Howie Appelbaum is a superhero of sorts. Most weekdays, he puts on his uniform-a pair of faded jeans, ratty white sneakers and his favorite brown leather jacket. He glides his shiny silver Infinity S.U.V. from Summit, N.J., across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Here, he is like 10 milligrams of Valium for anxious first-time parents. He is the protector of defenseless babies. He is the vanquisher of dry-cleaning bags, loose change and hot cups of coffee. He is the baby-proofer.
On a dreary Friday morning, Mr. Appelbaum marched up Madison Avenue carrying a black canvas briefcase. Though it was nearly May, Mr. Appelbaum could see his breath as he turned left onto a quiet block between Madison and Fifth. At 47, Mr. Appelbaum has graying dark brown hair and a thick Magnum P.I mustache.
He entered a building and announced himself to a neatly uniformed doorman.
“Tell them it’s Mr. Appelbaum, Howie Appelbaum.”
Moments later, high up in a luxurious three-bedroom apartment, Mr. Appelbaum greeted Walter and Emma (not their real names), new parents who appeared to be in their mid-30′s. He then sized up and nodded to their 6-month-old daughter, Rebecca. Soon, Mr. Appelbaum was at work, crawling on the hardwood floors, observing the microcosmic world through the baby’s eyes, thinking like the baby, becoming the baby. Something caught his eye. He scrambled over to the curtains, pushed them aside, twisted and removed a gnarly, rusty nail from the wall and motioned toward his mouth with it. Walter and Emma gasped.
“Let’s get rid of that,” said Walter calmly.
“Yeah,” Emma agreed.
Mr. Appelbaum pointed toward the coffee table. “What is the probability that there’s anything underneath that table? The probability of the baby finding a splinter, a nail-a 1 percent chance, 1 percent more than you need.” Mr. Appelbaum advised Walter and Emma to go through the whole apartment themselves, systematically checking for nails and splinters.
“Did you get that? You should write that down,” said Walter, as Emma rummaged through drawers looking for paper and a pen.
“Now, you gotta worry about things laying around the house. Papers with staples, paper clips, rubber bands, jewelry, pens that come apart,” Mr. Appelbaum said as he disassembled his pen, transforming it from harmless writing utensil into a windpipe menace. Walter and Emma watched wide-eyed.
“Did you get that, honey?”
“Yes, I’m writing.”
Over the next half hour, Mr. Appelbaum pointed out innumerable ways in which little Rebecca could be hanged, poisoned, crushed, electrocuted, suffocated, poked, cut, burned, impaled, drowned, bludgeoned or decapitated by standard household items like toilets, Venetian blinds, pocketbooks, baby monitors and Beanie Babies.
Then it was time to talk business. Mr. Appelbaum knelt over a cherrywood coffee table and removed sample products (and pictures of samples) from his briefcase, all mounted on Plexiglas-latches, clamps, brackets and spongy tub spouts (available in elephant or hippo). In some of the photos, baby models posed in perilous positions-poised at the top of steep staircases or lingering around wobbly bookcases.
“I hope I didn’t scare you. That was not my intention,” Mr. Appelbaum said, stuffing the samples back into his briefcase. Walter and Emma looked at each other for a moment and said they’d buy Mr. Appelbaum’s products. All of them.
Mr. Appelbaum smiled. “Usually, we have a two-, three-week backlog,” he said.
Mr. Appelbaum founded Baby Proofers Plus Inc. 11 years ago to help parents identify and alleviate potential household baby hazards. His turf consists of Manhattan apartments and brownstones, as well as homes in New Jersey and Connecticut.
“Howard is the main baby-proofer in Manhattan,” said Ronni Soled, who hosts a lunch for new mothers three times a week in Manhattan. Several other baby-proofers operate in Manhattan, but Ms. Soled said she refers her (generally affluent) mommies only to Mr. Appelbaum.
His clientele includes “doctors, C.E.O.’s, lawyers, heads of financial institutions, salesmen, everything,” said Mr. Appelbaum. He frequently does summer houses in the Hamptons, sometimes driving out on a Thursday with his wife and business partner, Rene Appelbaum, and making a weekend of it. A celebrity client once asked Mr. Appelbaum to drive to Washington, D.C., to baby-proof a relative’s house that his child would be visiting.
“We do some rich and famous people, too,” added Ms. Appelbaum. “We don’t brag about it, but we have.”
Mr. Appelbaum stated that he recently did jobs for a pop diva and the chief executive of an international media conglomerate.
An initial apartment crawl-through takes about an hour and costs $50. After the evaluation, Mr. Appelbaum e-mails the client a baby-proofing estimate-usually between $300 and $500 for a one-bedroom apartment, $400 or more for a two-bedroom (including equipment and labor). If a customer is adequately convinced that he or she must have the baby-saving products, Mr. Appelbaum comes back and installs the stuff himself.
Despite the sustained downturn in the economy, business is good.
“Each year is better than the year before,” said Ms. Appelbaum. “People always have children, and children are their No. 1 priority.”
Professional baby-proofing is a relatively new option for parents. A generation ago, parents, at best, stuck a couple of plastic covers over the electrical outlets and kept their fingers crossed. But parents today are neurotic about their children’s safety, and many spare no expense to ensure that their kids avoid a gruesome household demise. Despite parents’ anxiety, it’s actually pretty safe to be a baby these days. In 2001, only 1,700 children 4 years old and younger died in the United States because of accidents in the home, nine fatalities per 100,000 children.
There are approximately 200 baby-proofing businesses nationally, mostly concentrated around urban areas, according to Steve Weinstein, president of the International Association for Child Safety (IAFCS), the principal trade organization for baby-proofers. The number of baby-proofers has grown steadily, with a recent surge of interest. A substantial number of people laid off from other jobs, especially technology, are feeling entrepreneurial, and a baby-proofing business is a relatively easy one to start, Mr. Weinstein said. As the field gets more crowded, the baby-proofers who succeed, he predicted, will be the ones who “have their heart in this business.”
The other day between jobs, Howard and Rene Appelbaum reflected on the past over iced coffees at Starbucks. He was wearing a black mock turtleneck, brown hiking boots and jeans that were pulled up a little too high. This pair of jeans, like most of his others, is faded from all his crawling on the job. A gruff guy with a thick New Jersey accent, he often wears faux leather, gold rings and a thick gold bracelet around his wrist. Ms. Appelbaum, who was wearing jeans and a striped cotton T-shirt, is petite, with a jumble of shoulder-length brown curls. When discussing baby-proofing, she maintains a no-nonsense demeanor; she takes it extremely seriously.
For years, the Appelbaums said, they desperately wanted children of their own, but were unable to have any. Starting a business to protect other people’s babies was “bittersweet” at first, said Ms. Appelbaum, who was riding along with her husband that day (which she does about once a week). She sees Baby Proofers Plus as a way to care for children vicariously. Before entering the boom-boom world of baby-proofing, Mr. Appelbaum worked for an oil company for 10 years, and prior to that was an accountant. But he had an entrepreneurial yearning and, when the oil company moved to Houston, he didn’t bother to relocate. His sister and sister-in-law had both given birth recently and, with their babies, Mr. Appelbaum’s idea was born.
“Time was crucial,” he said. “It’s not that people can’t do [their own baby-proofing]; people don’t have the time to do it.”
On a recent afternoon at Gabriela’s Kitchen, a Mexican restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, 20 mothers with babies were seated around two large tables-this was one of Ms. Soled’s “New Mothers” luncheons. The women were listening intently to Mr. Appelbaum, who was perched on a bar stool swinging his legs as he spoke. Much of Mr. Appelbaum’s business originates from talks he gives at hospitals or to groups like this.
Overpriced perambulators were parked haphazardly around the tables. Some babies slept, others watched Mr. Appelbaum and drooled. One baby with a thick rug of black hair (he looked a bit as if he was wearing a bad hairpiece) stared quizzically at the baby next to him, who wore a red-and-black-striped one-piece that made him look like a little escaped prisoner. With mariachi music quietly bleating from the speakers and red, yellow and green streamers hanging from the ceiling, it felt a bit like a baby fiesta.
“Don’t underestimate your child. Your child is a magician,” said Mr. Appelbaum. His voice rose and fell as he used his hands and body to emphasize the perils in the home. “Think about your pocketbook,” he said. “You have it zippered. Youhaveit snapped. Baby opens it up, baby goes inside your pocketbook. What is inside your pocketbook-is there anything of danger? Small items, sharp items. The strap, a pocketbook strap, is more than six inches-which can wrap around a baby’s neck.”
He urged the mommies to remove all the plants from their apartments, cautioned them on the dangers of cat litter, and told them about a baby who recently chugged a bottle of baby oil. Finally, he passed out his brochure, which features a crudely drawn infant dumping a box of soapsuds into its mouth, with an emptied container of Liquid Plumber already lying at its feet.
“You’ll get different kinds of people,” Mr. Appelbaum had said earlier while cruising down Second Avenue, the back of his S.U.V. piled high with plastic gates. “I’ve found sex toys, porn, drugs when I was installing locks on cabinets.” He said he’s seen some super-paranoid parents, and others who don’t see the need for baby-proofing. Perhaps the most edgy parents he’s ever seen, he said, were a couple who “padded every corner, every molding. I padded the walls, put gates in every corridor-basically a padded cell.” It was the Manhattan couple’s first child, and Mr. Appelbaum went back 11 times to baby-proof.
“It was a two-bedroom, and I taped all the wires to the walls,” he said. “They were even worried about padding every part of the crib.” This memory brought a smile to Mr. Appelbaum’s face, but he refused to admit that these parents went overboard. “They were an older couple, very well-educated.”
Like any business, baby-proofing has its ugly side, and Mr. Appelbaum is wary of his competition. Indeed, a woman for whom he did a recent estimate ended up starting her own company. He became suspicious when he walked into her study and noticed that her computer screen displayed information about baby-proofing insurance. “I’m just looking up things,” she told him. When the estimate was nearly over, the woman asked to see all of his samples. Mr. Appelbaum refused, telling her that some products simply weren’t necessary for her. The woman demanded to see them anyway, “just in case.” Mr. Appelbaum said he realized what was going on and “pretty much shut it down as fast as I could.” Within two weeks, he learned from his suppliers that the woman was launching her own baby-proofing service.
Mr. Weinstein, of the IAFCS, said he won’t allow certain individuals to join his organization-and Mr. Appelbaum is one such person. Mr. Weinstein was Mr. Appelbaum’s former business partner when Mr. Appelbaum first got into the business 11 years ago. But their partnership was ephemeral, lasting about a year. There’s still bad blood and, on the phone the other day, Mr. Weinstein said that taking Mr. Appelbaum as a partner was the “biggest mistake I ever made.” Neither Mr. Appelbaum nor Mr. Weinstein elaborated on why the partnership imploded.
“I split from him; there were just too many problems,” said Mr. Weinstein.
The two former partners actually live across the street from each other in Summit; apparently a lot of glaring goes on.
Immediately after his talk at the new-mothers lunch at Gabriela’s, Mr. Appelbaum slinked into his leather jacket and placed the remaining brochures back in his briefcase. In the far corner of the room, Gillian Segal, a delicately pretty woman with light brown hair, said Mr. Appelbaum convinced her-she’d definitely be calling Baby Proofers Plus.
“I would want him to come over and talk to my husband,” she said, easing up her shirt to breast-feed her baby, Sage, “so that my husband would hear it from someone else’s mouth. So he wouldn’t think I was being neurotic. If I’m the only one who hears a speech like that, I’ll say this and that, and he’ll think I’m crazy. I guess some of it might be overkill, but probably better safe than sorry.”