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.