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Stories II

New means to friendship: the house sitter

by Rick Murphy

Three Long Island stories of happy house sitters helping out busy home owners in the Hamptons. These home owners discovered an easy (and reassuring) way to take the worry out of caring for their second homes while they weren’t there. If house sitters Butchy, Kathryn, Carlos and Melanie can become friends with the owners of their (spring, autumn and winter) homes, maybe you can too!

17 May 1998

It used to be that, come Labor Day, summer residents of the Hamptons would drain the pipes, board up their cottages and head home.

A lot has changed. For one thing, the ‘cottages’ are now elaborate year-round houses. For another, the advent of the technology age has allowed many business people to conduct business via fax and modem. As a consequence, houses are kept open all year, and summer residents have become year-round visitors.

With the change came the birth of a new cottage industry. More and more people are finding employment by keeping someone else’s house safe, warm and, often, lived in.

In many cases, those entrusted to care for another’s residence have become confidants, friends, even family members. Consider Vincent (Butchy) Maher. A Montauk fisherman, Mr. Maher met Scott Morfee and his wife, Kelly Curtis, years ago.

Ms. Curtis is an actress whose career takes her across the country; Mr. Morfee produces plays and short films. Though both love Montauk and consider it their home, their careers necessitate frequent traveling. Enter Mr. Maher.

‘They approached me about a year after we met and asked if I’d be interested,’ he said. It started as a house sitting thing and I ended up a housemate.’

All three agree the turning point came three or four winters ago, when Montauk lost electricity for two days around Christmas. One of Mr. Maher’s chores was to take care of the couple’s tropical fish.

‘I came home really late and the power went off during the night,’ Mr. Maher recalled. ‘The temperature in the tank was supposed to be 84 degrees, but it was only 64 when I woke up. I panicked.’

Luckily, a neighbor had a generator. ‘I went and got two buckets of scalding water,’ Mr. Maher said. ‘I raced back and emptied some of the cold water from the tank, and poured in the hot water. I found out later you were supposed to treat new water before adding it, but I didn’t know then.’

Ms. Curtis said she had been ‘terribly moved.’

‘I thought less about the fish and more about Butchy, that he would go through that kind of trouble for us, she said. ‘I would say we evolved into a family.’

‘They knew I was someone they could trust,’ Mr. Maher said. ‘We started cooking dinners together. I’d bring home fish’ – he is the first mate on Lazy Bones, a charter boat – ‘and we’d cook together. Sometimes I’d come home from work and there would be these incredible meals waiting. I’d get up afterwards to clean the dishes and they would say ‘No, you worked all day, we’ll do it, you relax.’ We’ve progressed into a tight little family.’

‘He’s our friend,’ Mr. Morfee said.

Come August, a play Mr. Morfee is producing, ‘Killer Joe,’ by Tracy Letts, opens at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan. Mr. Morfee doesn’t have to worry. ‘Butchy will be home,’ he said.

Mr. Morfee and Ms. Curtis spent three years in Malibu until 1995 and had a similar experience, living in a guest cottage on another couple’s property. With a dog and valuable home, the Malibu landlords appreciated their presence.

‘Although we paid rent, there was an agreement that we would look out for things when they traveled,’ Mr. Morfee said. ‘As it turned out, after three years on their property we became closest friends. We still speak with them monthly.’

Meanwhile, Mr. Maher kept their Montauk digs warm.

Unlike Mr. Maher, Kathryn Szoka has her own place. But she is also a housesitter.

Sixteen years ago the artist Joe Zucker and his companion, Britta Le Va, a photgographer, raised more than a few eyebrows on the New York art scene when they decided to leave their longtime home in SoHo and relocate to East Hampton. ‘They thought we had gone mad,’ Ms. Le Va recalled.

The two built a large house with a matching studio, connected by a glass passageway, in the middle of the woods with the only access a long, rutty, dirt road. It was as far removed from their urban way of life as they could get.

‘It was in stark contrast to Manhattan,’ Ms. Le Va remembered. ‘In New York you were always engaged on the outside; in East Hampton you were forced to engage from within.’

The couple settled in. Mr. Zucker, already considered one of the major influences on the contemporary New York art scene, saw his career continue to flourish. His work is currently represented in museum and private collections around the world, necessitating frequent trips across the country and to Europe. Ms. Le Va has concentrated her work in Egypt for the last decade, and is also frequently abroad.

The couple met Ms. Szoka, a local photographer, about a decade ago. They were introduced by a local art curator who lived in Ms. Szoka’s house, watching it during her frequent trips to New York City.

‘We became fast friends,’ she recalled. ‘They’re both very creative. Britta is a photographer like I am and Joe is really down to earth – he loves fishing and things like that. Plus, he’s a big basketball fan, and so am I.’

A few years ago, when Mr. Zucker and Ms. Le Va were preparing for their annual spring sojourn in Minnesota, they fretted about what to do with their house. They had left it vacant during the two-month period in the past, ‘But it looked like a jungle when we got back,’ Ms. Le Va said. Ms. Szoka, meanwhile, was looking for a place to live, and with the summer rental prices sky-high, having little success.

‘We thought it would be a generous gesture to invite Kathryn to stay there,’ Ms. Le Va recalled. As it turned out, it proved mutually beneficial. Ms. Szoka kept an eye on things, watered the plants, and found the atmosphere therapeutic.

She is a landscape photographer who specializes in ‘documenting the vanishing local rural imagery.’ From the isolation of her new living quarters, she found new perspective.

‘You have a sense of being in the middle of nowhere,’ she said. ‘It’s a spiritual, Zen-like place.’

Ms. Szoka focused on the herds of deer who graze in the yard. She took care of the landscaping the couple had planted.

Ms. Szoka eventually found her own place in Sag Harbor, but the live-in relationship with Mr. Zucker and Ms. Le Va has continued. For example, Mr. Zucker, whose work has appeared in the Whitney Biennial five times and who won the Pollack-Krasner Foundation Award in 1995, was been chosen to be an artist in residence at Harvard this fall. With Ms. Le Va planning another trip to Egypt, the chore of watching the house and feeding Joey the cat falls to Ms. Szoka, who will temporarily leave her own place and move into the woods again.

‘I look forward to it,’ she said. ‘For one thing, I’m a runner, and you can run for hours out there without seeing another soul. It’s such a creative setting; it rejuvenates my creative spirit. Plus, they have a dark room they let me use.’

Five years ago Dr. June Spirer, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst with a thriving Manhattan practice, made two eventful decisions: she decided to open a restaurant in Southampton, and she decided to adopt children. It made for a hectic commuting schedule.

Enter Carlos Sanchez and Melanie Haines, both of whom often stay at Ms. Spirer’s Southampton house, babysit, watch the dog, and in general ‘act as a second pair of hands.’

‘Melanie is the nanny,’ Ms. Spirer said. ‘I want my boys’ Teddy, 4, and Liam, 1 – ‘to live in Southampton as much as possible. Plus, I don’t like to put my dog in the kennel. Most of all, though, having someone in the house makes it feel like nothing has changed when I get back. It gives me a sense of continuity. There is always something going on at the house, and I fell more comfortable when someone is there.’

While Ms. Haines’s primary job is caring for the children, Mr. Sanchez does whatever is needed.

‘I trust him explicitly,’ said Ms. Spirer, who owns 75 Main in Southampton, a popular eatery and nightspot. ‘I’ll put the kids to bed and get a call from the restaurant. I’ll have to run down to take care of something. Carlos will readjust his schedule to come over. If I’m away, he’ll pick me up at the airport or have dinner waiting for me. Carlos really enjoys staying at the house, especially when I’m not there. The kids and dog adore him.’

Ms. Spirer’s restaurant is open 18 hours a day, beginning with brunch, and stays open late on weekends, often with a live rock band. ‘It’s an incredible amount of work,’ Ms. Spirer said. ‘I feel comforted to know I have two people I can totally depend on.’

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Rick Murphy

About the author: Rick Murphy

Rick Murphy writes for the New York Times.