Standing outside the Tampa Museum of Art, I was a little nervous waiting for my soon-to-be BFF. I had never paid for someone's company before, and the idea seemed pretty strange.
Moments later, Robert Muller appeared in a straw hat, a smiley face do-rag and a white T-shirt hand-decorated with peace signs and the words "Tampa's Best Friend."
"I decided I was going to be a walking piece of art!'' he said. Then he handed me a bunch of Dollar Store goodies — belated birthday gifts — because who doesn't enjoy a glow-in-the-dark wand, cotton candy and bubbles?
"Just for you,'' he cheered. "Pe-LO-ha!''
"Peace, love and happiness, of course.''
Alrighty then. Let's get inside.
I had hired Rob for a story I was writing about RentAFriend.com, a website where people hire friends to go places with them, learn a new hobby or meet new people. I figured I'd learn how it works by trying it firsthand.
I picked Rob out of a long list of people in my ZIP code advertising their platonic services on the site. He hadn't been hired before (he called himself a RentAFriend virgin) and was totally game to give it a whirl.
He seemed like a nice-enough guy: 43, likes to play tennis, works curbside at Bella's Italian Cafe, has a longtime boyfriend. We settled on $10 an hour, the low end of the friend pay scale.
We decided to meet at the Tampa museum and check out the latest exhibits. The museum happened to be free that day, which was a bonus because as the person hiring the friend, I had to foot the bill.
If you ever thought touring a museum alone is awkward, try doing it with a paid stranger. Do you stand and stare at the artwork hip to hip, reading every word of the descriptions? Do you interpret each piece aloud?
And what happens if you see someone you know, which happened to me. Talk about muddling through an introduction.
Rob and I zipped through the impressionist paintings, noting how out of place they felt amid the modern space. "I don't like it,'' he snapped, giving his high-pitched impression of Anna Nicole Smith. And Chuck Close's self-portrait made from a photograph cut into 16 pieces?
"I wonder how much he got for that?'' Rob scoffed.
My hired pal perked up at Sandy Skoglund's photographic work, Germs Are Everywhere, showing a lime-green living room covered with pieces of chewed bubble gum. It reminded Rob of his youth.
"My mother wouldn't let me eat gum when I was a kid, so I used to pick if off the sidewalk,'' he said, actually laughing.
I had my own dyed blond moments, like when I misidentified a photo as a picture of a toilet seat.
"No, sweetie,'' he said. "It's a makeup compact.''
In between the old Greek pots, Rob spit off-the-wall tidbits you won't find on his resume, like how his boss calls him Chuckles. Like how a stuffed Tazmanian Devil rides shotgun in his car.
He fessed up to drinking six Cokes a day and explained his love for butterflies (because they start as ugly caterpillars and transform into something beautiful). He likes mythology — Narcissus in particular — and has been told more than once that "he's vain, but not in a bad way.'' John McEnroe is one of his favorite tennis players because he, too, used to break rackets when he was younger.
Wow. TMI, even from a best buddy.
Museum-ed out, we headed to The Hub for a drink, knowing that all weirdness ends up there at some point. On the way, we snapped a photo of us on my cell phone because Rob pointed out that that's what friends do. He offered me a piggyback ride, which I absolutely refused.
Rob said he posted his profile on the site because he likes meeting new friends and making people laugh. Between co-workers and college buddies from USF, he's got a ton of friends and wouldn't think of hiring someone just to hang out. Still, he suspects a lot of people could use a good friend like him. And you never know where it could lead. Reality show? Oprah? Even the idea makes him giddy.
Over a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, we pondered just how many people find true friendship through RentAFriend. The loner next to me laughed at the notion we were really "just friends.'' Wink, wink.
Rob admitted the money part kind of cheapened what otherwise seems like a nice concept. I didn't disagree. Reaching into my wallet and handing him $40 cash felt weird, almost wrong. But I gave him a tip, well-deserved for being such a good friend.