Beach Badge #2, Fear & Loathing in Atlantic City

By Bill Amadeo

IT WAS A SNOWY DAY IN Atlantic City, 1991, as I sat in my room at 109 North Willow Avenue. Earlier that day, some of the Margate kids had made fun of my clothing. I had a lot of classes with those assholes from Margate. At the end of the day, I’d go home to the hood. Ducktown.

It was a very weird time period for me, at 15 or 16-years-old. I was a small, slight kid. Life was rough. From my window, with its perfect view of Pitney Village, I watched the drug deals and murders, knowing that I, too, would likely become a casualty one day.

But that didn’t really scare me. What scared me was that I could not protect my family.

Aunt Mear was sick, lying on the living room couch that was her bed. Grandpop’s room was next to mine; lung cancer would soon end his life. Mom was sad, too. She was dating Jimmy, who was an abusive asshole; eventually, he would get physical with us. My grades were bad. I tried hard to study, but reading gave me a headache; I saw words in reverse. Teachers would laugh. Suicide seemed like an option.

A lot of people have breakdowns, and they should have people they can talk to. I had tried to talk, but it just wasn’t happening. So I sat in my room, crying, with my two rescued dogs, Odie and Scruffy, as well as two of my cats, Stevie and Cubby. I sat there petting them, teary-eyed as I listened to music on my tape deck, when suddenly this big thump came up the stairs – BOOM-BOOM-BOOM

This guy kicked in the door – a robbery. He had a gun. It was rusty. He threw me up against the wall of my bedroom, and I gasped for air as he choked me out. I tried to fight him off while the cats clawed at him and Odie and Scruffy tried to attack him.

Did you ever have a gun put to your head? It’s a cold feeling. Then you hear the click, and you think it’s the end. There have been a few moments in my life where I’ve felt ready to die, and this was certainly one of them. I was terrified. I tried not to show fear, but I was worried. I could hear his partner downstairs, looking for loot or whatever. Where’s Aunt Mear? Where’s Mom? Mom was working. Aunt Mear was sick in the living room. Grandpop was dying…and this guy’s robbing us. That was just Ducktown in the ’90s.

He pushed Scruffy away and pointed the gun towards him. This probably happened in a matter of seconds, but everything felt like watching a film in slow motion. I jumped on top of Scruffy, ready to catch the bullet as I pleaded with him to just take the money.

“Don’t hurt my dogs,” I said as he turned the gun on me. While they were trying to protect me, I was fighting for their lives, too.

For whatever reason, he didn’t shoot. He and his friend rolled out, taking the boom box, about $20 in cash, and some baseball cards.

The fear came after the fact. I wasn’t crying, I was just confused – like, What the fuck just happened here? I wanted to protect my animals as they sat there surrounding me, offering their support.

Afterwards, I was somber. Where I came from, therapy wasn’t really an option, it wasn’t something we did. What we did do was talk to our priests, because they were our leaders. Father Sullivan was my priest, my role model. I was still working at the rectory when, that Saturday morning, I told him that I needed to talk.

“Fine, we’ll talk,” he said, making it sound like he was doing me the biggest favor in the world. Thank you, Father. So I turned to Father Sullivan, told him what happened, and…he laughed.

I was like, Why are you laughing? They robbed us! I thought they were gonna kill us! I was protecting my dogs. I don’t wanna live like this anymore. I was breaking down while talking to the guy who had been like a father figure to me, while he mocked my family, called us Italian trash.

He was a big guy – like 6’2”, and heavyset, with big hands. Suddenly – BOOM – he smacked me with the back of his right hand. I was really small at the time, and I went flying a little bit. I looked at myself in the mirror he had in his little office and could see the blood coming off my nose. I think one of his rings had hit me.

I was hurt that he had hit me, this father figure of the Catholic faith, which I would defend and lose jobs for later in life. He belittled what I had told him, then just cracked me.

And he was laughing.

As I wiped the blood from my nose, I got up, and with every fucking ounce of energy I had, I charged at him and I threw him up against the wall of his office. As I choked him out, I said, “Don’t ever badmouth my family or touch me again – do you understand me, you piece of shit?”

He looked terrified. Then he knocked my hand away.

“I can see you’re becoming a man,” he said. “I respect that.”

In hindsight, I think I was initially more fearful of Father Sullivan not respecting me than I was of having a gun pointed in my face. Let me be clear: if religion works for you, good. I think religion can be a wonderful thing, and I’m not gonna put somebody down for their belief system. However, this story is one reason why I’m really not religious today.

There are greater tragedies in the world. Looking back, I think one of the reasons he smacked me was that I told him I thought I needed therapy, a counselor to talk to, which we couldn’t afford. Maybe he thought I was asking for money, when I was only asking for help. Maybe, in his own way, he was trying to make me tough…or maybe it was just who he was. In my community, priests were seen as positive leaders. But here was somebody, a father figure, who laughed at my story, basically called me a pussy, and smacked the shit out of me…

And I earned his respect by fighting him back.

What are you supposed to do with that?

BILL AMADEO is a Partner at McManus and Amadeo and a Senior Associate for Grabel and Associates in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Considered by many to be the best criminal lawyer in the state of Michigan, he was lucky enough to become a member of the “Shiawasee Six”. Prior to his legal career, Bill was a widely published journalist and a union shop steward. He is also a failed baseball player, a high school outcast, and a horrible dancer.