Lost Boys of the cities

Anna Quindlen

March 05, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

They are the children who fall out of their perambulators whe the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses. THE LOST BOYS made news. The television crews and the newspaper reporters went to that Neverland called East New York to take note of the fact that one of them, aged 15, had allegedly shot and killed two others in a high school hallway in what classmates called a "beef." This means a disagreement.

It could have been Bushwick or the South Bronx or any of the other New York neighborhoods that are shorthand for going nowhere. It could have been Chicago or L.A. or Baltimore or any one of dozens of other cities. The Lost Boys are everywhere. Most especially in prison. By then, unlike the children Peter Pan described, they have grown up.

We reporters won't stay long. The Lost Boys claim public attention for only a short time, and many of us are loath to walk in their neighborhoods, which makes us no different from the people who live in them. The mayor was at the high school the day of the killings. He came to tell the students that they, too, could build a future. For many of them, the future is that short period of time between today and the moment when they shoot or get shot.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for black teen-agers in America.

There is a lot of talk now about metal detectors and gun control. Both are good things. But they are no more a solution than forks and spoons are a solution to world hunger. Kids, particularly kids who live amid crack houses and abandoned buildings, have a right to think of their school as a safe haven.

But it's important to remember that a kid can get himself a box cutter and wait outside until the last bell rings. With a metal detector, you can keep the homicide out of the hallways. Perhaps with something more, you can keep the homicide out of the heart.

"These boys die like it's nothing," said Angela Burton, whose boyfriend was one of the two killed in East New York.

The problem is that when we look into this abyss, it goes so deep that we get dizzy and pull back from the edge. Teen-age mothers. Child abuse. Crowded schools. Homes without fathers. Projects lousy with drugs, vermin, crime, and always, the smell of urine in the elevator. I have never been in a project that hasn't had that odor, and I have never smelled it without wondering: If your home smells like a bathroom, what does that tell you about yourself?

One of the ways to motivate kids is to say that if you do this bad thing now, you won't be able to do this good thing tomorrow. That doesn't work with the Lost Boys. They stopped believing in tomorrow a long time ago.

The impulse control of an adolescent, the conviction that sooner or later you'll end up dead or in jail anyhow, and a handgun you can buy on the corner easier than getting yourself a pair of new Nikes: the end result is preordained.

"If you don't got a gun, you got to get one," said one teen-ager hanging with his friends at the corner of East New York and

Pennsylvania Avenues.

If news is sometimes defined as aberration, as Man Bites Dog, it's the successes we should be rushing out to cover in these neighborhoods, the kids who graduate, who get jobs, who stay clean.

Alwyn Cohall, a pediatrician who runs four school-based clinics in New York, remembers the day he was giving one of those kids a college physical, which is the happiest thing he ever does, when from out in the hallway he heard the sound. Pow. Pow. One moment he was filling out the forms for a future, the next giving CPR to another teen-ager with a gunshot wound blossoming in his chest. The kid died on the high school floor.

"He never even made the papers next day," the doctor recalled.

The story in East New York will likely end with the funerals. A 15-year-old killer is not that unusual; many city emergency rooms provide coloring books on gun safety.

Dr. Cohall says that when the students at his schools come back after the long hot summer, they are routinely asked by the clinic staff how many of their friends were shot over vacation. The good doctor knows that it is possible to reclaim some of the Lost Boys, but it requires money, dedication, above all the will to do it.

Or we can continue to let them go. To defray expenses.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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