Between my Eagle Scout award and total adolescent sobriety, adults in high school generally considered me responsible, often to the point of entrusting me with important things like their houses or daughters. This lead to house sitting, which has in turn spawned a number of life-long hobbies I amuse myself with when unattended in other people’s homes.
One summer shortly after I got my first car, family friends asked me to house sit for them. They charged me with basic duties like collecting their mail, watering fica plants, and alternating lights in different rooms at night as to throw off any would-be burglars. It was predicated on the notion that I was sufficiently competent to keep newspapers from piling up on the driveway while not reducing their house to cinders.
And of course I was. I competently executed all of these tasks. But through boredome, no supervision and my own shiny set of house keys, I began to treat their home like a club house. Or, more accurately, as a work of art. As a large walk-in canvas I could tweak and alter for my own amusement.
Little things at first. For instance, I went through their day planner and jotted down questionable activities during my tenure as their house steward. Tuesday read, “What happens if I put a can of Spaghettios in the microwave?” Or Wednesday, “Remember to relocate handguns before family returns home.”
Eventually I replaced all of the pictures in their house with pictures of me.
I stayed out of bedrooms (I felt that would be too personal) but considered everything in public space fair game. When they returned home every family portrait had been replaced with a Heaton family portrait. Pictures of the kids on the refrigerator featured me instead.
I did my best to match poses and coloring so that they wouldn’t immediately notice. And in some instances I employed a strategy of diminutive placement to avoid detection. For instance, one framed picture featured their son’s school portraits year by year. So I swapped out only his third grade picture with one of me, knowing it would take several months for them to notice the single abberant photo.
I still do this sometimes. Last week my roommate Jim left town for a couple of days, so I went into his room and replaced a signed photo of him standing with a senator or car salesman or something with a signed headshot of myself.
Astoundingly, despite telling people about my house sitting shenanigans, other people continued to pay me modest sums to monitor their abodes. The following summer a family in a neighborhood adjacent to mine asked me to house sit for a week.
I didn’t pull the same stunt with the photos– an artist stays fresh. Instead I put a dummy in my friend and future prom date’s bed. I also made a copy of her set of car keys. Thereafter, every few days for two or three months, I would excuse myself during lunch at our high school, unlock her car and then relocate it to another spot in the parking lot.
I seem to recall thinking Operation Clandestine Car Relocation had some sort of experimental quality to it, but I no longer remember what the point nor outcome of the exercise was. In fact I don’t remember if I ever even told her about the prank prior to her institutionalization.
Few people ask me to watch their houses for them anymore. But I still get invited over for dinner and parties with surprising regularity, where I never grow tired of my signature move. I ask “May I borrow a Sharpie?” Then I meander to their kitchen and label everything in their refrigerator and freezer as belonging to me. Yogurt is labeled “HEATON’S YOGURT.” Milk becomes “HEATON’S MILK.”
It’s imperative to be stealthy and quick, because the prank is best discovered after I’ve left the premises. Ideally all foodstuff in their house will have my name on it for months, sometimes years. (I spoke with a friend of mine over the weekend, and she still has objects in her spice rack bearing my signature from the year 2003.)
My favorite food article that I ever labeled was a Pringles chip. The can of Pringles was already opened, so I took out three quarters of the chips, labeled one “ANDREW’S CHIP” and put it back in its original position.
This weekend my roommate Jim went to a wedding in Virginia, so I decided to install a koi pond in his bathroom. Originally I planned to fill up his bathtub with catfish, but couldn’t figure out where to get any shy of actually catching them myself. So instead I settled on turning his sink into a large fishbowl.
I named my fish Montez, after the helpful guy at PetCo who assisted me in selecting the fish most likely to survive several days of living in Jim’s sink. Jim got back tonight and said he didn’t like having a fish in his sink and so now Montez has moved to a pint glass in my bathroom. Using the pint glass’s origin as a reference, my fish is now named Montez von Schneithorst.
Here, you can see him yourself:
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.