Aspiring Anthropologist: If you were to put a monetary value on me what would that be?
Informant/Fiancé: Like, what you earn?
AA: No, replacement value—Blue Book me.
I/F: A million dollars.
AA: A day?
I/F: Oh, you wanted per day? Then, one thousand dollars.
AA: You think you could get someone in here to do for you what I do for you for a thousand bucks?
I/F: What you do…like not cook, and not really clean and not let me play video games that much and…
AA: Companionship. That’s what I do for you, I’m your best friend and your lover…do you think you could get that for one thousand bucks a day?
I/F: And she would do laundry too, maybe.
The women in my family live a very long time. Most make it to their eighties, some beyond that. I may live for another fifty or sixty years, barring any accidents. My informant estimates that for one thousand dollars per day he could purchase services from a wage laborer that are equal to what I provide to him. If you consider that there are 365 days a year and that I may live for another fifty to sixty years, my lifetime value to this particular informant will be somewhere between $18,250,000 to $21,900,000, and that’s not adjusted for inflation.
AA: You owe me $1,825,000.
I/F: For what?
AA: Five years worth of my companionship.
I/F: Take it out of what you owe me. For my companionship.
AA: What do you estimate your value to be?
I/F: I’m priceless. I’m a gem.
I am not any good at cleaning house. I don’t mind grocery shopping, but I can’t cook. I won’t babysit any kids other than my sister’s, and they live 1200 miles away. I spend most of my time studying or getting ready to study or working part-time for a faltering civil engineering firm downtown. Any free time I have is divided between writing novels and plays and reading novels and plays and old National Geographic magazines. I also like to sit alone in coffee shops and watch people walking by.
It seems to me that most of the services I provide to my community are not easily monetized. Perhaps if I had some advertisement space that I could rent out, like a billboard across my belly or my forehead, then there would truly be a method for judging my value. I remember last year a woman got two free tickets to the Super Bowl for painting a logo across her pregnant belly. I am not pregnant or in a high profile situation but perhaps I could get paid for this too. Maybe the Mexican restaurant around the corner from my apartment would see a value to their name being brightly painted above my navel as I walk around our neighborhood. “La Amistad: Make Friends With Your Taste Buds,” my tummy might say. I would like to get paid in tacos.
I write a lot. I’ve written several plays and even had one published, but there was no exchange in currency. I got “paid” ten copies of the play, and if someone someday produces it I will get paid royalties, perhaps in more copies of the play. Most of my writing lately has been academic, and so I barter my essays for grades and percentage points. When I have enough of these essay-paper-credits I will trade them in for a Bachelor's Degree. I am told that a Bachelor's Degree can then be traded for tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps (if I am lucky, and a good negotiator,) I will get tens of tens of thousands of dollars. It is a long process to convert academic essays into cash.
A more direct rout might be to sell my organs. I see advertisements on the internet and in newspapers from agencies offering ten to twenty thousand dollars to buy the eggs of healthy young women. If I am willing to carry someone else’s baby to term, there is even more money to be had. I could sell my plasma for fifty bucks a week and my hair once a year if it is over six inches long and not dyed. If I had the right connections I could even sell a kidney or part of my liver or a lung. But those numbers wouldn’t reflect the value of my life as much as the value put on saving someone else’s.
It is hard to see past the wage labor system that I know. My value as a best friend, a sister, a daughter and a lover is unquantifiable. In these roles I am a therapist, a personal shopper, a mess-maker and a back-scratcher, none of which I get paid in cash for. My informant and I have a complicated bartering system, sometimes the exchange is explicit (Thanksgiving with my family, Christmas with his) and sometimes it is subtler, paid in kindness.
AA: Babe, was there a single event that signaled your transition into manhood?
AA: So, were you always a man? Was there a point when you became an adult?
I/F: I don’t know, maybe when I went to college.
AA: What about college?
I/F: Is this for another paper? The one on value?
AA: No, a different one, on liminality and gender.
I am worth approximately 22 million dollars, assuming I live to be 90 years old. That translates in to roughly 7 million tacos. “I don’t know if I can eat that many tacos,” my informant tells me. “Can I get some chorizo and egg burritos too?” Apparently, he is contemplating the exchange.