The Missing Man

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

He stops to talk with an overweight man wearing gray sweat pants and a wool cap with a pot leaf on it.

"Yeah, I saw this guy," the goateed man says, looking at the flier.

"You're kidding," Ginsberg says, struggling to hold back his excitement.

Jerry and Joyce Tang took their children hiking just 
before Jerry's disappearance.
Courtesy of the Tang Family
Jerry and Joyce Tang took their children hiking just weeks before Jerry's disappearance.
"Joker" is one of several people living on the street 
who claim 
to have spotted Jerry near the Transbay Terminal 
James Sanders
"Joker" is one of several people living on the street who claim to have spotted Jerry near the Transbay Terminal (top).

Shadowing the homeless circuit -- standing in line at St. Anthony's with men picking up a change of clothes at 7:30 a.m., visiting Glide Memorial Church during the lunchtime rush -- has become central to the search for Jerry. Ginsberg even befriended a man named Jason who lives just outside the bus terminal. Since spotting a person he believes was Jerry, Jason has passed out dozens of fliers to friends on the street.

"I saw him at the Fifth Street BART station, then at Pier 39," says the large man in sweats. "I saw him yesterday at the Hyatt at Embarcadero."

"Are you sure it was him?" Ginsberg asks. Several others have claimed to have seen Jerry nearby.

"I'm positive," he says, his speech clear and confident, almost indignant, despite his unkempt appearance. "I'm not a liar."

"I'm not saying you're a liar, I just want to make sure you're sure," says Ginsberg.

"It was him," the man says.

It's been weeks since anyone Ginsberg met was this certain about having seen Jerry. Usually, when he asks how sure they are, people backpedal.

"What was he wearing?" Ginsberg asks.

"Black backpack, brown pants, messed-up light T-shirt, ball cap," he says.

"What's your name?"

"They call me 'Joker.'"

"Joker," Ginsberg says, "his family deeply wants him back. If you see him and you can't detain him, if you're certain it's him, call 911."

Joker agrees, and Ginsberg leaves the bus station, still agitated. He reproaches himself for forgetting to ask for details about Jerry's baseball cap.

Ginsberg walks back toward his office, trying to suppress the high that comes with each potential sighting. Joker is one of dozens who claim to have seen Jerry. None has brought the search any closer to resolution. There have been at least two "sightings" in which someone thought to be Jerry turned out to be just another tall, disoriented Asian man on the street. But that's no reason for Ginsberg to give up. Joker's information might be the one clue that leads to Jerry's discovery. On the other hand, it might lead to nothing.

"We're looking with skepticism toward everything," Ginsberg says later. "If I went to Anchorage, Alaska, and asked enough people about Jerry, someone would say, 'Yeah, I saw that guy.'"

Jerry Tang walked out of the Victorian on Ashbury Street late Tuesday morning, Nov. 29, wearing a navy blue nylon jacket, jeans, and worn-out sneakers. He probably took his cell phone, but never made any calls, and didn't use his credit cards or stop at the ATM, either. Though Jerry had $80 or so in his wallet, he carried none of his anti-seizure medication. The night before, he had asked his doctor to phone in a refill of the prescription.

Although he called in sick to work that day, Jerry didn't have a cold. He was depressed. Two years before, a spontaneous tear in his vertebral artery caused a stroke. He bounced back in just a few weeks, but it brought about a series of seizures, which his doctors combated with increasing dosages of medication. Jerry didn't like that the drugs made him feel drunk and disoriented, so sometimes he'd "accidentally" miss a dose, his brother Austin says. Jerry had also recently become an executive at a small start-up in San Mateo, and even though he worked only 40 hours per week, the job still stressed him out.

On the day he vanished, it was all probably swirling in Jerry's mind: the stroke and the seizures and the start-up, the financial pressure of putting two kids through private school while saving up to buy a house in the East Bay. Along with his material worries, Jerry had always been a spiritual person, and his health problems caused him to ask even deeper questions about the meaning of his existence. Always the dutiful husband, father, son, brother, and friend, though, Jerry didn't want to be a burden. When his family asked if he was all right, he brushed off their concerns.

Nevertheless, Jerry hardly fit the outward profile of a person likely to disappear without warning. He had young children and had been married to his college sweetheart for two decades. He had no criminal history and was under the regular care of a prominent physician/researcher at UCSF. He was involved in his community, volunteering at a food bank and sorting clothing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He was the kind of guy whose close friends, brother, and sister would ask him to officiate at their weddings -- even though he was not particularly religious.

While a University of Pennsylvania student, Jerry saw a homeless man in the same spot every day, opening the door of an ATM booth. He once stopped to ask how the man, also named Jerry, ended up on the streets, and then bought him dinner. The restaurant staff didn't understand why a college student would take a homeless man out to a meal, but that didn't bother Jerry.

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