He was just too young — with his eager smile and proudly worn cap advertising a now vanished airline — to view the world around him with the distrust that it deserved.
“He thinks everyone of all ages is wonderful, trustworthy and kind and a desirable companion,” his mother Julie Patz told the New York Times, just a few days after her 6-year-old son’s disappearance on May 25, 1979.
Clearly, Etan Patz hadn’t yet noticed, or fully registered, with the understanding that would have come, most likely, by age 8, the drug dealers who had taken over the entire western half of once grand Washington Square Park, an easy walk north of his SoHo home. Or the heroin addicts nodding off the benches surrounding just about any sandbox he would have frequented in lower Manhattan during his earliest years. He undoubtedly hadn’t wandered much amid the burned-out cars and buildings of Alphabet City to the east, or spent much time gazing upon the detritus — human and otherwise — that would have met his gaze from the backseat of a car driving up or down the pothole-ridden highway that rambled along the polluted Hudson River to his west.
He wouldn’t yet have endured being mugged, or groped, or flashed, or at the very least spat upon as he descended the steps to the subway — all rites of passage that other New York City children of the 1970s would at some point come to have shared. He hadn’t learned to avoid eye contact, to walk the streets forever alert to whoever was behind him. In other words, he didn’t (yet) view the New York City he inhabited as a “world of uncontrollable predators,” as the sociologist Nathan Glazer, born 50-odd years earlier to a very different New York City, put it in the now defunct journal Public Interest in 1979. He didn’t see his SoHo neighborhood as a sinister place, half-artsy, half-anarchic, as a reporter for the New York Daily News clearly did, writing of it at the time of Etan’s disappearance as an iffy place with “many abandoned buildings, winding, rickety staircases and steep airshafts.”
It was a place, like most of New York City in those years, where the wrong street or corner or store could spell trouble. For some of Etan’s neighbors, the bodega where, allegedly, an 18-year-old Pedro Hernandez lured him to his death, was precisely such a place. It had a “distinctly hostile feeling,” a 77-year-old neighborhood resident recalled to the New York Times last week. There was, it was rumored, cockfighting going on in the basement.
I somehow doubt that Etan, with his loft-dwelling youngish parents who were drawn to New York City at the precise time that many of their middle-class white peers were fleeing for the suburbs, was raised with the sort of siege mentality that led so many of us growing up in his era to divide the city we wandered in into “good” and “bad” streets, corners, shops, even people. We had an internalized topography of street danger and relative safety — and we stuck to it religiously, even if it meant taking strange, inconvenient detours to avoid a certain storefront, or subway exit, or a resident bum (as we called the homeless then, too annoyed, fearful and generally harassed to muster much by way of compassion). One wrong turn, a walk too close to a boarded-up building or dark doorway or demolition site (and there were so many in those days!) could, we knew, spell disaster.
The Patzes were not originally from the city, having moved from Massachusetts. The corruption and decrepitude of 1970s-era New York had, by all appearances, not (yet) taken up residence in all their hearts. Was this a good thing or a bad one? Would the magical thinking that led some of our parents to teach us to fear and distrust others, to walk around in a shut-down, eyes down — state of low-grade rage — possibly have kept Etan alive? It would be pointless to turn one family’s unique tragedy into an all-purpose parable about dangerous times, and yet there’s no denying that the general disorder of New York City life in those years created a level of chaos that made Etan’s disappearance harder to catch and tougher to trace.
The school-bus driver on May 25 was new on the job — a replacement hire after a strike had interrupted service for some time. He took off early from the Prince Street stop that morning, missing quite a few of the children he was supposed to have collected, then neglected to report his oversight, allowing the boy’s disappearance to go unnoticed for the entire length of the school day. Hernandez’s account of having stuffed Etan into a bag after strangling him and then leaving him, unobserved, on the street would seem incredible, were it not for the recollection of a then neighbor to the New York Times last week that there were “mounds of garbage bags” all over SoHo in the days after the boy’s disappearance — a memory perfectly consistent with the stench that many of us recall as having been so common in New York City in those years. Once Etan’s disappearance had been noted, it took hours before police began an all-out search — a seemingly incomprehensible delay that makes sense, once again, if we recall the massive force layoffs (coupled with a skyrocketing murder rate) that characterized the nightmarish nature of New York City crime fighting by the end of the 1970s. Even the fact that relatives and church members in nearby New Jersey heard Hernandez confess to the crime of having murdered a child and did not — until very recently — alert the police speaks, once again, to the very profound, fear-ridden and distrustful breakdown of civil society that stretched far beyond New York City during that time.
Chronic fear and distrust, hardening eventually into anger, even hate — this was a big part of the flavor of the “gritty” lost New York City that it’s now so fashionable, for those of us privileged enough to have survived into adulthood, to mourn. If there’s anything that this awful case can teach us — and, like most tragedies, there is probably no lesson to be drawn from it — it’s perhaps just to remind us that the lost world of pre–“helicopter parenting” that so many now romanticize was no Eden; that the frightened-parenting style that sprang, in part, from public knowledge of disappearances like Etan’s had roots and causes that can’t be smugly denied, and that the angry, fearful America that voted its way into being in the 1980s, establishing itself even in liberal New York City in the 1990s, also evolved, at least in part, because a certain kind of careless decrepitude had simply gone too far.