The price of privacy

September 29, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

THE CITY was haunted. Not by the little girl who is said to bounce a red ball through the halls of the Dakota, many decades after death, saying happily, "It's my birthday." Not by the weeping Olive Thomas, the long-ago Ziegfeld Follies star who has been sighted from time to time, vaguely transparent, in the New Amsterdam Theater.

This newest ghost was a contemporary one, a young woman in a brightly colored running suit with brown hair framing even features. Her face was not spectral; it appeared on posters taped to the door of nearly every coffee shop and deli in lower Manhattan. On Sept. 20 she was discovered dead in a storage trailer on the western outskirts of that pleasant low-slung area known to New Yorkers simply as the Village. She had been strangled, her clothes disarranged, her body badly decomposed.

Yet for the first week after the discovery of her body no one had come forward to claim her, to say who she was, what she did, how she lived, who cared for her and who might have killed her. It was not only her death that was haunting, but also a kind of rootlessness among us that that death suggests, the notion that the anonymity of the city is only a shade removed from invisibility, and that the price of privacy may be to die alone.

Like so many things about the city, good and bad, this rootlessness has spread to the exurbs, the suburbs, even the rural areas once known for a kind of suffocating neighborliness. In this world it was not only possible but unsurprising when, a year ago, two little girls were left alone to fend for themselves while their parents went to Mexico for the holidays. No one in the quiet Chicago suburb knew the family well.

It was only when the smoke alarm went off and the older of the girls, age 9, ran next door that the truth was known. By contrast with the atmosphere of, say, Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street," in which an afternoon call or the purchase of a shirtwaist might occasion endless talk among every strata of a community, minding our own business has become a cardinal virtue.

The world is still a great repository of connection among unlikely cohorts, and none more so than in the city: doorman, deli man, co-workers, apartment house neighbors. And then there is the great covey of familiar strangers, those seen day after day without introduction or information, only the security of a well-known figure.

Some called the police to say that the dead woman was one of those, that they knew the face but not the name. Others called from around the country, missing children, sisters, friends. So many lost loved ones abroad in the land.

Sometimes old people die in this fashion, no one left to claim them. Sometimes street people, too, who have left their identities with their sanity or sobriety in some long-abandoned home. But this woman was neither.

For many of us, who had once been new to the city, without much in the way of friends or connections, she suggested the ghost of years long past, our younger selves. Haunted by the vacuum surrounding her death, strangers spun yarns to cover her. Perhaps a tourist not yet missed by her family far away. Or a student still unknown to classmates.

Neither, it turned out, was correct. Tuesday the woman whose body was found in the trailer was identified as Carol Ann Artutis, 23, who lived just across the river in New Jersey. No family member or friend came forward to identify her; police found her by the fingerprints on an application she had filed to become a private investigator. On a question about next of kin, she had written "none."

As the facts of her life were filled in by police and the search for her murderer usurped the search for her identity, she left an apparition behind. No spectral child, it was instead a glimpse into our own lives, in which a message on an answering machine passes as communication, in which eye contact is a gift given carefully and infrequently, in which human beings sometimes fade from view as surely as any phantasm.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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