Life

Paying for Godot

In my quest to cure urban loneliness, I went online to Rent-A-Friend. Can friendship be bought? First of two.

By Roquela Fernandez 6 Apr 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Roquela Fernandez is a reader, writer and student in UBC's Creative Writing Program. She wrote this for her non-fiction class.

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Making pals at a premium.

I've been waiting for four weeks to meet my new friend, Godot. He is unlike any friend I've ever had because I'm renting him. Tomorrow.

Tonight, however, I'm thinking about friendship. The beginning of friendship is the best part. It's like falling in love, and I love falling in love. Lately, my friendships are like greasy summer flings. I fall hard and fast. Shoo bop-bop, shoo bop-bop, etcetera. Skip to the last day of summer. I'll be wearing a poodle skirt and thick angora cardigan -- my chills, they're multiplying. My friend and I will be sitting on the beach clinging to each other. We'll watch the sunset of our friendship and then I'll kiss it goodbye. This makes me a shitty friend, and kind of a jerk. I blame:

University. I've developed a patina of cynicism. I won't read your stupid blog, embrace the power of positive thinking or buy anything from a network marketing catalogue.

Facebook. I've already seen pictures of: your vacation, your children and that really awesome salad you made last night.

My brain. It's lazy and likes to take conversation naps.

Time starvation. I race, raggedy-assed, through life. When my friends jokingly tell me I'm like their therapist, I die a little. I'm not saying that friendship should be reduced to an exchange of pleasantries, or that I won't listen or help a friend in need, nor do I expect to do any sort of dance routine (unless they're into it). What I am saying is I don't want to use my scarce social time to endlessly relive the worst parts of life over coffee.

A touch of social anxiety. Because I'm out of practice, I avoid social situations. That means I probably won't go to the following functions: parties, poetry readings, potlucks, drum circles, protests, girls night out, gigs and especially candle parties. If I manage to stomp out the spark of anxiety (as opposed to tenderly blowing on it), I will be unfashionably late, as is my habit. This really pisses nice people off.

For all these reasons and more, I don't even deserve friends. But I want them because I'm lonely. It's my secret shame. Shame because I'm not credibly lonely: I have a few friends, a long-term boyfriend and my family is relatively solid.

Double shame: A 2009 study led by John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago found that loneliness is contagious. Like herpes, it is easier to spread to friends than family, and it's more prevalent among women than men. The study also found that "loneliness can spread to three degrees of separation. One lonely friend makes you 40 to 65 per cent more likely to be lonely, but a lonely friend-of-a-friend increases your chances of loneliness by 14 to 36 per cent. A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend adds between six and 26 per cent."

Cities can be lonely places to live. As the world's population hurdles towards eight billion, it's becoming increasingly urban. It is easy to feel alone in an anonymous sea of people. What gets lost in big, efficient cities is the intimacy of a village community.

Japan's companionship cure

With a population of over 34,000,000 people, Metro Tokyo is the champion sumo of cities. There, renting pet friends has become common -- this shocked me. I knew that the Japanese had other services to cater to the lonely, but this was new.

For instance, cat cafés continue to spring up all over Japan. For $9 an hour, a customer can sit on a chesterfield, drink coffee or tea, and make a feline friend -- there is a clowder of cats to choose from. Norimasa Hanada, the owner of Tokyo's first cat café Neko no Mise explains the trend: "Most Japanese rental apartments prohibit pets. The only ones that allow them are condominium apartments for families. This means that young, single-dwelling workers in their 20s and 30s can't even think about getting any pets, despite the fact that they're stressed out and are seeking comfort and companionship of some kind."

Not a cat person? Tokyo has similar dog rental services for people in need of a canine companion.

Not a pet person? Why not rent Paro, a therapeutic cuddle robot made to resemble a baby harp seal? "Paro can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers." If only friends were so compliant. Paro "feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor." When you stroke Paro, it will remember its previous action and "repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, Paro remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action."

Failing all of that, there are many home-delivery services -- Yoyo Market delivers Costco groceries, Ikea furniture and incontinence products (necessary after a steady diet of Mega Macs and McPorks delivered by McDonald's) to sustain the basic needs of the Hikikomori, shut-ins who have fully withdrawn from society for a period of at least six months (but can be up to 20 years), of which Japan has about 700,000.

Oh, Japan.

(P.S. My friends are few. Please send me a baby sealbot so that I may cuddle and club it as I desire.)

Perusing friends

What about renting friends in Vancouver? This, I thought, would never happen here. But I give it a Google search anyway.

A cheery blonde in a skirt suit walks across the computer screen. "Hello," she says. She looks like Christina Applegate working for a recruiting agency that specializes in Human Resources Personnel.

"Thank you for visiting RentAFriend dot com. RentAFriend has thousands of friends from all over the United States and Canada, and we can help you find a local, platonic friend fast and conveniently. There are many reasons why you may want to rent a friend. And no matter the reason, we can help you find the perfect friend."

The perfect friend, a friendly friend that will do friendly activities -- some for as little as $10 an hour. Most of the fees are negotiable, she says, and "many will even waive their fee depending on the activity."

And so a few weeks ago, I was window shopping for friends on RentAFriend.com. It was an eerily enjoyable and familiar experience. I felt the same quasi-voyeuristic rush as peeping into the Facebook profiles of a friend's friend.

On RentAFriend.com, there are 54 potential friends to choose from in the Vancouver area: 31 men and 23 women, and only their contact information is private. I combed each profile looking for a pearl, but it was more like shopping for mustard. Each jar of mustard on the wall of mustard is, after all, mustard.

I felt a hot tinge of indecision; my eyes began to water. Should I buy the same type of yellow mustard I've been buying for years? Or, should I select the glass pot of grainy mustard because it might be a whole new mustard experience? Feeling overwhelmed, I made a spread sheet.

I divided the men and women into price categories, and then ranked them. I made pie charts and infographics. I used auto sum and copy/pasted formulas. I put an asterisk beside the people with professionally-taken profile photographs. There was one particular profile picture that I was having trouble classifying as professional. It was shot outside. The man in the picture has tousled hair, engineered casual. He is wearing a button-up shirt with the top three buttons open, revealing his kempt chest hair. He has rugged stubble and a tan. He is leaning in with a coy smile.

While I was appraising the picture, my boyfriend leaned over my shoulder and said "Baby, no! You're not allowed to rent him." That's when I knew I had to rent him, Godot from the Willing To Waive Fee Depending On The Activity price category.

$26.27: One month RentAFriend.com subscription

That night, I became a paying member of RentAFriend.com. This earned me, Fun-fu User #2482, the privilege of each rental friend's private contact information. I mustered my courage and sent an email to Godot. I was apprehensive about adding my picture to my RentAFriend profile, but I also wanted to be visible, so I included a link to my super-private Facebook profile so he could see my picture. Within a few minutes, I had a friend request. Apparently, we weren't shopping for mustard any more.

I suggested lunch and a movie (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because friending him on my super-private Facebook account felt extremely loud and incredibly close) at some point during the week. The response: "Sounds like a good time."

But the time passed, and the movie stopped playing in theatres. So I emailed again to suggest a specific date and time for a different movie. Lesson: if you're having difficulty making arrangement with someone, be specific and decisive in your proposal -- seize the mustard!

The day has arrived. I am waiting for Godot at the permanently deserted International Village Mall. My mind is tangled in the tumbleweeds of excitement, nervousness, and curiosity. We have plans to see a movie and get lunch: two things that I adamantly refuse to do alone even though I've seen the viral video How to Be Alone at least seven times. Every time I see it, I don't envy Tanya Davis for not having to share her cake, but rather my cynicism thinks: "Who is holding the camera?"

$19.50: Movie tickets

I'm early, so I buy tickets to see The Artist at 1:45 p.m.

I go window shopping. There are very few stores that look open at noon on a Monday in the mall. The shoppers are fewer still. I head to Starbucks, where I'm to meet Godot in half an hour. He is already there typing away on his laptop.

I forget the strict no physical contact whatsoever rule and I stick out my hand to introduce myself. His first act of friendship is to tell me he just has to finish up an email. I sit on a nearby chair and wait for Godot. I wonder how I should broach the subject of his fee, which I still haven't had the gumption to do against the prudent advice from RentAFriend.com which advises to negotiate in advance.

After a few minutes, he joins me. The conversation is lively. In the first five minutes, I discover he is from Ontario, speaks French, and is an artist/inventor. His profile picture is dated. His formerly tousled hair is six inches longer and slicked straight back draping like blackstrap molasses. His shirt is open gigolo-style like his picture, and he is wearing a shell necklace. He is not my type. He is, however, undeniably good looking.

Our second act of friendship is to go outside. It is the nicest Vancouver day in months. The sun is shining. He hops up on a concrete ledge. I peer up at him, squinting into the sun, as we continue our conversation. He tells me that he liked the new Tron movie; I tell him that I did not. He says: "I need to go buy Q-tips at the drug store"; I say: "Ok."

When we're at the checkout, I hesitate. Should I offer to pay for his Q-tips? I don't, but while he's paying he mentions a product that he developed, a type of unisex botanical body spray that "smells ah-mazing." It is apparent, that if I want to continue the friendship for longer than today, I will have to buy some.

Even after we talk about body spray for a while, we still have an hour before the movie starts. We go for lunch early. On our walk over to Acme cafe, he shows me a smartphone application that he's developing. It is a modernized tarot deck. He hands me his iPhone. The idea is, he explains, a person is to think of a question/situation/whatever, then tap the screen and the application will select a random card. I wasn't thinking anything in particular. I got Defy: "trust your senses, be confident in yourself. other people's beliefs are irrelevant in the face of your own purpose!" The text is accompanied by his artwork, a salacious cartoon of a squatting redhead wearing a horny Viking helmet. She is licking blood off a sword. It is meant to be insightful, but "really," he tells me "it just confirms what they were already thinking." I tell him: "That's a very sober thing to say."

$26.96: Lunch bill

Acme café was Godot's recommendation. I like it. It is next to the newly reopened Save on Meats on Hastings. I order toast and a mocha. He orders a soup and sandwich. I take an Advil because all the sunshine has given me a migraine. The waitress comes back to say something about a soup kerfuffle. Godot is happy because he's getting the soup he really wanted, and not the soup of the day that he wasn't keen on.

"You did that with your mind," I tell him, confirming what he was already thinking. "You know," he says, "lately the universe has been providing for me. If I need $200, BAM! $200 dollars comes my way."

"I don't know," I say.

"If you think about it, we are all connected by a vast web of energy."

"I'll have to think about it," I say. My brain takes a small but restful nap. I think the Advil is working.

"I know this is dorky and if you don't want to talk about it it's fine," says Godot. Dorky is my magic word -- I perk up. He continues, "Me and a bunch of buddies get together and play Dungeons & Dragons."

Now I am pleased. "D&D! My friends played that in high school. Go on."

"I've developed a character named Max." He goes on to tell me that Max is hyper intelligent like Sherlock Holmes, he can invent like Tony Stark and his major weakness is beautiful women like James Bond. The interesting thing is that Godot has realized he can manipulate the universe -- but always for good -- just like his character, Max.

I've decided I like Godot. So much so that when he says he's into martial arts, I pretend that I haven't seen 17 pictures of him running around town dressed as a ninja.

Our lunch cuts into our preview time. We must run through town like ninjas.

We both get up to pay the bill. This surprises me. I insist on paying.

The Artist has started. The theatre is peppered with a few people, all in pairs. When Godot sits down he leaves a seat between us, where he puts his knapsack. I appreciate the distance. It's a social buffer.

The movie is wonderful. Dialogue is minimal, and dance routines are plentiful. The silver-haired couple one buffer seat to my right keeps peering over at us. We are the only people laughing, and we're laughing loud. I always consider people who laugh without restraint, even when nervous or snorting, comrades. For the second time, I decide I like Godot.

When the movie ends, we go back to Starbucks where we first met. I still haven't discussed his friendship fee. It feels dirty. I'd rather risk being hit up with a large bill than sully the nice time I'm having.

$9.86: Post-movie refreshments

I buy myself an Americano, Godot a Zen tea, and two individual cake pops to celebrate our new friendship.

I bring him his tea. He has already pulled out his laptop, and is emailing someone. He is pleased with the cake pop. I am pleased that Starbucks has solved the problem of cake sharing by putting a hunk of cake on the end of a stick.

Godot pulls up his blog, and starts showing me things (more porntoons). His phone rings. He sounds pleased to hear from whoever is on the line. He says "I'm just having coffee with my friend Roquela." This is the first time I've heard him say my name. He pronounces it correctly. For the third time, I decide I really like Godot. He smiles at me; he has a nice straight, lily-white smile, and a deep dimple with a beauty mark at its centre. He motions for me to continue reading his blog. I do.

After he finishes his phone call, I ask him how much his friendship costs (finally).

"A million dollars," he says nervously.

"I'll have to set up a Paypal account," I quip, also nervously.

"I believe I listed myself at $40 an hour."

"Oh." I change the subject. I confess that I'm doing research into loneliness. "That's okay," he says, "I read that on your Facebook."

I regale him with statistics. "It is possible to die of loneliness," I tell him. According to a 1988 review published in Science, "Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health -- rivaling the effect of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity." Yet of all the common risk factors for mortality, loneliness, frankly, looks out of place.

Even though subsequent studies continue to confirm the link between mortality and loneliness, "the idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public."

Furthermore, social relationships are on the decline. In 1985, the American Sociological Review found that Americans had an average of three close friends. In 2006, the average fell to two close friends.

The final total

After half an hour, Godot has to go.

I pull out my wallet, and tell him I want to pay him for his friendship. The hipster sitting zero buffer seats to my left coughs.

It's my first time. It's his first time. It's awkward. Awkward. Awkward. Awkward.

Godot says: no.

"What?" I bite my knuckle.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's fine."

"C'mon" I say. I'm still biting my knuckle. "You can reinvest it in your catalogue of products."

"Don't get me wrong, I like money. I had a nice time; you paid for a nice lunch and the movie. We can do this again sometime."

Cost Description
$160.00 Four hours of friendship
$56.32 Meals and entertainment
$216.32 Total gross friendship
$-160.00 Less: friendship discount
$56.32 Total net friendship cost
Table 1: Friendship Accounting

"Really?" I say. A shitty thought surfaces: I don't want a friend that I'll always have to buy lunch, movie tickets and cake for. I don't tell him this because he's given me a really great discount, and I don't want him to change his mind.

"Yeah." Godot looks at me hard. "I'll see you again." He says it in a way that makes me think that he consulted the Universe and it confirmed what he already thought. Yes, he would see me again.

"So what you're saying is: I can't buy friendship even if I wanted to." This would be such a tidy ending. This last line writes itself.

He claps me on the back, and politely excuses himself. He's not smiling. I can tell he wants my money more than my friendship.

Tomorrow: My second rent-a-friend date with Godot, in which he reveals his philosophy of friendship over quiche and pie I paid for.  [Tyee]

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