By: Justin St. Clair
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 a freshly baked apple pie or a Sunday Trip with Papa to Ebbets Field. Piers were landmarks, not dilapidated stretches of old lumber that provide privacy for aroused teenagers, woodshop teachers looking to end it all or needle-slinging delinquents.
It’s disgraceful, the condition many of America’s once prominent piers find themselves in today. I went back to Fitzpatrick Pier this past summer, hoping to relive the glory days of my youth. Instead, I came in contact with devastation; finding a tent village housing some of southern New Jersey’s most dangerous criminals a mere one hundred feet from where I had my first kiss.
Thompson Leftwich, a member of the village since 2009, agreed to speak with me on a term of anonymity (so, from this point forward, we’ll refer to him as Darren).
Darren is 48 years old, born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; the eldest of six children to a steamship repairman and a school nurse. His childhood was uneventful, he says, spending most of his days watching television, setting ants on fire to impress the girls at school or getting high by himself in a neighbors shed.
After high school, he worked several odd jobs to make ends meat while traveling the country: waiter, taxi salesman, newspaper editor, even serving as a roadie for Counting Crows during their 1992 Hey Billings, We’re Coming tour. In 1993, Darren moved back east, looking to settle down.
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 all of his tracks. The prosecution botched a key piece of evidence, though, and Darren’s sentence was reduced from life to 15 years.
“I got lucky. Real, real lucky,” Darren tells me, gazing out past the end of the pier. “It’s almost as if I was chosen to do something special. Something gargantuan. There isn’t a day I don’t wake up and think I’m God.”
Now, 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 “victim 37.” I joke that he’s quite the ladies man for someone with no stable income. He flashes a wide-eyed grin before asking if I’ve ever been hiking up on Goucher’s Cliffs.
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, and no one else in the family was allowed to step foot up there. When I tell Darren I’ve never been, he stares at me in amazement.
“It’s a southern Jersey landmark,” he says. “Let me take you up there tonight, preferably around 2 am.”
It’s yet another example of the gracious host and thoughtful friend — not wanting to interrupt Hacksaw Harold’s midnight date in the woods — I’ve come to know over the course of an hour.
There’s a calming presence about Darren. He’s a mountain of a man, standing 6-foot-2-inches and weighing in at a husky 280 pounds. He has soft, fluttering voice and piercing green eyes. He reminds me not of a Division III offensive lineman, but rather a soft, playful bear.
Our conversation is cut short when a villager returns to the pier, blood staining their face, hands, shirt and pants. Darren attempts to calm the man, but it’s not working: he continues shouting someone near the cliffs saw him dragging the body toward the woods. Darren turns to me and says the man is just in shock, having been caught digging up plants again. That’s why the man had a shovel and rope, Darren explains.
As Darren continued tending to his friend, I began thinking maybe, just maybe, Fitzpatrick Pier isn’t a total loss after all. Sure, it’s not the utopic vacation spot from my childhood, but its cast of characters, led by a man who considers himself to be God incarnate, have me believing in a brighter future.