I’m typing this on someone else’s computer while listening to her PJ Harvey CD on her stereo, occasionally glancing out her window at her lovely Soho view. Taking a break, I pat her trusty golden retriever, who is lying at my feet. Deciding I need to stare at the cobwebbed crack in her ceiling a while, I plop down on her unmade bed, which I spent the night in. I’m in a tank top and Calvin Klein lady-boxers-that is, my PJ’s.
Having a lesbian affair, you ask? Nope. Nor am I a Single White Female trying to take over someone’s life. I’m not a cat burglar, a dog-napper, a couch-surfer or a freak-nothing so exotic. I’m just enjoying that very Manhattan summer ritual: apartment-sitting.
I’m good at it. In fact, I’ve thought of making up a home-minder résumé. Competition for these jobs can be fierce-it’s New York, after all-and I have top-notch qualifications. I’ve taken care of abodes in the West Village, Chelsea, Tribeca and Turtle Bay; off Central Park; around the corner from Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side; and even in two D.C. neighborhoods. I’ve looked after multiple cats, a poodle, a mutt, a shorthaired Lab and a chocolate one. But maybe most importantly, I’m a writer with a flexible schedule and an impoverished existence-this is the only way I can take a vacation anyway.
Whenever I arrive at one of my temporary pied-à-terre, I inevitably find some kind of missive waiting for me on the kitchen counter. One included a long paragraph on the “personality” of the hound I was tending: “I began calling him Dale Peck after he, as a baby, pissed on a pile of Rick Moody novels,” it started. Another note detailed essential facts about the neighborhood, like “It’s worth walking the extra couple of blocks for Murray’s Bagels.” The laid-back friend I’m currently sitting for usually leaves this: “Have fun! Eat anything and finish the opened wine.”
Anything? After solemnly noting that “Max enjoys having his belly brushed while he lays on his back and chews his rawhide,” I sack the fridge. Leftover pizza, blueberries, baby carrots, poached salmon, home-made chocolate-chip cookies-but only things that would go bad before the owner’s return. I guess I could replace those gourmet fat-free brownies, but what if they cost as much as a decent pedicure? What if I can’t find any place that sells the same kind? What if the apartment’s rightful owner realizes I ate that entire bag of blue-corn chips and thinks I’m a gluttonous pig?
And, most importantly, never asks me back!
I hiccup guiltily as Max stares at me, his tail thumping amiably on the floor.
In Raymond Carver’s famous apartment-sitting short story, “Neighbors,” a discontented couple’s sex life perks up after the husband begins sipping from his friends’ booze bottles, masturbating on their bed and trying on their clothes-including a bra and skirt.
I’ve never done anything as transgressive as wearing other people’s undies.
But I have tried some pretty fancy beauty products. Like organic free-range egg-yolk conditioner, which was in my hair before I noticed the water-corroded price tag: almost exactly what I spend on my haircut. With tip. But it’s O.K. to use that stuff-right? I think so. After all, I’m helping these apartment owners out; they couldn’t possibly begrudge me a little soap or some shampoo. Still, sometimes I’ve wondered if I should fill the Bumble and Bumble bottles with water to hide how much I’ve used, like a teenager would doctor her dad’s gin.
I probably crossed the line when I once squeezed someone’s high-end L’Occitane hand cream on my legs (with a strange splurge of pleasure, I might add). Spritzing perfume seems downright illegal. A particularly tempting French variety sat on the bathroom vanity table of a friend, Z., who actually owns her charming Chelsea one-bedroom, which features hardwood floors and exposed brick walls. I held out against the call of that eau de toilette for five days. But by the sixth-a Friday night-I greedily grabbed Z.’s bottle and promptly dropped it on the hard tile floor. The impact smashed the dispenser.
I took that Pandora’s perfume to the jeweler; he couldn’t fix it. I tried to find a replacement in shops, online-anywhere! But the more I looked, the worse my fears became: The broken thing had to be exotic and expensive. I couldn’t find it.
When Z. finally returned, I confessed, offering to repay her, silently imagining myself washing dishes, selling my hair, perhaps scrubbing floors, to make the money I owed. I felt like a character out of a Maupassant story. Z. laughed and told me to forget it: The stuff was some discontinued model she’d gotten for free at the magazine where she worked.
But the single most terrifying experience of my sitter existence occurred one night while I was in a video store. Before entering, I’d tied Henri-my poodle companion, who shares a lovely West Village three-room walk-up with a friend who was out west on a ski vacation-to the parking meter. I figured that since every dog owner in the city seemed to do it, it must be O.K.
(On poodles: When W. told me her dog would want to sleep with me, I thought, Not over my L’Occitane-smeared body. But by my second night with Henri, I was so in love with him-he was polite, smart, affectionate; so different from all the other men in New York; so French!-that I was soon pounding the duvet for him to jump up next to me.)
So I was considering Fellini versus Fassbinder when I saw a woman undo Henri’s leash and walk off with him. I dropped the VHS boxes I was holding and bolted over the store’s turnstile.
Skidding onto the sidewalk, I screamed “Fire! Fire!” (Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say in emergencies?) People looked at me like I was crazy. I shouted, “She’s stealing my poodle!”
The vigilante halted and, after informing me that she was a friend of W., publicly scolded me. Henri was a pricey, rare breed, she said; leashing him to the meter was emphatically not allowed. Never again, I told myself as I walked away, cooing at Henri. These gigs are not worth the anxiety!
Yet here I am again-in an enormous, deliciously air-conditioned apartment in an elevator-and-doorman building-escaping from my life. Why not? I can’t afford a summer place. But for a few weeks, while the Hamptons set is off enjoying their second homes, I’ll enjoy mine.
And I’m sure my friend will never find out I fed the dog an extra cup of food this morning so I could sleep in.