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Stories I

Home is where your passport is

by Mad Dog

Two years of short term housing has left this long term house sitter with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Housing Disorder). The question is: could his current transient lifestyle be worse than living at the airport?

For the past two years I haven’t stayed in any one place longer than two months. It’s kind of an A.D.H.D. thing—Attention Deficit and Housing Disorder. It started when I left the east coast to move to San Francisco. Somewhere along the four-week trip across the country something snapped. I mean, changed. I think it was either at Graceland or the UFO Museum in Roswell, NM, but I can’t be certain. Anyway, suddenly the idea of settling down sounded about as appetizing as tuna Jell-O. Even when it has canned fruit cocktail suspended in it. So since I got here I’ve been house-sitting and subletting and generally a rather transient fellow. Hey, it may not be a great life, but it’s my life.

What brought this to mind (besides suddenly realizing I have no place to stay two weeks from today) is an article I saw about Merhan Karimi Nasseri, a man who’s lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for the past 11 years. Now I’ve been in this airport several times, the last for three hours while I waited for the next plane to San Francisco since I missed mine thanks to a French railway strike, something which happens with more frequency than Monday. Or Lundi as they call it.

Trust me, this airport isn’t a place you want to move into. The food’s lousy, there’s no privacy, and the sleeping accommodations are confined to sitting upright in a chair while people bump into you and screaming children surround you. It’s a lot like being on an airplane except you don’t pay $500 a night to sleep in the airport.

Nasseri sure didn’t. In fact, he stayed there for free. An Iranian native, he found himself in Terminal One eleven years ago without any passport or other documents. After three years of standing in line at customs searching his pockets and baggage—and upsetting those poor people who had to wait behind him—he settled into his little red bench and waited to be either granted political asylum or named Time’s Patient Man of the Year. Or one of People magazine’s 100 Sexiest Men Stranded in an Airport. One thing’s for sure, when you live in an airport for eleven years you end up not being as picky as you used to be.

Finally Nasseri, who the airport employees nicknamed Alfred for reasons which probably refer to some joke from an obscure Jerry Lewis movie, was granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commission for Permanent Airport Inhabitants, which means he’s free to leave the airport. Boy, will his resume have a big hole in it.

How can someone like Nasseri—I mean, Alfred—live in an airport for 11 years while I get antsy being in one place for 11 days? I suspect it has a lot to do with the phase of life, the alignment of the planets, and the seratonin levels (natural and artificial) than anything else. Well, that and the fact that I know where my passport is.

But house-sitting and subletting definitely has its strong points. True, I don’t get to have people from all over the world sit on my bed and look at me like I’m crazy—well, not usually, anyway—but I do get to experience a lot of different places. I’ve lived in a bunch of different neighborhoods in San Francisco as well as Los Angeles, Oregon, Hawaii, and France. If I don’t like my neighborhood (or the neighbors) I don’t have to worry—I’ll be gone soon. And it gives me the chance to discover things about human beings. Sometimes even things which don’t revolt, disgust, or amaze me.

Like it’s interesting to see what books, CDs, and cooking utensils people have. It’s fascinating to discover what they keep under the mattress, on the top shelf of the closet, and hidden in the back of the nightstand drawer. (NOTE TO PEOPLE I’VE HOUSE-SAT FOR AND SUBLET FROM AS WELL AS THOSE I HOPE TO IN THE FUTURE: I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t think of looking under the mattress. That’s downright nosey.) And, of course there are the pets.

Often the reason I’m there is to take care of a pet. Walking the dog or cleaning the cat box is a small price to pay for a place to stay. Sometimes people don’t have a pet, they have surrogates. There was one house I stayed in where I had to move the plants out on the front porch during the day and bring them in at night. I’d never heard of having to walk the plants before, but at least I didn’t have to keep them on a leash. And they were house trained.

I don’t think many people are as attached to their plants as they are to their pets. According to Time there are over 112 million pet cats and dogs in the United States. Ninety-two percent of pet owners keep the animal’s picture displayed at home or at work. Fifty-three percent think their pet would risk its life to save them (which proves television, especially Lassie, has a lasting impact). And two percent of dog owners actually take Rover along on their honeymoon, which is outrageous! Do you realize how many fewer places that leaves me to housesit?

If Sony has its way, there will be even fewer places for me to stay. They recently released Aibo, a robotic dog. They sold 3,000 of them in 20 minutes. To put this in perspective, that means they sold faster than a chipped Hummel yodeling boy on eBay.

At about $2,000, Aibos are a lot cheaper than a real dog. After all, you don’t have to feed it, clean up after it when you walk it, or take it to the vet when it swallows your limited edition Charles and Diana commemorative toothbrush. On the other hand, Aibos aren’t quite as much fun, either. Sure, the 11-inch tall robo-dog can walk, wag its tail, and even do a few tricks, but can it show its passport to customs officials? If you’re ever taking it through Charles de Gaulle airport I sure hope so.

©1999 Mad Dog Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
These columns appear in better newspapers across the country. Read them in bed at the airport.

Mad Dog

About the author: Mad Dog

Mad Dog is a San Francisco-based writer who's been housesitting for the past nine years. He writes a weekly humor column, has several books in print, and keeps considering writing one about his housesitting but hasn't found the time. Yet. Mad Dog's blogsite can be found at