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Stories II

House-sitting politics: food, perfume, dogs – all mine! Or is it?

by Maura Kelly

The New York Observer’s New York diary gal’ Maura Kelly seems to be on to a great thing with her summers spent house sitting luxury apartments in the Big Apple. But she’s a house sitter with a finely tuned sensibility: Just how many liberties can she take with the owners’ stuff? Hmmmm.

9 June 2005

‘I began calling him Dale Peck after he, as a baby, pissed on a pile of Rick Moody novels,’ the note started.

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.

copyright The New York Observer

Maura Kelly

About the author: Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly is the New York Observer's New York diary gal.