505428_holding_handsFifteen years ago I was on the phone with my then boyfriend, when he said, “Hold on, I think the boiler just exploded,” and put the phone down. After a few moments, he picked up again. “I gotta go. There’s body parts and plane parts all over. I gotta go.” I was still saying What they hell are you talking about when the phone went dead. He worked at the Marriott Hotel opposite the World Trade Center and it was early and the story hadn’t hit the news yet.

Then we heard. And it still didn’t make sense.

Then we heard that a plane had crashed at the Pentagon, and I didn’t believe it.

When the towers started coming down, crumbling, and imploding everyone started leaving work. Everyone in the whole city was leaving work and going home or leaving their homes and going somewhere else. Everyone was just leaving. People had barely started their day when they left.

Except me. I stayed. I didn’t want to be on the streets with thousands of frightened people. I didn’t want to be trapped underground, crushed in a subway car filled with people who were panicking. I stayed and listened to and watched to report sand videos online, all day. I sat in an empty office for seven or eight hours and when I finally walked out at 5:30 pm I walked out into an empty city.

I walked across midtown Manhattan via 34th Street, up Broadway through Times Square, into Hells Kitchen. Like an abandoned movie set of NYC, traffic lights still blinked red, yellow, and green; walk or don’t walk. And there were no cars to care. The light of neon signs already starting to be obscured by ash. I don’t remember seeing anyone on the street at all, although I’m sure were a few.

I walked until I got to the west side men’s shelter where I had a speaking commitment for the 12-step group I was in. It had never occurred to me not to go – I had nowhere else TO go. Here was a room full of men waiting to welcome me, to listen to my experience and hope and my fears, and then to share theirs. And I did, and they did, and I don’t think we talked about the attack at all, we talked about ourselves because no matter what was happening we all wanted to keep whatever sobriety we had. We held hands and I walked out into the empty streets and down into the now empty subway and rode home.

Thinking About the Brownsville Rape

These are the facts, so far:

I can’t stop thinking about this, and following the details as they come out. He was drunk. She was drunk. Still, something is missing. Something in our culture is broken and I’m struggling to make sense of it.

I’m childless, but I still wonder what I would do if it were me and my child. Or me and my father. When I was raped I kept it a secret from my parents; I was afraid my father try to go after the man who had done it. That man would have killed my father and not lost any sleep over it. I did what I did to protect my father, maybe this father did what he did to protect his daughter.

Maybe he thought he’d be no help at all if he was dead. That they’d have to kill her too then, so there’d be no witnesses to the murder. Maybe he didn’t think at all and just acted on instinct–a gun in your face, running seems like a natural reaction.

She will have to come to terms with the rape. Rapes. With that feeling of safety having been ripped away. A trust in the world, shattered. At least one in every five women have had to do the same thing–figure out who they are after they’ve been raped. Figure out if they are the same person, or if they’ve changed and how. But, I wonder how this girl will process the knowledge and memory of her father–a father who only recently came back into her life–running away and leaving her with them, no matter what his reasoning was. I wonder how he will come to terms with the knowledge and memory that while he was running away from her, she was being brutalized. I’m trying to find the missing pieces of the puzzle that might help make sense of this whole thing.

Being raped at gunpoint by five men when you’re alone.
Being raped at gunpoint by five men while your father runs for help.
Is one worse than the other?

He didn’t seem upset, said one store owner, when he asked to use the store phone. Maybe that’s how he handles stress,  I say, maybe he shuts down, closes off his emotions. He wouldn’t be alone in that. Or maybe he was in shock. After I was raped, and my rapist had left the house, I called my job to let them know I would be late to work. And then I started to get ready to go to work. Shut down. Survival mode. It’s one way to deal with extreme stress.

Another store owner said the man was frantic and didn’t make any sense. Maybe that’s how he handles stress, he falls apart. He’s not alone in that either. When my rapist was still in the house, I crawled on the floor like an animal, the sounds I made not even close to words. I was frantic, and I didn’t make sense.

Did her father put up a fight, or did he run away as fast as he could?

What if it wasn’t random at all but some awful payback for something he’d done but his daughter had to pay for. Some drug deal gone bad. Or money owed. Maybe she was payment. I feel awful for thinking that, but it happens. People sell their children to stay alive, to feed the rest of their family. People do awful things all the time, to survive or for the pleasure they get from their cruelty.

The youngest boy is 14. He is four years younger than the woman he raped. He is someone’s son.  Someone raised this child in a way that he thinks this is acceptable behavior. This is a child who gets pleasure from his cruelty, from someone else’s pain, from dominance.

Someone pointed out that we do things in groups we would never do alone. That’s true. Maybe that’s the get-out-of-jail-free card that explains the 14-year-old. And gang rape is certainly nothing new. But I cannot get beyond that idea that someone, people, parents, or the state raised these boys to think rape is okay, that it is manly, powerful, and some kind of birthright they’re entitled to.

Except two of those boys were turned in by their parents when the discovered what had happened. Those two were raised by parents who knew right from wrong well enough to know their children had done wrong.

Where did things go wrong that those moral lessons did not penetrate these children deep enough so that this couldn’t have happened?


Why Avonte?

Avonte Oquendo, an autistic fourteen-year-old, disappeared from his Long Island City public school on October 4th wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers.

Nine-year-old Patrick Alford disappeared from Brooklyn in the beginning of 2010 wearing a red t-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. Jaliek Rainwalker was twelve when he went missing six years ago. Tatianna Lindo was fourteen when she disappeared from her Jamaica, Queens, home this past February.

Three hours after Avonte Oquendo was reported missing, bloodhounds were out tracking him. Three days later, divers were combing Newtown Creek and boats were deployed into the East River. Texas Equusearch offered up horses and four wheelers and ground searchers, drone airplanes, regular airplanes, and helicopters.  A command center was set up, and t-shirts—“walking billboards”—with Avonte’s picture on it were printed. The Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network organized community rallies and candlelight vigils. Hundreds of strangers have volunteered their time. The NYPD has invested untold manpower hours checking and posting flyers in all 468 train stations, every tunnel, abandoned station, and bathroom. Thermal imaging has been used to search the marshes.  There is a Facebook page, and of course, hashtags—#FindAvonte, #PrayForAvonte, #BringAvonteHome—and Avonte’s mother’s voice repeats from a mobile van, the slightly creepy, “Come to the flashing lights, Avonte.” There are press conferences, and psychics, and lawyers, and the inevitable notice of claim filed against the city–five days after he disappeared, although they have a 90 day window to file–with a rumored ask of $25 million.  And the reward money keeps climbing. It’s currently over $90,000.

There is no question that Avonte Oquendo deserves this much effort.

Everyone else
Just under 800,000 children disappear each year. That’s one every 40 seconds. Every single one of those children deserves this kind of effort. But, they don’t get it. There simply are not enough resources to put this kind of effort into trying to find every one of those 800,000 missing children. So, why Avonte?

Nine-year-old Patrick Alford is thirteen now, and still missing. Jaliek Rainwalker is eighteen, and they’ve just recently sent divers into the Hudson to look for him—six years later. Tatianna is still listed as missing. I didn’t know any of their names before I started writing this. I doubt anyone outside of close friends and family does. Strangers don’t know what they look like, you wouldn’t recognize them if you passed any one of them on the street.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know what Avonte Oquendo looks like.

Why Avonte?
What is it about Avonte Oquendo that makes him more deserving of attention, effort, and airtime, more deserving of all of these resources than any other child? The autism? Then where were the bloodhounds and helicopters when another autistic teen, Liam Rooney of Suffolk County, disappeared on October 19?  With the reality of limited resources, the thought I imagine is in the mind of every mother of every missing child when they hear about the helicopters, the divers, the vigils, #hashtags, flyers, police manpower, subway announcements, and the hundreds of volunteers: Why Avonte? And why not my child?


And now, the sidebar of the creep factor/ something is rotten in Queens
Creepier than the disembodied, emotionless voice blasting from that van is Vanessa Fontaine’s response when asked how she came up with that message: Hi Avonte, it’s Mom, Avonte. Come to the flashing lights, Avonte. She replied, “That is something I tell him when comes home from school. I always say ‘Hi Avonte.'”

Avonte disappeared on a Friday, and by Sunday the family had set up a Go Fund Me page (since cancelled)? Although they could have filed a claim any time within the three months, by that Wednesday they’d secured a lawyer and filed a claim against the city with the intention of a $25 million dollar lawsuit.

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That’s from Avonte’s older brother Danny aka KingDetrick’s Facebook page. He’s pushing on all social media fronts to find his brother. There’s his instagram, which is a carbon copy of his tumblr, which is a carbon copy of his twitter, which you’d expect to be a carbon copy of his Facebook, but he’s not really active there. Why hasn’t someone so focused on getting the message out changed the cover photos of his instagram,  tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook to photos of his brother. Where are the family photos, all the other pictures of this child? Are there just the two we’ve all become familar with? I have more pictures of my cat.

Want to ramp it up just a little bit more? There was a home video of the family singing Happy Birthday to Avonte, in what seems to be an apartment empty of all furniture other than the table the holds the cake, and the single chair where Avonte sits—oddly, wearing a shirt similar to the one he disappeared wearing—mouthing the words to the song while voices of his family sound anything but supportive. That video is  tagged @stephwatts – a television crime journalist and producer. Had the family already made a television deal when that was posted on October 19?

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#FindAvonte #LetsFindThemAll