The Queens neighborhood where I grew up in 1979 was comprised mainly of Irish and Italian Catholics. There were some Jews scattered among the European immigrants. There were a few Puerto Ricans but my grandparents who I lived with didn’t care for them very much even though we frequently saw them in church.
I would hang out with all the kids in my Queens playground – color, religion, background didn’t mean that much to us as children. Not as much as it did to our parents and grandparents. We just like playing stick ball and riding our bikes recklessly through the neighborhood while the grownups formed their own little clicks.
But that was before Son of Sam. If David Berkowitz, the maniac on the loose who randomly choose victims without rhyme or reason didn’t change the hearts of New Yorkers, then Etan Pace and the pain we felt for his family undeniably did.
Back in the 1970s my family didn’t have Jewish friends. Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t a whole lot of prejudice, but did a Jew ever step into our home? Hardly. I never thought we were racist though I give that subject considerably more thought today than I did back in 1979.
That was the year everything changed. That’s the year our eyes were opened to the horror of two parents who simply wanted their child home safe and sound. To this day, I vividly remember how quiet my grandfather demanded the house be whenever a news report came on about the Patz case. My grandparents were on the edge of their seats every time Roger Grimsby of ABC News provided an update.
And it was always an update about nothing. Only the pain of the Patz family.
Yet something was different about the way we all observed the Patz story unfold. I knew that when tears would swell in the eyes of my mother. The way my grandfathers lips would harden as if he had just been punched in the gut and was trying to hide the pain.
To us, Etan Patz and his family became just like us. He wasn’t some Jewish kid from Manhattan. He might as well have been the Irish kid next store who I would walk to the candy shop with on summer days to buy our baseball cards. He was transformed – from a kid who we didn’t want to acknowledge to a missing son we all loved.
To many outside of New York, Etan Patz became a symbol for missing children who wound up on milk cartons. But for us, in our little Queens neighborhood, he was a revelation. We learned an important lesson through all that pain. The lesson of tolerance and understanding that didn’t exist before. We learned it wasn’t just the Irish and Italians who loved their children. We didn’t own a monopoly on that. We learned that other races and religions loved their children, too. We learned they felt pain, cried, and mourned just as we did.
Our eyes were opened.
Suddenly, it wasn’t looked at as so bad when my little friend from Puerto Rico came looking for me. There were more smiles directed to my Jewish friend, Jeff, too. I even remember a time my grandmother walked him home as dusk settled to ensure he was safe. That’s something that never would have happened before 1979.
Today, we still cry for Etan. But I pray the lesson he taught us will never be forgotten.
Robert Watkins is a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens in the 1970s. He is a frequent contributor to Yahoo! News and Finance.