I’m new to Phoenix, or at least that’s what Lady thinks. In truth I haven’t been “new” to any area since I moved to Gilbert as a 2-year-old.
Not that it matters. I just needed a plausible backstory to tell my new friend, and I feel a bit guilty for lying, even if my lie is on the side of white. Truthfully, even if she knew the difference, it probably wouldn’t matter.
The lie is more about saving face. We’ve met at Tempe’s too-cool-for-school combination coffeehouse/brewery Cartel Coffee Lab, and my fake persona is as much for the judgy hipsters as it is for Lady.
Twenty-six-year-old professional women generally don’t have a hard time making friends, but I always have. I have a shy personality that people often interpret at standoffish, and lying probably won’t win me a real friendship with Lady.
She’s warm, sweet, friendly and easy to talk to, so I don’t want to mess this up. As far as she knows, I’m a freelance advertising copywriter who just moved to the Valley—not an employed journalist who knows this town like the back of my hand.
I can’t help but think I could reveal the truth to her without consequence. After all, I’m paying her $20 and a pint of beer to hang out with me, what does it matter to her? I rented her presence on RentAFriend.com, the brainchild of website founder Scott Rosenbaum, who got the notion for a friend-renting site in 2009 after he read an article about a Japanese phenomenon. A website was “renting” parents to people without them, since it’s important in Japanese society to have a family that seems “whole,” even if there’s a death or divorce.
“That’s what originally gave me the idea,” Rosenbaum says. “In America the divorce rate is about 50 percent, so obviously people aren’t using [pay-for-relationship sites] for the same thing, but what about a platonic friend?”
A Friendly Exchange
The concept of renting “company” often has a sinister connotation connected with “sugar baby” websites and escort services. And there are certainly other free, safe ways to meet people on the Internet. MeetUp.com, for example, connects individuals to other people in their area with common interests. If you’re new to town and want to find a local hiking group, you can find one there, but the members usually meet only in a group setting. Alternatively, you can use dating websites like OKCupid.com to find people who are looking for “friends only,” but good luck finding a “friend” that will stick within the platonic parameters.
Rosenbaum says people can come to his website to find other folks who really just want to be friends, to meet new people and help others out, even if they get something out of it other than the warm fuzzies.
Friends can charge anywhere from $20 to $60 for their time. How much time they want to spend with the member who’s paying is entirely up to their discretion. Friends, or the people who charge for their time, certainly disclose some interesting information to make their friendship sound appealing.
“I’m a very spontaneous individual who enjoys to travel in and outside the country. Don’t be fooled by my looks, as I’m highly intelligent,” writes one Scottsdale woman offering her time at $50. “People always say I look even more beautiful in person. Try me!”
Though some don’t even go as far as a monetary transaction.
“People have emailed me saying, ‘Is it OK if I hang out with a friend and I don’t charge them?’ And I thought that was great. I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’” Rosenbaum says. “The friends and the members, they choose all of the money that they spend, and the friend keeps 100 percent of the money that they earn, so we have no problem if the members and the friends don’t want to charge each other. They just become actual, real friends, and we think that’s great.”
It might sound pathetic to pay for friendship, and plenty of people have interpreted it that way since the site’s 2009 inception, but renting a friend from a platonic-connection website is actually far more normal than people think, Rosenbaum says.
It can be used for anything from using your plus-one to that big event to finding someone who is awake during the same strange hours you are. Then there are the really stunning uses Rosenbaum never imagined when he was building the site, thought up entirely by its 500,000 friends and 5,000 paying members.
More than Just Someone To Talk To
“Within the first two months, I got a call from a woman who was in her mid-40s, who had a son who was a high-functioning autistic person with Asperger’s,” Rosenbaum says.
“Her son recently moved to a new town and she got [him] an apartment. He lived by himself, but she wanted someone his age—a girl—to help him out. She wanted someone to teach him to take his clothes to the Laundromat, she wanted someone to help him learn to hail a taxi … and I was like ‘Oh my goodness! That’s an amazing idea! And when I built the website that didn’t even cross my mind.”
There have been some serious strokes of genius when it comes to utilizing the site, Rosenbaum says. Two 20-year-old college students in New Jersey got in trouble for drinking on their campus. The school insisted the students bring their parents in for a meeting, but they didn’t see the point. They were paying their tuition, and they had the very adult responsibility of student loans on their shoulders, so why couldn’t they weather the repercussions without parental supervision?
Instead of getting their parents involved, the students hired faux parents on RentAFriend.com, Rosenbaum says.
“It went well, and the real parents never found out,” he says. “I thought that was a genius idea.”
I, too, had some preconceived notions when I’d decided it was time for me to rent a friend of my own.
Lady and I had exchanged a few messages back and forth over a few days. I’d asked her to meet for happy hour around 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and was a bit put off when she responded back with enough typos and slang to make my eye twitch.
“Ya 5 it’s fine but my man get off at 530 so it has to b a quick drink bc we r currently sharing the car, lmk if that’s OK with u,” she wrote.
That would be an awfully quick meeting, wouldn’t it? Was this chick trying to rip me off and take advantage of my loneliness?
You tend to think the worst of people when it’s just text coming through a screen. It turned out she was just trying to accommodate my schedule. When I suggested 3 p.m. instead, she quickly texted back.
“Ya that’s fine, where do u want to go?”
When I walked into the coffee shop and found a seat, I’d already rehearsed what I was going to say to Lady. I was going to make it clear up front that I wasn’t a total weirdo, make sure she wasn’t one either, and find out as much information as possible about what led her to create a profile on RentAFriend.com.
What happened was actually much more organic. When she came around the corner to the newly expanded section of Cartel, I saw that she really was a totally normal girl—unpretentious and unassuming, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the shop’s atmosphere. I was feeling a bit nervous about this whole thing, and fortunately Cartel recently started brewing beer.
“They have coffee, and they actually brew beer here,” I said. “What do you think?”
“Definitely beer!” the 23-year-old said excitedly, much to my relief. I knew a pint would ease my jitters. We headed to the counter to order our brews—paid for by me, of course. I’m a dark ale kind of girl. Lady opted for a lighter, fruity concoction. We sat down, and I slid $20 cash her way.
We both seemed eager to try to rationalize our meeting.
“I just moved here with my boyfriend for his job,” I told her. “I’m a freelance copywriter and he’s at work during the day, so I have some spare time!”
“I just like to meet new people!” she said.
Her vibrant, outgoing personality wasn’t something that had come through on her profile, but it was something I was instantly entertained by. She was down-to-earth, and under different circumstances, I could actually see us being friends—which wasn’t something I would have said an hour earlier.
I told her how weird I felt about doing this. How my boyfriend thinks I’m crazy. How the concept was so strange, I just had to try it. How I just wanted a girl to talk to since I’ve been spending all of my time in Arizona with my guy. She understood everything, though that might have been the money or beer talking.
Lady really had recently moved to Arizona, and she revealed far more personal details about her life than I thought she would. She’s moved from Colombia to Florida when she was 9, and relocated from Florida to Arizona just a few months ago when a guest at the hotel she worked for persuaded her to go out for a drink; a whirlwind romance ensued and before she knew it, she was married and packing her things.
She and her new husband are employed at the same call center. She works the morning shift, and he works the afternoon shift. Because they only have one car, she waits around for him at the jobsite, playing on her phone and reading until he clocks out. She was happy to get out for a moment to meet a new friend.
RentAFriend’s demographics vary wildly. The site recently expanded internationally, branching out from its United States and Canada launch. It now boasts members from every continent in the world, of every religion and every race. When Rosenbaum created RentAFriend, he’d assumed 90 percent of users would be men looking for dinner companions or movie dates, but the website consists of nearly 40 percent women.
This wasn’t Lady’s first time renting friendship, though it was the first time she’d met someone from the site since her nuptials. She crossed her fingers that I wasn’t actually a creepy dude looking for something else, and I have to say, I’d been hoping the same about her. Luckily we’re both who we said we were. For the most part, anyway.
We chatted for about an hour about love, life, friends and aspirations, along with simple small talk. As I finished my amber rye, I looked up and asked, “Well, are you ready to take off?”
Lady slid out her phone and checked the time.
“I have a little bit more time, if you want.”
I was eager to get on with my evening. I already had enough material for my story, but her earnestness touched me. We walked to our cars together, and as I said goodbye, she uttered the words that convinced me RentAFriend is legit, at least in her case.
“Let me know if you want to hang out again,” she said. “You don’t have to pay me.”