It’s the day after 168 police and 67 firemen turned in their boots and badges due to budget cuts in Camden, N.J., a small city with a violent crime rate five times the national average. That leaves about 200 cops to patrol 80,000 residents, half of whom live in poverty.
It’s around noon, and I’m hanging with the Guardian Angels in “Drug Alley,” the strip in front of the Walter Rand Transportation Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard where Angels are focusing their efforts.
Since arriving four days ago, the Angels have spent 12 hours a day—noon to midnight—patrolling streets in the bitter cold and handing out fliers, desperately hunting for recruits to set up a Camden chapter. During the 90-day recruitment campaign, Angels leaders from far-flung cities will rotate leadership here.
Finding a few good men or women—three of the seven out here today are female—hasn’t been easy. Recruits so far: Zero.
A prospect walks up. “Do you get paid to be an Angel?” he asks. No. He keeps walking. Another guy stops and studies a flier. “Sorry,” he shrugs. “I’d rather be home on my couch.”
“We get a lot of fake phone numbers,” says Life, a 44-year-old Philadelphian.
Only one Angel lives in Camden: Yvette, aka “Teddy Bear,” is a 43-year-old mom of three and professional nurse’s aid. Both “Life” and “T-Rex” are Philly women who signed up in December after meeting Angels on Kensington Avenue while hunting for the Strangler. T-Rex is a long-time activist. In 2005, Life made the local news for single-handedly chasing down a bank robber.
Originally from the Czech Republic, Life is proud to be a new Angel. “I’m sick and tired of this stuff,” she says, referring to violence. “I live in America 21 years. My cousin got killed in 2005.” She yanks up her sleeve and reveals his name tattooed into her skin.
Angel brass often get a bad rep as publicity seekers, but from the street-level view the vast majority of passers-by shout words of appreciation.
“Oooh, you’re Angels!” cries one woman as the Guardians prepare for their 12-hour shift. “I’ve seen you on TV! Thank you!” she says, shaking their hands.
Amber Zoll, 41, says Camden and Drug Alley in particular needs more cops, not fewer. She says she should know.
“I used to be a crackhead. I used to be out here, buying drugs, selling drugs, doing all kinds of crazy shit,” she says. Zoll points to the bus stop shelters across the street in front of a CVS, where both residents and Angels say most of the men hanging out are waiting for customers, not buses.
“A couple of years ago, there was a girl out here … getting raped, right in the middle of everybody, and there were no cops. And now you’re going to lay off cops?”
A woman with glassy eyes staggers up. She says she’s 28 years old but she looks much older. Her name’s Jen. She’s trying to talk but her mouth twists into sobs, choking her sentences. She claims she’s being followed. She’s terrified.
The Angels escort her through the building to where the buses pull in, locate her bus and form a human shield around her. A man tries to come near Jen. “No!” shouts Hightower, a tall black Angel from Chicago with serious swagger.
“Zeek,” a commander on loan from the South Bronx, makes sure Jen has a ticket. “I have no one,” Jen cries. “No one in the whole world.”
They wait with her until the bus lurches into gear. Then Jen’s eyes go wild. “I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to kill myself,” she says, hanging on to Life’s arm. “But I don’t want to live, either. Does that make sense?”
Life scribbles down her number and hands it to her, then puts Jen on the bus.
Mission accomplished, we head back out front to the Boulevard. I split off with the women, who want a smoke break. A fight erupts nearby before the third cigarette’s lit. A short guy with a long black Santa beard in a dirty, yellow jacket screams at another man. “Let’s go ’round the corner, then,” he says. “No, no, I don’t want to get locked up,” pleads the other guy, stumbling backward.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom