When you are a registered sex offender in America, you lose the right to choose where you want to live. By law. Your backstory doesnt matter. Nor does the nature of your crime or your excuse. You are exiled from society, and only a few places will welcome you. Like this place in South Florida. The City of Refuge.
I suppose in this case I am the offender. I got things confused and showed up a day early, but my hosts were more than forgiving. They’ve got their own little colony out in the cane fields. Down here in Pahokee, Florida. They call it City of Refuge.
As everybody now knows, sex offenders have a rough time of it after they get out of prison. Because of the registry. Because the state says they can’t live within a thousand feet of a school or a playground or a bus stop. Because they can’t live anywhere children assemble, etc. So they end up living out of their cars, under highway overpasses, or in the woods, like fearful animals, like homeless lepers. You could say they’re lucky to be here, even if it is four miles from anything resembling a town, not much of a resemblance at that, and the “city” (really more of a village) being just a lonely former barracks built by U.S. Sugar for migrant workers in the ’60s. Sixty-one concrete bungalows on twenty-four acres, with 120 resident offenders at any given time, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of sweet, sugary nothing. A couple of dozen older Jamaicans still live here, too, but the sex offenders arrived six and a half years ago when Pat Powers, an offender himself, came and claimed the place in the name of Jesus Christ. They live in this exile, of course, because there is nothing lower than their kind.
Considering how welcoming they are, however, I’m inclined to resist the urge to assume the worst—and anyway, I don’t particularly want to know the specifics of any of their crimes. Society has already exacted its debt, is my thinking.
I arrived on a Sunday and found my new friends just finishing up a game of touch football. Everyone was all sweaty and out of breath and still laughing about how one of the guys, Glenn, had been running a fake reverse and collided with a clothesline pole.
I apologized profusely for showing up early and offered to find a motel for the night, but one of the guys, Ted, said it wasn’t a problem, not at all, we’re happy to have you, we’ll fix you up in our guest room. Then he introduced me to his wife, Rose. He did it very formal, like: Jay, I’d like you to meet my wife, Rose. Rose, who isn’t the only woman in the village but who is the only registered female sex offender. I apologized some more to Rose, who has faded green tattoos on her fleshy arms and the oblique demeanor of a log-truck dispatcher, but she shrugged and made a joke that I was welcome so long as I didn’t snore.
Since most of the guys were in shorts and flip-flops, it was easy to notice their ankle monitors, including one on a thuggish-looking kid with a shaved head and messed-up teeth who greets me, “Hey, Random Dude.”
Another guy, a fratty blond with a brohawk who’s spitting into a water bottle, turns out to be Glenn, the one who collided with the clothesline pole. He wants to tell me about his real home.
“I can’t live there,” he says. “I have a house in Palm Beach Gardens I can’t go to.” He shows me pictures on his phone. “A swimming pool. Jacuzzi. Banana trees.”
Glenn looks and sounds like Matt Damon except for some pretty heavy-duty scarification on the inside of his arm. He’s otherwise very clean-cut, bright, originally from L.A. He flips through more pictures. “I mean, that’s the master bedroom.”
The place is 5,700 square feet. Three and a half acres. His dad bought it. Glenn was going to live there rent-free when he got out, but the statute for the city of Palm Beach Gardens says sex offenders can’t live within 2,500 feet of anywhere minors might conceivably convene. They confuse the hell out of you, he says, since the distance varies. The state of Florida says 1,000 feet, but other municipalities, even within the same county, have different statutes. So it’s 2,000 feet here, who knows what there. The sheriff, probation officers, nobody can keep it straight. You start to feel like they’re just making it up as they go along. That’s one thing that makes life at City of Refuge easier: You’re not within 2,500 feet of anything.
“But where are we supposed to go? How are we supposed to get a job?” Glenn pauses to spit in his water bottle. “I spoke to my probation officer this morning. I had a job lined up, I was going to work in the fast-food industry just to make ends meet. But because there was gonna be minors working with me, I couldn’t.”
He said the reason he’d gone to prison was the same for a bunch of the younger guys here: the statutory boyfriend-girlfriend thing. It wasn’t that they were all child molesters. They’d had 15- or 16-year-old girlfriends when they themselves were 18 or 19. Yes, the laws are that draconian. And yes, it’s shitty that they can end up doing fifteen years in prison and then get put on the registry as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. Also shitty that there doesn’t seem to be much distinction in the eyes of the law between their crimes and the crimes committed by the least equivocal and unmitigated of sexual predators, a number of whom I will get to meet over the following days.
That is, a sex offender is a sex offender, and you’re branded for decades or even life. In the eyes of society, as sex offenders, they are all equally guilty. All treated with equal abhorrence. If it weren’t for City of Refuge, they’d be out there on their own. Here is exile that is also asylum from the larger, unforgiving world. Here is, weirdly enough, real community. And when I say community, I don’t mean that bourgeois civic vagueness you always hear the co-op crowd chattering about. I mean the kind of community that would protect you from vigilantes intent on dragging you out of bed in the middle of the night to take turns kicking your teeth down your throat.
Rush hour at City of Refuge
I wake the next morning to the rustle of cane outside my window and the smell of bacon frying. I lie here awhile, ensconced like a spoiled cherub in piles of gold and red throw pillows and a downy gold bedspread, looking out the window at a pitiless geometry of cane fields. They grid out as far as the eye can measure. In the distance is an enormous plume of black smoke above an orange plinth of flame. I have no idea what it means.
In the living room, the whole house is as fragrant as an ice cream shop on a warm summer day. Rose is still in her nightie on the couch where I left her last night, playing a game on her cell phone with a mini stylus, feet on the glass coffee table between a vase of white roses and a burning vanilla candle.
When she pours me a mug of coffee, I comment on the huge letters eat hanging on the kitchen wall. Rose smiles and says the sign was a Christmas present from a neighbor. Then she waits a beat and says how, when he gave it to her, she went, Am I supposed to put that in the kitchen or in the bedroom? Another beat. She goes: I’d prefer the bedroom.
That’s when a freshly showered Ted enters, chuckling in his smoky, affable way, to join me at the table. “It’s very much just a regular community here,” he says. There are several married couples and a few with kids. They’ve even got one stay-at-home dad who’s a registered predator. A really sweet guy named Andy.
Ted and Rose themselves got married three years ago, in September, just after Ted was re-released for a probation violation. They met in the village. Rose says how her probation officer, Officer Cox, wouldn’t let her go on a honeymoon. That’s because Rose had a 10 P.M. curfew then. Officer Cox is like that, a real hacksaw. She’ll hit you with a parole violation for a hangnail. Like, for instance, Rose has got a big soft spot for Winnie the Pooh, as I’ve already gleaned from the couple’s video collection. But one day Officer Cox shows up unannounced, barges in, and wags her finger at all the Winnie the Pooh dolls and the pictures of Rose’s children, who, per terms and conditions of probation, Rose was barred from seeing, and she goes: I want all this shit out of here or you’re gettin’ violated. Just like that. All this shit.
Over breakfast, Ted tells me that if I want, I can sit in on an intake call, which is a conference call they’re having with a possible new resident. The man’s getting released from prison in a month, and he’ll need somewhere to live. Ted says they’ve got the vacancy now because of Earl, the current black eye on the village. Earl just got sent back to prison for twenty-three years for trying to contact his victim on Facebook. Big mistake. Ted tells me how he and Pat had gone to Earl’s hearings. Then he tells me that when Earl’s victim testified, it made Ted remember that he had created a victim, too, and by the way he looks me in the eye, I can truly sense that some kinds of regret must have a longer half-life than others: “Earl was delusional. He thought his victim really liked him. So Earl never saw the pain he caused. That’s just a reminder to me of the very real pain that we’ve caused people. If there’s any one thing that prevents me from ever re-offending…”
He falls silent, holding his breakfast sandwich mid-air, a pained wonder testing his eyes.
“I never, ever want to bring harm to another person. Believe me. Going to Earl’s hearing—” he sets down his drippy sandwich as if suddenly repulsed—”it was more disgust with knowing that I caused a similar pain. That’s where my disgust was, not with Earl. It was with myself.”
When it’s time for the intake meeting, Ted gives Rose a peck on the cheek and we walk over to Pat’s, two houses down, where, on the porch, Pat’s dog naps in the shadow of a ratty bench press.
The men are gathered around the kitchen table: Pat and their intake manager, Jerry, and Chad, a younger guy with peroxide bangs who’s rubbing his shoulders and moaning a bit from their football game yesterday.
The offenders: (From left) Douglas Ryan (with his dog, Goldy) and Richard Sears
All of the men are offenders themselves, employed by Matthew 25 Ministries, the nonprofit started by a man named Dick Witherow twenty-six years ago. Witherow, a kindly and selfless man by all accounts, knew the hardships offenders went through in the outside world and felt they needed their own place to start over. Especially since many of them ended up homeless, which so often led to reincarceration. So he searched Florida top to bottom, looking for a neighborhood that would comply with state and local ordinances, until he and Pat Powers found the site in 2008. City of Refuge leases about a quarter of the rentals from a property-management company, and a small percentage of the money from sublets goes toward paying the staff. When Witherow died, in 2012, Pat became the Grand Pooh-Bah of the place, with a nominally involved board of directors.
I take a seat between Chad and the wall and flip through a picture book, Rooster’s Off to See the World. Pat, who sits at the end with his restless thick fingers interlaced on the table before him, says it belongs to his 8-year-old granddaughter.
“Mommy and Daddy got all messed up on drugs,” Pat says by way of explanation, so his granddaughter had to come here for a spell. Pat took her to school every day, and Rose would come down to give her baths and fix her pancakes, because sometimes it really does take a village. (By that time, Rose was off probation, so she was able to help.) It worked out great, Pat says, since all the guys who aren’t supposed to have contact with kids knew to amscray if they saw her coming. His granddaughter even got to where she’d ask if a guy was on probation. “I can’t talk to you,” she’d say, and that was that.
I size up Pat as just your standard pugnacious fireplug who’s maybe a little more pushy than actually charismatic. This is the man who says he started City of Refuge after God dragged him and Dick Witherow kicking and screaming through a staggering number of divine coincidences, wrong turns, pratfalls, and theological booby traps. He launches into a story about how the place had been a maximal den of iniquity: drug dealers, shootings, car thieves, murders, etc., with giant piles of ghetto trash in the middle of the road, and how when he’d first moved in, the pipes were burst and he’d had to sleep on a couple of lawn chairs, and how in the middle of the night he’d slain half a dozen rats with a shovel, and, honest to Pete, how he didn’t want to have anything to do with the place at first, but he didn’t have a choice, since God had commanded him to come here to deliver his people out of exile.
It all seems like a pretty steep story, especially the bit about how the migrant workers were so afraid of the drug dealers that they hid inside their homes until the sex offenders arrived, but otherwise Pat is pretty likable and grandfatherly in his generic red baseball cap, and every bit as welcoming as the others.
I ask about the flames, which we can see out the kitchen window.
Pat explains how they burn the cane before harvest to make it easier for the machines by getting rid of the “trash,” or the worthless parts of the plant.
The fires get so sooty, Chad says, they call it Pahokee snow.
“Black snow,” Pat says.
They have to sweep it from their stoops when it blankets the village. I feel like that must be some kind of metaphor, and I wonder if they think so, too, but I let it slide.
Then, while we wait for the prison to patch in the intake call, Pat tells me a bit more of his story while the others listen politely.
“It took me a long time to forgive myself,” he says, with his fingers still twiddling. Without beating around the bush, he says how he had got “involved” with some racquetball players. He’d been a coach at a private club. He stares at me intently with his glinty blue eyes. “I’m guilty. I hurt people. Those are the hardest things to accept. But once you accept it and admit you’re a piece of crap—my attitude was, they couldn’t punish me enough. I thought I should have been killed at the time, okay? But then, after a while, you say, Wait a second, hold it. People have done things as bad if not worse and they’re not being punished anymore. Okay. Why? I did twelve years. We’ve paid our debt to society, so now let us live our life. You know? Let me tell you, if I screw up again, hang me.”
I ask if he feels that Earl deserved to go back to prison for so long.
“I did not feel they did him wrong,” Pat says. “Earl brought this upon himself. We told him to plead guilty. If he had pled guilty right in the beginning, we had a chance, but he didn’t want to listen. I got a letter from him after he’d been sentenced, said, ‘I should’ve listened to ya.’ Well, it’s too late.”
Everyone around the table sighs.
“I told him to straighten it out.” Pat shrugs. “And he didn’t listen.”
When the soon-to-be ex-con gets patched in, they lob a bunch of questions at him, about God, substance abuse, what his expectations are for when he gets out, whether he admits he’s guilty, whether he thinks he’ll be able to keep up on the rent, stuff like that.
“What are you gonna do to make sure you don’t commit another crime like this?” Pat asks, leaning over the table.
The man’s name is Chris. “Well, I mean, you gotta place God at the head of your life. You know? Which I didn’t before. And I mean, I’ve learned from my time.” As he speaks, haltingly, I picture him encased in a gray booth behind a pane of scratched gray shatterproof glass. “And you know, I’ve become a better person because of it. I definitely know I won’t offend again.”
“How do you know that, Chris?” Ted asks.
There’s a long pause before he answers.
“How do I know that? Well, I believe in myself. And I learned from my mistakes. I’m not into the old me anymore. I’m a born-again Christian, and it’s just not me anymore. You know? I’m not that guy anymore.”
They look at one another like they find that answer somehow reassuring.
Pat asks if he’s got any talents, and it turns out Chris knows some plumbing. Then, after a few more softballs, they take a silent vote. All in favor nod. Four thumbs up. See, Pat says, when they get off the phone, there’s always a reason God is sending a person here.
“For every guy we accept, we probably reject about twenty,” he says. “You saw the process we go through. We’re not just gonna take everybody charged with a sex crime. This is not a dumping ground.”
“For starters, we will not take a diagnosed pedophile,” Ted says. “A lot of people don’t understand the true definition of that.”
“People classify a lot of offenders as pedophiles,” Pat says, “but diagnosed means you’re attracted to one specific age group of child. We won’t take ’em.”
“Five to 9 years old,” Ted says. “That’s the only age group that they’re attracted to—we cannot take those people.”
Neither, Pat says, will they take serial rapists: “No person that’s been convicted of more than one rape.”
“Convicted of more than one?” I say.
Pat fiddles with his watch. “Let me put it this way. There was a person that lived out here—we turned him down four different times. But some other people went above our heads. They didn’t want him living in their community. Right away I told them, listen, if anything happens, it’s on you people, not on us.” He pauses, lets that warning sink in. “Well, he ended up killing a woman. Raping and killing her, I guess.”
He shrugs as if to say, “I told ’em so.”
I’m still trying to catch up with the semantics when he drops this fresh horror in my lap. It all sounds a bit qualified. There are no serial rapists? What about undiagnosed pedophiles? So you’re welcome if you molested untold multitudes of children but just weren’t convicted multiple times? And wait: raped and murdered out here in the village, or—?
But then comes a panicked knock at the door.
Doug, or Random Dude, from the night before, comes into Pat’s kitchen freaking out. He’s just been down at the probation office, where they ordered him to sign a waiver to let the P.O. access his polygraph test. “I told him my conditions were therapeutical use!”
He is frantic and babbling about his terms and conditions. “According to my terms and conditions, from my understanding!” He is panting, eyes wild, stomping his feet on the linoleum.
“Sit down, sit down, sit down,” Jerry says.
“I’m sorry.” He’s clenching his fists. “I’m just a little—”
“I know. That’s why I’m saying sit down and take a deep breath.”
Doug is spitting out a lot of names that I can’t keep straight. Cox, Sharrard, Crawford. Some are judges, some probation officers.
Ted quickly fills me in as best he can: While offenders are required by law to take a polygraph, it’s solely for the purpose of state-mandated sex-offender therapy. As he understands it, probation has no right to the polygraphs unless the probationer agrees, but Doug says his probation officer told him he’d violate him if he didn’t sign the release paperwork. A violation can easily mean an automatic three months in jail.
“Yeah, well, there’s more,” Doug says. The P.O. was toying with him. “He said, ‘Right now, I have nothing saying that you even took your polygraph. Which leaves you on grounds of violation.’ ”
“Okay, call Ben,” Jerry says.
“I already contacted Ben!” Ben is the sex-offender therapist who holds group sessions in the village. “Sharrard’s threatening to violate me right now! He’s starting to take it to court. In the works right now.”
“Okay. Stop.” All eyes turn to Pat. “From the time you walked in, describe what happened.”
“He looked at my ankle monitor,” Doug says. “And he brought up the polygraph. I told him I took the polygraph and Ben has the results.”
“Right,” Pat says.
“He told me that I was on grounds of violation because he doesn’t have it, and that he’s willing to take it to court. I told him to take it to court, because from my understanding—”
Pat snaps: “Don’t get in conversation with probation officers, okay?”
“Well, he kept pushing me and pushing me and pushing me. He said, ‘You’re on grounds of violation right now.’ So at that point, I thought I was gone. I thought I was going to jail.”
“Okay, Crawford’s your judge?”
“Did you sign the paper?”
“Did not sign the paper.” But Doug says the P.O. then claimed that there was some special statute that gave him the right to the polygraph regardless. He looks terrified.
“There’s no statute,” Pat says. “If they had that right, you wouldn’t have to sign the waiver. When he says he’s gonna call your judge and this and that, that’s bullcrap.”
I’ll later gather that Pat’s advice is not entirely spot-on, and that the issue of the polygraph is just one more punji-spiked hole of contradictions that leaves the already uncertain offender on even shakier ground. The whole matter confuses offender and probation officer alike. Regardless, after Doug leaves, Pat says how this was a good example of the silver lining to their communal banishment. Unlike in the real world, where probation officers can corner them alone like rats and lie and get away with it, here they have a degree of protection that comes with collective experience. And the ministry’s got their back. Not that any of the ministers on their board of directors ever come out here. They don’t really know what’s going on, Pat says. They all think it should be like a drug and alcohol rehab center, which is just totally the opposite. The offenders aren’t here to be rehabilitated. They’re here because they have no other choice.
The offenders: (From left) Chad Stoffel and Pat Powers. (Powers, the leader of the community since 2012, has recently parted ways with City of Refuge and plans to start a separate sex offenders’ village elsewhere in Florida.)
Rose is still on the couch with her video game when we get back, and Ted jumps on her and they grab-ass a little. “Don’t worry, Jay,” Ted says, laughing, “we’re both registered sex offenders!”
Since they seem to want me out of the house, I go over to interview the registered predator who’s the stay-at-home dad, Andy Jones. His wife, Nydia, is at work—she’s a manager at Domino’s—and Andy’s little girl, a 4-month-old, is taking a nap. His 1-year-old son is in the playpen in the corner. Andy sits on the edge of his couch, a spiderweb-tatted elbow propped on his knee, and tells me he feels being listed as a predator is a bit harsh, since it sounds like he’s out there nabbing kids off the street, when, yeah, he should have immediately stopped when his 11-year-old sister by adoption caught him “messin’ with myself”—he was 17—but at least he’s got no regulations against being around his own kids, thank God.
He’s on the registry for life, yes, but once he’s off probation, he won’t have to volunteer his status as an offender to prospective employers. And his probation officer won’t be able to sabotage him anymore.
His son is standing up in the playpen, a little rickety on the legs, holding a blue plastic guitar. The kid looks at me, lip curled, and whams out an air chord.
Andy tells me his whole life story, and I’ll tell you, it’s all pretty sad. Hard not to feel that a lot of his troubles correlate pretty powerfully with everything that led up to the black minute where he found himself pointing a hunting rifle at his father’s chest. And while there’s no need to go into it all, all that cause and effect, I am left with the impression that, at bottom, he really is a pretty decent guy in spite of everything. I’d give him a job referral in a heartbeat.
Andy doesn’t associate with too many in the village, because, despite what Pat says, there’s a good number here who got convicted, went to prison, got out, recommitted, got convicted again, often for multiple victims, etc. He says the minute he hears there’s somebody new here, he looks them up on the registry.
“I look ’em up to find out their victims’ age,” he says. “I mean, nothing against Pat, nothing against a lot of people out here.” He sighs. “But I’m not going to lie. When I get off probation, I’m moving. I don’t want my kids to grow up around sex offenders.”
Ted and Rose Rodarm got married a few years ago, after meeting at City of Refuge. Both are registered sex offenders; Rose is the only female offender in the community
The next day, Andy is among the now familiar faces at sex-offender therapy with Ben. The therapist is dressed in a powder blue polo shirt from the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, pleated khakis, a silver-tipped black belt, and hyper-polished black shoes. He looks like he does a lot of glute exercises. His Mercedes C250 is parked out front, and today he has arrived with his very attractive blonde associate (silver thong sandals, deep blue toenail polish) who also leads sessions but today is just here to observe. As it turns out, so is Ben, since Pat hijacks the meeting not five minutes in to deliver a sermon of sorts. He wants to give the guys a few reminders, in light of recent events vis-à-vis Earl.
“People are being stupid, okay? I want to warn you guys. You know when the sheriff’s office comes to check your ID and asks you questions and stuff? You’re being taped. They’re recording it. They don’t have to tell you.” Pat tells the guys how he got to hear the tape at Earl’s hearing. “From the time they knocked on his door, knock knock knock. Earl opens the door. They say, ‘Can we come in?’ He says, ‘Sure, come on in.’ They sit down. They’re talking to him. ‘Can we look at your computer?’ ‘Sure.’ Thinking he’s smarter than them! Then he says, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s some porn on there.’ Okay!? He’s hanging himself!”
Pat then narrates what it was like when they brought Earl’s victim into the courtroom. “She said she wanted him to rot in prison. And he snickered at her. The judge saw. At that moment, we all knew he was done. Just stupidity upon stupidity. Do you invite the sheriff’s office into your house? Do you invite somebody to look at your computer? No! Never! Especially when you know you got porn on it! Gentlemen. I’m gonna tell you this: Start using your brains. We got another problem. Girls being brought out here. Crack whores. You got one in the car with you? You got one in your home? She’s got drugs on her, they bust that house, guess what? Who’s going to prison? Her? Hell no. You are! Don’t mess with crack whores. I’m just asking you guys to use your heads. I’m not just standing here telling you these things because I want to talk….”
Though talk he does. In fact, he somehow manages to fill the hour until the end, when he finally opens the floor. It seems that some new guys are having trouble with Richard. Richard being, I take it, the extremely menacing-looking individual two seats down from me, clad in black, with an arrowhead necklace, a cane, and the general shibboleth of a motorcycling bounty hunter. Richard, it turns out, is the much afflicted den mother at the transition house, the bungalow next door to Ted and Rose’s place, which helps new residents get adjusted to life outside prison before they fully assimilate into the village. The longer the newbies complain how Richard won’t let them turn down the A/C, the tighter the man clenches his cane to hold back whatever quaking hot emotion he’s holding back, and the more it feels the meeting will end in violence.
Fortunately, it does not.
It is Richard who will tell me later, back at the transition house, and without much sugar on it, how he had molested his twin stepgranddaughters. He says they were 11 years old at the time. Both of them together. He was 51. He says he takes responsibility for what happened, he was the “grown-up,” but after eight years in prison, what really rips him is how offenders get stigmatized when there’s so much worse in the world. Seriously, he says, which was worse? Killing kids or just molesting them? Had he killed any children? No. And which was worse for a parent? To have their kids molested but at least alive and still be able to go to therapy afterward, or to have them be dead? Obviously, he said, most parents were going to say it was better when their children didn’t get killed. But, see, his point is, people who murder children get off easier. And drug dealers, whose influence so often led to children getting pimped out, abused, or killed, well, after they served their time, they didn’t have to register online, they didn’t have to tape up signs announcing they’d moved into your neighborhood. Who’s gonna mess up your kid more: a child molester or a drug dealer? A drug dealer takes your 8-year-old, 10-year-old, gives her drugs, and then turns ’em into—he hesitates. “What’s a polite word for that?” he says. “Streetwalkers. To earn money to buy more drugs. To me, that’s one of the worst things you can do.” Richard fondles his cross. “They’re actually molesting that child more than we are.”
He thinks this bias comes from the skewed way “society” looks at things. It’s irrational. People are irrational. “Having your child molested becomes a personal thing.”
Choir practice at the nondenominational chapel in City of Refuge
I’m more than a bit addled from my talk with Richard. This is not made better by the fact that before I left, he forced on me several gifts, including an arrowhead crucifix to match his own (he makes them in his spare time) and an eight-by-eleven laminated poem he wrote in prison called “Another Day” that begins “Oh God in heaven thank You for giving me another day to take a look at my self….”
I need to clear my head, so I go for a walk. I do admire that the experiment here has given an undeniably over-punished group a voice. I have no examined legal opinions whatsoever about whether it’s fair for offenders to be pilloried on the Internet for the rest of their lives when the same laws don’t apply to drug dealers and murderers, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel qualified to pass judgment on such things. What does nag me, however, is the way they advocate for themselves as if the discrimination they suffer is really no different than that of an oppressed minority group. I’ve heard Pat start in twice now about how he really gets the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany because he says he’s seen the sheriff’s office show up in the middle of the night and enter people’s homes without much ceremony. I likewise cringe when I hear him start pushing for membership in the local Rotary Club, as if the next step to respectability is only a matter of savvy networking. (I also must tell you, lacking a less awkward place to insert news of this development, that in the time since my visit, Pat did in fact pull off some sort of entrepreneurial coup, has absconded and registered his own nonprofit under the name Miracle Village Ministries in the wake of being “let go” by the board of directors—banished, that is, from the exile he himself helped build here.)
Click to enlarge.
Walking around the village, I see a few retired cane workers out on their porches playing cards. There’s a rusted pig roaster in one yard, lopsided palm trees, laundry hanging in the dead air. Planted in one lawn is a sign that reads thou shalt mind they own business. I pass a weed-cracked basketball court, and a dilapidated picnic shelter on top of which is perched a turkey vulture. It watches me with barren eyes. Then I come to the end of the road, which abruptly dead-ends against the cane.
I turn back down Caribbean Avenue, where I run into a Jamaican man in his driveway. He has the day off, he says, because of rain yesterday. He explains how it’s the harvest, and that’s why I’m seeing the fires. He says his name is Mr. White. I introduce myself and say how the village seems like a peaceful place. Does he mind sharing his community with sex offenders?
“It’s my first-time experience, this, you know?” he says. “Since they come here, I ain’t got no problem with it. Nobody bother me. If they say hi, I say hello, and that’s it.” He says when the offenders first moved in, people were given a kind of heads-up and told they could move if they wanted or stay if they wanted.
I ask if it’s true there was a lot of crime before.
He says back in the ’80s there used to be some break-ins. “Sometimes we’d go to work and come home and they would break in and steal things.” But that was a long time ago. “No shootings.”
Then he beckons me to follow him over to his neighbor’s, where there’s a little garden fenced off by old windowpanes. Chickens mill about. Gospel music pumps out of the house. Mr. White knocks several times on the screen door before an elderly gentleman comes out. The man is dressed in a pinstriped shirt that’s been adorned with gold appliqué giraffes and lions and elephants.
Mr. White introduces me and tells the old man what I’m up to.
“I ain’t gonna comment on that one,” the man tells me. “I am a Christian.”
“I’m not judging them,” I say, maybe too eagerly. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.”
The old man nods. “Always.”
I say I’m curious, however, since I was told that the place was dangerous before the offenders got here.
“Ohh. That what they say?” He ponders this as a slim breeze ruffles the giraffes on his shirt. “Well, I don’t know.”
“They say when they get here, it was rough?” Mr. White asks.
“They say it was beyond rough,” I say.
“Wow,” the old man says. “Beyond rough!”
“What they mean by it was rough?” Mr. White says.
I tell them how Pat said when he first came that he was approached by at least three people selling crack. That there were multiple shootings. That he had to kill half a dozen rats his first night.
“I never hear of that,” Mr. White says. “Well, you know, whenever time they start harvesting the cane, burn it, you gonna see a lot of rats looking for cover.”
“Especially in the winter,” says the old man.
“Sure, and that’s about it,” Mr. White says. “I never hear about no drugs here.”
“He also said God brought him here,” I say.
“Oh?” The old man raises his eyebrows. “So God brought him here? Maybe it’s his opinion. Could be his opinion.”
The old man leans against the washing machine parked on his porch. He seems to be considering, and reconsidering, what I’ve reported to him. “So you say since he move here, the place do better?”
The gospel is pumping up with a male solo. I remember. I remember. I remember. I remember. I remember.
I repeat what I’d heard about the giant piles of trash, the car thieves, how the offenders cleaned it all up and transformed it into a peaceful commune. I also say I’d been told that it was so bad that they, the cane workers, all hid in their homes because they were too scared to go outside.
“Oh, no, no, no.” Mr. White starts to laugh in disbelief. “The only thing, like I tell you, way back,way back, we used to have some break-ins. But them people aren’t here no more.” He says again how that was back in the ’80s. The offenders only turned up six and a half years ago.
“I don’t know what he’s talkin’ about,” says the old man.
Both men moan and shake their heads.
I ask what it was really like before the offenders came.
Suddenly the laughter turns off. There’s a worrisome lull while the music pulses and wails. “I don’t know,” the old man says. He seems reluctant to speak. “All I know is that all my children ain’t here. I had my grandchildren here, and now they ain’t here no more.”
“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” Mr. White says to me.
The old man looks sad. He clears his throat and glances at the chickens pecking his lawn.
Mr. White speaks for him. “When them people, the sex offenders, come here, they say who want to go, go.” He says some officials came out before they moved in, going door-to-door, to inform them that no children should live here anymore. So the older man’s grandchildren had to move.
“They got to go. Because of the sex offenders,” Mr. White says. “They say no kids can stay out here, so I don’t know.”
So for the offenders to find their own corner of heaven, to create their own community out of exile, another community had to be displaced. That’s what I’m hearing. This was the real offense. Those were the terms and conditions for the families who had already been compelled once to leave their homes to seek a better life in the cane.
When I go back to the house, Rose is on the couch playing her cell-phone game, as usual, while Judge Judy presides on TV: Hey! I’m talking. Do you understand? Well, you know what sometimes happens, and I don’t know if it happened here. Maybe we’ll find out, maybe not….
I am suddenly overtaken by an unwholesome urge. It’s an underhanded impulse that can’t possibly lead to any good. I know I ought to ignore it. Best not to put myself in a position where I know specifics. It’s impossible to give the benefit of the doubt—impossible not to judge—when you have too many specifics. But I go to my room anyway, close the door, and sit on the edge of the bed. I wait to see if the urge will pass. When it does not, I go ahead and open my laptop.
Then I tap in my present coordinates, zip code, address, and then, with the sugary sludge of adrenaline in my gut, the words “sex offender.”
And there they are.
Friends and neighbors, gracious hosts, right there on the registry for all to fear. Once I start reading, it’s not as if I can stop. I see all the young guys who got slapped with the statutory charge, and I wonder anew at the twisted laws of this state. At the permanence of the stigma. But my skin grows colder with each click. A new wave of dread at each mug shot. It’s like getting a peek at a bundle of autopsy photos on a crime show, when a cop drops a folder to reveal a bit of unwelcome if titillating exposition. Traveling to meet a minor. Lewdly fondle. Lascivious molestation. To solicit or obtain. Commit or simulate. Force or entice. The lighting of a mug shot would make anyone look suspicious, I think. But, Jesus, as I read on, how fast the oozy depths rise to the surface. Random Dude. Stay-at-home Andy. My new friends, whose peaceful snores have lulled me to sleep these past few nights. And—what?—that pugnacious old charmer could have faced a 480-year maximum sentence? Then, after reading an arrest report about Richard and his twin stepgranddaughters, I discover, almost inconceivably, that the version presented to me—as tabloid nightmarish as it already was—was sanitized. This is so much more sickeningly brutal. Perhaps he had been merciful to spare me, but his diluted and self-serving version doesn’t begin to capture the depravity of it. Offended at myself for having looked, I close the laptop, thinking, No one should ever see this, I will keep what I have seen to myself, and then I go in the bathroom to splash cold water in my face before I make my way to choir rehearsal and potluck.
And it is there, in the village’s tiny chapel, sitting in the pews with a paper plate of chicken in my lap, that I’m once again moved by the saving grace of what the offenders have created for themselves here. We watch Doug, who struggles up at the pulpit to get through a reading, but because he is joined by one of the others, he does not have to struggle alone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I suck at reading, so don’t make fun of me.”
“We’ll find something else to make fun of you, Doug. You know that,” Jerry drawls from up front.
Doug reads on, struggling to make his way through the passage. “We begin to see our differences as. Oh. Difficulties. As our light and moments struggle. Oh, momentary. Momentary troubles. Just as…”
His friend whispers: Apostle.
“Apostle Paul described his gen-eral?”
“Oh. Grueling order. Ordeals.”
His friend gently advises Doug to “sound it out.”
One has to be moved by the kindness of the men in the pews, by their notable lack of judgment, the absence of taunts, how patiently and generously they wait for him to hack through the Lord’s thorny terms and conditions.
And then, when Doug finishes, the others join him up on the stage. The choir director tonight, a guy named Jermel, takes his position behind a keyboard.
“This first song, some of you may know from the old school hymn. We’re gonna jazz it up a bit. Uh, band, right quick on the chorus.”
Once the drummer clicks off four, the band lifts and the choir begins to sing, and I am floored by how tight the men are. It’s a thumping happy Jesus stomp. The choir is loving God with everything they’ve got. They are really together. Singing as if to expunge their names from the registry itself. To get their names back in the book of life. The rafter lights flash swirls of pink and blue, and the words are projected on the wall: you are worthy!
“You are wor-thy!”
“Bring it down some, bring it down,” Jermel calls.
“You are wor-thee.”
“Here we go! Talking to me.”
“You are wor-thy!”
“You are wor-thee.”
“Let’s try it again!”
“You are wor-thy!”
“You are wor-thee.”
The cymbals flare and the men sway, with eyes pressed tight to better believe the words for all they’re worth, louder and louder, and whether or not this is true only they themselves can know.