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Sleeping In Strangers’ Beds: The Sharing Economy Opens The Door To A New Kind Of Intimacy

Julie Wittes Schlack: "Call it a remote familiarity, call it distant closeness. Whatever you call it, it’s a gift, but a potentially costly one." (David Mao/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: "Call it a remote familiarity, call it distant closeness. Whatever you call it, it’s a gift, but a potentially costly one." (David Mao/Unsplash)

Now in our 60s, living on reduced incomes, my husband and I have found ourselves reverting to some of the routines from our youth. In the interests of both health and frugality, we’re eating more brown rice-based mystery casseroles, walking more and driving less, and replacing international travel with domestic road trips. It’s all good, but what’s best is that we’re back to sleeping in the beds of people we’ve never met before. Okay, unlike 40 years ago, we’re not simply walking into college dorms in distant towns asking random people if they know where we can crash for the night. No, we’re booking strangers’ beds in advance and paying for them with a credit card courtesy of Airbnb. But the familiar benefit – an inexpensive adventure — has now been augmented by another perk: the opportunity for entirely chaste and sanctioned voyeurism.

Take Kelsey’s Los Angeles apartment. (I’ve changed the names of our hosts to protect their privacy. And yes, I see the irony in this.) The pictures online showed a quirky looking loft with hanging chairs, a big screen TV and a guitar on a rattan stand in the corner. I liked the tone of her house rules (“Please don't drink my booze...except the Mike's Hard Lemonade in the fridge, those are all yours my friend”), and the location, a block from the bus that would take us to our daily destination, was ideal. I booked it, and Kelsey and I exchanged a set of perfectly timed text messages immediately before, during and just after our stay.

...an inexpensive adventure -- has now been augmented by another perk: the opportunity for entirely chaste and sanctioned voyeurism.

“Let me know when you get to LA,” she chirped.

“Just landed,” I replied – the kind of message I would normally only send to my worried mother after flying through a thunder storm.

“Are you there?” she asked less than an hour later.

“In the apartment – looks great”

Our correspondence continued this way, in bite-sized exchanges of solicitation and appreciation, until check-out time five days later.

“Leaving now …” I told her, and before we were even halfway back to the airport, Kelsey had written a glowing review of me on Airbnb.

As kind as her words were, they confirmed my sense that Kelsey was probably staying in the apartment next door the entire time, listening anxiously for sounds of motorcycle gangs in the living room, drunken brawling or screamed exhortations to stop hogging the heroin. In short, she seemed to be a seasoned and expert hostess. Her books – a slender volume on the value of positive affirmations, a Rumi poetry collection, a hardcover documenting the best beaches in Southern California, a memoir about the joys of parenting foster dogs, and a biography of Dolly Madison – were stacked in adorably asymmetric fashion on a bright red stool, perfectly eclectic. They revealed a desire to please her guests, but were otherwise useless in offering any insight into who she was. Even the contents of her pantry – a few different kinds of tea, the standard array of seasonings and salsa, a box of Cheerios – did little to reveal even her sex, let alone her sensibility. Only an encyclopedic collection of cosmetics and toiletries in a locked glass bathroom cabinet offered a clue into who Kelsey was – a freelance make-up artist, I decided, and beautician to the stars.

Chad’s condo, in a brand spanking new building surrounded by marinas and yacht clubs, was as spare as Kelsey’s was sweet. But unlike Kelsey, the contents of his kitchen and paucity of possessions told an eloquent story. The walls were bare, but there was an abundance of thick bathrobes in terry and silk, and blankets and throws all made of the same cozy but manly faux fur. He had an impressive collection of highly specialized J. Crew toiletries – shampoos, conditioners, pomades, shaving gels, after-shave creams, and an exotic scent of Old Spice deodorant that I was tempted to try. The stainless steel refrigerator held a rather smelly plastic container of leftover spaghetti with clam sauce, a pizza box half-filled with stale doughy disks that looked like gluten bullets, and a diverse, tempting, and very large selection of craft beers. A framed but unhung 2013 graduation diploma from a Pennsylvania college propped up against one of the bedroom walls confirmed what we’d already suspected: This was the apartment of a very young man with an atypically high income or generous allowance.

Airbnb, like so many web-based inventions, has enabled a peculiarly 21st century anonymous intimacy.

But unlike Kelsey’s, Chad's book collection was most revealing. He had scads of biographies of quarterbacks and Republican politicians, Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged," and some Tom Clancy novels. Alongside this middle-class, middle-brow fare were several scholarly-looking volumes about Chinese history and Asian trade policy. And leaning against one of the shelves was another framed certificate, this one indicating that, while still in high school, Chad had served as a Congressional page. Clearly, we were in the home of an aspiring politician. Even more remarkable, we were in the home of a would-be Republican official in the city whose slogan is “Keep Portland weird.”

This young bro — well-accessorized, politically conservative — probably didn’t exist in the late 1960s. (If he did, he wouldn’t have let us crash in his dorm room.) And though hopeful, resourceful women like Kelsey were probably numerous even in the LA of 40 years ago, they would not have recruited strangers to occupy their apartments for days on end. But thanks to Airbnb, we got to meet them both.

Or did we? We got to sleep in their beds, examine their artifacts, create biographies for two people based on their housekeeping and text messages. They were trusting enough to let us occupy their homes, but were not trusting (or interested) enough to actually meet us in the flesh. And so Airbnb, like so many web-based inventions, has enabled a peculiarly 21st century anonymous intimacy. Call it a remote familiarity, call it distant closeness. Whatever you call it, it’s a gift, but a potentially costly one.

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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