My doorbell rings a lot for someone who doesn’t often entertain in the home.
From a mix of app-based, on-demand services to providers I meet through old-fashioned referrals, I summon people for a variety of errands I used to have no qualms about leaving the house to perform. A woman I met through a coworker comes over to cut and color my hair. Another friend recommended a woman-owned and operated housekeeping service. I supplement the groceries I buy on Instacart with take-out meals from Seamless. I got a professional massage in my living room from a therapist sent by Zeel. And once Washio starts serving my zip code, I might never leave my apartment again.
I share a name and likeness with a gregarious and confident avatar whose daily appearances on Twitter and in a number of digital media outlets suggests above-average social aptitude. I make jokes and voice opinions with a conviction that I often leave at home when I’m out in public, embracing both the rewards and chaos of online engagement. But the flesh and blood version of me prefers the controlled environment of my apartment.
I go running at 4 a.m. to minimize interactions on the road. I don’t attend a lot of parties. My anxiety over having to perform the feminine social rituals of getting manicures, haircuts, and massages in the public space of salons has been strong enough to make me only go during non-peak hours or to avoid them completely. I dread that I will say the wrong thing, let a silence linger too long. I am not reclusive so much as resistant to the idea that I need to interact with a lot of people to live a rich life. Combined with the fact that I live far away from a well-stocked grocery store, on-demand services are a godsend for me.
But as indispensable as I have found these services to be, I also recognize that on the other side is a worker doing emotional labor that is not necessarily accounted for in the wages they earn. I talk about freelance woes with my in-home hair stylist without the irrational fear that maybe my editor’s wife is in the chair next to me. When I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s ordering sushi in by myself, my regular deliveryman came and enthusiastically wished me a happy holiday. He even made me hug him on Christmas because I was crying.
There is a level of intimacy involved in coming into people’s homes, even if only for long enough to notice an untidy living room or a neglected pile of mail. The liquor store clerk can speculate as to why a person buys seven bottles of gin but a person delivering them from the Minibar app who sees that person’s home probably might have a better guess if it is to throw a party or facilitate a problem.
It was not long ago that I was on the other side of this labor equation.
I got my start as a writer in the on-demand economy using services like Elance and PeoplePerHour to find jobs ghost-writing corporate blog posts and web copy at below-market rates that I was constantly told were outrageously over-priced. I’ve also worked intermittently in New York City strip clubs where I had to attract and maintain customers by performing happiness with the job. Both of those roles involved constant attempts to be pleasant to customers whose demands of my time and emotional labor will never be compensated. This doesn’t mean that I see myself as having earned my seat on the receiving end of the goods and services so much as it makes me think about what is going unpaid for in the on-demand economy.
Amid mostly comfortable transactions, going into someone’s home presents a new kind of intimacy and vulnerability for a class of workers who are not accustomed to or trained for interacting with people that way.
Meghan is a 29-year old woman who found herself burnt out by an office job and turned to TaskRabbit to find odd jobs around New York City in 2014. One of her jobs was helping a woman move into an enormous condo in the Meatpacking District and unpacking all of her possessions. “At one point I was just sitting there folding her underwear and talking to her for hours,” she told me via phone, noting that it was not uncomfortable so much as it was intimate. But on another task she witnessed a day trader berating his wife, making racist comments, and generally treating her “like a fucking idiot.” Though Taskers are encouraged to leave situations that make them uncomfortable, this is often easier said than done.
Claire is in her early 30s and works as a manicurist both in her home and on house calls when she’s not professionally playing music and writing. “A lot of these people clearly have money, but I’ve never felt a servant-y vibe from them,” she said via phone. “But I’ve definitely walked into homes that were just clearly dysfunctional and I had to witness that and deal with it.”
Of course, there have been people folding underwear and moving people’s belongings and screaming at their wives forever. Domestic laborers, movers, and postmen have been witnessing these intimate moments in households for generations. The differences now are the visibility of the people doing the labor and the expansion of the classes of people both buying and selling these services and their preparedness and protection for these jobs. Those of us who take advantage of the on-demand economy should not tax its workers with excessive emotional burdens, considering the distance they’ve traveled already to perform their labor.
When I joke about never leaving my apartment again, I ask others not only to perform a service but I expose them to the physical and emotional paraphernalia of the kind of person who avoids people on purpose. We would be well advised to acknowledge the gravity of this demand.
Alana Massey is a writer covering culture, technology, relationships, and identity. Her book of essays about celebrities and the myths of female inadequacy, All the Lives I Want, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with one cat and a lot of feelings.