Precarity and creativity in other people’s homes.
Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921.
When I moved back to Portland, Oregon, in 2010, after four years away in New York and Arizona, no one would hire me. Not Whole Foods, not the local New Seasons market, not the upscale Zupan’s chains. “Thanks for your interest in the Deli Service Clerk/Courtesy Clerk/Cashier/Meat Cutter – Back up position,” an automated email said. “If your skills match up with the requirements of the job, we’ll be in touch to arrange an interview.” No one got in touch. Trader Joe’s wouldn’t even respond to my inquiries. If I, a thirty-six year old with college degrees and retail experience, couldn’t get hired to work a register, what hope could I feel in anything?
I subsisted on egg dishes and microwavable food. Whatever canned soups were on sale I bought by the armful. In lieu of a “real” job, I made it my job to spend very little money. Portland is a tough town for good employment. It has a glut of eager applicants and limited industry. Our main commercial offerings are arguably food, advertising, and stylishness. Combined with our large artist population, that means that countless musicians, writers, and painters are cooking and serving your meals.
Hope came from a local landmark, Powell’s Books, which hired me as a temp cashier in the summer of 2011. I’d worked at the flagship store full-time between 2000 and 2006, and the intervening years seem to have erased my employer’s memories of my often gruff customer service, my habit of sleeping on the lunchroom couch, and my tendency to use the company Xerox machine to photocopy material for whatever I was writing. That summer, by the large windows along Burnside Street, I stood at the cash register and pushed keys for four to nine hours a day. But when the season ended, the store created a few permanent part-time cashier positions, and I didn’t land one. “We’re sorry to say we’ve found somebody else,” my manager said weeks after my interview. He wasn’t as sorry as I was—he, with a job to cover his mortgage and health insurance.
I was back where I started. I struck out on my own and became a house sitter.
That’s misleading. It wasn’t really my doing.
An ex-coworker from Powell’s emailed asking if I wanted to watch her dog. Technically, this job qualified as house-sitting, since it involved sleeping at her house, but Diane was more concerned with her dog than her property. A devoted animal lover, she’d adopted this friendly mutt named Jasper from an organization in Utah and doted on him like a son. It was impossible not to. Jasper was adorably sociable. He loved long walks, chasing squirrels, and sitting by your feet when you sat at the kitchen table; that’s how his Canine OkCupid profile would have read.
Diane is tall, in her fifties, worldly and intelligent, with the sort of dry humor I always find amusing. She had out-of-state family affairs to attend to and would be away for a few weeks. Free food, free lodging, free Wi-Fi, and some cash—for someone scraping by, this was the perfect gig. Clearly it was an act of philanthropy and pity, knowing, as she did, that I had no work other than writing small, irregular freelance pieces for even smaller checks. She also wanted to give me a quiet place to write in a remodeled two-bedroom house far roomier and more comfortable than the cramped, gloomy one I shared with two other ex-Powell’s coworkers, their dogs, and their newborn daughter.
The idea of house-sitting had never occurred to me, but the prospect was exciting. I wrote back immediately with a simple “Hell yes.”
Her generosity lasted for more than two years. She’d go on vacation and I’d watch the house. She’d visit her aging father in Los Angeles and I’d watch the house. She’d meet her sisters in California and take care of family obligations, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. She was retired. She could do what she wanted. For some reason she chose to help me maintain my tenuous, creative existence; in return, I made sure her dog and home were safe. I only made a little money, but it was often enough to pay rent. I also got tons of writing done at her place, which also helped cover rent. When the room you rent only costs $250 a month, and you eat lots of tacos and Trader Joe’s gluten-free Pizza al Pollo Asado, you can do that.
A writer needs other skills than “craft.” You need to be industrious, flexible, and humble. You need regular work. The list of famous writers’ day jobs is familiar: Dr. Seuss the adman, Herman Melville the customs inspector, T.S. Eliot the banker, William Carlos Williams the doctor. William Faulkner famously got fired for reading the magazines in the Mississippi post office where he worked. Franz Kafka took a job at an insurance company and hated it.
There’s your profession, and then there are the odd jobs and one-offs you do to fill revenue gaps. As odd jobs go, mine are unremarkable. I painted a house once. I made sandwiches at Subway, tended the bar at a Christmas party, managed files on a college campus, tried to find work as a tutor, and did clerical work at my dad’s construction business after college. Safe and easy, these did the trick, though I’ve also sold my own chapbook on the streets, and I trimmed weed in a basement for two days; that hurt my wrists.
At Diane’s, I collected the mail, took out the trash, and greeted landscapers when they arrived. In the morning, I’d walk Jasper. After that, I’d cook breakfast without my shirt on and wander around in my boxers, the damp air of another person’s home cooling my skin as if it always had. Nakedness feels more naked in someone else’s space. Most times that sense of exposure made me feel at home there. Sometimes, it made me uneasy. When I hung my clothes in the closet, they hung beside Diane’s. When I took them out, some smelled like her. It wasn’t sexual; it was intimate. House-sitting is a collaborative, trusting act. There’s a sweetness in protecting someone’s belongings that is equal to the assorted kindnesses the homeowner affords. There’s also a sense of trespassing.
Diane always left me clean towels, but sometimes I needed a Band-Aid or lotion, so I had to search. Her bathroom had many drawers which made it hard to resist snooping, but I did, as a matter of respect. Some people I know said that when you hire a house sitter, you should expect the house sitter to go through your things. Whatever the homeowner’s expectation, though, I believe it’s my duty to respect people’s privacy. No snooping, no rummaging, no copping—or even searching for—pills. On the other hand, I didn’t respect Diane’s ice cream. “I ate all the pistachio and coconut gelato,” I wrote her in a text. “I couldn’t stop! I’ll leave you some cash.” She texted back: “No worries.” That was what I wanted to provide her: no worries.
Even though Diane’s neighborhood is filled with night life, traffic, and freaks, nothing ever happened. Nobody tried to break in. During the day, I sat at my computer. At night, Jasper and I sat on the couch, his face draped across my thigh as I read. I enjoyed the time so much that I barely thought of it as work, but these creature comforts were borrowed comforts, and the transaction reminded me of all that I wanted and lacked in life. I was at home here, and also, a drifter.
During this period, a few other generous souls offered regular house-sitting gigs, some of which paid in cash and writing space, and one of which paid in solitude and peace. Mary, a friend of Diane’s and another previous Powell’s coworker, let me hang at her house when she and her boyfriend went out of town. A witty, vocal Texan with long hair and an iced coffee habit, Mary’s generosity and progressive politics had won me over at Powell’s as much as her fire and temper had. She was passionate and authentic, her charm inextricably linked with her loyalties and blemishes. She’d left Powell’s to work with unions, and she extended me the same empathy that she’d extended to the miners and laborers she’d advocated for.
Mary’s boyfriend is a musician. They live in a small green house in a walkable neighborhood, and their basement is filled with records, CDs and instruments. In one corner stands a small recording studio, in the opposite, a washer and drier. When they were on tour, I parked myself at their kitchen table under a painting Billy Childish made, and I wrote for days and days, shoveling chocolate and tea into my mouth while guarding their house and equipment with my life. It energized me to know that such a talented person recorded demos under the same worn roof that I composed essays, to know that, in the damp space beneath my feet, he played late into the night, working out the melodies that he turned into songs. When I fetched my laundry from the basement, I passed a hanging garden of tour lanyards. They draped over rafters, the plastic badges listing the band names and year, and together composing a record of all the places he’d visited and people he’d entertained.
What you might call an invisible economy of house sitters exists across the country. Untold numbers roam our city streets, leaving their familiar bedrooms to stand sentinel over strangers’ homes while using them as getaways, weigh stations and de facto offices. As one 2006 AARP Magazine article describes house-sitting: “Imagine staying in some of the loveliest locations on earth—and all you have to do is feed the cats.” Websites like HouseCarers.com and Luxury House Sitting have emerged to connect homeowners with sitters, yet as Airbnb thrives and CouchSurfing.org gains millions of members worldwide, house-sitting goes relatively unnoticed as an industry. This is partly because it’s a cash economy, partly because it, depending on the client, bears such close resemblance to what you call “crashing at your friend’s place.” Don’t be fooled. The arrangement may be casually intimate, but it is business. Imagine what would happen if the house got robbed because the sitter failed to lock the back door.
If a novel depicted house sitters’ lives, its scenes would depict the complex relationship between the homeowner and sitter, the way trust is built between strangers in such an intimate setting as a home: how house keys are swapped, free food is provided or withheld. They would depict the life spent in that stranger’s house, including how much or how little house sitters snoop. The story would address the question of origin: How did this subculture start? And what did homeowners do before house sitters? Were there historical antecedents, or did people just leave their porch lights on to deter thieves? In the process, the story would illustrate how this group represents the face of what economists call precarity, or America’s new part-time economy, a place where increasing numbers of people have multiple part-time jobs with no health insurance, rather than a single full-time career.
To reduce costs and avoid paying for insurance, many companies have replaced full-time with part-time employment. Sadly, Powell’s does this. Other companies, including Starbucks, now cap workers’ hours under full-time, or change schedules week to week. House-sitting provides a way to earn supplemental, tax-free income, as well as the additional benefit of enjoying a higher standard of living in a nicer house and neighborhood than part-timers’ income can often afford—a welcome balm to one’s imperfect work life.
Although I still think of myself as a house sitter, I no longer am one. When a set of house-sitting offers conflicted with my day job, I had to decline, and the offers eventually stopped coming. In 2012, I landed a regular job: twenty-two hours a week at a tea shop. The tea is top-notch, and the shop is free of pretension and doilies. Customer service gets me out of the house and socialized enough that I don’t become feral, and for three of the four days that I’m not at the shop, I write.
Yet I revised this essay from another person’s house. A couple of talented writers just moved back to town this month, and they needed someone to watch their rental and dog while they attended a wedding. Was I available? I didn’t know. I hadn’t house-sat for over a year. I’d sold my car since then. I have that work schedule. And now that I live with my girlfriend in a well-lit apartment across town, I no longer need to escape to other people’s homes. Even if I did, long stays wouldn’t be easy without a car. But for these two, I agreed. I like them. I like their dog. I like quelling their worry by making sure they know everything’s taken care of while they’re away. The extra cash sounded nice. A few days walking a sweet dog in a different part of town also sounded refreshing. So here I am, out of retirement and writing at their kitchen table, and eating their food as usual. I may have outgrown the need to house-sit, but the benefits are evergreen.
But I’m thirty-nine. My girlfriend and I want to buy property someday. We want to take more vacations. Maybe one day we’ll have a kid. The wages of the part-time retail clerk-writer won’t let me contribute as much as I would like to financially. The question that looms for many people in my position is: What to do? For now, this.
Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’s, the New York Times, Vice, The Awl, The Believer, and Narratively, and he wrote the musical appendix to The Oxford Companion to Sweets. Find him @AaronGilbreath.
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