Emotional Labor and the Man Who Paid Me $400 to Have Dinner With Him
“Sheila, have you ever tried this?” The man I was having dinner with pushed some thinly-sliced, glistening meat my way. “Beef carpaccio. You must try it. It’s so good here.”
“Maybe later,” I said. I was a vegetarian and the oily, raw-looking beef looked disgusting.
“You’ll love it,” he repeated, sternly this time. I detected a note of panic in his voice. And since Greg was paying me $400 to have dinner with him, I didn’t argue. I wasn’t in the position to have the option to be a vegetarian who was picky about her food. He wanted to share something he enjoyed with me, and I was supposed to enjoy it with him—I would enjoy it with him. That was the entire point. So I ate it. Then another slice, so he wouldn’t bug me again. The meat, which I hadn’t eaten in years, left an strange residue in my mouth.
I smiled at him. “That is good!” I said, and took a long drink of the wine which I had not yet developed a palate for.
He didn’t say $400 straight out. He didn’t name any sort of price and I knew it’d be gauche to ask; it would ruin the deal. I had just started a two-year career in the business of fleecing men for money, in strip clubs and peep shows, and sometimes guys would offer me more money to hang out with them in various ways, many of them quite innocent. I’d never taken anyone up on it, except Greg, because I had the feeling he was harmless. I met him hanging around the front of the club, drinking a Heineken. He was 20 years older than me, handsome enough, with salt-and-pepper hair, and was wearing a crisp white button-down shirt, the kind the guys I dated never owned.
“You should have dinner with me,” he said. “It’s my local Italian place. They all know me there.” I couldn’t imagine why he couldn’t find a more appropriate woman to take to dinner, but that’s the $400 loophole for you.
“I have to work,” I said vaguely. This was code for, “I’m not going on a date with you unless I get paid.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make it worth your time,” he said. This was code for, “You’ll get paid.”
He called me a few times during the week to set the date and time; more than necessary. I was beginning to get the picture: Greg was very, very needy. When a phone call began to veer into conversational territory, I cut him off. It was time that I wasn’t getting paid for.
Also time I wasn’t getting paid for was doing my hair and makeup on the night of the date. I had to blow-dry my hair, straighten it, and apply a full face of makeup. This took nearly an hour and a half, and I had to take the subway as well.
When I got to the cozy East Village restaurant, Greg kissed me on both cheeks, European-style, and introduced me to the waitstaff and bartenders. It wasn’t said, per se, but he did his best to make them think I was maybe his new girlfriend.
The thing about being paid to eat is that you don’t get to choose what to eat. There was the beef carpaccio incident, and then he insisted on ordering my entree for me.
“No beef,” I said. “No fish.”
He pouted. “You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
When the food arrived, he ordered more wine—thank God—and looked adoringly at me, a girl he barely knew, across the table.
It got worse: dessert time came. He ordered the chocolate mousse, which I loved. But to my horror, he wanted to feed it to me. “Come,” he said, holding the fork up to my mouth, and I did it—I opened wide and swallowed the mousse.
“Isn’t that good?” he said.
“Wow,” I replied. “Yes.”
He came at my face with a forkful of mousse again. This was it, the lowest part of my life in New York so far, even though I’d been there less than a year.
Was it worth the money? I asked myself later. It was not. Later, I would come to learn that this sort of performance was called emotional labor, but at the time I was just embarrassed, mortified.
This experience affected me for years afterwards, and even now. The reason I don’t accept drinks from men is because the social contract says that I then owe them conversation for at least the length it takes to finish the drink, and I don’t have the energy for that. At one point, I would often leave an unsuccessful date feeling that I should have been paid for time wasted.
The term “emotional labor,” coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild and her study of service workers, goes back to the ’80s. But in 2006, sitting across the table from Greg, I didn’t even know I was doing it.
After dinner, we sat at the bar and drank more wine. He kept putting his hand on the side of my face, and I kept flinching—I thought he was going to kiss me.
“I’m not going to kiss you,” he said. “I just want to tell you, Sheila, that you’re a very special person. An amazing person.”
Of course I didn’t given him my actual name, so he was professing his love to a pseudonym. I wasn’t Sheila, I was someone else. Every man in the entire city was an idiot as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t work for them, even though I would continue to. It took a massive toll on me. Emotional labor.
I look back on that dinner somewhat often, usually when when work gets dysfunctional. At my last job, I once opened my email first thing in the morning to find an email from my male editor reading, “You are a failure.” It’s then that I think about Greg and about what he’s doing now. Does he have an age-appropriate girlfriend? Does he take her to dinner at the Italian place he loves? I hope he does. I hope he didn’t have to pay any more girls to have dinner with him. If he asked me to dinner today, and doubled the price to $800, I’d say no. I’ve learned my limits over the years, about what I can and can’t do, and faking it for men is no longer in my repertoire. I’m simply not strong enough. I shouldn’t have to be.
Sheila McClear has been a staff reporter at the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and Gawker.com. She has also been published in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and the New York Observer. Her book, The Last of the Live Nude Girls, was published in 2011.