Guest-ation Periods*

The other day I ran into my friend Julie on the street. She looked exhausted. “I haven’t been home for two days,” she told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I have no privacy there anymore!” she confessed. It turned out a friend had asked her if he could stay in her apartment “for a few days” while the contractors were finishing up the renovations on his own, newly-purchased apartment.

“Contractors?” I practically yelled at her. “My god, Julie. You know what ‘a few days’ means to contractors! It could be weeks….even months. What were you thinking?”

“I know, I know,” said Julie, putting her hand up to her forehead in despair. “It’s been over a week already, and he doesn’t show any signs of leaving. He keeps talking about how upset he is that they put the wrong flooring in and how they have to rip it all out. He’s very apologetic about it.”

I steered her into a nearby coffee place. “You’re the one who should be apologetic, Julie, when you tell him he needs to leave.”

The unwanted house guest is a common problem for people who live in places like New York City, where it’s almost impossible to find a cheap place to stay—and which happens to be the preferred destination for so many vacationers. I have heard numerous stories about people who come to visit for a few days and settle in for a month. This is why host/guest pre-communication (“hospitality foreplay”) is so important. The host needs to define the terms of the “guest-ation period” before the guest(s) gets settled into the host’s office or living room. And the host should have no guilt about setting limits.

What are these limits? When you’d like to put out the welcome mat, but don’t want to be a total doormat, how long should you let someone stay? How do you know, until someone is actually in your home, how much you will be bothered (or not bothered) by his presence? We’ve all heard the saying (generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin) about fish and houseguests smelling after three days, but this maxim is really only half true. A really great guest who has come at the perfect time—when your work is slow, or the kids are off at camp—can stay for a week and it can be more pleasurable for you than a difficult guest who has arrived at an inopportune time and stays for only one night. A visit from a couple with several very small, very precocious children can make a half a day seem like a month. If you live in east Texas and hardly ever have houseguests, a two-week visit from good friends can feel like heaven; however if you live in a place like Manhattan, where most people’s living space is cramped and the flow of houseguests never-ending, you may opt for a strict two-night only rule.

There is no question that the friend who needs to stay with you because they are having a problem of some kind—be it divorce or demolition—is often the trickiest. You feel horrible saying no, and yet there is nothing socially beneficial about the experience for you, for the most part. It’s just an intrusion on your life. And while we--at certain times--could, would and should put a friend-in-need up for however long they need it, it is not by any means de rigueur. The problem is, it’s hard for most of us to say no to a friend. This is one of those times when a white lie may save you both from painful awkwardness. If the friend desires to stay longer than you want him to, the best thing may be to simply tell him you have someone else coming to stay at the end of the week--or that your apartment is being painted, or your bathtub reglazed.

After our iced Mocha Lattes, I finally convinced Julie that she would not be a horrible person if she asked her friend-turned-houseguest to leave. We began to strategize.

“Hey, what about bedbugs?” said Julie with a sudden gleam. “What if I told him I think I have bedbugs? Would that work?”

“No,” I said emphatically, “some things are too horrible to fib about. It’s bad karma. Besides, next thing you know he’ll tell someone else you have bedbugs and that will be the end of your social life.”

Although, I thought to myself, there is one good thing about bedbugs. You don’t have to feel bad about trying to get rid of them.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 15, 2011


The World is My Dumpster*

Last Saturday night I witnessed a random act of "terracism."

It started off as a perfect evening at the home of friends. It was a balmy 72 degrees, with a gentle Hudson River breeze—ideal conditions for eating outside. My fellow dinner guests seemed in particularly good spirits—and why not? Our hostess was a professional chef, so we all knew we were in for a gastronomical treat. Moreover, the hosts’ second-floor terrace was exceptionally large (by New York standards) and was furnished for maximum guest comfort. Seated at the long wooden dining table, we were just beginning to enjoy the first few bites of a delectable leg of lamb when suddenly—whzzzt!—a lit cigarette came plummeting down, passing six inches from the host’s ear and landing next to him on the deck.

We all shrieked, then laughed. (It happened to be the night that wacky group of Christians thought the world was going to end, which may have made us a little more jumpy than usual at the sight of fiery objects flying by.) Our host, looking miserable, informed us that this kind of thing happened to them on a regular basis, and that sailing cigarette butts were not by any means the worst occurrences. Other kinds of trash, including (horrors!) used condoms, had been flung down during dinners. After that we found ourselves glancing upwards every so often at the balconies stretching some 40 floors above us, like Chicken Little waiting for the sky to fall. The sweetness of the evening now seemed tainted with unknown menace. When it began to drizzle, we happily moved inside. The drizzle did not last long, however, and we began to think about moving back out on the terrace for dessert. That’s when it started really pouring—or so we thought. In actuality someone was watering plants on a balcony a couple stories up!

The hosts, who had moved into the building recently, confessed that they had chosen this particular apartment because of the spacious terrace; they had anticipated a whole glorious summer of entertaining al fresco. Now, after three months of dealing with the nasty neighborly debris, they were thinking of moving. They had never imagined a building with such high rents would have such low-life tenants. They told us neighbors walking their dogs below them occasionally tossed poop up over the railing onto their terrace as well.  Complaints to the landlord had been fruitless.

There are, of course, many people (mostly bored teens) who see balcony vandalism as a sport—throwing water balloons or furniture off to see how things will smash, or how people below will scatter. There is even a website where people brag-post about the various items—bottles, cans, books, mice (to name a few of the tamer ones)—they enjoy hurling off balconies. In fact, the sheer number of YouTube videos there are of people tossing objects off rooftops and balconies suggests an innate impulse of some sort—a compulsion to engage with the laws of gravity. Perhaps the desire to let things fall is a deep-rooted instinct that kicks in when mammals are up high in open air. Like a chimp throwing down coconuts from the top of a tree.

However, notwithstanding the possibility of some sort of terrace envy, or actual hostility regarding noise that may be wafting up from the terrace parties below them, the people who are tossing cigarette butts in this case are not doing it for fun. Presumably they are just thoughtless individuals, with no idea of the potential consequence of a lit cigarette catapulted into the air. Perhaps in their version of reality, the cigarette ceases to be as soon as it leaves their hands. This kind of social blindness, the lack of consciousness about the existence of other people, is sadly a part of our modern urban life.

By the end of the night, as we were enjoying our chocolate cream puffs from the safety of the smaller dining area indoors, we had come to the consensus that our hosts were going to have to invest in a protective awning—flame resistant, if not bulletproof. After all, as one man put it, “They do say that good fences make good neighbors.”

“Hmm,” I said, gazing out at the dripping sofa cushions on the terrace. “If fences make good neighbors, I guess balconies make bad ones.”

*Published June 1, 2011, in The West Side Spirit
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Communicable Dis-Ease*

 I was visiting my aunt, who had just moved into an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility.  Her long-term memory is still pretty much intact, which makes conversation tricky, because often she seems totally with it--until she begins to talk about the men who are stealing her toothbrush, or about how I am living in the room next to her.  “Have they been calling you for dinner on time?” she says. “You know last night they canceled it entirely.”  Or “Did they tell you what’s wrong with you?  They won’t tell me, but I think I have some kind of vitamin deficiency.”  I stayed with her for a little over an hour, trying to divert her--as I had been instructed--away from conversations about her health, her future, or why she no longer has a phone or a stove.  I complimented the pictures on the wall (water colors she painted in her youth); we sang a funny song the family used to sing together at Thanksgiving dinner.   I tried to counter her fearful inquiries about the drugs “they” were giving her with cheerful observations about how good I’d heard the food was, and how excited I was about the community garden she would be able to be involved in.

But after I said goodbye, a weird thing happened to me.  I suddenly found myself confused about the location of the facility’s exit (to be fair, this was due partially to the building’s design―as naturally, they don’t want the residents getting out.)  Moreover, I became unaccountably anxious about my temporary disorientation.  I began to feel unusually frustrated, until after what felt like an eon, a staff member kindly showed me the way out.  Later I realized what had happened: I had been influenced―no, infected--by my aunt’s state of mind.

Though my ailing aunt can certainly not be held responsible, the experience I had is an example of a common social phenomenon―a form of social infectiousness I think of as “the Transmitted Vibe.”  The Transmitted Vibe occurs when you pick up, or “catch” the strong energy of the person with whom you are interacting.  My spending an hour with a person with memory-loss dementia was the cause of my inability to negotiate my way out of there.  My brain started to mirror hers (I even found myself blathering to the receptionist on my way out, apologizing too much, and feeling oddly unfocused.)

This kind energy transference between people occurs all the time, albeit usually in more normal social circumstances.  For instance, you go to a party where everyone around you is happy about some recent triumph and find yourself feeling abnormally buoyant.  You go to a family dinner where everyone is stressed out and argumentative, and you become unaccountably pissy.  You go to a dinner party where everyone is laid back and telling funny stories, and suddenly you are laughing and relaxed, and find you can even remember a joke you used to tell in college.  You go to an event where everyone is bored, and you suddenly feel there is a cotton around your brain and all you want to do is go home.

Just like the flu, the Transmitted Vibe is a form of contagion.  If what you are catching is of the positive variety, so much the better; however, there is no simple immunization against a person with bad vibes.  (They don’t make Airborne for this.)  All you can do is to be aware when someone’s negative energy is affecting you and try to remove yourself from that person if possible. 

More important, always try to remember, when preparing to enter into a social arena, that you yourself are potentially contagious.  If you are in such a bad mood that you are not sure you will be able to have a good time, remember that donning your best attitude is as important as donning your best dress.  Not just for you, but for the people you might unwittingly infect.  Most of us are more susceptible than we would ever imagine to the moods of those around us.  And, just as we should cover our mouths when we cough, we must endeavor to avoid spreading social dis-ease.

Laugh and the world laughs with you―cry and you may just depress the heck out of someone.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, May 4, 2011