Another heartbreak. Each time Etan Patz’s name comes back into the news, I hope for closure. I was his neighbor, and, like every other kid downtown, it could just as easily have been me. Only I didn’t think that at the time.
When my father and stepmother moved from a dicey block in Chelsea to SoHo in the late 1970s, it was thrilling. I lived in Vancouver, Canada, with my mother at the time and spent my vacations visiting. I loved the neighborhood. Even as a kid, I knew it was a special place.
I keep hearing it described as gritty. It wasn’t, especially compared to Amsterdam Avenue or Union Square. SoHo was quiet; during the day there were active factories, art galleries and a few coffee shops. At night it was pretty empty, and the scale of the buildings, along with the fact that most of the kids in the neighborhood knew one another (there were very few families in SoHo at the time), made it feel like a perfect, secret city. One of the best things about visiting my father was that my younger brother and I were allowed to walk to the ice cream place two blocks away by ourselves. SoHo equaled freedom.
My father’s building had two lofts per floor and a manually operated elevator. Whoever came home first had to keep their loft door open and listen for the next person’s ring, then pick them up. I loved working the brass lever, even though it meant having to make small talk with the neighbors.
My brother and I had been commuting from the West Coast for four years, and eventually were allowed to fly by ourselves. Before getting on the plane, we were given Unaccompanied Minor stickers to wear on our shirts. The first time we flew alone, the flight attendant told us not to leave our seats until everyone else got off the plane. Midflight, my brother had to go to the bathroom. I told him he had to hold it or we would get in trouble.
But at the end of May 1979, when I was 10 and my brother 9, my father flew to Canada specifically to bring us to New York for the summer. First he sat us down in his hotel room and told us there was something we needed to know before we got to New York. He had a peculiar expression; I knew something was wrong.
“Have a seat,” he said, patting the couch next to an air-conditioner that spat cool into the room. “It’s Etan.”
I knew Etan. He lived downstairs from my father.
“He’s missing,” said my father.
The statement didn’t make sense. I wondered if my father meant Etan was missing something and he’d come to tell us we’d been accused. I looked at the floor, prepared to take the blame. “Missing?” my brother asked.
“He’s gone. He wandered off, or someone took him.” My father crossed his legs tightly. “I felt like you should hear this in person, directly from me, which is why I came.”
I still didn’t understand. “Someone took him?”
“He could be dead by now,” said my father.
My brother made a small sound like a cat. The air-conditioner continued to choke while everything else in the room froze.
Finally, my father said, “If anyone you don’t know comes near you and wants to take you somewhere, no matter what they try to tell you, scream bloody murder.” I tried to imagine yelling those exact words. Kind of hard to say fast.
“They’ll find him,” I said. “At the bodega or Jamie Canvas.” Jamie Canvas was the neighborhood art store.
My brother wasn’t convinced. “I don’t get it.”
My father put his hands behind his neck. “His mother went to the fire escape and watched him go to the bus stop. But Etan never showed up at school.”
My brother dug his hands between the couch cushions and looked at me.
“They’ll find him,” I said again.
“Not necessarily. There are a lot of crazy people out there,” said my father.
I got off the couch and stood in front of both of them and tried to gain control. “They’ll find him and he’ll be fine.”
My father looked at me and rubbed his eyes. “Sometimes things work out, but sometimes they don’t.” I felt I should wipe the optimism off my face, prove to him I was savvy to the grown-up world. But I also wanted to reassure my brother that Etan would be safe.
We flew to New York the next day. Police posters of Etan were already plastered around the neighborhood, and one was taped to the inside window of our building. These were the first reproductions of Etan’s pictures, but soon all of America would come to know his face. On the posters were photos of Etan with his big smile and blond bowl cut. Etan’s height and weight, along with police contact information, were at the bottom. In one photo he was dressed as a pilot, with an airline hat. It reminded me of the wings my brother and I got when we flew on Eastern Airlines. In another photo, he was shirtless, his little-boy shoulders on display.
My stepmother told me abducted kids were often forced into pornography. She said the police were probably going to look at magazines soon to see if any pictures of Etan surfaced. As she spoke, I tried to imagine I was somewhere else, a place without sound.
On our first day alone in the loft, I suggested to my brother that we go out for pizza. “What if someone out there is taking kids?” he asked.
“No one will mess with us,” I said. Our father hadn’t said anything about staying home, and this was SoHo, our secret neighborhood. I wanted to leave the loft and prove I knew my way around. Other kids got sloppy, but not us.
We took the back stairs to avoid the neighbors. Outside there were still press trucks and photographers. No one noticed us walk down the street.
The following spring, I had moved back to New York and was living with my father and stepmother in SoHo full time. A poster was still taped to the window of the front door of the building. The only difference was the diagonal “STILL MISSING” red stamp. Waiting for the elevator in the lobby, I would calculate Etan’s age and try to imagine how tall he’d be if he were standing next to me.
By then, Etan Patz’s disappearance had become one of the country’s most famous missing persons cases. Partly because it was never solved, but also because of his parents’ persistence. They pioneered the movement to put photos of missing children on milk cartons.
Each day, on my way to catch the bus to school, I would pass a spray-painted wall reading “We Miss You Etan.” Our building became legendary; people saw the poster, recognized the address, and spoke in hushed tones. When friends would visit, the poster made the frightening story the first thing anyone wanted to discuss. I felt a perverse celebrity living in the same building as the Famous Missing Etan Patz. “It’s super sad,” I’d say, “but the police are still on it. He was a good kid.” I got used to repeating the story and tried to sound like Columbo — hard-boiled, knowing.
Sometimes, I saw Etan’s siblings in the manual elevator. They were like any other kids; his sister had the orange backpack I wanted. I never mentioned Etan, nor did they. But I was careful not to call his brother by his first name because I feared that if I did, I might accidentally call him Etan.
Over the next couple of years, Etan’s “STILL MISSING” sign yellowed with age. One day, one of our neighbors was hosting a party (because it was such a small building, everyone was told in advance, since it meant the elevator would be tied up). The night of the party, someone took down the poster of Etan. No one put it back up, but the gummy marks from the tape were visible on the glass pane for a very long time.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times
Illustration © Joe Mortis