See Dick Pay Jane: Chaste Dating for Cash

Recession desperation produces a quaint throwback

In Woody Allen's 1970s short story "The Whore of Mensa," about a nonsexual escort service operated out of the Hunter College Book Store, a madam who goes by the name of Flossie hires out brainy girls to discuss Melville, Proust, Yeats, and the like, with men craving female intellectual stimulation. For $50, you could "relate without getting close." For $100, you could have dinner with a girl, borrow her Bartók records, and watch her have an anxiety attack. In the story, Flossie turns out to be a man who underwent a botched operation to transform himself into Lionel Trilling, and is carted off to jail for blackmail. When you pull back the curtain on the Austen's Janes Agency, what you find is less farcical, but hilarious in its own way.

The idea started out as a joke: Cara, April, and Julie, three 26-year-old friends—who, for privacy and safety reasons, prefer to use their agency-related pseudonyms and not their real names in this story—all found themselves unemployed victims of the bad economy at the end of last year. Cara, who has short-cropped hair, sharp blue eyes, and a background in social work, was laid off on November 4 after working on a state senate campaign. April, a tall, lanky brunette with a button nose and wide-set eyes, had just finished a stint in the art department of a cable-TV show. And Julie, a slender woman with an unruly mop of brown curls, had just returned from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe and couldn't find a job.

With the extra time on their hands and funds running low, the girls formed a little support group based out of April's Gramercy apartment, where, over coffee or wine, depending on the time of day, the three trawled Craigslist job postings together. Initially, they only searched in the "nonprofit" and "art/media/design" sections. But soon, desperation and curiosity led them to the murkier world of "et cetera" listings, where they learned that, aside from appeals to become egg donors, there were people offering to pay women $200 to tickle them or to see them in a pair of nylons.

And then one of the women—no one remembers which of the three—pointed out how brilliant it would be if they could get men to pay to go out with them. Both Cara and April had recently been denied food stamps, and they joked about how being paid to be taken out to dinner every night would be a great way to cut down on food costs. Behind the laughter, there was a thread of seriousness: What if?

All three girls are, as Cara put it, "relatively attractive" and never had a hard time landing regular dates. It seemed a little far-fetched, but maybe there were guys out there, with money to burn, willing to pay for a little company. In theory, it would be like going on a bad date, and, like all single girls in their twenties, they had plenty of practice making polite small talk on dates that didn't go anywhere.

As April pointed out recently over a slice of pizza and a beer at Drop Off Service, an East Village bar, "I've been on so many bad dates, it was kind of a joke because it felt like work sometimes. You might as well get paid for it."

Early this January, the trio decided to test the waters and posted an ad on Craigslist in the "strictly platonic" and "women seeking men" sections. The responses flowed in, eliciting a lot more giggles. April stepped up to do the test run, but on the night of the date—dinner and a drink on the Upper East Side—she was nervous. She wore a short gray dress and black leggings and text-messaged Julie before meeting the guy. Cara was waiting at home afterward to hear how it went, but April never called.

"I was convinced I got her murdered," Cara said at the bar, shaking her head. "I was thinking about how I would have to tell the police that my friends and I thought this was a good idea."

April, it turned out, was fine. Her phone battery had died at the end of her date. On the subway ride home, with cash in her pocket and a box of leftovers in her lap, she felt an enormous rush. Someone actually paid money to have dinner with her. And the guy?

"He wasn't sleazy, he wasn't gross—he was just a normal, nice guy who wanted someone to go to dinner with," she said. The next day, he even sent a thank-you note.

Since then, Cara, April, and Julie have gone on about 35 dates all told, weeding out the sincere inquiries from the hundreds of e-mails they say they receive from men expressing interest in their services. While the women aren't raking in the big bucks, the money they have earned has gone toward rent, groceries, and MetroCards, and—for a few desperate weeks—was Cara's sole source of income.

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