The Missing Man

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

Joyce last spoke with Jerry around 10 a.m., about an hour before he logged off his computer and left the apartment. She arrived home that afternoon, and he wasn't there, so she called his cell phone. It went straight to voice mail, which seemed odd to her, because Jerry always kept his phone on vibrate. She called a few more times, but dinner came and went with no Jerry.

Joyce began to worry that he might have had another seizure or stroke. She called her in-laws, and Jerry's brother Austin stayed with her that night. She filed a police report but didn't immediately publicize it. "I didn't want to make it a huge deal," she says. "It was a very personal thing, to say your husband didn't come home last night."

Now, everyone knows, and everyone expresses sympathy for Joyce's plight. They tell her how strong she is, but she's only able to cope because it usually doesn't feel real. Once in a while, though, during her daily routine, at the gym, or at the grocery store, she'll think to herself: "This is so meaningless, this is not important. This is not what I should be doing."

When Joyce talks about the man she used to call her Buddha, her voice cracks and her eyes tear up. She misses family hugs and family dinners, and being alone with Jerry, holding him, talking the way people talk to each other when they've been together for 20 years.

Today is her son Ian's fifth birthday. It's hard for Joyce to know what to say to him, other than trying to keep Jerry alive in Ian's mind. She reminds him of how his daddy loved playing math games with him, and of how they played the "chasing tickle game" until they were both exhausted, lying on the floor. Ian's older brother, Jonah, asks his mother the kind of practical questions a 7-year-old would ask, about what Jerry is eating, where he's sleeping, and whether she'll hug him when he comes home. After all, won't he be smelly from living on the street?

During the four days a week when she doesn't work, Joyce spends much of her time in the apartment, where she and Jerry have lived since 1993. Families from her children's school bring home-cooked meals, and until just after Christmas at least one other person was always in the house. She has rarely joined the search. She doesn't want to be the one to find him -- in case he isn't alive.

When psychics began offering their services, she accepted, even though she knew they might bring only false hope. She and Jerry used to watch the show Crossing Over With John Edward, in which the host claimed to communicate with deceased relatives of audience members. They both believed him (at least a little bit). One psychic who visited the Tang home clutched a few of Jerry's possessions in her hands and said he was still alive. To Joyce, the woman's visions of Jerry walking down the street seemed so real. "It's like she's seeing his head and telling me she's talking to him," Joyce says, "and you come away with this sense of it, as if we're gonna find him, because he's out there."

Like everyone else, Joyce has her theories about what happened to Jerry but little evidence to support them. She isn't even sure which direction Jerry turned when he left their home, or whether he rode Muni, because no witnesses have been found. Still, Jerry could be downtown, or somewhere in the East Bay, not knowing who or where he is, living on the streets but relatively healthy and waiting to be found. It's hard for Joyce to think about the nightmare scenarios: Jerry having jumped into San Francisco Bay, his body caught beneath some rocks; Jerry the victim of a random homicide and burial; Jerry having fallen off a cliff in the Marin Headlands; or, the best and worst case, Jerry living outside San Francisco, feeling great, knowing that his family wants him home, but not wanting to come back.

A looming sense of futility has set in among the least emotionally involved searchers: The SFPD has scaled back its efforts, though the case is still technically active, and two weeks ago, Craigslist removed its "find jerry tang" links. Even some of Jerry's closest friends are starting to burn out, and considering hiring a private investigator or project manager to supervise the search.

"The thing that depresses me the most is how little we know," says Hal Rucker, the CEO and founder of the start-up SmallTown, from which Jerry is nominally on a leave of absence. "We don't know any more than we knew from day one. If you wanted to disappear from the planet without leaving a clue, I can't imagine it happening any 'better' than this."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the longer a search for a missing person goes on, the less likely he'll be found. Yet circumstances have forced Joyce into a strange mental calculus, which tells her that a 10-week search without finding Jerry infirm or deceased might actually bode well. "It gives me hope that we're not finding him in that condition," she says.

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