Bus driver Vicky Lindsey writes poetry about life and death on the harsh streets of South-Central Los Angeles, about gangbangers killing gangbangers, and about friends killed before their time.
Her poetry speaks of a harsh world, and it has been read at dozens of Los Angeles funerals. She prayed she would never have to write a poem eulogizing one of her own children.
But she was forced to do just that this week. Her 19-year-old son, Lionel E.L. Whiteside, was gunned down after he attended a high school football game in Compton.
Never has the sound of Lindsey’s words--words of anger, grief and loss--meant as much to her as they will today, when they are read at her son’s funeral.
“It’s devastating,” she said Friday. “He was a boy in South-Central who wanted to live, but living killed him.”
Like any mother, Lindsey hoped for the best for her son. She had raised him in a tough neighborhood, an area in Compton where gangs and gunfire are a way of life. Whiteside’s father, also named Lionel, was shot to death years ago in Los Angeles.
To combat that violence, Lindsey took an active role in community organizations such as Mothers Against Gangs in Communities. She even wrote inspirational poetry to her son. She urged him to “plan for a positive future” in a poem she penned when Whiteside graduated from Compton High School last year.
But her most precious gifts--her words--were not enough to save her son.
Whiteside was shot to death about 9:45 p.m. Nov. 9, several blocks away from the high school. A car carrying four men turned down the street he was on and someone in the car opened fire, striking Whiteside in the chest and leg, police said.
No one will say whether the shooting was gang-related. Police have made no arrests, and they say they are still investigating the shooting.
Said Lindsey: “I don’t feel that he was in a gang, but sometimes you don’t know your own kid.” She took a deep breath and added: “He was a boy in the ‘hood.”
Life in tough Los Angeles neighborhoods has been a constant theme in Lindsey’s poetry. She drives her Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus from the Los Angeles County Jail near Downtown on a route to Redondo Beach, and she often scratches notes for her poems on the back of passenger transfer pads during breaks.
She once wrote a poem about a passenger who was shot to death after stepping off her bus and landing in an altercation with police.
In fact, she has an entire volume of poems she has written for others’ funerals that she calls “Last Writes.” But those were poems about other people’s losses. Those words described the pain we all feel upon hearing about tragic, violent deaths.
It is something else to write about the death of one’s own child.
Words often flow easily onto the page when Lindsey is creating a poem. But they did not come quickly this time.
Whiteside was killed on a Thursday. On Friday, no words came. Nothing on Saturday or Sunday, either. Lindsey said she was shocked by the news, overcome by anger. Her mind was blank.
“I got a bit mad at God,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t deserve this after all the things I’ve been doing in the community.”
Then, Monday morning, all that changed. The words came rapidly. Among them:
“Lionel, you know how mad I get, because of the stupid things you’d do; you felt I was being too overprotective. Baby, it was just because I wanted you to live. I couldn’t go to sleep at night until I was sure you were all right. I protected you for as long as I could, but you just had to hang out in the ‘hood.”
Those words will be read today at the funeral.
Lindsey often recites her own poems in public, but she does not know whether she will be able to read those lines today.
Before Whiteside was slain, Lindsey told a Times reporter that she was motivated to write poetry because “my boys are black boys in South-Central L.A. I want to keep them alive.”
In the language of poetry, those words now seem to offer an ironic foreshadowing of her son’s death.
But her 7-year-old son, Lijuan, still lives, and Whiteside’s girlfriend is expecting to give birth to his baby boy, who also will be named Lionel.
After the funeral, Lindsey plans to hold a press conference to discuss violence and her son’s death. She also intends to get her poetry published and to read her work more often in public. “I realize now that the poetry has to get out there,” she said. “God is saying, ‘Vicky, it’s time.’ ”