I NEEDED A résumé boost, something to prove I could use my forthcoming English degree for more than record reviews and unpublishable short stories, so my Dickinson College career counselor handed me the number of a local man who was trying to get a charity off the ground. Something to do with drug recovery.
Two days later I was sitting in a strip-mall Panera across from ‘Ness,’ a former heroin addict with two half-missing fingers and a voice like barbed wire. ‘Ness’ had spent his entire life within a few miles of my school, and though he wasn’t yet 50, he looked a hard 65. For the last few years he’d taught an addiction-recovery course at the same jail where he’d served the majority of his seven prison sentences, and he now wanted to open a kind of born-again halfway house for his paroled graduates.
Anson House Ministries, as he’d registered with the IRS, was quite literally starting from nothing: ‘Ness’ spoke excitedly about a recent $200 private donation, which brought his total cash reserves to $212. His biggest accomplishment to date was attaining 501(c)3 status. From me, ‘Ness’ was hoping to get a cleanly written four- or five-page document explaining the concept of Anson House and the community’s particular need for its services. He handed me a tattered manila envelope filled with handwritten notes, decade-old newspaper clippings, and ten typo-riddled pages of his autobiography.
I didn’t have to read a word to know that ‘Ness’s mission was an important one for our mid-Pennsylvania town. Carlisle sits at the nexus of three Interstates — 81, 83, and 76 — thus attracting a heavy load of commercial trucking and its inevitable parasite, drug traffic. This was common knowledge on the campus, even though there was little meaningful interaction between the school and the troubled side of town, nicknamed “Carlem,” that supplied its maintenance staff and little else; whatever drugs we had came courtesy of someone’s brother or dealer back home. I worked in the cafeteria, though, which employed dozens of Cumberland County lifers, including a few high school potheads and some older folks who’d clearly done worse. Some of my friends worked for community-serving nonprofits in town, where they met a sample of the region’s catatonic and suspicious children. There was a resignation to the townies that could be harmless or venomous depending on the personality, and they all fit in to one of two camps: the people who drank too much or took too many drugs, and others who never did either. The former tended to be disfigured in some way, whether from a scar or an employment-deterring tattoo. ‘Ness’ was a rare specimen: a boundlessly optimistic representative from Carlisle’s embittered and self-abusing class. The fact that he was even reaching out to the college, when such an obvious and tense barrier existed between the neighborhoods, was endearing. I read his life story like it was a dispatch from a foreign country.
He’d spent much of high school getting blind drunk in frat houses, during a time when the school was a much more renowned party school than it is now. He’d found Jesus in jail while repeatedly serving time for possession, and he now proselytized God’s word with the intensity of a former a...read more