Mai Tran began catsitting in 2021 while Tran was on pandemic unemployment, often staying overnight in people’s homes. Tran has now cared for twenty-two cats and traveled to ten apartments all over New York City, observing the interior lives of cat owners and appeasing their neuroses. From home vet visits to black eyes to refugee cats, Chronicles of a Catsitter documents the most memorable days on the job.
Roosevelt Island is the kind of place a man would take you on a Hinge date. Sandwiched between Queens and Manhattan in the East River, it is a little inconvenient to get to, a little bald-faced in its efforts to be distinctive, and, dare I say, a little bland. A poll of my born-and-raised New York friends reveals that most have never set foot on the island, and if they have, it was only once.
My first foray there is for a catsitting gig. I get it the way I get almost all of my gigs: through a cat rescue my roommate and I used to foster with. In the rescue’s Facebook group, I respond quickly and aggressively to every post looking for an overnight catsitter. Overnights paid more than drop-in visits, and in those years, I equally craved time away from my roommate and the tiny, sunless room I rented in our shared apartment.
After an initial visit to “meet the cats,” I return for a week in September. The couple I’m working for live in a luxury high-rise, which, on arrival, feels more like a hotel than a home. I pick up the keys from the doorman and head up. The cats are nowhere in sight, so I drop my bags and start poking around. The couple had given me directions for the cats and said I was free to eat anything in the fridge, but not much beyond that.
There is a neat stack of blankets and pillows on the couch. I had assumed I would be sleeping on their bed and changing the sheets before I left, as I usually did when other people were away, but I take this as a signal that they want me in the living room. To the left is the kitchen, where I see a small plastic camera sitting on the counter. I don’t know anything about surveillance brands, or if the thing is even on. When my friend calls me later, I whisper into the phone, afraid to talk shit out loud.
I find another camera in the bedroom, and yet another in the office. My restaurant/retail training comes back to me, and I clock all the cameras’ blind spots for places where I might undress or relax into a more disgusting self.
I go to use the bathroom and discover that it is the designated room for smoking. The cabinets are empty, and the walls are yellowed from the cigarette butts lining the trash can. There is a pile of paper towels soaking up an odorless, brown liquid at the base of the toilet. I retreat to the other bathroom, which is dry and functioning. Where one might find toilet paper, however, there is only a full-sized roll of paper towels. I scramble under the sink and check their closets, coming up with nothing. I can’t tell if they always use towels, which seems not only expensive but also rough on the body, or if they ran out of toilet paper and didn’t have time to replace it before I arrived.
The two cats are extremely shy but have been slowly coming out to investigate, aided by a trail of treats I left on the ground, leading from their sleeping spot to mine. The cameras have lit up with a red circle around the lens, and some have swiveled on their axes, so at least now I know how they work. I send the couple photos of their cats almost hourly, and they respond with enthusiasm. Some senior cats require a lot of monitoring and care, but these ones are young, healthy, and clearly don’t need me, so I figure constant communication and fun commentary are what I’m there for. The couple finally addresses the cameras, texting that they want to be able to see the cats at will. I accept it, since we’re already this far in, and ultimately, I’ve been seen by worse.
A friend I hook up with works in a building across the river. From photos he’s sent me, I know there is a window where he can see a brief strip of the island. When he’s on break, I text him that I’m going to flash him, and walk the half mile up to be parallel to his building. We coordinate until he sees me, but then there are people around, and I get too shy to do anything other than jump and wave my arms. I’m not as brave as I once was in my youth (exactly four years ago, when I was willing to get on a motorcycle and didn’t need to eat a weekly salad).
Walking around, the island feels deserted and suburban, eerily quiet compared to the rest of the city. There is one main street with two bus lines running up and down, a post office, library, school, and in the center of everything, Roosevelt Island’s own police station. The island is primarily residential and full of glass towers, structured so no one is ever just “passing through.” I feel conspicuous against the scrubbed exteriors, my reflection constantly bouncing back at me. When I reenter the couple’s building, I say hi to the doorman, and he stops me because he does not yet know me. In the elevator, my reflection again. I think I should’ve packed nicer clothes than I did, an array of crop tops I blunted with kitchen scissors.
Seven a.m. I’m asleep on the couch when I hear someone in the apartment. I freeze. KITTTYYY, a woman says. KITTY KITTY KITTY. The voice is crackly, a little screechy, and I hear a man in the background. The voices bounce between the bedroom and the office. I roll over onto my side, too early to be anything other than deeply annoyed. I’d seen horror videos of voices suddenly speaking through indoor cameras, but I didn’t know the couple had that function. While I decide whether to text them to stop or get up and talk to them through the lens, the voices cut out, and then they’re gone.
I have to work in the city today, and on my way back I embark on one of Roosevelt Island’s biggest draws when it comes to the Hinge date: the sky tram. For the same price as a subway fare, you can take a bright red gondola across the river to the island and back, with views of the city and Queensboro Bridge. The Manhattan tram station is also one of the few stations left that requires a Metro Card instead of tapping your phone. The nostalgia! The freedom from surveillance! I feel downright whimsical, using the tram as an everyday means of transportation. The ride is quick and operates more reliably than the island’s single, local train stop, which I’ve seen come every twenty minutes on the weekend. I can clock the regular commuters, because they are blasé about the view, while everyone else takes photos and crowds against the windows.
In the evening, I open Grindr to see what kind of gays live on the island. I find a “very discreet” man who seems nice enough and is available right now, so I walk ten minutes to his apartment, in a building where the neighbors are friendly and say hi to me. After a minute of kissing, I have a feeling I will not be having a great time, in that gray area where I have no problem getting up and leaving, yet I did all this work (brushed my teeth) and came all this way (2,348 feet), so I might as well see it through. It’s a little fumbling, and everyone is polite. One of us cums. Neither of us follows up immediately after.
The cats are comfortable enough now that I can pet and play with them. I’m throwing a mouse toy around when one bats it into the smoking bathroom, and I follow him in. The paper towels that were soaking up the mysterious liquid are now covered in a light swathe of microscopic bugs. I decide the situation is above my pay grade and close the door on that. I’m unsure if the liquid was a last-minute occurrence, or if the couple thought I could avoid it, or if they hire someone to clean and therefore don’t do any cleaning themselves. I remind myself that I, too, am someone they hire, despite the casualness of catsitting, and not necessarily a guest that requires hospitality or a person to impress. And lots of people have bug issues and don’t have time or energy for cleaning, I reason. People can do whatever they want in their own homes. Who am I to judge, especially when a cat turned up with a dead mouse in my apartment just last month? All that to say, I feel affronted by the apartment’s excess of rooms and amenities, the ability to have nice things and still treat them poorly.
It’s the weekend, and I go out to run the island’s perimeter, about four miles around. I feel the great privilege of being able to walk outside and immediately touch grass, like living in a giant park. The sun is glorious, the river is glorious, and the island is much livelier today, people having traveled in from other neighborhoods to mosey about and picnic. The residents are out too. So many families concentrate here that I run past multiple children’s birthday parties. Twice I spot a runaway balloon, one bobbing in the water, another blighting the sky.
I take a quick break to check out the ruins of a smallpox hospital, another popular tourist destination, and a longer detour to look for a group of stray cats the couple had mentioned. I find them atop a small hill, ten or so lounging around a two-story structure shaped like a house, complete with a shingled roof, porch, and multiple cat doors. The shelter is run by a nonprofit that a local resident established, made up of mostly white women volunteers, like the 501(c)(3) I used to receive foster cats from. I loved the fosters but never got attached to them, didn’t have a hard time saying goodbye at all. For a while, I wondered if something was wrong with my psyche or if I had secondhandedly absorbed my parents’ attitude that animals belonged outside, to be respected but not coddled, the way they said Americans coddled everything. Eventually, though, or perhaps inevitably, the childhood cat my father reluctantly allowed into his home is now being picked up and cradled like a baby, and every time I meet a deli cat, I secretly hope it will follow me out.
My last day on the island. I plan to see a friend in Brooklyn, and I take the ferry to use every unconventional mode of transportation available. Very few things give me more serotonin than sitting on the top deck, feeling the breeze on my face, and toasting in the sun. A ferry ride used to cost the same as a subway fare until Mayor Adams increased the price to “fund the transit system,” meanwhile giving the New York Police Department $11.1 billion (the largest police budget in the US), limiting migrants’ access to shelter, cutting hundreds of millions from schools, ending Sunday service at libraries, eradicating composting programs, and ruining everything else good in the city.
Adams is just one in a long line of many. Roosevelt Island was originally called Minnehanonck by the native Lenape people, before the Dutch colonized it in the seventeenth century, then sold to the British, and then the city of New York in 1828. The city incarcerated and isolated the mad, sick, and poor there, in prisons and asylums and hospitals. The institutions were never really “abandoned” or closed, despite what the island looks like now. In 1932, the Rikers Island jail opened, and a few years later, everyone incarcerated on Roosevelt Island was transferred to it.
While looking into the island’s history, people refer me to books and movies that take place there, many of them horror. I feel it, too, not the haunting so much as the burying. Everything is slick with gloss. When I walk on the grass, it doesn’t feel like grass; it feels like a lawn—and the home, not a home but a hotel, the people living there all visiting from somewhere else.
The couple is returning in the evening, so after I visit my friend and take care of my real and made-up errands, I rush back to do a final clean-up and gather my belongings. I stuff a few carbonated drinks in my bag, as an extra tip to myself, leave the keys on the table, and say goodbye to the cats.
I return to catsit a few more times, and find out the couple does use toilet paper. There have been no more bugs or spectral voices. On my most recent visit, I notice the tabletop cameras are gone, and think, Oh, no more surveillance! I spread my belongings on the floor and change clothes out in the open. I spend my days shirtless, as people with top surgery are known to do (and as an aspiring jock), only to one day turn and see the cameras were just mounted into the walls instead, high up near the ceiling. A free show for everyone!
On another visit, I take the sky tram back to the island when I run into the discreet man I hooked up with. It’s a dark winter night, and everyone has coats on. I barely remember his face from the thrilling twenty minutes we spent together, but by the way we make hard eye contact and quickly shuffle to different parts of the gondola, I am quite sure it is him. He is with a woman now. I can’t tell what their relationship is, but he will hit me up once more before we lose contact altogether.
I still don’t go to the island in my free time. The closest I get is when I run on the Queensboro Bridge and physically pass over it, first catching sight of the ferry dock, then the baseball field, then the tram station, and finally, the rocky shore. If the couple looked out their window, they might be able to see me, but as always, I don’t know if they ever do.