For 35 Years, Waiting for News of a Missing Son
By CARA BUCKLEY
Published: March 12, 2007
Every time she answers her phone, Gloria Chait hopes no one replies.
Decades after he disappeared, she is certain he is alive.
â€œHello?â€ she says in a tremulous voice, her heart sinking when a caller responds.
For more than 25 years, Ms. Chait drew hope from the mysterious phone calls to her Queens home two or three times a year. They began on Motherâ€™s Day 1972, two months after her oldest son, Steven N. Chait, vanished from his dormitory at Columbia University.
Each call was the same. Ms. Chaitâ€™s greeting was met with silence. But she stayed on the phone, listening to the crackle of static, sensing that her son was on the other end. She told him she loved him. She begged him to come home. Seconds passed, then minutes, before the caller finally hung up. Ms. Chait kept a log of the calls on a pad of yellow lined paper until about 10 years ago, when they stopped.
â€œI always said his name and heard silence,â€ Ms. Chait said recently in her high-rise apartment in Fresh Meadows, her blue eyes heavy with sorrow. â€œBut someone was there.â€
Mr. Chaitâ€™s case is one of the New York Police Departmentâ€™s oldest open missing persons cases, a distinction that has won him little recognition. Like the bulk of New York Cityâ€™s 338 others, his is not a famous case, nor was his disappearance widely grieved.
Mr. Chait never fueled the national intrigue that followed the disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater, who stepped into a cab in Midtown Manhattan in 1930, never to be seen again. Nor did he spark the massive emotional outpouring that came after Etan Patz vanished, at the age of 6, on his way to the school bus stop near his SoHo home in 1979. Etan, too, was never found.
Instead, history seemed to forget Mr. Chait almost as soon as he bade his roommate goodbye 35 years ago. â€œTake it slowâ€ was all he said before slipping away, seemingly into thin air.
No intensive manhunt followed, no big poster campaign. His friends waited two days before calling the Chaits and telling them that their son, who was 20, had missed his classes as well as his shifts at Mama Joyâ€™s, a now-shuttered delicatessen on Broadway near 113th Street. Mr. Chait left behind no clues, just a suddenly shattered family, and a gaping hole in his motherâ€™s life.
â€œWe knew, we knew, we knew this was very serious,â€ said Ms. Chait, of the moment she learned that Steven was gone.
Looking back, Ms. Chait sees darkly portentous signs in her son that she thinks she overlooked then. His moodiness. His perfectionism. His tendency to despair if he felt the world had failed him, or that he had failed it.
Ms. Chait would never accept the possibility, though, that Steven might have committed suicide. She believes he walked away from his life, but that he is still alive.
â€œI feel it in here,â€ she said, pressing a fist to her heart. â€œItâ€™s very deep, the deepest kind of feeling.â€
Steven was born tiny, the first of Ms. Chait and her husband Harryâ€™s three children, but grew up sturdy and tall. He was exceptionally bright. By the age of 9, he was reading The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report, and earning top marks in school. He excelled in track, and his trophies, tarnished by time, still line a shelf of his old bedroom. After he was accepted at Columbia, he wore his student identification proudly, like a medal.
But after he got a C in a crucial engineering course, a devastating first, he switched to art history. He had always been solemn but now seemed haunted by defeat.
â€œHow are you doing, Steven?â€ Ms. Chait would ask him. â€œLiving,â€ he would reply.
The last time Ms. Chait saw Steven, he was home for the weekend, asleep in the bedroom he used to share with his little brother, Gary. His 5-feet-10-inch frame was stretched long, facing away from the door. A tumble of dark curls spilled across his pillow. Ms. Chait closed the door gently and left with her husband for a party on Long Island.
Their son went back to Furnald Hall on campus that night and spent much of the next morning lying in bed, listening to music, his roommate later said. Then he pulled on a jacket, a knit hat and scarf, said goodbye to his roommate, and left.
At first, the police tried to assure the Chaits that Mr. Chaitâ€™s absence was voluntary and temporary, so the couple searched for him on their own.
Ms. Chait said they went to an abandoned stadium on Randalls Island where Steven had once raced. They traveled to Washington because Steven adored architecture, and a new I. M. Pei building was going up.
Silence enveloped their home. Ms. Chait wept often, and her husband spent long hours in an armchair, drinking endless glasses of wine. Gary left for college, and would later fall into a deep depression of his own. Their youngest child, Risa, then in the 10th grade, escaped the gloom by often staying with friends.
â€œThey did the best they could for us,â€ said the daughter, now Risa Jampel, who went on to Yale and is now a dermatologist in Baltimore. â€œBut they couldnâ€™t function.â€
The Chaitsâ€™ friends dropped away, unsure of what to say. Invitations to parties and dinners dried up. Neighbors avoided them.
â€œPeople used to cringe when they saw me, like I was a witch,â€ Ms. Chait said. â€œIn this building, one man out of 92 families had the decency to spend an hour with Harry and me.â€
Harry Chait eventually surfaced from his depression and stopped drinking. He told his wife he had come to peace with Stevenâ€™s disappearance.
But Ms. Chait could not. She wrote hundreds of letters to newspapers, magazines and possible employers. She joined a support group for the parents of missing children. She strained to catch sight of Steven in crowds. Gary and Risa would scour the faces of homeless people, too, trying to see Steven in them. They still do.
Harry Chait died of a brain hemorrhage in 2002.
The mysterious phone calls provided some comfort, though Ms. Chait never found out who they were from.
In 2005, she finally cleared out Stevenâ€™s clothes. She donated the ones that did not disintegrate in her hands.
The police investigated the case and kept it open because no body was ever found.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/12/ny...ei=5087%0A