The Missing Man

Fliers plastered everywhere. Friends scouring the city. High-tech search logistics. And psychics. Why can't San Francisco find Jerry Tang?

Today is Jerry Tang's 40th birthday, and his wife and children are here. So are his parents and sister, friends from as far back as elementary school, current co-workers, and colleagues from several jobs ago. But Jerry isn't in the room. He's been missing for 50 days. That's why they've all come to this Inner Sunset church: for a vigil.

Austin Tang arrives, his shiny black hair soaked with drizzle. Raindrops speed down a clear plastic sleeve pinned to his backpack. The sleeve protects a flier now recognizable to almost everyone in San Francisco. More than 10,000 copies have been displayed in store windows, posted on decrepit building walls, taped 10 feet high on light poles. Austin resembles his younger brother Jerry, the man in the flier photo with the semismile and the distant look in his eyes. Few San Franciscans could identify any of the 4,000 or so people who go missing in the city every year -- except, perhaps, for Jerry.

A poster with that now-familiar photograph on it stands at an altar, facing stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Jerry's loved ones sit in wooden pews, murmuring gossip about recent sightings of him all over the city. Three children march like soldiers around the benches, laughing, oblivious to the gravity of the scene.

Jerry Tang's friends and family pasted up thousands 
of fliers 
in the weeks after his disappearance.
James Sanders
Jerry Tang's friends and family pasted up thousands of fliers in the weeks after his disappearance.
Jerry and Joyce Tang took their children hiking just 
weeks before Jerry's disappearance.
Jerry and Joyce Tang took their children hiking just weeks before Jerry's disappearance.

A chaplain from UCSF, where Jerry's wife, Joyce, works as a nurse, leads a service that's part remembrance of a man who might stroll back home at any moment, part rallying cry for the cause of a continued search for him. Joyce steps to the altar, shaking to hold back tears, and thanks everyone for the help and support. The rest of Jerry's family stands up to announce a $10,000 reward for his return.

Steve Ginsberg, one of Jerry's closest childhood friends, sings a song he wrote about how "We'll be home" when Jerry comes back. His eyes are closed, his voice is sincere.

The chaplain asks the attendees to pray silently as Jerry's parents walk through the church, lighting the tall white candles everyone grasps. "Communicate your hope to him," he says. "Let that hope be a source of strength to him, wherever he is."

News photographers snap pictures, zooming in for emotional close-ups. As those in attendance sing "Happy Birthday" to Jerry, a woman in the rear trembles and chokes through tears. Ginsberg closes the service with a slowed-down, country-ish version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." There is no applause, only the sound of sniffling and a creaking floor as people begin to move about.

A trio of television news cameras descends on Joyce, recording her hellos and hugs. Young mothers express concern, hiding their fear from her. Any one of their spouses could easily be the man who's missing. It must scare the hell out of them.

Joyce applies lipstick, embraces one last friend, and steps before the cameras. It feels strange to her, allowing these reporters into her private life, into Jerry's life. She's expected to play the part of the anguished, grieving wife, but she can't really grieve yet -- she still has no idea where her husband is or what happened to him. Since the week Jerry disappeared, though, the media has been the greatest tool for calling attention to the search. So Joyce stands tall but pigeon-toed in knee-high black boots, speaking into a microphone. Maybe, just maybe, someone who's seen Jerry will be watching the 11 o'clock news. Jonah, her 7-year-old son, clings to her waist, then jumps toward the cameras, making funny faces, excited at the mere prospect of getting on TV.


Steve Ginsberg turns left on Natoma and heads toward the Transbay Terminal. In the span of two blocks, the atmosphere changes from blue-skied SOMA chic to partially gentrified art gallery side street to dank, mini-urban wasteland, with filthy puddles on the sidewalk and a homeless man sleeping under a ratty, charcoal-colored blanket.

Ginsberg wears narrow jeans and a plain black jacket, typical dress for an information technology manager on the older side of Generation X. Until recently, he wasn't likely to spend his lunch break exploring the city's gloomy underbelly, but his search for Jerry has become an obsession.

Ginsberg descends a paved hill into the depths of the terminal parking garage and offers a flier to an attendant in a red jacket.

"My friend is missing, and there's now a $10,000 reward," Ginsberg says in a calm, measured tone. "I wanted to let you know."

"Oh my God, he's still missing?" asks a female patron, a twentysomething professional in a long overcoat.

Ginsberg pauses, allowing his brain to re-comprehend the fact that Jerry hasn't been found, despite one of the most rigorous search campaigns in the history of San Francisco. Friends, family, and volunteers have hunted for eight weeks, but Jerry is still out there somewhere, in a place where none of them can find him.

"Yeah," he says. "He is, unfortunately."

Ginsberg continues on to the dilapidated bus terminal, where pigeons peck at crumbs on the yellowed tile. Many homeless people -- including, possibly, Jerry -- take shelter in the waiting area, so it's a great place to hunt for leads. As Ginsberg discovered weeks ago, unlike the average hurried commuter, the homeless actually pay attention to the faces of people passing by.

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