The Sex Detective
He Tracks Down People All Over the City: His Job Is to Tell Them They May Have VD
Tommy Ferguson is obsessed with what passes from one lover to another, with what flourishes under the covers long after the kisses are forgotten and the passion has subsided.
But Ferguson, or Fergy to his friends, is neither pervert nor voyeur. He is a public servant, one who is unusually dedicated to his work.
Fergy is a public-health adviser with the DC government's Department of Human Services, and part of his job is to follow the trail of diseases passed through sexual relationships. Another part is telling people—who might not otherwise know—that they have a venereal disease or have been exposed to it.
There are not many smiles. And nobody knows that better than Fergy, who's been cleaning up DC's love pollution for fourteen years. He is a bearer of bad news, a reminder of the dark side of passion.
His search for VD victims takes him all over the city, from ghetto bars to comfortable Northwest neighborhoods. There was even one call he had to make to an aide in the Carter White House. But Fergy doesn't name names; in his business everything is confidential. Still, that doesn't make people any more receptive to the news that they have to visit a VD clinic or to Fergy's polite questions about whom they've been sleeping with.
"You can understand why they'd be a bit upset," Fergy says matter-of-factly. "It's a personal business."
Today's top priority is a five-foot, seven-inch hooker named Sandy. Description given: big eyes, very few teeth, dark-brown hair with streak in it. She "hangs" at the intersection of 14th and T stress, Northwest, and was last seen wearing a pair of blue corduroys.
Fergy is looking for Sandy because a man in Prince George's County, who has been positively tested for a penicillin-resistant strain of gonorrhea, listed her as one of his most recent sexual contacts. That could create a problem because women with this kind of gonorrhea are generally asymptomatic and can go months without realizing they're infected. So Sandy's at the top of Fergy's list.
Fergy calls on prostitutes regularly—all in the name of business—but he says that pros generally take pretty good care of themselves. Still, Sandy works a rugged neighborhood, and from her description, Fergy suspects she's the strung-out type, a hooker who probably isn't very attentive to personal hygiene. Fergy steers the car to the curb two blocks away from Sandy's corner and fills out a card: "It is important that you report to the following location on a matter concerning your health," it reads.
In another setting Fergy might settle for leaving his business card, which identifies him as a "program specialist" with the health department. Most people are quick to call back and ask, "What's this about?"—whereupon Fergy explains what the problem is, asks if they're getting treatment, and requests the names of their sexual contacts. Most people don't respond well. In fact, the higher the socioeconomic level of the suspected VD carrier, the greater the indignation. It helps that Fergy and his counterparts no longer drive around in cars labeled "Health Department" in bold letters.
In this case, Fergy doesn't have to worry about being discreet. He slips the form in to a plain envelope, seals the back and writes Sandy's name on the front of it. He edges the Volvo back into the street.
At the intersection of 14th and T, Fergy gets out of the car and locks it. There are two prostitutes standing on the corner, neither one matching Sandy's description. The first woman refuses to look up. The second ruefully stares at Fergy as he approaches. He is wearing a wide polyester tie and a sweater vest, both hidden under his down jacket.
"Have you seen Sandy?" Fergy asks.
"Not today," the woman says apprehensively. "I just came out."
Already Fergy knows that Sandy exists and that the woman knows her. It's important how you phrase your questions, he explains later. "You never ask, 'Do you know Sandy?'"
"I was hoping to deliver something real important to her," Fergy tells the hooker, maintaining the posture of a well-meaning friend genuinely disappointed by Sandy's absence. "Is this the same Sandy we're talking about? With brown hair? Streaks? Big eyes? She wears blue corduroys?" he asks.
"Bad teeth," the prostitute says, careful to avoid eye contact.
"Yeah. She usually be out here during the day. Am I right? Same Sandy?"
"I don't know nothing about her. I don't know where she lives or who she hangs with. I don't know if she's got an old man or what."
"Does she have a sponsor?"
"She doesn't have a pimp, if that's what you're sayin'."
Fergy puts on a pained expression. He's legitimately concerned about Sandy's welfare, but he's also trying to impress the woman with his earnestness. It's a convincing performance. He has to be a good actor because by law he cannot mention that he suspects Sandy of spreading gonorrhea. "Tell me this," he says, leaning closer. "If I gave you something very important, would you see that it got to Sandy? I mean it's very important. It's of crucial importance."
The woman says sure, why not? Fergy hands her the envelope. He asks her name. She begrudgingly gives him her own home phone numbers, after arguing with him about it. "I'm sorry I opened my goddamned mouth," she says to the other prostitute. But because Fergy seems so well-meaning, she puts up with his pitch and promises to give Sandy the envelope.
Fergy thanks her profusely, gets into the Volvo, and drives away. Delivering the notice to Sandy in person would have been ideal, but he thinks chances are good that she'll get the message.
"I don't think we'll have any problem with her," Fergy says. "These girls are savvy, you know. And besides, they don't want to mess with me."
As it turns out, Fergy is wrong on this one. A week passes and still nor word from Sandy; he hasn't been able to find her on the street, either. She becomes a "six." Office lingo for someone the health inspectors cant track down, so named because the sixth box on the case-status form is marked simply "Unable to Locate."
On any given day in the field, Fergy might track a high school girl carrying gonorrhea, a college student with syphilis who's confessed over the phone to having had recent sexual contact with several other gay men, a man in his thirties whose heroin addiction is more important to him than the results of his blood tests, and that man's wife who, despite her sweet voice and childlike demeanor, is the person who gave her husband VD in the first place.
Fergy is a busy man. There are sixteen other field investigators in the DC Health Department, but there is also a lot of venereal disease out there. In 1983, 17,675 incidents of VD were reported in the District. And about a third of those people were contacted or aided in some way by one of the health investigators.
Fergy and the rest of the crew concern themselves with what is known in the business as "sexually transmitted disease," or STD. That means gonorrhea, syphilis, and pelvic inflammatory disease, all of which can be easily tested for and are curable. Herpes and AIDS also fall under the health department's umbrella, and local health official say they monitor every AIDS case. But because neither herpes nor AIDS is yet curable, the field investigators concentrate their efforts on VD.
By law, physicians must report all STD cases to the health department. Most private physicians cooperate, although those with predominantly gay male clientele are sometimes reluctant to volunteer information. But even without leads from doctors, the investigators would have plenty of work; roughly 6,000 cases per year are reported through public hospitals or clinics. According to his own estimates, Fergy may deal with as many as 2,000 cases a year.
Some can be handled with a single phone call; others require hard-nosed detective work. He remembers one case in which a VD carrier had sex with almost 75 different partners in a three-month period.
Fergy's good at what he does. "He's low-key," says one associate. "He's got staying power." Fergy himself says he just tries to be sensitive. "I put myself in their place. I say, 'I know, I know. I can imagine how you feel.' So many of the people I deal with are extremely angry. Furious. They're mad that city health has gotten involved. Then oftentimes they're mad at themselves for getting wrapped up in the whole situation."
A lot of times people feel their privacy has been violated. They'll scream at Fergy, "I've taken care of it. I've notified my contact." Or, "Coming down with VD was bad enough. Get lost."
Even after they've agreed to cooperate, people have turned nasty. Fergy remembers one woman who became so hostile as he was giving her a ride to a clinic that he finally told her to get out of his car. "She called me everything but a child of God," says Fergy.
The scene can get especially bad when he has to tell the news to a woman who knows that her husband or boyfriend must have been exposed to the disease by a newcomer; either a mistress, a hooker or another man. He has had doors slammed in his face, even had a few knives waved in his direction.
He's had his share of "bust" cases, too, in which the infected person refuses to reveal the names of his or her sexual partners. "But I can usually turn the worst situations around. I can get most people to talk. And by the end of my presentation I have people talking and apologizing for the way they behaved when they first heard from me." Some, he says, even learn to like him.
He is happily married, but he'll admit in an instant that dealing with sex and its repercussion on a daily basis never gets dull. "I'm intrigued with my own job, all right," he says. "The sexual act is one of the most precious things. And the most important part of my work is keeping people's affairs secret. I'm constantly walking a tightrope." So when people want to know—and can't guess—how the city got their name who listed them as a sexual contact, Fergy doesn't hedge. "I can't tell you that. That's what you call a loaded question. Everything between you and me," and then he whispers "is strictly confidential."
"Now, Cassandra, did they tell you when you were in the hospital how pelvic inflammatory disease is transmitted?" Fergy asks an eighteen-year-old girl, who for the sake of convenience and privacy has agreed to be interviewed in his car.
"Through sex," she says.
"Who was the person you last had sex with before the ambulance took you to the hospital?"
She gives a name and an address.
"Did you tell Maurice that he should get himself checked?"
"I told him, but he wouldn't go to the clinic."
"Was he noticing any symptoms? Did he have a discharge?"
"Bleeding a little," she says.
"Is Maurice the kind of person you can talk comfortably with, or do he get kind angry and violent?"
"Yea, he get like that."
"How old might he be?"
"I don't know. Twenties."
"And you haven't had sex with no one else?"
"Do you and your mother have a good relationship? Should I tell her about all this?"
"No," the girl says. "Don't tell my mother."
"Okay, no problem. I won't tell your mother about it."
Fergy thanks the girl. She steps out of the car. He watches her go, then makes notes in his casebook.
"Tomorrow," he says, "I'll call on Maurice." He closes the casebook. "And I can tell already that Maurice is going to be a pistol."
"Burning" is the term used on the street for carrying VD without realizing it, as in "He's burning" or "She burnt me." But as painful as the infection can be, hardly anyone dies or goes crazy as a result of syphilis anymore.
In fact, today venereal diseases are easier to treat that the common cold: A simple injection of 2.4 million units of Bicillin will clear up a case of syphilis; uncomplicated gonorrhea is relieved in most people with ampicillin or Trobicin; spectinomycin will cure just about anything these days, including the most complicated STD.
The problem is that you don't always know when you've been burned. Twenty to 30 percent of men with gonorrhea show no symptoms. And according to some estimates, 80 percent of women who have gonorrhea are dangerously asymptomatic—dangerously, because if some venereal diseases go untreated for too long, they can cause sterility. One ailment called Chlamydia trachomatic—the most difficult STD to diagnose—along causes sterility in 11,000 American woman a year.
That's why most major cities allocate time and money—in DC, it's more than $2 million a year—to do what they can to curb the spread of VD. And that's why people like Fergy take their job seriously. "I pursue. I persist. Some people consider that harassment," says Fergy. "But my mission, you see, is to get the right people in to our clinics so that I can go home and know I've done my best."
The health department's STD division actually has three parts, one clinic at 13th and Irving streets, Northwest, another near DC General Hospital, and a downtown office at 1411 K Street, where Fergy and his coworkers have their desks. It is not a conventional office.
There's Denise Watkins, one of the younger female investigators, who wears army pants, knee-high boots, and funky hats and scarves on the job. Her parents, she says, don't understand what she does. There's Gino Secola, the supervisor, a second-generation Italian who bow-hunts on weekends and who came from the STD program in Maryland. There's John Heath, head of the division, whose soft voice and calm demeanor have kept the department's profile low since he arrived from New York's STD program in 1976.
For the most part, it's a stable operation; in addition to Fergy, four other STD investigators have been with division for at least ten years.
"When I first got here, I kept asking, 'How could people not know who they slept with?'" says 29-year-old Debra Hughes, an investigator who works out of one the department's clinics. "How could people not know the names of the people with whom they've had sex?"
But Hughes, one of nine female STD investigators, learned quickly. She came to the department right after college, where she had been a biology major. She had answered a newspaper ad for a "VD investigator," even though she wasn't sure what a VD investigator did.
"I was one of those people who never talked about sex," she admits. Two weeks of STD training in Atlanta helped her get used to it, but experience, Hughes says is the best teacher. In time, you become comfortable asking strangers who they've had sex with and what kind of sex they've had.
It takes a healthy measure of both tact and self-confidence. "I tell our clients that they've got to tell us who they've been having sex with so we can get that person treated. I tell them that I don't care about their sexual preferences. I tell them that their responses will be kept in the utmost confidence."
She also has learned to deal with VD carriers who can't remember the full names of their ex-lovers. They'll say something like, "I slept with some girl, but I don't really know her. I think her nickname's Baby."
Those are the tough ones, Hughes says. And if the person's been exposed to a serious disease that is hard for people to recognize on their own, the investigation—however difficult—becomes a public-health concern and gets priority status.
In some quarters, the efforts of the investigators are greatly appreciated. "There's no doubt in my mind that if we didn't have this program, if we relied solely upon people's good intentions to report the ailment to their friend and recommend they see a doctor, our incidents of syphilis in this city would be much higher," says Dr. Richard DiGioia, a private physician.
Fergy walks up the steps of a church on 16th Street, turns at the corner of a boxwood hedge, and comes face to face with a small black man who appears to be the church's gardener.
The man is so startled he can't speak at first. He begins to fidget nervously with a garden-hose nozzle.
"Frank. You are Frank."
"Y-y-yes," Frank says.
"Frank my name is Tom Ferguson, and I'm from the Department of Human Services. I'd like to—well, is there somewhere we can go inside to talk a little? Just a little bit. It won't take but a minute."
"No," Frank says. "What is it?"
"Well, Frank, as I said, I'm Tom Ferguson with the Department of Human Services, and I'm wondering is there any way you could get to Upper Cardozo clinic sometime tomorrow? It opens at eight o'clock."
"If this is about Charlie L., you should talk to that guy Rick."
"I don't know who that is, Frank."
"What'd you want?" Frank asks.
"Well you have been listed by someone as a contact to an early latent case of syphilis, Frank, and I'm wondering if there's anywhere we could go right now so that I might administer a blood test. That would save you a lot of time. And this is all in the utmost confidence."
"Here? No way."
"Like a men's room, or a bathroom somewhere?
"No, later. I get off at five. I'll let you do it at my apartment."
"Well, by five," Fergy says, "I'll most likely be tied up elsewhere. Just a bathroom, Frank. I'll only take a minute, and you'll be right back out here."
Frank drops the watering hose, turns the water off, and reluctantly gestures to Fergy to step into the church basement.
"Do you take care of this place all by yourself, Frank? It sure is nice."
"I been working here nine years."
"It's real nice, Frank. You're very fortunate."
They walk through the church's commercial-sized kitchen, down a long basement corridor, and into the men's room near the steps to the first floor.
Fergy has taken blood tests in crumbling apartment buildings. He's taken blood tests on construction sites. He takes blood on location whenever there's a possibility that his subjects won't appear at the clinic on their own.
Moments later, Fergy and Frank come back out. Fergy is shaking his head.
"I didn't get it. I forgot that Francine at the office took all my hoses [to wrap around the man's upper arm]. "She just borrowed them." He seems a little disgusted with himself, but he tells Frank that he'll come back to his apartment building after work and quickly take the blood sample. Frank seems relieved.
At the appointed hour, Fergy parks his car on Frank's street, packs his blood kit under one arm, and knocks briskly on Frank's apartment door.
But there's no answer.
"He's hiding' something, see" Fergy says. The man has other problems, he figures; it could be anything from bad checks to drugs.
"But I'll just go back and find him tomorrow at the church. And I might not be quite as compassionate then because he's caused me to waste my time," Fergy says.
In real health emergencies, Fergy and his supervisors have staged stakeouts. He's been out in front of someone's house at 7:30 in the morning to deliver the bad news. But Franks' situation doesn't merit that kind of attention, so Fergy chucks his briefcase into the back seat, surveys the city scene in his rearview mirror, shoves the Volvo in to gear, and presses on the next case.
When Fergy finished a case, he says, he walks away feeling "mixed emotionally, because you always want to do more than you're able to do. I'm sensitive, but I'm practical. People pick up on my positivism, and they respond to that. They see my caring for them as a bright ray of hope of some kind, an they're tempted to cling to it.
"While I feel for the people, I deal with on a day-to-day basis, I also can't tell them how to live or how to behave. Everybody's vulnerable. Everybody makes mistakes. So I can't openly advise the people I meet when I'm doing business. I can't tell them 'don't do this, don't do that.' All I can do is let them see me as I am. When I'm able to do that, reflecting enthusiasm and positivism all the way, I believe I've made a difference. Then I can walk away.
"And most importantly, I guess, I've learned not to judge people," he says. "People's ways and styles of having sex, I've found out, are enough to make your mind boggle."
"Now this guy I've had to chase," Fergy says as he peruses a neatly appointed avenue off 16th Street. The subject of investigation was treated for syphilis just after Christmas at Whitman-Walker, a gay men's clinic on 18th Street. His tests say he's in good health, but his sexual contacts may still be infected. Chances are good, Fergy says, that the subject had sex with someone over the holidays, which Fergy knows he spent in New York.
Fergy stops at Whitman-Walker every Wednesday afternoon after the doors are closed to the public. He scrutinizes the blood-test results of the men most recently diagnosed and decides which cases of syphilis are worth developing for contacts. The files are arranged by identifying numbers; only Fergy and two clinic workers have access to the names.
In this case, Fergy has had a phone conversation with the man he's looking for, but it wasn't very helpful. Fergy had wanted the names of the man's sexual contacts, but the man wasn't cooperative. He seemed nervous.
But Fergy's relentless. "Sometimes my supervisors say, 'Give up, Ferg. You've done all you can on this one.'" Fergy says. "But what if this guy's promiscuous? What if he's infected every man he's got listed in his address book?"
Fergy stops outside a town house, then walks up and rings the doorbell. A young woman in a jogging suit answers. She's the subject's sister, Fergy surmises. When she learns that the man he wants to see isn't in, he bows and asks if she could see that he gets the envelope. Sure, she says, no problem.
"I'd definitely appreciate it," says Fergy. She nods. He bows again.
If she opens it, he says, she probably won't understand it. But the subject will get the message and call back if he's at all conscientious.
Sure enough, the guy calls back three days later, apologizes, and provides Fergy with the names and telephone numbers of three recent sexual partners.
"He loved me," Fergy says flatly. "And he was very cooperative. I told you everythin'd work out."