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When you first sign up as a host with Airbnb, you’re encouraged to fill out a profile explaining why you want to open your home to travelers. Doing so helps attract guests, the site contends, by demonstrating you are “authentic” and “committed to the spirit” of the sharing economy.
My authentic reason for joining—I was broke and desperate for help with my rent—didn’t make for the most compelling advertisement. So I scrapped authenticity in favor of the next best thing: plagiarism. After lurking on the pages of other hosts, I lifted some authentic-sounding sayings for my own profile:
“I just love meeting new people!” I lied, for example, and worse: “Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet!”
Even feigned authenticity, it turns out, does the trick. Soon I was fielding inquiries from travelers the world over hoping to stay in the spare bedroom of my Chelsea apartment. And interestingly, given my proximity to LGBT landmarks like the Stonewall Inn and that cupcake place featured on Sex & the City, nearly all of these requests were from fellow gay men.
This made me feel safer, but my mother had her reservations. “Gay people are just as capable of smothering you in your sleep as straight people,” she pointed out, ever the defender of equality.
As luck would have it, my mother would be in town the same weekend I booked Charlie, one of my first Airbnb guests. They would overlap at my apartment only a couple of hours—he was heading home to San Francisco the same day she arrived on a redeye—but this was plenty of time, in my mother’s eyes, for Charlie to fall into one of his murderous homosexual rages.
Charlie described himself as an “artist” and a “yogi” on his profile, so I figured he was more likely to be a drug dealer than a serial killer. But when he first rang the buzzer to my apartment, even this concern proved unfounded; I opened the door to find a tall, dapper man in his mid-sixties smiling back at me who didn’t seem stoned at all.
“So,” I asked, after helping him get settled, “What brings you to town?”
“I’m here to show my latest artwork,” he replied. “The collection was inspired by my slave master.”
“Oh?” I said, clutching the invisible string of pearls around my neck.
Truthfully, I wasn’t scandalized by this information—you can’t throw a rock down Eighth Avenue without accidentally gay bashing a leather daddy or two. I was impressed; not five minutes into meeting me, Charlie had dropped his “slave master” into polite conversation as casually as others might mention a second cousin or divorce attorney. But maybe San Franciscans are simply more forthcoming about their sexual kinks? This is, after all, a city whose main attraction is a prison.
“How did you two meet?” I asked, deciding to play along.
The short version of the story goes something like this: Charlie and his partner of over thirty years recently opened up their relationship. This newfound freedom led his husband to download that Grindr app he’d heard so much about, and to Charlie being hogtied and gagged in the sorts of clubs requiring a password to get in and a safe word to get out.
Of the many bonds forged in these dimly lit rooms, Charlie developed his strongest connection with a leather-clad 22-year-old. Their relationship transcended superficial things, he stressed, like his new friend’s “knack for public humiliation,” or his “really reasonable rates” for the Bay Area.
“He’s my muse!” Charlie gushed. “I haven’t stopped creating since I met him. He’s the best thing to happen to this old man in years.”
I climbed in bed that night having developed an unexpected soft spot for Charlie. Yes, he’d spent the last hour describing sexual acts so depraved I’d experience night terrors for weeks to come. But his eyes also sparkled as he spoke of his leather twink, and it was a healthy reminder that you’re never too old to seek out new experiences. What new adventures awaited me? I wondered, as I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke, Charlie was naked and on all fours in the middle of my living room.
“Good morning!” he greeted me, mid-Uttanasana. “Just doing some sun salutations before my clients arrive for a peek at my work!”
He made a sweeping motion to indicate the art in question, but it would have been hard to miss. On display, across every surface of my living room, were dozens of photographs from his new collection. Most depicted two men: one younger and brandishing weapons like chains, whips, and erections, and one older, who I took to be Charlie, but couldn’t be sure, of course, on account of the leather hood.
“Oh dear,” Charlie said, noticing my eyes widen over a piece that looked to depict more than one type of bodily fluid. “Is this a problem?”
“It’s just my mother—” I began to remind him; but then, as if summoned like Bloody Mary by the mere mention of her name, my buzzer rang.
In the brief seconds before panic set in, I recalled a quote I read once by Airbnb’s cofounder. “How could you be cynical about humanity,” he wondered, “and join Airbnb?” It’s a rhetorical question, one meant to highlight the openness of the home-sharing community, but in this moment—when nothing but a door separated my mother from my naked guest, and the gallery of hardcore porn he had erected in my living room—I felt I’d found the answer.
Another buzz from my intercom jolted me back to reality. But rather than expose my mother to the mini Folsom Street Fair taking place in my apartment, I dragged her to a nearby breakfast spot, with reliably slow service, and demanded Charlie use that time find a more appropriate venue to showcase his work—an actual gallery space, perhaps, or a dungeon.
Mercifully, by the time we returned, there was nary a penis in sight, painted or otherwise. The relief I felt being rid of Charlie, however, soon gave way to guilt; I had practically kicked this man, smut-first, into the streets. Now he was sure to leave me a scathing review, crushing the dream I never had of being an hotelier.
To my surprise, though, it was glowing: I was a “superb” host, he wrote, with “plenty of space for a yoga mat.” He so enjoyed his stay, he hoped to book my “lovely flat” again next month.
I stared at my laptop, incredulous. What made Charlie think I’d let him peddle porn out of my apartment a second time around?
Then again, what had possessed me, a proud misanthropist, to sign up for Airbnb in the first place? My path never would have crossed with this BDSM-loving nude yoga enthusiast if I hadn’t opened my home to travelers.
“I just don’t understand,” my mother said, bewildered, when she learned I’d accepted Charlie’s reservation. “Why are you allowing these strangers into your home?”
“You know mom,” I said jokingly, if not a bit more authentically, “strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.”