I remember that year pretty well; at least aspects of it…at least how it was before the event. Previous to that, you could ram around on your bike or hang out with your friends until well after sunset, and you could be a kid. Not to throw too much sepia tone over the photograph, but before that event there wasn’t a lot of fear of vanishing off the face of the earth. Strangers could walk up to a mom with her child, at a crowded shopping mall, and say something like, “Oh he/she is so cute, I could just take you home with me.” Back then, even if it wasn’t in particularly good taste, it wasn’t cause for immediate alarm either.
That all changed the morning that Etan Patz was taken straight off that New York street and never seen again.
After that, the change was immediate. Curfews were mandatory and were not negotiable. Little neighborhoods seemed emptier, quieter, and we stayed in our own yards. Think about it; we weren’t all that far-removed from another chilling event in New York City’s history, the summer of the Son of Sam killings, where David Berkowitz terrorized lovers’ lanes indiscriminately. You didn’t say things like, “I could just take you home with me” anymore either, not unless you were sinister, worthy of suspicion, or simply an idiot.
I couldn’t speak to how the reaction to Patz’ kidnapping played in Los Angeles, or Colorado, or Arizona. It might have been more extreme in New Jersey because it felt so close. It felt like the wolf was right next door, and at any moment he could come over and attack, and the truth of geographic distance could not really affect that fear because it pervaded the things you thought were safe and true, but maybe they weren’t. The car that lingered in front of your house, the neighbors, or strangers you have never seen wandering through this suburban cul-de-sac before could all be there to take your son or daughter away from you now.
It wasn’t until a few months later when the talk transformed from finding Etan and saving him to finding Etan’s body and putting him to a respectful rest. The “whys” shifted from “why would they take him” to “why would they do that to him.” And every now and then there would be a glimmer of prospect, or someone would see a child and report into the police that they think they saw Etan, and the cauldron would bubble again for a brief period of time. It subsided just as quickly.
I’m not so naïve to think Etan Patz was the first kidnapped child, or the first abused child, or even the first murdered child. He was the first to become, in some sick way, a celebrity and icon in a way that the Lindbergh baby never did. A lot of that came from the milk carton photos; in one way a brilliant strategy to keep his face out there so that people didn’t forget it. They forget things so easily. News cycles seem to provoke a collective amnesia over the population, so by putting his face on something that at that time everyone had, it was an attempt to break that spell. Quite literally, his face was in your face. “Have you seen me,” he seemed to ask.
On the other hand, and very much through the lenses of hindsight, there was almost a dehumanizing aspect to those milk carton photos, a desperate swing for the fences like those “Missing dog/cat” flyers stapled to telephone poles. You do these things less for effectiveness, because they’re almost never effective at all, but to stave off helplessness. You do it because you can’t breach the wall of the unknown, so you do the one thing you can, the one thing that’s left within your abilities – keep talking, keep asking, don’t let the amnesia creep over the town because, once it does, you can’t get them back. Unfortunately, most of those dog/cat flyers resulted in lack of returns. Your parents let you churn out those photocopies and put them up on the poles because they didn’t want to crush your hopes. It was too soon for you to become so jaded, but they knew. They recognized the body out on the highway. So there is a feeling that, while there was little else to do for Etan but to get his image everywhere possible, the effort made him something less than human, and the harbinger of the attempt was that, like the dog or cat, it was a symbol of demise.
As I write this on May 25, a day after the anniversary of Patz’s kidnapping in 1979, it all is brought back into sharp focus with the apparent confession of Pedro Hernandez. Police have arrested the 51-year-old New Jersey man who earlier implicated himself in the 1979 disappearance. It seems that the wolf might have been closer to the door than we ever could have feared (but likely, because Hernandez was from Camden, was actually even farther away. Funny how geography can collapse so easily).
Hernandez told police that after killing Patz, he stuffed his body into a bag, and then disposed of it in the trash, which was most likely picked up by city sanitation workers. Hernandez was not subjected to a polygraph test, and without a body or other evidence, prosecutors must build a case based on Hernandez’s confession. There is also an as-of-yet unnamed person who tipped the police off, and the veracity of their account will play heavily into what happens next.
There are some deeply disturbing aspects here that demand to be reconciled. That this should occur so close to the anniversary of the disappearance – Hernandez was taken into custody on the day of the anniversary, mind you – reeks of bad crime fiction, even in the face of overwhelming guilt and grief. If Etan Patz gave us anything in his absence, it was the cynicism to never trust the man offering the soda pop at face value. Is he that man? Is he some deranged person looking for the relief of celebrity denied him all his life, and only in infamy by taking credit for someone else’s crime could he secure his fame? It’s not an uncommon occurrence. Sick, yes but uncommon, no.
Since Etan we’ve had terrible revisitation, with Adam Walsh being equally tragic while Elizabeth Smart had a relatively better outcome. We’ve come to a time where we’re still horrified at what humans can do to the youngest and the innocent among us, but we can no longer say we’re shocked. We’re desensitized enough to be able to say, “Well, it’s a wicked world” and not sound melodramatic.
I do think sometimes that on that day in May back in 1979, when Etan was taken, a whole nation of children disappeared as well. They didn’t die, they weren’t abused, but when the haze of fear came over as it did, the people they would have become could no longer exist. They would have to be much different, much wiser, and by turns perhaps a bit colder too. Charitable behavior had to fall away from them because you just never knew if that person was going to snatch you up and take you away forever. And that’s why I hope the NYPD finally have their man; for the Patz’s who have lived all these years in the same place half-hoping their baby boy would return, yet knowing he would not; for the departed children who never had the luxury of a media circus to signify their absence, but just vanished like little, half-formed thoughts, relegated to the tombs of “If you don’t remember it, it probably wasn’t that important to begin with.” I also hope this is a conclusion for all the people that might have been had their innocence not been mortgaged by the fear created by one man.