Bodega Cats: The Cuddly, Comforting Urban Touchstone

How these corner-store cats impact our day-to-day lives.
By: Michael Arbeiter
Bodega cat outside a store

Ducking into my block’s corner store at the dawn of a nasty storm, I find myself in good company. The store is packed with other forgetful twenty-somethings desperate at this late hour to piece together what might constitute an acceptable dinner. But the good company I’m really referring to is Gumbo.

Unbothered by the regular influx of customers to his bodega home, Gumbo snuggles contentedly between tin-can towers on a floor-level shelf in the pet-food section. Meeting eyes with the well-fed white and gray Shorthair, I bid him the usual, “Hello.” Reliably, Gumbo doesn’t commit to either behavioral polarity upheld by most of the domestic cats I’ve met—he doesn’t zoom away upon notice, nor does he demand my attention.

Instead, he asserts himself as true a New Yorker as any of the aging Eastern Europeans, suburbs-bred struggling artists, or other oddballs that make up our shared neighborhood—he barely notices me at all.

As any longtime resident of the five boroughs will confirm, Gumbo is by no means an anomaly. In fact, the “bodega cat” population was ushered into the corner-store canon to keep pests at bay. Any 24-hour market armed with a prowling tabby rides high on a vermin-free reputation.

Although the legality of housing an animal in a food store is murky at best, you won’t find many parties lobbying to rid their neighborhood shops of these long-tailed occupants. It’s not only the luxury of buying a package of noodles untouched by rodent paws that has warmed the general public to the bodega cat, but the charms of trading glances with a half-asleep fur ball during the otherwise ho-hum pursuit of buying a snack.

It’s a simple pleasure, but a powerful one. Powerful enough, as a matter of fact, to allot the bodega cat an extensive Internet presence. Digital culture has given way to a multitude of Tumblr pages devoted solely to celebrating the market dwellers, and the bodega-cat phenomenon has proven a reliable asset for websites like BuzzFeed, which alone has created half a dozen articles inspired by these food-store felines and their fandom. The Web even saw a bodega cat theme song go viral in 2014.

Gumbo himself carries great esteem in my sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood. The Jerusalem-born brothers who operate my favorite all-hours market dote upon him with adoration, happily working around wherever he’s opted to set up camp. The locals, too, know great affection for the plump feline. But Gumbo need not return the open tenderness to be regarded as a local celebrity—in fact, his standoffish demeanor only helps build up his stately status.

For regular grocery-store shoppers and big-box buyers, it may be difficult to understand why bodega cats are so dear to the hearts of New Yorkers and other city dwellers who have become accustomed to finding these felines perched on shelves or slinking behind cash registers. It’s not as though the average corner-store shopper plops down in the detergent aisle and enjoys a jubilant toss of the yarn ball.

“In earnest, the standard interaction with these four-legged tenants in any store isn’t much different than mine with Gumbo—quick, quiet, and decidedly withholding. But for some reason, these nightly encounters make all the difference.”

All any of us wants, really, is to stumble upon our fuzzy neighbor en route to dreamland—to meet his stoic eye, and connect for a fleeting moment. It’s as if he’s trying to tell us, “You’re doing your thing, I’m doing mine, but we’re all in this together. Now get your ramen and go—I’m trying to sleep.”

Image: Joshua Jo via Shutterstock