The Lunchbox


The Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend, Ian came home from his program without his lunchbox. I told him that he’d probably left it there, and that I would text the director, so she could keep an eye out for it.  Thinking nothing more about it, I left for my doctor’s appointment in Ridgewood and asked the direct support for Eric to keep an eye on him until his dad came home at four. 

 At that moment, Ian decided to leave the house on his own for what the Australians call a Walkabout, (as Crocodile Dundee puts it, “a spontaneous journey of one’s choosing in an effort to satisfy one’s itchy feet”), to look for it himself.   

Within minutes of his departure, the police were called.  They in turn called in helicopters, sniffing dogs, the press, and local hospitals, and advised the county. Ian soon  received support that involved, I was told, 1,700 people.  Somehow Facebook got hold of it too, and people were posting to help find him.

Neighbors driving and walking their dogs started looking, and a bunch of high school kids searched, too.  I was overwhelmed by the community’s support and must admit that before this incident, had wondered about its existence. I was shown otherwise.  Surely, with all the help, I began to believe that Ian would be found.  When a psychic the police work with for cold cases was called in, I overheard him--the police radio was on speaker. 

 “He is someplace with an R in it…is talking right now with someone who is asking him questions, and will be home within an hour.” 

 I prayed he was right. Ian had by then been gone for three hours, and it was cold and dark.

Half an hour later, the house phone rang.  It was a woman who said, “Hello-- I believe I have your son Ian,” 

“Oh, God. Thank God. I will pass you to the detective who’s here.”  I yelled out loud for the police and friends gathered in my home. “Someone found Ian!”

   “What’s your name?” the detective asked. “Gretchen,” he repeated out loud.  

Ian was indeed in a place that had an “R”-Ridgewood, was questioned, and returned home within an hour. 

A few days later, I wanted to thank Gretchen and ask her why she had stopped to talk with him. She told me that she works with developmentally delayed children and wrote the following: 


      It is also hard to believe that I have only known Ian for less than two months. 

     As soon as I introduced myself to Ian, I felt like I had met him before, and hoped that he would let me know who he was, if only for a very brief time.  

     It was a Monday night, one of the first cold days and evenings during the extremely mild temperatures that we all enjoyed throughout November and December. I had left a spin class early to grab dinner and make it home in time to pick up my husband from the train station in Ridgewood. On this particular night, my husband had told me not to rush, take my time, and he would walk home while I picked up our dinner. 

     As I headed up E. Glen towards our neighborhood, I noticed an oncoming UPS truck swerve and immediately realized it was to avoid a pedestrian. At first thought, I could not believe that someone was not walking on the sidewalk as it was just about 7:00 pm on a cold, dark November night. (With that said, Ridgewood was long overdue for a leaf pick-up.) So on this particular night, a nearly two-foot pile of leaves overflowed from the edge of the sidewalk on to the road. I could see how someone might not be able to see where the sidewalk actually started or ended. Nevertheless it made it that much more dangerous for someone to be walking against oncoming traffic on the side of the road. I neared my left hand turn on to Heights Road just as this unknown pedestrian reached the wide crossing that is across Heights--where it meets E. Glen Road.  I slowed, ready to make my left turn, and immediately noticed this tall young man was walking with a certain style.  His legs seemed to be tight, one possibly dragging a bit. His hands were close to his chest and as I watched him walk across our road, I couldn't help but think he might not be where the should be. I made my turn, pulled over, jumped out and tried to not sound as panicked as I felt inside. 

     "Excuse me, I noticed you weren't walking on the sidewalk and was worried you might not be able to see it."  The first thing I noticed as I tried to catch this young man's attention was, he was not wearing a coat. And I immediately thought, This person is not where he should be…And his family… Oh god, they probably don’t know where he is… "My name is Gretchen. Do you live around here? What street do you live on?" Now, I was holding back tears, just praying that I could help this person get home safety. 

     The young man did tell me his street name, but it did not sound familiar.  He then went on to say with determination, "Going to the Wyckoff Y to pick-up my lunch bag, Going to the Wyckoff Y, I forgot my lunch bag."  

     "Let's move over here, away from the busy road. What is your name? Can we call your house to tell them where you are?" 

     At this point, this tall young man told me his name--"Ian Grinsberg"-- and without hesitation gave me his home phone number as we stood on the side of the road. 

     I could not dial fast enough, and within two rings, we reached Ian's mom and, unbeknownst to me, detectives from the Englewood Police Department who had been leading the search for Ian since 3:30 or 4:00 pm that afternoon.  

     They were in Englewood; Ian and I were in Ridgewood…Approximately 13 miles and 3+ hours later, Ian was found. Safely.  I had not yet understood just how Ian had made his way to Ridgewood but would soon find out, he walked. For anyone not familiar with Northern New Jersey, Ian basically walked from one end of Bergen County to the other. The most densely populated county in New Jersey. 

    When our paths crossed (literally), Ian was relatively close and headed in the direction of his intended destination, the Wyckoff YMCA to retrieve his lunch bag. Ian agreed to sit in my car while we waited for the dispatched Ridgewood police officer. We listened to Christmas music while I asked Ian if he had siblings. He told me about his brothers Josh and Eric. Once the police officer made it to us and confirmed it was the Ian Grinsberg all of Bergen County had been looking for, we made it to the Ridgewood police department where Ian was reunited with his father. 

    I could not even begin to imagine the emotions that Ian's family had been going through while Ian's whereabouts were unknown. I was filled with incredible gratitude for being able to be in the right place at the right time and having made the decision to stop, to help, to not be in a hurry.  

    And in turn, I have since gotten to know Ian, an accomplished painter, pianist and adored son and brother. It was a privilege to be able to stop and help Ian make it back home safely. 

A week later, driving in the right lane on Route 4, I noticed a man waving his arms on the side of the road. Luckily, as a precaution, I’d put my foot on the brake, which allowed me enough time to stop.  There were two cars stopped in front and a deserted car in front of them, which I concluded belonged to the waving man.  Making my way to the left and then off on Jones Road, I pulled my car over and dialed 911.  Had it not been for the events of the prior week, I doubt I would have made that call.

“This is 911. What’s your emergency.”

“There’s a stuck car on Route 4 right before the Jones Road  exit--it’s in a very precarious place.  Could you send the police to help?”

When I got off the phone, I felt in some way that I was giving back to the community that had so much supported my family in their time of need.  It took but a few minutes but when we are so busy and intent on getting where we are going, we forget that each one of us is a vital member and may miss that opportunity to support it. 

My high school English teacher Mr. Stone’s parable came to mind. “You are walking down a street, and you see a house on fire.  You hear someone inside yelling for help. Standing outside, deciding whether you should go in or not, is the same as deciding not to go in--the decision has been made for you.”  I will be forever grateful that Gretchen made her decision, and now I know to make my own.   

In order to support families and people with disabilities, Kenneth, who has seven years experience working with people with disabilities and is Eric’s direct support, come up with this list to help people know what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation as Gretchen’s.

  • Take initiative-- If you see something  out of the ordinary, don’t  assume it has been taken care of.  Thinking someone else will do it it the same as not doing anything.   Be the one who asks questions.  If the situation is under control, ask if you can be of assistance.
  • Give your name. Ask theirs.  Explain what you’re seeing. Ask whether the person is okay, alone, needs help.  Ask where a child’s parent’s are and whether they’re lost.
  • Call 911- Even if the person seems to be coherent and/or aware of their actions.  Many people, including the mentally disabled, can appear “normal” in situations but actually might be off their medication, suffering from Alzheimer’s, or engaged in a behavior like trying to run away or elope. 

•   Stay with the person.  Never leave the person. Even if the person refuses help, keep an eye until help arrives.






© Lilian Grinsberg 2015