By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
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.
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.
The men ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. About half were white American-born males; the rest came from countries such as India, Turkey, and Nigeria. For a while, Cara had a regular client whom she would meet for vegetarian food on Friday nights, but most men aren't repeat customers.
One man I found who was willing to share his motivations was a 32-year-old consultant from India, who said he contacted the girls out of desperation. "I was feeling bad and looking for someone to be with," he said. "I tried everything—Match.com, Chemistry.com. I tried everything for six to eight months, and it didn't work."
After contacting the agency, he didn't go through with the date. He said it was because he was bound to have dashed hopes: "I thought I might meet a nice girl, and then I realized these girls would just be coming to work and then moving on."
It's somewhere between the bottom of the first inning and the top of the seventh. I'm not really keeping track, and neither team has scored. Carlos and I are sipping beer and munching on the pulled-pork sandwiches we had delivered to our seats. I've already learned that baseball is not big in the Philippines and that a former IT colleague of his got him into the game a few years ago. He prefers the Mets to the Yankees for underdog reasons.
"The Yankees are too easy," he tells me. "They always win."
The sun is bearing down on us, and I've borrowed the black Mets baseball cap Carlos bought on Opening Day to deflect some of the heat. Every few minutes or so, an airplane glides behind the stadium's giant Pepsi-Cola sign in its descent into nearby LaGuardia. The second video congratulating Gary Sheffield on his 500th home run the previous night has already played, and I've asked, "Who's Sheffield?" and "When's halftime?"
Our conversation moves in fits and starts, as small talk does with a stranger with whom you don't have much in common. To keep things rolling, I find myself asking silly questions, like who his favorite player is (José Reyes), and wondering if the Dominican players have a hand in selecting the reggaeton songs that are blasted every time they swagger up to the plate (he thinks so).
And then it's Carlos's turn.
"So what do you normally do on Saturdays?" he asks.
"Depends," I say. "Last week, I went for a walk and made dinner for a friend. And you?"
"I go to a lot of friends' kids' birthday parties," he says.
The conversation lulls again, and Carlos pulls an SLR camera with an expensive-looking lens out of his bag and begins snapping shots of the players on the field. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I notice that he's into brands: He's wearing Prada shoes and has a Prada backpack, and his sunglasses are Hugo Boss.
I hear Cara and April in my head telling me about the types of guys they tend to attract through the agency. April told me she gets a lot of recently separated, depressed guys who need someone to listen to their woes. The shy, reserved types are drawn to Cara for some reason. She says she's OK with it because she can carry the conversation if necessary. Despite the occasional questions, Carlos seems to fall into this latter category.
I slip away to a clean and quiet ladies' room, from where, after exploring the contents of the coin purse, I send April and a concerned friend text messages to confirm that all is well, if not a bit surreal. I think about how Carlos and I have not yet discussed the obvious: why I'm working for a dating agency and why he's paying me to watch the game instead of bringing one of his friends or a real date. There's so much I want to ask, but I'm reluctant to broach the subject for fear that he may freak out. He seems to prefer this façade of normalcy. I remember April telling me that she thinks a lot of the men like the fantasy that they are on a real date. Standing in front of the mirror, I'm suddenly struck by the oddity of the situation. There is nothing to prevent me from hightailing it out of the bathroom and out of the ballpark. Not that there's any reason to, but I contemplate fleeing for a second. But then, I head back my seat.
The first thing nearly every guy requests when he first contacts the Austen's Janes Agency is, "Pictures, please." Though the girls still post on Craigslist, they now have a website, designed and built by April, with partial photographs of the trio and their carefully crafted bios. Even for a platonic service, the physical is clearly important. The three white women field requests for Jewish, African-American, and Asian women. And once, a guy requested someone who looked like Uma Thurman, which Cara still laughs about: "Uma Thurman for $60. Seriously?"
Some men change their minds after seeing photographs. One turned down all of us, saying that he was used to dating "really pretty girls." As Cara says, you have to have a thick skin.
According to agency rules, the girls only meet in a public place and won't ride in a car. Most date requests are along the lines of dinner and a movie, but the ones that stand out range from the poignant to the kinky. There was a guy who wanted to pay a girl to sit in a park with him and feed squirrels on a sunny day. Another wanted to take a "really" Asian girl to have a pedicure. There was "lacy underwear guy," who had a lingerie fetish and didn't seem to understand that the most he might see is an accidental glimpse of his date's bra strap. A few weeks ago, this odd request came from someone who identified himself as Naughty Good Man: "I wish to meet a tall gorgeous female with perfect shape and well structured. Not very lean and not very fat." Naughty Good Man might have even landed a date with April if he hadn't expressed his desire to share his "hobby" with his date by giving her a "nonsexual, relaxing, safe, and clean massage."
One guy who did get to indulge his fantasy had a payment fetish: He claimed to be happily married, but he liked the idea of an affair and the exchange of money. So, according to Julie, he met up with her for lunch and a few glasses of wine and, by paying her for her time, he felt satisfied with this pretense of an affair. What was he like? "He was educated, attractive, and successful," Julie wrote in an e-mail from Eastern Europe, where she is on an extended trip.
Early on, Cara learned about the fantasy angle. When a guy didn't like her photograph and said he preferred long hair, she put on a long black wig and took another photo. He agreed to a date. "Some men just want you to be a certain way," she says.
When I asked Elizabeth Bernstein—a women's studies and sociology professor at Barnard, and the author of Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex—what she thought about Austen's Janes, she pointed out that the bad economy that had motivated the women to start the business may also be motivating the men to patronize it.
"It's a budget service for the client, who may have previously paid more for sex," she says.
Sixty dollars an hour is cheap for a college-educated, young, attractive white woman, she said. Ashley Dupré was reportedly charging then-governor Eliot Spitzer more than $1,000 an hour for sex, and she didn't even have a bachelor's degree.
Poking around the agency's website, Bernstein found the style—flowery purple writing on a black background—very "neo-Victorian and demure." She then burst out laughing when she read about Julie's professed advocacy for victims of sex trafficking, which can be found in the bio section of the site.
"Part of what they're selling is the sexual fantasy that goes along with the chaste woman," she says. "It's part of the 'no-touch' fantasy, like strip clubs and peep shows."
Julie herself uses the same analogy when she explains the service.
"It is similar to a strip club, [in which] a man pays for, as Chris Rock reminds us, 'nothing,' but they get a beautiful woman to pay attention to them and act as if they are the center of the world when they need the attention," she wrote in an e-mail. "Women are often objectified in regular life—now we are finally getting paid for it without contracting any life-threatening diseases!"
It's the seventh-inning stretch, and a group of peppy young women with swishy ponytails are racing around the field shooting free Pepsi T-shirts into the stands. Carlos hands me his camera, and I snap a few shots of the crowd and of him. Then he asks to take one of me. I let him. It's around this time that he gets a little flirty. I feel him leaning in closer as we talk a few times, and I pull away. When the game resumes, the Mets finally score the only run of the game, and the crowd goes wild.
Soon, everything is over, and we join the masses heading out of the stadium toward the subway. My time with Carlos is officially up, but I figure it doesn't hurt to ride the subway together back to the city. As we walk down the stadium stairs to the 7 train, he gently places his hand on my waist for a moment, and I quickly step out of his reach.
"That was fun," he says, "even though you clearly aren't that into baseball."
I tell him I had a nice time, too, and thank him for the beer and sandwich. In the subway, we make more awkward small talk. When we arrive at my stop, I stick out my hand. I ask him to send a little note to the agency rating me, but he never does. Instead, I get a text about an hour later that reads: "Hi Emily, it was fun going out with you. You looked great!—Carlos."
On my walk home over the white blossoms that cover the sidewalk like confetti, I reflect on how, if this had been a "real" date with Carlos, I would have thought he was a nice guy, but that there was no chemistry. I didn't feel objectified; it was more like I was obligated to be friendly. In a pinch, I could even see doing it again as a slightly uncomfortable, but relatively painless, way to make some extra cash.
After I get home and take a closer look at the ticket, I realize something is crossed out with black ink. Tilting the ticket at a certain angle, I can make out a name underneath, and it's definitely not "Carlos." It turns out he had his secrets, too.
Cara, meanwhile, has found a full-time job at a nonprofit, and April is on unemployment again after a short-term government job. Both continue to "date" on weekends. Julie plans to work for the agency again upon her return to the States this summer. Though they've noticed a recent dip in business, which they attribute to the Craigslist Killer case, like the savvy entrepreneurs they are, the girls dream of expanding, hiring others, and taking the agency to other states.
I do wholesome things with my earnings. Following Cara's suggestion, I donate the money to a local nonprofit called Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, or GEMS, that works with teenage girls who have been a lot less fortunate about where to draw the line with regard to sex work. The little Coach purse, I send to my mom. As for Carlos, a week or so after our date, I send him a message telling him that I'm writing a story about the agency and our date and ask if there's anything he'd like to share about the experience and why he was drawn to it. His response was refreshingly candid: With his longtime girlfriend working in another country, he was feeling lonely and in need of some female company. "I was only looking for a companion, something platonic and temporary," he wrote. "Going out with somebody like you through Austen's Janes is just simple. No complications and no expectations." Just what the girls had in firstname.lastname@example.org