After three years in their demanding line of business, Michele Barkin and Lisa Stewart have come to consider themselves experts at providing whatever it takes to make people happy in their own homes.
Some people have been perfectly satisfied just to have the two women deliver Peruvian llamas to their doorsteps. Others set their sights slightly higher, demanding three-act playlets, complete with script, props and a scenery-chewing troupe of actors. Then there are the perfectionists, who want their 450-pound statues not only whisked through customs, but loaded gingerly onto a truck by a crew of muscle men and brought directly home without a scratch.
"It used to amaze me what people won't do themselves, but I think I'm coming around to their point of view," said Stewart, who is Barkin's partner in Insane Assignments, a two-woman firm which will take on just about any delivery request, provided that the task is legal.
Insane Assignments' base of operations is Los Angeles' moneyed Westside, where home-delivery firms have been branching out in recent years from the customary cold pizza and hot strip-o-gram. In wealthy enclaves such as Beverly Hills, Malibu and Bel-Air, it is no longer enough to simply deliver fast food and an occasional bawdy message: To compete, more and more entrepreneurs have come to the conclusion that the home is where the money is.
At any given hour on any given day, legions of home-delivery men and women are on the road, transporting croissant and champagne breakfasts in the morning and sushi at night, portable wardrobes for the fashionably thin and torturous mobile gymnasiums for those trying to get that way.
Abounding in catchy nicknames, home-delivery entrepreneurs cater to nearly every conceiveable whim. The Plant Lady shows up regularly at clients' doors to water and tend their philodendrons. Crews from Dr. Polish will drop in to perform radical wash-and-buff surgery on their Porsches. Sushi Man ventures out at night, brimming with raw fish, while Lindy of Bel Air hews to a daytime schedule, touting the nutritional benefits of her special diets and low-calorie banana milkshakes.
Pets, too, can be pampered at home. Animal-oriented firms will arrange visits to cheerfully bathe a client's dog or cat, take it on walks, train it to respect the rugs or ferry it to the veterinarian. And for the pet-lover whose world tends to shatter when the Afghan stays away from home too long, there are vets who make house calls.
"When you first think about it, it sounds so decadent," said Cindy Appley, who is the sole owner and staff of Helpmates Specialized Errand Service. Appley will deliver clients' packages, do their grocery shopping and, if asked nicely, arrive early in the morning to fix their toast and coffee.
"A lot of people have all these guilt feelings when they call up," she said. "But think about life without ever having to do an errand again. If I weren't so poor, I'd love to hire people like me."
Like most of her road-bound competitors, Appley has a long way to go before she can sit back and summon people to her own home. Instead, the 30-year-old Louisiana-born blonde spends her days waiting for the phone to ring in her Santa Monica apartment or cruising Westside streets in her white Toyota wagon. As she drives, she glances between the road and crudely drawn maps showing the fastest routes to her clients' homes.
Always in a Hurry
"I always feel obligated to go fast," she said one recent morning, as she raced toward a Beverly Hills luxury apartment house. "I map out all my directions beforehand. They're paying me $16 to $20 per trip, so I feel I ought to be on the ball."
Speed is also integral to her hectic shopping assignments. "You should see me in grocery stores," she said. "I'm like a crazy lady. You never saw lettuce move from the produce section to the shopping cart so fast."
Bad luck intrudes, from time to time, on Appley's missions. She arrived with minutes to spare at the Beverly Hills apartment only to discover that her client, a torch singer, listed her name differently on her door than she did on Appley's instructions. Appley spent an extra 10 minutes in a phone booth, cursing a busy signal, until she could get through to find out the woman's name.
Even when their luck holds, home-delivery entrepreneurs face the formidable task of letting the world know about their services. When Michele Barkin and Lisa Stewart started Insane Assignments in 1982, they printed up flyers ("We love what you hate to do!") and began advertising in slick, upscale periodicals with wide readership on the Westside.
For new arrivals to the home-delivery business, it is the only way to drum up clients. "Word of mouth is best," Barkin said. "But you've got to get people's attention."
She and Stewart spent their first week dropping flyers into residential mail slots. Returning home, they were thrilled to find their first phone message waiting on the answering machine. It was from a federal postal inspector.
"He told us it was illegal to put them in people's mailboxes," Barkin said.
Magazine advertising holds less risk. Hollywood Hills housewife Marilyn Levine found "Home-aerobics by Judy" by casually flipping through a Beverly Hills weekly. Levine had lost 50 pounds by dieting ("Khrushchev and I were the only people who couldn't get into Disneyland. I was so fat, I would have had to go in a wheelchair. My husband refused to push me"), but she hesitated at the thought of having to tone up in a health club with athletic women whose sleek bodies were in better shape than hers. She brightened when she saw Judy Greenfeld's ad.
What Levine liked was Greenfeld's offer of "specialized exercises in the privacy of your own home." So, several months ago, Greenfeld began showing up at Levine's doorstep five mornings a week to lead her and a neighbor, Berti Massoth, in an hour of gentle instruction and spine-jarring aerboics.
The routines vary, but usually include stomach exercises for Massoth, who wants to get to the ball faster on the tennis courts, and leg exercises for Levine, who once had trouble walking. "My friends still talk about the day I took a taxi from the MGM Grand hotel just to get across the street," said Levine, who now cha-chas easily and jogs several laps through her mirrored living room.
Before she began peddling her exercise sessions door-to-door, Greenfeld experimented with a dance career in New York, then came to Los Angeles, where she made the rounds of several workout clubs on the Westside, hoping to become an exercise instructor.
Despite a lithe body and previous experience in aerobics, Greenfeld soon gave up on the idea. "I didn't like the Body Nazis who work in health clubs," she said. "It's great if you're already in good shape. But they can hurt you if you can't keep pace with them."
Instead, 17 months ago, she started taking her aerobics classes to her clients. Greenfeld now leads as many as four sessions a day, charging $35 a visit.
She shows up in leotards, carrying nothing more than a few arm weights and tape recorded cassettes that typically start with high-energy Tina Turner medleys and end with soothing mood music to accompany Greenfeld's final instructions: "Imagine the sand on your back, warming all your muscles. Now, circle yourself with white light and keep that glow with you all through your day."
Keeping Costs Down
Low overhead helps keep many home-delivery entrepreneurs in business. Ed Scher the Auto Agent thrives as a consultant to people who want to buy new cars but avoid car salesmen. Scher works out of his apartment, interrupted only by clients' phone calls and high-pitched "hellos" from his parrot, Buckwheat.
"All you need is a phone with an answering machine, a car with a full tank of gas and a smile," Scher said. He meets his clients at their homes, where he provides details about their dream cars and the best deals they can find.
He will even have the car brought to their house for a test drive. "I know several dealers," he said. "And those who aren't willing (initially) can be persuaded for $25."
Most of his customers, Scher said, are "doctors and lawyers who want to move up from their Toyotas so they can be seen in a Mercedes." His services cost up to $300. He also works for economy-minded clients like photographer Nancy Manning, who called him to her Venice home recently to set up a deal for a white Volkswagen Rabbit convertible.
"I feel I know nothing about buying a car," Manning said, after going over several car brochures with Scher in her sunny den. "I hate going in and talking with car salesmen. Buying a car in those places is like buying a carpet. In fact, I wish there was someone out there like Ed to help me buy a carpet."
Someone most assuredly will soon be out there. Home-delivery specialists who think they have cornered the market in their specialty usually have rude awakenings. Brad Saltzman, one of several high school friends making good money with their Dr. Polish home car wash service, was dismayed recently to find a card deposited in his mailbox from a mysterious new rival, Dr. Detail.
"They even ripped off the name," Saltzman lamented. "We weren't amused."
Home-delivery generalists face similar competition. At Insane Assignments, Michele Barkin and Lisa Stewart know they have at least half a dozen counterparts, all trying to top the others in sheer inventiveness. This requires staying out of ruts.
"We've got a gorilla suit on hand, but everybody delivers messages in gorilla suits," Stewart said. "People get blase fast. One of these days, we're going to retire that suit."
In their storage closets, Stewart and Barkin keep anything that might prove useful: Linens, medieval costumes, tuxedos, silverware, a toy Uzi submachine gun. The women have worn French maid's outfits so often to serve picnics, Barkin said, that "I'm amazed they haven't worn out yet."
Neither, so far, have Barkin and Stewart. The two women said they have managed to avoid becoming jaded by their work, despite its demands. "Most of these things we do are not insane," said Barkin, adding, "at least not by my standards."