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damage control

The question

My husband and I have a couple of friends who don’t have a lot of money. (Nor do we, for that matter.) One of them chooses to travel the world and have no fixed address, staying with incredibly patient friends for extended periods. The other out-of-towner is just always broke and has an adult child in our city and wants to visit the “kid” very frequently, but the kid usually gets fed up after a few days, so the parent winds up at our place, hurt over being rejected. Although we do appreciate these two (quite separate) friends, we’re not so keen on being seen as the available port every time either of them comes to town. The lack of help in terms of housework and food and wine expenses is certainly part of the problem. The second friend is now threatening to visit yet again. We don’t really see how to tactfully say: “Enough, already. Your kid needs a break and so do we.” Any tips on how to keep away freeloading friends without alienating them entirely, or hurting their feelings? Should we just lie and say our guest room is occupied?

The answer

House guests in general are a problematic proposition.

I’ve always tried to be a good one. Helping out, doing dishes, making some of the meals and so on. Thus, I get invited back.

But I’ve had house guests put in much less effort. We all know the old saw “house guests, like fish, go off after three days.” But I’ve had house guests stay for much more epic amounts of time than that. And so often rude, ungrateful and disrespectful.

My cousin stayed six months. After being waited on hand and foot, gave me a hard time about eating some of his special peanut butter.

Me: “You must go now.”

Once the sister of someone I sort of/kind of knew came to stay with us. For several weeks. With young child in tow.

Also waited on her hand and foot. Shopped for groceries, wine, made special dinners, laundered their bedclothes and everything else entailed in trying to be a good host.

Then towards the end of the second week, she left a bottle of wine in my fridge, which I swear I thought my wife had probably purchased so popped it open and had a glass.

She discovered the bottle and said: “Dave, I was going to bring that to a party. I could punch you in the face right now.”

My reaction: “Why are you in my house? What’s in it for me?”

And: “Are you and your obnoxious little brat ever leaving?”

Not that I said that out loud.

My point being: We refer to ourselves as Homo sapiens (wise man), which always struck me as rather hubristic, but the more I circle around the sun, the more I think perhaps the more appropriate moniker would be homo ingratitudinous.

I’ve always thought one of the great benefits of having a roof between the rain and snow and one’s dome is to be able to offer that selfsame roof to others.

I’ve felt very privileged whenever I’ve been the beneficiary of that transaction, e.g. hitchhiking around Europe as a 19-year-old (and sometimes using a fake first-class Eurail pass until a couple of conductors became suspicious of my patched jeans and rucksack and kicked me off the train, just as I was having a great conversation with a wealthy-looking elderly couple) and on numerous other occasions.

People put me up: Sometimes out of the blue. I met a guy on a bridge in Venice once, while petting a cat. A little chit-chat, then he let me stay at his place.

The night before I tried to sleep at the train station, along with other travelling indigents, but they fire-hosed us all out. So I really appreciated the gesture.

But as far as your situation goes, I would gently but firmly turn these freeloaders down.

You ask should you “lie.” I would not “lie” per se, but perhaps prevaricate a bit (okay, I know “prevaricate” is essentially a synonym for "lie,” but give me that mulligan) and say words to the effect of: “It’s not a good time right now.”

And don’t you dare feel guilty about it. I love being able to provide a roof, but no one is under any obligation to do so for the unhelpful and ungrateful.

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