On the first warm day after a long, snow-filled winter, Tonya Muldrow thought her 2-year-old son deserved some fresh air. She watched as he walked down the block, hand-in-hand with a teen-age friend.
“You know, I didn’t want him to go,” she said, crying softly. “A family friend, Anisha, said she was taking him to a birthday party, but a part of me said, ‘Tell her no.’ But he had been inside so long. . . . “
Anisha never went to the party. She took Dontae to the Stapleton housing project, about a half-mile from his home. They were “just hanging out” when the pop-pop-pop of gunfire punctuated the Staten Island afternoon.
A long-simmering dispute over a girl and a gun had detonated. Authorities say four men exchanged shots; Dontae Hawkins was caught in the cross-fire, transformed in an instant from innocent child to innocent victim.
The memories burn in Tonya’s mind:
* The phone call from Anisha. “There’s been a shooting,” she said.
* Anisha sitting in the hospital waiting room, covered with Dontae’s blood.
* Dontae lying on the adult-size hospital gurney, just out of surgery, looking drained and lifeless.
Weeks later, the little boy’s hospital room is crowded with cheerful balloons and rows of stuffed animals from well-wishers. Barney is there; Big Bird and Mickey too. A red fire truck is nestled at the foot of the metal crib.
But Dontae has little interest in any of them.
“Owwwwwww!” he cried, his head tossing fitfully from side to side. “It hurts! It hurts!”
Doctors have taken him off pain killers and the throbbing that is part of the healing process has taken over.
Doctors say a single bullet tore through the 2-year-old’s right hand and traveled diagonally through his tiny body, exiting on his left side.
He lost a kidney, and emergency surgery saved a badly damaged pancreas and spleen. But the worst news came several days after the March 13 shooting: The bullet had severed nerves in the child’s lower spinal cord.
The curly-haired toddler has regained feeling in his right leg but has little use of the left. Some permanent paralysis is certain, said Dr. Oded Preis, head of pediatric intensive care at Staten Island University Hospital.
At best, Dontae will walk again with the use of a leg brace or a walker. At worst, he’ll need a wheelchair.
“What hurts, Boopie? Tell me what hurts,” his mother said.
“My body,” the little boy replied, his eyes squeezed tightly closed.
To a generation of inner-city children, the report of gunfire is as familiar as the hum of a refrigerator.
In New York City, the shooting of children is literally a daily occurrence. Last year, 449 children under age 16 were shot--19 fatally, according to police statistics. Eighty-nine child victims were innocent bystanders like Dontae, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is exaggerating just the slightest bit to say these children are growing up in a war zone. The day after Dontae was shot, Tonya went home to shower and change clothes. She heard the gunshots again. An 18-year-old had been killed in what was said to be a drug dispute.
“I knew him,” she said. “And now there’s talk all over the buildings about what his brother’s gonna do to get even. It never ends.”
Nine days later in the Bronx, a 19-year-old was accidentally shot to death in a dispute between two boys over a softball game.
Four days later, a Brooklyn girl was caught in the cross-fire of feuding crack dealers--shot fatally through the heart while sitting on a project stoop.
Tonya Muldrow lived with the fear her son might meet the same fate.
“I thought it might happen when he got older, when I didn’t have as much control over him,” she said. “Not when he’s 2, not when he’s just a baby.”
But even before his third birthday, the boy knew all about gunfire. His mother had taught him how to respond when the popping noises started outside.
“When we hear the gunshots starting--Dontae thinks they’re firecrackers--we go to this wall in my house and sit down,” Tonya said. “He sits there quietly and we wait until they stop.”
Tonya, 23, is a welfare mother; Dontae is her only child. She has lived in the Park Hill projects since she was 11.
Park Hill is a typical inner-city project: Crowded, dirty and dangerous, even in daylight. Illegal guns and drugs are a constant.
“It was OK for me. I was used to the gunshots, the drugs,” she whispered, holding her son’s bandaged little hand. “I didn’t want to live like that. But I was used to it.”
Dontae’s father, Lamar Hawkins, 23, is another child of the projects. He’s an aspiring rapper whose group, the Wu-Tang Clan, is enjoying early success. His presence in Dontae’s life is sporadic.
“He’s on the road a lot,” Tonya said. “You know, trying to make it.”
Tonya once tried to make it too. She went to a city-run college on Staten Island--her tuition was free--and studied computer science. She knew education was the key to getting out.
Instead, she got pregnant and dropped out. When her son arrived in October, 1991, Tonya created a timetable for getting her life back on track: she would wait until Dontae was 2 1/2 and old enough for day care.
He will reach that milestone this month in a hospital bed.
“I planned to get a temp’s job and go back to school nights, weekends, whatever it took. I had a plan,” she said, brushing away tears. “Now, I have to get a new one.”
These days, a parade of doctors, nurses and interns march in and out of Dontae Hawkins’ life. “He’s actually real tired of all the attention and just wants to go home,” Tonya said.
Doctors say that day is weeks, maybe months, away.
Dontae understands what happened to him. “The little boy got shot,” he told his grandmother, Deborah Muldrow. “The bad boys. They shot me.”
He doesn’t understand why he can’t move.
“He’s used to being hyper,” his mother said, flashing a quick smile as she remembered a child in constant motion.
“The other day, I think, was the first time it hit him that something was wrong,” she said. “He tried to get up from the bed and yelled, ‘I’m stuck. Help me, I’m stuck.’ ”
Tonya’s days are interminable. She sleeps sporadically on a blue plastic lounge chair next to her son’s hospital crib. The room is strewn with newspapers, magazines, empty pizza boxes.
She goes home only to shower and change. Her mother or 18-year-old sister, Tamika, fill in when she leaves.
The child, with skin the color of fine milk chocolate and long, curly eyelashes, sleeps erratically but even then cries out in pain.
Tonya struggles to contain her anger at the young men who caused this. All four, ranging in age from 18 to 23, have been charged with attempted murder.
“I’d like to ask them, ‘How could you be so stupid? What were you thinking?’ ” she said. “But I already know what they would say. They’d say, ‘The people should know what to do--get down.’ But my boy, he’s a baby.”
She knows one of the four: “I used to do his mother’s hair. . . . She’s not a bad mother and he’s not a bad kid. He just fell in with the wrong crowd.
“You see, where I live, that’s what it’s all about. Proving yourself. If you don’t do it (own a gun), you’re a punk, a sucker. It makes them feel, I don’t know, like a man.
“That’s why I have to get out (of the projects). I don’t want him to grow and be like the guys who shot him.”
She hopes for a new, safer place to live, “maybe even something with a back yard.” Together, she and her mother have enough money to rent an apartment in a private house. Now, they have to find someone who will rent to them--no easy task.
“It’s not because we’re black. It’s because we come from Park Hill,” she said. “People see that and are afraid. I can’t really blame them.”