Best Friends in Life Are Free

Can money buy friends? Our writer ponied up to find out

I arrived in Charlotte five years ago with the following things: a few plates, a fork, a knife, a week’s worth of clothes, two cloth chairs, an air mattress, some books, and no friends. One afternoon, I set out to meet new people. I got into a conversation with two guys at Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard. A few more guys showed up. Then a few more. They were all very nice. And very gay. After welcoming me to the Queen City, they graciously pointed me in the direction of the nearest single female barista.

Since then, I’ve gradually made friends here: drinking buddies, hockey teammates, movie critics, confidantes, work pals, relationship advisers, and so on. But, unlike many of my friends, I am simultaneously a history buff and board-game nerd. A few months ago, I bought Axis and Allies, a World War II game with a forty-page instruction manual that can take hours, even days, to play (think Risk with more rules). I’d like to think I’m a self-confident person who doesn’t care what other people think, but my desire to land on Omaha Beach kept growing, and I didn’t want to out myself as a dweeb.

I asked myself the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest question: if a friend requires at least $10 to hang out with you, is he or she really your friend?

Enter, an online match making service where the dating is replaced with platonic activities (read: bowling and karaoke), usually starting at $10 an hour. Don’t want to go to the movies alone? Rent a friend. I forked over $25 to join the site, then went to work finding the perfect pal who worked for the cheapest rates. The site claims to have 283,000 rentable friends worldwide, although in Charlotte I could find only twenty. I figured only men would play. That narrowed the list to ten. The first guy I tried was pictured wearing a suit jacket, a giant sombrero, and a goofy grin. Perfect. The person who picked up the phone had a hard time speaking English. Maybe not.

Finally, I found a guy who’s the same age as me. He looked like me. Hell, he had the same first name as me. I called him. He texted back, asking for details. That’s when I dropped the bomb. “Wow! Forty-page manual!” he wrote. “Looks pretty complex!” Then he stopped answering my messages. No other rent-a-friends responded to me. I had an obsession so geeky I couldn’t even pay someone to take part in it.

I asked myself the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest question: if a friend requires at least $10 to hang out with you, is he or she really your friend? Was my social life so sad that I needed to pay money to satisfy my dark, disturbing fetish for six-sided die and tiny plastic B-2 bombers? RentAFriend had a lot of promise. But the only thing harder to find than a true friend was a link to cancel my subscription.

If I really wanted to play, I could no longer hide my dorkiness. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and have hundreds of “friends” through each, many of whom I’ve never met. I sent a tweet, asking if anyone would want to meet up in a highly conspicuous public place to play Axis and Allies. I braced for silence.

Within minutes, I had three volunteers. Free of charge.

I’ve met a lot of people during my five years in Charlotte. Most are acquaintances. A real friend is someone who will help you in a pinch. Someone who will listen to your problems. Someone who will point out the nearest single female barista. And yes, someone who allows you to live out your fantasy of retaking the Philippines, whether he wants to or not.

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