Friday, April 20, 2012

The Disappearance of Etan Patz: Not Business as Usual

Etan Patz is possibly the most famous missing child in America and was the first to ever appear on a milk carton.

He disappeared 33 years ago after being allowed, as a six year old, to walk two blocks to a bus stop in Soho, an area in New York City that, though poised to bloom into the fashionable neighborhood it is today, was still very rough around the edges in 1970s New York City.
Iconic and heartbreaking

Etan's face was everywhere--newspapers, posters and, of course, the nightly news. The smiling, bare-shouldered photo of Etan is imprinted into the minds of New Yorkers of that time and became an iconic symbol of innocence stolen away.

According to Lisa Cohen, the author of a recent book on Patz, that innocence was replaced by a new wariness as a result of the events that transpired in May of 1979.

There are new leads in the three-decades old case now and Etan's face is now back in the news. During an interview yesterday, Cohen commented on the fact that allowing a six year old to walk two blocks alone in a New York neighborhood was business as usual...that it was "what was done then." She claims that the Patz disappearance was a turning point that ushered in a new era of vigilance and supervision.

I say she's crazy. And I thought so then.

While it was, doubtless, very different in other parts of the United States, New York City was and continues to be a world unto itself and -- in the 1970s and for most of the '80s --  it was a total hell hole. 

Rent a copy of Martin Scorcese's "Taxi Driver" if you want an accurate visual depiction of the Big Apple. Muggings were rampant, the subways were terrifying in certain areas and at certain times of day and the streets were absolutely filthy.

These days Times Square is a tourist's dream. Well-policed and home to glitzy retail, those who haven't experienced the "crossroads of the world" in the '70s would be stunned to know that porn palaces and peep shows lined the street and hookers plied their trade where happy visitors now decide in which tourist-trap restaurant to enjoy an over-priced dinner.
Times Square then...

As a young lady of 21 in 1970s New York, I learned to hold my keys between my fingers to gouge my attackers eyes and that shoving the palm of one's hand violently up against an aggressor's nose would, hopefully, kill him. We carried mace, avoided eye contact and traveled in groups after dark.
...and now.

It was in this city that a mother sent a small child out to walk two blocks and wait at a bus stop alone. I do not intend to cast aspersions on this family. They have been through the unthinkable but, at the time, I did not know a mother who would have allowed such a thing...not even in the quieter borough of Brooklyn where I lived and where children were still given a wider berth for fun and freedom.

The family's decision to allow him out alone was discussed in classrooms, at kitchen tables and around water coolers and it was agreed--evil is always looking for a moment when your guard is down and residents of a turbulent city in need of reform were, for the most part, aware of this.

Some people defend their decision saying a child must be allowed freedom to grow, to learn to survive on their own and I agree. But, as I used to say to my own children when they made unreasonably premature requests for freedoms they were too young to enjoy, "No."

I hope they find who they are looking for and do to him what he did to that poor child. As for his parents, I fervently wish them peace.


  1. It was so horrible. I agree with you. NY was awful back then. Its better now but you still have to keep an eye on kids at all times.

  2. I recently watched a Dateline episode about this case. I was only 9 when it happened and I remember the news coverage.
    At 9 years old, I was not allowed to walk to the bus stop alone in Cleveland, Ohio. I wondered why this boy was allowed to in a much larger city.
    I do feel for the parents and hope they finally get some closure.

  3. Agreed, Anon. It's a lot better now but you can't look away...and yet, it can STILL happen no matter how vigilant you are.

  4. I feel the same way, Michelle. No matter how you look at it, it's awful.

    Thanks for reading and have a ncie weekend.

  5. You are right it was scary back then. I lived in Queens and was a young adult. I had gotten mugged, pocket-picked and so on. I will never understand their decision but it wasn't my call. I do hope that they can get some closure now.

  6. I'll never forget this time, place and a boy named Eton Patz. Sad, sad, sad. New York in the 70's and 80's was a hell hole and your post brought it all back in vivid detail. It was no time of innocence then. I moved away from NY 20 years ago. I come back now to visit family and each time am amazed at how vibrant and safe the city feels. Times Square, the East Village, riding the subways from "the city" into Queens at midnight. No one rode the subways after rush hour back then. anyway, your post stirred many memories.

  7. What else can I say ? I do remember the case soo well, that it stayed in my mind all these years. And YES, NY was very dangerous back then, until Giuliani took over with his 0 tolerance, and cleaned up the city. I did lived in Queens, but now I'am in South America for the last 9 years. Here, right now we do need somebody like Mayor Giuliani to do a good cleanup.

  8. When our kids were very young some people called me overprotective when I wouldn't let them walk four blocks to the store. Now they're independent adults so I guess I didn't do them irreparable harm by my momness back then.

    When we were in San Fransisco we saw unaccompanied 6 yr. olds riding city buses to go to school. We were amazed.

  9. I've encountered some of humanity's darker elements at a couple points in my life. However, I was able to get myself out because I knew and was prepared to take care of myself (was also not a six-year-old). Rob spent his early years in Manhattan, loved it, but he would never in his life been permitted to walk that far alone as a young child.

    Now, working in an inner city school, I worry a lot about my students using the Metro by themselves after dark and walking alone. Especially the girls-they look so much older, very tall and developed, that it makes me nervous. If I had a car, I would drive them home.