I can still see Etan Patz’s blond-brown hair falling in his eyes, the puppy dog-friendly smile. His face was on posters on every telephone pole and wall, every possible place it could be seen in New York City, where I spent the summer of 1979. He kissed his parents goodbye, slipped out the door for school and was gone.
I was almost 29 and hanging on as hard as I could on to my youth and what I still believed was my innocence. I had been living in Austin, Texas, part of a dance troupe called Cross/Culture. I was between jobs, had a little money and wanted to get out of the scorching Texas heat. Three of us headed north in a beat-up car to The City to study dance and perform.
A friend of my boyfriend gave me a place to stay on the Lower East Side, just above Yonah Schimmel’s Knisherie on Houston, a block from Adam Purple’s maze-like garden in an abandoned lot and around the corner from the heroin junkies on Rivington Street. This landscape became familiar to me, my adopted neighborhood. Junkies notwithstanding, I felt safe there.
It seemed Etan would show up any minute, in just the way he had left. New York felt open that summer, chock-full of festivals, people sitting on their fire escapes, the smell of coffee and fresh bread and the Pointer Sisters singing we are family… He had wandered off and would return to his family and the cozy embrace of Lower Manhattan, both shabby and sweet before developers got their hands on it. Our dance troupe performed at Foto, a gallery on Broome Street, not far from Etan’s place. We drank iced coffee and walked the streets of his neighborhood.
But Etan Patz was not safe. In those days before Amber Alerts, his photo traveled around the country on milk cartons, the first disappeared child to do so.
I knew little or nothing of child abductions back then. I had no idea that within eight years, I would be an attorney; that first as a public defender, then a prosecutor I would learn many things about the dark side of human nature. But in the summer of 1979, I waitressed, took lessons at Nat Horne’s School of Dance on the West River and tried to angle my hips into perfect jazz moves. The Manhattan air was gritty but much cooler than the steam bath enveloping Austin.
The summer ebbed, but Etan still did not appear. I imagined him running down the street, hair flopping, on the way back to a homecoming and normalcy.
Now, this month, 33 years after Etan vanished, a man has confessed to his murder. He told investigators that he placed the boy’s small body in a garbage bag and concealed it under the mountains of trash that accumulated so fast in Manhattan.
I am no longer young, and I know more than I’d like about human predators. But Etan’s face is with me still, a reminder that neither I nor the country will ever be as innocent as before that summer. How perhaps we never were.