The On-Demand Diaries:
I Was A TaskRabbit Butler
My stint as a rich Googler’s personal assistant fulfilled my Downton fantasies — until I started really thinking about life as a servant.
By Daniel Hirsch
I’d been using TaskRabbit for a few weeks when I saw the ad. After a sequence of jobs that neither ignited the imagination nor covered my rent — user testing apps, low-paid copywriting — just picture this rabbit’s intrigue when I came across the following:
Ever wanted to be a butler/valet/gentleman’s gentleman?
Recently arrived European is looking for trustworthy, professional, fun person as a valet for 4–8 hours per week. Tasks include light housework, organizing a social agenda, driving duties. Depending on mutual understanding this arrangement could be extended.
I bid for the gig instantly (because you could still do that then) at $12 an hour. Sure, I was probably undervaluing my labor in all kinds of ways, but if I could play out some Downton Abbey fantasy in real life, the cost-benefit analysis didn’t matter: I had waistcoats and spats on the brain.
Several anxious minutes later, a notification from TaskRabbit alerted me that my Master-to-be had accepted my bid. I did a little dance around my room.
We met for the first time at a coffee shop in Russian Hill, one of San Francisco’s more tony neighborhoods, rich with iconic cable cars and, well, the rich. I learned several things about my Master then. A man in his mid-30s, clean shaven, well-dressed but not ostentatious, my Master revealed that he was indeed a kind of aristocracy. He described himself as coming from a “very old family in Europe” but said he had grown up in Africa — in what I could only imagine was some kind of bizarre plantation.
He was also steeped in the culture of Silicon Valley. By way of example, he had initially hired two butlers to optimize his chances of finding a good fit: We were being A/B tested.
Seated beside me was a fellow rabbit — a friendly, rough-around the edges middle-aged woman named Diane, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a mom haircut.
My Master also told us that he had recently arrived in San Francisco for a position at Google.
Suddenly I realized that he and I were a little less different than I had imagined. I had recently left a challenging but completely unsatisfying customer service job at Google, seeking a career change and more time to work as a journalist and writer. Now I was working as a Task Rabbit to supplement freelance writing projects.
At some point in our initial conversation this fact came up and my Master’s eyes lit up. He seemed pleased to have found himself a servant with a respectable pedigree.
Unfortunately, my background meant that Diane — who had been making her living primarily through Task Rabbit for many months — did not last long. After our initial meeting, my Master sent me a notice saying Diane had been fired. She was decidedly not a culture fit for Master’s grand house.
When I told friends about my new position, people invariably asked the following:
What do you wear?
Does he live in a mansion?
Do you have to do sex stuff?
No, my Master didn’t require me to wear a uniform, but he did speak nostalgically about the family home, in which the servants wore crisp white outfits. I veered towards a kind of polished business casual, and on days where I had to drive him around, I wore my jauntiest cap.
Like many a recent Silicon Valley transplant, my Master shared a surely costly, though not overwhelmingly fancy, two bedroom apartment in Russian Hill with another European Google co-worker.
As a young queer thing in the sex-positive Bay Area, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that people were titillated by my job, and thought it had a whiff of sex work. I wonder if we’ve come to fetishize the kind of work I had taken on? After all, there’s a reason sexy maid outfits sell, and the tremendous power imbalance and the incredible intimacy of being someone’s personal assistant is indeed kind of kinky.
But no, I did not do any sex stuff. I’m not that kind of butler.
What I did do was a lot of run of the mill assistant stuff. I cleaned out his closet and took things to Goodwill (or back to my own closet). I researched San Francisco’s most happening rich people events for him to attend — opera galas and the like. I went shopping for his St. Patrick’s Day party, and when I couldn’t personally attend said St. Patrick’s Day party, I helped him hire other Task Rabbits to work the event.
Some days we would run errands together, and he would buy me lunch. We’d talk about his experience relocating to San Francisco and he’d ask me about my writing. It was pleasant, if a little awkward.
There were, though, a couple of bizarre days. There was one time I had to meet with a startup guy my Master was thinking about investing in. I had absolutely no qualification for this task, but I voted his company a not-worthy-investment, and my Master appreciated the feedback.
I spent another day entertaining one of his visiting friends, a rather prim German woman. While my Master was at work, she and I spent a whole day hiking in the Marin Headlands and wandering through Sausalito — me trying to be as charming as possible, she somewhat weirded out by the whole situation.
A few mornings I drove him in his Porsche Cayenne from San Francisco to Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View. Google infamously offers its employees private shuttles — the ones I used to ride to work — but my Master often preferred the personal comforts of his own valet behind the wheel. Driving a route I had known so well, and hated so much, as a passenger felt like a return to the scene of an especially tedious crime.
These drives also caused me a great deal of anxiety. When I dropped him off at Google HQ I was terrified that I’d be spotted by a former co-worker. Suddenly I wondered if I had made a complete mess of things. Was I the perfect example of downward mobility by choice? With Master safety delivered at the office, I pulled my jaunty cap over my face, kicked the Porsche into gear, and panicked over what in the fuck I was doing with my life.
The night of the Bruce Springsteen concert is the one that stands out most in my memory.
My Master wanted to participate fully in American culture, so he purchased box seats for Bruce Springsteen’s concert at Oakland’s Oracle Arena for his whole posse of European tech friends. But, as a man with refined tastes, stadium food would not do: Before the show, he got reservations at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.
For him, I could only imagine the strange juxtaposition of the most rarified California fine dining experience, followed by the stadium rock anthems of an American working class icon. For me, the night meant a lot of driving through rush hour traffic while he and his friends bopped along to Ke$ha in the back.
While I waited for my Master to finish dinner, I called a boy I was currently dating who lived nearby. I parked near the boy’s house to eat a $5 burrito and he came out to meet me in the Porsche.
We made out a little bit, and then I told him about my night. Part of me was thrilled by the strangeness of it, high on the novelty of being someone’s servant. Me, a butler!
It didn’t occur to me in the moment, although it should have: The boy, a Mexican-American from Southern California, was raised by a single mother who made her living as a domestic worker. I was flippant about my whole new endeavor, but this kind of work was her livelihood, her life. I had many choices how I would finance myself, she had a lot fewer.
Is your class defined by how much money you have? Is it about power? Is it about coming from the right family and having a title in your name like my Master?
Or like me — and perhaps several in my generation who have dabbled in the gig economy — is it about having the time and flexibility to become a butler one day and something completely different the next?
My Master hired me, and not the other Task Rabbit Diane, because I had the right markers of class. I went to a good school, had worked for the right company. I read the New York Times and had been to Paris. He wanted a gentleman’s gentleman. That meant not seeming poor.
TaskRabbit enabled him to enjoy the trappings of his aristocratic boyhood, but on a budget. And it enabled me to be someone’s servant without actually having to think much about what that really meant.
After kissing the boy goodnight and returning to the restaurant to pick up my Master, I asked him if he would he need me to wait outside to drive him home. No, he’d just take an Uber, he replied. Of course he would. Why command just one gentleman’s gentleman when a whole fleet is at your fingertips?
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