6 Jack Russell Terriers in an Apartment Part One: The Key
I always thought of Carlos Martinez as the Murphy’s Law Client, because everything that could go wrong, did, and in spades. I had been pet sitting for about a year when we met. I had previously worked at the local animal shelter, but had to quit when the stresses of the environment got to me. I was a very enthusiastic new business owner, ready to take on any situation that came my way, sure that my business and animal skills could handle anything.
The job started out simply enough; Carlos had seen my ad in the phone book and called me to inquire about pet sitting service. He was planning on traveling to his home country in South America to visit relatives and needed someone to care for his two Jack Russell Terriers for two weeks. The dogs lived in an apartment in the Mission District so they would need to be walked twice a day and fed. No big deal, or so I thought…
Nothing prepared me for what I saw, and smelled, when I arrived for the initial visit. Mr. Martinez’s apartment was furnished with only an old, shredded brown couch and an air mattress, with a table/lamp combo for light. The stained carpet was littered with dog feces and garbage, and the kitchen counter was covered with take-out containers half full of rotted food.
After a year of working in people’s homes, I hardly noticed untidiness, but this was extreme. I was gawking at the mess when he held out his hand and introduced himself, with a wide smile that indicated he was unaware of the condition of his apartment. Taking a closer look at him, I was surprised to see that he was reasonably well dressed and groomed. He was tall and dark-skinned, with short dark hair and eyes that, although dark, kind of twinkled. He wore new-looking black jeans, a polo shirt, and a light jacket. His hand was big and warm as he held mine.
“These are my dogs, Jack and Jill,” he said, “They are my family.”
“Of course,” I replied, reaching down to pet the friendly brown and white wriggling creatures.
They expressed their pleasure at being scratched, especially at the base of the tail, and I understood why when two fleas crawled on to my hand. Brushing off the fleas, I followed Carlos around his apartment and gathered the usual information on feeding, walking, mail collection, and anything else I’d need to do while he was out of town. Jack and Jill followed eagerly at our heels, tongues flapping and tail stumps wagging.
Jack was a bigger dog, maybe 25lbs, while Jill was smaller and looked more like a Chihuahua with a little pointed face and huge eyes. Both were tan and white, and very lively. I noticed that Jill had something in her mouth, and when I crouched to investigate she dropped it and became very excited. Seeing that it was a small rubber ball, I picked it up and tossed it. She flew down the hall at lightning speed to retrieve the ball, then she dropped it at my feet. Laughing as I threw it a few more times, I asked, “Does she ever get tired of it?”
“No,” Carlos responded. “You can throw it a thousand times.”
Heading out the door, I asked, “Do you have a copy of the apartment key for me?”
“Oh no,” he said, “I only have one copy, and I need it until I leave tomorrow.”
“Can you put it under the mat? Some clients do that, if they don’t want to make extra copies.”
“Well, I could, but you still need to get into the complex, and that is a different key, and it cannot be duplicated.”
We went back and forth like this until we finally decided on a complicated arrangement: the key would be placed in his post office box the following morning, to which I would be given a key. I would use the box key to retrieve the apartment key, and all would be well … or so I thought.
I stood there in the post office, feeling like an idiot, trying again and again to open the box. The problem was plain; I’d been given the wrong key. When I explained my plight to the postal clerk, he didn’t quite get it (I’ll admit it was a confusing situation even for someone who knows what a pet sitter is, and this guy didn’t).
“Can you please help me? My client said he’d put his house key in the post office box, and I really need it now.”
“This isn’t your box?”
“No, it belongs to my client, Carlos Martinez? See, he gave me this other key” (holding up key) “to open the box, and get the other key out, so I can get into his house and let the dogs out.”
“That’s not the key to the house?”
“No, this is the key to the box, but it’s not working, so it must be the wrong key. Can you just open it for me please?”
“Is your name on the account?”
“No, it isn’t, it’s my client’s account.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t open it for you.” The clerk’s eyes kept flitting over to the growing line in the lobby. Clearly, he wanted me to go away, and I had no choice but to oblige him.
Client out of the country for two weeks, me with no key: fabulous. I did not have any emergency contact numbers because those would be listed on my paperwork, filled out by Mr. Martinez and left for me to pick up inside the apartment. All I could do was call his cell phone number and leave a message, hoping for the best. I didn’t know if he was still on a plane, or if the phone would even work where he was going. I went on to my other visits, feeling uneasy.
I was much relieved to get a call from Carlos the following morning. By some miracle, he had gotten my voice message. He said that a friend of his had a copy of the post office box key, and that she could retrieve the apartment key and get it to me. This was getting more complicated all the time, but at least it was a solution.
That night I pulled up in front of her place which was not in a great neighborhood and walked up the steps to the mat where the precious key was waiting. I was immediately accosted by a local who looked crazy and was begging for money. His hair and beard were long and filthy, and his clothes were torn. “Sorry, I can’t help you,” I said as I hurried up the stairs and grabbed the key. I almost stepped on a syringe as I jumped back in my car and got out of there.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I drove to Carlos’ apartment and hurried in to relieve the dogs stuck inside. They were happy to see me, but weren’t in a hurry to get out since they obviously weren’t housebroken anyway. I took them for a walk, fed them, and made a mental note to do some serious cleaning the following day.
Carlos’ landlord, Bob, was waiting for me the next morning, and he wasn’t happy. His angry posture and expression reminded me of my grandmother, the way she used to wait up for me when I started dating and staying out late. As I approached him, I half expected him to tut-tut and admonish me in an Irish accent, but this idea vanished as he let out a string of expletives and threats.
“Hold on just a minute,” I said, stopping him in mid-assault. “I don’t know you and don’t know what you want. I’m Mr. Martinez’s pet sitter.”
Bob didn’t grasp this idea, and seemed to address me as if I were a personal friend of Carlos, well aware of what I was doing wrong. You see, there was one slight problem … pets were not allowed in this apartment complex. Numerous complaints had been lodged, about the incessant barking, the foul odor, and the fleas which were working their way into neighboring units. This job was getting better all the time… The red-faced landlord told me I had better get rid of those dogs or else. I told him there was nothing I could do, and that he would just have to wait for their owner’s return. I hustled out the gate, ignoring his continued threats.
The following day, I managed to avoid Bob, and focus on cleaning up the terriers’ living quarters. I held my nose as I removed all the garbage, dirty dishes, rotten food, and dog feces. Believe it or not, this was not an uncommon pet sitting dilemma: people would sometimes leave their homes so filthy sinks full of dirty dishes, trash cans overflowing, plates of half eaten food on TV trays, and in one case a child’s potty in the kitchen with human urine and feces in it that one debated whether it was better to clean it up or to smell it and trip over it for two weeks.
After the cleanup, I walked Jack and Jill; all was well until Jill decided to have explosive diarrhea right in front of a produce shop. It was everywhere, and it stank, and my efforts to pick it up with a plastic bag were futile. The shop owner ran out and cursed at me as he hosed off the sidewalk. Apologizing, I back away, but not quickly enough. Jill, startled by the angry hose-brandishing man, bolted away and I heard a snap as her collar broke! She took off at full speed and I ran after her, suddenly having the feeling that this was all a bad dream. Fortunately, she paused long enough for me to scoop her up and carry her back to the apartment. I slumped down on the brown couch and took a deep breath. This is going to work, I thought, it has to work, I am stuck with this situation for ten more days…
Despite the rough start, the next several days were relatively uneventful; I walked and fed the dogs, who, becoming used to my visits, gave me a lively greeting each time I entered the apartment. In an effort to deal with the lack of house breaking, I covered the entire floor with newspapers, which made cleanup easier and reduced the stench somewhat. Just when I thought things were going smoothly, I ran into the landlord; I was on my way down the stairs with the dogs, and there he was, blocking my path.
“I thought I told you to get rid of those dogs!” he said, spit flying out of his mouth. His breath smelled of alcohol and he obviously hadn’t shaved or showered lately. I was beginning to worry for my safety. The dogs sensed my unease and growled low.
Taking a deep breath, I said, “Hey, I’m just the pet sitter! You need to work out your issues with your tenant when he comes back.”
Bob then took a step back and started babbling about another tenant. “See, he was allowed to have a dog, he had special permission, but when he moved out the other tenants started complaining. See, his unit was full of fleas and they went into all the other units when he left! My mother was NOT happy about that.”
Great, he lives with his mother, I thought. As he continued to ramble and spit I tried to inch past and get out the gate. Seeing that I was escaping, he moved closer to me, and this was too much for Jack and Jill. Jill lunged first, grabbing Bob’s pant leg with a great snarl; Jack, seeing that Jill was on the attack, joined her and grabbed the other pant leg. Bob shrieked and threw up his arms, at which time I darted for the gate. Naturally, the terriers did not want to let go of Bob’s legs, but with some coaxing they joined me, pieces of material hanging out of their mouths. I took them for a long walk as I calmed down and decided what to do.
Sitting on my couch at home, I picked up the phone and dialed Mr. Martinez’s number. I had decided to tell him that the job was getting out of hand, that I felt unsafe and that someone else should take over. Perhaps he had a friend who could take the dogs to their place, or perhaps he could come home early from his trip … anything other than me going back to that filthy apartment with the crazy landlord. I felt a great sense of relief as I dialed the cell phone number. Ring, ring. “The mobile number you dialed has been temporarily disconnected.” Oh God, no … he hadn’t paid his bill, and the phone was disconnected. I had no way of leaving him a message, no other contact number. Shit. I put down the phone and clicked on the TV.
By some miracle, there were no other major problems for the duration of the job. I didn’t see the landlord again, and the dogs didn’t attack anyone else or have any more diarrhea. On the last day I left Mr. Martinez a note asking him to call me right away. Scratching my flea bites, I drove away from his apartment, for what I thought was the last time.