In my first month as a TaskRabbit in New York City, I assembled an Ikea dresser for a stoned real estate agent in Bushwick, waited in line to get someone a table at a trendy Flatiron sushi restaurant, and helped a dude pack his cashmere sweaters for a move to the Lower East Side. Then I got a message from Tim (whose name I’ve changed to protect his privacy), a recovering cancer patient who wanted me to cold-press organic juice once a week in his Williamsburg kitchen. It sounded like a good gig to supplement my freelance writing income, which was almost zero at the time.
I was surprised when Tim answered the door of his sleek townhouse; I’d expected someone bald and frail from chemo. I guessed he was in his mid-30s, like me, and he looked healthy, with thick, tousled hair. He smiled and asked me to take my shoes off. We padded into his living room, where I set my bag next to a pouf in a sprawling, Moroccan-inspired seating area filled with colorful floor cushions.
Tim led me into the kitchen, which was arranged around a large island outfitted with a separate sink. Two grocery bags of produce delivered from Whole Foods sat on the counter. Rustic wooden shelves held neatly labeled glass jars of quinoa, lentils, and several different kinds of rice. A vat of homebrewed kombucha perched above the stainless steel dishwasher. When I excused myself to use the bathroom, I discovered a fancy Japanese toilet; the lid opened automatically when I walked in.
Tim mentioned that he’d bought the place a few years earlier. I gathered that he did something related to finance. So this is what an MBA salary gets you, I thought. I felt lucky to live alone in a modest one-bedroom walk-up with no dishwasher or laundry in Bed-Stuy, but knew that I would probably have to move soon. I had recently lost my job at a digital media company and my severance money was running out.
I listened carefully as Tim explained how to make the two juices in his recovery regimen, called Gerson therapy. One was pressed from leafy greens and the other from carrots and apples; both were to be consumed fresh and in large quantities. First, I needed to submerge the fruits and vegetables in a sinkful of cold water, along with a few glugs of apple cider vinegar to remove pesticides. Next, I would rinse them under the tap, and finally, I’d give them a brief dunk in a bowl of distilled water.
When I was done preparing the produce, Tim demonstrated how to operate the juicer. It was a hulking, ravenous beast capable of pulverizing whole carrots, chunks of cabbage, and, if you weren’t careful, human fingers. I learned to line a pan with cloth and position it to catch the pulp dribbling out of the machine. Then I would load the pan into the hydraulic press, applying pressure until liquid flowed out of the attached tube. I could see why Tim was outsourcing this; after three hours, I produced only a few jars of juice.
Tim, his girlfriend, and I quickly settled into a pattern during my weekly visits. We’d exchange pleasantries when I arrived, but our conversations mostly revolved around the weather or if I should use both bags of carrots in the refrigerator. I didn’t ask many questions; it seemed impolite to inquire about Tim’s cancer diagnosis or prognosis. I figured it was my job to be as invisible as possible.
After a few months they trusted me to come by when they weren’t home. I let myself in using an app that unlocked the front door. I listened to podcasts while I worked, the chugging of the juicer momentarily drowning out Ira Glass, Terry Gross, or the latest Modern Love essay, and I liked those evenings best. By then I’d left my apartment and moved in with a roommate, and I was getting used to sharing a bathroom and cramped kitchen again. It was nice to have Tim’s place to myself.
Moving into my own apartment had felt like the crowning achievement of my 30s. If I could afford to live alone in New York City and buy the yellow silk throw pillow covers I wanted at West Elm, my career had to be on the right track. But while I made a comfortable salary managing editorial operations, I questioned my own value. By my last year on the job, I’d outgrown my role and was anxious for the higher-ups to see I was capable of doing more creative work. I felt so lost that a few times I choked back tears on my lunch break or walking home from the subway. But I could soothe myself—at least for a little while—by splurging on succulents or a new rug.
My new roommate had already filled our apartment’s common spaces with her furniture, plants, books, art, and dishes, and while she’d told me to make myself at home, I sold many of my things before moving in. Purging my belongings was a cool affair. I no longer needed the pine bookcase I’d triumphantly assembled all by myself or the essential-oil diffuser that made my bedroom smell like yuzu or the lamp that was just a naked Edison bulb screwed into a slab of polished wood. For all the joy, or at least comfort, these objects had offered at one point, now I just needed money.
And controlling the look of my space no longer seemed so important. It felt more pressing to claim a sense of ownership over my professional future. I couldn’t just keep hoping people would see me as a writer—I had to show them I was one.
Making juice for Tim was tedious, but it got me out of my head for a few hours. After spending a day writing pitches I didn’t know if anyone would buy, I could carefully bathe bunches of rainbow chard, feed the leaves into the grinder, and watch their crunchy stems transmute into verdant glop. I could swaddle that glop in a piece of cloth, pack it into the press, lean all my weight on the lever and watch juice pour out, proof that I had produced something of monetary value.
It’s a privilege to be able to consider whether or not a career path aligns with your passions. I couldn’t afford a Williamsburg townhouse, but generational wealth had allowed me to graduate without student loans—a fact that made it easier for me to stomach the financial precarity of freelancing.
Over the year I worked for Tim, I noticed the ways his space changed: the new egg-shaped wicker chair hanging by the front window, the indoor grass he was growing near the stairs. He invited his friends to add their touches to a mural in progress on the dining room wall. Our tastes and budgets were different, but I recognized the pleasure of customizing a place to express your personality.
Watching Tim invest in his home reminded me that right now, my life wasn’t about feeling comfortable or rooted. I was here to do a job and then I’d go home to an apartment that didn’t feel like mine, and that was okay. I was in a new place as I started freelancing—one that was often lonely, frustrating, and scary, but that also felt full of possibility. This wasn’t what I’d expected to be doing in my mid-30s, but it felt better than waiting for someone else to decide for me.
Susie Armitage is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She has written for Atlas Obscura, BuzzFeed News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Beast, Lonely Planet, ProPublica, SELF, Vox’s The Goods, and elsewhere. Her audio stories have aired on NPR, PRI’s The World, Business Insider’s Household Name, and WHYY’s The Pulse. You can follow her on Twitter.