Other People's Homes
by CARRIE BATTAN
There are two types of people in this world – those who need house-sitters, and those who are house-sitters. Before Jonathan Franzen became the type of person who needs a house-sitter, he was one. He eventually made a misstep that almost turned a bee extermination into a fire that could have burnt down his friends' entire property. This soured him on the ritual of borrowing other people’s homes and he decided that living within his means, in his own home, was a more suitable existence.
Last summer I began my career as a house-sitter in the Philadelphia suburbs, just a few miles down the road from where Franzen ended his. I had a friend whose comrades from synagogue needed someone to care for their house and two dogs whenever they visited their beach property. I was unemployed and spending the summer at my parents' house, so I happily agreed to receive $60 a day to feed a couple of dogs and drink Diet Orange Crush from a stranger’s garage fridge.
The dogs were accustomed to sleeping in bed with their human owners and ate their first meal at 5 a.m., so I was required to stay overnight. If I didn’t let the dogs – two big, rowdy animals whose names are now lost on me – sleep in my bed, they’d whine for hours in tandem and claw at the bedroom door until I opened it. I woke up most mornings resentful of how spoiled these dogs were, with a stiff neck, congested and covered in dog fur. I begged people who really liked dogs to stay over with me because they’d usually be game for sleeping in bed with the animals, and I’d be able to get a good night's rest in the bedroom down the hall.
This house, where I spent a total of about 20 nights throughout the summer, quickly became a place where kids under the age of 25 and stranded in suburban Pennsylvania for the summer took refuge. I never threw a proper party because I only knew about a dozen kids in the area who would have shown up, and they were all from disparate social circles, but the house still had a revolving door.
The dogs were the type you could hear howling from inside your car as you pulled into the driveway and braced yourself for a several minutes-long sniffing and jumping fest. They always freaked out at the wrong people – like my mom – but stayed calm for people like my weed dealer. One night I convinced one of my most neurotic friends to let me cut his hair in the house. I butchered it, and spent the next hour or two watching him open desk drawers and scan bookshelves, projecting cultural inadequacies onto the absent homeowners based on what he found and avoiding mirrors at all costs.
I neglected my duties on the 4th of July, staying out all night at a bonfire and then stumbling back into the house with a gaggle of headachey, chlorine-coated kids I hardly knew as the sun was coming up. That was the only time I ever woke the dogs up instead of them waking me. They were cuter when they were half-asleep.
The woman who had enlisted me to watch the house, Rohna, was an elementary school teacher who placed gifts from her students everywhere, including a clay cube that had "Rohna’s Box” painted sloppily on its lid. I begged a few of my male friends not to write “is mad tight, yo” underneath the description in Sharpie, but secretly wished I were ballsy enough to just let them do it.
Rohna and her husband were a couple of empty nesters still living in a split-level four-bedroom home on a few acres of land. Their kids’ rooms were still intact, Phish tour posters and metro maps still on bedroom walls in what struck me as a very common act of denial. Suburban homes have a way of screaming: "We need it to look like this, for when the kids are in town! There will always be a place for the kids here!"
During the same time period, my best friend periodically house sat for her aunt, a bona fide cat woman and widow. She owned four identical, sinewy Siamese cats who darted from underneath couches and TV stands and hid between the ceiling and the tops of the highest kitchen cabinets. Every time we’d leave the house to go buy snacks or rent movies, we were tasked with the impossible – making sure that all four of the cats were still there, that none of them had slipped outside. I don't think we were ever able to complete a head count, but we never learned that any of the cats had gone missing.
The summer came to an end and I stopped hearing from Rohna; beach season was over. Preparing a home you have been squatting in for the return of its rightful owners is terribly nerve-wracking; I still assume that the reason Rohna hasn’t contacted me since I last left her house – not even to let me know she’d arrived home safely – is because I might have failed to replenish her supply of peanut butter fudge ice cream or accidentally left an empty beer bottle to fester in some corner.
I haven’t come across the bees’ nest or book of matches to end my dabbling in house sitting. Recently, though, I’ve done the job second-hand, tagging along with friends who are watching the New York City apartments of their rich aunts or uncles or coworkers or family friends. In the suburbs, there is no faux sense of upward mobility associated with living in someone else’s house, because everyone’s parents’ house feels the same there. My friends and I agreed to house sit for other people’s parents because we wanted to escape from our own.
But in New York, house sitting feels like a ritualistic way to emulate the comforts found in our parents’ suburban homes – the clean towels that match the shower curtains and bath mats, the ice makers, the framed photos on the walls. In the three apartments I’ve occupied for a few days at a time while my friends have house sat, we’ve forsaken going out to bars or parties on weekend nights in favor of the company of big-screen TVs, expensive paintings and the pipe dream that some day we’ll be able to afford space and luxury without sacrificing a metropolitan existence. It's nice to pretend you’re a real person for a minute, until you awake at 4 a.m. in a strange apartment in the Financial District with a cat walking across your chest and begin to long, once again, for the lumpy mattress on your own floor. I will house-sit again, but I have learned that there’s nothing like the discomforts of other people’s expensive, comfortable homes to make you appreciate the comforts of your cheap, uncomfortable one.
"Glass Bottom Boat" - Avey Tare (mp3)
"Oliver Twist" - Avey Tare (mp3)
"3 Umbrellas" - Avey Tare (mp3)