The runaway boy lived off food from newsstands before being reunited with his family

By Michael Y. Park
Updated November 25, 2009 11:40 AM
Credit: Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times

They say New York’s a gentler, safer city nowadays, but it’s not any less confusing – especially to a 13-year-old runaway.

Francisco Hernandez Jr., who has the form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, spent 11 days lost in the labyrinthine tunnels of the New York City subway system despite a search by his family, police and the Mexican consulate. He was finally found by a transit cop at the Coney Island station on Oct. 26, the New York Times reports.

Hernandez’s odyssey began last month after he got in trouble at his middle school in Brooklyn. He called his mom, who said she wanted to have a serious talk with him. But instead of going home, the boy removed the battery from his cell phone and, with $10 and a subway pass in his pocket, headed for a nearby station. “I didn’t want anyone to scream at me,” he told the newspaper.

Bottled Water, Junk Food

For 11 days, he lived off of water and junk food he bought in subway newsstands, and used subway-station bathrooms. All day and all night, he rode trains to their terminal points, then waited for the next train to arrive, crisscrossing four of the city’s five boroughs. Hernandez says he would have ridden the rails forever.

Police searched the city, responding to tips and reported sightings that lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the boy’s frightened parents distributed 2,000 missing posters and contacted the media. Complicating matters was the teenager’s condition, which makes it difficult for him to conduct social interactions or make friends.

The Mexican consulate stepped in because Hernandez’s parents are Mexican immigrants. They’ve complained that the police didn’t do enough for their son – though it was a Gotham cop who ultimately found the boy, thanks to one of the signs the family had put up.

Hernandez was thin and dirty, but otherwise in good health. Now, he’s home again, although his parents worry that he might try to leave again. “I tell him: ‘Talk to me. Tell me what you need. If I ever make a mistake, tell me,’ ” says his mother, Marisela Garcéa. But raising a child with his condition is a challenge.

“I don’t know, as a mother, how to get to his heart, to find out what hurts,” she says.