In my quarter-century as a New Haven downtowner, I’ve gotten to know oodles of larger-than-life characters—the kind whom, when I nod to them on the street, others marvel, “You KNOW them?”
Nobody earned me more “You KNOW him?!!” double-takes than Andre Ness. First off, Andre was hard to miss—about twelve feet tall with Rip Van Winkle’s facial hair and a voice like five megaphones. And in case you wanted to miss him (I never did), he wouldn’t let you, bellowing your name from blocks away, or honking at you from his lowslung convertible antique roadster.
Andre used to live in an abandoned school bus in a junk yard, an urban Paul Bunyan. Everything about him had the air of legend. Some people likened him to Lurch from the Addams Family, others to Bigfoot. But unlike Lurch, Andre talked a lot. Unlike Bigfoot, he’d stop and chat. And unlike both of them, he was real. For all his supernatural or cartoon-fantasy escapades, Andre also had a reputation as a devoted father, a loyal friend, a guy who was nice to dogs.
The first I heard of Andre was around 1988, when he was pointed out to me by someone I worked with at Book World on Chapel Street. “That’s Andre across the street. Do you know him? He once hit a man so hard that the guy flew out of his shoes.”
That was some introduction. I couldn’t wait to get to know this true-life Bluto from the Popeye chronicles. I’m an experienced Gilligan-esque “little buddy” type from way back, and have always got along with large dangerous men.
When I became Book World’s manager, I encouraged Andre to hang around at night so he could scare away shoplifters. He was happy to oblige. We’d talk for hours—or rather, he’d talk and I’d listen. His tales were unstoppable, even when I’d want them to stop because they were so scary.
Once night while I was in the Book World basement trying to do some bookkeeping, Andre sat on the steps, which reminded him of another time he’d sat on steps: When he was a kid, he said, he’d been minding his own business on a fire escape when there was gunfire above him. “Blood rained down” is how he described it.
Then there were the alien abductions. He talked about them as matter-of-factly as any other encounter in his life. “Saw the aliens again,” he’d mention in passing. His visits with extraterrestrials had informed Andre’s whole worldview.
He shared the alien stories not just with me but in his book The Real Truth About Alien Abductions. I’m privileged to own both the original photocopied edition and the vanity-press reprint which Andre got Barnes & Noble bookstores to carry in 2002. (I can only imagine his promotional techniques.) According to the book, the abductions started while Andre was in his late 30s, though he came to relate them to experiences he’d had a child in Vermont, when he had a vision of Bambi the Disney deer and a random dinosaur holding his hand; he awoke holding a carrot.
The Real Truth includes a section dedicated to:
the law enforcement officers of the cities of New Haven and Branford CT. you have been told to let me slide unless I do something real bad. The reason for this is that the military has told you hands off. It is a matter of national security. Do you really know why? I doubt it. Your higher-ups know. They have given you a line of bull. Here is the reason In the late 1980s I started to smoke crack. Nothing was any different for the first five months. Then one day I saw something in a tree on Park Street, New Haven. It was an invisible man. He was watching the people dealing coke on the first floor. I was on the third floor sitting on the couch watching TV. As I was watching TV, I kept seeing something move in the tree outside the window. I could see this with my peripheral vision. When I would look straight at it there was nothing there. This happened about six times. It was winter. There were no leaves, birds or squirrels in the tree. So I knew something was wrong, because air can’t be seen. I focused it in. I sat looking at the TV straight on, with my peripheral vision I focused what was moving outside the window in the tree. What I saw, I thought was a hallucination at first. There was a man in a black skintight outfit. There were sparkles, all the colors of the rainbow moving around him in the air not more than three to four inches away. When I started to turn to look at him, he disappeared, so I turned back. I could see him again. I went to the window and looked very hard at what was in the tree. I could see nothing at first. So I turned my head so I could see him with my peripheral vision again. When I saw him I turned very slowly and looked right where he was. After a while I noticed a distortion about the size of a man on the branch. This distortion looked like heat rising from the ground (what you see on the streets in the summer) but fainter. As I looked at it I could see the outline of a man inside of it. I opened the window and said “I can see you. What the hell are you?” That was when he started to look at me.
For the next few weeks everywhere I went I would see military personnel following me. In cars, in the stores, walking down the street. If I lived in a town that had a military base, I could see. But New Haven, you are lucky if you see three military people in two months. I must have seen 300 in two short weeks.
This went on for a while. Then one night I woke up, on a spaceship. With military people telling the grays what to do to me. What a big mistake. I should have just sat and watched TV. But my big mouth got me into it again. Now because I can see through this Metamorphic Camouflage you let the government and the grays abduct and experiment on me.
I quote The Real Truth at such length in order to share a burst of Andre’s prose as tribute to his rich life and sad passing. That passage is pure Andre. He came to believe that he was being protected and persecuted at the same time, just as he came to believe that aliens and the U.S. government were in cahoots, and that the invisibility technology he’d witnessed was being used not just for voyeurs in residential neighborhoods but for covert warplanes which kept tabs on the citizenry. He offered to share video footage of the invisible planes with me on umpteen occasions, but when he finally got a DVD to me, it was unplayable.
He was also open about his drug use. Once, when I complimented him on looking so healthy, and how he’d clearly lost a lot of weight, he smiled grandly and loudly grunted his secret: “Heh! Cocaine!”
He felt he could distinguish his drug highs from his other out-of-body experiences, and I had no cause to doubt him. He was eager to find outside proof of the alien persecution he’d undergone. The Real Truth ends with an offer to “split a lawsuit down the middle with whoever comes forward with proof of what is happening to me. Just think of it, this would be a very, very large sum.” The end section of his book also includes a dedication to his late brother Claude and this upper-case confession:
This I know for sure. By writing this I am putting myself in the bull’s eye.
BUT IT WAS SOMETHING I HAD TO DO
BECAUSE I LOVE MY COUNTRY MY DAUGHTER MY FRIENDS MY FAMILY MY DEAD BROTHER’S MEMORY.
Andre’s writing took other forms. He spent years fashioning, and memorizing, an epic poem about (among other things) world peace. He let me publish part of it in the New Haven Advocate, then later transformed the text into a rap song which he videoed himself performing atop West Rock. He could deliver dozens of lines from the poem at the drop of a hat.
The recitations and abductions and entreaties and catching-up conversations of Andre Ness made me late for work countless times. I think he was to me what the grays must have been to him—a nuisance sometimes, hard to explain to one’s friends, but fascinating and mind-expanding and impossible to ignore. The idea that Andre Ness is gone—invisible—is something I’m going to have trouble believing.