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Return from vacation. If you dare.

by Joyce Wadler, 16th July 2007

Former New York Times gossip columnist, Joyce Wadler, dishes the dirt on the perilous nature of house sitting for home owners, their properties and their animals (not to mention their underwear!) Timed to coincide with the start of New York’s house sitting season (June), this article is indeed cringe worthy. Ouch!

When interviewed by Maureen Langan and Diane Dimond – the ‘Radio Ritas’ of American feminist-style syndicated talk radio – about how to prevent a house sitter from wearing your underwear in your absence, my response was most likely inadequate. To say, ‘Erm…our house sitter members don’t do that sort of thing!’ was probably a little naiive. Having had a chance to think about it, I would say ‘lock your undies away before you leave!’

5 July, 2007

LIKE many people who offer their homes to housesitters, Linda Gottlieb, a film producer, was victim to a terrible curse: a constant feeling of guilt about letting a large house sit empty and an overpowering compulsion to share.

Ms. Gottlieb did not really need a housesitter when she offered her duplex at the Beresford, on Central Park West, one of Manhattan’s grand old apartment buildings, to a woman she had just met, an English film critic.

But she was going to be working in London; the apartment was enormous, 3,500 square feet; the critic was charming; and they were, after all, in the same general business. And suddenly she heard herself utter the fateful invitation: “Why don’t you come and stay at our house? You could water our plants.”

The first sign of trouble came when Ms. Gottlieb’s secretary called from New York to say there had been a large party in the apartment, according to the building’s doorman. The estimate was about 100 guests. “It was a great entertaining space,” Ms. Gottlieb says dryly, “as this woman may have realized.”

Then came the terrible moment when Ms. Gottlieb and her husband returned home.

“The first thing we’re greeted by is the dead ficus,” she says. “The phone bill for $400 didn’t come till later. Then we go upstairs and we’re unpacking and I lift the hamper and every pair of underwear I owned is in the hamper.”

Ms. Gottlieb pauses. “She had used all my underpants and left them dirty in the hamper,” she says.

Is there anything more terrifying to a property owner than stories of housesitter trust betrayed? And yet, when grown-ups gather round the Weber Summit Gold grill in the prime housesitting months of summer, such stories are seldom shared. It may be that with the exorbitant cost of home repair, stories about property damage are too ghastly for some to contemplate. It may be that the homeowner is embarrassed about entrusting a valuable wine cellar to a person who drank it all. (A psychiatrist, we hear, who meant to have one bottle and could not stop.)

Then there is the matter of privacy. Today’s homeowners have to concern themselves with the housesitter who has entered the premises with a video camera: David and Lori Barnett, a Web designer and a holistic health practitioner in San Diego, left their home and their beloved cat, Jack, in the care of a friend of a friend, a fun-loving Internet marketing man named David Tucker, when they went off to Bora Bora on their honeymoon last fall. Some might call the 37-pound cat fat; Mr. Barnett describes him as a noble beast. The couple returned home to the news that Mr. Tucker had made a video of the cat and posted it on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=EbuyGKwIwjw).

Mr. Barnett claims to have been more amused than annoyed, although he did say it made him think. “On one hand, we know he’s a large cat,” Mr. Barnett says. “On the other hand, you wonder what else the housesitters have been videotaping when you’ve been gone.”

Granted, some homeowners seem to roll with any sort of disaster. Antonya Nelson and her husband, Robert Boswell, novelists and professors, spend summers in Colorado and often leave their home in Las Cruces, N.M., in the care of students or friends. When one such sitter called them ranting — he spoke of a possible attack on their house and told them he could fling a chair through a window to escape — they realized he was bipolar and they did not rush back or seek to replace him. They just encouraged him to call his psychiatrist and take his meds.

It should also be remembered that disasters are often beyond the housesitter’s control, and that sitters can be so traumatized by them that they cannot bear to discuss them. (We refer here to a cat and a dog on either coast, lost to coyotes. Housesitters, you are not to blame! We cannot say the same of the sitter who was entrusted with a friend’s white rabbit, went off for five days, and came home to a rabbit so underweight that he felt compelled to replace it. We are also not surprised to hear that the friendship came to an end.)

And now, a few object lessons. Homeowners on vacation may prefer to read them after they return.

It Came From the East

It was a dark and scary night in the Hollywood Hills. Women were wearing shoulder pads. Yes, it was the ’80s. It was also raining hard, even for Los Angeles. Gail Strickland, an actress who had left her glass-sided house in the Hills in the care of a friend from New York, was concerned enough that she called from Alabama, where she was visiting family, to make sure everything was all right. Her friend assured her it was fine. Then came the day of the fateful return.

“I go back to L.A. a few days early and go to my house,” Ms. Strickland says. “I go into the bathroom to wash my face and I look in the mirror and what’s exactly behind me is a wall of mud. It’s come through the window; completely buried the toilet. I can’t register this. I turn around. There is a large Jacuzzi bathtub and tile on the same wall as the toilet. That wall is bowed.”

Going outside — the sensible thing to do when a supporting wall appears to be giving way — Ms. Strickland found that the five-foot space between the back wall and the hill was filled with mud that was rising over the roof. She hot-footed it over to her boyfriend’s apartment. When Ms. Strickland called her friend and told her that mud was filling up the bathroom, her friend, who had apparently been using a second bathroom, was not surprised.

“She said, ‘I know,’ ” Ms. Strickland says. “I said, ‘When I called from Alabama, why didn’t you tell me?’ She said: ‘I didn’t want to worry you. You know, we have cockroaches in New York.’ Somehow she equated the two.”

Four and a half tons of mud were removed from the back of the house, and the wall had to be repaired and braced. The friendship, however, was not affected. Her friend had always had a laissez-faire attitude, Ms. Strickland said. And while she finds the episode disconcerting, she chalks it up to a New Yorker’s point of view. Her friend simply did not understand the danger. And when you’re a New Yorker and “you’re in a building that doesn’t belong to you,” she said, “the super takes care of it.”

The Thing That Could Not Follow Directions

There are those people, the comedian and playwright Steve Bluestein says, who are just unlucky: they go to a garage sale looking for a bargain and their car gets hit by a truck. Such were the beloved elderly couple to whom he entrusted his four-level house in Bel Air when he went to a wedding in Hawaii a few years ago. He was not concerned, however, because, as was his custom, he had left meticulous directions, including a three-by-five-inch card taped to the inside of the front door. The key points were in red. Alarm on? Door locked? Windows closed? There was another written warning: Do not use the lower front door lock.

“So I’m at the wedding in Hawaii, dancing, having a really good time, when my cellphone rings,” Mr. Bluestein says. “ ‘Steve, we’re locked out. The bottom lock is locked.’ The one I told you specifically not to lock? ‘Yes, that one. Should we break a window?’ I have plate-glass windows in my front doors. To replace them is like $800 each. I say, Noooooo!”

Mr. Bluestein’s first thought was that there was no rush because it was only 9:15 at night and they could find a solution. Then he remembered the time difference. He realized he had two people in their 70s standing in his driveway after midnight. Desperate, Mr. Bluestein tried to find an all-night locksmith on the phone. By an unfortunate coincidence, the one the Westwood information operator found for him was the same man Mr. Bluestein once reported to Medeco for price-gouging.

“The guy shows up at 2 a.m. with dollar signs in his eyes and charges me $300 for opening the front door,” Mr. Bluestein says. “Meanwhile, the dog has had free range of the house for six hours. He pulled every towel down and shredded it into something that looked like a fine snow powder. Damage about $250. They also shut off my answering machine by mistake. One week’s business calls gone: priceless. When I got back and I called to thank them for housesitting, they said: ‘Never again are we housesitting for you. That place is a nightmare.’ It drifted into an inaudible hum as I listened to the reasons why it was my fault they locked themselves out.”

Could we get the names of the housesitters?

“No, I love these people,” he said.

We Know What You Did Last Summer

Say you have a beloved cat, a waif who came from the pound. Who better to leave it with than a man who is not only your friend and lawyer but a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed? This was the habit of Corliss Lamont, the philosopher and onetime director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who spent his summers in Europe while his friend, the civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin, and Mr. Boudin’s wife, Jean, stayed at his estate in Ossining, N.Y. All they had to do was keep an eye on the cat.

The Boudins invited their friend Maeve Slavin to join them. Ms. Slavin, who is now a Southbury reporter for the weekly newspaper Voices in Connecticut, brought along a Welsh terrier named Taffy who hated cats. But Ms. Boudin, who was staying at the estate alone for a few days while her husband was in the city, had a solution: keep the dog outside and the cat in. The cat might not have been fully apprised, for one afternoon it went out.

“I heard some horrible sounds,” Ms. Slavin says, “and I knew what had happened. The dog had got the cat.”

Soon after, the two women and the unrepentant assailant went to the station to pick up Mr. Boudin.

“Leonard patted Taffy on the head and said, ‘Well, Taffy, how many cats did you kill today?’ ” Ms. Slavin remembers. “I said, ‘Only one.’ ”

Ms. Slavin said Mr. Boudin was not particularly concerned about the cat — “the charm of animals eluded him” — but he did not want to upset a good friend and client. A plan was hatched: the property’s caretaker would get a matching tabby to replace it, which is what he did.

Mr. Lamont and the Boudins are deceased, but Ms. Slavin, who broke her silence on the matter last year in an essay for The Litchfield County Times, insists that Mr. Lamont never caught on. But he did tell Mr. Boudin that he was afraid he might have stayed away a little too long, because the cat did not seem to recognize him at first.

The Dog That Ate Cleveland

It didn’t, actually. But if we had said we felt obligated here to tell you some animal stories of conscientious housesitters, would you have kept reading? Still, it is a sobering tale. It took place a month ago, in a fine house on a lake in Montgomery, Tex., about an hour’s drive north of Houston. The homeowners had two Cavalier King Charles spaniels to whom they were devoted, says Tani Traver, their housesitter; they called three times in the first 24 hours to make sure the dogs were O.K. Ms. Traver, 55, a retired college counselor, was so concerned about her charges that she did not let them go outside without her.

One day, while waiting for the dog groomer, she prepared to do a little fishing. She took out her tackle box and baited a hook with a hunk of fresh liver. Suddenly, one of the spaniels leapt up and swallowed the liver — along with the hook, two sinkers and the line. Ms. Traver ran to the kitchen, got a knife, cut the line and rushed the dog to a vet, paying the $1,200 bill herself. She also called the owners.

There appear to have been no bad feelings, since the owners not only reimbursed Ms. Traver but thanked her for saving the dog’s life. They also kept the hook, line and sinkers, which are displayed in a jar in their house.

Psycho

And now a tale that New Yorkers will recognize as being from long ago, for it involves a time when poor people lived on the Lower East Side. It was 1974. Sheila Michaels, who is now 68 and does oral histories, was a cabdriver and civil rights activist living in a two-bedroom apartment in a government-subsidized, lower-middle-income co-op. Her rent was $125 a month.

Before going to India for a six-week vacation, Ms. Michaels asked a young couple who lived down the street to feed her cats and look after her apartment. When she decided to stay on in India, one of her housesitters asked if his divorced mother, who had just lost her Staten Island apartment, and her two youngest children might take over the housesitting responsibilities.

Ms. Michaels agreed, so long as the woman agreed to pay the maintenance fee — something the woman failed to do in a few months. Ms. Michaels’s young housesitter had not mentioned that his mother was on the lam from child welfare authorities, who wanted to remove the children from her home because she was keeping company with a drug addict who beat her.

It was not until Ms. Michaels returned that she learned her tenant had moved upstate to be near her boyfriend in Attica and turned the apartment over to her ex-husband. The ex-husband had taken up with a 42nd Street junkie and hustler. (As we said, this is an old story: 42nd Street was frequented by people not necessarily going to see “Mary Poppins.”)

The two housesitters had sold Ms. Michaels’s furniture and Oriental rug, but this was not sufficient to meet their financial obligations, including those to the junkie’s dealers, one of whom came to the apartment and knifed the ex-husband, who bled on one of Ms. Michaels’s last remaining possessions, her mattress. Also, her cats had grown so wild that a neighbor had taken them to the A.S.P.C.A., where she assumes they were destroyed.

Ms. Michaels sued the ex-husband, winning a settlement of about $39,000, of which, she says, she received one payment of $35. She still has her Lower East Side apartment.

What did she learn from the experience?

“I learned not to tell people the story because it was so embarrassing,” she says. “I can’t say that I don’t let people stay in my apartment, because I do. That used to be the way it was in the civil rights movement; it wasn’t unusual to have people who were just kind of friends staying there. But, you know, they usually cleaned up after themselves.”

About the author: Joyce Wadler

New York Times unofficial gossip columnist, Joyce Wadler, abandoned her column: Boldface Names, to write for the Times’ Home and Garden section. A breast cancer survivor, she has also written a bestselling novel (and later screenplay) called ‘My Breast’ (first published by Addison-Wesley in 1992). Wadler has also written for America’s People magazine.