Looking for Avonte by Kati Duncan
In the course of a week, people started looking. And they started looking differently. They looked for Avonte Oquendo, who is mute and can only look back, and we long for him to come back from wherever he is hiding, or lost, or wandering, or — we don’t want to think of the possibilities that are impossible to avoid.
In looking for young Oquendo, the autistic boy who went missing from his school in Long Island City, Queens last week, people started looking places they did not look before: in the eyes of young black boys. They have begun looking with concern in places they didn’t bother to before. Maybe it is because of the shamereflected in such eyes that so many people simply avoid their fears. Avonte looks out from the fliers on subway walls and street light posts and pillars of Chase Metrotech buildings. My information is cobbled together largely from snippets online that I at first ignored because who knows when someone is missing and when someone just wants you to share a link. The MTA got on board. They shut trains down one night to look for him. After I heard that, I started seeing the fliers. I had already seen Avonte in the footage of him running from his school. I wondered why he was running. I thought he had been teased or bullied. It was something about the way he ran – and I’m only now learning that he left the school early, and the school – a special needs school – was on lock-down for an hour searching for him before they contacted the parents. Maybe from my own often unsunny experiences in elementary school and junior high I recognize his body language. Someone had teased him. He was running from something. Why aren’t the kids talking, those who saw him last?
For now, we just look. There’s a small army of people looking, some actively, volunteering their time and all they have for the search. Others, like me, looking passively, but looking, and wondering what a 14 year old boy who looks much younger might be? 5’3″ and 120 lbs. means nothing to me. While I look, the week moves on. New news unfurls.
In Philadelphia, a photographer posted online photographs whose subjects had catcalled her just moments before the pictures were shot. The subjects are almost all Black men, looking straight into the camera. The photos force the viewer to see them, to look them square in the eye. I see, or imagine, in their faces, variably and in some cases together, bemusement, shame, expectancy, and in some a touch of humor.
There are two sisters in Chicago, heroin addicts in their mid to late twenties, who lost their kids several years ago but are wanting to get them back. They spoke out this week in the stinging strong language of pictures to warn others against the danger of a drug they used that rots the skin off its users from the inside out, leaving them two years to live, by most accounts. They provided the proof in pictures that many have been wanting to see, and the rest of us too morbidly fascinated to look away. There was a death in Oklahoma that may be the first U.S. fatality of the mix from Russia that is a concoction of lighter fluid, paint thinner, matchboxes and crushed codeine. It’s a cheaper high than heroin. The online headlines blare this news nearly like they’re giddy. There is an end-of-the-worldness to the presence of this evil among us. Like now there may be some predestined manifestation of the cultish predictions that zombies will be the first to ring in the apocalypse.
In San Francisco, a man walked onto a crowded train and waved a gun. Nobody noticed. He pointed the gun at a stranger. Nobody saw. He picked his target based on who knows what? A sound? A tie? A color? The man took out his gun and shot a man dead on a crowded train. The victim was a student from SFSU. The media said everyone was too absorbed in their phones and electronic gadgets. The phenomenon was here long before i-phones, and i-pads and blackberries and the whole panoply of gadgetry. The day after I read the news about the killer on the train in San Francisco, I though I saw more people paying attention on the subway. Maybe they’d heard about it too. Maybe they were looking for the eyes of Avonte.
Some nights this week, I’ve walked the street up from the steps off the train to the steps of my home as if in a shell, or wanting one. My trusty old shell would roll me untouched, all the way to my door. The door, by the way, has handles that just this week fell off on front and back sides. My door is now pulled open and closed only by its lock. It’s like the handles got tired of being here and just had to drop off for awhile.
I, too, have wanted to lock out the world. But I can’t. I look. A friend once told me, years ago, that headphones in public, and on public transportation in particular, was a type of cop-out, disengaging from the world around, ignoring human beings and our present state of being. I have thought this week about the little boy from my neighborhood who, a couple years ago, was walking home by himself for the first time, a mere matter of blocks, got turned around and asked the worst person for directions. People looked different after that.
There are some stories that grab us and we don’t know why, or maybe we do. There are stories, like Avonte’s, that grip me, grab me and induce spontaneous prayer. They make me beg for my mother to pick up the phone so I can tell her about him because she prays better than I do. She kisses the feet on the cross, and cries for the pain of others when no one but God is watching or cares. And she doesn’t write about it after. I have been compelled to call on angels this week. I see them walking with Avonte, surrounding and protecting him.
Night before last I walked up to my door after another long day of work. My neighbor and her children were in front of theirs, and I said hello. The mother told me tomorrow was Eid. I asked her what you say to celebrate Eid. She told me and I mumbled it back, quickly forgetting the words but hoping somehow the meaning floated through my bludgeoning it. The daughter, who helped her mother learn English when the girl was only 8 and they had just moved in, always has had a bluntness about her that is both admirable and annoying. It comes, I believe, from speaking English in America when your parents don’t. She looked at me from her newly slender but always beautiful face that only a 15 year old can have, and said, “You look tired.”
Everyone’s looking this week. Everyone.
After they first shut down the trains to look for Avonte, they began making announcements. Avonte is missing. Was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt. And I wonder, as I have all week, whether the stripes are up and down or a cross. And suddenly again I’m calling on the angels like I rarely have before, trying to conjure up all the goodness there is in the world, and the little bit of kindness, and pray it is in his path — that this child lost in the world encounter the good, and loving and kind, that wherever he is, he not be afraid and that he have no reason to be, that he merely went in search of his voice, and that his return be a testament to the power of prayer and the collective will called from all that is decent and pure in each of us, that we can help guide this child home, and that together we can save one person, this one beautiful, frail, brilliant, sparkling one.
** I started writing this as I was standing on the platform at the Jay Street/Metrotech station on the F line. When the train arrived in the station, I saw that it was as usual pretty crowded. There was one open seat, next to a black man hunched over in his seat, head down, sleeping. I didn’t sit next to him but I wanted to. People stood, ignoring the empty seat. Eventually a youngish white man, looking ever the part of the Greenpoint farmhand, finally sat down beside him. I found a corner seat that opened up and finished writing. When I began looking up links for this story, as I was going through it, I found that the parents are instructing the public that Avonte cannot care for himself, and that his clothes will likely be soiled by now, and that he may not even answer to his own name. His mother has recorded a message being played through speakers on search vehicles. She tells him to walk toward the lights and not be afraid. If you see him, the media says to call authorities first (they don’t say 911 but that’s what I’m assuming), since he may run if approached suddenly. He also may no longer be responding to his name. See here for more information and to join in the search: https://www.facebook.com/events/438061952969335/?previousaction=join&source=1.