Author, as told to
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we talk to an illegitimate moving company employee who endured hoarders, stabbings, and a catricide to help yuppies unload their stuff.
I worked for a hipster moving company in New York City. I was visiting friends in Bushwick in one of those artsy loft buildings and one of the previous tenants had started a moving business. It started out as a “man with a van” kind of operation, and then, they basically co-opted some of the building’s rooftop space to host meetings and stuff like that. I would walk by and there’d be a bunch of dudes sitting around talking about making tons of money. Me being me, I started asking questions, and got hired soon after.
It was an interesting place to work because normally you’d think of a mover as some big, burly beefcake, or whatever. The skinny jeans type isn’t necessarily the person you’d expect to show up and start hauling your armoires and credenzas.
The thing is, it’s a totally illegitimate moving company. It’s a shell corporation. Basically, we made tons of money, much more than normal movers make because we didn’t pay taxes. It didn’t exactly come with all the legal loopholes that most businesses have to jump through. Everybody there was supremely overqualified, overeducated, so the standard was very high. We had great reviews and tons of people wanted to hire us because it was essentially like hiring your friends—a bunch of people who you could bullshit with. We advertised mainly through word of mouth and the internet.
We’d show up in these graffiti-covered trucks that people would want to take selfies with. That’s how the company sustained itself, through a mix of quality service and clever marketing.
The company is registered, technically, in a different state, for insurance purposes, for truck storage, for this and that. It does exist legally as an entity, but there are legally no employees. No one actually works for it even though it has a name. There’s no publicly listed address.
Since those early days in the loft space, the business has grown considerably. It has its own office space now. The fleet of trucks has expanded. I can’t reveal the exact number of trucks we had when I was working there, but it was a handful. During rush periods—at the ends of months and, particularly, in the warmer seasons—the fleet doubled. There are also a lot of new recruits. People bring their buddies onboard to haul ass during the summer and then it tapers off during the winter. Those are the lean months when there’s not too much work because potential clients are generally hibernating in their apartments and only the veterans and people who have more responsibility choose to stay on.
When I started out, I was still in college. Then, I graduated and was a freelancer. It was really remarkable. It allowed me the luxury of being able to pursue creative projects on a freelance basis, and to live a pretty comfortable life while doing it, which sounds almost utopian. I didn’t have to bartend every single night. I didn’t have to wait tables or any of that shit. You could make what somebody at an entry level corporate job makes in a week and then not work for the rest of the month. During the summer months, you could work seven days and have a couple grand at the end of it.
The caveat is that it was thoroughly self-destructive, back-breaking, injury-prone work. Sometimes, you’d be out there up to sixteen hours a day. You were really hustling, that’s for sure. But it gave you the freedom to pursue creative goals. Every single person that worked for the company was an artist of some sort: a painter, a writer, a musician, a comedian. There were filmmakers, photographers, architects. Everybody had their own passion. Everybody had an interesting story.
These weren’t the biggest, strongest guys by any means, but, like I said, they’d be able to humor you while simultaneously not breaking, losing or stealing any of your stuff. It made the day pretty fun—as fun as moving can be, anyway—just driving around, shooting the shit with these dudes in a truck.
The Brooklyn rental market at a glance
— AS OF MAY 2015, the average price for a rental in New York's biggest borough is $3,252 per month.
— THAT BREAKS DOWN to $42.43 per square foot.
— MEANWHILE, the median rental price is $2,933.
— IN THAT SAME MONTH, there were 1,097 new rentals available on the market.
— RENTALS SPEND an average of 52 days on the market from the original listing date.
— MEDIAN RENTS have gone up 4.8% year-over-year. Controlling for the larger size of Brooklyn units, this still makes them relatively cheaper than apartments in Manhattan.
Source: Curbed Rental Market Reports
Agents of gentrification
On a heavy day, you might very well see six apartments. That’s three jobs and two apartments per job. They say it’s the third most stressful day in a person’s life: your wedding day, the birth of your child, and then moving. People don’t do it very often. And, when they do, they do it for serious life reasons such as breaking up with somebody, moving in with somebody for the first time, or moving out to the suburbs because they’re having a kid. It’s a pretty significant moment in people’s lives, and you’re just casually there. You’re in their domestic space. You’re handling their personal effects. You’re appraising the apartment you’re moving them out of and the one you’re moving them into. It’s a strange level of intimacy. You get an interesting cross-section of New York real estate.
There’s no denying it, we were the agents of gentrification—literally picking up yuppies and putting them where they didn’t belong. You’d be moving people from the East Village to Williamsburg and Bushwick. You were perennially in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. Those were upward moves. Most people who can afford to hire movers in the first place are well-off enough that they’re probably moving up. There’s also the lateral move, where people just move from one apartment to another, a similar unit in a similar building or similar neighborhood. Then, there’s the downward move. Those are the worst. You’re living in a big space and then you downgrade, for whatever reason, to a smaller space.
One time, there was a yuppie couple we moved out of some Williamsburg condo into a historically black neighborhood (their real estate agent had billed it as Clinton Hill). When we got there, the prior tenants refused to leave even though they’d already signed a lease on a new place literally down the block, and had a car and very few belongings, because the landlord apparently hadn’t given them enough notice. They stood there on the stoop, hurling expletives at these precious, hopeless Midwestern transplants. The cops showed up but couldn’t evict. There was more yelling and screaming. They even refused our offer to help them move for free to speed things along. We sat in the truck for two hours before the landlord let us set our clients’ stuff up in his apartment until the tenants officially vacated. And all to prove a point.
I can tell you this much, everybody in New York lives in shitty, suboptimal conditions, and that’s across the economic spectrum. Rich people included. They may be paying $4,000 a month, but it’s the same shithole studio with the same bizarre layout and, maybe, marginally nicer surfaces, fixtures and amenities. It just happens to be on a nicer block with a doorman. It’s interesting because the city changes so rapidly. The Upper East Side has changed so much in the last couple of years. I’ve noticed a lot of people have moved from Brooklyn back to the Upper East Side, because they got priced out of these hip, new brunch class neighborhoods. Now, the once wealthy and always boring Upper East Side is where you can find the affordable one-bedroom apartment.
Another time, there was a similar couple—we’d actually moved them twice: first, to Flatbush and, later, back to the Upper East Side. The day we were moving them in, someone had gotten stabbed in the lobby of the building. The police and fire departments had been there earlier. The movers were stepping over pools of blood. Then, sure enough, a year to the day, we were out there again, making the opposite journey. They were leaving a three-bedroom to go to a studio. By the time we got all of their shit in the door, there was no space left to lay the mattress flat. They had wall-to-wall boxes stacked to the ceiling.
A lot of unpleasant and moderately amusing stuff happened on the job. Mostly, we were just dealing with people who were annoying or anxious or micromanaged every aspect of the move. Mom moves were the worst. If someone’s mother was there supervising, you could bet that you’d be having a shitty day. You probably weren’t going to get tipped. On occasion, though, some really crazy shit went down. There was somebody we moved who may or may not have killed a cat.
I don’t want to be too revealing, but at the beginning of the move this guy had two cats and at the end of the move there was only one. He was being all evasive and, at one point, one of our employees had observed him stuff something down the trash chute. The assumption was that dude had accidentally done his cat in.
Aside from moms and micromanagers, the other thing we’d encounter pretty regularly were people who were filthy. Like, in general, people with cats are usually pretty disgusting. Everything’s covered in dust and hair, so we’d usually ask them to get rid of the animal for the day. I guess that one guy took it literally.
How Manhattan’s rental market stacks up by comparison
— AS OF MAY 2015, the average price for a rental in New York's most famous borough is $4,081 per month.
— THAT BREAKS DOWN to $56.35 per square foot.
— MEANWHILE, the median rental price is $3,380.
— IN THAT SAME MONTH, there were 5,931 new rentals available on the market.
— RENTALS SPEND an average of 41 days on the market from the original listing date.
— MEDIAN RENTS have gone up 2.4% year-over-year.
— In Manhattan, the vacany rate hovers around 1.07%, the lowest it's been in nearly three years.
— The most expensive neighborhoods (surprise!) are still the Financial District, the West Village, Gramercy/Flatiron and Chelsea.
— The least expensive neighborhoods are the Upper East Side and Harlem.
Just the tip
USUALLY THINGS weren’T ON THE SCALE of stabbings and cat killings, but we’d have some disastrous days where everything went wrong, or clients from hell, or epic battles with meter maids, or we’d have to haul a mattress through a neighbor’s apartment or hoist it over the roof. Sometimes people wanted us to move things like pianos and sectionals, which was just impossible. We’d end up getting the thing stuck in a hallway two and a half flights up, and it just wouldn’t budge. A lot of people don’t understand that you can’t have large furniture in New York City. We’d get their furniture up on the sixth floor and none of it would fit through the doorway. They’d have to call someone called the couch doctor who, for $300, would take apart their shit and put it back together again.
We’ve moved for celebrities before who also, by the way, don’t tip, because they generally work through personal assistants. Anybody involved with a museum, an institution, or anything like that, also doesn’t really tip. If an assistant or intern is handling the logistics, they usually don’t remember that we’re a cash-only company so they’ll have to run to the ATM or play it off. The moment there’s any kind of intermediary involved, you’re kind of screwed.
Once, we had a guy get a hernia halfway through hauling a 300-pound rug for an A-list actress whose name I can’t mention. She was on her phone the whole time, like, “Oh yeah, hi, over there’s fine, thanks.” She had an assistant, obviously. It was weeks or months before they finally paid us. Come to think of it, maybe they never did.
We didn’t really work with large institutions. Very rarely, we would do an office of some start-up or small business. For anything that requires lots of protocol, like, a Picasso or something, you’d need to be a legitimate company with proper insurance and documentation. That’s why art handlers get paid so much more: it’s included in their rates.
Some people simply don’t know that it’s customary to tip movers. They’re under the impression that these guys just showed up in their graffiti truck and are getting the whole sum of money that they’re being quoted. What’s interesting is that people tipped pretty evenly across economic and racial lines. I’ve been stiffed by all kinds of people. I’ve also gotten great tips from people who are moving to not-so-great neighborhoods. I once had a horrible tip from moving somebody from Greenwich, Connecticut into a mansion during an estate sale. It varies but, I’d say that hipsters are consistently the worst tippers. If there’s one group to single out, it’s them. Maybe their parents are footing the bill or maybe they’re pocketing the money for drinks later, who knows? If you got a couple of bros moving from the East Village to Williamsburg, watch out.
Bed bug moves
We were generally open to anything anyone would pay us for. We weren’t the cheapest option for a cross-country haul, but we’ve done Virginia, we’ve done Boston, we’ve done all over upstate New York. Typically, it’s no farther than a five-hour drive. Those long trips are good unless you’re moving a three-bedroom house or something like that. Usually, it was not that much stuff for quite a bit of money.
The biggest singular job I ever did was probably a duplex, either on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side. We packed a twenty-foot truck twice. There may have been another sixteen-foot truck to grab random stuff. Most people are moving one- or two-bedrooms. If they have kids, you can anticipate they’ll have a ton of shit. Usually, though, everything fits into a single sixteen- or twenty-foot truck.
A lot of people are kind of hoarders, and just as many people are minimalists or ascetics. It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Maybe I just have a personal thing against cats—that smell just gets to me. But cat people definitely weren’t the worst. The worst was the bed bug moves. There were just insects and eggs and droppings everywhere. If we brought any blankets in there, we’d have to burn them, or just leave them there and walk off. Any indication they had bed bugs, and we couldn’t get anywhere near it. If any of that stuff ended up in or around the truck, the entire vehicle was out of commission for a while. We’ve had people who are clearly shut-ins and headcases; you show up and everything is messy, filthy, covered in mysterious stains and substances.
We had no issues with just walking off a job. The main thing we’ve walked off for is when people weren’t packed. I mean, we had an eight-hour window and three other jobs to do in that timeslot, and we’d get there as people are just starting to put stuff into boxes. They thought they had all day. Let’s just say it wasn’t worth our time. That, and the piano thing. There are certain items that it simply made no sense for use to carry something up multiple flights only to dismantle at the entrance. If we’re going to have to destroy your baby grand in the hallway, it wasn’t happening.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen too often. New York’s a good place to be in the moving business. People are constantly coming and going, especially during the summer. You get to pick and choose what kind of jobs you want, or at least the office does. We shot for the biggest payoff for the least amount of work. There’s a list of buildings that we didn’t work in, period, either because parking was hard or the doorman was a pain in the ass or the service entrance was a fucking hundred-yard walk from the closest spot.
Meanwhile, in Queens...
— AS OF MAY 2015, the average price for a rental in New York's most diverse borough is $2,750 per month.
— THAT BREAKS DOWN to $43.64 per square foot.
— MEANWHILE, the median rental price is $2,597.
— IN THAT SAME MONTH, there were 259 new rentals available on the market.
— RENTALS SPEND an average of 52 days on the market.
— MEDIAN RENTS have actually dropped up 12.4% year-over-year. But, not so fast! Those numbers were skewed by a sharp increase in one-bedrooms, with price by size rising for every category except for studios.
Source: Curbed Rental Market Reports
Here’s the thing: I have a straight-laced full-time job now. But if I ever need some extra cash, I could put in three, four days at the end of the month. If I still wanted to, I could make as much as I currently do with my legitimate gig in seven or eight days hustling. It’s not healthy by any standard. It’s bad on your knees and your back. But the money’s so good that we’ve got some employees who are lifers. There are other employees who have checked out because of back problems and other injuries. Most people who live in New York have Ikea, so it’s usually not an issue. Most of the time, we were moving garbage that wasn’t worth the cost of moving usually. You could’ve just thrown it out and bought it again, and it would’ve been all the same. Every once in a while you’d get a large, antique armoire that weighed a quarter ton and had to go up six flights. You’d be in for a hell of a ride at that point.
I’ve learned so much about furniture, interiors, real estate, how people handle stressful situations. I went to Ikea recently and was like, “Holy shit, I’ve handled all of this stuff—all of it!” I literally know Ikea’s entire inventory by heart. It doesn’t matter how rich people are, they still go for it. What really sucks is these people who like mid-century modern furniture, who have real expensive taste. That stuff was anxiety inducing to move. A lot of it is hardwood. Some of it has wrought iron detailing. You might be moving a three-hundred pound bar cart, which looks light and minimal but will actually put you on your ass. New York is the city of walk-ups. There are a handful of residential buildings in Chinatown that were built before the zoning law went into effect restricting those without elevators to six floors or less. That was in 1906 or 1907. If you take the stoop into account, you’re talking over seven flights, which is killer when there’s hardwood furniture involved.
Sometimes, we had to pause and take a breather on one of the landings. But, generally, we didn’t fuck around. We were quick, crappy, good at what we did. We didn’t waste your time. We were extremely efficient, as far as moving companies go. We’d get you into your new place within a couple of hours. It was a well-oiled machine, to the point that we showed up to buildings where there was legit moving company in the process of moving a similar load, and we’d be out in half the time. Like I said, everyone was too qualified for the job. We didn’t break shit. We didn’t lose shit. We didn’t steal shit, obviously. But it just wasn’t worth our while. Everybody was making too much money, but everybody had their own interests. Very few people were supporting families. This was nobody’s passion.