By Graig Graziosi
“Only at YSU is there a man that dresses like a cat.”
With that tweet, my imagination was captured. There was a man who dressed like a cat on Youngstown State University campus.
Usually you have to go to the big city to see that kind of self-expression. In larger cities, a person regularly dressing like a cat may not even warrant a curious eye. However, this is the small city of Youngstown, at the small commuter school YSU. It warrants a curious eye.
My first time meeting Dr. Mittens was as normal as meeting any other source I’d ever interviewed, minus of course the cat effects. Mittens complimented my beard, I complimented his ears, and we got to talking.
Mitten’s cat outfit consists of black cat ears, which he wears on a headband, a plastic cat nose with whiskers — not unlike what you would see in a cat Halloween costume — and a pair of padded paw mittens. Beyond that, he is a stocky 19-year-old man of average height. When we met, he was wearing an olive hoodie and unremarkable pants.
My first question was the most obvious. What is the deal with the cat suit and the Dr. Mittens persona?
“It came out of a Tumblr blog my ex-girlfriend and I were running. She would do drawings of cats and we would do comics together. I would do storyline progressions and whatnot, but I didn’t have a name for the cat. The cat was an asshole, so we needed something that sounded fancy,” Mittens said. “We were trying to figure it out and my ex-girlfriend was like ‘you can’t draw paws for shit, they look like mittens.’ and I thought ‘Ok, Dr. Mittens, why not?’ Then when I went to pick a cat name I remembered that name and thought Dr. Mittens was a good cat name.”
There was no oddity in his answer, no snarky irony hiding behind his explanation. The story of his cat alter ego was delivered in as mundane a way as one might explain their choice of pencil. Pushing deeper into the persona, I asked Mittens if he was in fact a doctor — and if so, of what.
“Mixology,” he joked. “No, I’m going to try to get my doctorate in English. I want to get my BA in English, my masters in some form of counseling, become a counselor, then pay for another round of grad school for English, then get my doctorate.”
Before moving on, I wanted to know the man behind the cat. I asked Dr. Mittens to reveal his other identity.
“My real name is Zachary Jones. I’m working on getting my named changed legally to Dr. Mittens though. I don’t mind people knowing my real name, but I prefer Dr. Mittens. It’s a name I chose; it’s fun; it’s witty; it confuses people. There’s like 20 or 30 people I have convinced that I actually work [at YSU].”
Next we explored the history of the cat and Mittens’ origin.
“That’s a long story. I’ve consistently been the cat since the third day [of classes] at YSU. I used to just do it to cheer up my friends, but since then it’s sort of taken on a life of it’s own. At first it was just the ears, then the nose, and now I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.”
Mittens explained to me that the cat persona was more than just a goofy way of making people laugh; it was a means for him to overcome paralyzing social anxiety and a doorway to friendships he might not otherwise have been able to foster.
“I have severe social anxiety, and when I was originally trying to make friends on campus I couldn’t approach people and say ‘hey, what’s up’ … I just got really intimidated. With the cat stuff I’ve got people approaching me and it made it a lot easier. Now it’s become sort of an outlet … Overall, I’m more comfortable. Everything about it is really nice. If I leave my house and I can’t find my cat stuff, it stresses me out. It makes me feel more like who I really am. It’s more like a personality amplifier.”
Just as I was, many people are fascinated by Mittens and his decision to dress as a cat every day of his life. Unscheduled question-and-answer sessions have become a regular part of his day.
“I do get a lot of questions about the cat stuff … I don’t want people to like or dislike me because of the cat. It’s just an aspect of who I am. I want people to get to know me beyond the cat stuff … I prefer being treated like I’m just another person. People ask me a lot ‘what’s it like to be YSU famous?’ and that’s my least favorite question. It’s fun, I guess, because people know me wherever I go, but otherwise it’s just kind of weird because there’s a bunch of people who know me, but I really don’t know anything about them. A lot of people think I’m cool, but they don’t talk to me. I don’t really want fans; I want friends.”
I sensed exasperation in Mittens’ voice following his response. I asked if the questions on campus ever got old.
“It gets old after awhile. I understand the curiosity though. It’s a thing — I expect it. It’s not something I dislike, but it does get old. It’s happening less and less as people see me more. The most common question is ‘So …’ and then they point at my face. The curiosity questions I like; the ‘what the f–k are you doing’ questions I don’t like.”
Trying to stem the regular tide of questions levied at him, Mittens took to social media to make his story known and to find a way to communicate directly with those interested in getting to know him.
“It hasn’t changed perceptions about me. I started profiles on Twitter and Facebook so I could answer all the questions I always get all at once and give people a way to communicate with me directly. But still, everyone asks me questions on campus. It’s not that I don’t want to answer them, I’d love to sit down and have a drink with them and tell them the whole story, but a lot of the answers are long stories and I just don’t have time to explain everything in a few minutes between classes.”
As anyone who follows the YSU hashtag on Twitter or uses YikYak on campus can attest, the student body’s reaction to Mittens is a mixed bag of adoring fandom and unbridled hate. I asked Mittens if any of the social media emotion poured out into real-life encounters on campus.
“No one has been directly mean to me, but I do see people who laugh. I don’t think they’re being malicious — I think they’re just laughing at the cat stuff. Though I guess some people are malicious. A lot of people are friendly and just come up and say ‘hey Dr. Mittens’ or ‘oh look it’s Dr. Mittens’ or they meow at me or say ‘hey, you’re the cat kid.’”
Reactions of college-aged individuals who are of an age where radical self-expression is the norm are easy to predict. The reactions of one’s family are less predictable, a fact with which Mittens recently struggled.
“One of my sisters asked my other sister, Val, what the chances were that I’d take off the cat stuff for Thanksgiving, and that made me cry. Even the people I think that I’m closest to, sometimes, don’t accept who I am. The sister I live with is really accepting. I feel more accepted in my family than judged, but I do get it. I’m the cat everywhere, even at home. I honestly feel naked without it. It’s a crutch, but my crutch is also like my guitar. It supports me, but I can also express myself with it.”
Mittens’ heartfelt answers, humble attitude and vulnerable disposition shattered the mental image I had constructed of him. I expected a gimmicky jokester or a preachy social commentator. Instead, I found myself interviewing a perfectly normal individual that dresses like a cat. I asked if this penchant for cross-species self-identification was similar to that of someone participating in the Furry or Otherkin subcultures, wherein individuals feel only able to fully and truthfully express themselves when living their lives as the animals they were intended to be.
“I relate to cats a lot on a base level … I don’t know if I’m an otherkin. I think that’s close to how I feel, but I don’t feel like I should have been born an animal. I just believe everyone has an animalistic side. We all have our own animal tendencies, and they come out when people have close interactions with animals. Just like some people are dog people and some people are cat people. I love cats; I would love to live like a cat lives.”
Mittens’ own animal tendencies are likely drawn out by the three cats he lives with.
“I have a cat and my sister has two — Simon, Weasel and Neville. Weasel and Neville are named after characters from Harry Potter, and I forget what Simon is named after. I think his initials spell ‘Satan’ because he’s evil. They inspire me every once in awhile. I hang out with my cats a lot, so probably.”
A large part of Mittens’ recognizability on campus is thanks not only to his dress, but also due to the many campus organizations and events in which he participates.
“The only organization I’m actually a part of is YSUnity. But I do like going to other organizations. I’d absolutely love to join the Urban Gaming Club; it’s one of the funnest things I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I also swing by Modern Board Game Club on Fridays. I just love having fun.”
As his participation in campus organizations grew and his passion for involvement flourished, Mittens birthed the idea of an organization all his own.
“People from other organizations tell me about all these things happening on campus, and it’s given me an idea — an outlandish idea — to make my own student group called ‘Cats on Campus.’ Basically, when someone has some time on campus, they can throw on a pair of cat ears and a cat nose and act as student group information agents. People could go up to the cats and say ‘hey, what’s going on on-campus?’ or ‘hey, I want to play D&D, where can I go to do that?’ and the cats would have the information. It’s essentially cat Google for people.”
While Mittens is very busy on campus, I was curious as to what a normal day in Dr. Mittens’ social life looked like, so I asked him to describe a normal night out when he’s away from YSU.
“I just love doing anything. I like being spontaneous. I don’t really like watching sports, but I do like to play. I shoot pool; I play Magic; I’ll play football in the mud; I’ll play video games; I’ll go home and watch ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ Whatever happens, happens, and I’m just trying to have as much fun as I can so long as I’m not hurting anyone. I’m down for whatever.”
Mittens explained the reactions of the general public when he was the cat away from campus.
“It depends on what I’m doing and where I’m going. If I’m playing pool in the sticks, no one is going to say shit to me — they just go the other way. At other places though, like the racino in Austintown, I got a lot of questions. Grocery stores, I’m totally ignored. People come around the corner, see me and shoot for another aisle.”
The life Dr. Mittens was describing to me was something very different to anything I had ever experienced. I wondered how long someone could continue living as a minor celebrity in a society that only rewards radical self-expression so long as you don’t become “weird.”
“I’m planning on legally changing my name to Dr. Mittens. This is a permanent thing. I’m sure at some point I’ll get a job where they’ll tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll take it off for that, but I’ll still be the cat at home. I’m hoping though that eventually I’ll find a place, like a university, where I can just be the Cat where I work.”
Before Mittens and I parted ways, I asked him what was on the horizon for the Cat Man of YSU.
“A tail. I wouldn’t want a fluffy one. I’d want one that’s just kind of fuzzy and floppy. Nothing stiff, just a tail that goes. Probably black to match the ears.”