May 1979 something shifted with the disappearance of Etan Patz, a boy whose name you may not have known or may have only dimly recalled until yesterday when he was once again front page news in the New York Times.

Flyers appeared all over the neighborhood. His face in black and white. Son of Sam wanted. Etan Patz missing.

A 6-year-old boy on his way to the bus stop disappears. He is never found. There is no ransom note. There are no motives. No one saw anything. I remember finding the story awful and sad, but at the age of 12 I did not feel myself any less safe. He was a little kid. I had already crossed into the realm of independent travel. I had a train pass, a house key, and the wherewithal, so I believed, to spot trouble and cross the street, and the maturity not throw a Superball onto the third rail to see it sizzle.

Trouble was the man who tried to drag my friend into the divey SRO hotel, off Washington Square Park, at the corner of our two streets. The hotel was a place where the residents kept their milk and grape soda on the window ledge in winter to keep cold. What they did in summer, I don’t know. She fought him off. Trouble was pushers (no one uses that word anymore, do they?) in the park or a group of winos (who was to say they were homeless? Just local, capable of  boozy sentimentality or sudden rage, who knew?) on your stoop. The ranting man who rifled the trash cans at the corner, stuffing things into the pockets of the greatcoat he wore, year round, he was probably homeless. It wasn’t a word we used then. Trouble was a shocking story of some boys from my school who were abducted and traumatized in downtown Brooklyn. My mother refused to tell me their names so they remained shadowy and allegorical, part of a dangerous landscape that I would survive.

At 12 I felt invulnerable, neither a small defenseless child nor a woman, I did not fall into the victim category for Son of Sam or Etan Patz’s abductor. And because teenagers believe they are immortal anyway I accepted that the city had its perils but that life went on.

Unless of course it didn’t.

But I think it was different for the younger children and for their parents. Even if my mother had wanted to never let me out of sight at that point, it was too late. I was already out there. But for younger children, hanging out on stoops, going with a friend to the Good Humor cart, near the park, with the vagrants and the winos and the pushers, maybe no longer seemed like a risk parents were willing to accept.

With no explanation for the crime it could be anything you imagined.

Two things struck me reading the article in yesterday’s paper.

1) The image of them excavating the past as they tear up the concrete looking for the body. That in 30+ years, SoHo has so utterly transformed from what it was then to what it is now. If you didn’t live it, it must be hard to imagine that there were outposts in Manhattan that were silent on the weekends, where you’d have to walk for blocks to find a place to buy milk or some coffee in a styrofoam cup. SoHo, Tribeca, Union Square could be desolate. They are digging into the past, recalling a bygone era.

2) While all of this time and change has taken place since that day in 1979, and we can imagine its significance, and reimagine the unsolved mystery, and theorize about its impact on society as a whole, for the parents, it probably can feel like yesterday and it is probably just about their son and irreconcilable loss. They were unavailable for comment.


8 Replies to “Missing”

  1. I didn’t feel myself any less safe either. I remember passing his image again and again almost as a new campaign in the media landscape, part of what would migrate to milk cartons to be commented upon in the cafeteria. It was a story, with story relevance, and especially for a girl who lived farther uptown.


  2. Elizabeth, I think we (humans, not just you and me) have a strange relationship with risk. On the one hand, we hear some crazy urban myth or watch a little Fox news and we start reacting, on the other, we can totally distance ourselves from other kinds of risk. For you guys, Etan Patz was a downtown thing. For us, several years later, Robert Chambers was uptown, or more specifically Dorian’s. People at the White Horse Tavern were safe.

    No, as a parent it is the worst thing ever.


  3. Yes, as a parent, I can’t even imagine how unbearable it must be.

    The obliviousness childhood bestows really comes in handy, I guess. If Etan Patz had disappeared in my neighborhood, it’s likely my parents would have talked about it. The Robert Chambers episode did make an impression, partly because Dorrian’s had been one of my hangouts.

    Our relationship with risk is idiosyncratic, I suppose…. I wonder how a childhood in New York City (or a very large cosmopolitan city in a democratic country) shapes that relationship with risk.


  4. i remember that time. i will never forget that name, nor his little grinning face in the photo that appeared everywhere. soho wasn’t chic or safe. upper west side wasn’t chic or safe (plenty of SROs and gutted buildings). i will never forget how, 20 years later, in the early 90s, a homeless person sleeping on the grate outside of my building turned out to be someone i had gone to day camp with. (and don’t tell me i can’t end my comment with a dangling participle! young lady, that is an impertinence up with which i shall not put!).


  5. I too was 14 in ’79 and lived in the Village—my mom knew Etan’s mom, or at least saw her around the neighborhood. It’s so true about the Robert Chambers sordid saga seeming far away and the PAtz tragedy so close… I also remember that girl who used to go to Studio ’54, slept witha a bisexual bartender and died of AIDS after becoming an advocate–I tell people these stories, my childhood in the Village and I feel like it’s hard to convey –such a tumultuous times and yet so many wonderful memories. I used to hang out in the park with the various musicians and would go with them to SRO’s to hang out (never told my mom that) nothing happened — I have so wished for the family that there would be some closure (hate that word) but I too want to know–the thought that he might have died so close to his home and been buried there for 30 years without anyone knowing except the perpetrator made my head spin—thanks for posting this…


    1. Hi Darya, thanks for commenting. NY then really does feel like a different era. I would love to hear more about the musicians you knew — want to do a guest post? After college a friend of mine was an EMT and he let me ride with him one night. It was fascinating, scary and saddening to go into all of these SROs, a NYC I only knew second-hand.


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