by Gerald Russello
The red balloon was a new detail. In my mind’s eye, there was never a balloon.
When I was about three, I was almost abducted. I was outside a butcher shop on Bath Avenue in Brooklyn. The whole experience couldn’t have lasted long—maybe a few minutes until I was recovered. So far as I know, nothing was done to the man who tried to take me.
This was in the early 1970s, when New York City was tipping into disaster but had not quite gotten to the bottom. Brooklyn was an Italian enclave, just one of many ethnic neighborhoods keeping the city at bay as it started its million-person population drop. The Bronx had not yet burned, and the Son of Sam had not yet become the symbol of urban terror. The subways were filthy, the parks not for visiting, and crime was on the rise. For some, the city’s ethnic enclaves still held out a hope of safety and stability.
In those days, Bath Avenue was the center of Brooklyn’s Italian population. We lived in a tiny apartment near the butcher shop: my mother, my father, my sister (then about one), and me. The apartment had two bedrooms; my sister slept in my parents’ room. The living room looked out into a backyard, bare apart from a couple of clotheslines, and the view was dominated by a building covered in graffiti. My mother was also Italian, but from the factories of Niagara Falls rather than the proto-Goodfellas, pre-Saturday Night Fever of my father’s Bensonhurst. She had escaped one ethnic neighborhood at eighteen, taking the bus to New York, but had ended up in another.
In addition to the violent crime that was taking hold of the city—murders passed the 2,000 mark in 1972—people were also starting to panic over child abductions. The bulk of child abductions were, and are still, committed by people known to the child, usually a parent. According to some estimates, 250,000 of these occur every year, but the smaller number of stranger abductions only seemed to magnify the trauma of each one. The 1970s were filled with fears about pedophiles and what we now would call human traffickers, as well as Lindbergh baby-type kidnappings with demands for ransom. Enough cases were in the news in the 1970s to create to a movement to put pictures of the missing children on milk cartons, a predecessor of sorts to AMBER Alerts.
On the day I was almost abducted, my mother and father were both at work. My sister and I were with my grandmother and her sister, who lived together in a big pile of a house a few blocks away. My grandfather had a barbershop, where he ran books in the back. He was busy gambling away what little money he had, something we did not find out about until later. For a long time, I thought my great-aunt had never been married, that she just was always in that house. But many years later, I saw some wedding pictures and learned there had been a husband. He, it was whispered, had been an abusive husband. Her brother, it was also whispered, had driven him out of the house. My great-aunt never mentioned that she’d been married, but her brother’s wayward children were always welcome in her house.
Of the butcher shop that day, I do not recall much. I have an image of myself holding hands with a stranger on a corner, but this cannot be a true memory. The image is of me holding someone’s hand, from some distance away, not the view I would have had at the time. Psychologists refer to a period around the age of three as the time when a person’s memories start to form and remain in one’s recollection. Before that, we all experience something so common that it has a name: infant amnesia. No one really knows why it is that most of us cannot remember events that occurred before we were about two or three years old, or why we cannot remember our own births. Some think of this as a problem of ability: our minds have not developed to the point where we can form memories at all. Others think the problem is one of retrieval: the early memories are there, but our minds have overgrown them with later experiences and we don’t know how to retrieve them. This memory of me holding someone’s hand is retrievable and must have come later. I don’t remember being told what happened; I only remember what it was I was told.
In my current job, I spend much of my time exploring people’s memories. I listen to people tell me about events that happened weeks, months, or even years before. In most of the stories I hear, something bad happened and most people don’t want to take the blame. So they construct memories of what happened—out of embarrassment, to protect themselves or others, or to avoid getting involved. Or maybe infant amnesia never really goes away. We all perform hundreds of individual tasks, hundreds of actions every day; how could one remember them all? Even events in the relatively recent past can be forgotten, and memories one does not think especially important disappear. My job is to go over the memories of many different people to try to find a reasonable facsimile of what really occurred. Sometimes one detail sticks out that makes the rest of the story make sense and helps you separate what likely happened from what likely didn’t. But sometimes you never really know.
As I recall, my mother told me the story of what happened only once. My grandmother and great-aunt were arguing with the butcher. They were poor despite their house, which was bought by their parents with loans from friends and was in a steady state of collapse. We were poor too. We sometimes got free milk and big blocks of government-issued cheese from my grandmother, who had worked out some complicated plan to get more than her share at the food bank. Anyway, one sister, followed shortly by the other, went into the butcher’s shop. I was left outside, a hand on the stroller holding my sister.
When my parents came home, the story came out. My grandmother had come out of the store and had an altercation with a man holding my hand who said he was taking me somewhere safe, perhaps a friend’s house. That is the detail that confirms this was an abduction and not someone who saw a child on the street and tried to help. My mother remembers me being yelled at and blamed for walking away from my baby sister with some stranger. The sisters tried to deflect the blame, and suggested I had in fact wandered off. That would not have been like me: I was an introverted child even then, not one to act contrary to instructions. But walking away with someone who extended a hand, who may have appeared friendly, yes, I could see myself doing that.
In part because of my father’s concern about his family’s ability to watch me, we left soon after, moving to the other end of the borough, and my mother stopped working. A couple of years later a young boy around my age was abducted from a Soho street. His was perhaps the most famous of the high-profile cases of children who were taken seemingly at random. A police officer who was assigned to the case lived on our block. It was not solved until decades later, almost by accident.
When I mentioned it to her as an adult, my mother was surprised that I even knew about the incident. She had forgotten that she had told me about it, but her recall was quick, even after four decades. “The red balloon,” she said. “That was how your grandmother found you. You weren’t with your sister where you were supposed to be. She saw it bobbing down the street and she went after it.”
Published on December 3, 2020