Fong and Rob got on a call. “You just want to see results,” Fong said.
“Doc Fong, that’s exactly right,” Rob responded. Three months was far too long, he went on, to wait for a shipment. Then Rob made his position very clear to Fong: “In my world, you’ve got two choices. You can either kill yourself because you screwed this up so bad, hari-kari, or I can have it arranged for you. Your choice. Your choice.”
Kaplan couldn’t bring himself to believe that Fong had betrayed him. “He seemed articulate, intelligent,” he told me last May. “I think he’s a good, honest person, but common sense tells me there’s no way he could be involved with a company like that and not know where the money went, how it disappeared, or claim innocence in knowing these people were scumbags when he brought them to us,” he said. He recalled his own rule: either you’re stupid, or you’re in on it.
My dear friend… and one whom I have not even met in the flesh, Fong wrote to Kaplan last summer. I have not, thus far been either able to extricate myself from this foul business, nor have I been able to benefit from the same. I have been a lost creature over the last 19 months…. having lost track of time, season, days, weeks, or months of the year……
I have been and am currently finding I am to ashamed at my situation, Fong went on, where I have found myself in such financial peril after so long without much to show for it
“There’s a part of me that feels for him, alone in a foreign country,” Kaplan said. “He’s a doctor, not a businessman.” He tried to put himself in Fong’s shoes. “If the person he’s been talking to for the past year, who’s been with him on every journey, shepherding him through the entire thing, just decides to say, ‘Go fuck yourself. We’re going to send someone to go kill you’...”
He wanted so badly to believe that Fong could make this right — that he would refund the money or find another allocation of gloves and get it shipped. He wanted so badly for this deal to work out. He also knew that the financing had only come through because “someone I knew for 20 years vouched for me, and I vouched for Dr. Fong,” he said. He worried about how a quarter-million dollars disappearing might blow back on him.
“You are responsible for every person you introduce,” Kaplan said glumly.
By the end of July 2021, as the delta variant made clear the pandemic was far from over, Kaplan forced himself to cut off contact with Fong, who was still promising to send the gloves. In October, a CNN investigation called nitrile gloves “the most dangerous commodity on Earth right now,” highlighting “an industry riddled with fraud,” particularly in Thailand, where high demand meant that even bloodied, used gloves were being washed, repackaged, and sold to hospitals. CNN reported that one former MDMA trafficker went to Thailand to try to recoup $2.7 million lost in the glove trade but ended up “arrested and charged with assault and kidnapping after a confrontation in a Bangkok restaurant.”
Kaplan and Rob chose a more conservative path, compiling a file and turning it in to both the Department of Treasury and the FBI. As for the financing company that lost the money and now owed their clients much more than the original amount in interest, well, they “started getting a bit more insistent,” Kaplan said, “and then threats followed — glass rods being inserted in penises and assholes, and finding the money after that should be relatively easy.” The financiers cut off contact after Kaplan told them he’d involved the feds.
Fong later told me over the phone that he arranged five glove deals like this one, where, instead of buying gloves, his Thai partners had used client money to cover “operating costs,” including Fong’s house, car, and salary. Still, he insisted, “I’m really innocent here. I never take the money for myself,” beyond “some commission and also other living costs.” He said he had reported fraudulent activity to the Thai police, and now worried he was in danger: “The pandemic has caused a lot of loopholes. A lot of people are being cheated.”
In early November, Kaplan and Rob met face to face for the first time, after a year and a half of daily conversations. “I opened the door, and it could have been my dad standing there, the height, the build, the way he dressed, the way he talked, the mannerisms, the food he liked. And gout, which my dad also had. It was a very surreal experience,” Kaplan said.
Soon after, Rob told Kaplan he had stage four kidney cancer and stopped being able to talk on the phone.
“He is more than a business partner,” Kaplan told me in December through tears. A joint venture the two men put together might soon be able to bid on choice government contracts. For Kaplan, that hardly mattered now. “Stuff we put into place is starting to generate revenue, but he’s not going to be able to enjoy it.”
The last time I spoke with Rob, in the middle of 2021, he warned that the United States was not prepared for another wave of the pandemic. “What do you got in the national stockpile? There’s nothing,” he fumed. “You’ve gotta maintain it. You’ve gotta have some kind of plan.”
At the time, I was skeptical. Hadn’t we learned our lesson? No, Rob told me, we hadn’t.
Sure enough, as omicron cases rose, coronavirus testing and mask shortages returned. By the beginning of 2022, Rob was dead.
The last two years have been some of the most intense of Kaplan’s life, filled with close calls and hazards he is just beginning to process, but more than anything, amidst all of the death and destruction and delays and disconnection, he sees now that he is not alone.
“A big takeaway was understanding and appreciating the value of building a relationship with someone who is a trusted friend and partner, how fragile life really is, and how being with somebody you’re supposed to be with can be a pleasurable experience,” Kaplan told me. He realized he was ready to consider someone else’s needs besides his own again and proposed to Milla. In the weeks after she said yes, Milla described “romantic dinners, champagne, coffee in bed, flowers, sweet surprises” and wrote that she saw Kaplan as “a real prince in my life.” They hired an immigration attorney and filled out the necessary forms.
“After the papers arrived, confirming our marriage,” Milla wrote, in a narrative to convince immigration authorities that their love was genuine, Kaplan “took me to the beach to watch the sunrise, and when we got to the beach, he knelt on the sand and put a wedding ring on my finger, I was paralyzed with such emotion. We got married there, without ceremony. This, in my mind, would only happen in the most romantic films, but it really happened and with me!”
It’s been a humbling time to be a hustler. After thousands of hours of work, through all his pandemic wheeling and dealing, Kaplan has only made around a thousand dollars total. Yet it doesn’t feel like a waste. He may not have found the wealth he was looking for, but he did find friendship, with Rob, and love, with Milla.
“If it wasn’t for that woman,” he told me, “I would have lost my mind.”
Many people feel as though the past two years were stolen, wiped from the calendar and replaced with a long and empty slog. Nearly a million Americans have died of COVID, but mask mandates and vaccine requirements are ending, and the country is ready to move on, variants be damned. Kaplan still views the pandemic as an opportunity, a gift of perspective that will shape the rest of his days. Money is great and all, but as he saw with Rob, you can’t take it with you. “Time is the most precious and finite commodity you have,” Kaplan said.
He even has the space now to forgive Fong and, to a certain extent, forgive himself. To get anything done in this world, you need other people, and other people will always involve some degree of risk. After all, you can listen, you can research, you can interrogate, but in the end, there’s only so much you can verify about another person’s heart. Unless you want to end up alone, sometimes you’re just going to have to trust.