By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Thousands of Mets fans are streaming into sleek new Citi Field to watch their team take on the Brewers. It's 10 minutes before game time, and I'm sitting on a bench outside the left-field VIP entrance, wondering if Carlos is going to show.
We've never met before. All I know about Carlos is that he's five-foot-six, Asian, likes baseball, and is looking for a "cute, smart, and fun chick to enjoy the game with."
That chick is supposed to be me.
My "date" with Carlos has been arranged by the Austen's Janes Agency. Three unemployed women in their mid-twenties set up this business—with its awkward name—earlier this year to provide men with an unusual service: platonic female company for a price.
For $60 an hour, the agency arranges for a smart young woman to accompany you, laugh at your jokes, and make you feel interesting and special. It may sound like just another escort service—with additional sex services available by negotiation—but it's not.
The young women who set up the agency are adamant about this, and they spell it out on their website: "If there are any attempts at sexual activity, the girl has the right to end the date immediately."
In other words: No touching. Not even a little kiss. But despite that firm ban on fooling around, the women are getting business, as quaint as their service seems. Which made me wonder: What sort of men, in this financial climate, were willing to spend hard cash for brief companionship and absolutely no chance of physical intimacy?
I figured the best way to answer that was to go on one of the dates myself. The women agreed, so I e-mailed a few photos of myself and a brief bio for them to share with potential clients. After a few false starts, I was eventually sent to the ballpark to meet Carlos. The women instructed me to wear something "date-like," to send a text to confirm my arrival and departure so they'd know I was OK, and, above all, to get the money up-front.
And that's how I ended up on this bench, in jeans and a flowing aqua top, nervously retouching my lip gloss and conjuring up worst-case scenarios in my head: What if Carlos is a total freak and tries to grope me, or attempts to strangle me behind the concession stand—or, God forbid, takes one look at me and decides I'm not worth the price?
The ballgame is about to start, and the crowd outside is thinning, so I take a deep breath and send him a text message. As soon as I press "send," I notice a short man in a Mets hoodie and aviator shades staring at his phone a few feet away. He looks up, we make eye contact, and he grins. Much to my relief, Carlos appears to be a normal guy. He has a round, tan face, short dark hair, and a slightly crooked smile. He looks vaguely like a CHiPs-era Erik Estrada, mostly because of the glasses. He's also a little on the small side—shorter than me—and this, too, I find reassuring. If, for some reason, he decides to try something funny, with years of martial-arts training embedded somewhere in my memory, I could probably take him.
We shake hands, and Carlos pulls a Coach coin purse out of his backpack that I stick in my bag. (Later, in the privacy of a ballpark bathroom stall, I verify the purse's contents: ten $20 bills.) But right now, we're running late, and we hurry toward security. Carlos hands me my ticket, which also has a $200 price tag, and we head for the elevator to the VIP section. While we wait, we make small talk: Carlos tells me that he's originally from the Philippines, but now lives in Jersey City, where he works as a computer programmer. Then he turns the questions on me.
"So, you're from California?" he asks.
"Yep, I came out for graduate school," I reply.
I'd vowed not to lie about anything—just to omit. Everything the agency has told him about me is true, except that it exaggerated my interest in baseball. I don't dislike the game; I'm just disinterested and know little about it—and I'm hoping my enthusiasm will mask my ignorance.
"An MBA?" he continues.
"Uh, no. Writing."
Thankfully, he doesn't press. Apparently, it's an answer that explains why I probably don't earn a lot of money and have to turn to this line of work. The girls told me that the men they go out with prefer to talk about themselves and don't ask a lot of questions. Carlos appears to be an exception, which makes me a little anxious. Fortunately, it's our turn to pile into the elevator, and we put the conversation on pause as we squeeze inside. A minute later, the doors slide open, and we walk through a sparkly new restaurant, which looks like it belongs in a chain hotel, and out into the blinding sunlight. Our comfy leather seats are just behind third base. The crowd is awash in blue and orange. The game has begun.