13.7: Cosmos And Culture
11:17 am
Fri May 25, 2012

Witness To Changing Times: The Etan Patz Case

Last summer I told my boys to get out of my hair, to go down to Washington Square and play. That's what I did when I was seven, and 10 and 14. Why shouldn't they? They looked at me like I was nuts. I knew they wouldn't go. I guess I knew I wouldn't really let them. Opening the door and letting the kids go out and play? That's not even in the realm of the imagination these days.

I called their mom to ask what she thought. Could the kids go down to the park by themselves? She suggested that once the nannies and young parents realized the boys where there alone, I'd probably be arrested.

The gas is out in my building this morning, so I went out to buy a coffee. I walked over to Prince Street. I knew there'd be some commotion. They say they caught the man who killed Etan Patz. Television types like to stand in front of his parents' house when they report the latest. Still, I was surprised to count six different TV-broadcast trucks; there might have been more. I don't watch morning TV, so I don't know if they were there to give live updates, or if they were waiting for something to happen. The crews were all standing around, most in jeans and t-shirts, with the odd one dressed up for the camera like a Wall Street banker.

I glanced up at what I think is the Patz' window. It was open on to their fire escape. I wanted to join the throng of people, to take part in a vigil. But it was no vigil. It was just reporters.

Suddenly the whole street felt like a stage set and I felt embarrassed for being there. But why should I be? I live here. Etan was my neighbor. I didn't know him, of course. (My brother says I did, actually, but I don't remember.) He was a little kid; I was bigger. In any case, we have people in common. SoHo was pretty tight in those days.

That store where they say he was killed? I used to shop there, even though it was off limits. Rather, I went there to buy beer and cigarettes, even though I shouldn't have. I don't remember where I was when Etan was taken, 33 years ago yesterday. But I know where I must have been. I was waiting for my bus to school at the next corner from where he was supposed to be waiting for his, over by the bodega.

And here's something else I can tell you: I distinctly remember being scared to go into that shop. Maybe it was because I was a teenager trying to buy stuff I wasn't supposed to buy. Maybe the fear came from knowing they were the kind of people who'd sell it to me. Or could it have been because it was the kind of place where a boy felt vulnerable, where you got the sense danger might be just around the corner?

Etan's murder changed everything, in many ways much more radically than 9/11 changed everything. We all know this. Amber alerts. Missing-person ads on milk cartons. But I'd like to know: how many teenage boys cried themselves to sleep trying not to think about what happened to Etan? Talk about terrorism!


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