My PA Jeeves
I don't usually consider Facebook posts to be worthy of transplanting to a (cough cough) professional blog like this one, but I'm making an exception for an FB thread about a Washington Post story.
The article focused on Georgetown University sophomore who has advertised for a personal assistant who would handle tasks "such as organizing his closet, dropping him off and picking him up from work, scheduling haircuts, putting gas in the car and taking it in for service, managing his electronic accounts and doing laundry (although the assistant will be paid only for the time spent loading, unloading and folding clothes, not the entire laundry cycle)." The pay: $10-$12 an hour.
One response was whimsical: "Just this morning I told my mom I needed a PA. She laughed at me. Then [she] saw this article on Facebook and told me about it." (Oh, oh, Parent On Social Media Alert!) But the Facebooker who introduced the subject considered the student's quest "the most egregious of all insults."
I weighed in ...
... with editorial-writer-appropriate overanalysis:
"Remember the pilot of 'Jerry' (the show-within-a-show on 'Seinfeld') in which a judge sentences a guy to be Jerry's butler? Or, on the same show, Kramer's intern? Or Neil Young's 'A Man Needs a Maid'? Or the houseboy on 'Bachelor Father'? With the exception of Kramer's intern, all these people did useful and helpful work -- but the idea of hiring someone to attend to personal responsibilities offends our egalitarian instincts."
We aren't squeamish about hiring someone to do a short-term defined task (plumbing, house painting, wiring) or a long-term one so long as it benefits someone else (child care). But the idea of a Man or Woman Friday, even in the office but especially at home, seems like something out of a between-the-wars British mystery novel or, as I suggested in my FB post, television comedy.
Even if the word didn't have a sexual connotation, no one would follow John Forsythe's example on "Bachelor Father" and advertise for a houseboy. What made Kramer's intern so risible was not just that he was supposedly working for a nonexistent company called "Kramerica," but that he was doing things for Kramer that any self-respecting democrat would do for himself. (He also wasn't being paid, as far as I could tell.)
And yet.... Is it any more elitist or condescending to take your laundry to a cleaner's (as I do sometimes) than to have a personal assistant who does it? Or pay the PA to go to FedEx Kinko's rather than go yourself and pay someone working there to run off some photocopies?
I couldn't afford to hire a personal assistant (though God knows I need one), and I certainly wouldn't want one to live with me. But is someone who does decadent and self-indulgent? I don't think so. And employers of in-house PAs do provide employment, not an irrelevant consideration in this economy.
When he was at graduate school in New York, a friend of mine took a job as a live-in cleaner/launderer/dog-walker/cook for a busy professional -- I almost wrote "wealthy professional," but that doesn't follow except in the sense that anyone who can afford to live in Manhattan is wealthy.
This non-sexual houseboy job paid my friend well and gave him the proverbial roof over his head (and probably Oriental carpets under his feet). The householder was spared mundane and time-consuming tasks. So why is this a form of exploitation?
Of course, the Georgetown student was the master, not the servant, but isn't that really an aesthetic difference? College is supposed to be an introduction to real life, and in real life we all pay someone else to do something for us.
Photo: A scene from a 2005 rehearsal for "Play Without Words." Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times