Like Athena emerging fully formed and dressed for battle from the head of Zeus, many talented women who joined the professional world during the Great Recession have faced unprecedented challenges. I’ve tried a few unconventional methods of making rent, but even I never could have anticipated the recent Thursday evening I spent folding a stranger’s underwear. Let’s get to that episode in a second. First, about me—I’m a journalist, proud of my profession despite its frequently meager dividends. But sometimes I wonder: Could the gig economy (which, really, is a reductive little phrase used to describe easy-entry odd jobs that, when cobbled together, theoretically add up to a reasonable living or, at the least, a lucrative side hustle) make my rigidly budgeted life more comfortable? I decided to see what results might come of a full-court-press effort, and a willingness to try almost anything once.
Before I got started, I reached out to a few contemporaries to find out how they’d brought in the most cash on the side. I’d gotten my first taste of paid writing work as a college freshman, when the author-illustrator Molly Crabapple commissioned me to write an ode to her friend (a “retired, pragmatic contortionist,” according to Crabapple) in the form of a sestina. However, for the purposes of this experiment, my usual methods of accruing capital were out of bounds.
A culture reporter friend used to make 10 dollars a day texting men through an app called Phrendly that paid out a small amount for every reply to her messages. A fashion world friend, Dominic DeLuque, once picked up lizard food for an eccentric who tipped horribly, shuttled iced coffees to an agoraphobic neighbor, and transported a suitcase to a shady client on the Upper West Side (only realizing later the cargo was most likely drugs) for about $20 per odd job. I wasn’t in the mood to smuggle narcotics or go through the process of establishing relationships with oddball New York strangers, so those options were out, too.
For my first go, I tried out Craigslist. A flower shop in Morningside Heights was looking for an assistant; a “research facility” called MediaScience sought panelists; a gentleman’s club in Midtown needed extra (scantily-clad) help on Super Bowl Sunday. I sent CVs and emails flurrying all over New York City. Not one response.
Undaunted, and remembering the capable man I’d hired to help me move last summer, I went about the process of registering to be a Tasker on TaskRabbit. I paid a $20 registration fee, indicated what I thought were fair rates for the suggested tasks—assembling Ikea furniture, $30 an hour; and so on—and submitted my application. Almost automatically a form email appeared in my inbox. “Hi Helen,” it read. “At this time, we do not have the demand for Taskers in the city and categories you’ve specified, so we will not be moving forward with your registration.” I laughed out loud. But my rejection made sense: If it’s nearly impossible to get a job interview at The New York Times or Goldman Sachs, it stands to reason you’ll be fighting hordes for the considerably smaller scraps too. Ruling out Uber driver, SAT tutor and plasma donor, I sought out other options.
Luckily, deliverance soon arrived in the form of a friend who needed help caring for her brand-new puppy, a 16-week-old Klee Kai named Juneau. I would take him for an afternoon walk and give him lunch for $40 per visit. Our first outing was glorious: the two of us sailed through Central Park. Strangers and their dogs cooed over him. But disaster struck during our second appointment. After a blissful hour’s walk, I struggled with the antique front door of the owner’s apartment. YELP! I spun around to see the puppy, trapped in the heavy oak door, and rushed to free the poor little guy. I neglected to mention the incident to his owner in my otherwise exhaustive follow up text about Juneau’s every bark and bowel movement, and prayed to the dog walker gods that the pup hadn’t suffered any internal injuries.
Next, I trumpeted my services on Twitter. An acquaintance responded—she needed some help with laundry. A day later I made a house call to my client, who asked, “Do you have a problem with washing and folding period-stained sheets?” I waved my hand as if to say “Perish the thought,” and steeled myself like Indiana Jones preparing to raid a cave. I was tasked with washing everything she owned—jeans, sweatshirts, nine pairs of matching socks, the aforementioned sheets—and I went home $20 richer and with a vivid mental image of her boyfriend’s Under Armour boxers.
Ultimately, my weeklong experiment netted me $100 total, but once you factor in the multiple subway trips and the cash I spent on Red Bull for fuel, it would be generous to say I’d scraped a $90 profit. If I’m honest, I kind of expected pathetic results. I’ve always been skeptical of the gig economy. It creates a fantasy that, if you can profit off your every marketable skill, you can subvert the hardships of my much-maligned, profoundly misrepresented generation (including insurmountable student debt, too many music-streaming services to choose from, and the escalating cost of vape pens). Millennials are raised to be brutally hard workers, even if some of us (me) are probably doomed to spend the rest of our lives writing jokes online. We deserve better than what the gig economy has to offer.
Helen Holmes is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.