True Story, Issue #18

"Search Party" by Stewart Lawrence Sinclair

True Story, Issue #18

One sunny July morning, a grandmother steps off her front stoop and vanishes into Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. A young transplant to the neighborhood joins the search for the disoriented octogenarian—past pizzerias and halal butchers, Chinese pastry shops and churches—and considers the meaning of community.

From "Search Party" by Stewart Lawrence Sinclair

That night, I saw the photograph of Mary again, on the evening news, when my girlfriend Danielle and I stopped by her mother Millie’s for tea and coffee.  

“Yeah, they were talking about that the other day,” Millie said as she poured me a cup. “Those posters are everywhere.”        

Millie said everyone in the neighborhood was talking about Mary. In the five days that had passed since her disappearance, enough news and gossip had floated around to give a fairly clear portrait of Mary Joyce-Bonsignore. She had been a member of the parish for over thirty years; in one article, her husband, sister, and grandchildren described her as a kind, sweet, and tough Irish woman who had married a devoted Italian man. Marie Mason, her daughter, told the Daily News that Mary loved to dance and play bridge, and had master’s degrees in history and geology: “She was way, way ahead of her time in many ways.” I couldn’t help but notice the subtle shifts in description from present to past tense.

A timeline emerged from the stories. The previous Monday, July 17, had begun as any other Monday. Mary woke up early, got dressed in blue pants, a red-and-white shirt, brown slippers, and a straw hat, and then sat down to her breakfast. Meanwhile, her husband Bob went out to sort the garbage into the right bins behind the house. Within twenty minutes, Mary had stepped out onto the stoop. A nearby security camera caught her slipping on the stairs, catching herself with the rail, and then stepping down onto the sidewalk. Then, around eight thirty, Mary turned right, heading toward Cropsey, and wandered off-screen.

As soon as she stepped off that porch, she became a ghost. One of the thousands of people reported missing every year. In New York City in 2016 alone, the figure was 13,744. To determine which cases receive immediate attention, the police have a triage system: children under the age of thirteen, anyone lost under mysterious or suspicious circumstances, and those suffering from mental or physical conditions are considered special categories. These are the people for whom the phones vibrate, flashing Amber Alerts for minors and Missing Vulnerable Adult (MVA) Alerts for, well, vulnerable adults. In 2016, 396 of the cases in New York City were MVAs—the elderly, the infirm, those with debilitating physical and mental conditions. Mary fell squarely into that category. That Monday, after making sure she wasn’t somewhere in the house, her family reported her disappearance to the Sixty-Second Precinct, and the police gave the case as high a priority as they could: rather than filing a report and simply going about their business, they actually opened a case, assigned it to a deputy, conducted an investigation, told cops on the beat to be on the lookout, and spread their flyers around the neighborhood.

All of this had occurred before I even knew Mary existed, as I went about my regular business that week, traveling back and forth from work, running errands around the neighborhood. It was only toward the middle of the week, as the police investigation failed to yield any results, that Mary’s disappearance percolated into the general consciousness of the community. On Tuesday, Mary’s understandably frustrated family took more determined action. Her grandson organized the first search party that afternoon. A small group of volunteers canvassed from Bay Ridge to Gravesend, hanging flyers on doorways and lampposts and fire hydrants, tucking them under windshield wipers, stuffing them into mailboxes. Between the family’s posters and those originally distributed by the police, Mary was everywhere, and by Friday evening, everyone I knew in Bensonhurst was aware of her disappearance. And yet, despite Mary’s presence on nearly every street corner, she was still missing.