LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Doug Hardman strikes the keys of the old, weather-beaten piano under a plastic tarp in the middle of the woods to keep the rain off it, sings about "how wonderful life is," and finishes the last chords of Elton John's "Your Song."
He takes off his glasses, tucks them into his shirt, and starts to cry.
"This is killing me," he says softly, his blue eyes rimmed red with tears.
Not so long ago, he was a successful carpenter and handyman, with a lagoon-front home at the Jersey shore, a small fishing boat that was the lifelong dream of his and his wife, and a solid middle class existence.
Now he lives in a teepee made of plastic tarpaulins atop a plywood platform, deep in muddy, mosquito-infested woods. He has no money, and no belt; a length of thin red rope holds his pants up.
Hardman is suing a volunteer with a homeless assistance program, and a real estate company, accusing them of cheating him out of his home, selling it without giving him any of the proceeds.
"I worked my ass off all my life; I never stole a thing," he said. "Everything was stolen from me, right down to my underpants. It all went straight to hell."
When his wife died of cancer, Hardman started drinking to escape the pain, and soon developed a drinking problem. He fell behind on the payments on his Bayville house, and it went into foreclosure.
While living in temporary housing in 2010, he met two real estate investors and agreed to sell his house to them for $115,000, even though it was worth far more. Soon afterward, he ended up at Tent City, an encampment of homeless people in the woods of Lakewood that township officials have tried for years to shut down.
Hardman's troubles worsened at Tent City; it was there that he met Wallace Doman III, a Jackson Township man who volunteered as housing director with a social service agency that works to help the homeless. Doman is also a real estate investor who buys distressed properties, fixes them up and re-sells them.
At issue is an April 6, 2010 deed that purports to transfer title to Hardman's house to a company Doman owns, Platinum Home Management, for the sale price of $50. Hardman swears he never signed it. But in court papers, Doman insists that's exactly what happened, and that he has witnesses to the transaction.
Doman returned a call seeking comment from The Associated Press, but hung up as soon as a reporter identified himself. He did not answer subsequent calls.
In court papers filed in response to the lawsuit, Doman maintains Hardman signed the house over to him of his own free will. Doman also claims he tried to end the deal and sign the house back to Hardman once he found out that Hardman had already signed a contract to sell the house to the two real estate investors, but that Hardman refused to take it back.
The house was sold for $215,000 to the two investors, who are not named as defendants in the lawsuit. They later sold it to a third party for $355,400. Hardman and his lawyer, Benjamin Dash, say not a penny of that went to Hardman.
Doman worked for nearly a year as a non-salaried real estate agent for Century 21 Pacesetter Realty, which also is named as a defendant in the suit. The real estate agency is seeking to have a judge dismiss it from the lawsuit, claiming that whatever Doman might have done, he did on his own, and that Hardman's house was never listed with Century 21.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for the alleged fraud that led to Hardman losing the house; it does not seek to regain ownership of it.
Hardman acknowledges that many of his problems were caused by his drinking, something he still has not completely put behind him. But he is adamant that he never signed the house over to Doman, whether drunk or sober.
In the meantime, Hardman passes his time smoking in the woods, and occasionally playing the piano at a neighbor's tent. One of his most precious possessions is a notebook of sheet music that he transcribed himself, wrapped in multiple layers of plastic to keep it dry.
The piano is warped from the humidity, and some of the keys no longer work. Yet Hardman can coax beautiful melodies out of it, from the end of Clapton's classic "Layla," to numerous gospel standards. He'd like to find work playing the piano, possibly at a church.
"I want to keep people happy," he said. "I want to play for people and leave them with smiles on their faces."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC