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FRIENDHYRE by Leland Cheuk

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I really wanted to go to DonutFest but none of my actual friends were as fervid about donuts as I, so I thumbed FriendHyre on my phone and hired someone for just $20.

I thought of the cost as a surcharge on the event, which had a $50 cover for all the donuts you can eat from the top ten artisanal vendors in The City. I bought two tickets and met up with Damon at 9 a.m. in front of The Copper Mine, that warehouse concert venue by the river. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and went inside. Damon was dressed blankly, dark outer layers, short brown hair, and a squarish, halogen-toned face—combined with his above-average height and thick and convergent brows, I’d be able to find him easily if we got separated.

DonutFest was packed. The warehouse was dark and opaque with theatrical smoke and fog lit by red stage lights, and a Top 40 rap song about cunnilingus thumped. Almost immediately I bumped into a young woman who spilled a thimble of the free pour over coffee from the local roaster with the table by the entrance. I brushed myself off. No worries. The stain was invisible in the darkness because I was dressed like Damon, dark outer layers of durable and pricey fabric from a major multinational brand headquartered in Sweden (recent manufacturing worker pay controversy in some small nation I couldn’t remember). I closed my eyes to inhale the sweetness of the freshly baked donuts (admittedly faint because The Copper Mine has no kitchen, which meant the donuts weren’t freshly made). I listened to the mmm’s and “that’s good’s” from all these people my age and thought: this is youth, this is living, this is why you pay to live in The City.

“How did you come to like donuts?” Damon asked.

The Simpsons.

He smiled. “Like Homer?”

“Totally.”

I liked Damon.

The vendors had tables around the edges of what would have been the pit if this were a concert. It was more like a really dark corporate tradeshow. We each got five different donuts, sampling from each vendor, and made our way to the back, where we placed our tiny plastic plates on a wooden ledge and divvied up bite-sized pieces of each donut with knife and fork, commenting on each and ranking our top fives. I liked the strawberry-infused béarnaise one best. Damon awarded the cakey marmite-covered one his Number One slot. All of them went well with our pour over thimbles, which were just large enough to fit the stamp that read “Fair Trade.” We watched the pit of young men and women dancing to “All Night” by Chance the Rapper, even though it was 10:30 a.m.

“What are you doing the rest of the day?” I asked Damon.

“More FriendHyres,” he said. “Got a meetup at an experimental prose poetry reading by all LGBTQ female authors. Then tonight, I have a men’s rights rally.” Damon smirked as he crushed the thimble in his palm and flipped it onto the ledge where it was shepherded to the recycling by a black man wearing a blue DonutFest Staff polo and vinyl gloves.

“How many of these do you do?”

“This is what I do,” Damon said. “Been doing it about a year. I get to meet a lot of people, do a lot of very niche things, some of which are pretty cool. I make enough money to stay in The City. What do you do?”

“I work at a bank,” I said. “Compliance.”

“Oh cool!”

His words were perfectly pitched to emulate a sincere interest while cutting off further conversation on the topic. Damon popped a piece of the strawberry béarnaise donut in his mouth. “Mmm!” he said, while chewing, even rolling his eyes a little. “So good. I can see why you ranked this one best. Thanks for inviting me. I feel like this was an experience I’ll always remember.”

What a pro. He was a great FriendHyre. After we parted ways, sugar-mouthed and buzzed, I rated Damon five stars.

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If I have a complaint about FriendHyre, it’s that it is damn near impossible to get the same friend twice.

None of my buddies in the office like music…like at all, so I tried to get Damon again to go see My Meechi out in East Durwood Docks. But once Damon surpassed 1,000 five-star reviews, his rate quintupled, as made resoundingly clear by the FriendHyre Premium exploding star emoji bedecking his profile. I couldn’t justify paying $100 for a friend to go with me to a $15 show.

I read Damon’s reviews and they were all like: “I recently got divorced and had these tix to a black-tie fundraiser for Even Rural Americans Deserve Clean Water at The Metropolitan Center, and Damon was so nice and kind that he never asked me any personal questions and we both enjoyed such an incredible meal from ten different TV celebrity chefs and I would totally hire Damon again.” The event was obviously at least $1,000 a head.

I ended up FriendHyring a young woman named Maybe for $5, and she was fine, but she was a soft-talker and I couldn’t clearly hear what she was saying at the concert, and when I could, she only talked about herself. She never asked me any questions. We watched about half the show in silence, standing beside each other but not really experiencing it together. Then Maybe saw people she knew and told me she was going to say hi. She never came back! I waited for her outside the venue after the show, but she was gone. I still enjoyed my night. My Meechi has a way of sounding like she’s singing just to you, which, of course, is exactly the way I wished Maybe would have approached my FriendHyre experience.

Still, I didn’t want to ruin her rating, so I rated her four stars.

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I had coffee with one of my friends who used FriendHyre to build her social media presence. She’s a high-level publicist at a retail brand and often posts about new developments at work on her own account. Each day of the week, she hired a $5 friend for a 30-minute coffee date. She liked meeting and talking to new people who did different things from what she would normally do because she worked all the time and seemed to only meet corporate types.

“Once, I even met a real coal miner,” she said. “He’s trying to transition to a career in elder care.” Most importantly, she got him and his FriendHyres to follow her on social media and promote her posts. Within a year of starting these coffee dates, she had added thousands of followers.

I told her about my experience with Damon at DonutFest and how I felt like my first FriendHyre experience was my best one and I didn’t like how good FriendHyres ended up pricing themselves out of long-term FriendHyreships.

“Do you really want long-term FriendHyreships?” she said. “The whole reason the service exists is because long-term friendships are inadequate. You like sports. I don’t. I like running. You don’t. You make less money than I do, so you can’t afford to do some of things I like to do. Our friendship, while you know I love hanging out with you a couple of times a year, is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you developed a long-term relationship with this Damon guy, it’d just end up sucking, like actual friendships.”

After she was done talking, my coffee tasted like dirt. “I never thought of our friendship that way.”

“Don’t get butt-hurt,” she said. “I would have gone to DonutFest with you, if I didn’t have anything better to do.”

“I didn’t think you would like donuts. Or want to spend fifty bucks on it.”

“You didn’t ask!” she said. “We communicate like the old friends we are. We act like we know everything about each other, but in reality, we hardly know a thing. I love FriendHyreships. They’re short and sweet and no one pretends it isn’t.”

After my friend’s impassioned defense of your service, I went back and changed all my four-star ratings to five-star ratings.

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I saw Damon at a drugstore. He looked much as I remembered, darkly clad, pale, and smiling. He was in the cosmetics section. To my surprise, in his hand was a box of Just For Men. He didn’t look old enough for gray hair, but I guess that’s why he was holding said box. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Remember me?”

He peered down at me, squinting.

“DonutFest,” I prompted.

“Oh, yes,” Damon said. “How have you been?”

“The same,” I said. “I looked for you on FriendHyre, but you’re, like, super-expensive now. That’s my only complaint about the service, really. It’s that you can’t keep getting your good FriendHyres. Congrats on your success, though!”

“I just quit.”

“What? Why?”

Damon smirked, as he had at DonutFest that morning months ago. “When you factor in all the expenses, I end up making about three bucks an hour,” he said. “I pretty much had to respond twenty-four-seven to make rent. It took about a year, but I finally got hired as a junior analyst at a bank.”

“Really? Which one?” He named his. I named mine. They didn’t match.

“But you were making like a hundred bucks a hire,” I said.

“And seventy would go to the tux rental,” Damon said. “The event would go for four hours. So that’s seven-fifty an hour. At least I got to eat well on those nights. I would starve myself all day and then gorge. Mm, so good! That’s what I did at DonutFest. After you left, I went back and grabbed all the leftovers. I got so sick that night.” He laughed, but then swallowed as if the memory made him bilious. “Never doing that again!”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Thanks for rating me five stars, though.”

“You were one of the good ones,” Damon said. “At least you didn’t try to have sex with me.”

My eyes bulged. “There are other apps for that!”

“No one told those fuckers.”

“What does FriendHyre do to protect you?”

“They don’t even let you talk to a real person,” he said. “You can only give feedback through the app.” He shrugged. “It’s cool. Whatever. I just introduce the problem people to my pepper spray.”

After an uncomfortable silence, we began to drift toward the checkout counters. I told him I was glad he was in a better place. “Maybe we should grab coffee sometime,” I added.

“Oh cool!” he said, in the exact tone and pitch he used at DonutFest when I told him what I did for a living. I knew then we would never have coffee together and that if we saw each other again, it was likely he would not acknowledge me.

Damon’s story changed the way I felt about FriendHyre. I started browsing through the profiles of smiling faces and five-star reviews and people saying they were up for all types of fun and how much they liked my favorite bands and sports teams, and I would think about how they were probably lying for the money, and all they had to go through just so I could feel a smidge less lonely eating donuts and going to concerts and baseball games and such. There has to be a better way. Maybe there’s merit to this service but adjustments need to be made so that the people who make the service possible can benefit in real ways with actual value, not just ratings and emojis and theatrical smoke. That’s my feedback, FriendHyre. I look forward to your reply.

Until then, I’ve lowered all my ratings to two stars.

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