When a person goes missing, it helps to have been associated with someone famous. Even better, a politician.
I'm thinking about Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old congressional intern who's been missing some two months now. Thanks to her "close friendship" with Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., she's in the news daily, on television and on the Internet. She even has a Web site dedicated to her.
Noting this constant attention to a single missing person, I can't help wishing that Dail Dinwiddie had had such famous friends. Dail was my adorable baby sitter, who disappeared eight years ago. Just vanished.
She was 23 then, a beautiful blond, brown-eyed girl who was only 5 feet tall and weighed not quite 100 pounds. Dail has never been found in all these years, despite thousands of leads, hundreds of psychics and countless police hours.
My son, who was 8 at the time, hardly remembers her, but I think of Dail every day. I look for her out of my peripheral vision when I enter a highway, thinking I might spot her blue parka on the side of the road. I fantasize that she'll come running out of the woods, waving for someone to stop and give her a lift home.
A lift home. That's anyone's best guess at what happened that September night. Dail had gone to a U2 concert with a group of friends, after which they all migrated to the Five Points area of Columbia, S.C., a bar and restaurant intersection popular among college students at the University of South Carolina.
Dail was taking graduate art courses and living at home with her parents. She wasn't dating anyone that night - certainly no congressman - and was traveling as one of a crowd.
Around 1 a.m., she realized that she had lost her companions and asked a bar bouncer if he'd seen any of them.
He was the last person known to have seen Dail as she walked down the sidewalk toward another watering hole. Sometime after that, Dail got a ride, but from whom and to where?
I don't need to embellish this story in order to convey the devastation that befell her family and friends. Anyone can put himself or herself in a parent's place and imagine the extraordinary pain of losing a child. But how do you just lose a person? How does someone disappear without a trace? How do families put their lives back together?
To the last question, they don't. They just try to keep breathing, as I imagine Chandra Levy's parents are doing right now. I don't begrudge them the media attention their daughter is receiving. Her case is, indeed, special by virtue of her relationship with Condit and the possibility that their relationship has some bearing on her disappearance.
Still, I can't help envying the enormous exposure this young woman is getting. Dail was a lovely, sweet, intelligent, young woman but was famous only in her own hometown, and only for a month or so. Her time in the spotlight expired long ago.
The key to finding a missing person is immediate police action and continuous information via various media. Unfortunately, police don't usually begin looking for adults until they've been missing 24 hours. They figure, correctly most of the time, that "missing" adults are taking a sabbatical from whatever and will find their way home in due time.
Media attention, meanwhile, is predicated on public interest. Would we care so much what happened to Chandra Levy absent the possibility of political scandal and sexual indiscretion?
We all know the answer to that one. What's truly scandalous is that people like Dail have been missing for years, and few even remember her name. If only she'd been close to someone famous.