Dateline: Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Holiday Inn at Portland Airport Conference Center.
It's 4 pm at the New Culture Club International Cat Show, and the Bengals are furious. The judge lifts each cat and stretches it, measuring for length, and lifts its tail, measuring it for--honestly, I have no idea, but I'm sure it has something to do with its ability to spray a fine mist when horny--while the spotted, tigerlike domestic house cats growl, bare their fangs, arch their backs and hiss.
"Bengals are just kind of…bitchy like that," says one owner, whose cat sits growling in its cage, its paw extended, claws exposed, reaching blindly into an adjoining cage housing a particularly angry feline that looks just like its attacker. "They bitch when you pet them, and then they bitch when you don't pet them."
But it's hard not to notice the judge's outfit, and perhaps place part of the blame for the skeptical kitties on her decision to wear a fuzzy blazer that resembles the carcasses of their brethren. Her spotted fashion statement seems to be strike them as savage and, coupled with her insistence of examining their anuses (or whatever it is she's examining), the whole scene has come to a head. One cat snarls and takes a swipe at her. The owner is horrified, but the judge remains unruffled. She's done this before. With nary a drop of blood spilled, the cat is placed back in its cage before a winner is crowned.
To cat people, the International Cat Show is the equivalent of dropping an unaccompanied minor off at Santa's workshop. There are kittens, fat cats, Maine coons, Sphynxes, tabbies and every other manner of feline. It's enough to fuel 900 ballads by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Vendors peddle cat toys, bottles of wine with personalized cat labels, kitty sweaters and treats. In one corner, a woman sits, stoically working a loom to create cat-hair quilts. In another, a cute little kid spoons baby food into a hairless cat's mouth, its tiny tongue lapping the puree from an even tinier spoon with the vigor of Caligula enjoying a post-orgy feast (one attendee jokes the baby food was swiped from the event's food drive, which does incredible work for the Oregon Food Bank). The woman with the loom is asked about the difficulty of her craft. "It's just like knitting with real hair, but a little harder."
The Airport Holiday Inn is packed with a weird mixture of cat people, hipsters and hybrids of the two. Gossip's Beth Ditto lovingly strokes a tabby in the adoption area. A fedora-clad scenester gets giddy upon spying a scrunchy-faced kitten. A woman in an electric Hoveround sports a cat-emblazoned shirt that blends in perfectly with the room's psychedelic carpeting, which looks similar to the way paisley must appear after several doses of high-powered ecstasy.
There are kids in cat hats. Women in cat sweaters. "Cat flair," they call it, and without it, I am virtually naked. Every conversation I strike up is met with skepticism. But my trusty photographer and guide, Andrea (see photo below), is the Keymaster of Gozer. Her sparkly sweater is adorned with two snow-white kitties, and within two minutes of our arrival she has already earned the trust of perhaps the most guarded cat owner of the bunch, who identifies herself as "Mohawk's Mommy."
Mohawk is a Maine coon, the largest of domestic cat breeds, whose well-groomed fur takes on the appearance of brown, white and black cottonwood draped over its massive frame. A request to pet Mohawk is met with met with a prompt "No" by the owner. "He's already starting to smell like hand sanitizer."
But even as the denial is uttered, the owner picks up a bottle of Purell and squirts it into the photographer's hands, and she's soon stroking its soft mane.
Before we know it, Mohawk's Mommy goes on a tirade about the shamanic virtues of cats, and their deep connection to native American culture. This goes on for seven minutes. Her words run together as an announcer draws our attention to the six judging rings positioned on the west side of the room. But for seven minutes, Mohawk's Mommy has an audience, and wrings her hands together underneath the cat's massive body. We thank her. She compliments the photog's "cat flair."
"Cat flair." It's an all-access pass. Like showing up at Jiggles with Kid Rock, it's a license to fondle every pussy within eyeshot. As we peruse the rows of animals, we're met with choruses of "Cats rule!" and high fives. Before we know it, my trusty assistant is having cats thrust at her like a politician forced to smooch ugly babies in a receiving line. We stop to stroke Pixel, a pug-nosed cat wearing a sparkly tiara. I ask if she won.
In one corner of the room, kittens play with feathered toys. In another, a woman extols her cat, Granny, as liking younger cats. The pair is spooning neck-in-neck in the corner. Apparently, Granny has a bit of cougar in her genes, as the other cat is considerably younger. They're striving for the audience prize.
But they've got one thing to compete with: the George Clooney of cat shows, Stewie.
Stewie is the Guinness record holder for the longest domestic house cat in the world. Measuring 48.5 inches from head to tail's tip, the Nevada Maine coon towers over the world's shortest man, 18-year-old Nepalese citizen Kahagendra Thapa Magar, and is taller than the minimal height needed to be classified as a human dwarf. If he auditioned for the Mayor of Munchkin City in The Wizard of Oz, his excessive height would probably result in the lack of a callback.
Yet he's nowhere to be found. "Just look for the crowd," we're told by a stout, mustachioed man. We follow suit, stopping only for a few choruses of "cat flair!"
We find Stewie near the concession stand. The soft, docile beast stretches 46 inches from his head to the bone in the back of his tail, a trait his owner is more than happy to show by stretching the stoic creature across her entire arm span like a snake charmer showcasing a python. A very hairy python. It's easy to imagine this soft, gentle creature secretly unhinging its jaw and swallowing an infant whole, later hacking up its bones in a soggy, black-and-white cocoon of hair reminiscent of an owl pellet.
This thought comes as Stewie's owner, setting the slinky Maine coon on the overwhelmingly psychedelic carpet, tells us they're considering donating Stewie to a children's hospital as a therapy animal. It's a sweet gesture, but now wild myths run through my mind, thoughts of cats stealing the breath from sleeping cancer patients or stretching across an entire room to swallow a child. Surely, not this majestic beast, who spends his day lavishing in attention, being felt up by countless strangers, brushed lovingly, fed to his heart's content.
Stewie's owner tells us his stomach (!) is rumbling and he must eat. We turn and are greeted by a woman coddling a cat that looks like her spitting image, except with delicate fur. She places it on a table, lifts its tail and begins to stroke its nether-regions with a brush. Beside her, a long-haired ginger man kisses his cat on the mouth for a little longer than comfort allows.
I've had enough. The whole scene is getting too weird. They know I'm an outsider, with my cotton sweater and tepid reaction to the sight of a cat with a tiara. My photog's cat flair is starting to wear thin. I like cats, even love some them, but will never, ever be one of these cat people, not to this degree. We turn to leave, power-walking toward the door.
"OhmygodholyshitthatisthecutestfuckinganimalIhaveeverseenandIwanttospendtherestofmylifecuddling withit." The thought hits me immediately. The cat in front of me seems to have walked from a Hallmark card and into my heart. I reach to pet it, but soon it's cruelly whisked away.
Stunned, I walk toward the exit and my heart melts at the sight of the smallest kitten I have ever seen. It's a Bengal, no larger than the palm of my hand. It's dead asleep, oblivious to the large crowds that have gathered to ogle its tiny body, the culmination of all that is adorable in this world--as if somebody took all the cutest puppies, babies, flowers, bubble gum, cotton candy, buttons and chipmunks in the world, tossed them in a blender and poured the puree into a kitten mold. I debate stuffing it into my pocket, but can't muster the courage to disturb the cuteness.
At the exit I'm confronted with an area full of cats for adoption, and bolt before I grab an application, locking eyes with a cute little tabby for a moment. Two hours later, and I think I'm hooked on this scene. Am I one of these people? With the song "Memory" playing in my mind, I debate heading to this weekend's 47th annual Oregon Cats Classic, held in the same vicinity as the Collectors West Gun and Knife Show at the Expo Center.
I'm going to need to stock up on cat flair. And, if I start to resemble a cat, one of those guns might be necessary so I can take the coward's way out.
GO: The 47th Annual Cat Classic takes place at the Portland Expo Center, 2060 N Marine Drive. 10 am-5 pm Saturday, 9 am-4 pm Sunday, Feb. 5-6. $8 adults, $5 seniors/students, kids under 6 free. $20 for families. Two bucks off admission with two cans of cat of cat or dog food.