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Love in the Time of Tinder

Tinder

Juan, 36

It’s nearly 5 p.m. and the doughnut stand at this upscale food court in Hell’s Kitchen is sold out of both vanilla and tres leches doughnuts and Juan is having a meltdown. 

“Fuck!” he shouts to the girl in the paper hat behind the counter. “That’s the whole reason I came here.”

He darts along the four sides of the kiosk, where the sad remains of the doughnut day whimper behind glass cases—what’s left is a red velvet, some chocolate brownie, and maple. He’s all but forgotten I’m here because there’s so much food he’s interested in, like the dumpling place on the north wall, and the Korean barbecue place, and the goat’s milk ice cream stand.

“Tomorrow I’m having Mexican food in Bushwick and ice cream afterwards,” he says. “And there’s a great doughnut place there, so I’ll probably have doughnuts, too.”

We arranged to meet at a Starbucks—he sweated over the pastry selection there, too, and ordered a gigantic pink beverage sweet enough to kill a hummingbird. He had waffles for breakfast. He tells me he’s from Juárez. 

“My family is fine. They keep a low profile. But everyone knows someone who was murdered or kidnapped by the narcos.”

Juan is tall and very handsome and a lawyer on Wall Street. He hates going to the gym, but he’s in some sort of deranged food-addiction/body-dysmorphia/keeping-up-with-the-gay-Joneses cyclone, so he spends as much time jogging as he does on the doughnut hunt. After he gorges on free samples at the food court, he drags me into a pizza joint down the street for a slice.

“A friend is cooking dinner at 7, but I’m not sure if he’s a good cook,” he says. 

I can’t get away from Juan fast enough, and beeline it to Brooklyn and find my friend M. on his usual stool at our local boozer. 

“Honey, we all have our vices, but there’s something vile about the food fetishists,” M. says. “I remember a time in this city when you’d walk the streets and all the conversations you overheard were about sex. Now it’s just organic snow peas and where to get the best ramen.” He slams down his whisky. 

“It’s just classism.” 

Juan sends me a text: “Great to meet you. Let’s hang out again.” 

“You are not seeing the doughnut queen again,” M. says, producing from his pocket the wooden gavel I bought him for his birthday. He bangs it on the bar top to make the proclamation official. “Denied.” 

Juan is my introduction to the men of Tinder. In case you’ve been living in a caliphate for the past few years, Tinder is a highly addictive, location-based dating app in which user profiles populate your screen like a deck of playing cards. If you’re attracted to a person, you swipe right on their profile, and if not you swipe left, where a big, red “NOPE” appears, and the person is discarded. If a user also swipes right on your profile, the app lets you know “It’s a Match!” and you then have the option to message the person or “Keep Playing.” 

One of the nice things about Tinder is that it gives you the opportunity to connect with people you’d never ordinarily meet. I decided to embark on a mad-dash month of dating in New York City and share the stories of the men I encountered. There was the Polish book translator, the pompous editor, the Venezuelan guy obsessed with beauty pageants and his parents’ money, and plenty of perfectly nice bartenders, waiters, and fashion industry types. But in the end it felt like a month in the electric chair, and I was thrilled when the time came to delete the app.

Tyler, 25

The amount of booze, cigarettes, and prescription drugs Tyler consumes hourly is spectacular. We meet on one of those pressure-cooker summer nights in Manhattan when the streets are permeated by madness, and he’s throwing back two whisky shots and smoking a couple cigarettes per beer. He works in finance and grew up on a ranch in rural south Texas. He is the son of cattle farmers moonlighting as doomsday preppers. His mom often sends care packages with flares and kerosene burners that get confiscated by the postal service en route to him. Tyler is wry, filthy, gorgeous, and extremely damaged—everything I usually look for in a man. He may also be a compulsive liar. His stories of faded glory as an international male model, dating the CEO of a hotel chain, childhood abuse, and surviving cancer don’t all seem to add up. He hates New York, he says. He’s just here to make money then get out. He can’t stop talking about his ex-fiancé, who was the quarterback of the high school football team (and who might not exist). 

“I put the ‘bang’ in Bangalore,” 31

Raj is staying in an Airbnb rental down the street from my apartment. He’s in town from India on business and using Tinder for a quick fuck, and I suspect he might be married. His profile says he’s a “training supervisor” who travels the world. He studied medicine and is an insatiable bottom who puts “the ‘bang’ in Bangalore,” and although I set two rules for myself on Tinder—New Yorkers only (no visitors) and no cheap hookups—I’m in the mood for a bit of [insert cock euphemism] and invite him over. 

“Are you drug– and disease-free?” he texts me. 

“Yes. Neg and on PrEP,” I respond, which autocorrect always changes to “Meg and on Oreos.”

Raj is an expressionless little muscle nugget with a nice head of hair and droopy cheeks. He seems to be mentally running a white-gloved finger over the surfaces of my apartment and is the kind of person who farts once a year on top of a mountain.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Thirty-two,” I say.

“You have a lot of gray hair,” he says. 

“Is it customary in your culture to insult someone before you mount them?” I ask.

“You look a lot more muscular in your photos,” he says.

“I think you should go,” I say. 

Danny, 24

I don’t have a type. “If it pees standing up, it’s fair game,” I always say, which accounts for how I racked up more than 500 matches in one month on Tinder. Danny is a fashion student and invites me to Jacob Riis beach in Queens, where I find him splayed on a patchwork of blankets with a group of his scrappy genderqueer friends.

He has the soul of a 1970s Christopher Street leather daddy trapped in a twink’s slinky body, and I find his throwback sexual vulgarity to be utterly fabulous.

Danny sheds his swimsuit and we go for a swim as the sky turns Technicolor. From the ocean, the beach is teeming with the silhouettes of a thousand gay men. Danny produces a bottle of poppers.

“Want some?” Danny says, taking a huff, rising and falling with the waves. The warmth of the Atlantic and the golden light are so surreal we’re given over to maniacal laughter.

“You’re so pre-AIDS,” I say.

I find my friend M. at his usual bar stool later that night. “This Tinder shit isn’t about love. It isn’t about human intimacy. It’s just capitalism,” he says. Another user on Tinder has invited me to Maine with him for the weekend, even though we haven’t met in person, and I’m debating whether to go. “I had a friend who was murdered in Maine,” M. says. “If I never hear from you again, I’m going to have to check all the swamps along Route 95.” At the last minute, I cancel on the Maine invitation. 

Chicagoan, 29

Darrell moved to New York from Chicago a month ago, refers to himself as a New Yorker, and enjoys discussing the idiosyncrasies of “how we New Yorkers are.” His hobbies include “loving my city, New York.”

“You’re not a New Yorker,” I tell him. “And to call yourself one trivializes the struggle.” 

Before we met in person, it was clear Darrell and I hated each other and had nothing in common. He’s an actor, and over beers I’m dodging industry jargon left and right—“on set,” “my agent,” “B-roll,” “callback.”

There’s surprisingly little variation in what people publish about themselves in dating profiles, and Darrell’s touched on all the most annoying examples. He wrote that he’s “living life to its fullest,” one of the stupidest things ever said; he listed his Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—ENFJ—which for years I thought meant you spoke English, French, and Japanese. In all of his photos, he was pictured with a group of friends, most of them more attractive than he, or what I call “the zebra defense.”

“Doing Chicago this weekend. Got a callback for a commercial,” he says. 

“Who the fuck casts for commercials in Chicago?” I say.

“It’s a national campaign. It’s a big deal,” he says.

“Whatever,” I say.

Nip Pig, 45

Tinder is not some fresh-faced venture out of a college dorm room. The company is Big Internet to the core, with origins in a startup lab launched by IAC, a mega-media company comprising more than 150 brands, including Match, OkCupid, The Daily Beast, CollegeHumor, and Dictionary.com. IAC currently owns 86% of the Match Group, of which Tinder is one product. 

According to the company’s Web site, Tinder processes 1.4 billion swipes daily—close to 1 million per minute—for its estimated 9.6 million active users in 196 countries, and it facilitates 26 million matches each day. 

As the dating app’s popularity soars, a backlash is underway, particularly in news media, which have questioned this disposable dating culture’s impact on relationships and overall human happiness. After a sharply critical story in Vanity Fair in August focused on how young straight women might get the short end of the stick on Tinder, the heartbroken company engaged in a 31-tweet-long meltdown, which included “Talk to our many users in China and North Korea who find a way to meet people on Tinder even though Facebook is banned.” Then, Tinder’s CEO Sean Rad, in an interview with the Evening Standard, made the chilling comment that he had done some “background research” on the Vanity Fair writer, Nancy Jo Sales, “and there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think differently.”

Last year, Rad was replaced as CEO following the settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a female co-founder of the company (reportedly for $1 million, with no admission of wrongdoing). Rad stayed on as president and returned to his former position five months later.

Several years ago, when the dating service first made a splash, I recall my straight friends rapt in the carnal novelty of it all as they swiped through profiles based on user locations, looking for a hookup. This, of course, is old hat for gays, but Tinder became the first successful attempt to bring a Grindr-for-straight-people to market, a location-based app that reduces dates and sexual partners to shrink-wrapped meats in the grocery aisle. Tinder primarily accomplished this by giving users control over who can communicate with them, which was integral to getting women interested in using the app.

Gay men use the app in a dramatically different way from straight people and from how they use other hookup apps; here, they advertise their most husband-worthy selves. On several occasions, I came across users on Tinder who I’d also spotted on Grindr and Scruff, but whereas that guy’s profile on Grindr might read something like, “piss pig bottom into anon pump n dump. more submissive than a hole in the ground,” on Tinder he would boast about his great job in PR, love of children and puppies, and quiet nights at home watching Game of Thrones.

Most gays on Tinder, at least in New York, don’t even disclose whether they’re top or bottom, and I never got a dick pic, nor was I asked for one. There are, of course, exceptions like Paul the sex addict, whose profile is entirely shirtless photos broadcasting his faded tribal tattoos and huge nipple piercings. 

“Those must have hurt,” I say over a beer.

“No, man, it was awesome. If I had more than two nipples I’d pierce those too,” he says.

“More than two nipples?” I say. “Like a cat?”

“I’m much more of a dog person,” he says. “Woof.”

Haru, 27

Haru is an artist living in Bushwick: gentle, highly intelligent, and devastatingly handsome. He invites me to a gallery opening with artwork inspired by the Matthew Shepard murder. 

“You know that hate crime story is all bullshit,” I say plowing through the complimentary wine. “It was all about crystal meth.” Haru’s working the room, which is populated by polite, wealthy-donor types, and I’m suddenly a liability. He slinks away to hobnob.

Later I run into my friend Aubrey on the street. She’s on her way to a second date with a girl she met on OkCupid, which she joined about a month ago, and she is also on Tinder. She and the girl both have colds, and Aubrey has a backpack packed with soup, tea, throat lozenges, and her strap-on. 

“As soon as I joined Tinder, I was like, Oh my God, this is so objectifying. And fun! Swipe, swipe, swipe!” she says. 

She tells me she thinks Tinder has had the same effect on lesbians as on straight people. Aubrey’s been on three dates with women she met on dating apps and got laid each time. 

I’m swiping in Los Angeles while in town for the gay wedding of two of my oldest friends. Tinder recently introduced a new feature, the “Super Like” button. When you super-like another user, that person can see that you’ve super-liked them before they decide which direction to swipe on you. Apparently I do well in Los Angeles, because the Super Likes are piling up. I’ve never had a single Super Like on the app in New York, probably because New Yorkers don’t super-like anything, especially other people.

I match with the man who will become Tinder Date No. 21 and the end of this experiment. A week later, No. 21 is in New York on business and we physically meet for the first time at a Canadian bar in Brooklyn. He brings me a box of chocolates. We have dinner. We go for a walk on the waterfront. We kiss. He extends his trip, and we spend the next three days together, which included such activities as—and I’m not kidding—getting caught in the rain one afternoon and a midnight stroll through Central Park. We’re both journalists; he’s divorced. The following week he invites me to Los Angeles and I stay four days. He comes back to New York two weeks later.

“There’s something I have to tell you, but I don’t want to freak you out,” No. 21 says. We are on the same page. We’re falling in love. 

As of press time, this is how it has gone. No. 21 and I see each other about every two weeks either in New York or L.A. The distance is becoming a strain, and should the relationship continue, we’ve decided one of us will change cities. 

I’m reluctant to say anything else about No. 21. I don’t want to be a “Tinder success story,” and falling in love was the least of my priorities and the last thing I expected. I set out to write mini-profiles of 30 single, gay New Yorkers and to experience full-throttle the madness of dating in the digital age. I struggled with whether even to include No. 21 in this story. Some people are so dear, it feels like a sin to commit them to the page.

“A May-December romance—how fabulous,” M. says (No. 21 is 52). 

“I think of it more as a Memorial Day-Labor Day romance,” I say. 

“Ethically you have to include him,” M. says. “But you can still add that you think Tinder is a horrifying way to look for love and you wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. And had you not put yourself through hell for the sake of your job, it never would have happened anyway.” 

The happy ending is a long way off from being written, and there’s still ample time for it all to end in tears, wasted youth, a murder-suicide. (He is quite passionate.)

A strange thought entered my mind a few minutes after No. 21 showed up at the bar that first night. He was late, he was frazzled, he was apologetic, and he couldn’t look me in the eye. And I only wanted to touch him. 

This guy, somehow, is going to change my life, I thought.

*DISCLAIMER: Most names and some identifying characteristics have been changed. Conversations are reproduced here to the best of the author’s memory.

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