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The story of H Street NE has been told and retold. A once-thriving commercial district, scarred by the riots that rocked Washington in 1968, wrestled with violent crime and deep poverty in the decades that followed. Another shot at vitality eventually came, but not without a catch: New businesses wrought a cultural overhaul, replacing the strip’s hollowed-out storefronts with shiny, quirky new establishments, releasing the scent of craft beer and gourmet dining like a pheromone to an outside middle class. It has not always been a smooth transformation: Shop owners complain of a hostile takeover, journalists wax nostalgic over what was lost.
But of all the changes that have come to H Street NE in the past decade, perhaps the least controversial was the story of Al the cat.
Al, the orange tabby that made his home in the burlesque club formerly known as Palace of Wonders, found a new life on H Street. Josh Copeland, the bar’s first general manager, remembers the day during construction when he glanced down and noticed two stray cats on the patio at 1210 H St. NE in 2005, almost a year before the business opened. Sideshow performer Jill Fyre, also known as Thrill Kill Jill, decided to give them names: She called them Al and Jeanie, after the 1930s sideshow figures Al “The Tallest Man in the World” Tomaini and Jeanie “The Half Girl” Tomaini.
The two cats returned, again and again, and employees of the yet-to-be-opened club and neighboring bar The Red & the Black started leaving food for them. Copeland found a home for Jeanie, but Al stuck around. That wasn’t a problem for the staff. At the time, foot traffic on the strip wasn’t as bustling as it is now, and Al helped make shifts bearable when business went soft. “It made work so great, because we would be dead,” says Lauren Waggner, who tended bar at both venues in 2006 and 2007. “Nobody was going down there back then.”
Palace of Wonders employees began to outfit the cat in feather boas and top hats. They let him “count”—or roll around in—the cash at the end of the night. Al had the run of the Dime Museum upstairs. Museum curator James Taylor wasn’t too fond of that, says Red & the Black’s former general manager Matt Brown, but he tolerated the tabby as long as he didn’t piss on anything. He often did anyway.
Employees say they never saw Al as a nuisance. His personality charmed the staff: He fell asleep on empty beer boxes, cozied up to ladies’ purses, and only drank water with ice. And he repaid the hospitality by trapping vermin. “We were the only bar on the whole strip that didn’t have any rodent problems,” says Matt Burger, a former bartender. Still, by the winter of 2006 into 2007, Al was not a permanent resident—he had to leave after last call. Burger remembers the night that began to change.
“It was two in the morning or something on a Tuesday night,” says Burger. “It was 35 degrees out and rainy, and we said, ‘We can’t put Al out in this.’” He and coworker Chris Henry left the cat inside. They got two-thirds of the way home before he received a call from bar owner Joe Englert. The club’s alarm was going off, he said. The cat was tripping up its motion detector. When Burger returned and put Al out in the rain, he knew it had to be the last time. He said to Englert—who knew nothing about Al until then—“‘Look, if we’re going to pretend that this is our bar cat, then we need to make him our bar cat.’” They stopped paying the bill for the alarm system.
In 2007, Englert sold Palace of Wonders to Jeremy Pollok, Erik Bergman, and Eric “Bernie” Bernstrom, owners of Mount Pleasant bars Tonic and Radius. That was a distressing time—employees’ jobs were potentially on the line, but more important to some, Al could lose his home. Burger remembers approaching Bernstrom one night before the transition. “I was really worried,” he says. “I was like, ‘What are we going to do about the cat?’” But Bernstrom told him he had little cause for concern: The contract he’d signed with Englert guaranteed a place at the bar for Al.
The orange tabby’s place at Palace of Wonders was sealed, at least symbolically, when the new owners commissioned a mural for the venue. Originally, the mural depicted a woman pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but Bernstrom and Pollok arranged to swap the rabbit’s face with an image of Al. Then Charon Henning, a sword swallower who’d paid for Al’s vet expenses in the past, painted a sideshow banner dedicated to the cat.
Still, keeping an animal in the bar was a precarious undertaking: The staff had to keep Al’s dish away from the liquor bottles because ants liked to swarm his food. “We often had to remake drinks,” says Waggner, “because someone would be, like, ‘Um, the cat stepped in my martini.’”
Al’s comfortable home began to crumble in late 2010, when The Red & the Black and Palace of Wonders merged and became Red Palace— a venue that would include a kitchen. Section 503.1 of the D.C. Health Department’s food code prohibits food employees from handling animals.
Yet Al was more beloved by the day. Yelp commenters praised him, and customers fawned over him. Two Red Palace regulars seized upon an exception in the code: Food employees are permitted to care for registered service animals. They began to research how to get Al registered as an emotional-support cat. “Legally, you cannot ask somebody why they have an emotional-support animal,” says Anne Marisic, former general manager at Red & the Black until August 2011. The two patrons obtained the requisite emotional-support vest for the tabby. “I was able to convince him to wear it just a little bit,” she says. “He didn’t love it, but he tolerated it.”
While the cat’s devotees began to arrange the necessary paperwork to certify him as an emotional-support animal, Marisic was looking into another option: a permanent home for Al. The bar was getting busier. Foot traffic on H Street NE was picking up. Al’s primary caretakers, Marisic and Copeland, had taken other jobs and couldn’t stop by as often. The “better life” no longer seemed like the best life for Al; he’d even stopped going outside, because the lot next door he once loved had been developed. The cat, part of H Street’s first gentrification wave, was being pushed out.
Luck and a burlesque performer soon came to his rescue. Al had a fan in Amy Koskey, who performed at the club under the name Reverend Valentine. When she learned Marisic was looking for a real home for Al, Koskey, who’d been bringing him treats for years, leapt at the chance. She lived on an acre of land near Solomons, Md., along with 10 cats, two dogs, and a gang of other animals. “I figured that if he could put up with a bar full of drunk, rowdy people in bands, he could certainly put up with a couple dogs,” says Marisic.
Koskey drove Al to her home last November. Country life scared him at first. He seemed startled by its creatures, smells, and especially its grass—the urban cat didn’t understand the itchy stuff at first. “He was miserable for about a month,” says Koskey. In March, she posted on Al’s Facebook page, “So Al had his first encounter with a box turtle tonight. It appeared to be a complete mindf*#k for him.”
But after six years of sleeping on empty beer boxes, stalking H Street’s concrete landscape, and crouching near the heels and elbows of drunks, Al seems to have adjusted to his quiet life in Maryland.
“He’s exactly where he needs to be,” says Marisic. “Retired with a family.”