For those who lived in Portland during the early 2000's, there was a special skill set involved in making enough money to pay for a two hundred dollar moldy basement room in a collective house while in a city that was: a) experiencing the highest unemployment rate in the country b) is a giant tea bag that is secretly geographically larger than all but a handful of U.S. cities and hence, where no one wants to leave their houses for nine consecutive months c) where despite aforementioned hardships, is known as a city where people go to underachieve in peace and so, d) is home to more than its fair share of culturally hip weirdoes who comprise a market wherein other, cheaper weirdoes can potentially make enough money to pay for their moldy basements.
I did have an on call job, as a drawbridge operator, that I had to quit when I had recurring nightmares of grain ships crashing into the Broadway bridge, probably on account of sleeping with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to my head for three years. Thereafter, and during the low water months of the bridge job when no ships needed beep me for my services, I spent a lot of time dreaming up strange means for making extra money. Mira and I had long dreamed of an urban history scavenger hunt picnic dating service, which could have proved lucrative with my insider status on the city’s lift spans, but like most Portland ideas involving too much effort, it never got off the ground.
I did work special holidays at an area florist, snapping thorns off rose stems. I had a Summer job with Parks and Rec starting water fights, and I sometimes took on work repairing tent poles with a friend of my parents. Occasionally, my elaborate conceptual cake-making services were subsidized; until Portland’s art-cake market became oversaturated with the appearance of a team of inedible cake-maker girls who filled theirs with things like broken mirrors and road kill. I cleaned houses in Northwest Portland with green cleaning products and played gay nanny for a while, but I really got my break when I began working for a local company producing raw foods.
I worked in a small industrial kitchen managed by an ultra-conservative dessert-maker named Cortland, who had been raised in an ashram in the West Hills. We’d jockey over whether Fleetwood Mac or republican talk radio should be played in the kitchen, but either way, he always left behind for us the edges of his flourless brownies on our shelf in the walk-in. It was likely because of the brownies (as well as my general commitment to cooked food) that the owner of the raw hummus company found me to be far more dependable and grounded that the raw foodists who usually came around to help him.
I took well to the rhythm of the work and there was something about the aesthetics of the kitchen that suited me: massive mason jars of soaking garbanzos, lined in multiples of three and the way the hummus rolled in on itself forming strange hummus-labia whenever it was stirred. I became a regular and quickly began picking up work for other raw foods companies, beginning to distribute for several. The hummus kitchen became something of a center of revolving-door queer punk non-raw-foodist employment as more friends and acquaintances picked up work there and I always had enough leftover raw hummus to trade for things like homemade tinctures or fresh caught fish.
I lasted at Livin’ Spoonfuls until I was taken down by a pickup truck on my bicycle one day in 2005 on my happy way home from an annual pap smear. I returned to the kitchen, minimally, even before I could walk. But finding myself in more medical debt than I would like to put a number to, and feeling disillusioned with lifestyle anarchism and the lack of disability analysis surrounding me, I knew it was time to move on. I also understood that move meant going somewhere where some people, maybe, possibly, had health insurance. A harm-reduction-oriented herb school program in Oakland seemed a good excuse to skip town once I was healed.
When I arrived in the Bay Area, my rent doubled and I held onto this idea of wanting a job with a regular schedule (no beepers, no seasons) and maybe some health insurance. I wasn't quite sure how to make it happen, or how to relate to getting it, knowing most work in the world was paid by the piece, pound, freelanced, contracted, or just plain stolen.
While in Portland, I had discovered that scouring the shelves of health food stores for items with shoddy labels or biodegradable packaging was a great way to find out which companies were operating locally and might need a hand. Of course this search yielded the added benefit of being able to stake out the parking lot after hours for the dregs of their agave syrup or olive oil, not to mention food-grade five gallon buckets. I did the same sort of research in Oakland and after sending out about a dozen unsolicited resumes, the only reply I received was from a woman named Leila, who ran a small company making aromatherapy sexual lubricants in the East Bay saying she needed a production assistant.
I was charmed, if a little put off, by her website which hosted hokey names for glycerin-filled lubes and lots of pictures of her lounging on plush couches wrapped in pink feather boas. I was new to the Bay area, and didn’t really have an understanding of the vast number of eccentric thirty and forty-somethings that form the yearly base for burning man, nor had Portland prepared me to understand the amount of wealth potentially at the disposal of eccentrics like Leila. I simply assumed she was part of the Bay Area culture of white women who act like the project of their public sexual liberation might save the world, particularly if they make a business out of it (I would learn more about this when I went on to work at Good Vibrations).
When I pulled up outside Leila’s West Oakland loft (she insisted it was Emeryville) on my first day, I buzzed upstairs and was ready to leave for lack of reply when she hung her towel-wrapped head out the window, asking me if I didn’t mind waiting just a little longer, darling. A little longer dragged into twenty minutes before I was ushered into Leila’s palatial top floor loft. Literally, the ceilings and windows may have been twenty five feet high, as I would later discover teetering atop many a ladder for her. The vast interior was broken into various sitting areas of chaise lounges, massage tables, and other plush surfaces. A quick survey of the space suggested there were about thirty different places to have sex with scarcely a wall between them. The only separated spaces were her loft where she kept special things like her collection of Chanel heels and her tiny kitchen. “I mostly order in,” she said as she bypassed the kitchen on our tour of the space.
When I asked to see the production space, she led me to a separate apartment in the same building, which seemed to function as something of a glorified craft space. The production area was generally limited to a tiny kitchen nook where about forty kinds of essential oils were stored, but not much else. Business was not booming, but Leila did not seem especially concerned.
As she led me back upstairs, Leila handed me a notebook, suggesting I keep it at hand to take notes of her ideas throughout the day. Immediately she began rattling off things to be done: shirts to return to anthropologie, movies to be made (she was not a filmmaker), the best places to buy orchids, her weekly shopping list, new ways of decorating her loft, themes for her holiday party (it was October), and thoughts about astral projection. She could use me about six hours a day, to start, she said, and if we got along well and she found me a good creative influence, maybe more. She eyed my outfit and haircut, surmising, I guessed, that I had enough potential to keep around while also being pathetic enough to be a fun project. Immediately, she led me up to her loft to help her sort through older clothes (she was expecting a large order from BCBG arriving with UPS that day)and suggesting items for me to try on.
It was clear that Leila did not need a production assistant, and the only thing that had thus far kept her from having a personal assistant was that no one had yet suggested it to her. I spent most of the first week praying for my life and taking notes as Leila drove us recklessly about town blaming all of our near traffic accidents on the position of this or that planet and showing me off at the shops and cafes she frequented.
While at the loft, Leila’s bidding required constant attention. She frequently expected me to read her mind, and would chastise me and my astrological chart for messiness when I left behind one pointless activity to tend to whatever random whim she might have. Leila had an irrational fear of having her name be readable on any mail that was being thrown out, so on my tenth day, as I cut up the addresses printed on her eighteen magazine subscriptions and countless catalogs (Leila despised the sound of tearing paper and thought me crude for not agreeing) she began to get a read on me for making too much a mess as I processed the mountain of catalogs.
Looking over the utter pointlessness of my task, I realized that Leila was genuinely enjoying having something of a protégé and a submissive in me, and that the primary problem at hand (besides the independent wealth, her fake company, and her underpaying me) was just that she had simply chosen the wrong person for the job. I stood up and began to explain that I couldn’t work for her anymore because she was cruel and bossy and seemed to enjoy demeaning me, and that I really didn’t like it, BUT that I thought she had some special talent in being cruel and demeaning. I assured her there was someone out there who would like it and that she was really just barking up the wrong tree with the personal assistant thing.
At first Leila seemed shocked and offended but immediately was overtaken by the prospect that there was some territory of decadence, opulence, and eccentricity that she had yet explore and that I was about to reveal to her (these ideas were, after all, a part of why she had hired me). As soon as I said the word “houseboy” she lowered herself to the couch saying, “tell me more.” No sooner had I given her the rough wikipedia-style description of having a household submissive and Leila was telling me she wanted to have one for every day of the week. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t just free labor, that she would have to interact with them, negotiate a dynamic—but that if her treatment of me as a personal assistant had been any indication, that I really thought she had what it would take. I spent the rest of my last day as Leila’s personal assistant pulling up and reading aloud how-to articles for her and negotiating the terms of my employment as her houseboy hiring agent.
The craigslist ad I posted got forty replies on the first day. Leila was an attractive, single woman who basically lived alone in a mansion, plus she had a young female assistant to play middle man, which I’m sure added an air of mystery and intrigue. I responded to about twelve replies and dressed up smartly one day for a round of rotating interviews at a local coffee shop. It became immediately clear to me that the more experienced subs would not get what they wanted from an arrangement with Leila and I was about to give up when Ted showed up.
Ted was handsome, but awkward. He was a massage therapist and had discovered his love of service as one of he main organizers of the yearly “hookah dome” at burning man, though he had no formal experience as a houseboy. Thinking it couldn’t get much better, I put him in touch with Leila and later set him up with a date to visit her loft.
As soon as Ted arrived at the loft, Leila immediately sent him to her hairstylist to get his rugged mane under control. He seemed neither annoyed nor amused by this, and I spent the duration of his appointment trying to think about how to construct the most hookah-dome like experience possible for Ted. It really didn’t seem like it would be hard in the plush ballroom of Leila’s home, considering it may have already resembled the interior of a uterus.
When Ted returned, Leila seemed to have less interest in taking out her ways with him than continuing to do so with me and then having me act as something of a middle management domme. It seemed that after all she really did want a lady in waiting more than a houseboy. So I played middle manager. Ted, for his purposes seemed to have fun with all of this. As for me, it kept me interested for a minute, but ultimately I decided it wasn’t much different than being her personal assistant had been, that I was still getting underpaid, and that if I wanted to be someone’s Mistress, I could be getting my own apartment cleaned.
I did finally get a job with health insurance. Ted and I did go back and work some seasonal events for Leila. It was my job, for instance, to choose a yuletide g-string for Ted which he could wear while feeding and offering massages to her guests. I also negotiated a much higher payment for myself and a few other friends to serve drinks, but ended up uncomfortable when the lady partygoers would lose their shit exoticizing the young queers holding the hor'dourve plates. When Leila asked me to hire and train a team of boys to dress as sexy cupids for her Valentines bash, I gave her a copy of the Topping book I picked up at my new place of work and bid her farewell.