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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

Vanishing in New York City

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There was a small and rugged stationery store in the 1960s on East 84th Street, where I sometimes went with Mom when she ordered Crane note cards on heavy cream stock engraved with her initials. I remember it well because it was the first time I saw an adult with Down Syndrome walking with his mother. Mom explained the disorder to me, and the statistics surrounding the probability of Down Syndrome for a child of an older mother. Mom was always perfunctory in her explanations, a straight shooter with no silver linings even when explaining genetic injustice to a child.

In the 1990s I interviewed a woman named Elizabeth Goodwin, who is the co-founder of the National Down Syndrome Society. Elizabeth's daughter Carson was born with Down Syndrome in 1979, when Elizabeth was a young woman. The doctors at the tony hospital in Manhattan offered to "disappear" the baby born to this "woman of means" after she was born; Elizabeth was appalled and took her baby home. So much for statistics.

On Saturday, my husband and I went shopping for new dishes in SoHo, the area of New York City so named because it is south of Houston Street, and one that, roughly 30 years ago, was a part of town known better as The Bowery, where one ventured for industrial supplies, a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz's delicatessen, or simply passed through to get to another part of town. My dad took us to Katz's on occasion, driving his black Cadillac Brougham through the narrow streets and locking the doors to ward off the "Bowery bums" who staggered with bottles of liquor in paper bags and knocked on the car windows asking for change. The area is lofty now, dotted with high-end retail stores and cafés. I was standing in front of Crate & Barrel when I saw the young man with Down Syndrome standing on the corner, flapping his arms hopelessly and pacing. I stopped and turned just as two men, Aidan and Andy, stopped and turned. "He's calling for his mother, right?" we said to one another. "He's lost, right?" Strength in numbers with certainty, we approached him, "Can we help you?"

"I lost my mother," he said with the desperation of a small child. "Went to a store. She's gone."

He wore burgundy sweat pants, a black turtle neck under a black down jacket, and white sneakers that seemed too tight around his feet, and his hands were so dirty that it appeared that he hadn't bathed in days. Nevertheless, he was clean-shaven, his hair was cut and his ears were clean. He was not unattended, yet the mustard-green fanny pack worn across his belly was empty: no wallet, no identification, no keys, nothing to give us any indication of where he lived or who he was. He merely knew his name: Enrique.

"What's your mother's name?" we asked.

"Mommy," he said. "I lost her."

I called 911 and explained the situation while Aidan and Andy attempted to calm Enrique and keep him from running off in search. I gave him tissues to wipe his eyes (he groaned that they were "filled with water"), and I wondered if he was crying or if the wind had caused his eyes to tear. We assured him that his mother would come soon, afraid to mention "the police," not knowing how he might react to authority. Ten long minutes later, an NYPD cruiser came by, and Andy ran up to their window. They were not the ones who received the call. This wasn't their jurisdiction, they explained. As they pulled away, Enrique (clearly spooked by the patrol car) sprinted into oncoming traffic on Broadway. Andy took chase, stopping cars with his hands as they came just shy of him and Enrique with screeching halts. It was like a Hollywood chase scene. And yet the passersby kept walking. Just another day on Broadway.

A good 15 minutes later, with Andy and Enrique now out of sight, another blue and white cruiser came with red lights flashing. Aidan and I explained that Enrique had taken off, with Andy in pursuit; Aidan had Andy on his cell phone, and now they were a good six blocks away, with Andy, breathless, still running after Enrique, who ran like "greased lightning." Aidan and I were also breathless, explaining what happened, describing Enrique, saying that we weren't certain if a mother really even existed but that clearly Enrique was desperate, maybe homeless, maybe truly lost from a mother, a group, just in general. The bottom line was that he needed help.

"When you called 911, we thought he was your lost child," the police said with the emphases on "you" and "child."

If you thought I lost my child, why did it take you 20 minutes to get here (sufficient time for a kidnapper to have already absconded with him into the anonymity of Manhattan)? Doesn't a man with Down Syndrome who is desperately searching for his mother deserve the attention of New York's Finest as much as anyone else? The interrogating officer rolled his eyes. Was Enrique (we guessed he was around 30, maybe even 40) simply negligible? Disclaimer: There are good cops and bad cops, good doctors and bad doctors, good nurses and bad nurses, good priest and bad priests, but just because people are in the business of dedicating their lives to saving and helping humanity doesn't mean they're all "good." Sadly, the two police officers who took the call were less than interested in a lost man-child in a land without promise.

The patrol car headed in the direction of Andy and Enrique. Aidan and I shook hands goodbye (and it was only at this point that we introduced ourselves). I went into Crate & Barrel, reluctantly turning over dinner plates and stemware in my hands, feeling helpless and way too entitled. About a half hour later, the dispatcher from 911 called my cell to say that the patrol car's efforts to locate Enrique turned up empty. Where was I now? Where was my child? I explained again that he was not my child and not a child at all but rather a man with Down Syndrome who lost his mother.

"Oh, well, then there's nothing else we can do," they said. "He's an adult."

He is and yet he isn't, I thought. Clearly, further explanation would be futile.

I've been thinking about Enrique since Saturday. I wonder if his mother died (an older mother, perhaps, as my mother had explained to me years before) and he wandered off, not understanding death. Or was his mother searching for him, as well? Was anyone looking for him? Would other people hear his cries and tend to him? Would a patrol car find him, take him, at the very least, to a shelter? Would someone determine who he is and where he's from?

I think about Aidan, Andy and me -- seemingly quintessential New Yorkers, wearing black on black, who became slightly less anonymous to one another for an hour until we, along with Enrique, vanished back into the thin air of New York City.

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