The Micro Life
by Aaron Geiger
I met my wife, Sarah, in 2005 when she got me a job helping her collect ticks from state parks and reserves across the Midwest. We drove to remote pockets of wilderness in states from Minnesota to Kentucky in our search for ticks that carried Lyme borreliosis—what is commonly called Lyme disease. Whereas some couples go to the movies and out to have bad Thai food for a date, my arm-around-the-shoulder routine consisted of picking embedded ticks off of Sarah’s bare, gorgeous back and legs. I secretly hoped the ticks would find their way somewhere more intimate on a daily basis.
I bring up this moment in time to demonstrate to you the hidden powers of Sarah’s entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. We were immensely attracted to each other; we wanted to work together, to be together. She was in the master’s program of community health and medicine at the University of Illinois. I was earning my undergrad in rhetoric. It’s not very often a liberal arts guy can show up and ask a bunch of scientists if he can participate in their research, just as scientists don’t often show up to poetry slams demanding the microphone.
But thanks to Sarah, she and I spent the summer together, trudging through mud and nettles. I got a thorn in my eye, some giant bumblebees attacked me and made me scream like a little girl when I was wedged in a thicket of barbed wire and long weeds, a tick embedded itself into the sensitive underside of my penis, and one got into my nose. We slept in the cheapest motels in the middle of nowhere (which is another adventure unto itself), and we saw every nook and corner of Old Americana in the breadbasket of our country, our car full of vials of ethanol and ticks and data sheets and muddy clothes soaked with camphorous bug spray.
Sarah is a micro entrepreneur. A regular entrepreneur finds ways to earn money via innovation, investment, and creating business opportunities on a level that suggests success. My wife’s micro entrepreneurship suggests survival on a new level of exhaustion. Her skills require great coordination, organization, and resourcefulness—attributes that I lack.
I define micro entrepreneurship as any type of short, enterprising endeavor that can be shoved into an already packed schedule. As I write this we are parents, full time students, and employees—our days are long and filled with errands and tasks and homework and classes for our two-year-old son to ramble aimlessly around in. Sarah is concluding her PhD in community health and I’m working on my thesis for my master’s in journalism. It’s an understatement to say that a) we’re busy, and b) we’re poor.
Back in 2005, when we concluded the summer of tick love, Sarah began to invest herself into the heart of her micro entrepreneurship campaign. As an animal lover and former veterinary student she picked up a gig as a petsitter. To the un-indoctrinated, petsitters travel to people’s houses to perform a variety of tasks for their beloved animals. This usually consists of 15-60 minutes, depending on what needs to be done, and what the owner is paying for. When Sarah told me what she was going to be doing, I said Sure, go for it. Why not? What she didn’t tell me was that she would be asking me to accompany her on many of her “runs.”
Come with meeeee, she pleaded. It’s dark and the house is in a remote location. Or, I’m not sure I can handle these dogs by myself. Or, I’m not sure where this place is. Or even If you want to spend some time with me tonight I suggest you come to help this go faster.
She also didn’t tell me what she would be doing. I had pictured her going over to a nice house in suburbia, letting herself in, putting a scoop of dog food into a bowl, filling the water bowl with fresh tap water, and then leashing Duke the Gay Collie up for a quick prance around the block, maybe even stopping once to scoop up Duke’s dukes with a plastic baggie. I thought I would help her do all of this, except the last part.
But the reality of petsitting is that you show up to a house full of giant, white Kuvasz dogs, two of which are lively, and one of which has a mental condition. A steaming fresh pile of Kuvasz shit lies in the middle of the floor as if the Queen’s horses just marched past a few minutes prior. And as you arrive the dogs are so excited to see you they fling and flail their giant bodies in awkward leaps like deranged salmon swimming upstream, and you watch in horror as the first eight leaps miss the pile of shit as you desperately attempt to keep the dogs smashing it into the carpet, and right when you get a plastic bag to pick it up, the largest dog kicks the turds clear across the room and into the once-white wall.
After you clean up the poop you have to “pill” the dogs, which means shoving giant pills down their slimy gullets as they frantically try to lunge away from you with the force of hundreds of years of breeding that was designed specifically to protect herds of bovines and sheep. Their efforts leave clouds of white hair and dander to blow all over the room because the owners want to save on air conditioning and instead have the ceiling fans blasting like turboprops. The hair lands like a spider web blizzard on your lips and eyes and into blouses and ears and between sandaled toes.
You hitch the dogs up to a leash and instead of walking outside like a normal, subservient beast, they gnaw on the leash and then drag you like they’re a shark caught on four-year-old’s fishing line—or perhaps reenacting a summer version of the Iditarod. They lay another massive shit on the neighbor’s lawn, who happens to be sitting outside, glaring at you as you fumble around, pretending like you forgot the plastic bag that you purposely didn’t bring because you had no intention of collecting elephant dung during your foray around the block.
When you return, you plop down fresh water, and the galoot that kicked the shit across the room steps in the water and splashes it everywhere. Another one drinks what is left in a frantic slopping, ungraceful action, and then shoves its nose in your crotch, leaving a giant wet spot that will remain for the next couple of hours. The exertion of the outdoor excursion—along with the presence and excitement of a new, interesting human being—causes the third one to retch the water on the linoleum floor, and all three of the white bears slip and slide on the water vomit, their feet streaking back and forth, their exuberant smiles and panting unassuming and benign. You want to strangle them, but you don’t because it would be like throttling a disabled child on the front steps of the Ronald McDonald House.
And just when you turn to leave … you see a cat in the window. You turn to your sheet on the clipboard that explains everything you’re supposed to do, and you see that there are indeed instructions on there to take care of the cat. It hisses at you. You want to leave, but you can’t. At least Sarah couldn’t. She was a committed and passionate soul, and she took care of every last, spoiled, deranged animal she signed up to take care of, and she did a great job. That’s how I knew she would be my future wife.
This is the reality of petsitting. My realization of this continued when Sarah took me to a ten-room, sparsely furnished mansion owned by a pair of lesbian professors. Normally I wouldn’t operationalize two women as lesbians, as if that moniker is their only description, but they wanted anyone who stepped into that house to know that they were goddamn lesbians with brains and money, and you were in their lesbian territory, and if you didn’t like it, you could leave promptly. One of the professors had a portrait of herself up on a cabinet. She was topless, her aging academic breasts uninspired by the framing of the sunny landscape, but posed in such a manner that you had to find the triumph in her freedom. Those breasts were smart and real and they kept watch over the room. The women also had a poster up in a bathroom—the A to Z alphabet of lesbian sexual positions, which was perfectly leveled for me to look at as I stood over their toilet to urinate. Was this aligned for men to look at and appreciate? Or did the women want people to think that they stood up to pee, too?
Although we didn’t actively poke around the homes—we respected everyone’s privacy—simply stepping into a house prompted stereotyping and inquiry. A bookshelf can reveal a lot. So can a photograph of a topless professor. Everyone’s refrigerator had a story, such as the house that had a photograph of a petsitting client holding on tight to George W. Bush. That client’s wife told Sarah that this one (she pointed to her little dog) is just as important as this one (she pointed to her seven-year-old child, who stared at Sarah impishly, obviously old enough to understand his place in the world next to his brother-dog).
We had to make sure all of the rooms were “fine”—no signs of forced entry, no broken windows, no spills or cat stains or dog poop. Each room was like looking into a new corner of the mind of the client. Did you see that last bedroom? I asked Sarah when I wanted to show her a dog’s personal bed, which was actually a child’s bed; above it pictures of the dog in various states of play and exercise were carefully hung with the caress and sentimentality of a mother’s love.
And there were times where we were forced to go digging through the homes. Sarah’s employers and clients required that she actually see each pet every visit. For dogs, this wasn’t a problem. For cats? Have you ever gone over to a friend’s house and have them tell you, Oh, Farley and Bonnie are around here somewhere, but they scram when company comes over. Everyone has a cat that doesn’t exist. I visited my mom several times before I saw her little gray and white cat named Lilo as it tried sneak back downstairs, thinking that I had gone. Try finding a cat in a mansion, or in a house where the owners allow them to play in the basement. It’s even worse when Sarah had to find the diabetic cats to give them their shots, lest they go into a coma. How does one coax a cat—one of nature’s bitchiest, moodiest, most independent animals—out of hiding so that a stranger that smells of various dogs and other cats can scruff it and poke it with a needle?
Back at the lesbian professor’s abode, we had to inspect their manse—all ten or twelve rooms of it—and we noticed that only about three of the rooms were furnished. And one of the rooms downstairs had been simply ceded over to their two lops—giant, long-eared rabbits—that held my excitement about as long as learning to play the kazoo. The rabbits did what the hell they wanted in this room. They shat on the floor, chewed random things for about 50% of their lives, and slept for the other 50%. Sarah said she would take care of the rabbits. I was to take care of the cockatiel.
The cockatiel sat in its modest cage, framed by the splendor of the giant house. It didn’t get a room. It had to sit in its tiny, white-wired cage, left to the comfort of brightly colored plastic toys, which included a miniature basketball hoop and jingling ball. Next to the cage was a small CD player. My job, and I swear to you on all accounts, was to first turn on a CD of Enya to soothe the cockatiel. Then I was to play basketball with it.
There are some things I simply cannot invent by imagination alone.
I had my limits, and I tried to escape some of my boyfriendly duties when possible, but I ambled alongside of Sarah during many of her adventures. I cleaned hordes of litter boxes, walked dogs, searched for cats, and assisted in finding remote locations. All of this usually occurred in the few hours I had each week in between jobs and classes. We regularly went to bed exhausted.
Sarah had her limits, too: two lawyers wanted someone to come spend the night with their Great Danes. Although she wouldn’t stay overnight, Sarah still went over to assist with “corrective training” to the two giant dogs that were each much heavier and bigger than she. The younger Dane had a propensity for jumping up on the kitchen counter, which they wanted Sarah to “correct.” Although the owners had a sizeable yard, they opted instead to have their horse-dogs roam around inside, kept from doing maximum damage via a system of reinforced gates and doors. Outside, for the rare times the dogs galloped around the yard, the fence had to be buried to keep the Danes from digging out. Sarah told me later, One of my jobs was to train the younger one how to walk alongside of me. She laughed sadly.
The business capitulated when gas prices kept rising. I was relieved. Sarah quickly found new micro-money adventures. She became a test scorer in the evenings. She signed us up for mail-in coupons, and sent me a “present,” which was a little box of Kleenex that came with a coupon and a personalized love note. She sold our books on Amazon.
It wasn’t long before she discovered the non-lucrative enterprise of mystery shopping—a job where you peruse and analyze businesses as a secret shopper. Unlike petsitting, I was interested from the beginning. There was a certain allure to being paid to wine and dine at a nice restaurant, to reward the good servants, and to punish the bad ones. I feel uncomfortable leaving a bad tip for a crappy waiter, but for some reason I have no problem writing in great detail about their mistakes and shortcomings. I was hooked.
We’ll be able to stay in luxury hotels, she said. We’ll eat decadent food at resorts and we’ll get PAID for it, she said.
But that wasn’t the case. Mystery shopping companies aren’t inclined to allow their new “employees” to take large gigs. Sarah had to start out small. At McDonald’s. At the time she was experimenting with veganism, and I was eating about 95% vegetarian. And I loathe McDonald’s.
Sarah picked me up after work in the late afternoon just before my other job was about to start—it was our only 30 minutes together during the day. We have to swing in and pick up some McDonald’s for my mystery shopping, she said. I cringed.
McDonald’s shops (a “shop” is the vernacular for a mystery shopping gig) consist of two evaluations—a drive through purchase and a dining counter purchase. We pulled into the drive through and ordered our food, taking note of the order board, the robotic and unhappy voice behind it. We went inside and noted the stains on the employees’ shirts, the fact that there were twelve people in line with one register open and three employees smoking outside. We inspected the nasty little bathrooms with puddles of urine under the toilets and boogers on the wall and drawings of the obligatory cock and balls and backward swastikas on the bathroom stalls. We timed everything, took our bundles of food with us, and she dropped me off at work.
Later that night I came home to find the dog in the corner of the yard, bloated and miserable. Sarah asked me to write up the McDonald’s report. Here’s the thing about mystery shopping: the reports are usually long and cumbersome.
What was the exact time you pulled into line? What device did you use to keep track of time? How long did it take to get from the order board to the second window? How many cars were in front of you? Was the order taker friendly? What was s/he wearing? Was s/he wearing a name tag? Was your order correct? Etc. This goes on for around 50 web pages of questions.
In the middle of my report I turned to Sarah, How much did you get from this shop? FIVE DOLLARS and two free dinners! she enthusiastically replied.
She signed me up for mystery shopping under my social security number, email, and phone number. Our McDonald’s pace intensified: breakfast two days a week, lunch two days a week, dinner on Friday night. I began to worry about our dog.
Sarah began to foray into other strange mystery shopping ventures. She called me at work and said, Go with me this afternoon to check out retirement homes for our fictional grandmother.
Later that week she handed me a pound of rice and told me to go ship it at UPS. We test-drove a Murano—a car that I would have been able to afford only if I pulled off some Ponzi scheme. She asked me to meet her at a trailer home retailer to pose as interested buyers. We toured an expensive window blinds shop, pretending that we had a beautiful home instead of two dinky apartments. She opened and closed bank accounts everywhere; they sent tons of junk mail to us on a weekly basis: Sorry we lost you as a customer—we want you back! We ate awful sandwiches prepared by miserable gas station attendants with oddly colored hair and tattoos of Tweety Bird on their sunburned and wrinkly buxoms. We even purchased sunglasses for $250 from Sunglass Hut, only to return them every 90 days for a full refund—for three months at a time we felt like our faces had money. We ordered Papa John’s pizza, but in order to scrutinize it and take pictures of it we had to turn some of the pieces upside-down and sideways, the cheese and sauce oozing all over the box; it still tasted like pizza.
Sarah’s frenetic mystery shopping pace started to catch up with me. Every day and night I had to go somewhere, tour some place, or eat something. Before I would go to bed, she would yell out OH SHIT when she realized we hadn’t written the dreaded report. Which actually meant I had to write it.
After building up a few dozen shops, Sarah established good rapport with her unseen employers in cyberspace. Although she didn’t get the luxury resort shops that I desperately wanted, she began to get interesting new options.
I have a sex shop, she said. You need to come with me because I don’t want to go alone.
A “sex shop” is a mystery shop where you buy sex toys and evaluate the customer service. I tried to refuse, but she had already committed to doing it. Ironically, her shop was assigned to her by a person with the last name of Hooker, a fact not lost to time. We journeyed fifteen minutes north of town into the country—apparently the only place willing to host a store of ill repute. We parked our Toyota Camry next to several pickup trucks and tractor rigs in a gravel lot and walked inside. Several men were evenly dispersed among the far corners of the store, most of them looking at movies and obeying the “ten-foot independent zone of privacy”—a bubble of understanding that surrounded their discomfort.
Sarah careened into the store with all of the grace that a water-drinking Kuvasz possesses: Hahahaha, does that magazine actually say “Sweater Meat?” That’s so stupid. Why is everybody so quiet? It’s sex. Get over it. She walked to each sexual device or accoutrement and made some sort of comment. Oh. My. God. This one’s called Booty Butter. Her 110-pound frame and five feet of freckles and chirpy blue eyes meandered into each man’s zone, and she even paused to see what they were looking at. I was conjuring images of a Westerner wearing shoes inside a sacred mosque, asking questions in a different language and expressing an insatiable curiosity with an innocence that was the only saving grace that kept her from getting yelled at or kicked out. I kept prodding her to pick something out.
But which sex toy should I get? Hahahaha. They’re all so cheesy. Oh! Look at this one! It has a remote control! Wait, what’s that area back there? Let’s go check it out.
I had to explain to her that the dark hallway in the back of the store was probably for movies or private shows. A mop and bucket stood watch outside the individual doors, awaiting its periodic, unsavory duty. Oh, GROSS! she said. Guys actually do that? She got louder, I mean, what kind of guy would want to masturbate next to other men masturbating near you?
The sallow, obese clerk should have been clued in as to the purpose of Sarah’s not-so-secret visit, but if he did he didn’t show it when he rang up her furry handcuffs and cherry flavored lube. He completely ignored Sarah and gave me a scowl at the end as if to say, You’re one of us and you let her kind in here. What the hell were you thinking?
Yeah, he’s getting a big fat “zero” for customer service, Sarah said as we made our way across the gravel lot. I’d be happy if we never came here again, I said. That’s just as well, Sarah replied, because the only other shop for this location has to be done between midnight and one in the morning. I just shook my head.
Periodically I’d make a mistake on the reports, and our employers would reject the shop entirely, which meant that we spent $25 and an hour of our time at a restaurant we wouldn’t normally go to, not to mention the wasted time writing the report. For some reason I found this infuriating, and I would swear and keep myself from hitting the doorjamb. Our McDonald’s employers caught on to the fact that we usually fictionalize our “precise” waiting times and “I” got fired. I should have been elated, but I had never been fired from anything, and I was pissed. Our dog looked relieved, but she was a Husky and it was always hard to interpret her emotions.
As the seasons continued we started taking pictures of gas stations in the middle of nowhere. We’d park off to the side, and then people would watch us walk around the lot and inside the store, inconspicuously taking pictures. Since I had a nice camera and the technological wherewithal to quickly download and export the pictures, I was put to the task.
And one day Sarah signed us up for a shop at Hooters. We’re supposed to have several people, so she invited her uncle and her grandmother—a woman that drinks traditionalism and sweats conservatism. The same woman that tried to keep Sarah away from me because I didn’t own any land. The same woman that tells me to my bearded face, Beards are disgusting. The same woman that lived on a street of Amish folk, people who stare unhappily at Sarah when she wears a tube top. And so we sat at a table in the middle of the store, which was slow enough to allow two of the Hooters harlots to give us as much of their short attention spans as they could. At the time I was moonlighting as a sushi chef up the street, and one of my coworkers happened to be working in the open-aired Hooters kitchen. He was obviously amused that I would bring what appeared to be my family in, since it couldn’t possibly be plausible that Sarah would have invited us all to Hooters. He was laughing at me from behind his station at the fryers. I couldn’t tell him we were there to evaluate him and everybody else, so I silently endured his giggles.
We turned our attention to the menu, which, in case you have never gone to Hooters, consists of fried wings, fried chicken sandwiches, fried fish, and beer. I tried to act serious, as if our secret shopping gig was a real business. I was uncomfortable with having my future grandmother-in-law dining with us at this establishment. One of the waitresses was apparently used to having sloppy, sexist guys bringing in their families, since she still put on her routine—slapping the pen and paper on the table and bending over, using her skinny little arms to shove up her wads of cleavage in a display worthy of Attenborough’s narration. Sarah’s uncle was unfazed. Her grandmother just stared at me, and I could hear her saying, If you owned land my granddaughter wouldn’t be subjecting herself to this humiliation.
Around that time I asked Sarah’s parents if she had always been like this. They laughed. When Sarah was very young she would spray paint address numbers on sidewalk curbs for ten bucks a pop. She carved soap into little shapes and sculptures and sold them. She raised rabbits and gerbils and sold them to pet shops. It appeared I was always doomed to this existence.
Sarah and I got married and had a little boy shortly thereafter. He began to join us on our expeditions. Not long ago Sarah got a shop at Buffalo Wild Wings, and at the last second she mentioned that we had to sit in the bar area. With our toddler. According to the rules we had to abide by one of us had to order a beer and she was pregnant with our second. Again, I played the part of the asshole dad dragging his child and pregnant wife along so I could be a “man.” In fact, it appeared that I was so much of an asshole I wouldn’t even let them sit in a comfortable booth, instead opting to put our family at the high-rising stools that were close enough for me to watch the ESPY Awards on the jumbo television.
But something happened during that visit. I realized that nobody cared what we were doing, and if they did, why should I care? Why not enjoy this moment? Why not relish in the absurdity of our odd adventures? My son was enjoying watching the ESPY Awards on a television a size ten times that of the one in our home that only broadcast Sesame Street and Curious George. My wife was enjoying the few moments that we had together. My son wanted to run around, so we went outside. A college kid was playing awful cover tunes on a guitar, and he had enlisted about five of his friends to stand by him and pretend to like his music. One of the kids was wearing a full green bodysuit, which amused my son to no end. A homeless man walked up to within five inches of my face and offered to give me a haircut. Two college girls walked by, and one of them grabbed the others top and pulled it down, to which her friend replied, You bitch, that was in front of a little kid! There is no reason to make sense of the random scenes we just witnessed, except that we never would have witnessed it had we not gotten out of the house to a place we never normally would go to.
Before I met my wife I led a life of adventure—working as a survivalist and outdoor educator, and then in the Navy. During one of my longer days in Colorado when I was wondering about why I had very few close friends or loved ones, but having many casual friends spread across the globe, a guy I was working with, who traveled the world as a seasonal worker, told me with great conviction, You can live life widely, or you can live your life deeply, but you can’t do both at the same time.
I began to think of my adventures with my then-girlfriend several years back as we careened across the states in search of ticks. I thought of all of the strange little situations we got ourselves into: the weird jobs, the remote locations, the bad food and crazy people and peculiar happenstances. If there was one thing that I learned in the Navy, it was that misery coupled with exhilaration bred commiseration and a reliance upon people you wouldn’t normally depend upon. The sheer act of suffering and living together amid extreme highs and lows allowed me to grow friendships with people that, to this day, I would die for. It sounds trite, but it’s true. The military doles out bad days in slow increments so people have to rely upon each other. Inner-city black women become best friends with hayseed white boys. Mormons hang out with Lutherans. Gays go out to bars with hyper-sexual frat boys. Blue collar enlisted kids share common ground with trust fund officers.
And to an extent, thanks to Sarah’s perpetual adventurousness, we have put ourselves through that same litmus test. Together we have had some very long days, some very bad days, and some wonderful highlights. We slogged out sixteen-hour days in the summer humidity and sun, only to finish our day on a hilltop overlooking the rolling hills and winding rivers amid a sunset near Prairie du Chien. We kissed in a field of wildflowers that spanned for acre upon acre. We planned out a future home by looking at the housing interiors of her rich petsitting clients. We had dozens of dates at strange restaurants that we otherwise couldn’t afford on our meager income. And we even decided to bump ourselves from several overloaded flights, which gave us an incredibly long day of travel, but in the end we earned sixteen hundred dollars in vouchers that we used to fly to Hawaii to see my family. It appeared that, indeed, it’s possible to live life widely and deeply. You just need a partner to fill in every moment with something absurd and new.
And today we take our son to ice cream shops at Dairy Queen. He’s learning to feed himself. We sit down and watch him run in circles around the stores, marveling at how fast he’s growing up, wondering how we’ll ever keep up.