Prince of Broken Hearts

Etan Patz

In an average shift, I’ll put on around 140-170 miles on the particular Taxi that I’m driving that night. Lights and corners eventually melt into runs, which melt into hours, which eventually melt into my 12 hour blocks of work. The chorus of sirens, traffic jams, and human obstructions that I’ll inevitably face will add some hue and tone to the composition of the night but once I turn in around 5 in the morning, it just becomes another pile of transactions on the receipt that adds up my fares and charges for the night.

It was with somewhat large fanfare a few weeks back that Prince Street in SoHo was blocked off with flashing lights and yellow tape. Most of us in New York were well aware of the reason for the extended investigation that the police and the FBI were conducting. What many were previously unaware of was the story behind the reopening of one of the city’s daunting and saddening cold cases that anyone could remember. Like an old wound that fully refused to heal, anyone that went by Prince Street during that week was reminded of the 6 year old that captured the City’s, and ultimately, the nation’s attention back in 1979.

Etan Patz set out for class on May 25 of that year, like any boy who was looking forward to the end of his school week. It was only a two block walk to his bus on West Broadway but somehow, he never made it to his ride or to school that day. When it was discovered that he hadn’t returned home, a frantic hunt for the child was undertaken, triggering a sizable response that was somewhat reminiscent of the Son of Sam episode nearly two years earlier. Before the internet and social media took hold as forms of communication, the evening news became the go-to source for updates on this story and the hysteria that this caused led to Etan becoming the first child pictured on the side of a milk carton. Kids were missing and exploited long before him but it was his disappearance that changed how society responded to this problem and dealt with it, even if it wasn’t the most prudent or helpful solution possible.

I remember when I was growing up how “Just Say No” was the hot topic for kids both in school and on the news, as everyone from the First Lady on down campaigned to dissuade people from using drugs. What was an anti-drug slogan would ultimately be seen as one of the first sound bites for millions of us that were starting to come of age at the time. Eventually, the people and cases that rocked the city and the country at large in the following decade were reduced down to the victim or the locale in which they took place. Adam Walsh, Bernie Geotz, Howard Beach, Lisa Steinberg, the Preppie Murderer, the Central Park Jogger, Crown Heights, and Rodney King became synonymous with crimes that sensationally became worse than the one that preceded it. Nearly all ended in trials, tears, and piles of finger pointing, with the larger issues of race relations, civil conduct, and respect for fellow man remaining on the back burner throughout all of the ordeals. By the early 90’s, the United States had become a more violent, segregated, and stratified society where certain groups and races were still unable to assimilate and fully participate in the American Dream.

Lost in the midst of all this was Etan Patz.

It was no coincidence that the year in which he disappeared also saw Kramer vs. Kramer win Best Picture. No, Etan’s parents were not divorced but much of the film focused on the fight for the child. By that time, divorce and the breakdown of the postwar nuclear family was already in full effect along with an accompanying rise in the crime rate across the board. At the same time of this malaise, the SoHo that had characterized industrial and commercial New York for generations had been accidentally been preserved thanks to Robert Moses’ unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway. Loads of cast-iron gems were saved from the wrecking ball or from massive alterations due to the state of limbo that the highway was in for a quarter of a century. All of these factors converged at the time of Etan’s disappearance as the area was in a state of rebound, full of artists colonies that produced such seminal creative incubators as The Kitchen. When those became priced out, the Soho of today took hold as Prince Street is now known for such haute couture boutiques as Baby Phat, Miu Miu, and Nicole Miller. The neighborhood at large has become the go-to high end mall when shoppers want to avoid the crowds and tourists that zealously flock to Madison Ave. in the 50’s and 60’s or to the bottom of the High Line. The old industrial buildings lend an air of grittiness to a set of streetscapes that’s clearly targeted for the now-infamous 1% but thankfully, there remained one outlet of the old ‘hood that has withstood the gentrification and upward climb in rents:

Fanelli’s.

Years ago, an ex of mine and I went there for dinner after running a bunch of her errands down on Broadway.The neon sign, old wooden bar, and pressed tin ceiling were a throwback to the restaurants that had once dotted much of the island. As we ate our meal on the red and white checkered tablecloths, I couldn’t help but wonder how much history that place had seen throughout the decades of surrounding change. I still remember the meal of chicken parmesan and our walk to the eatery through a part of town that at the time, I had hardly ever seen foot in but now, it’s obviously a different story. Like so many streets in SoHo, I cut down Prince to avoid the traffic on Houston Street or Broadway when the shoppers are out in full force. The police tape and investigators are long gone and once again, Etan Patz’s disappearance has been relegated to the cold case files as it was for so many years. On my way out to head to the subway with my girlfriend at the time, the thought going through my head that night was the same that I have today, as I yearn for the day when the Patz family can finally learn the truth and move on from their heartbreaking ordeal:

If only those walls could talk.

Prince Street, looking west from Fanelli’s

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