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There’s No Room For Error When Working With Family

, , , , , , | Related | September 3, 2021

My first job, when I was too naïve to know any better, was working for my uncle. He wanted a programmer to maintain the website and database for his nonprofit and to help with a startup. Neither the nonprofit nor the startup could afford to HIRE a programmer, so he offered me free room and board, an allowance of $100 a week, and “experience and a spot in the company if the startup takes off.” It was stupid to work for so little, but I agreed to, and I wouldn’t complain if he’d held up his end of the bargain.

Of course, of the odds and ends that made up my “salary,” the room was the most important and valuable. My uncle lives with his girlfriend, and I moved into her basement. This story begins maybe a year after I moved in.

Uncle: “Has [Girlfriend] talked to you about her friends coming to stay?”

Me: “No?”

Uncle: “Well, she has some old friends coming next month and the basement room is the biggest and nicest spare room, so they’ll be staying there. You can take the upstairs spare room or go back to [Home State] for two days.” 

Me: “But all my things are down here! I have furniture in this room that’s too heavy to move and won’t fit in the upstairs room anyway. And I’m trying to tame the cat that lives on the basement patio; how can I do that if strangers are in this room? Not only won’t I be able to see when she’s around, but I can’t even approach the patio from outside without feeling like I’m intruding on the guests!”

Uncle: “That’s up to you. I just came downstairs to make sure you know you’ll need to leave on those days.”

I agree, reluctantly, to take the upstairs spare room. The day before the guests are supposed to arrive, I’ve almost finished cleaning my room. I plan to wash my dishes and take the items I want to keep with me upstairs that evening. I’m at the nonprofit when my uncle’s girlfriend texts me.

Girlfriend: “Hi, [My Name], my friends showed up early, so I went ahead and took all your things upstairs.”

I’m furious that she went into my room and moved my things without so much as asking for permission, let alone asking what I wanted where. But I text back, “OK,” because what else can I do? She’s already done it; I can’t exactly tell her no.

That afternoon, when I get home, I go upstairs to assess the damage. I can’t find any of my books. There’s a dirty knife, covered in jelly, at the bottom of my laundry basket, which has been repurposed into a junk basket. Various electronics are piled in it willy-nilly, some missing their charge cords. All my dishes, apart from that one knife, are in the dishwasher, even though many aren’t dishwasher-safe. I have to go down to the basement to collect clothes, because [Girlfriend] didn’t bring any up.

I also show the guests where I keep the kibble and ask them, since they have the patio, to please feed the cat. They agree, but for the rest of their stay, the kibble dish is empty every time I look at it. I eventually sneak into the basement when they’re not there to get kibble with which to refill it.

The next day, I discuss what’s happened with my uncle, trying to make him see why the situation bothers me.

Me: “First of all, she just kicked me out of my room! I didn’t get any choice in the matter.”

Uncle: “Sure, you did. You got to choose whether to stay upstairs or leave the house.”

Me: “I mean I wasn’t given a choice of whether or not to give up my room.”

Uncle: “No, you weren’t. The room is in [Girlfriend]’s house; it belongs to [Girlfriend], and just because she’s nice enough to let you use it, that doesn’t mean it belongs to you. I think you need to appreciate how [Girlfriend] has bent over backward for you. She didn’t have to let you stay in her house.”

Me: “That’s most of my salary! I earn that room!”

Uncle: “[Girlfriend] doesn’t get anything from you. You don’t write code for her; you write it for me.”

Me: “If you’re stealing from her to pay me with something that was never yours to offer in the first place, that’s between the two of you. Either the room is charity, given to me out of the goodness of [Girlfriend]’s heart — in which case, she does have the right to kick me out, but I’m working for practically nothing — or it’s part of my salary, in which case, I have the right to stay there as long as I keep doing my job. Which is it?”

Uncle: “I’m not going to discuss this.”

Later that day — while I’m still living in the upstairs guest room — we’re discussing the startup’s prospects and how much longer I can continue working with him before I start looking for a “real job”.

Uncle: “I know, I don’t pay you very much. But if you include the room and board—”

Me: “Seriously?”

Sadly, this is not the incident that led to me quitting that “job” — although it probably would have been if it weren’t for the cat, who wasn’t tame enough to transport yet. A few months and a lot of kitty treats later, after an even stupider argument, I packed her into a carrier and left for good.

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