Drive-By Agony --but No Tears


It’s purple. Plastic. Tricked out with a space-aged Jetsons effect--slender barrel encircled by pink doodads, like Saturn’s rings, and a matching tiny trigger.

With thumb and forefinger, Lorna Hawkins gingerly slides the toy from a crumpled brown lunch sack. She mock-frowns at grandson James, 5, who wiggles back into the air-conditioned shadows of his mother’s car.

Hawkins aims a leaden look her daughter’s way. Francie simply shrugs--a motion equivalent of a world-weary I know, I know.


She does.

They do.

There’s no use hiding, Hawkins’ body insists, as she juts her face into the car. “You know you don’t need to be taking this to school,” she tells James, her expression an exaggeration of anger, a mask. She holds the water gun up for his perusal, his chance for a parting glance. She reaches toward his squirming form: “Gimme a hug.” They dance; he gives.

The sun is white, unyielding. Even a breeze with a hint of the sea can’t blunt its glare. Nor does it diminish Hawkins’ intensity--all muscle and angles, fine bones, big laugh, with the conserved reserve of a sprinter.

Staring after the white coupe as it merges into sluggish traffic, Hawkins pulls the water pistol out of the bag once more: “You know the kids in the neighborhood hate to see me coming. ‘Cause I’m gonna take their guns. They know that and they hide them from me.”

But what if they employ imagination, using fingers to forge some crude replica?

Her smile has an edge that could cut through iron: “I will twist that finger until it breaks.”


This is not a fanaticism born of idleness, not a woman who needed a cause to fill her open, empty days. It is instead a calling, a tangible plan to work through the inexplicable, an unspeakable cavernous loss; a way to move a body forward when the spirit wants simply to march in place.

“I didn’t want to allow people to think that I’m just a crying mother in the wilderness. Doing nothing. I’m sick of all that,” explains Hawkins, resting on a bench outside the old Lynwood trolley station that serves as headquarters for Drive-By Agony, a nonprofit resource center for victims of violent crime she founded seven years ago.


Hawkins recasts the stock, tragic image: “First of all, you never see me cry. You see me bringing awareness to drive-by shootings and people being murdered hundredfold.”

She is not speaking in abstracts, nor investing in hyperbole. Rather she is drawing from a well with which she is painfully intimate: the drink of loss.

In the span of just more than four years (1988-’92), Hawkins lost both sons--Joe at 21 and Gerald at 22--to wild bullets and some random form of street rage.

Reminders tucked throughout the office guide the purpose: snapshots of Joe, GQ-ing it in the yard; Gerald, smiling, showing off his fish bounty. Posted nearby is a poem written to honor their memory.

Admittedly still wandering through the emotional minefield of loss, she too is in fast-forward action. A sticker affixed on a wall high above the tapping computer keys, bleating phones and squealing fax machines sets forth the only explicit house rule: “No Whining.”

With satellites now in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Victorville and as far away as Wisconsin, Drive-By Agony--the living, breathing, working monument Hawkins has erected to her dead sons--started not as a center per se, but as a public access cable show.


“She’s been around for a long time, which is very difficult in this business,” says Alex Vargas, director of the Victims of Crimes program for the L.A. city attorney’s office. “You can get community attention, but after a while you kind of fade away. With her, the difference is, I think, she really believes in what she is doing.”

For Hawkins, it would be impossible to do anything but. Still, she would be the first to admit that it is a strange border to straddle--one foot planted firmly amid the living, mining the future, the other walking among the spirits of the dead.

When she’s not doling out information about low-cost funeral arrangements to the grieving, she’s stepping into the studio to work on assembling the next group of guests and topics for “Drive-By Agony.” (It airs in nine Southland cities, Monday nights at 8:30 and Fridays at 6:30 p.m.)

The pendulum swings swiftly--from her proactive, prevention work with SAFE (Saving American Families Everywhere), a youth program targeted to ages 5-25 that offers training in conflict resolution, community involvement and violence prevention, to Drive-By Agony’s commemorative March for Peace, which, since 1991, has united peace brokers and victims rights organizations to stimulate long-muted discussions around victims rights issues--from stricter firearm legislation to restitution.

In recognition, civic accolades line her wall--plaques and citations from the cities of Lynwood and Los Angeles as well as nods from the state. She’s been dubbed by some as the “Oprah of South-Central,” but that appellation dismisses the pared-down reality of her existence. It’s difficult sometimes for her to hide her disappointment, her frustration with the public apathy, the bills stamped “Past Due.” With a set of programs that cost about $150,000 a year to run, support and money rarely dovetail.

“I wish I had some of Oprah’s money,” cracks Hawkins. “I’d certainly know how to spend it.”



It’s tough to get Hawkins to reflect on the death of a son, much easier for her to talk about the birth of Drive-By Agony: “When it happened to me, I had called on the news stations and they said: ‘I’m sorry, that’s not news.’ That brought a fury of fire inside of me, because to me it was all the news in the world. Somebody just murdered my son.”

At closer inspection, a morning turn through the newspaper too often felt like a walk through a field of tombstones. “I started seeing mothers every day in the news whose sons were getting murdered, and I said wait a minute, let’s put a hold on this here,” she says.

Well, shrugs Hawkins in her best throaty believe-it-or-not deadpan, “God said: ‘Cable.’ I wanted the name not to be something plain and ordinary, because this was something extraordinary that happened to me . . . someone drove by and shot my son and left me in agony.”

Hawkins used media reports as a way to round out her guest roster. She called on friends and family to act as audience. “I would get in contact with the families through the Sheriff’s Department, the city, the morgue or wherever I had to go. They would give them my number and they would call me.”

The mothers came--some silent, bewildered, others “angry, cussing, the lowest of the low that you can be,” says Pat Shields, Hawkins’ right hand and longtime friend. “Not eating, just fading away. Carrying bags of pictures, articles, cheerleading sweaters everywhere they go.”

In the past seven years, Hawkins has embraced topics from youths and violence to stalking, from firearm legislation to self-defense. She has also rolled off referrals to agencies and other victims assistance programs. She’s prepared woman-on-the-streets remotes to mine public opinion. Her live phone-ins and studio interviews with victims and parents of lost loved ones serve as on-air outreach and counseling. The telling and re-tellings forge bonds; an extended hand across emotional miles.


“She makes the family stronger,” husband Frank says. “Because the rest of us had anger and disappointment, some things like that, she’s given us an idea about how we can go express ourselves.

“She’s sort of like a backbone to the family. I’m in the background. The muscle guy. But watching her do this has given me even more strength. I see all the time and effort and Excedrin it takes to get the attention of the public and to make them see the problem in society that we really have.”


The more heinous and random the act, the more difficult it is to gather the reserve to find a proactive outlet for the rage and sorrow.

“I’m a firm believer that the best thing that a victim can do is at some point utilize an awful experience in the service of other people to keep a spirit alive,” says Rick Shuman, of the Westside-based Center for Victims of Crime and Trauma. “It’s one of the ways that they can convert something awful into something valuable.”

Still, dedicating a life to altruistic work usually is not the first impulse.

“It’s devastating and these [gangbangers] have no idea the pain they create in the home life,” says Eleanor Montano of Wilmington-based Mothers and Men Against Gangs, who has stood shoulder to shoulder with Hawkins. “She’s been able to reach a lot of people. It’s about taking the pain away. If I can just take five minutes of pain from someone, it makes a difference.”

Sometimes it only takes something as simple as one resonant story to reroute a life wildly off-course--be it victim or perpetrator. Just one, absent melodrama or underscored moral. Just one plain-spoken testimonial told clearly and well.


It doesn’t happen often.

Only when asked point-blank does Lorna Hawkins settle deep into the folds of memory. “She’ll never say,” Shields says, “ ‘I really miss my kids.’ ”

When Hawkins pauses to share history, it spits forth in one spontaneous spurt, a quick harsh breath, a nightmare unscrolling her bookend horrors. She describes life before as if looking at a mantle photograph--a carefully arranged portrait; life a tricky balance of home and family--lives growing, blooming.

“I guess you could say life was normal,” says Hawkins, her eyes trained on the cars rushing outside. “Mother, father, kids at home. They were good boys. Joe loved to mess around with cars. He drove dirt bikes all his life . . . and Gerald did too. He followed right after his brother. They could break-dance in the streets and you wouldn’t see a car come down the street for hours.” There’s a pause, her eyes following a set of taillights: “Life was just quiet and easy.”

Sibling bickering was quickly resolved in family summits she called to clear the air. But what couldn’t as easily be contained was what happened outside their yard and four walls.

“Seemed like all of a sudden the youths started hating each other over things--girls, petty arguments, envy,” Hawkins says. “Then they turned to fights. If the person got beat up, then it was, ‘I’m going to shoot you.’ One day Joe came home . . . he had been in a fight. He was 19 and I was like: ‘Aren’t you too old for this?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, but they were just picking on me. I can’t go to the corner or anywhere.’ ”

Hawkins didn’t realize how far from exaggeration this was until her son set out on Thanksgiving Eve 1988 for a night out with his girlfriend and their baby.


“I thought he was gone. I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It was about 8:30 and all of a sudden I heard these bullets, these guns,” she recalls, her head cocked slightly to the side, her body erect, eyes focused into dead space. “That’s the first time we heard guns on our block and they were loud.”

The memory of that November night is a collection of jagged shards, painful in their sharpness:

* The old man broadcasting to the hospital waiting room assembly that all the commotion outside the was “just another one of those gangbangers.”

* The details of the bullet’s route: through the neck, severing an artery.

* The news much later that said bullet was meant for someone else, a neighborhood kid who had been stirring up trouble, and who shared a haunting likeness to Joe.

“Someone came by later to explain,” she says. “ ‘Mrs. Hawkins, we didn’t mean to shoot your son.’ Why? Why tell me now? It doesn’t make any difference. No difference at all.”


For a while, life seemed like a low-frequency hum drifting in and out around her. Something without substance, something to float through. At its coiled center was the burn of loss, chased with anger.


Friends fell away, many uncertain how to find the right pleasantries, unsure how to extend a hand. Younger son Gerald dipped deep into depression, Hawkins says: “He got into all kinds of trouble. And we as a family gathered around and started going to the unsavory places he went to . . . letting him know that we weren’t going to let him go.”

But she found she couldn’t find strength alone. A support group helped her: Orange County-based Memory of Victims Everywhere. “I wanted to do some action. Not just sit around and cry,” she explains. “It’s important to cry, but four or five years of crying is a little bit too long for me.”

That framework became the blueprint for what took shape as her own support organization. Formed a month after Joe’s death, Drive-By Agony linked her with other mothers, provided a support network--a mission, a balm.

Even Gerald seemed to have turned a life corner. By 1992, he boasted two years of college, a child and aspirations of becoming a probation officer.

Then he pulled up to a convenience store phone booth and two men approached, demanding his keys.

He said no.

They opened fire.

“She didn’t have time to get over one before it hit her again,” says Shields of her friend. “The second death made her real angry. . . . It was like she woke up.”


Frank Hawkins remembers: “It was like a mess around here for a while, starting back that Thanksgiving. Then this slapped us in the face. Lorna couldn’t work, the daughter couldn’t. I was the only one, and I couldn’t sit down at work and cry. . . . It was not something she ever even dreamed of.”

But when it happens, he explains with gathering resolve, “You just have to stand up.”


Parked outside Rita Norwood’s home is a 1975 Monte Carlo, painted gleaming onyx. “He dressed it up himself,” Norwood says. The “he”--son, Kevin, 18--was approached at the Compton Swap Meet, told to turn over this car. He did. They shot him anyway--through the neck.

That was 1989. The car still sits, marooned in the driveway of Norwood’s home, a Drive-By Agony sticker plastered on its bumper.

“I met Lorna in a state of depression. I was looking through the newspaper, and all of a sudden I saw her picture, slumped over in the chair, tore back like I was. So I called her. She put me on the show right away,” says Norwood, who a year later also lost the nephew, Deon, 18, she was raising. “For me being on the show was like a tension relief. Everybody tells me I was a little crazy for a while.”

Lightning isn’t supposed to strike in the same place twice. But it does. Again and again, immobilizing more lives than one can ever imagine.

And so Hawkins sets out to find them, as many as she can, to jump-start the thaw.

“She just appeared out of nowhere,” says Agnes Silvestre, 41, whose son Alfred Clark, a star athlete and honor student at Paramount High School, was shot to death the day before his 1992 graduation at a McDonald’s by two youths threatening to steal his portable CD player.


“She just knew of the court case. She told me of her situation and of the services that she offered and said she’d come to sit with me. It helped me through the grieving process. There wasn’t anyone that I knew who understood.”

So little of it can be explained in words.

Norwood still wanders among persistent symbols: Bullets fly nightly; her son’s assailants loop through her neighborhood; a daughter’s recent near-miss.

But most sobering is her son’s granite headstone, sitting in the backyard on a concrete riser. “And what makes it worse,” says Norwood, “is that you feel like you’re losing because the cases are never solved.”

Hawkins knows that that dull ache called pain is, in and of itself, life-threatening. It is not benign, but transmogrifies, because it never truly ends. Just layer upon layer.

“Not only did they lose their kids,” explains Shields, “but the government’s got so much red tape you can’t even get money to bury your kids. Now who’s planning to bury their kids at 10? 12? Funeral homes are taking five, eight, $10,000 and you have no money . . . and here you are crying, trying to get your kid in the ground.”


About half a block down from the old trolley stop that overlooks the boulevard commemorating the late Martin Luther King Jr. rises Lorna Hawkins’ dream out of the concrete.


She’s stepping at a clip. Shields keeps up with the stride, but can’t hide her surprise when they stop in front of a sagging bowling alley, shuttered and dark. Inside, the lanes are ripped apart; big gaps in the wood flooring look like missing teeth. The air is dank and plywood is piled around the perimeter; the linoleum is stained, the walls mildewed.

Hawkins, however, sees something quite different: Where others might see a grim dead-end, she sees an expansive future.

“We could put a nursery here,” she gestures. “And here the kids can dance. And out here we can set up a playground. Look, out back, there’s plenty of parking.”

She rattles off the wish list for her full-scale, one-stop center offering everything from a comprehensive victims services database to recreation programs. “Where youth can come in and be in an atmosphere of peace.”

Shields eyes Hawkins from behind her tinted shades and sighs: “That’s why I call her LaLa Land. She doesn’t want to worry about what it takes to get there. She just wants to keep going.”

But there’s a reason, Hawkins insists: “Kids are being shot accidentally. They are being shot on purpose. This is just a disease that people let run rampant because adults are too afraid to do anything about it. Afraid that somebody’s going to do something to them.”


Her deep voice lowers, now almost inaudible: “But I have to admit, I do wish I wasn’t doing this. I wonder, why I was the one chosen to do this? Why me? I’m not questioning God. I’m questioning me. Am I the right one?”

It’s overwhelming, she continues: “You want to give it up. But I can’t. I can’t ever do that. There’s too much.” The weight bends her voice, but not her spirit. “Because there’s another person behind you and another person behind that person and they’re going to continue to come--unless somebody does something.”


Lorna Hawkins

Age: 44.

Native: Yes. Born in Long Beach, lives in Lynwood.

Passions: Providing victims support and promoting victims rights through her organization, Drive-By Agony. (For more information, call [310] 537-8018 or [310] 220-3257.)

On the availability of guns: “Kids are committing suicide, playing Russian roulette. Why? Because the guns are so available. When I speak to kids, they tell me that they can get a gun in a half-hour. A half-hour. I’d like to ask the NRA this: ‘If the Saturday night specials are so special to you, what about the bloodshed that they are causing? Does it matter to you that the criminals love that little gun?’ ”