BiteMissing

When my children went off to college three years apart, they left two bedrooms empty and gave me the opportunity to reflect on my use of space. The two empty rooms felt like a waste of resources, an irresponsible stewardship of square footage. So I began renting rooms, a month at a time, to English language learners visiting from around the world. They came from Taiwan, Japan, Peru, Kuwait, Libya. I provided breakfast and dinner as the twenty-something students struggled with English and discovered America, marveling at my spacious house and my friendly dog.

Most of the students were the hardworking investments of their hopeful families, and I made many lasting friendships with these earnest and sincere international guests. After two years away, I returned home and continued my innkeeper role. But this time I eschewed preparing dinners and shepherding young people. This time I went for adults, tourists, visitors from nearby and far away and I signed up as a host with AirBnb. I tidied up my home, removed my children’s stored clothes and books, did some painting, simplified décor and made sure there was a bed, chair and bookcase in each of the now three guest rooms. Early experiences were reassuring. People were struck by the light in my modern home and I made many friends. I offered breakfast and took time to get to know my guests, even those who weren’t instant soulmates.

“Aren’t you nervous about having strangers in your home?” friends asked over and over. “What about your valuables? Your privacy?” I didn’t have a problem. I loved welcoming people, learning about the interesting lives of others and baking muffins. I was selective about whose reservations I accepted, measuring their trustworthiness and carefulness by scrutinizing their email replies. And I had a nearly perfect record — guests were kind, curious and interesting. Oh, there were a few mishaps. But beyond broken glasses and using dog towels instead of people towels (both clearly labeled), nothing serious enough to challenge my commitment to hearty hosting has come about. Until now.

Nearly five months ago I went outside Airbnb and agreed to rent my house to a sailing team coming for a post America’s Cup regatta of high-speed small light boats. They were coming to win this year, having done well previously and they wanted “evenings to bond and strategize,” so they requested the house without me. Caught up in the phenomenon that America’s Cup promised, I agreed to this arrangement and began doing my own strategizing to find a place to stay during the two weeks my house would be occupied. I asked for lots of money and a $500 cleaning fee. I felt reasonably confident that they would be fine guests. And I finally found a place to stay, a generous friend’s extra room, though without wifi and where my dog was not welcome. A neighbor offered to dogsit and I would frequent local coffee shops to get on the internet. I’d cope. Besides, there’s an innkeeper in me. The extra income is as delightful as the socializing, now that I’m not working fulltime. And, two years of innkeeping have yielded only the most rapturous reviews from guests. Aside from the one party that complained privately about the “crunchy” towels (referring to those I had dried on the clothesline), I appear to be naturally hospitable. It’s been good in large part because Airbnb has made it so easy and so friendly. It never occurred to me that not going through Airbnb would be different.

The sailors arrived, in numbers greater than I anticipated, each of them preoccupied with winning, one of them so dedicated that he was going to be absent for his second child’s birth. There were two from Ireland, two from the States and four from Australia. An Australian couple had brought their two young daughters and Grandma, who was to serve as provisions coordinator, babysitter and cook. Eight adults with two small children seemed a hefty load for my house, but they assured me everything was in order.

On Day #2 however, Grandma informed me of “some trouble.” The sewage had backed up into the master shower. She showed me the damage and I knew I had to act swiftly. Eight thousand dollars and two days later, the plumber had replaced a lateral sewage pipe and installed a clean-out valve in the iris bed. The sewage system now functioned better than ever but I was numb with the scope and expense of the problem. “I certainly hope this is coincidental!” the captain said to me cheerfully as he was heading out for practice. I had a hunch that eight people suddenly showering, running the laundry and the dishwasher simultaneously had expedited whatever mishap would have occurred anyway.

The sailors did not win. In fact, they muddled through more misadventures than of a plumbing variety. Their boat was in a collision that required some serious repair. And during one race they were penalized for “pumping the main” and were made to make turns that placed them among the lowest ranking racing teams for that day. After fourteen days of intense competition, they placed fifth, disappointingly far from the first place position they had intended to grab.

Perhaps the focus on winning, the “important evening bonding” at my house through a motivational bar-b-q, regular hot tubs, the consumption of Belgian beer explain the condition in which they left my house. Or maybe it was the boat accident, the series of setbacks. Perhaps the grandmother simply couldn’t keep up with housekeeping and the nonstop demands of two grandchildren and the laundry and shopping and cooking for so many hungry men. Perhaps her long lonely days ran her ragged and left her frustrated and irritable.

Whatever the reason for no goodbye note, no explanation for a terrible mess, a questionably hasty departure, I found my house in complete disarray. Once again I felt numb, this time walking through a house turned upside down. I was aghast and disheartened. The lights were on, the washing machine and dryer doors left ajar, and the carpet was full of stains. A sticky dust of cookie crumbs lay atop every piece of furniture. The kitchen garbage was stuffed to bursting with dirty diapers and the dishwasher had been dislodged from its cabinet. The oven was filthy, the refrigerator shelves were jammed full of processed food they had left behind and lodged behind several open packages of bacon, beef and cheese, I found unwrapped half-eaten apples rolling back and forth beside the back of the frig that was dripping with red goop. More worrisome were the dark brown stains slung across the master bathroom cabinet leading to a string of blotches on the carpet. An English teapot given to me when my daughter was born lay on the kitchen counter next to its ornate handle, broken. There were random sheets in a closet, in the living room, toys and parts of toys strewn behind the couch and under the coffee table. Nothing approaching such chaos had ever happened with Airbnb guests.

In a recent article New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about Airbnb’s inadvertent founder, Brian Chesky. He claims that Chesky’s highly successful global rental agency does something much bigger than entrepreneurial hosting and renting. The real innovation is trust. “Airbnb has created a framework of trust that has made tens of thousands of people comfortable renting rooms in their homes to strangers.” It’s true. Friedman is right. Two years of renting through Airbnb set me up with abundant trust for the time I didn’t rent through Airbnb.

Beyond the broken teapot and the master bedroom stains there’s nothing I can’t clean, repair or rebuild. These are only things, I say to myself. The people I love are healthy. But I continue to shudder when I think of this experience. My home was trashed and my faith in the goodwill of guests has been sorely challenged.

So I’m not sure I’ll be a landlady any more. It’ll take some time to recover. My sailing friends did much more than cause me to pause in my small friendly business of renting empty bedrooms. Eventually I’ll replace the teapot and cover the stains with a small rug. It will take longer to recover from the more serious damage, the loss of trust.

©Meredith Pike-Baky, 2014

Meredith Pike-Baky (BAWP 1999) coordinates the Saturday Seminar Program and teaches writing for teachers in the summer. She worked with teachers in Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville this year and became a grandmother. She hikes, gardens, reads, writes and bakes muffins for the occasional guest.

 
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2 Responses to “The Inkeeper That Resides in Me by Meredith Pike-Baky”

  1. Beth Morton Says:

    What a gripping tale Meredith. You deftly painted pictures in my mind – that unruly crowd of sailors in your pretty airy home. Such a mismatch!


  2. Hi, Meredith, Nextel time youcome to Brazzaville, crois thé River Congo and joint me in Kinshasa. Your brother, Cephas

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