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I tried to get work done in a cat cafe. I failed.

Dylan Matthews
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Over the summer, DC welcomed its first cat cafe: Crumbs & Whiskers in Georgetown. So, naturally, I decided to spend a day there to see if it was actually viable as a cafe. Obviously, there would be cats. But a cafe should also be a workable place for people to sit back, talk to friends, and — crucially, since I did this on a Tuesday — work on their laptops. My specific task on June 30, the day in question, was to finish this post, which argues that all the countries of Europe should band together and form a single country. I sought to explain the necessity of unlimited intra-EU fiscal transfers while surrounded by fluffy animals. I did not succeed.

Entering the cat cafe

DC is actually a bit behind the curve. The first cat cafe opened in Taiwan in 1998, and the idea took off in Japan, which has about 150 cafes now. Within the US, the idea has spread to Denver, San Diego, New York, Oakland, and Portland, Oregon, among other cities. "Cat cafes aren’t just about petting cats," the Washington Post's Maura Judkis explains. "They’re about connection and yearning, about Internet virality, about experiences vs. objects, pleasure vs. responsibility, permanence vs. ephemerality. But, okay, mostly they’re about petting cats."

I sort of doubted Judkis's judgment initially. The great thing about cats is they are usually indifferent to your existence. A cat cafe seems like it should succeed as a cafe, as a place to hang out and get work done while in the presence of cats. They won't demand your attention, and instead will provide a nice, productivity-conducive ambience. This was my hypothesis, and it was quickly falsified.

Crumbs & Whiskers is housed in a slim two-floor unit on Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest, just north of P Street. There's a reception area and a small hangout space on the first floor, while floor two consists of a single big, white room adorned with every cat toy you can imagine. There are feather teasers and fake mice and one of those balls-rolling-around-a-plastic-disk things. There's a lounge with a scratchable surface, and whatever these orb things are:

Cat orbs with cushions in them

Become one with the orb, kitty.

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If you're a fan of the Japanese cat-collecting game Neko Atsume, Crumbs & Whiskers is basically what LARPing it would look like.

Trying to work in the cat cafe

There are accoutrements for the humans, as well: a copy of The State comedian Michael Showalter's seminal book Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too, and this sign:

"I've got 99 problems no wait I have 99 cats please help me I can't stop."

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But as a cafe? You can get coffee and other drinks — but they have to be carried over from across the street due to health code concerns. There were a couple of chairs, but seating generally took the form of cushions on the floor and pillows for back support. It's great if you want to sit back, relax, and try to catch cats as they wander past you (though the official cafe rules beg customers "please don't pick up cats").

It's less great if you want to sit back, read a Kindle version of Glyn Morgan's The Idea of a European Superstate: Public Justification and European Integration, and consider the soundness of its arguments about the dangers of American unipolarity. Truth be told, I didn't even start reading it in the hour or so I spent on the second floor. I didn't even take out my laptop.

The main issue is the sheer number of cats involved. I honestly don't know how many I was expecting the cafe to have, but 25 still felt overwhelming:

So many cats

We are legion.

Dylan Matthews

When I arrived a little after 10 am, there were maybe 10 humans, both customers and staff members, for an astounding 2.5-to-1 cat-to-human ratio. A human staff member informed me that five cats had just come in that morning. A few calmly slept in perches where their friends couldn't disturb them, like this fella who got a prime spot on a bookshelf just under the ceiling:

Cat on bookshelf perch

This is basically a rent-controlled apartment. He will never give it up.

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Or gazed longingly out a window far from the humans:

Cat gazing out a window

A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view.

Dylan Matthews

But when you have 25 cats and 10 humans (and some of those humans are staff members who can't really hang out), you're going to be confronted by some cats. They will meow at you. Sitting back and working while soaking in the cat-infused atmosphere was not, to my chagrin, a viable option. You can resist petting them for a few minutes, but the human will is only so strong. Mine is even weaker. I fiddled with my phone briefly before giving in and accepting that this was not a working visit. This was dedicated cat time.

The cat hierarchy

Crumbs & Whiskers, like most cat cafes, gets its cats from a local rescue group, in this case the Washington Humane Society. All of the cats are adoptable. And odds are the cat you befriend will be snatched up another cat-hungry customer if you hesitate for even a moment.

Take Lady Godiva:

Lady Godiva on the stairs


Dylan Matthews

Godiva is friendly in ways that cats aren't supposed to be friendly. She willingly walked onto strangers' laps. She welcomed pets and belly rubs. She didn't bite or scratch at all. She let people violate the "don't pick up the cat" rule. And if that weren't enough, she has a long soft coat that wasn't matted at all. Godiva is a perfect cat. Unsurprisingly, she was adopted mere days after my visit.

Of course, only one person could have Godiva at a time (I never did, and am still bitter about it), and the other cats weren't pleased she was monopolizing the visitors' attention. Just look at Bobby's forlorn expression:

Bobby looks real sad

Hello. Is it me you're looking for?

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Trying to work downstairs

Godiva was on the first floor, to which I had returned after an hour in hopes of finding a more hospitable work environment. I did make a bit of progress — I roused myself enough to ask an employee for the wifi password (it's "isbutteracarb?") and wrote maybe 200 words — but ultimately I gave up all attempts at productivity there, too.

I thought the fact that I couldn't get my hands on Godiva would enable me to work. I could quietly hack away at my EU post while the other customers competed for her affection. But her fellow first-floor cats had other plans. They were wise enough to up their game in reaction to Godiva's formidable challenge. None of them were quite as warm and friendly, but they were willing to curl up next to you, like this guy did:

Pretty friendly cat

Those eyes.

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Between my attempts to woo Godiva and the entreaties from her rivals, I had to remain hyper-alert for my stay. The EU couldn't be allowed to distract me. Work would have to wait:

Slack exchange

I inform my colleague Max Fisher of my woes.

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My verdict

"It is a daily struggle," a wise woman once wrote, "for me to not buy more cats." If you know that feeling — if you yearn to give up your studio apartment and buy a ramshackle four-bedroom house out in the country and fill it with 20 cats — Crumbs & Whiskers is for you. It enables cat fanciers to experience what life would be like with a posse of two dozen fluffy companions without making them throw down for a home that could actually fit all of them, or scoop out the 20-odd cats' worth of excrement, or buy massive bags of cat food on a near-daily basis.

But as a cafe? Where you work and stuff? No way. Though it has wifi and power outlets and all the fixings, that is not what Crumbs & Whiskers is about. Learn from my mistakes: If you go, give up any ambitions toward productivity and expect to spend your entire visit interacting with cats. Don't fight it. Accept your fate.

Watch: The mysterious rise of the cat cafe

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