photos by Daniela Buvat
I paid a human to be my friend for an hour.
I avoid strangers at all costs. I blame it on my mom. When I was 5 she told me to never talk to anyone I didn’t know. I, of course, listened. [Mom, you should be proud.] I avert my eyes when I pass people on the sidewalk. I pretend I’m reading an intriguing text when I’m sitting by myself at a coffee shop. I try to put as much distance between myself and others in elevators. All in the hope that I don’t have to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone I’ve never met.
The end result of this avoidance: I don’t have many friends. It’s not a bad thing. I’ve got my immediate crew. And, for the most part, I’m fine with that.
But then I heard about RentAFriend.com. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you pay someone by the hour to provide you with unassuming companionship. The idea comes from Japan, but RentAFriend.com launched in 2009, based in Stewartsville, New Jersey, and now claims to be “the largest platonic friendship site in the world.”
It’s often used by single-parent families as a way to provide a “fill in, or stand in” family member, often when there’s a death, divorce or situation where a parent is unavailable. The single parent is then able to hire someone to attend school functions, weddings or other important events with.
“After reading about the companies in Japan, I realized that there weren’t any companies catering to the ‘friend market’ in the U.S.,” RentAFriend founder Scott Rosenbaum says. “There are thousands of dating websites, but no websites where you could hire a local platonic friend.”
Thus, RentAFriend was born. It allows you to either meet an assortment of different people around the world — the site suggests renting a friend as a tour guide when you’re in a foreign country — or making a few extra dollars [and hopefully a new friend] while at home. This website is more popular in larger cities where tourists are often looking for locals to show them around. You can even rent someone to help get you out of some sticky situations.
“We’ve had college students who were under 21 years old who got caught drinking on campus and the school wanted to have a meeting with their parents,” Rosenbaum says. “The two students were paying their way through college and didn’t want their parents to know, so they hired “stand-in” parents to meet with the school.”
I wasn’t going to do anything as dubious as that. I just wanted to learn the real reason that people found themselves getting paid on RentAFriend — and maybe get over my own avoidance issues in the process
I was hoping to get to Caribou Coffee a little early to scope out the scene, but my internal alarm clock is permanently set eight minutes behind. Meaning, I rolled up late. Giving off a great first impression, as always. My rented friend, who requested to remain anonymous so we’ll call her Haley, was sitting by herself off in the corner sipping intently on her smoothie.
I recognized her immediately from our four-minute Facetime chat the day before. She insisted she see my face before agreeing to meet up in person. Something about making sure I wasn’t a creep. If only she knew.
I sped over to her quickly and introduced myself with an awkward but firm handshake. After retrieving my own coffee and getting myself settled I contemplated how I should go about paying her for her services.
I decided to go with the blunt route. I pulled the money out of my purse and slid the crinkled $15 across the table. It was similar to how I would imagine a drug deal would have gone in a public place, only instead of receiving drugs I got a soft smile and stimulating conversation.
Before the date began, Haley made a point to show me that she was turning off her cell phone. She powered it all the way down, almost like a sign of respect for the $15 that left my bank account and made its way into hers. It was a nice gesture, but I felt pressure to watch the clock. I didn’t want to go over my allotted time.
Haley told me about her background, how she grew up in a small Nebraska town and moved to Iowa quite recently to take a break before she started college. She came across RentAFriend while browsing the internet.
“I need more money and I was moving somewhere I didn’t know anybody and I was like, ‘I need friends,’” Haley says. “I’m a very social person — why not make friends and make money at the same time?”
Not that Haley has been raking in the cash. I quickly discovered that RentAFriend isn’t that popular in Des Moines, Iowa. In fact, I was Haley’s first friend date ever.
“If you wouldn’t have texted me and [had only] messaged me on the site, then I wouldn’t have gotten back to you because I don’t get on the site anymore,” Haley says.
When the question of how safe the website was came up, Haley assured me she had done her research and taken extra safety precautions, like FaceTiming me before meeting, to ensure her safety.
Haley and I also chatted about seemingly every aspect of our lives. Everything from desired college majors to undecided futures. Haley is looking to go into theater when she starts school next year.
Although the conversation stalled at times, for the most part it was refreshing talking to a stranger who had no background knowledge on me. I felt like I could be open and honest about situations that were going on in my life without feeling like I was going to say the wrong thing and be judged.
When I mentioned that we were out of time, Haley asked if we could keep in touch. We exchanged Snapchats and phone numbers and went our separate ways.
I’d made a new friend, and it only cost me $15. Who knew it only took 60 minutes to become friends with a complete stranger?