There’s something so magical about finding something so unordinary inside of something ordinary. For some people, that is a pearl in an oyster. For others it might be finding a four-leaf clover in a field of greens. But when you live in New York City and have limited access to mother nature, you start finding magic in other places. Like bodegas.
Picture this, you’re walking into your favorite bodega to grab a bag of Flamin’ hot Cheetos. You freeze in your tracks, yank out your headphones and squint your eyes. Is that a cat sitting on the cash register? WTF!?!
Where did these cats come from? Why are they there? Do they sleep there once the shop closes at night? Are they fed? Do the owners even like having them there? Do the owners of the store consider them their pets? Do they bring them home with them? How do the customers react to seeing the cat? Are they excited or grossed out? Are they petting them or shouting “I’m allergic, asshole!”
Sarah Lohman, a culinary “historian, author, and public speaker” recently taught an online class called The History of Bodegas & Bodega Cats at Brooklyn Brainery. Lohman said that to understand where bodega cats came from, we have to go back 12,000 years ago. When some humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and started farming.
“When you start farming, that means that you are storing food for long periods of time… but the biggest shift is that humanity was now storing grain.” Lohman explained. “When you have big grain storage you begin to attract rodents, and if there’s a place that’s attracting rodents that means that it’s also attracting cats.” According to Lohman, humans welcomed the cats because it meant there were less rodents around. In fact, Lohman said that just the smell of cats can keep rodents away.
Lohman then introduced the idea of the working cat in New York City. No, not a cat with a briefcase, shiny loafers, and a tight work schedule. But instead, a cat that spends its days sleeping on a bag of chips and ensuring the store is clear of all robbers and rodents. (Static) All clear here chief. Over. (Static)
“In New York City, cats are considered the most effective solution to keep the rodent population down. They will never totally annihilate the Rodent population but they tend to keep it in control,” said Lohman. “When it comes to small businesses they’re considered a much safer alternative to poisons.”
When you’re stumbling down 36th Street after a long night out, you might wander into a bodega for some junk food and electrolytes. What you won’t expect is a black cat behind the counter. No, not behind the counter. Laying on top of it.
Shehab Jobah, the store’s cashier says that Shadow is a year and a half old. The cat lives at the bodega simply because he gets a lot of love. “They get a lot of love that not only one person can give. A lot of people come for the cats, and only for the cats. Some don’t even buy anything, they come to see him and then they leave. ” said Jobah.
Over the span of two minutes, Shadow has pranced, laid, sat, done tricks, eaten treats, sniffed mysterious gym bags, and investigated a pair of headphones on said counter. It’s clear this is his home and he owns it, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Jobah informs me that Shadow usually has a sidekick Casper, who wasn’t home when I visited. Damn it.
Shadow has the luxury of living and sleeping at the bodega full-time rent-free. Instead of offering his talents as a working cat, his cuteness and presence are enough to allow him to stay. “I consider him a friend instead of a cat,” said Jobah.
An ave avenue and a couple blocks down lives Gypsy.
Gypsy sat guarding the white claws and I immediately laughed, thinking it was a good choice. She must have heard my internalized laugh because she stared at me with her beautiful but terrifying green eyes and long thin white whiskers. I quickly glanced over to the Dipsy Doodles to show her I’m not a threat. Just here for some photos and questions.
The owner is short and simple about Gypsy. Gypsy is a good friendly cat, who doesn’t eat mice and sleeps at the bodega. She’s eight years old, adopted from a shelter, and likes to play a lot. “She’s always sweet when I come in here,” shouts a lonely customer before quickly purchasing a lottery ticket and running out of the store.
A little ways away lives Smokey. You’ll see Smokey before you even enter the store because he’ll be patiently waiting for you at the door with his paws gracefully inviting you to come in.
Mo Mahoub, one of the owners of the convenience store informs me that a different owner brought Smokey here as a kitty, and he is now four years old. He said that Smokey is a good friendly cat, and can sometimes be his best friend when he doesn’t poop behind the fridge.
Smokey is not only loved by Mahoub, but most of the customers who come into the store.
“Everyone loves him, he is now famous in this area,” said Mahoub. “Some customers don’t buy anything and just come to see the cat. Some come in surprised but happy to see the cat.”
Mahoub said Smokey tried the working cat life, but it wasn’t for him. “One day there was a mouse, and we showed him. He just sniffed it and walked away,” Mahoub laughed. Mahoub enlightened me that he considers Smokey both his friend and his pet, and sometimes takes him home with him.