Tavon Tanner, a Bullet, and What Happened on the Streets of Chicago


He wanted to see the bullet.

For weeks, he had felt it, a bump and an ache, lodged just below his left shoulder. Sometimes other kids asked if they could touch it, and he’d say yes, but not too hard.

If asked, he might pull up his shirt and show the long, fresh scar that snaked from his breastbone to below his navel.

“Thirty staples,” he might say, shyly, wondrously, but even the staples in his tender skin didn’t grip his mind the way the bullet did.

He had carried the bullet in his small body since the August night it pierced his back near the base of his spinal cord and ripped upward, ravaging his pancreas, his stomach, his spleen, a kidney, his left lung. He sometimes texted his mother in the middle of the night to tell her that it hurt.

Now, on a gray October day, a doctor is about to cut the bullet out, and he’s hoping for the chance to inspect the little metal invader.

In a surgery prep room at Lurie Children’s Hospital, he sits in a chair, leaning on his mother’s arm, while doctors and nurses bustle around.

“How do you prefer to be called?” a doctor asks.

“Tavon,” he said. Not Tay-von. Tuh-von.

He’ll be under general anesthesia, the doctor explains, so he’ll get an astronaut mask. Would he like it to be scented?

Before he can decide which scent – cherry, candy, bubble gum? – another woman enters, a specialist trained in the fears of children.

“My guess,” she tells him, “is your imagination is working like crazy right now.”

As she talks, he looks away, silent. Withdrawn behavior, the specialist knows, is common in children who have been shot.

When she tells him he’ll be given laughing gas, though, he laughs, and for a moment a different boy flashes into view, the old Tavon, charming, lighthearted, graced with an incandescent smile, a 10-year-old boy known as joyful.

“What are you scared of?” one of the relatives gathered around him murmurs. “You don’t know? Something. You tired of it? I know. You know what? It’s almost over.”

He isn’t eager to get back into a hospital bed. He spent most of August and September in one, stretched out on his back for so long that he still has a bald spot where his head chafed against the pillow.

But he does what needs to be done, no complaints except the slump of his shoulders.

He slips out of his red Chicago Bulls T-shirt and black pants, into a blue hospital gown.

Climbs into the rolling, metal bed.

Allows strangers to bundle him in white sheets from his chin to his toes, leaving only his small face free.

Lies there wide-eyed and quiet as relatives pray over him, whisper in his ear, promise him hot wings when the surgery is over.

Then it’s time.

“Ready to go, kiddo?” the specialist in children’s fears asks, and with barely a movement or a sound, Tavon begins to cry.

Unintended targets
From the first day of January through the middle of December this year, 24 children 12 or younger were shot in Chicago.

Shot stepping out of a car. Playing in the street. In front of a home. Outside a Golden Fish & Chicken.

They were shot in the jaw, the chest, the face, the arm, the groin, the back, the foot, the leg, the abdomen, the head.

A 1-year-old in the back seat of a car was struck in the neck.

Jamia, Jaylene, Khlo’e, Tacarra, Zariah, Corey, Devon. Their names varied – some publicly named only as John or Jane Doe – but all were considered “unintended targets,” children who just happened to be in the way when the bullets flew.

Toward the end of this violent summer, I got in touch, or tried to, with parents of several children who had been shot, hoping to learn how the attacks had changed their families’ lives.

At one girl’s home, relatives said they didn’t know where she and her mother had gone, maybe to a shelter. The official address of one boy turned out to be a vacant lot.

One friendly woman opened her door and said she knew who had shot her daughter – a family acquaintance currently hiding in Milwaukee. She readily agreed to talk about it more, but when I tried later to reach her, she didn’t answer her phone or her door.

I met the parents of another wounded girl one afternoon in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. They were sitting on their porch while their daughter played with Barbie dolls. The woman invited me up, but it quickly became clear that the man wanted me to go.

“Why are you doing this story?” he asked.

A good question, fair.

I tried to explain that unless people understood how far and long the shooting of a child ripples, how it can alter the course of a life, a family, a neighborhood, how all of these shootings added together imperil the city, nothing in Chicago would change.

“People?” he scoffed. “What people?”

He looked away, down the block toward several young men clustered around an old car.

“It ain’t gonna matter,” he said. “This is Englewood, man.”

Shock, grief, despair. Gang affiliations. Fear of retaliation. The desire to protect a child. The time-consuming business of just getting on with life.

There are many reasons the parents of a child who has been shot might prefer not to talk in public about what happened.

But Mellanie Washington was different.

Washington, who is 39, was hesitant at first, but she and Tavon came to believe that telling their story might matter. Let people see the damage. Let them know how the shooting of a child changes everything, and what it takes to recover.

“I want everybody to know what he’s been through,” she said.

She wants everybody to know one other thing as well.

“He’s still here. He’s still here.”

West Polk Street
Even in the daily chronicle of this year’s Chicago violence, Monday, Aug. 8, stood out: the city’s deadliest day in 13 years. Nineteen people were shot, nine of them killed. Among the wounded was a 10-year-old boy who had been playing on his porch on West Polk Street in the Lawndale neighborhood.

Tavon Tanner.

As babies, Tavon and his sister Taniyah – the survivors of quadruplets – lived with their mother in the West Side home of Washington’s favorite aunt. Their father, Andre Tanner, lived nearby.

“He grew up more ghetto,” Washington says, adding that his “lifestyle” was different from hers. Nevertheless, Tanner stayed involved with his kids until the night in 2007 when he died.

Sunday, July 1. Washington remembers the date because it was the day before her birthday.

Tanner was sitting on his grandmother’s porch a few houses away from Washington’s home, a party going on inside. At 1:50 a.m., his gun went off, and the bullet struck him in the abdomen. The official cause of death was deemed “undetermined”; the family believes it was an accident. Within an hour, he was declared dead. He was 28.

The twins, too young to remember, grew up knowing their father only through photographs and the stories their mother told them. One thing she told them is that guns are dangerous.

“So why did he have one?” Taniyah once asked.

Washington had no perfect answer.

By the time the twins were 9, Washington was eager to escape the old neighborhood. She loved her relations, but she was tired of the constant closeness and the neighborhood’s “little madness.”

“Let them miss us,” she thought.

Financially, she was ready. She had a job as a dietary assistant at a suburban nursing home, where she prepared meal trays for the elderly. She also had a Section 8 housing voucher, her first, and with that help she went in search of a home on the North Side. Nowhere in Chicago was truly safe, she believed, but the North Side was safer.

One after another, the North Side landlords turned her down.

“That’s how I wound up on West Polk,” she says.

Lawndale, she knew, struggled with poverty and violence, and West Polk was an easy hop off the Eisenhower Expressway, a drug thoroughfare nicknamed the Heroin Highway.

Still, she was pleased with her new first-floor apartment in a graystone two-flat. It felt like luxury to have enough space for the twins, her older daughter and a young son. Tavon was happy.

“I liked the house,” he recalls, “but it was a lot of shooting.”

Washington resolved to keep her children safe.

“My kids stay up under me” is how she puts it.

She escorted her three youngest to school every weekday before setting out on the two-hour commute, via trains and buses, to her job. She forbade her kids to play on the basketball court at the end of the block where older kids gathered and trouble stewed.

The first and only time she let Tavon play there, someone stole one of his flip-flops. Never again, she vowed.

“They was the nicest neighbors I had in 40 years,” says Betty Johnson, 79, who lives next door. “She was raising those kids right.”

A while after Washington moved onto West Polk, another woman with kids moved into the apartment upstairs. Up on the second floor, people came and went constantly, and the place was loud.

But it was nothing more than ordinary trouble, or so it seemed until one night in August.

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Source: Chicago Tribune | Mary Schmich