Chester, the year-old tabby, the wildest among all the resident toms, has also declared himself the band leader by a cat-coded decree. He gnaws at a ball of wool and picks up a fight with Mike, who has a much bigger build than him. Meanwhile, the more sedate residents, Bobby and Frisky, keep napping, probably overdosed on their afternoon catnip. Sitting inside an infinity shaped scratchpad, grumpy Doodle gives me the glares. He’s aloof, somewhat awkward, and exudes a don’t-mess-with-me vibe.

Doodle sleeping inside a cat pod. Photo: Subhasree Basu
Doodle sleeping inside a cat pod. Photo: Subhasree Basu

I’m at the Meow Parlour, Manhattan’s first cat commune, on Hester Street, for my half-hour feline fix. Here, over cappuccino, cupcakes and cuddles, I can chill, lounge and de-stress with my furry friends as much as I want to. Founded by pals and patissiers Christina Ha and Emilie Legrand of Macaron Parlour fame, the idea is quite simple: Pay and play with adoptable free roaming cats in a home-like setting without any long-term responsibilities. So you can come for as little as half an hour to just pet the rescued strays or even stay on for up to 5 hours “using the free Wi-Fi while a cat naps next to you". On a bad hair—or shall we say fur—day, however, you may have to shell out $8 (around 530) an hour for the privilege of sitting next to a moody feline, only to get the royal ignore.

The Manhattan skyline. Photo: iStockphoto
The Manhattan skyline. Photo: iStockphoto

For me, this is my first date in a cat café. And the unbridled feline company is worth dying for. When people call me the crazy cat lady, I consider it to be the highest form of flattery. I have grown up in a multiple-cat household and am arguably one shade short of being obsessed. So, on my recent vacation, I was clear in my mind that I wanted to befriend the felines of New York as much as its humans. Luckily for me, over a fortnight I discovered a handful—some famous and some not-so-famous ones, each as diverse as the neighbourhoods they call home. Living in the world’s largest melting pot of cultures, they were all true New Yorkers—distinctly individualistic yet cosmopolitan in their outlook, imbibing the very essence of this throbbing megalopolis.

Chinatown

There is something familiar and universal about Chinatowns the world over. And Hester Street has that similar messy, grimy template. The roads here do not criss-cross like they do on the Manhattan grid. The littered streets are crammed with eateries, the air heavy with the smell of boiling meat and noodles and a heady blend of incense. Middle-aged hawkers peddle cheap hats, fake Rolexes and umbrellas while old women play mahjong at street corners. Chinese women sell Brussels sprouts and ginseng as they haggle noisily with their customers. I feel immediately at home.

Chinatown is a quixotic address nestled between the equally garrulous precinct of Little Italy, the previously-industrial-now-Boho-chic Tribeca and the dominantly Jewish Lower East Side. The silent chambers of reflexologists and chiropractors share common boundaries with the bustling four-for-a-dollar dumpling places. In many ways, the cats at Meow Parlour too reflect this strange balance of calm and chaos.

When I arrive at the Meow Parlour, I am greeted at the reception by gentle Thumper, who extends his paws and makes me feel welcome right away. The café is all about cats—pug-marked cushions, wall brackets, cat trees, kitty friendly artefacts, posters, teaser wands, even a table with a tiny nook inside its belly where they can relax while visitors take a peek at them from the glass-covered top. An aproned staff member sits Lyle down on his lap and brushes his coat while a sprightly bunch of teenaged girls, our fellow visitors, go all mushy and giggly. Of late they have also started “Kitty Yoga classes", a unique way of combining your love for fitness and cat companionship. Afternoons are mostly reserved for children.

The café has its heart in the right place. “We also wanted to raise awareness about shelters and rescue cats, and that’s why all the cats at Meow Parlour are up for adoption," explains co-founder Legrand. Ample tabby servings apart, there is a “real" café for humans too just next door. “All the baked goods for Meow Parlour are produced out of our kitchen. As we’re both cat ladies in our personal lives, it is just a mix of work and pleasure." says Ha.

The Riverside Drive viaduct. Photo: iStockphoto
The Riverside Drive viaduct. Photo: iStockphoto

Midtown Manhattan

I have been “corresponding" with Matilda for over a month and I cannot wait to meet her. I ignore the pulsating energy of Times Square, where a million revellers are gobsmacked by the gigantic neon billboards. I outmanoeuvre the Broadway ticket hustlers, Elvis lookalikes, costumed Minnie Mouse and Spider-Man rogues plying tourists for money and take giant strides eastward towards The Algonquin Hotel, a city landmark. The 174-room midtown property that has been in business since 1902 has changed hands close to half a dozen times, but time stops once you enter through the swivel door. The dark mahogany lobby furniture, liveried waiters and attendants, a whisky bar—it’s a throwback to the gilded age.

At the reception is a cat tree where the resident feline mascot of the hotel and my new email girlfriend, Matilda, usually takes her power naps. Today she has chosen the luggage tray in an anteroom to retire to for the afternoon. So I wait patiently for her to wake up and secretly admire the old world elegance around me.

According to hotel lore, the tradition of keeping a lobby cat started sometime in the 1930s, when legendary actor and regular resident John Barrymore suggested that the owner, Frank Case, give his adopted cat a name. This was serious business. Being a regular lodge for a motley crowd of theatre, academic, literary and acting greats—from Harpo Marx to Dorothy Parker—no ordinary name would have sufficed. So Case chose to name the stray “Hamlet" after Barrymore’s celebrated stage role. Since then all resident male cats at the hotel have had the same moniker, and all the female cats have been christened Matilda (for reasons not known). Since 1990, Matildas have been given executive status at the Algonquin, with their own email, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some say they even have access to a deluxe suite. Their birthdays are always a bash, and a cocktail named after them has been introduced in the hotel’s Blue Bar.

Matilda has a sense of humour. My correspondence with her is peppered with “Please remember our less FURtunate FURiends", “PURRfect—I will be napping in anticipation", and much more. About an hour later, Matilda finally wakes up, stretches her limbs and saunters in to greet me in person. She is a gorgeous ragdoll, and I can’t help but notice how soft she is as I hold her in my arms. Matilda’s days are all about eating and napping. In between, she greets hotel residents.

Over the years, she has had a huge bunch of overseas fans like me who love to spoil her with gifts. Like the artist who painted a huge portrait of her or the woman from Japan who has made two custom-made lookalike dolls.

“Do you prey?" I ask, over email.

Her reply is almost instantaneous. “Because of me the hotel is rodent free!... There was a cockatoo in the lobby a few years ago in his cage waiting for his luggage—we almost became FURiends."

In most ways, Matilda embodies everything about Midtown: class, sophistication and a certain sense of history. With that glamour and poise, she could fit right into a neighbourhood Broadway musical. Sadly, after a session of life-changing cuddles, we have to say our goodbyes and part ways.

The Village

The legacy of Greenwich Village is best understood by taking a walking tour. On a balmy afternoon, I listen to interesting anecdotes from the counterculture high life of the Beat Generation that makes this irreverent neighbourhood so iconoclastic.

It has been the original stomping ground for Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan at rocking Café Wha? for nights on end while Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac sipped cocktails and read poetry at a smoky bar next door. A block away, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker blazed the Village Vanguard and the Smalls Jazz Club. Billy Holiday sang Strange Fruit at the now defunct Café Society, breaking all race barriers, and the spontaneous, violent riots outside Stonewall Inn in 1969 sparked off the fight for gay rights in the US.

This is the birthplace of cool, and the “villagers" remain quintessentially hip.

A few minutes from the Subway station, I find myself right in front of C.O. Bigelow, widely regarded as America’s oldest apothecary, founded in 1838. The feline legacy here is unique. There was once a resident cat here called Mr Bigelow, who weighed all of 18 pounds. His fans would feed him treats and talk to him, “sometimes to unbearable degrees", according to a store clerk. His death due to a tumour in 1995 warranted an obituary in The New York Times under the headline “Neighborhood Report: Chelsea/Villages: Mr. Bigelow, 18, Cool Cat, Poor Mouser."

He was succeeded by Rex, another rescued cat. But now there is Allegra, with the glossy black and white coat that looks like a tuxedo. She is sunbathing, sleeping in one of the shopping baskets. Utterly disregarding my enthusiasm, she ignores me throughout by not moving even an inch. A store help confirms the delicious irony: She is named after the anti-allergen medication since the current owner himself is allergic to cats. I continue to pet her and she continues to not give a damn—so typical of the Village!

The Stonewall Inn. Photo: Subhasree Basu
The Stonewall Inn. Photo: Subhasree Basu

Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island is a narrow strip of land between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens on the East river. With brick-layered apartment blocks on the northern side, the place lacks charm, but the 10-minute tram ride (cable car) that takes us there offers a spectacular aerial view of Manhattan. We take a walk on the road that loops across the southern perimeter to reach the serene Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the tip.

Just next door lie the ruins of what was once the Renwick Smallpox Hospital. Founded in the 1850s to keep infected patients far away from the city population but abandoned a hundred years later, the structure is now feeble, the concrete mostly covered with creepers with parts already giving in. I get an eerie feeling as I recall Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

Even then, it’s not hard to imagine what this imposing structure looked like in its heyday. I had read that there used to be a time when several feral cats roamed freely in these ruins. But the park got crowded over the weekends with day trippers. So a group of animal lovers—Island Cats—figured it was unsafe for them to roam so freely. Instead they built a safe cathouse on the island’s eastern edge where they are fed and neutered. We spent nearly an hour, but without much luck. By then, with frustration levels rising, we decide to pull out one last trick from our rucksack—cat calls, perfected at home, on our tabby.

It works. We suddenly see a mysterious tom staring right at us. But it’s a brief encounter. Highly suspicious of our motives, it slinks away within minutes, almost vapourizing into thin air, much like the ghostly surroundings of the island.

Harlem

Most tourists who have visited New York will tell you they haven’t been to any places north of Central Park. There is so much to see and do in the city that Harlem, which I personally found fascinating, is often neglected. Once the hotbed of African-American culture, there has been rapid gentrification of this large neighbourhood, with a steady influx of whites and Hispanics. The historic Apollo Theater, which launched the careers of James Brown, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder through its famed “Amateur Nights", may be the most quoted Harlem establishment till date.

And yet most are not aware of a house of unparalleled historical importance that stands here. The Morris-Jumel mansion in Washington Heights is a beautiful white structure that was built by Roger Morris, a British colonel, as his summer house in the mid-1700s. During the American Revolution (1776), when Morris went back to England, George Washington and his soldiers took over the building for a few weeks, but were subsequently defeated and had to abandon it. Later, the British returned and turned it into their headquarters. Today the area around the house is a historical district and has been home to eminent black personalities such as Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson. The Morris-Jumel house overlooks a cobbled street that was once the original carriage path to the mansion. Twenty row houses border this path; the area is called Sylvan Terrace. These houses have been restored to their past glory and look so flawless that they often double up as a period film set.

I feel the cold gaze of someone watching me as I admire the place. It is a white feral cat. He gently wags his tail and lures me towards the bushes, then makes an abrupt U-turn and plonks himself on the grass, as if urging me to take his photograph. His build is muscular and the pristine white coat matches the mansion’s exterior. He could very well be a regal part of the mansion itself. Who knows, in one of his nine lives he may even have been one of Washington’s war heroes.

Trip planner

Go

All the major international airlines fly daily to New York. Flight fares start at around 63,000.

Stay

There are so many neighbourhoods in New York and so many places to stay in, but be warned—they are all expensive. I found Airbnb to be better than a hotel. Living with a New Yorker host offers certain advantages, like the space to plan my itinerary according to my interests, find hidden local gems and avoid overrated touristy restaurants.

Eat

From budget meals in food trucks to expensive Michelin- starred spreads, New York has it all. Its cultural diversity manifests itself through the vast choices on offer. Skip the usual Chinese, Italian or Indian. Choose to sample Dominican, Cambodian, or a hearty Southern meal instead.

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CREATURES OF THE INTERNET

Love of everything feline in New York on the Web

Comedian Jim Tews started the hilarious website Felines Of New York , modelled after the now cult bestseller on human street portraits, only a little less serious. This site provides “interviews" of real cats from all over the city.

When asked by one of its 175,000 followers across social media platforms how he manages to collate such a fetching photo blog, Tew says: “A lot of people ask me how I get the cats to pose, or stay still the way they do in the photos, but I don’t really have a trick for it. I usually try anything I can: toys, laser pointers, begging. But I usually find that once the cat realizes your intent is to make it look good, they go along with the process. You have to appeal to the cat’s vanity, I guess."

Brooklyn couple Aja and Jack Dixon founded the fabulously curated online magazine Meow Quarterly earlier this year. Their exclusive photo shoots of fabulous “felines and cat stars on the rise alongside interviews with their dedicated humans" from Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Montreal and, of course, New York are as much of an Internet sensation as their subjects. “There are plenty of lifestyle photography sites that focus on topics like furniture and interior design, but none that simply focus on the centre of many of our lives—our cats", says Jack.

Aja sums up neatly just how cat-obsessed New York is through an interesting story. “Last night, we went to a New York City Instagram cat meet-up. In a nutshell, all of the people behind some of the bigger cat accounts met at a bar and had drinks and talked about their cats! It was pretty incredible. Two people tried sneaking their cats into the bar. One actually made it in, the other was turned away."

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