due to its digestive problems.
While he was talking, I daydreamed that he was from an imaginary dimension called Gork, where pickles were the main currency and this guy ran shit. Nobody fucks with him because he runs the most successful pickle farm in Central Gork—and has cousins who could send you back in time and make you shoot your own grandfather.
By this point, Stephanie and I had well overstayed the "short" interview we had arranged and decided to head out. I had abandoned any attempt to appear normal because the cats didn't give a fuck if my mind was on psychedelics. I said goodbye to the moving bricks, carpet tree, fountain, Nadine, and Yousseff, and stepped back into the real world.
Compared with the soothing, therapeutic air of Café des Chats, the street outside was a psychotically paced rat race. I wanted to tell them all to slow down. I don't know whether all cats have the ability to imbue that kind of wisdom to the world, but the eight cats in that magical little café on St. Denis definitely do, especially if you go on mushrooms.
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