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Stories I

Home, but not alone

by Carla Thornton

Carla wonders how her beloved parrot, Louie, will cope for three weeks with just a daily glimpse of an expensive ‘drop-in’ bird sitter while she’s away. Then Sandy, the Mrs Doubtfire for birds, shows up. But just how good was life with house sitters, Sandy, Chris and her husband, that Louie fell for another man (beside his usual human daddy)?

30 March 2004

Friends, do you go on vacation with a heavy heart because you have to leave your bird alone at home? My good people, I have the answer! And it costs only pennies a day! Okay, dollars. But it is so worth it. Too bad most of the people who provide this service are priced out of the average person’s reach.

I am talking about a professional house sitter, of course. Ordinarily, a friend from Texas arranges a visit to California whenever we go away and have to leave Louie. This time he couldn’t make it. It looked like we were stuck with drop-in services for sure. Racked with guilt over leaving Louie alone in the house for almost three weeks in March, with no human contact beyond half an hour each morning, we put out some last-minute feelers for something better.

I turned to a faithful reader, Chris Okon of San Francisco, for help. ‘Do you happen to know of anyone who could house sit?’ I asked in an e-mail. I had priced house/pet sitters before. They wanted at least $50 a night – and refused to promise to provide a certain level of service beyond feeding Louie and parking a toothbrush. As a proprietor of one service told me, ‘Give or take a couple of hours, the housesitter should be there from around from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.’

Give or take a couple of hours? That could mean leaving the house at 6 a.m. and not getting back until 9 p.m., at which point they would probably stick their head in Louie’s room to say hi, then go watch TV for a couple of hours before falling into bed. Why have a house sitter at all? It made no sense, especially at those bucks. Might as well ask the UPS man to linger an extra minute or two at Louie’s window.

Another service offered to stay an extra half hour with Louie in the morning after feeding him. I thought that would be better than nothing. ‘How much would that be?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Thirty dollars,’ came the answer. ‘Per day?’ I asked, incredulous. ‘For staying a total of one hour?’

I realize people have to make a living, and that people leaving their homes and families every night to go stay in someone else’s house should be compensated. On the other hand, is it really fair asking someone to part with almost a thousand dollars for two weeks’ worth of light work?

Just when I was convinced Louie would be doomed to isolation, I heard back from Chris. ‘Try a friend of mine, Sandy Roberg. She’s very nice and reasonable, too. But she might be booked.’

Reasonable. I wondered what that would translate into. Only forty dollars a night instead of fifty?

I had nothing to lose, so I e-mailed Sandy, then we talked on the phone. It was like finding Mrs. Doubtfire for Birds. Sandy had had only a couple of avian clients, so she wasn’t an expert, but she had grown to love a cockatoo under her care and now was fond of all parrots. If she stayed with Louie, she would have to insist on giving him a lot of attention. Perhaps she would just read for an hour or two in his room every evening. Would I like him to come out of his cage, be petted, taken to his outside aviary? How about his cage? Should she dismantle it to clean it? She would, of course, also water the yard and flower garden, bring in the mail, take out the trash, do some light cleaning. She might have offered to pay me, I don’t remember.

Actually, her fee was $100 a week, max; in other words, about $14 a day, or a quarter of what the others wanted to charge, with four times the service. Tears had sprung to my eyes. It was too good to be true.

And so it was. Sandy was booked the entire time we would be away. ‘I’ll be free again starting July 26,’ she offered. ‘I stay with only one animal at a time; I don’t do drop-ins.’

Sadly, a drop in would have to do for Louie. I booked my favorite, then a week before we were to leave, I got an e-mail from Sandy. ‘One of my clients cancelled, and I just wanted to let you know that I could be with Louie the first week and a half you’ll be gone, if you’re still interested.’

If I was still interested. Ha! I quickly e-mailed my drop-in with the news. She took it graciously, saying it worked out better for her anyway. With Louie under the tender care of Sandy for the first half of our trip, we could rest easy knowing his suffering would now be much less. I was ecstatic.

Fast forward three weeks. Every time conversation lagged at this restaurant or that museum, Paul and I would look at each dolefully. ‘Poor Lou-Lou,’ one of us would say. ‘Sandy will be leaving him soon.’ We had been in touch with Sandy almost every day of the trip. She and Louie were getting along famously.

The day before Sandy was to leave the house and the drop-in due to start her gig was a busy one for us. We were getting ready to leave Australia for the second leg of the trip, Tahiti. ‘I want to check e-mail just one more time,’ I said to Paul. ‘Just in case Sandy wants to tell us something.’ And there was the e-mail from Sandy, telling us that, if we were interested, due to another last-minute cancellation she could, in fact, spend the rest of our trip with Louie, living at our house.

We hardly thought of Louie for the rest of the trip, and if we did, it was to picture him having breakfast every morning in his customary spot on a chair in the kitchen with Sandy, or relaxing on the couch with Sandy in the evening in front of the TV. He probably wouldn’t even remember us. In fact, Sandy had invited Chris and her husband, Bill, over in our absence and Louie had promptly developed a crush on Bill, climbing onto his knee and allowing himself to be petted. This was unprecedented. ‘It just shows how much he misses you,’ I told a disbelieving Paul supportively. ‘He wouldn’t go to another man if he didn’t.’

We fired off another e-mail to the drop-in sitter cancelling the rest of her gig with us. This time, we did not hear a peep from her. I felt guilty about this, but how could we be expected to turn down the gift of Sandy?

About a week after we got home, I e-mailed the sitter again to get her mailing address. ‘I’d like to send you a kill fee,’ I told her, thinking that if she didn’t respond this time, I would have to respect her for maintaining her sense of righteous anger.

I got a cheery note back in five minutes. ‘Glad you’re home and safe! Hope you had a good time. Here’s my address.’

The moral? Find a sitter like Sandy, and don’t feel guilty about using her. Unless, of course, you live in the San Francisco Bay Area. In that case, hands off. Sandy is mine.

Carla Thornton

About the author: Carla Thornton

Welcome to the bird-fried brain of editor, Carla Thornton, in diary form.