As soon as I walk up the stairs and sit down, Augusta comes up and tries to sit on my lap. Cream and gray and luxuriously soft, she nuzzles against my face. She has no idea what's about to happen when the doors open in five minutes to Catitude Cat Cafe, the first such endeavor in Columbia.
"It's my birthday and one of my best friends ... wanted to take me to my favorite things in the world: coffee and kitties," USC art history professor Elizabeth Petit said.
Petit has two cats of her own, Monkey and Cricket, but others at the grand opening either had allergic family members or weren't allowed to have cats in their apartments.
While playing with Creamsicle, a young tabby, third-year media arts student Jordan Mullen couldn't stop from cooing.
"You are just the snooziest little baby and I love it," she said. Her husband is allergic so she doesn't get to play with cats very often.
Both Petit and Mullen were pleased to get a discount — students, teachers and other public servants all get $5 off the $15 entrance, which includes a cup of coffee or tea.
Jaime Andres Ortega, co-owner of Catitude, said that recognizing people who contribute to society is part of his mission, in addition to helping cats find "forever homes." He's partnered with Pets Inc. to bring in rescued cats, and all the cats are adoptable. They currently house 20 cats.
Ortega, a recent USC graduate, came up with the idea to start a cat cafe while traveling for his former job. He missed his girlfriend Maria Garcia Riopedre and her cat, he said, so he'd go to cat cafes in larger cities across the United States.
One night in July, Ortega and Riopedre saw a homeless litter of kittens in a dumpster by Sonic.
"At that point it hit me that this is something that I wanted to do" Ortega said. "A man only gets so many opportunities in his lifetime to make a real change and I felt that this was one of them so I took it." He turned in his notice the next day. Riopedre is still a visual communications student at USC, but they've worked together for months to get the cafe ready to start business.
Adding a special significance to the grand opening, Ortega proposed to Riopedre as they were officially unlocking the front doors. The line burst into applause.
"We're going to change the lives of thousands of cats," he said. "And it gives me the opportunity to be closer with her and closer with her cat."
Catitude Cat Cafe is open at 118 State St. from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.