It was 7:30 in the evening on the Sunday before Labor Day when my phone rang it proverbial Flinstones bird-powered work siren, indicating that another day spent doing odd jobs around the city wasn't quite over. As I opened up the task app I've been using to find work to keep me alive and free of cabin fever, I was greeted by an unusually flattering pic of a young woman in a post-American Apparel halter top wearing a pout that is pure catnip to your basic heterosexual dude. Not being your basic heterosexual dude, these were less-than-salient facts at that moment as I accepted her dog walking job offer for the following morning. Pressing for details of any kind, like when she would like me to walk her dog, she soon switched gears.
"Actually, could you do a job tonight? I'll pay extra," she inquired. "I need you to deliver a note for me to the DJ at The Jane." Now, being the trusting and imaginative sort, I soon worked out a rather convoluted reasoning behind this unusual request having to do with her being his publicist or perhaps girlriend who wanted to add a personal touch by having a message hand-delivered. Because that's what people do today, right?
No, they do not. Or at least this is not an ordinary occurrence with the tasker apps that have filled the vacuum left by the withering of Craigslst's "Odd Jobs" section with a far more streamlined process that allows the platforms to extract a hefty sum of the workers' earnings because, well, they can. Unlike other freelancer platforms like Upwork in which you can often somehow find yourself competing for a job that pays less than minimum wage due to the near-self-destructive underbidding that is implicitly encouraged, these apps at least establish a base rate of payment that is fair and can increase rather considerably. But alas, none of these apps have a "Hire a Human Love Note" option so it appeared this young veteran of the service economy had devised a rather crafty workaround that simply required an unquestioning and rather gullible shlub to do the dirty work.
The app keeps being buggy. Could you text me? xxx-xxx-xxxx." Fair enough. I had experienced issues with it myself in the past week. That said, having once been conned out of $800 worth of work by what I believe to be an Indian call center scam, I am generally wary of ever going "off site" before at least one payment has been made by a new client. Still, there seemed something genuinely harmless about this adolescent wet dream cum human avatar. I mean, just the insecure vanity projected in her picture signaled a vulnerability and relative innocence that made me comfortable that things wouldn't get too weird. In my experience, you’re far less likely to get scammed by someone under the age of twenty-five versus an apparent middle-aged man who uses the word “bro” a bit too much.
And anyways, she still had hired me for dogwalking in the morning, right? So who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth when I could make around $40 just delivering a letter in under an hour?
Looking back at our text chat, I'm surprised I was as non-phased as I was upon learning that the task she had in mind was for me to essentially serve as a human high school love note. A lot is made of the supposed fact that young people under twenty-five can't talk on the phone anymore, but I’d argue that many simply do not know how to talk in general. Or at least that was my main takeaway from the next hour.
While I hope to never be the type of person to dismiss something due to my age, over the next hour I would have these creeping feelings of annoyance about the young people who now flock to a city and wonder why they do so. After all, now more than ever, you don’t have to be in New York to create great art and you can email with those artists you feel are kindred spirits rather than hang around the same bars as them as went the old school of NY networking. Rather, people come to New York to collect experiences they see on TV--be it Aussies coming to the city to live their own version of Sex and the City or younger Americans seeking to party where the Girls did. And while New York was nothing like either of those shows before they aired, today it's hard not to go to a party in Brooklyn and feel like you've stepped into the comical Bushwick raves Girls unknowingly parodied--and let's not even begin to talk about what Manhattan is like. Those rave simulacrum have become what people seek out and also what is offered to them in terms of nightlife options; just go to House of Yes.
So I was a little surprised to learn that my first assignment in amorous communique’s amongst wealthy young New York inhabitants was to take me The Jane, a hotel in the Meat Packing district that I believe was hot at some point in the 00s and where this young DJ was hosting a Princess Di-themed party (classy). My first real tip-off that this person might not be the high-flying publicist or old-fashioned romantic I had painted them as when they first proposed to hat we meet at the the Starbucks at 8th and 14th Ave. Now, I should have begun to piece together that I might not be dealing with a professional here if we were going to be meeting in a NYC Starbucks at 10pm on a Sunday night. That said, it’s easy to grow desensitized to weird when you’re regularly going into strangers’ apartments to do odd jobs. But this was something else all together, a veritable hacking of this service economy app to goad a stranger into a truly odd situation for a to-be-determined amount. I was off the grid, so to speak, texting a few friends while I was en route just in case anything were to happen.
Having already commenced my nightly winding-down ritual, I was flying high as I packed my dainty tote bag with a couple books, loaded some new music onto my phone for the first time in months, and hopped on the L towards the Starbucks. I was halfway there when I got a text asking if I could instead meet her at some random spot on 9th and 6th Ave. Somehow, I envisioned that she had gotten held up at a dinner with a friend before she hit the town, and a Starbucks. I exited the L at the 6th Ave. stop and detachedly descended into the West Village.
I’ve never been very keen on the idea of going to Manhattan in the evening, especially extended party zones like the NYU-orbiting Village that serves as the wiring for downtown north of SoHo and adjacent neighborhoods. But as I watch my own block adjust to its new college town status, wandering around the village feels far less alien than it used to.
As 10 came and past I walked past the destination about three times, not seeing a cafe of any sort. Rather, when I finally called her, she instructed me to come back to where she had said she was, seemingly hiding in the negative space of a building. As our respective visions picked up one another from across the street, I could feel her voyeuristic gaze tracking me as she peeked out from behind a wide ceramic support column, disappearing the second my eyes fell on her direction.
Considering that I for some reason was expecting to meet a prim and proper junior professional, I was rather taken aback when I found myself standing face-to-face with a truly beautiful and rather young woman with an oddly artsy vibe to her. A light-skinned black woman in the mold of a Megan Good but a bit more approachable and with certain calculated eccentricities, such as her almond-colored eyes that were weighed down by what appeared to be a metric ton of thick, black eyeliner--less raccoon, more Egyptian cat god. Streaks of pink and purple emerged and disappeared within her free flowing natural hair, her bee-stung lips giving her a permanently coy pout. Basically, she was the type of young woman who has likely been getting hit on by men four times her age since she was a tween.Yet there was something distinctly off about her in a way that didn't scream "run in the other direction," but suggested heavy medication. As I was under her employ, she attempted to project a confidence and clarity that just wasn't there. Talking to her felt like talking to a cloud of scented vapor, my words seemingly passing right through her.
Carrying the type of cheap black notebook that made Mead a fortune when I was a student, I gestured to it in order to jumpstart what would be a comically awkward exchange. “So is that the note?” I asked kindly but directly. Considering that this person had not only grown up with the internet, but Web 2.0 and the app-powered service economy, I figured I needed to project some form of confidence despite not having a clue what was to come--something that even the most self-loathing of individuals learns to do after spending an extended period living in the city.
Letting out a streaming gurgle of an unintelligible answer, it seemed like the reality of the moment was starting to dawn on her. Each time she began to speak her voice was overcome by muted and nervous giggles, as if she wasn't sure herself of what to do now that she had actually brought another human across boroughs to deliver what I presumed was a love note.
“So what’s the deal?” I asked bluntly, the scent of irritation just strong enough to incite action on her part. “Can I see your phone?” she half-asked before extracting it from my hands and pulling up a series of Insta profiles, starting with her own, seemingly just a series of largely solo and super flattering selfies. She next pulled up an account of a young man we will call Cedric, bleach blond hair messily cut in a short-yet-shaggy style and shirtless in many of his pics. He was the type of guy who both looked older and younger than the age of twenty-three, which Cybil placed him at, same as herself. Again, so many flattering selfies. Vanity attracts vanity, I guess?
“He looks like a cutie,” I lied, assuming a hybridized role that was part gay friend and part older brother. Sighing in response, she at last seemed to come to life while retaining a sedated slowness in her speech, sounding like a valley girl on lean. “So like, he’s like obsessed with me. But whenever we’re in the same room, he’ll hide or avoid talking to me.” In her telling, here was possible boyfriend materia,l but the dude was simply too much of a coward to do anything and was causing her a considerable amount of grief. Things like following her around and then running away when she came near or just general stories about fleeing any direct contact from her were what I had to go on for why she had decided to enlist me as an arbitrator between these really-not-cute-meets. “I just want to end this,” she concluded with a genuine inflection of exasperation.
“Ok...sounds like he’s a bit of a little bitch,” I uncharacteristically replied. It should be noted that being the gullible dumbass I am, I was taking her word at face value, unable to distance myself enough from the present moment to notice how off it was all starting to seem. Going up an octave, she leapt to this supposed stalker’s defense, saying that he was just “shy” and simply doesn't know how to talk to her, perhaps implying that he was intimidated by her beauty (which again, could be plausible as she was quite striking).
With the context established, we moved onto an extended strategy session. “What do you think I should do?” Cybil implored, clutching the notebook and caressing its spine with nervous energy.
“Well, you could write him a note that's just very upfront explaining how silly it is that you've had to hire someone to handle this and just give your number and info.”
Looking at me in a way that made me feel twice my age, she circled around this idea for a few minutes before deciding it was a bit “dramatic.” Plus, now she didn't want him to know that she had hired someone, which struck me as a bit odd as who was I supposed to be then? I thus assumed the non-threatening male friend role--fortunately I look more twenty-three than thirty-three so I felt confident in playing the concerned male friend. Of course, we still had no clue as to what I was to say or do and she began rattling off a series of potential plans, including my walking up to him with her on the phone and informing him that he had a call--not that The Jane’s sounds system wouldn't be a bit loud or anything. As she went back-and-forth between a more direct version of the note idea, a text message I would deliver, and the phone call idea, she then turned to my demeanor. “Act, like, real chill. He and his friends are chill,” she politely directed. “Well, I'm stoned to the bone right now so I doubt that will be an issue.” This answer seemed satisfactory.
And I was off with nary a plan in mind. Over the next twenty minutes that it took me to get from 6th and 9th to The Jane, Cybil would text or call every few minutes with a change in plan. It was finally becoming clear to me that this young woman had no idea what she really wanted and the best I could do was to swallow all semblance of pride and do my best to make this odd young woman feel like she got her money worth, however much that might be and assuming she would pay it. Yeah, I was walking further and further out on a limb here, yet the the increasing surreality and absurdity of it all was just too tasty to abandon without seeing it to its most-likely awkward end.
Upon arriving at The Jane, it took me a few awkward moments of stumbling around the ground floor bar before realizing that the party was in fact on the roof. Oh joy. And up I went in that rickety old hotel elevator with another individual who seemed equally out of place, like we were walking into a millennial version of the ballroom from The Shining and we both knew nothing good was to come of it.
Once I walked into the room in which Cedric was dj’ing, I knew I was out of my element. Young thangs in expensive, skin-tight dresses and gentlemen callers of varying repute flirted and grinded upon one another everywhere I looked while a soundtrack 90s rap and r&b hits that were modernized for maximal dance floor impact --re: transposed over varying kuduro-derived rhythmic frameworks--blared from the cheap PA speakers.
And there I saw him: the tousled-blond hair, the post-pubescent acne, the just too-big-for-him streetwear t-shirt, and thin gold chain making him a paragon of the Internet fashion set. Yes, Cedric was everything I expected and more, self-impressed yet focused on aligning the digital tracks he adequately mixed while affecting disinterest in everything going on around him, save for his phone. Wanting to get this over with, I sauntered over and got his attention. “I'm a friend of Cybil’s.”
“Who?” Of course, his inability to make eye contact with me was proof enough for me to know that he was lying, but that did little to help my situation.
As she had instructed in our last pow-wow before I entered the party, I showed him her name in my phone. Upon seeing it, I could see a nanosecond of hesitation before he stated, “I don't know her.”
Uh-oh. For as oblivious as I had been, at this point it all became pretty clear that I had been sent on a fool's errand to somehow coax him into giving me his telephone number, something I had assumed she had. And for as much of a little shit as he seemed, it was fast coming into focus that this was not a case of dealing with a stalker-y suitor, but rather one of my doing reconnaissance work for Cybil who was fast appearing to be the one doing the stalking. Cedric at least seemed to relish the attention as he then asked what she looked like and I gave the most generic description possible. He shrugged his shoulders and I did the same, realizing that this was not going to go well at all for young Cybil.
Still, I kinda had a job to do so I called her up and relayed the news. Letting out a pop of her lips in complete amazement, she soon asked the unanswerable “What do you mean??”
“Well hon, I showed him your name and he clearly recognized it and still said he didn't know you.”
Letting out a knowing sigh, she then said in a whining, gently commanding tone, “This is just what he does. Go back in there and give him the phone and I'll talk to him.”
Okay then. And so I did, apologizing for bugging him again, and then handing my phone without explanation, which he took willingly. Again, that look of recognition dawned upon his face and he kept repeating “Who? Who?” before going for the obvious out of “I can't hear you” and handing the phone back to me.
And this is where things started to get real sad. Sounding unphased but markedly more desperate, she now began crafting strategies to get his phone number, something that seemed to have been her ultimate goal the entire time. “Tell him I'm a nice person. And that I'm about to leave town.” Explaining to her that this would likely get her nowhere, she then kicked it up a notch by instructing me to ask for his number so that I could in turn text him her number. Safe to say I did not do this. Sorry-not-sorry.
That said, being the masochist I am, I repeated this scenario another three times, first sharing a series of texts she wrote.
-"Tell him to chill.."
-"& that I am a nice person,"
-"What does he want to do Idk."
-"Figure it out."
That penultimate one presumably could have been for me, but there was really nothing to figure out.
The last text read, "He's going to text you my number" with the "he" being me, but alas, Cedric continued to plead the fifth. I finally went for the Hail Mary and pulled up her Instagram, something she had told me to do in an earlier strategy phase but had concluded that simply showing him her name would be enough. Handing him the phone one last time, he scrolled through the pics before saying “I don't know her” one last time. The thing is, you don't look at texts and names and pics of a person that many times and simply say that. You ask, "Who the hell are you, dude who is showing me all of this?" It was the kind of non-dealing with a situation that Cybil herself was doing in a way, though who knows what had transpired before that night o mak
Raising my arms up in understanding defeat, a part of me still baffled as to why this young man couldn't just say something a little more helpful, he at last looked me straight in the eyes for once with a kind of helpless despondence, as if to say "Man, I don't know what to do with this situation." I gave him an understanding look of "Me neither, man, me neither." We exchanged understanding parting head nods and I called her upon entering the elevator to exit the building, refusing to subject myself to any more of this brutally uncomfortable situation. Explaining to her all that had gone down with no sugar coating applied, she projected an air of knowing humor, like “Oh, this is just what he does.” I was floored. I mean, not knowing the backstory I can only imagine a pretty bleak scenario, this lost soul who has the type of natural beauty some women would pay anything for, yet there seemed something broken about her, or perhaps not fully present. Finally accepting that our professional relationship had come to its obvious conclusion, she then asked how much she should pay me.
”Uh, I don't know…I've never done this before,” I replied in earnest.
“Um, so is $45 ok?“
“SURE!” I bursted out, so eager was I to end this engagement. And yes, I know, I could have charged a hundred or at least more than $45 but alas, that is where I'm just shitty at business and truly require someone else to negotiate that stuff. "All I could think was, oh this poor thing...she kinda put her heart on the line and it got squashed. Also, what a waste of forty-five bucks."
Writing to a friend on the train ride home, trying to communicate just how weird the past hour was--it had felt about three times that--I started to fret about whether Cybil would even pay me. But of course, as soon as I externalized those worries, she texted me again asking for my Venmo user name as she was unable to find me.
Upon giving it to her, she then replied with perhaps the most jaw-droppingly delusional line of the night, which is saying something. "Ooh, I'm so sorry if that was uncomfortable for you. Excuse him." Wow. Replying that it "It was, but it's OK," she concluded our business relationship with a "<3" and up popped that $45 in my Venmo. Gone, however, at least for the rest of that evening, was my optimism and hope for a better tomorrow as I began envisioning a future where no one knew how to confront each other, giving birth to a whole new class of laborers trained as intra-interlocutors who would one day overpower their voiceless overlords, sacrificing their bodies as a new energy source a lá The Matrix. Or you know, just being really bad at communicating. It's not like they're stunted as they have a certain savvy older millennials like myself would love to have. But there has come into a play a delay mechanism of sorts, an unwillingness to deal with IRL in a non-technologically-mediated way, one that keeps many from having the kinda everyday traumatizing experiences that used to be de rigeur (like getting mugged...happened to me in the basement of my own house my third week in the city that was off a certain deep-L train stop a certain pop singer named herself after. Yes, I was a shock trooper of gentrification. I'm sorry). Either way, Generation Service Economy is going to be weird.
Epilogue: So of course I was even more curious about these two freaks in love, lust, or just a stalker-y relationship and thus did a considerable internet search on them, espcially Cybil who appears to have been quite the chameleon during her time in the city, though her deep and abiding love for stone-y make-up vids has won her a steady audience. Checking the ol’ IG a few days after our encounter, I came across a selfie of her in the park with the text “Guess I read things wrong” emblazoned in sparkly pixels below.
Cedric, on a similar note, has been busy keeping up his poser brand of selfies that earn him an average of around 1,200 likes that are endearingly goofy while also immaculately staged.
The kids aren’t alright.