Before last Thursday, I had no idea that Grumpy Cat was coming to San Francisco. And if someone had told me that less than 24 hours after learning about her impending arrival I would be in a conference room trying to ask her questions and sweating profusely, I wouldn't have believed it. I would have also been wrong.
To be quite honest, I'm not a fan of Grumpy Cat. I enjoyed the meme at first, just like everyone else, but as the feline's popularity grew and she became a household name — appearing everywhere from t-shirts to her very own book — I became annoyed; and when one of my friend's children proclaimed themselves to be Grumpy Cat at dinner before violently stamping on my foot (apparently something grumpy cats are known for) I was done. So when my own partner, the man whom I've been keeping company with for the past seven years, announced that we were going to meet Grumpy Cat at a department store, I told him I had no intention of going. I also began wondering if he might have suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury because, before last week, Allen had never alluded to being interested in forming mutually satisfying relationships with cats.
I've actually always thought that Allen hated cats. He refused to adopt one — his reasoning being that two cats fighting during the night was a bad omen that could only be thwarted by throwing mustard seed at them — and he'd never shown any particular fondness for them, once even shouting "No, Kitty! Get away, Kitty!" in alarm at a strange cat that was trying to weasel its way into his lap. But two weeks ago he saw an ad for the Grumpy Cat movie — a movie! — and he was hooked.
"Haha," he said out loud when the commercial for Lifetime's latest programming for women came on, "I'm not going to see that stupid movie." But then Grumpy Cat started speaking and Allen quieted down considerably, muttering an aggrieved "OK OK, I'll watch it" at the television before programming the film to record. That was bad, but his Grumpy Cat fever got much worse on the day the cat arrived in SF. "I am going to see Grumpy whether you like it or not," he texted me. "And I am going to get her signature for the bucket o' cats."
What the fuck, I wondered, is a bucket o' cats? More importantly, I wondered, what else don't I know about Allen? Is he leading a secret double life? Does he have a second family he goes to on the nights he claims to go to the gym? So I began to ask him some difficult questions.
Here's just a short list of things Allen has kept from me besides his interest in Grumpy Cat: He owns stock in El Pollo Loco, he reads the articles on LinkedIn and, each quarter, one team of engineers at his place of employment is singled out and awarded the highly coveted bucket o' cats, which is literally a bucket filled with pictures of cats that the champions proudly display and add to. For Allen, Grumpy's photo was an important get — one that would earn him both the esteem and respect of his colleagues. As long as it was signed, of course.
Not the actual bucket o' cats.
Grumpy Cat wasn't in town for pleasure. She was here to claw at the ribbon of the SF SPCA's annual holiday windows at Macy's. The windows, which are up the entire holiday season, allow passerby to look into the department store's windows and gush over the "kitties" and "doggies" available for adoption. The kick-off event would start at 5, with Grumpy presiding. At 6, those who wished to have an audience with the cat herself would be ushered by, allowed to take a picture and say a few words to her highness. These adoring fans would also learn about Grumpy's new movie — I was reminded several times that it was premiering on Lifetime and starring the inimitable Aubrey Plaza — and possibly get a novelty pin, while supplies lasted. I wasn't going to wait in line, so I asked my editor if I could meet Grumpy as a member of the press. Surprisingly, she said "OK."
One Wikipedia search and a call to Grumpy's manager (manager!) Ben Lashes later, I found myself on the press list — "I'M ON THE PRESS LIST FOR GRUMPY CAT OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!!!" I typed in the staff chat room — and suddenly very nervous. I was going to meet a celebrity cat. What the fuck was I going to ask it? Would I be expected to talk to the cat directly? What the hell does one even wear to such a thing?
I immediately called Allen at work to tell him of our good fortune (he got on the list, too!) but was immediately stonewalled. He was being pulled into a meeting and wouldn't be out until the press event had been over for more than an hour. I was going to have to meet the cat by myself. I had counted on Allen to come prepared with questions because I know he's the type of person who will hold a conversation with an animal (being voiced by a human) without flinching, but now I was on my own. NOW I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO COME UP WITH QUESTIONS MYSELF. I started panicking.
Then the emails started coming in: One from the event coordinator (I was being moved to the top of the press list), another from the PR person. I was told where to go, what to push, who to talk to. I was told that I'd get five minutes of Grumpy Cat's time to ask anything I wanted. I was told that under no circumstances was I allowed to hold or even touch Grumpy. "Can I ask to touch her ?" I wondered aloud when I was on my way to actually meet the cat, flanked by her PR person.
The last thing Allen had told me to do before he went to his meeting was to make sure to get the cat's signature.
"The autograph is very important," he said. "I need it for the bucket o' cats."
"I don't think cats can sign things," I told him.
"Maybe she will. Maybe it just costs money," he said.
"I'm not going to offer to pay for the signature. I don't think that's in the rules, bucket o' cats or no."
"Well, maybe they have like a stamp," he said. "Maybe it's a stamp and she just touches it. Or they could just dip her paw in ink. I bet that's what they do."
"I don't think the cat signs things. If I'm not even allowed to touch the cat, how am I going to ask for her fucking signature?"
"Please don't swear about Grumpy Cat," Allen said. "I am on the company phone. And I really need that autograph. Goofy does it at Disneyland. I have his signature. Pluto's, too."
A short and uncomfortable cab ride later — the driver asked me where I was going, I told him I was on my way to interview a cat and we lapsed into a silence that was not at all companionable — I am in front of Macy's, surprised by the fact that there's already a line forming three hours in advance and wishing I had spent the trip thinking of questions for Grumpy instead of buying a phone charger I saw advertised on Deadspin (38% off!). The crowd will do the work for me, I decide. This will be a piece about the people.
The line to meet Grumpy is more diverse than one might imagine. I had expected mostly teenagers and people who, like me, had been dragged by partners or were there ironically, but there are all types: Several couples, a woman with platinum blonde hair screaming into her phone in an unidentifiable European language (I could only make out "Grumpy" as she reeled off a passionate rant), a tall, angry-looking man in a puffy jacket. I approach a straight couple standing at the head of the line.
"Hi, I write for Jezebel and have a few questions about Grumpy Cat for you!" I say as cheerfully and non-threateningly as possible.
"What kind of questions?" The man asks. He looks like he is nearing 40 and is clearly there with his wife or girlfriend.
"Like, did you plan to come here or was this a spur-of-the-moment thing?" I ask, trying to sound as nonjudgmental as possible. "And do you mind if I record this?"
They say yes, but clam up as soon as I start taping. The only things I learn about them are that they're from San Francisco, have loved Grumpy for a long time and think that standing in line waiting to meet her for three hours is reasonable. I also learn that they prefer Grumpy to Lil' Bub and do not have any knowledge of Princess Monster Truck who, in my opinion, is the best celebrity cat.
Princess Monster Truck and Lil' Bub.
Listening back to the recording makes me cringe, because I sound like I'm interrogating them, letting them know that their passion for internet felines is not okay and that they need to justify it to me. What the recording speaks to is not their discomfort with being there, but their discomfort with being there with me, someone who is clearly not on board and is snickering on the inside; an interloper into their world of whimsy. My voice is loud, theirs are muffled by the traffic.
"What do you like best about Grumpy?" I ask the pair in a last-ditch effort, having shut off the recorder and hoping for some kind of short answer I can use. This is the best idea, I think. I just need short soundbites and then I can go.
"His smile," responds the woman. "I like his smile."
"Grumpy doesn't really smile," I say. "I don't think that's what she's known for."
"She means his frown," Her husband/boyfriend says. "Or her frown. I didn't know that the cat was a girl." He turns to his partner. "Did you?"
I move on.
Grumpy Cat's beautiful smile.
The next people I speak to are a foursome of girls who I assume to be teenagers but are actually women in their late 20s and early 30s. They're also not a group but two pairs who met in line and bonded over their love of Grumpy's demeanor. At least one of them has heard of Jezebel and tells me that she likes the site. They agree to talk to me.
One woman is here to show Grumpy a dress she's designed. She lets me take a photo of it. She also wants Grumpy's signature on the sketch, although neither of us are exactly sure how the cat is supposed to sign things.
She also had a halloween sketch back at the office.
Not to be outdone, another woman shows me her leggings. "Look at this," she says, kicking out a little.
I'm legally blind and have no idea of why she's thrusting her foot at me, so I put my face within roundhouse range and examine the entire area, looking for something that suggests that Grumpy was here. I find it on the calf: A dreamy silkscreen of the cat's signature "smile."
I take a picture.
"I'm actually about to go meet Grumpy," I tell them. "I can't hold her, but I can ask questions." Everyone is appropriately impressed. Finally, some cred. When I had told my friends that I was going to meet Grumpy Cat, they had laughed (even Kelly Faircloth, my colleague and Jezebel's foremost cat expert instant messaged me something about shaking her head), but these women were with it; they were actually jealous; they wanted to tag along.
"I can't take you with me," I say, "but if you have a question for the cat, I can ask for you."
They have two questions:
1. Considering all the good work that Grumpy does and the fact that she was a rescue cat, does she (or her owners) think that she's influenced the adoption of other cats with special needs?
2. What does Grumpy say to all the haters?
"You know, the people who say that she shouldn't be traveling around the country and that her owners are not letting her live a healthy life."
Oh. Those haters.
I want to say that along with not being able to sign things, cats can't actually speak, but I keep my mouth shut because I don't want to burn bridges with the only people I've made friends with in line. Perhaps they'll let me cut with them later, when I pick Allen up from work and come back to meet Grumpy as a member of her adoring public.
I take two elevators and find myself on the eleventh floor of Macy's Union Square. I meet several Macy's reps and am ushered into a maze of cubicles, something I had no idea existed within the store. It's all fairly gray and I'm suddenly struck with a feeling approximating malaise. I am here to interview a cat. It started out as a joke and now it's actually happening. And everyone is taking the entire thing so seriously that I want to take it all back and go home. I'm sick and have a slight fever. I could use that as an excuse.
The cat is running late. "Grumpy Cat's been delayed" is how the PR person puts it. She's beautiful and impossibly thin and not very interested in anything but giving me a tip sheet. She tells me that everyone's really excited about the movie and asks me if I know what I'm going to use my time to talk to Grumpy about.
"Uh, I guess I should ask about the movie," I say.
"That's a great idea," she smiles.
I'm led to a waiting area, an open space with two chairs. Nearby, several people with cameras are chatting and setting something up.
"Is that also press?" I ask, thinking I should go mingle with others who are here to interview the cat.
"Those are Grumpy's people," she responds. I knew Grumpy had a manager and a PR person, but I didn't know she had people. Lady Gaga has people, Britney Spears has people, but a cat?
I sit down. I wait. I livetweet the event.
The PR person comes back and reminds me not to touch the cat.
"Do you have any ideas about what you're going to ask?" she asks again.
"Do I have to provide a list of questions?"
"No, we just want to have a general idea of the kind of topics you're going to ask about. The movie, that kind of thing."
"I guess I won't ask the cat about the situation in the middle east," I tell her. She laughs, but both of us know that my joke was a complete dud. (Thanks, Obama!)
"I'm going to ask about the movie and then the fans outside had some questions for her." I say.
I wait another few minutes. In total, Grumpy cat is now eight minutes late. #Diva
The PR person is suddenly back and excited. It's time. Once again, I am nervous. What if Aubrey Plaza is here? What will I say to her?
Aubrey Plaza is not in the small conference room I am led into. There are only a few camera people (please god don't be making a documentary), Grumpy's manager Ben Lashes (who is wearing an awesome leather jacket), Grumpy's owners and the cat herself, in a special Lifetime-sponsored cat bed in between them. There is also a table of snacks, but I am not invited to enjoy one (which is fine, because I can't really eat in front of celebrities).
Not interested in your bullshit.
A chair is pulled out for me and the executive producer of Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever joins us. I immediately forget his name because now that I'm sitting across from Grumpy Cat I am starstruck. She's right there! She's real! She's not really moving at all! (I knew I wasn't going to get anyone a signature.)
I was promised five minutes with Grumpy but I get 3:43, not counting the time it takes for me to take two pictures with her.
If Grumpy doesn't look pleased to be here, it might be because her owner, Tabatha Bundesen and Tabatha's brother Bryan, don't seem exactly thrilled to be in the room, either. It's not that they're unpleasant — on the contrary, they are very, very nice — but they seem tired and like they want to take a break instead of answering my inane questions.
And my questions are very inane:
- How is Grumpy handling her fame? Well.
- What was it like working with Aubrey Plaza? "Great," Tabatha says, throwing me a pained glance that suggests she is done with me, not with the actress.
- Do I call the cat Tard or Tardar...? Neither. The cat is only referred to as Grumpy Cat, Grumpy or Ms. Grumpy. I don't ask whether she's still known as Tard at home or whether that particular name has been retired, although I had planned to. I had actually planned two hard-hitting questions, but don't have the nerve to hold Grumpy's feet to the fire. She just seems so fragile.
- Why can't anyone touch Grumpy? Because that would just be too much for her. One or two people is fine, but then everyone at a given event wants to touch her and she's not really built for that, even though she really likes people.
- Is she really grumpy? No, she is very loving.
- Is she always this docile? No, she loves to play with the other cats that Tabatha owns.
- Speaking of other cats, is her brother here? Pokey is not here, but both Tabatha and Bryan know that people love him. "People love him because he's an asshole," I say. "That's what I read on Twitter." He's very rambunctious, I'm told. Diplomatic.
- Is Grumpy always this docile? Yes. Again.
At this point, I am interrupted by the PR person, who tells me I have time for just one more question.
I ask two:
- Are you excited about the movie? Yes.
- Considering all the good work Grumpy does and all the attention she's received, do you think she's influenced an increase in the adoption of cats with special needs? Grumpy has influenced an increase in adoptions. No one has statistics about the special needs part.
"That was a question from a fan," I say, letting the room know that I am a man of the people. Everyone smiles politely. The PR person inches closer towards my chair, probably willing me out of my seat.
"Can I have a picture before I go?" I ask.
I stand next to the cat, but I do not touch her. There is nothing I want to do more. I suddenly understand what Eve must have felt like in the garden of Eden, because jesus christ, all I want to do is reach out and pat its fur. And then I want to go downstairs and shake hands with everyone in line so they know I touched Grumpy Cat. I want to go to Allen's work and put my hands all over the bucket of cats. "I don't have a signature for you," I want to tell his team, "but here's a little bit of Grumpy's DNA. I touched that cat. I touched her for you." I want this to be part of my Grumpy Cat narrative so very, very badly.
I don't touch the cat.
Just a couple of kittens, out on the town.
Ben Lashes tells me that Ms. Grumpy will be back in January and says he'll let me know about it. He hands me two Grumpy Cat pins and reminds me to enjoy the movie. I am ushered out.
In the elevator, I speak to a security guard who's concerned about the people outside. He's seen events get rowdy. He's here to keep the peace. No trouble will happen on his watch. No one will touch the cat.
I'm secretly glad this man was not in on my interview with Grumpy Cat. I was thisclose to touching her. I could be being arrested right now.
"What was the cat like?" He asks.
"It's a cat, you know?" I say. We are in the elevator alone and I'm honest for the first time since I got here. I don't tell him I love the cat or that the cat is a huge source of inspiration (something I now vaguely recall saying to someone in a fit of anxiety). I'm pulling back the curtain for him.
"So you must have won a contest to be here," He says. "What'd you do?"
"I'm actually here to write about her," I respond. "I interviewed her."
"That's your job?" He asks. I want to tell him that's only part of it —most days, I also look for disgusting things on the internet — but we are interrupted by the arrival of others.
Outside, I spot the woman who designed a dress for Grumpy and give her one of the pins. She holds it up and squeals in gratitude.
"How was it?" She asks. "Did you ask what Grumpy says to all the haters?"
"No, but I took a picture. Do you want to see?"
She does. They all do. The couple I first talked to, the platinum blonde with the foreign accent, the angry man in the puffy jacket. They crowd to the front of the barricade they're behind and peer at the photo.
Ten minutes later, I meet Allen and ask him if he wants to go back and wait in line to meet the cat.
"What does she do?" He asks. "Is she signing things?"
"She doesn't really move," I tell him. "That's part of her charm."
I show Allen the picture and ask if it's good enough for his bucket o' cats.
"A signature would have been better," he says. He thinks that people will pay for signatures. Allen thinks that Grumpy's autograph is an untapped resource in a viable market; but he doesn't want to go meet her if she's not really doing much.
"Did you expect her to talk?" I ask.
"Why not? They could record something and have it play every time someone came up to her, like 'no' or 'go away, human.' That would be fun! I would go for that." But he won't go just to take a picture.
On the way home he agrees to drive past Macy's so I can see how many people are in line. Between the time I arrived and an hour later, the line has grown from 20 people to over 100. It stretches down one whole block and halfway down another. I speculate that many of these people won't get to meet Grumpy, because she's only going to take pictures for an hour."There are so many people," Allen remarks. "Do they know she doesn't do anything?"
I remind him that he was the one who wanted to meet her in the first place. Again, the desire to tell him "I did this for you. For you." wells up within me. But I'm too exhausted and feverish for dramatics.
"I hope the movie is good." Allen says after a long silence. "I won't like her anymore if it isn't."
I resist the urge to maim him.