I remember sitting underneath Fitzpatrick Pier in Atlantic City, wiggling sand between my toes and laughing as the cold tide intermittently crashed into my pudgy little legs.
Those were the good old days, when piers were as American as freshly baked apple pie or a Sunday trip with Papa to Ebbets Field. Piers were landmarks, not dilapidated stretches of old lumber used to provide privacy for woodshop teachers and their paid-by-the-hour mistress.
I went back to Fitzpatrick Pier this past summer, hoping to relive the glory days of my youth, which would serve as a distraction from my wife’s revelation that she had been sleeping with my brother Kevin.
A lot has changed from my days as an innocent child. The quiet, secluded spot I shared my first kiss has transformed into a village of tents housing a dozen or so criminals. Budget cuts in 2008 forced New Jersey to close 11 of its 15 prisons, leading to a surplus of criminals flooding the streets.
Thompson Leftwich, a member of the village since 2009, agreed to speak with me on a term of anonymity. So, from this point forward, Thompson will be referred to as Darren.
Darren is 48 years old, born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He’s the eldest of six children, raised by a steamship repairman and a nurse. His childhood was uneventful, he says, spending most of his days watching television, setting ants on fire to impress girls at school or getting high by himself in his neighbor Allan’s shed.
After high school, he worked several odd jobs to make ends meat while traveling the country: waiter, taxi salesman, newspaper editor. Darren even served as a roadie for Motorhead during 1988, 1990 and 1992. In 1993, Darren moved back east, hoping to maintain a low profile following years of allegations linking the Lancaster native to operating a prostitution ring in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
It’s tough for me to imagine Darren, a peaceful, kindred spirit spending time behind bars. But, that’s exactly what happened following his 1994 arrest. Darren wouldn’t go into specific details, simply explaining he had been sloppy, failing to cover his tracks. The prosecution botched a key piece of evidence, and Darren’s sentence was reduced from life to “time served + space restriction” which allowed his early release.
“I got lucky. Real, real lucky,” Darren tells me, gazing past the end of the pier, his eyes fixated on the young couple playfully teasing one another in a canoe. “It’s almost as if I was chosen to do something special. Something gargantuan.”
He pauses. A grin quickly emerges: “There isn’t a day I wake up and don’t think I’m God.”
Darren is one of twelve former inmates from Paterson County Correctional Facility that call Fitzpatrick Pier home. He invited me down for a tour of his tent, a gift from his ex-girlfriend, whom the quirky outlaw jokingly refers to as yet another one of his victim’s. I quip that he’s quite the ladies man for someone with no stable income and a sketchy past. He hears me but doesn’t answer, instead asking if I’ve ever been hiking up on Goucher’s Cliffs.
Darren is stunned when I say I haven’t, explaining that during my childhood vacations, father used to wander up to Goucher’s Cliffs after his nightly bottle of Jack Daniels. It was his peaceful peak, or so he called it. No one else in the family was allowed to step foot up there, and if we did, he’d bring us to the police station and demand we be locked up for the night.
“It’s a southern Jersey landmark,” he says. “Let me take you up there tonight, preferably around 2 am.”
There’s a comfortability about Darren. He’s a mountain of a man, standing 6-foot-4-inches and weighing in at a husky 275 pounds, yet his soft, fluttering voice and doughy green eyes remind me of a bear playfully teasing a salmon.
Hacksaw Harold, a burly man who has arranged for a romantic nightfall date up on the cliffs, winks at Darren as he departs to meet up with Lisa St. Cloud, a 32-year-old CPA from Trenton.
Hacksaw and Lisa just met a few days ago, set up by Hacksaw’s probation officer Clifton Murphy.
“I love that guy,” Darren says, chuckling. “He’s a modern day Pogo the Clown.”
From Hacksaw, we delve into a variety of topics: human instinct, the Miami Marlins recent rebranding, ISIS. It’s in the midst of a conversation about the death penalty, that we are interrupted.
A fellow villager, Dominic, rushes into the crowd of tents, blood staining his face, hands, shirt and wrangler jeans.
Dominic is shouting incoherently. Darren attempts to calm him by tackling him to the ground and stuffing a towel into his mouth. It is to no avail, the shrieks become louder.
After a few hectic minutes of wrestling, Dominic frees himself and tells us that someone saw him dragging a body toward the edge of Goucher’s Cliffs. Immediately, Darren turns toward me. His face as Red as the Soviet flag, he says the man is just in shock, having been caught picking berries again.
I tell Darren something’s come up and that I must get going. He gives me a look of disappointment, but tells me he understands. We hug, his distinct aroma of body odor and expired milk blankets my body.
As he walks away, to return tending to his friend, I think about my childhood. I remember the nights Papa would bring me to the cinema, berate me for spilling my coca-cola, take me to the beach and force me to swim to the nearest buoy and back. I think about my soon-to-be ex-wife and about how her business trips to Allentown were most likely not for work, but to meet up with her friend Jake “the alarm clock” Morris.
As sirens and the sound of gun fire snap me back to reality, I’m filled with a sense of hope. I turn and look out toward the ocean. It’s peaceful, the waves lightly brushing up against the shoreline. Truly, a beautiful scene, and one that makes me think that maybe, just maybe, not all hope is lost for Fitzpatrick Pier.