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New York, New York

My Guys

Life in New York is easier with money: someone’s ready to do your bidding, for the right price. But finding the right someone is difficult. The currency required in hiring a good mover, painter, or manicurist.

For the last four years, the walls in my living and work rooms have been painted a fabulous shade of high pigment brown, almost the color of chocolate ice cream. Now, I love this color, and never regret selecting it, but I’m recently overcome with the need to change my space in a meaningful way so it will feel new. Sure, I could move, but that would mean tripling my rent for the same or less space, and since I live under the sweet, safe umbrella of rent control, that’s not going to happen. I started asking friends which direction they thought I should go with the color—celadon, sage, cranberry, linen? I’ll whip paint chips out of my purse the minute I suspect someone will join me in my reindeer game. Unfortunately, it never becomes the discussion I’m aiming for. It seems my taste in colors is either globally appealing, or my friends are afraid of choosing something I might blame them for later. No one will vote for one shade over another. Instead, the discussion quickly turns to a topic that New Yorkers know best: their guys.

As in ‘I’ve got a guy who paints, he did my bedroom, you want his number?’ Or, ‘I’ve got a guy who does floors, if you’re doing the walls you should really put down some new flooring if you think your landlord would let you get away with it.’ Even, ‘I don’t know what color you should use, but I’ve got a feng-shui guy, a lady actually, you should have her over to tell you what color to paint.’

New York City is a service-driven economy. There are launderers, tailors, dog walkers, aestheticians, hair stylists, housekeepers, drivers, electricians, plumbers, financial planners, accountants, travel agents, and caterers in legion. If you can pay someone to do it for you, we’ve got them here. Even things you think you must do yourself—like find a mate, water your ferns, pick out dresses, go to the post office—are contractable services. As expected, the more money you have to spend, the more people who’d love to take chores off your hands. Not just anyone, either—experts.

Recently I went to a wedding that cost more than twenty tricked-out Volvos. It was a wedding for which the experts hired experts to execute with such military precision the planning was all but transparent to the guests. The bride hired a planner, who chose a caterer, who then hired a nutritionist—all to help pace the meal and make scientific decisions about what foods to serve and when to serve them so people wouldn’t shuffle in their seats during the long series of toasts or be too lethargic when it was time to hit the dance floor. A woman paid to coordinate the registry hired an interior designer to consult the couple’s architect about the choices being made for the soon-to-be bathroom and kitchen, to assure that gifts would fit an as-yet-unrealized vision—in theory—better than the couple’s idea of what was pretty or functional.

With the revival of DIY, you’d think the number and variety of ‘guys’ would decrease, but it only seems to have spawned a new breed of experts—people who help you do it ‘yourself.’ Housepainters now routinely accept assistance from homeowners; carpenters draw custom cabinetry plans for the regular Joe to construct (or at least varnish): entirely for the feeling of satisfaction from having finished a project that was guaranteed to be successful.

Like baseball cards, these experts-for-hire are a commodity, with varying degrees of collectibility. It’s not just having a guy, but the act of sharing of his name and phone number that has become a facet of the contemporary urban bonding experience. These moments are conducted as if they were routine swaps, but the subtext is that of a gift economy. If I tell you who my facialist is, but don’t give her phone number, you’d be hard pressed to locate the right ‘Elena’ who does both vitamin C and oxygen facials in a way that prevents breakouts the next day. If I give you her phone number, plus issue a warning about a more careless practitioner at her spa to avoid, I have in essence said, ‘I trust you to guard this information like a secret about my family.’ Some of your guys, like baseball cards, are more readily shared than others, depending on the frequency and service you receive from them, not what year they started for the Yankees (though batting averages, in both cases, are relevant).

If I pay someone to move some boxes for me, and he shows up on time, doesn’t complain, and charges what he estimated, that guy becomes mine, as in ‘my moving guy.’ I’ve got a guy at the meat market who takes better care of me than I even knew was plausible in such an experience: he teaches me about cuts of meat, or how to order to my tastes in case I visit on his day off. He’s mine too. The guy at the Laundromat—who knows when I do wash-n-fold that my bras and the black pants with no belt loops never go in the dryer—is also as much mine as my keys or my watch.

People get possessive about their guys—not because they’re hallmarks of wealth, but because in the urban jungle it’s the small niceties that make day-to-day life bearable. New Yorkers tend to work longer hours than many: our nine-to-five is more like ten-to-nine. So it’s these teams of experts we assemble for ourselves that free us up to actually absorb the things that make living here worthwhile. Like the friends you don’t pay to make you happy, these service professionals are guilt-free load lighteners. When my manicurist rushes out to greet me with a kiss and hug upon hearing I’m at her salon, it’s a lot like the prostitute who pretends an encounter is good for her too. Sure, these guys have a ‘love’ that can be bought, and the good ones may actually have a throng of clients, but during the time they’re with you (as long as you don’t catch them seeing other people) there’s a feeling that they only do those extra things for you. Like any kind of love for sale, we are not just buying the service, but the fantasy that we’re special. That is, until something goes terribly awry.

There’s a Korean day spa called Yi Pak on West 32nd Street that’s not in the phone book. You can’t make an appointment: even if you call them, all they say is their hours of operation and insist you ‘come in, come in.’ The spa is divided into two floors: one for men, one for women. The women’s floor consists of several tiled rooms where for 90 minutes you are repeatedly doused with hot water, exfoliated, covered in yogurt-cucumber mixture, doused more, salt-scrubbed, massaged, and finally hair-washed by a Korean woman in her late-fifties wearing only giant underpants. It’s impossible to be cleaner, more relaxed, or smoother any other way. (Gents have a slightly younger practitioner and the option of a ‘happy ending,’ but on the women’s floor we pretend that doesn’t happen.)

When I first went there six years ago, this indulgence cost $45 and there was never any waiting. Eventually, word got out, prices crept upward, and three years ago the death knell rang when the spa was mentioned in New York magazine. The clientele shifted from almost entirely Asian to almost entirely Ladies Who Lunch. Now it costs 100 dollars and there’s an average wait of anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, no matter when you go. In what felt like a matter of moments, Yi Pak had crossed over from a minor indulgence to major luxury, and—I admit—I blame myself. So taken was I with my first experience, I told all my friends, though I clearly wasn’t the only one. Never again. Good luck extracting where I now go for minor stress relief: a secret location where you can get your hair washed and a 20-minute Shiatsu scalp massage for $15. I learned my lesson.

New York is one of the only places in America where the rhetorical question, ‘I wonder if I could get anyone to do this for me?’ always has an answer. From the mundane to the elaborate, there are specialists who have devoted their lives to performing chores, from child rearing to selecting Christmas presents. All this expertise comes at a price a mere mortal like myself can rarely swing, but it’s comforting to know it’s out there. I’m sure this is the geographic location where the colloquialism ‘the idle rich’ was coined. Of course, if I really wanted to be sure, I could hire a professional researcher to look it up and report back to me with exhaustive detail.

I still don’t know what color to paint my apartment, but I have beefed up my Rolodex. Having a thick roll of phone numbers of pre-qualified professionals just may come in handy some day, not necessarily for my own use, but as a form of social currency. There are some numbers that you can only get in trade—real-estate agents who have lower commissions than the standard 15 percent, seamstresses who reconstruct favorite garments, or someone who makes house calls to fix your computer. I’m not sure I’ll ever see the tax bracket that has me hiring out routine errands so I can spend more time fundraising for the Ladies Auxiliary, but I’d happily swap the numbers I have for something more practical, like a reasonably priced shelf builder or a tall thirty-something genius who’s ready for the real thing.


TMN Contributing Writer Leslie Harpold was a pioneer in web design and online publishing. At the time of her death in 2006, she lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where she was working on a novel and “dreaming alternately of an ├╝ber-urban or ultra-rural future, as she is not one to do things by halves.” More by Leslie Harpold