It takes two incomes to live in Manhattan. That’s why, for most of this year, I was working a second shift earning extra cash through Taskrabbit, basically a temp agency, but instead of squatting in an office, the “taskers” run errands and complete domestic chores. It was a decent gig, and the extra money helped assuage the guilt that comes with such urban luxuries as fresh flowers, out-of-season produce, and non-rail cocktails.
They were certainly not luxurious jobs, but they landed me in some swanky apartments. I cooked mini-quiches in the Trump Towers for a three-year-old gastronome; catered a Seder in a chi-chi condo on the Upper West Side; hung up coats during a fundraiser featuring Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary. (I handed him his hat and guitar case afterward.)
I didn’t need to do these gigs. I wasn’t starving or at risk of eviction without them. The extra cash was certainly welcome, and the sense of self-sufficiency was a fringe benefit. But the reason I kept at it for so long, and was willing to overlook the 20% commission fee, was the ability to experience firsthand how the other half lives. You really get to know somebody when you cook in their kitchen or organize their closets. The best way to learn about a person, however, is to track their expenses, which is exactly what I was once paid to do. “Organize 3 boxes of receipts,” the task description read, “And if possible, scan them.” Easy enough, I thought, and quickly accepted the gig.
The client lived in a newer building in Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The lobby featured a lot of glass and low-lit sconces. The apartment itself was large and profited from great natural light, but it was cluttered and slightly grimy in the way you would expect from a chronic receipt hoarder. The entrance had several lamps lining the hallway, all unplugged. She and I chatted briefly when I first arrived. Her name was Marianne, she’d moved to the city several years ago, originally from Senegal. We exchanged some French (hers flawless, mine rudimentary), and somehow arrived at an awkward conversation about the colonial history our native countries shared.
She graciously brought me cookies on a chipped plate, and set them on the kitchen table. I hadn’t noticed before, due to the overall unkempt atmosphere, but the table was beset with piles and piles of crinkled receipts, stuffed into and spilling out of shoeboxes and plastic H&M bags. Not quite what I envisioned from her ad.
“So, like,” I gulped, scanning the detritus, “I’ll put them in chronological order, I guess?” I tried to be cool. It was unprofessional to appear overwhelmed. She breezily replied, “Actually, if you could put all the restaurant receipts together, then all the shopping receipts, the groceries, et cetera.” She retreated to her bedroom, oblivious to the vagueness of her instructions. I got to work assessing the situation. After about the fifteenth Dunkin’ Donuts receipt for just a medium coffee (with sugar and no cream), I was able to deduce this was a futile endeavor. But what could I do? The money was good—$25/hour—and the anecdotal fodder priceless. My best option was to continue, collect my due, and observe Marianne’s expenditures from 2010 onward.
I learned she frequented Le Pain Quotidien on a near-daily basis and that, in 2012, she visited both Six Flags Great Adventure and Universal Studios. Receipts from toy stores, Gap Kids, and Chuck E. Cheese’s all point to the presence of a child. Likely a niece or nephew, judging from the decidedly non-family-friendly state of her one-bedroom. It was not only the content of the receipts that revealed this woman’s true nature. It was also the condition in which they were kept, stashed, stuffed away, for years, for no apparent reason. Why keep all this shit? Was she being audited? She didn’t even have a scanner, nor did she want me to total up the numbers (thank God). I only needed to sort and clip the receipts together.
Eventually, Marianne emerged from her bedroom, wearing a full face of make-up (probably from MAC) and a bright orange jumpsuit (probably from Club Monaco). She was late for an appointment, she said, handing me her apartment key. I was to lock up when I was finished and give the key to the doorman. Would leave a total stranger unsupervised in her apartment, I added to the growing mental list of things I knew about Marianne C. in Harlem. After she left, I started wondering whether this was a practical joke.
Finally, four hours after I arrived, I fished out the last receipt from the last shoebox. My eyes were sore from squinting at all the faded numbers. I was relieved to be finished, and went looking for my things. On a chair at the opposite end of the table, I spotted my purse—behind which was yet another bag full of receipts which I had apparently overlooked. Was this a nightmare? I paused, half-expecting more receipts to come raining from the ceiling. Then, without a second thought, I stuffed the whole thing in the garbage, gathered up the trash bag, went out in the hallway, dropped it down the disposal chute, and pressed the button for the elevator. I handed her keys to the doorman in the glass lobby and billed Marianne for my time.
Now, what does all this say about me?