“No, no one’s allowed to touch it. It’s a million dollar cat.”
The cashier attaching my wristband is kind of frazzled, and fair enough. Normally he sells books, but today he is tasked with containing the bizarre furor that is internet fandom. A line of people snakes through the Chapters Indigo shop in Toronto Eaton Centre, starting at the central staircase and making its way through the Religion and Spirituality, Politics, Health and Wellbeing, and finally, Kids’ section. People started queuing at 7am. It’s 2pm now. Hundreds of people have gathered to meet Grumpy Cat.
Grumpy Cat, I need hardly explain, is a two year-old mixed breed cat with a perpetually dour facial expression due to feline dwarfism. She became “internet famous” after her owner Tabby Bundesen posted a photo of the cat looking unimpressed to Reddit in September of 2012. A regular cat in real life and one of the world’s most popular memes online, Grumpy Cat enjoys sleeping on her back, staring out windows, and playing outside. Her favorite foods are tuna and Starbucks coffee cake. She is a New York Times best-selling author.
I have been in line for a little over an hour. The store is playing a jazzy cover of The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” I’m a picker. I’m a grinner. I’m a lover, and I���m a sinner. And I am the kind of person willing to wait several hours indoors on a summer-y Saturday to meet an internet-famous cat. The droves of security staff, imported specially for the event seem equally incredulous. “Sorry about the crowd,” they tell Indigo’s regular customers. “It’s for a cat. It’s like, a cat that looks kind of grumpy. Yeah, a real cat. I can’t believe it, everyone wants to meet this angry face cat!”
And they do, they really do. Many are decked out in homemade or specially purchased cat memorabilia, preferably related to the meme, but just about any cat paraphernalia will do. One woman shows us a painting she made of Grumpy Cat. It normally hangs above her friend’s cat’s litter box. She has brought it with her today, so presumably that space is empty at present. A guy in a “NO.” T-shirt looks enviously at another T-shirt option: “Ohhh that is a good one, YOLO? STFU. Hilarious.” People have come from outside downtown, outside the city, outside the province, even. I hear one woman wondering if they will have any trouble at the border on their way back home.
My friend Stephen joins me in line, sandwiched between Religion and Politics. No one freaks out about him cutting the line when he promises he’s not going to meet the cat, just to wait it out with me. He asks a few people around us if they do this kind of thing often. “What else is like this?” they ask in response.
Like everyone else I am wearing a ridiculous yellow wristband, as if we’re all headed to an out-door music festival, and not forty feet away to look at a cat for a minute. A security guard walks down the line, advance briefing us on Our Lady Grumpy Cat’s arrival. “Everyone please have your phones ready, flashes OFF, okay? You will hand your phone to one of the handlers and they will take the picture for you. You are absolutely not allowed to touch the cat. Please have your phone or camera ready before you get up to the front so we can keep this thing moving.”
A man near me notices his phone battery is low. He looks like he is going to pass out. The amiable crowd scans the room for outlets, and suddenly he is plugged in, sucking power from the wall like it’s an IV full of vital medicine. The crowd is giddy; there is a palpable hum of excitement. Kids and middle aged people and twenty somethings—many of whom have come alone—socialize freely, trading stories about how they “got into” Grumpy Cat. The crowd is pretty diverse, the most heavily represented demo being “novelty T-shirt fans,” a category whose appeal extends beyond one gender or race. Some of the crowd have met other internet cats. A few compare stories of encounters with Lil Bub, a famous cat from Brooklyn. Someone thinks they saw Princess Monster Truck through a window in New York.
When I tell Stephen I think I saw the back room where they’re keeping the cat, all heads near me turn: “You mean she’s here? You saw her?” I sheepishly tell the people around us that I just saw a big crowd and presumed. I can’t confirm or deny Her presence.
Stephen, unconcerned about battery life because he’s not waiting to take the most important selfie of his Internet Career, looks up Grumpy Cat on knowyourmeme.com. We learn that she is from Arizona, and that her life was changed in a matter of hours, after redditors and other inter-net users started photoshopping captions onto the original picture. Apparently she is not the first cat to be called “Grumpy Cat,” an idea that, according to the site, “has been associated with pictures of scornful looking cats prior to this instance.” We also learn that Grumpy Cat has a Friskies endorsement deal, self-titled line of iced coffee drinks (“Grumppuccinos”) and a feature-length film in development. She once graced the cover of New York Magazine, and her manager also manages Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat.
The best information we glean in line rather than online, from a friendly woman a few places ahead, who seems to be something of a casual expert on internet cats. My favorite fact about Grumpy Cat is that before she was famous, her name was “Tard.”
Apparently Tard’s owners insist that her full name is “Tardar Sauce,” spelled that way, and that Tardar Sauce is both a real name and not something they invented at the last minute when they realized they had an offensively-named goldmine on their hands. (“Grumpy Cat Limited,” a company formed some time before the end of 2012, has an estimated value of $1 million.) Our new line buddy also tells us that Grumpy Cat has an “even grumpier” brother named Pokey, who I guess is at home, not being famous and running around outside like a regular cat. When I ask her how she knows so much about Grumpy Cat she shrugs and says, “Life.”
All of a sudden the crowd goes silent and the sound of microphone static slides into a voice. “We’re a lot more used to introducing human guests,” the voice says. Everyone laughs, but kind of impatiently. We’ve accepted the premise that we are meeting an animal author. We want our limited edition “paw-tographed” books (there are only 1,300 in Canada!), and our selfies, please, so let’s get on with it. “So without further ado, let’s have a big Canadian round of applause for Grumpy Cat!”
I don’t know how they shimmy the cat past the crowds, only that by the time I reach the front, she is already there. The line snakes through discounted books and I see that the crowd of camera phones in line is matched by an unofficial, non-line crowd stationed near the front, craning their necks and zooms to try to capture the magic for themselves. Grumpy Cat is completely asleep, and will remain so for the duration of her appearance.
Everyone hushes as they move forward in the line, most going totally silent as soon as the tiny, sleeping cat comes into view. Somehow, she is even smaller in person than on the screen of my phone. It is very jarring. So is the entire business of “meeting” a meme, really.
Memes, after all, are popular ideas that change and spread, seemingly adopting a life of their own, when usually they do not (unless you’re a living cat.) They are a sounding board for our thoughts and feelings, a starting point for showing off how clever we are, how tuned in. We let Condescending Wonka rip into our coworkers via Facebook post with a brutal honesty we were too afraid to employ in person. We diffuse the sting of a break up with Forever Alone. When we don’t know what to say, we doge. We post a picture of a Grumpy Cat and we feed on her likes as they become our likes, our ideas—we’re so clever.
But the idea of a comically morose cat and the reality of this sleeping, breathing animal are very different, and I’m startled to find the idea of the cat more dynamic. Tard IRL feels less like real life than Grumpy Cat online.
The woman in front of me is shaking with adrenaline. She turns to her brother to do something the internet might classify as “squee” before he heads up for his shot. It looks like she is going to cry. It’s possible that she does, but she is gone before I can tell for sure. When it is my turn I hand a man my phone, and he takes exactly one picture, this picture:
I walk away from the cat and the crowd and her handlers, and the line continues to advance to-wards the little dwarf body asleep in her basket. She will be there for at least a few hours; everyone in line is guaranteed a picture. As I walk out into the mid-August sun with a small, kitschy book in my hands, I check myself for signs of impact: had the encounter done or meant anything? If not to me, what had it meant to the other people in line? Had we all stood in line for hours for a few extra likes, or was the cat somehow tapping into something deep within us, something bigger than a few seconds beside a web persona? I push these thoughts out of my mind and immediately Instagram a photo of myself with a celebrity cat.