The Tenants

Tenants-PotSurely there is a medical term for the unholy rage one feels upon returning to a house that’s been sublet for any length of time. For it’s clearly a psychological complex, an anger wholly irrational and out of proportion to the perceived offense. As I ransack my kitchen looking for the measuring spoons and nearly have a stroke when I discover that the cookie sheets been moved one cupboard over (“How dare they?! What kind of animals live this way?”), I remind myself that my tenants are perfectly delightful people whom I lovingly hand-selected after a rigorous interview process designed to identify the most boring people available. Casual chat about seemingly random topics like shampoo brands (“How much do they care about their hair? Are they likely to take hour-long showers?”) and oil-and-gas pipelines (“How liberal are they? Are they too liberal? Will they let their friends detox on our sofa?”) can tell you a lot about potential tenants, and helps identify exactly those people I would never want to hang out with in my actual life. All my lefty political convictions are revealed for the shallow sham that they are when I’m forced to choose someone to live with my Rancilio espresso machine and vintage LP collection while I’m away.

Scott thinks I am insane.  He does not at all understand my outrage at finding that our renters have been using our tiny, elegant stainless-steel condiment cups as votive candle holders, insisting that it’s a reasonable mistake. (Maybe if you live in a CONVENT, I mutter.) But then we are not a particularly good fit when it comes to the question of managing stuff. While we have very similar tastes and love choosing the crap that goes into our house to begin with – Scott is one of the few non-French straight men I know who can get really worked up over table linen – we part ways when it comes to the care and organization of household paraphernalia once it’s actually in the household. I like to sublimate my simmering OCD tendencies into hyper-rigid organization schemes. While I often joke that it’s not hoarding to keep 27 years worth of journals, desk calendars, and beside-the-phone memo pads as long as they’re chronologically organized in neatly labeled boxes, I am not joking. My first year in college I would regularly bust my roommate for using my expensive facial moisturizer, astonishing her with every accusation. How did I know? Because it had been moved one inch to the left of its usual spot on my dresser, that’s how I knew. Scott, on the other hand, subscribes to the “flinging” method of organization. I have seen him do it: when it comes time to return, say, the Windex to its home under the kitchen sink, he will open the door and sort of toss the bottle in the general direction of its proper place. (He will then leave the door open. For the life of me I do not understand how someone can open a cabinet door or drawer, do one’s business therein, and then stroll away without closing it, but if I had to guess how often he does so I would say it’s 99.99987% of recorded instances.  He might reply that it saves time since then you don’t have to open it again later, but this is the rationale of a madman. We might as well all walk around with our pants permanently down to save time in the bathroom.) Of course I’m just as bemused when things that don’t bother me piss him off; this is a man who regularly yells at his FitBit, “I just moved 2 minutes ago you motherfucker!”

So imagine how bad things must be in our house for Scott to be in a similar state of apoplexy with our renters as I. A few days ago we returned home after a year away to find a house where every single light bulb had burnt out and not been replaced. I shudder to think of our tenants huddling in the slowly gathering gloom, confused as to where the light has gone, drawing together under the weak sunshine filtering in through the (now filthy) skylight. Perhaps they didn’t understand where the light normally comes from, or even the concept of electricity? I am leaning toward the latter explanation, since our power bill tripled while we were away. Every month since we left I would get a threatening email from BC Hydro, warning me that we were only halfway through the billing cycle and yet on track to leave in the dust the “preferred lower rate” we had previously enjoyed. And while we’re at it, the emails seemed to imply, we would like to let you know that while you used to be Good People, you are obviously now very, very Bad People indeed. (Is there any other industry that relentlessly shames you for using too much of their product?) I forwarded these emails to Ollie – the only official tenant left after his new girlfriend, who had co-signed the lease, took off after two months of connubial bliss that apparently included a lot of candlelight dinners – with increasingly desperate cover notes. Are you perhaps running an air conditioner? I asked. Using fans all day? Leaving the lights on all the time? (This last theory of course rendered invalid by the absence of working bulbs after a couple months into their stay.) These questions are all polite code for, “Are you running a meth lab in our 1200-square-foot condo?” If he was, then he obviously used our pots and pans in his operation, for most of them were ruined: burnt black inside and with chunks of what look like … carbon clinging in the corners and to the sides. Probably, though, he used them for the usual food preparation but had no earthly idea how to clean them: one of them had a hardened piece of what clearly is diced onion – still translucent and recognizable – bonded to the inside, like the single tile of an ancient Roman mosaic. On the other hand, the stove and oven no longer work.

Other mysteries abound. The upstairs toilet now rocks back and forth on its stump, and so does our coffee table: one of its industrial tempered-steel legs seems to have been bent. The sheer strength required to effect these changes (and: how? and: why?) gives me pause. (Perhaps I should rethink the various revenge strategies I’ve been mulling in the sleepless wee hours.) Even more odd, to my mind, is the fact that there are thirteen new umbrellas in the stand in the front hall. Thirteen. Granted, it rains here 364 days a year for 23.5 hours a day, but still. They range from a decorative child’s version — a miniature number in clear plastic with a bright pink handle – to oversized doorman’s models that could shelter a small rugby team. While I don’t find it at all mysterious that visitors might deposit their umbrellas in the stand after coming inside, I cannot for the life of me figure out why so many of them abandoned them when they left. Perhaps they got overheated from a vigorous session of meth cooking or coffee table calisthenics and welcomed the cooling rain. One other significant item has been left behind: a very elaborate, quite lovely, ceramic bong with a ceramic frog clinging to its side, as if trying to crawl its way up to the mouthpiece for a hit.

Even though Scott and I are sharing a companionable state of boiling outrage over the state of our apartment, we are incensed over completely different things. He has focused on the fact that someone has thoroughly encrusted the downstairs bathroom and his study with heart-shaped plastic stick-on hooks decorated with a pink argyle design. I mean, they are everywhere: on the back of the doors, on the doorframes, on the side of his bookcase. How many things can one person possibly need to hang on hooks? Is there some new organizational scheme we haven’t heard of yet, like that closet system with all the boxes, that involves suspending all your possessions in mid-air? He is also disgusted by the twist-up air fresheners (“so … American!”) and the slow-dissolve toilet tank tablet that renders the flushing water blue.

How do we piece together these shards of evidence to form a picture of our tenants? Clearly they are drug addicts and hardened grifters obsessed with offensive smells.  Who knows what has happened in our house for the past year?  What tales could these walls tell? One thing is obvious: whatever happened here happened without us. We abandoned our lovely little gem of an apartment to the depredations of two twenty-something maniacs, and we (and our condiment cups) deserve everything we get.

On Hospitality. A Manifesto.

ΟΔΥΣΣΕΑΣ

Do not expect reciprocity. Open your home in an attitude of non-expectation. Try not to hope.

This state is impossible for human beings. Recognize this impossibility and forgive yourself for your desire.

Yet continue to strive. Turn yourself inside out as much as you can. Strain toward the perfection of absolute giving as a horizon, an asymptote.

Things you could give away that you might not have thought of: your couch. The suit you were married in. Extra pens you have lying around. Your undivided attention. A kidney.

But be wary of potlatch and all forms of competition. If a friend doesn’t want your kidney then don’t embarrass him by pressing.

Recognize that there are limits to the concept of hospitality, which is based on the notion that my home is separate from yours. Hospitality is a modern invention and the bailiwick of the middle class; the mansions of the nobility were open by fiat to the state, to soldiers, to ghosts, to the gentle nosiness of Mr and Mrs Gardiner and the dreamy rapacity of Elizabeth Bennett. Only those who are not forced to billet soldiers or admit vampires can be said to extend hospitality. Consider whether you think hospitality is enough.

Some examples of hospitality include: Everything Winnie-the-Pooh does. A bunch of episodes in The Odyssey. Lots of stuff from the Bible.

Some examples of non-hospitality: Polyphemus (don’t eat your guests, even if they were not invited). The Lotus-Eaters (allow your guests to leave when they want to). Circe (do not transform your guests into beasts). Odysseus and the suitors (however, also a grey area). Come to think of it, The Odyssey is pretty ambivalent about hospitality.

Hospitality should be invisible. If you make a big deal about how generous you are and how open your home, you undermine the whole enterprise. One of the best things Miss Manners ever advised was what to do if your guest accidentally drinks the contents of her finger bowl: immediately pick up your own finger bowl and down it.

Yet do not hide your light under a bushel simply to make others comfortable. Fakery of any kind is counter to the spirit of hospitality.

When friends tell you that they can’t return your hospitality because your cooking is too delicious or the paintings on your walls are too beautiful and they feel ashamed, understand that they’re being ridiculous. Forgive them and love them for being ridiculous.

Invite them over again soon and serve them a terrine of pressed butterfly wings in rosewater aspic. Feed them by hand.

Let them doze off on the couch, then depart your house as quietly as you can.  Leave the keys on the front hall table. Take up residence in their tiny apartment and fall in love with their cruel cats and enjoy their tinned vegetables and stare at their framed movie posters until they move you to tears. Make a new furrow in their mattress. Forget your own name.