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.
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.
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.