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.

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Most people who know me know that I catsit. It’s not my go-to conversation topic, but it often comes up logistically, like when I tell people I live in X neighborhood but am actually heading back to X place for the week, or when I’m making plans to meet someone, or when I say I have to leave the function early to feed the cats (I never have to; I just want to leave).

Sometimes, friends from the tri-state area come to stay in my apartment when I’m gone for an extended period, one client’s vacation or work trip triggering a wave of key shuffling. When V. stays in my apartment, they call it the trans-writing residency because of the kinds of books I’ve accumulated on my shelves. They’ve left little pencils, cards, and baklava for when I return, which is very sweet of them. The most my clients and I have exchanged are Christmas cards, a bag of biscotti, and a painting of a client’s cat that my friend Juan took it upon himself to make.

I’ve rarely mentioned catsitting with the intent of self-marketing, but that was how I got a one-time, two-week gig in Harlem in the spring of 2023. Someone I tangentially knew referred me to someone they knew, and the next thing I knew, I was living a few blocks from Central Park. The gig conveniently overlapped with a “Beyond the Bars” conference I had registered for at the university nearby, so it was now within walking distance of me. Juan would be showcasing a self-portrait in an exhibit of currently and formerly incarcerated artists’ works curated by the Confined Arts, a Harlem-based organization.

Juan is extremely proactive about getting his name out there, partly because prison makes communication with the outside world difficult. He had me print out hundreds of QR codes leading to his Instagram @jch_convictedart, which he attaches to the backs of his paintings and includes in his snail mail. He calls this, along with name-dropping his Instagram everywhere he can, “finessing” (see what I did there?). When I know I’ll be catsitting in a home where the clients have offered the use of their printer, I save up a queue of documents, treat myself to color ink, and run the machine until I get a “cartridge needs to be replaced soon” alert. And then I stop, because I do have some shame about running them completely dry.

This gig also briefly coincided with another job in the Upper East Side, so for three days I took the bus up and down to care for both sets of cats. The first time I headed south, I heard a ping on my phone and saw the notification, “AirTag found moving with you.” The Harlem client had an Apple AirTag attached to the keys she gave me. Upon closer examination, there was no way I could remove it. I opened the notification and saw my movements were being tracked. There was a red, dashed line where I was in motion, walking or on public transit, and a single dot where I was stationary: at the apartments, day job sites, the grocery store, and transferring at the subway station. Despite the creepiness of it all, I started screenshotting the maps once I was home for the day, unable to resist the compulsion to document and record. I looked at the constellation of routes as the weeks went by to see if they added up to anything.

My day job during this time took me to K–12 schools all over the city. I sometimes had to climb four or five flights of stairs to get to the designated library or classroom, and would arrive panting and sweating. After a particularly steep flight, I decided it was time to do something about my general unfitness. I was also a little sad about a man I was seeing, so like everyone else my age who wasn’t getting married and having kids, I took up running.

The Harlem apartment was an ideal place to start, because of its proximity to the park—running on pedestrian streets makes me feel like a menace, not to mention the uneven sidewalks and other obstacles. I entered the north side of Central Park on 110th St. My goal was to run south to the bottom of a large reservoir, about twenty-four blocks, and run back up the other side. I lasted about two minutes before walking, only making it halfway to the water. Juan thought this was hilarious when I told him, since he spends hours lifting and working out. One time during a video visit I flexed my bicep, which, when I was working at a restaurant, I found out was an easy way to get men to laugh. He still talks about my twig arms to this day, a bit I lean into.

There are many different ways to survive. In Trans Care by Hil Malatino, the scholar attempts a Lynda Barry journaling exercise that requires him to jot down an overheard piece of conversation every day. He had persistent trouble eavesdropping and recollecting strangers’ dialogue until he realized he had conditioned himself to tune out whispers and side conversations for decades in the fear that people around him were speculating about his gender. I remember another trans person who said they disarmed people by being exceedingly charming. Juan tells me I need to be less meek and advises me to use my “baby balls.” But I’m not really meek, I say. I’m doing it to be funny. Although, of the parts of myself that I’ve chosen to exaggerate, I’m not sure which ones have come about naturally, and which ones have been tested and drawn out.

I continued running over the course of the trip. My algorithm also noticed, because it slowly turned into a stream of running videos. All the Central Park influencers talked about a dreaded “Harlem Hill.” I searched it up and learned that I had begun my training right at its base. It was a steady 0.3-mile incline immediately followed by several smaller hills, arguably the most challenging part of the park. Perhaps this would explain why I was so easily winded. I had no concept of how difficult running was supposed to be, no scope of the landscape.

My friend M. runs “slow,” like basically a walking pace. Even small movements do a lot for the body, she says. I ran with her once, and it blew my mind to be away from the slew of watches, heart rate monitors, and race pacers. Running is quite nice if you aren’t concerned with going fast. For a long time, I didn’t run hard enough to lose my breath—I just wanted to be brainless outside, to see more of the city, and to make myself hungry enough to eat.

On one of my last days in Harlem, I finally completed the three-mile loop I wanted to do around the lake, through a combination of walking and jogging. Coasting down the last hill, I saw a group of people huddled around the edge of the road, equipped with binoculars and huge camera lenses on tripods. Classic birders. I stopped to peer into the trees. What is it? I asked. A woman pointed out an owl among the branches. I took a zoomed-in photo of him and drew a yellow circle around his silhouette with my finger. He was so well-camouflaged that I didn’t want to lose him.

Almost a year later, I hear about Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from his Central Park Zoo enclosure after someone deliberately cut open the fencing. He died a little while ago in “the wild,” if Central Park can be called that anymore. His injuries were from crashing into a building. There are Flaco memorials and articles debating whether or not he would have been safer in captivity. The consensus seems to be that it was a human-made problem either way.

I look at photos of Flaco and make the connection that this was the same bird I ran into. I scroll back and forth between my two photos of the encounter, the one with Flaco outlined in yellow and another that is zoomed out, with the birders and their binoculars in view. I try to locate him in the latter image and fail. He’s allegedly one of the largest species of owl, but in the park and in my camera, he is minuscule.

I run Harlem Hill often now, because I haven’t been able to let go of “improving” my pace. I’m a social creature at heart, and I want to keep up with my neighborhood running group. The Thursday night runners run fast, and the hill makes me stronger. Next time I’m there, I think, I will consider Flaco on the ascent.