Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.
Look, tonight is the future, and I am planning for it. There’s this shirt I gotta buy. A beautiful shirt.
—Travolta, Saturday Night Fever
I first saw her photograph on the corner of Eighteenth Avenue and Cropsey, when I stepped off the express bus coming home from work. As I waited for the light to change, there it was beside me, taped to the lamppost—an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper with a picture of an elderly woman smiling underneath a white straw hat with an upturned brim. Above her photo:
Her name was Mary Joyce-Bonsignore. She wore a string of pearls draped over a loosely woven white cotton button-down sweater. Height: five foot nine. Weight: 140 pounds. Eyes: blue.
THE ABOVE VICTIM WAS LAST SEEN ON 7/17/2017 IN FRONT OF 8792 19TH AVE AT 0830 HOURS. MISSING WENT UNKNOWN DIRECTION BUT USUALLY TRAVELS TO 86TH STREET OR ST. FINBAR CHURCH. MISSING SUFFERS FROM DEMENTIA AND IS WEARING A SILVER IDENTIFICATION BRACELET.
I looked around. Nineteenth Avenue was four blocks away. (Before Bensonhurst was developed, the place where I was standing was a stretch of sandy beach known as Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea. The coast was lined with a series of docks called bays. Most of the docks are gone now, but the rest of the street grid was built around them; this makes for a counterintuitive system in which numbered avenues are separated by several blocks.) Cropsey is wide, quiet, and calm . . . for Brooklyn. I could see down the street a long distance, past both the used car and the Subaru dealerships. The most prominent building was three blocks down, an unexceptional three-story mixed-use apartment building on the corner of Bay Twentieth. Only a giant ad covering an entire side of the building—for Cammareri Bakery, old-fashioned brick oven Italian bread products—made it stand out.
I stared at that ad for a while. It was nothing special, but it emphasized that this part of Bensonhurst—Bath Beach—was much the same as it had been thirty or even fifty years earlier. If Mary was wandering around this part of town, I could understand her confusion. Walking down Eighteenth Avenue, she’d hear the familiar Brooklyn accent, peppered with cawffees, shuguhs, and fugghedaboudits, even if now she’d be equally likely, if not more so, to hear Mandarin.
So who could blame Mary for not knowing where she was, or even what year it might be?
But as easy as it was to explain her disappearance, it was harder to imagine a positive outcome. I came across the poster on Friday, five days after she’d vanished. All week, the temperature had hovered in the mid to high eighties. The prognosis for an octogenarian with dementia, outside in a heat wave for five days, was bleak. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. Maybe these posters were irrelevant. People have more incentive to canvass a neighborhood for a missing person than they do to take the posters down once what was lost has been found. Maybe Mary was already home on Nineteenth and Bath, watching Wheel of Fortune with her family.
• • •
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.
• • •
On Saturday morning, I woke up early and walked to the Starbucks on Eighty-Sixth Street. I went down Cropsey, turning left at the building with the Cammareri Bakery sign on the side, and got caught at the light a block up, catty-corner to the back of Saint Finbar Church.
The digital bulletin board outside cycled through the calendar of events: the Golden Age Club meets Tuesdays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; the Knights of Columbus will meet on Monday, July 24; on Sunday, July 23, at 3:00 p.m., a search party has been organized for Mrs. Mary Joyce-Bonsignore.
• • •
I didn’t immediately think that I would go. In fact, I felt a pressure not to. Yes, the news of Mary’s disappearance had rippled through the neighborhood, but was I really a part of that community? Not in the same way as Mary Joyce-Bonsignore, who was part of the long-established Bensonhurst community—from an Irish/Italian American family, and a member of a Catholic church that had been around for more than one hundred years. Her family was a lot like Danielle’s, which has been here, living in the same house on Bay Eighth, since the 1930s. Danielle’s mom, Millie, lives on the ground floor, and her sister Vera, Danielle’s aunt, lives on the second floor with Mary, Danielle’s ninety-six-year-old grandmother, who came to New York from a small Czechoslovakian village in 1935. Danielle’s dad’s family is Italian American; her great-grandfather, Antonio “Nino” Cecala, arrived in America from Sicily in 1889. (He entered the US as a barber, but in the US, he went into the grocery business as a cover while working for the Morello crime gang as an arsonist, burning down troubled businesses so they could collect insurance money. He later did time for counterfeiting, was paroled in 1915, and was subsequently gunned down in 1928.)
I have been in New York only the tiniest fraction of that time. I met Danielle a few years ago, while she was on vacation in New Orleans, where I’d been living for the past five years. We saw each other in a bar during Mardi Gras, and six months later I had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket to her city. Danielle, like many born-and-raised New Yorkers, still lived at home. For two months, I slept on Millie’s living room floor on an air mattress, and I first saw Brooklyn through the eyes of Danielle’s family.
After I found a job, Danielle and I moved to our own apartment ten blocks away. I existed on the periphery of her family’s world, though our relationship also embedded me deeply in the neighborhood. I assumed a sort of vicarious nostalgia for a Brooklyn that was fading into the past—for a New York vividly recalled in snapshots. Mary remembered live chickens in the windows of butcher shops. Millie would talk about how people in the neighborhood never locked their doors. “Nobody messed wit’ us. You know why? ’Cuzza the mob! Who’d be crazy enough to mess wit’ those guys, huh? Would you? No way. Fugghetit.” Once, when Danielle and I came over for Sunday dinner after a Yankees game, Mary said, “I went to a Yankees game once. I remember there was a nice Italian boy playing. I think his name was DiMaggio. He waved at me. I remember he was very good.” Then there was Aunt Vera, who told me how she had to take classes to drop her Brooklyn accent so that she could work on Wall Street; and how she watched the World Trade Center come down from her office, and at the end of the day had to walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge, with the noxious black plume still rising into the air, because every subway line in Lower Manhattan had shut down; and how, after she retired, her Brooklyn accent returned in full force.
Even so, despite this unlimited supply of New York lore, I didn’t feel that a few years of matriculation had given me any right to involve myself in what seemed a personal crisis.
Still, there were obvious reasons to want to help. It was, objectively, the compassionate thing to do. And in a city as big and anonymous as New York, helping a stranger is a rare opportunity to reconnect with one’s own humanity. And there was also guilt: I had seen Mary’s face a dozen times now and given her as much sympathy as a lost dog—a sad shrug, a moment’s consideration, and a few thoughts transmitted into the universe, hoping that she might find her way home. But along my walk to Starbucks, as her face continued to reappear, it became harder to dismiss her. And it became even more difficult not to constantly peer across the street or back over my shoulder every time I saw an elderly person inspecting a trash can for recyclables or an old woman with a distant look in her eyes. I couldn’t ignore that Mary was somewhere in this city, lost and alone.
By the time I got back to my apartment, I had made up my mind to go. But it wasn’t just because of the guilt, or for compassion, although both of those feelings had factored into my decision. It was mainly because I realized that, if I really did want to become a part of this community, I would have to do more than exploit the aspects of it that I loved. I would have to share in the suffering, the uncertainty, the reality that the world I had moved into was withering away around me.
• • •
The only time I’d gone to Saint Finbar was for one of their monthly flea markets, when elderly Catholic ladies pile hand-me-down clothes and incomplete dining sets on folding tables and try to sell everything for a couple of bucks apiece. Without the tables and the old ladies, the auditorium seemed cavernous. There couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen people in the room when I arrived, and not even enough chairs for that many.
Father Michael Louis Gelfant stood at the far end of the auditorium. He was on the younger side—one of the youngest priests in the diocese, in fact. He had a round and boyish face and wore narrow wire-rimmed glasses. His remaining salt-and-pepper hair was buzzed close to his olive scalp. Even from a distance, he seemed calm, risen above the fray.
Near Father Mike, a man was setting up a camera, and a woman in a smart dress suit stood nearby, holding a microphone. I recognized her immediately: Lucy Yang from ABC 7 Eyewitness News. She was speaking to Father Mike.
After he finished speaking with the reporter, he walked back to his chair at a folding table in the front of the auditorium. I overheard him say to one of the parishioners that the fact that the police had been unable to find an eighty-eight-year-old woman after five days bothered him. Which was why, as part of his duty to look after his flock, Father Mike had organized an additional search through the neighborhood.
At first, it seemed as if the only people in the room were members of different organizations helping to coordinate the search: the Bensonhurst Volunteer Ambulance Service, the New York City Community Emergency Response Team (NYC CERT), the Knights of Columbus, the NYPD, and the Brooklyn Asian Civilian Observation Patrol (BACOP). But by three thirty, the auditorium was filled with somewhere between 100 and 150 people. I was surprised when I realized how large the crowd was. But maybe all these people—most of them white, most of them looking to be over fifty—had turned out because they saw themselves in Mary: lost in a familiar place, wondering how the neighborhood they had known their whole lives could suddenly seem so unrecognizable. The Irish, the Italians, and many of the Eastern Europeans had melded over the twentieth century into a distinct Brooklyn community, and despite their ethnic and regional variations, they were nonetheless unified in their suspicions and their sorrows about how their home had changed.
Father Mike moved around the room, acting as the liaison between all the different groups. There seemed to be a distinct separation between BACOP and the others. A CERT volunteer would pat a Knight on the shoulder; a Knight would hug a familiar parishioner; but I never saw any of them walk up and shake the hand of a BACOP volunteer.
I don’t want to say it didn’t happen. I just didn’t see it.
Still, BACOP’s presence was encouraging, and maybe even a sign of progress, considering the seismic shift the community has experienced over the last twenty years, from Brooklyn’s largest Italian enclave to one of its largest emerging Chinese neighborhoods. BACOP’s assistance was a cordial gesture on behalf of the Asian community toward a woman whose own people often eyed newly arrived Asians with suspicion. But at the same time, as I watched Lucy Yang conducting separate interviews with representatives from the Knights and BACOP, there was no way to ignore the symbolism. The white man speaking for the Knights was probably in his late sixties, and wore a ball cap and jacket over a white T-shirt. His khaki shorts hung below the knees, and he had a tattoo of a rose wrapped around a dagger on his right calf. Most of the Knights were his age. The five or six BACOP volunteers were all young and tall and broad-shouldered, arms crossed against impressive pectorals. Compared to the Knights, they looked like an elite unit. And here they were, lending their help in the effort to find a frail, elderly Irish woman, literally lost in her own neighborhood.
BACOP itself has been around only since 2014. It began in nearby Sunset Park, where a more solidified Brooklyn Chinatown has emerged. A man named Louie Lou spearheaded the initial effort, modeling the patrol after the Shomrim, the watch group of Orthodox Jewish communities across the country. In both cases, these organizations arose to bridge the gap between civilians and the NYPD. BACOP and the Shomrim could meet the linguistic, social, and cultural needs of their respective people in ways that even the best-intentioned cop or fireman might not. Eventually, BACOP expanded into other parts of Brooklyn, including Bensonhurst—an expansion that coincided with, and was in part dependent on, the concurrent contraction of the Italian community and the waning political influence of its network of societies, both licit and illicit.
The conduit between those factions, on this occasion, was Father Mike. I wondered whether he saw his role not so much as building up Saint Finbar’s next generation of devoted Roman Catholic Italian/Irish Americans but as shepherding one of its last safely through the end years of an epoch in New York history.
He called for the attention of the room.
“There are crazy people in every neighborhood, OK?” Father Mike said. “So just be mindful as you look. No need to get into an argument with anyone, ’cuz then we’d have to come over there and help you out, and that’s not what we wanna do.” He spoke with a cadence and a tone that I’d become familiar with as I got to know Danielle’s family. It’s a direct, no-bullshit way of speaking that somehow makes a person seem like the toughest person in the world, and also like your closest confidant.
“Mary’s family’s here with us—her daughter, her grandson.” Father Mike gestured to his right. I looked over and saw Marie, who stood motionless, a Brooklyn bob of dirty-blonde hair framing her face, half of which was concealed behind a pair of large, dark-lensed sunglasses. Beside her, the grandson, Conor Coyne, a big man with short hair, stood almost militantly. He looked like a bouncer; I could easily imagine him standing at the entrance of a pub, arms crossed, chin up as he looked down at me and asked for ID. But as he stood in Saint Finbar, his chin was tucked in, his eyes searching the floor. His posture betrayed some exhaustion, and perhaps despair.
“They have been searching,” Father Mike continued, “but you know, when you’re searching for something for so long, you tend to maybe . . . overlook. Mary could be in somebody’s house, sitting at the front window having tea, and she has no idea where she is. Mary could be in a medical emergency, under a tree or in a bush somewhere, and not able to respond . . . at all.”
At all seemed to hang in the air for a moment.
“If there is any problem,” he went on, “call us. We will get to you faster than the Six-Two,” he said, referring to the precinct. “I know, ’cuz I have God on my side. Trust me, I can do all things.”
• • •
I ended up in Finbar 3, a group with twelve other people, mainly stragglers. Our group didn’t include anyone from CERT, BACOP, or the Knights of Columbus—just regular parishioners, come together to do their part, and me. We had a retired cop and his wife; another retired man, unknown profession; an older Eastern European woman; two middle-aged women; and a cadre of younger teenagers, including a lanky girl who had been passing out flyers as people arrived. A CERT volunteer handed us a form to document our search—to check off the streets we had examined and note anything strange we might see—and a map of the parish, divided into sectors. Our sector was bordered on the north by Twentieth Avenue, on the south by Twenty-Fifth Avenue, and to the east by Eighty-Sixth Street.
We spent a few confused moments standing around, scrutinizing the map to figure out the best way to proceed. Then we left the church and started walking down Bath Avenue. The heat wave still hadn’t broken, but at least clouds had rolled in, providing a reprieve. I walked at the front of the group alongside the retired cop. He was stout, slightly shorter than me.
I introduced myself to his wife, who was walking behind him. “Are you from the parish?” she asked. “No,” I answered, “but I went to Jesuit school,” which seemed like an appropriate thing to say. After all, as soon as I began to speak, it was clear that I wasn’t from Bensonhurst, or any other part of Brooklyn, for that matter. Of course, coming from somewhere else is nothing special in Bensonhurst; really, it was the fact that I came from somewhere else in the United States that singled me out.
So I said that I went to Jesuit school so that the ex-cop’s wife could find some sort of connection with me, if not in region than in religion (I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t Catholic). I told her about Danielle, about how I had all but married into a good, local Italian Czech family that had been on Bay Eighth since the thirties.
“We live on Bay Eighth!” the ex-cop said. “Down by Shore.”
That was a little ways down from Danielle’s family, and they didn’t know them. But the newly discovered proximity helped bind me closer to the group than I might otherwise have been able to get. Still, it didn’t matter how much I flashed my Brooklyn bona fides; I was a stranger.
“How come she couldn’t come out?” asked the ex-cop’s wife, referring to Danielle.
“Her mom’s got a broken arm, so she went over there to help her nana with the sauce,” I answered. It was the right answer; the ex-cop’s wife nodded her head in approval. And it was true: Millie had broken her arm recently after tripping and falling when she walked out of a grocery store, and Danielle was asked to come by a little early to help with the Sunday dinner since Millie couldn’t really lift any pots or maneuver much with her arm in a sling. But even if Danielle hadn’t gone over to help, she still wouldn’t have come with me.
“There’s no point,” she’d said to me on Saturday. “You think you can find her if the cops can’t?”
As our group walked the blocks to our sector, the languages on the businesses’ signs marked the shifts in the makeup of the neighborhood. Bath Avenue south of Bay Twenty-Second where the Sixty-Second Precinct is located, is where you start to see an Arabic community coming together. Right across from the precinct is the Muslim American Society. Women in burqas shepherded their children up and down the avenue, the little girls’ heads wrapped in colorful hijabs, the boys with kufis or other caps, sometimes wearing loose white robes, but often jeans and Nike shirts. The scent of the next few blocks was patchouli, roasted lamb, rotis. And these shops were mixed in with Chinese restaurants, Guatemaltecas, and old-school Italian restaurants like Pino’s Pizza. But the farther you walked down Bath toward Coney Island, the less likely you were to see Italian places. The sight of these different stores, with signs in languages that were neither English nor Italian, elicited heavy sighs from some of the people in my group. This did not look like their home, perhaps not even their country. The Bensonhurst they knew was not a place of noodle shops or halal markets. The real Bensonhurst was home to the Feast of Santa Rosalia and La Bella Marketplace and one after another salumeria. And despite the fact that the place they knew and loved was in and of itself an Italian import, it had nonetheless morphed into what they understood as “American.”
• • •
We split up into two groups, one for each side of the street. All the younger children, the elderly woman, and one of the middle-aged women took one side, and on my side were the ex-cop, his wife, the other middle-aged woman, and the retired man. We peered down driveways, under hydrangea bushes, behind trash cans, and into crawl spaces and every crevice of every brownstone, semidetached house, apartment building, and the few surviving Dutch Colonial and Victorian homes. Our sector was a study in midcentury Brooklyn architecture. Most of the apartment buildings had gone up in the thirties and seemed plain at a glance, but evidence of the art deco movement, in its waning years by the time Bensonhurst had been developed, persevered: geometric shapes, streamlined designs, absinthe-green crown moldings, and orange brickwork. Architects had used these design elements to entice the middle class to move into these developing neighborhoods. In the same spirit, the entryways for many of the apartment complexes featured Roman columns and arcs, with Egyptian griffins carved into the stone. Even the semidetached homes had a sense of adopted European style, catering to the ambitions of the petite bourgeoisie, though time had eroded some of its pseudo-sophistication.
Many of the old brownstones have chrome gates and marble (or concrete) lion statues, or Roman cherubim birdbaths. Now, some of the lions are painted gold, often a sign that a Chinese family has moved in, but a divinity in the front yard (usually Christ, the Virgin Mary or Saint Thomas Aquinas) signals that a home is still Italian territory. I had already seen several of these on the block before we came across Saint Anthony’s Society Hall, another vestige of the era of Italian dominance and one of the few places where people from the neighborhood still speak Italian. I’ve heard it at the parade for the Feast of Saint Anthony—which used to gather thousands of devout viewers, but now draws little more than the immediate relatives of its participants.
“Saint Anthony!” the ex-cop exclaimed as we walked by, pointing his thick index finger at a life-sized statue of the hall’s namesake in the front yard. “Patron saint of the lost.” I had already gone ahead before I noticed that the rest of the group had stopped. I turned around to find them all facing the statue and bowing their heads.
I watched as the group offered silent prayers to the patron saint of the lost. They clutched crucifixes strung around their necks, they genuflected, they uttered incantations, hoping Saint Anthony might shed some light on the disappearance of Mary Joyce-Bonsignore.
• • •
One of the small pleasures of Bensonhurst is the sense that you are at once deeply embedded within Brooklyn while still being far removed from every other part of the borough. You are in the flyover country between Park Slope and Coney Island. It is still, as Whitman once described all of Brooklyn, a “borough of homes and churches.”
It can be jarring to walk through the neighborhood and arrive at Eighty-Sixth Street, much of which runs beneath the highline. The D and N trains chug and screech overhead, moving along the artery connecting us to everything that is Brooklyn, Manhattan, New York. The surrounding neighborhood is the flesh and pulp, the meat. As our two groups rejoined at Eighty-Sixth and took a moment to fill out our search sheet, I stared at the highline. I wondered if Mary might’ve wandered up and onto the platform, one small cell in the lifeblood of New York, zooming beyond Brooklyn into the city’s other major organs. The cops and her family had said she didn’t have any money or a MetroCard when she disappeared, but what if she approached the window at the station and pleaded with the man behind the glass to let her through? What if he hit the buzzer and opened the emergency door, granting her passage anywhere from Coney Island to the Bronx?
I looked back down the street. Just down the block from where I was standing, I could see Lenny’s, the same pizza place where, in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta stepped up to the window and said “Gimme two,” and then swaggered down the block with his well-coiffed hair, his broad open polyester collar, and two slices of cheese pizza—stacked. Inside Lenny’s, opposite the counter, there still hangs an autographed picture of Travolta, biting into his slice.
Maybe Lenny’s will still be here in another decade. Maybe it will last only another five years, or maybe only six months. Even in the few years I’ve been around, I’ve seen several delis transform into dumpling houses. Just down the way there used to be an old Italian boxing gym; now it’s a computer repair shop. The gym has been erased from the community’s collective memory, save for those who sparred in that ring, or watched local kids unleash their worst impulses against each other in a controlled setting.
I must’ve zoned out, because my senses came back to me midway through an argument between the older people in our group, who were debating whether it was worth it to check the Chinese businesses on the block.
“I doubt she’d be in any of ’em.”
“Yeah, but still, she’s not in her right mind. She could be anywhere.”
We decided it would be best to go into each business, if only to ask the owners to let us put up flyers. The lanky teenage girl handed me a small stack of flyers and then walked away with the rest. I entered a Chinese bakery. The inside was sweltering. There was a line of tables along one side of the room, with elderly Chinese men and women sitting, eating pastries, drinking hot tea. A TV tuned into a news broadcast in Mandarin. I stood in the middle of the store for a moment, flyers clutched in one hand.
I turned my head to the left and saw a young woman behind the pastry counter.
“Hi. I’m a . . . I’m part of a search party—” I stopped, sweat beading on my neck. Then I remembered the flyer in my hand. I pointed at the woman in the photo. “This woman—she went missing a few days ago, and we’re going all over the neighborhood trying to find her, and I was just wondering . . .”
The young woman shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together. I suspected that this whole explanation might have gone beyond the English she encountered in the typical pastry transaction. In Bensonhurst, where most of the Chinese population are first- and second-generation immigrants, it is not uncommon for people not to speak much English. Even among the remaining Italians in the neighborhood, there are still twenty thousand native speakers. Language tends to linger long after the homeland has been left behind.
“We’re wondering if, by any chance, anyone might have seen this woman. She’s missing.”
She continued shaking her head.
“Sorry,” she said.
I thanked her and left the bakery.
We had mixed luck. One person took the flyer, but I think she didn’t know what to do with it. But I felt as if I could understand the hesitancy. We were strangers, walking in, waving flyers and asking questions. I could see how, considering any potential linguistic or cultural barriers, we might come off as intimidating. Still, the ex-cop’s wife and the other woman in my group suspected that the frigid reception was malicious.
“They’re just not very helpful,” one of them sighed. “I mean, OK, sure. They don’t speak much English. But you know what? Neither did my parents or my grandparents, but when people came up to them asking questions, they’d listen and stay there long enough to figure out what you were saying.”
“Not helpful at all.”
At several moments in our search, I’d overheard snippets of the women’s conversation. The harder they were to hear, the more it seemed as if what they were saying was tinged with that xenophobic anxiety that is the backbeat of American life. We passed by dozens of houses with Asian families sitting on the stoops, smoking cigarettes, barbecuing chicken with their kids, leaning in doorways with the smell of ginger, garlic, and oil emanating from the kitchens. “It just breaks my heart,” one of the women would say from time to time. “It just ain’t what it used to be.” And that anxiety only deepened every time we passed a realtor’s sign with a Chinese name on it. To some people in my group, those signs meant one more Italian, Jew, or, hell, even a Ukrainian had either moved to Staten Island or died. It meant one more single-family residence converted into an apartment for who knows how many people. They believed it meant zoning code violations and the destruction of the fabric of the neighborhood, which had been woven over the previous sixty years. They believed it was the end.
• • •
“You’d smell her before you saw her,” the ex-cop told me.
He and I had gone down a strange, quasi-sunken passageway in one of the apartment complexes. The first assault was a rank odor. “Definitely not a body,” the ex-cop noted. “People who haven’t experienced what that smells like, they uh, might not know what to expect. It can’t be explained, but you know when it’s nearby.”
In this case, we were just smelling old garbage. The corridor led to a run-down courtyard. Stained mattresses, a glistering pathway of broken beer bottles. Here and there a broken window, two untamed flower beds sprouting diapers and fast-food wrappers. Out the other end, we found a space behind the apartment complex. It was the type of place I could imagine finding a body, but on this occasion, it was empty.
We’d been searching for more than two hours by that point, up and down each street, checking the blocks off on the clipboard, and we hadn’t found anything yet. The energy of our group had begun to wane. The youngest were inattentive; the oldest, sore. The ex-cop was still a ball of energy, but he was also a realist, and he and the older women were now vocalizing their doubt that we would find anything. We’d transformed from a search party to a neighborhood watch, a walking bridge club, complete with gossip and talk of a birthday party that some in our group would have to leave early to attend.
The air had cooled significantly as the sun sank to kiss the rooftops of the squat apartment buildings. The shutters had come down over the storefronts of Bath Avenue. One of the last shops to remain open was a dog-grooming parlor. When I first walked in, the woman didn’t notice me. She had her blow-dryer trained on the amber hair of a freshly washed Shiba Inu. I waited while she finished, looking around the small space in front of the counter, and at the photos of dogs with ears perked up, tongues lolling, eyes staring off in the distance, far beyond the camera lens. The blow-dryer cut off and wound down, and I turned back around to face the dog groomer. She had long brown hair, appeared to be somewhere around her late thirties.
As I gave her my pitch, her expression shifted from mild annoyance at a late customer to tired sympathy, and she placed one hand on the back of her neck and leaned against the counter. “Oh, is that that poor lady went missing?” She peered out the door, as if Mary might suddenly pass by. “No, sorry, I’m afraid I haven’t seen her.”
I asked if I could put a flyer up in the window.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, “but I think I already have one.”
I checked outside. She did, but it was one of the older flyers. I told her mine was more recent.
“Yeah, go ’head,” she said. “I hope they find her.” Then she pointed at another poster hanging in the window. “My friend’s daughter’s been missing for over a year.”
I examined the photo. The girl was eleven years old. The photo was a class picture. The girl had clearly been meticulously made up for picture day, long brunette hair cascading down her left shoulder, stock blue backdrop. Missing for over a year. I wondered about her parents, still holding fast to the thin possibility that one day she would be back. It didn’t matter that what they might hope to find after years of searching could only become more tragic and heartbreaking.
I searched for some appropriate thing to say, but couldn’t find the words. So I just sighed, thanked the woman, and left.
There was no semblance of urgency left in our group. Even though the chance that Mary could be in any place we hadn’t yet searched was the same as it had been in every place we’d already searched, we’d been worn down by a losing streak.
Mary was not a missing little girl. Her disappearance had come at what could have very well been the natural end of her life. Even if she was never found, she would soon be put to rest in the minds of her family and friends. Our group had begun to steel our thoughts for the inevitable.
The last area we searched was along a stretch of nursing homes on Shore Parkway. We split the adults up to go into each of the homes. The ex-cop and I walked into the courtyard of one of the homes, which was basically a concrete patio with a couple of benches. Ten or twelve geriatric individuals ambled around. They sat on the benches smoking cigarettes or leaning against the fence, staring out at nothing. None of them spoke as we passed by. When we went into the building and up to the counter, we showed the nurse the poster and asked if she’d seen anything. She was concerned, but hadn’t seen or heard anything.
Outside, we rejoined the rest of the group and headed back toward the church. As we walked past the nursing home, the ex-cop turned to his wife.
“I want you to kill me if I ever end up like those people.”
I smiled nervously, but wiped it from my face when I saw that his eyes were fixed on his wife in all seriousness.
“That’s not living.”
We walked from Shore to Bath Avenue, stopping to ask a few of the people on the way if they had seen anything. An old Chinese man puffed his cigarette as he held the poster in his hand. “No,” he said, in fine English, and he handed the poster back. “Good luck.”
The next house over, a couple of young Italian guys walked up to us. “We’re trying to find this woman,” one of the women in our group told them.
“Oh, yeah, God. Yeah, we seen her on channel six, right?” answered one of the guys. He had on a wifebeater and a Mets cap, and he nudged his friend’s shoulder as he spoke. His friend, a bigger guy in a Yankees shirt and basketball shorts, nodded his head.
“Yeah, what’s ’er name? Mary?”
“Yeah,” the woman answered. “We been looking all over the neighborhood for her.”
“It’s terrible,” said the Yankees fan. “And the police ain’t seen nothin’?”
“Psshh,” said the Mets fan. He crossed his arms. “Could happen to anyone, ya know?”
“Yeah, could be anyone,” his friend echoed.
“Well hey,” continued the Mets fan. “We’re gonna get in the truck and drive around, see if we can’t spot her. You mind if we take a few o’ these?”
The woman gave him a stack of posters. “Sure,” she said. “We’re pretty much done.”
“I’m sure she’s somewhere. God bless,” said the Yankees fan.
“God bless,” answered the woman. The guys got in their truck and drove off. One woman turned to the other. “I knew they were American.”
• • •
Our walk back to Saint Finbar was quiet. Half the group had left to attend the birthday party. The rest of us made small talk. As we made our way down Cropsey Avenue back toward the church, we walked past Bensonhurst Park. It was there I thought I saw an old woman fitting Mary’s description sitting on a bench, staring at pigeons. The ex-cop crossed the street to check it out, and we waited where we were, watching as he approached the woman timidly. She looked up and started speaking to him, but ultimately, he turned around and walked back alone.
When he returned to us, we asked what happened.
“She spoke Russian.”
When we got back to the church, we handed in our papers, and Father Mike thanked us for our help.
I headed from Saint Finbar straight to Millie’s house. By the time I arrived, everyone had already eaten. Millie, Danielle, and Danielle’s nana, Mary, were drinking tea and coffee in the kitchen and watching the news. Millie set a plate in front of me. Salad, sausage and peppers over rice, and a few slices of fresh semolina bread.
“That was nice o’ you to help ’em try and find that poor old lady,” Millie said. “You know, I hate to say it, it doesn’t look good.”
“Yeah, and it’s been so hot this week,” Mary replied. “I wouldn’t wanna be outside.”
• • •
On Tuesday, July 25, at 11:45 a.m., the body of Mary Joyce-Bonsignore was discovered on the roof of 1853 Cropsey Avenue, the same three-story building with the Cammareri Bakery ad on its side that I had stared at when I first came across the flyer with her picture on it. The day I found out Mary existed, I had turned my head and stared right at the place where she was. I had looked right at her. I had walked beneath her body on my way to get a cup of coffee.
Neighbors complained of a smell emanating from somewhere in the building, but no one could locate it until a seventy-year-old man named Israel Martinez, investigating the source of maggots in his apartment on the second floor, opened the door to the roof and discovered Mary’s body. The police pronounced her dead on the scene. The building was just around the block from her home, two blocks from mine, and roughly one block from both Saint Finbar and the Sixty-Second Precinct headquarters.
After Mary wandered off her stoop, she wandered down the street and eventually ended up outside 1853 Cropsey. On the ground level there is a pharmacy and a bar called My Father’s Place. Between the pharmacy and the bar is a nondescript white door that leads up to the second- and third-floor apartments. A security camera caught her going through the door. It seemed she had mistaken it for the entrance to her own home. She walked up the stairs and onto the roof. The door closed and locked behind her. Judging by the state of decomposition, the police believed she had died shortly after she disappeared.
I read about the discovery in the Daily News and the Bensonhurst Bean and saw it covered on several of the New York nightly news broadcasts. Mary’s husband Bob was devastated. Her daughter Marie and grandson Conor seemed shell-shocked in their interview for CBS 2 outside the building where Mary had been found. “I’m a little numb right now,” Marie told the Daily News. Anthony Fasanello, a neighbor and family friend, expressed the frustration that so many others were feeling.
“They were all looking right here,” he said. “Even God couldn’t help them.”
That night, I took the express bus home again after work. Mary’s poster was still taped to the post, and I spent another few moments studying her face. Then I turned around to see the building with the Cammareri ad. Police tape cordoned off the street corner, but other than that, it was the same as it had always been.
When I got back to my apartment, I walked past my door on the first floor and up the stairs. My building is the same height as the one they found Mary on, and when I made it up to the roof, I peered in that direction. Had I been up there that Monday, when she went missing, I might have seen her, leaning over the edge, pleading for help.
I stayed on the roof for about ten minutes. There were a few clouds in the sky, puffy white, with little or no precipitation. This was Mary’s last view, all of Brooklyn laid out before her and receding over the horizon. Turn north, and you can see a glimmering spire about the size of a thimble. That’s One World Trade Center. Just to the west, you’ll see the most dominant structure of our skyline: the Verrazano Bridge. South is Coney Island; the Parachute Jump and the Wonder Wheel on display like a model train village.
I wanted to believe that as Mary stood on that roof, between the panic and the inexorable end, she might have had a brief moment of clarity—a chance to see her neighborhood from above. I hoped that what was left of her mind could process that scene, and play against that backdrop the memories of decade upon decade of life and love and tumultuous change, even if her penultimate thought would likely have been fear, before that chemically induced light at the end.
The funeral mass was held on July 31 at Saint Patrick’s Church in Bay Ridge, where Mary had married Bob Bonsignore more than thirty years earlier. Monsignor Michael Hardiman, who officiated the funeral, stressed that the efforts of those who searched for Mary were not in vain: “Don’t think for a minute that Mary didn’t experience the care, the concern, the love, of all those people who were in search of her.”
If there is an afterlife, I hope that Mary spends it thinking of anything except that last day, or us strangers who wandered around Bensonhurst in a futile attempt to find her. But if there is any meaning in the specific circumstances surrounding Mary’s death, it can be found only in the experiences of those who searched for her. Her disappearance, and the experience of searching for her, pulled me deeper into this surreal universe called Brooklyn with its infinite variations on the strange human story. This particular version ends with no grace, no particular revelation, except to illuminate the eternal process of change and the inevitability of death—of people, of places, of eras.
It’s tempting to write about the death of New York’s Little Italies and the birth of its Chinatowns as distinct movements, but it’s impossible to untangle the two. Asian children run around the Feast of Santa Rosalia, hands sticky and sugarcoated as they bite into zeppoli straight out of the frying oil. Millie loves wandering the aisles of Chinese supermarkets, seeking out unfamiliar ingredients and listening to other languages. The Scarpaci Funeral Home on Eighty-Sixth Street has translated its sign into Mandarin and holds funeral services according to the customs of Italians and Chinese alike. In Brooklyn, despite constant upheaval and change, we are always living and dying, fighting and celebrating, losing, finding, searching, together.