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.