Over the Edge
The suicide of a 14-year-old boy
The Village Voice | March 21, 2006
ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 10, Sidney Hatchett lay in a pale-blue coffin at the Vanella’s Funeral Chapel on the Lower East Side. A slew of gifts surrounded him—a Yankees hat, three teddy bears, a white stuffed rabbit, a bundle of silk flowers. Sidney had told his mother he wanted an Akademiks denim outfit for Easter this year, so that’s what she had bought for him to be buried in. There was no sign of how Sidney had died, except that his face was slightly puffy. He’d spent two days in the East River before police divers found his body. He was 14.
One week earlier, on the last day of his life, Sidney Hatchett woke up at 6:45 a.m. and started getting ready for school. Most mornings he didn’t spend too much time worrying about how he looked, but on this day he pulled out his favorite sweater—the navy one with red stripes—and he ironed his cargo pants. It was 23 degrees outside, so to keep warm he put a pair of blue jeans on underneath his cargo pants. He walked his eight-year-old brother Shaquelle to his bus stop, waited with him for the bus to arrive, then headed home, stopping at a bodega to get a snack for his sister to eat later that day.
As the oldest child, Sidney regularly helped his siblings get off to school, even on those days when he didn’t go himself. Sidney, who was in ninth grade, had already missed about 30 days of school this year. While he’d once been an honor roll student, he had announced recently that he didn’t like school anymore. His mother didn’t argue with him; instead she let him stay home. Sidney’s school notified the city’s Administration for Children’s Services about his absences, and later today an ACS caseworker was scheduled to come to the apartment to investigate.
Now Sidney had no choice but to go back to school. He kissed two fingers and pressed them against his mother’s cheek—his usual goodbye gesture—then left with his six-year-old sister Shakeema. The family lived on the Lower East Side on a short street called Rutgers Slip, just north of the Manhattan Bridge.
There was no need to walk toward the water—Shakeema’s school was in the other direction—but Sidney headed that way, darting across South Street. When they reached the promenade, he took off his parka and handed it to his sister. “Bye, Keema,” he said. “I’m going to jump in the water.”
“No, please don’t,” she cried.
But Sidney had already made up his mind. He climbed over the barricade and hurled himself into the freezing river.
SEVENTEEN DAYS AFTER SIDNEY’S DEATH, his mother, Keisha Davis, sits on a sofa in her living room and talks about him for more than two hours. Keisha does not use the word “suicide” to describe Sidney’s death. Instead she says “my son passed,” or she speaks about “the day Sidney went in the water.” She doesn’t deny that Sidney leapt into the East River; she just can’t seem to accept the fact that he ended his own life. He did not leave a note; he’d never attempted suicide before; and he wasn’t preoccupied with death, at least not as far as she knew.
Keisha Davis, 30, describes her son variously as a “goofball” and “a little dad” because he helped out so much with his younger siblings. “If I had a bad day, Sidney was going to do something to take my mind off it,” she says. He’d move around the apartment, practicing a dance he called the Shake, wiggling his upper body while his hands hung at his sides. And he was a perpetual prankster, stealing her spoon when she went off to the bathroom in the middle of a meal, then giggling when she returned and couldn’t find it.
When Sidney was in eighth grade, he used to come home brimming with stories about what had happened at school that day. The next year, after he entered University Neighborhood High School—which was started a few years ago in collaboration with NYU—these conversations stopped. “Did you have a good day?” his mother would ask. “Yeah,” he’d say. “What did you do?” she’d ask. “Nothing,” he’d reply.
Keisha began getting calls from a guidance counselor, who, she says, accused Sidney of starting fights in school. As these calls became more frequent, Keisha got angry; she didn’t believe her son was a troublemaker. (The guidance counselor and school principal did not return calls for this story; ACS is continuing to investigate Keisha, since she has two children at home.) According to Keisha, the guidance counselor encouraged her to have Sidney “evaluated.” Keisha wasn’t sure what this meant, but Sidney didn’t want to participate. Keisha sided with Sidney.
When Sidney said he didn’t want to go to school at all, Keisha let him stay home. Mother and son would hang out together, get lunch, go to the barbershop. “I was letting him know that I understand, I’m not angry with you,” she says. “Because I know it’s not a situation where you don’t want to learn, or you don’t want to go to school. It’s a situation where you’re stressed out, and I was trying to relieve some of that stress.”
After Sidney’s death, Keisha heard stories that helped explain why he’d been so adamant about not going to school: Other kids told her he’d been regularly taunted and beaten. One instance involved his cell phone. Sidney had told Keisha that it disappeared when someone took it from his pocket; after his death, she heard that kids at school had attacked him and stolen the phone. “It’s not something he’d come home and tell me,” she says. “He was very protective. And you know how 14-year-old boys are—he was probably ashamed.” About his decision to jump in the river, she says flatly, “He was bullied to death.”
It is one explanation for Sidney’s suicide, but it may not be the whole explanation.
KEISHA DAVIS GAVE BIRTH to Sidney when she was 16 years old, then dropped out of high school. When Sidney was four, they entered the city’s homeless shelter system. That first night, they stayed at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, where she slept in a chair and he slept on her lap. It was the beginning of an odyssey through the shelter system that lasted more than a year. Keisha recalls that she and Sidney spent about seven months in a welfare hotel near Kennedy Airport, then transferred to a shelter in Bushwick.
Eventually, they moved into apartment 19L, the two-bedroom 19th-floor place on Rutgers Slip. Keisha had grown up in the Mitchel Houses, a housing project in Mott Haven, and the fact that she was now raising her son somewhere other than the projects was a point of pride. (About the Bronx project where she grew up, she says: “I hated it; it was violent; it was nasty; it always smelled.”)
Their apartment on Rutgers Slip is down the street from two projects—the La Guardia Houses and the Rutgers Houses—and it felt like a step up. It is a mixed-income building with a doorman, laundry machines in the lobby, and a community center on the first floor. Section 8, the federal voucher program, subsidizes her rent, and she pays $326 a month. Still, it’s a stretch for Keisha to make the rent; she works as a cashier at Pathmark earning seven dollars an hour.
Inside apartment 19L, Sidney shared a small bedroom with his two siblings. The closet door leans off its hinges, the result of a wrestling match between him and his brother. Inside is an empty box for a Game Boy Advance SP—the Christmas present that was in his pocket when he jumped in the water. There are no bookshelves, but beneath a broken TV set are well-worn copies of two of his favorite books, 145th Street: Short Stories and Handbook for Boys: A Novel, both by Walter Dean Myers.
The day before he killed himself, Sidney visited the apartment of Steven Neville, his cousin and best friend, who lives upstairs on the 20th floor. The two played the video game NBA Live 2006, and Steven says he didn’t notice anything amiss: “He seemed all right to me.” Steven and Sidney had been friends since they were seven. When the weather was warmer, they played basketball together in the park across the street. If anyone tried to bother Sidney, who was smaller than other kids his age, Steven would intervene.
When Steven heard that Sidney had jumped into the East River, he was stunned. Asked why he thought Sidney took his life, Steven does not have an answer. The boys attended different high schools, and Steven says Sidney never told him he was being harassed or bullied at school. “He kept that secret,” he says. “He didn’t tell nobody.”
Every month, Sidney got his hair cut by George Rosario, a barber who works at a shop on Madison Street. “He was real quiet, sadness in his eyes. Just a regular ghetto kid. Just like all of us,” says George, 34, who grew up in the neighborhood. George ran into Sidney on the street all the time; the two would greet each other by slapping palms. While seated in George’s chair, Sidney sometimes talked about the fights he got into at school. To George, the tales sounded familiar; he was not overly concerned. “Who doesn’t go through that in the ‘hood?” he says.
SIDNEY’S PARENTS STARTED DATING when his mother was 13 and his father was a few years older. His father, also named Sidney, was the youngest of seven siblings; his family called him Peanut. The two lived across the street from each other in the Bronx. “I thought I was in love,” Keisha says. “I thought he was going to save me and we were going to be together forever.” The fairy tale faded quickly; she and Peanut split after four years. While in the shelter system, she met another man, whom she has been with for nearly 10 years. They are not married, but she refers to him as “Sidney’s stepfather”; he is the father of her two younger children.
Over the years, Sidney stayed connected to his father’s family through the efforts of his paternal grandmother, Victoria Felton. On Friday afternoons, she’d send someone to get him so he could come up to the Bronx to hang out for the weekend. She gave him a nickname—Jazz—and when he was in elementary school, he announced that he wanted to live with her. Keisha agreed, and Sidney moved to the Bronx for almost a year before deciding to return home.
Victoria Felton died in 2000, and afterward Sidney saw his father far less often. Peanut had always been a drinker, and he had suffered brain damage after being hit in the head with a bat on a Bronx street. In the months following his mother’s death, Peanut spent days inside her apartment, surrounded by empty 40-ounce bottles of St. Ides. “Peanut got lost in the head,” his sister Gina Felton says. “He’d sit in the apartment all day drinking, watching TV, listening to the radio.” Peanut stopped paying rent and lost the apartment. Eventually he too entered the shelter system.
The last time Peanut’s siblings saw him was in August, when he showed up at a family barbecue. Besides drinking too much, Peanut suffers from chronic seizures. In October, Gina brought his photo to the Fort Washington Armory, the shelter in Washington Heights where he had been staying. She says she found a few men who recognized Peanut, and that one of them told her they’d last seen him leaving the shelter in an ambulance. She contacted the police and called around to local hospitals, but has not been able to find him.
Relations between Sidney’s parents had been strained for a long time. Keisha says the last time she saw Peanut he promised to show up for Sidney’s sixth-grade graduation, but never did. A week before Sidney jumped in the river, one of Peanut’s sisters called apartment 19L and talked to him about his father. Keisha remembers the call coming into the apartment, but she says she only learned that Sidney’s father had disappeared after Sidney died.
Among Peanut’s relatives, Sidney’s suicide stirred up memories of two other tragic deaths. Peanut’s father—Sidney’s grandfather, also named Sidney Hatchett—died about 20 years ago when he fell from a tenement building in the Bronx. Nobody knew for certain whether he jumped or was pushed. According to Gina Felton, little Sidney’s great-grandfather died in a similar way, leaping from a building. In his case, she says, the family had little doubt that it was a suicide.
SIDNEY’S FUNERAL WAS SCHEDULED TO START at 10 A.M., and by then nearly every seat was filled. About 60 people showed up—friends, relatives, classmates. Just before 10, Keisha Davis walked to the front and gazed down at her son. She placed her head inside the casket, leaned her cheek against his, pressed her lips to his face. Eventually she turned around and took a seat in the front row. The funeral lasted only a few minutes—it included one reading from the Bible but no speeches or songs—and then everyone filed past the coffin to say goodbye.
By 10:25 a.m. Sidney’s casket was in the back of a silver hearse, traveling down Madison Street. As the motorcade headed off to a cemetery in New Jersey, most of the funeral-goers remained on the sidewalk, clustered in small groups, whispering to one another. It was an exceptionally warm day—the temperature was almost 70 degrees—and everyone was trying to find an answer to the same question, trying to figure out why Sidney Hatchett had thrown himself in the river.