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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

My Tinder date with ‘Pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli

This fall, I went on a date with Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old “Pharma bro” recently arrested on charges of securities fraud, and widely known as the most hated man in America. I hate to disappoint the masses, but I have to say: I had a pretty good time.

Martin and I matched on Tinder after he “super-liked” me. (I know, SWOON. It felt almost like those days of old-fashioned courtship.) This was shortly after the news broke that Shkreli’s company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of an 62-year-old medication 4,000 percent overnight. I was convinced that the profile was a fake. The photos were the ones that were being circulated in the media, and his profile simply read “American entrepreneur.”

He messaged me, and I played along, asking what he did for a living. “Martin” said: “I’m that guy who has been in the news lately.”

Still skeptical, I told him I knew his profile was a joke, and he assured me: “It’s 100% Martin” and offered to send a selfie. I still thought I was being cat-fished, but we exchanged numbers and he promptly sent me a selfie along with photos of his credit card and driver’s license. I was tempted to ask for the security code on the back of the card, but instead told him that he should probably stop texting pictures of his identification to strangers from the Internet.

He asked me on a date for the next week and I agreed, mostly out of curiosity.

Like nearly every other American, I was outraged when I heard that Martin’s company had raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill. However, I wanted to be open-minded and meet the man behind the hype.

OK, I admit that I also had a fantasy of being the manic pixie dream girl who helped him turn his life around. I pictured us opening an HIV/AIDS clinic together and wandering the streets of New York, handing out wads of cash to the homeless people and other strangers.

When it came to planning the date, Martin was the most considerate Tinderfella I have encountered. He asked what day worked best, in what area of town I preferred to meet, and my favorite cuisine. I told him I was a vegetarian but enjoyed almost any type of food, and he chose a Japanese restaurant in TriBeCa called Brushstroke.

Like any first date, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my limited communications with him via text, he seemed polite, even a little meek. But in his interviews and tweets he came across as confident verging on cocky.

Martin was a lot smaller than I thought he would be, and seemed really nervous. Outside the restaurant, we exchanged an uncomfortable greeting that was somewhere between an over-zealous handshake and a half-hearted hug and headed inside the restaurant.

Once we sat down, he seemed to calm down. We talked about our days; he’d had an interview for Vanity Fair that afternoon and said that he had mentioned me. I wasn’t sure if this was the truth or an attempt to impress me, but either way I appreciated the sentiment.

The waitress came over and made a few recommendations. Martin asked, “Is there a vegetarian menu? My assistant said there was a vegetarian menu? There’s a vegetarian menu, right?” He wasn’t being a jerk; it was more of a “I’m stressed because my date doesn’t put raw fish in her mouth” kind of comment. The waitress assured us that there was a vegetarian menu. We ordered a drink and Martin told me that he was a lightweight, something I’ve never heard a man admit on a date (or ever).

The waitress also pointed out the list of Japanese teas on the menu. Most of the teas were priced between $8 to $13, but there was a “Gold Medal Sencha” for $120 a cup. Apparently it’s extremely rare and won an important tea competition in Japan. After the waitress left, we joked about paying $120 for a cup of tea. I thought about making a price-gouging joke, but couldn’t think fast enough.

The one drink must have loosened Martin up, because the conversation flowed freely and he was surprisingly open. I asked a bunch of questions, trying not to make it seem as if I were interrogating him, but I was curious. He said people saying mean stuff didn’t bother him, but he felt that people didn’t understand the pharmaceutical industry. He assured me that no one would go without the drug if they needed it, that it would be given to patients if they couldn’t afford it. I was skeptical that he could guarantee that, but also wasn’t sure that he couldn’t.

Martin talked about his family (his parents were janitors and refuse to move from the home he grew up in); the foundation he set up (his sister runs it); and the housing he procured for a homeless woman in Boston. He was laying it on thick with the philanthropy talk, but it was refreshing that he cared about what I thought. He was better at that than some of my other Tinder dates.

Throughout our date I saw occasional glimpses of the cocky Martin I had expected, but those were the moments that seemed the most false to me, as if putting on a confident-dude front. He seemed the most genuine when he was acting like the guys I hung out with in high school (I dated the president of the chess club); that’s probably why I felt so comfortable on our date.

We finished our food, and Martin flagged down the waitress and ordered the $120 tea. This was the most surprising and jarring moment of the night. I know he’s a multi-millionaire, but I thought we were on the same page about this tea. He asked if I wanted a cup, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. (Though I did think about asking him to Venmo me the $120 so I could use it to cover my Time Warner bill.)

When Martin finished his tea, I asked how he liked it. “I’m not really a big tea drinker,” he replied.

What?! I thought of all the good I could do with that money – donating it to charity, buying a new winter coat, buying myself 20 Venti iced soy vanilla chai lattes. He might as well have eaten a $100 bill in front of me.

Martin offered to have his driver give me a ride home. I once had a date swipe his Metro card for me in the subway, but I was not used to this kind of treatment. I accepted his offer, and his driver shuttled me back to Queens.

I think it was clear to Martin that he was not my Prince Charming, or my “Prince Pharming”; nor was I his manic pixie dream girl.

I am not trying to excuse his professional behavior or say he’s a good person. (I can’t really tell from one date and occasional text communication.) But he’s a lot more interesting and complex than I would have imagined.

My only regret is not guzzling a cup of that $120 tea. As far as Tinder dates go, I’d call that a win.

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