Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Obscenely Catchy

What happens when you cross a dentist with a deadly disease?

Roger Freeman cares about his neckties. More than anything else he likes to talk about their inherent "beauty", their ingenious use of shape and texture, their "classy" use of color. There is perhaps nothing strange about Roger Freeman's extreme affection for his neckties, because, after spending thirty years as a dentist in West Los Angeles, Freeman has begun a second career as a manufacturer of them. On the other hand, we're not talking about the type of necktie one finds at Hermes or at the shirt shops lining Jermyn Street in London. Quite the contrary. Freeman's company, called Infectious Awareables, produces neckties (and scarves and boxer shorts and T-shirts and doctor's scrubs) that portray the blown-up cells of the world's most dangerous diseases.

On the surface this does not seem an advantageous idea. And yet, Freeman's little company, which sells most of its apparel over the Web, has done a brisk trade since it first began marketing its goods five years ago. (Volume has reached the "tens of thousands," Freeman says. He has long ago lost track, though most recently he has received a five-digit order from "a large pharmaceutical company." He says, "We're very much in the black.") Part and parcel with these commercial triumphs, Infectious Awareables has lately garnered a terrific amount of publicity. There have been blurbs in People and GQ and Jane magazines and articles in countless newspapers, most of which begin with bad jokes, as in "Want to give your boss gonorrhea?" And then - after September 11, when anthrax spores began hitting the mails - that publicity entered a fugue state. For the past two years, Infectious Awareables had offered a necktie with slashing rod-shaped cells in black and blue and gray and red and resembling, more than anything else, a clutch of scattered pick up sticks. It actually pictured what anthrax looked like under a microscope, and printed on high-grade silk. It wasn't long before reporters' queries - and, rather more unexpectedly, customer orders - came thick to the company's e-mail inbox.

All this attention has surprised Freeman. "It's unbelievable," he said recently. He was speaking by telephone from his home in the San Fernando Valley, where a freak February heat wave had lifted temperatures into the nineties, transforming the whole of Southern California into, perhaps, a hotzone of disease. No spot seemed hotter, however, than the headquarters of Freeman's firm. "If I had paid for all that PR, it would have cost me millions," he said. "I guess it's just because were so off-the-wall, but so timely as well. Here we had an 'anthrax' tie two years ago, and now, of course, after what's happened, people would punch the word anthrax into a search engine and our name would come up. Then we started getting all these hits, people got interested, it spread around the Web, and you know how that works."

Taken out of context, Freeman's neckties are, for the most part, unattractive. They're busy, messily abstract, conceptual: Ebola a vague paisley in purple and gray. Malaria like Aztec suns. Plague a potage of yellow-blue-red, a detail from a painting by Tanguy. HIV a grammar of rhombuses. TB a husk of repeating amoebas. Hepatitis-B the autumn leaves of Chernobyl. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of. . . It should be noted, too, that this beholder has always been something of a regimental man, preferring the simple, the preppy, the diagonally-striped. When this conservative proclivity was brought to his attention, Freeman responded with equanimity. "More and more, that's the way some of our designs are going," he said. "Our stem cell is that way. Polio is that way. . . The responses from lots of people are that they're surprised that our ties are so good looking. Begrudgingly - begrudgingly - they'll admit this."

Perhaps even more than the neckties themselves, Freeman cares about their context. After retiring from dentistry in the early 1990s, he wanted to engage in work both profitable and eleemosynary. (His company contributes five percent of its bottom line to medical research and education.) Before Infectious Awareables was awareable, its public-service charter was to produce educational films on infectious diseases - videos of the high-school health-class variety, but more "entertaining," Freeman says, more "tongue-in-cheek," than those sober reflections on human sexuality or automobile accidents. Then, in 1997, Freeman received an unlikely gift, a tie bestrewn with the cellular images, magnified thirty thousand times, of herpes simplex. So enthusiastic was Freeman about the educational possibilities of the neckwear that - like the mogul who loved his Remington shaver - he bought the company.

That company, part of a larger apparel concern, had actually gone bankrupt, had failed in its unorthodox haberdashic venture. Freeman acquired the business for a song. More than this, Freeman learned something from his predecessors downfall. "They just took these things and tried to drop them into department stores," he explained. "If you walked into Nordstrom's and saw a bunch of disease ties lying there, they wouldn't be a big attraction to you, I don't think."

And so it became Freeman's project to place his ties in a scientific, almost missionary context, which you ascertain the moment you link to infectiousawareables.com, where across the top of each page is printed the company motto. It reads, "Unique, high-impact products designed to promote awareness." Each article of clothing comes with a label stitched to its hem, giving a lesson, in fifty words or less, on the dangers of the disease depicted.

Freeman, sixty-one, has fine-tuned the pitch of a salesman's good nature, probably due to his years of hovering soothingly over the stretched mouths of his dental patients. He even looks like a salesman. He has a regal graying dome of tightly clipped hair and a bronzed visage, which has appeared from time to time on television, interviewed by anchorpeople. When addressing the topic of his company's message, however, Freeman's self-restraint sometimes eludes him. "Can I ask you a question?" he said over the phone. His voice was edgy with world-weariness. "What sort of angle do you see your story taking? The reason I ask is that its real important to me. . ." He paused, his words a bit unsteady. "I mean, we're dealing with subject matter that is some pretty serious shit. I want to make sure I don't come across as trivializing this stuff."

Over the years, Freeman has received many suggestions for expanding his line of germ apparel. Once, a men's magazine approached Infectious Awareables about the efficacy of manufacturing a series of STD underpants. Freeman declined. "But we've got some testosterone boxers," he said. "That we'll do." Other ideas have "ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Women call up wanting them on panties. Guys have wanted them on athletic supports. Then of course there are all the T-shirt ideas. And we've actually done scrubs. Lots of calls from people wanting scrubs. I was uncertain about putting these things on scrubs, though. When we did it, we made a little patch to go on the breast area." Evidently, doctors doing their rounds with the cellular configurations of vicious killer pathogens plastered across their chests might, Freeman supposed, prove too much for their patients.

"I'm just really careful about it," he continued. "Here's an example of that. I had a call one day directed to me. It was from a father whose son had died of the plague. That's right, the plague. In Iowa - I think he was from Iowa. It might've been Illinois or Idaho, I don't know. One of those states that begins with an 'I.' But anyway, his story, it just took everything out of me. I didn't know you could get the plague in Idaho. And I think people should know that you can get the plague in Idaho. Now, because of incidents like that, I'm sensitive about when and how we market our products. Some people out there might see these things and say, 'That's not funny.' I wouldn't want that. It's one of our biggest challenges."

Freeman often attends medical conferences to sell his goods, and he once set up shop at a meeting organized by the American Social Health Association, whose mission it is to educate citizens about sexually transmitted diseases. "They loved the stuff we had," Freeman said. "But then one woman comes to our booth and she's looking through the neckties. She says, 'This is funny, this is funny, this is funny.' Then she sees a tie and she stops. She says, 'This is not funny.' Which one was it? It was breast cancer. Turns out, one of her best friends died of breast cancer. Now, here's a woman who works with STDs every day, but she doesn't say anything about the herpes or the gonorrhea. The tie that makes her stop is the breast cancer. And I learned that when it comes down to something personal, and not merely the professional, that's when it stops being funny. That's the fine line we walk, right there, and a bit of human nature as well."

Freeman also writes a column for the medical journal Infection Control Today. "It's called 'Microbe of the Month.' What I do is I take a microbe, send a picture in, and write the column as if I were the bug. Then I challenge my readers to figure out what I am. From what I understand from the editor, the column has been a huge success."

"Our customers are a who's who of health care." They even help, on occasion, with design. "A researcher with the National Institute of Health, he sat down with me recently for an hour. We went over designs for malaria. He's a malariologist. That's all he studies, malaria. Talk about a geek. He's a Ph.D, among other things, and he had more letters after his name than I can spell. The malaria cell on silk, you should see it. It's really good looking. Disturbingly good looking."

"They are obscene diseases," he went on. "Malaria kills two million people a year. TB kills three million. That's five million people a year that die from those two alone. Most people in the U.S. wouldn't even know that, because it happens mostly in other countries. But the fact is that the microbiological world is obscenely beautiful. Some people like the stars, they like astronomy. But for me, it's the microbiological. I just think it's beautiful. These organisms were here millions of years before human beings, and they'll be here millions of years after. We're never going to beat these bugs. And the more you look into it, the scarier it gets. Yet I think it's fascinating how these little buggers work. And you're right, it's a paradox. And I guess that's what fascinates me about it. You think I get poetic about it, you should have heard that microbiologist, the malaria guy. He went on for sixty minutes. It was the same with a TB guy at Emory that I met. He works in a Level 3 laboratory, the kind of place where they need to wear space suits to work. And no one knows what these people are doing. But it's very important work."

"My mother always said, once a dentist always a dentist." But the rotting gums of Westwood suburbanites couldn't lie farther afield from the marketing of neckwear embroidered with disease-prevention dogma. "I slept through microbiology in grad school," Freeman said. "I figured, what do I need microbiology for if all I'm going to do is work on teeth?"