Sunday, August 30, 2009


Part 1

He was lounging on the corner, itching to light his cigarette in the purple glow of the Old Town Bar. Rush past him, get inside, meet your friends. It’s cold. Rush past him to get to the grocery store. Buy chicken breasts and artichokes for your lover and cook it all up before 8 o’clock. Run next door and buy the wine.

He cups his hand, strikes a match. Why are you rushing to cook for a man who will leave you? He knows you, all about you, your mother, your grandmother, your Russian memories, your old uptown roommates and your new downtown friends. Hemlines have gone up and down, shoes got sexier, lipstick got bolder. He used to wear those romantic vests and shirts with billowing sleeves. Now it’s raincoats, spook coats, with collars and epaulets and belts that hang in a spy-like way.

Getting too cold to stand outside now. Life used to be out here, in the streets, not behind windows and screens and air conditioners that bang away and sit there like eyes in cages. Times change, so what the hell -- plenty of drinks inside the Old Town Bar, plenty of women to admire.

Beer. Scotch. Port. Cointreau. Whatever you’re drinking, that’s what I’ll have, he tells his new girl at the Old Town Bar. “Two, please,” she orders, and he is happy. Gray Goose or Smirnoff’s – all the same hot fire as it goes down. She leaves with a friend. All the same as he looks over to the park where ladies used to stroll, two by two, down well kept paths.

Time for another drink. Almost completely dark – can’t read the clock on the watchtower. Sound and light and human noise drown him, suffocate him, silence him. He twists and turns to get through the crowd to the bar. Every night, the same fight! “Hello,” he says to a woman with bright green eyes and a cobalt sweater. “Hello,” she says. “Do I know you?” “No, I don’t think so,” he answers as his voice begins to fade. “May I buy you a drink?” “No, I’m waiting for my friend,” she replies and turns away. When she looks back, he is gone. After five minutes, her memory of him is gone. Her friend arrives. They order martinis and talk about work. She sneezes.

From his splintery stool at the far end of the bar, he watches a woman with brown eyes. She’s new here. She looks Asian, one of those Russian women with Tatar eyes that never get bred out. Exotic, cheap, sexy – she and her friends are laughing into their wine, pretending not to care. “Good night, ladies,” he whispers as they slide off their bar stools and drift away.

A man and his wife take their seats. Another girl drifts in. “Is this taken?” She just moved to the neighborhood and wants to check out the Old Town. “Read about in the Times,” she explains. “My advertising agency is just crazy,” she tells the wife. “Ten hour days most of the week, and then I’m too pooped to do much on the weekends.” She sips on her Grey Goose. “But it’s exciting, really exciting!”

How bright is this girl? Not worth his time. Seen her a million times, waiting on corners for friends, growing older and shriller and moving to the suburbs. Spending too much money, getting too much sun … it’s always the same.

(to be continued ...)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Library Ghost

Soon after the New-York Historical Society Library reopened in the early 1990s after a fire, I heard this story.

The library stacks are closed to the public. The staff rarely enters some of them. But come what may, the light bulbs need to be changed every so often. Shortly after the fire, one of the maintenance men was asked to change a 60-watt bulb, finally burned out after years of use. He took his tall ladder and a new box of bulbs and set off into the darkened stacks. Minutes later, he emerged onto the floor, scared and babbling. "Not goin' back in there, nope, not me!" He went to put away the ladder.

"Hey, what's up?" one of the librarians asked. "I've got to get a book for one of the curators. Please go back and change the bulb -- I can't see where I'm going!"

"Well, maybe you didn't see her, but I sure did. I'm not going back down that aisle with that lady floatin' in the air."

"What are you talking about?" the librarian asked. "What lady?"

"That old lady in the white dress. I never saw her before, and I'm sure not gonna see her again."

"Oh, come on, you're just scared of those shadows. Luther, go into the stacks with Fred and change that bulb, will you? I've got to get that book!"

Fred looked at Luther and said, "You go, fella. Not me. Not again."

Luther took the ladder from his colleague and set off into the stacks. The librarian shook her head and gave Fred the "aren't you being silly now?" look.

In no time at all, Luther fled the stacks, ladder leading the way. "I'm sorry, miss, but there is no way I'm going back in there. Not me. That lady in white is just as dead as they come and she's scaring me to death!" Luther put the ladder away.

Did the light bulb get changed? Did the staff member ever get his book? We'll never know. Does anybody?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Battle of the Sexes

In the mid-1990s, I researched a question that was troubling me: are more ghosts in stories men or women? And who writes more tales?

I spent many happy afternoons in the Library of the New-York Historical Society reading their ghost stories, enjoying accounts of ghost busting (the best one was about the Fox sisters in upstate New York), and poring over accounts of sightings. I even collected a ghost story that I will share in another posting.

As I accumulated more notes, I began to see that, while men wrote more stories than women -- this was a very small sample, however -- the ghosts themselves represented both sexes equally. I needed to do more research to come to some kind of hypothesis.

I returned on a chilly March afternoon to find the entire staff huddled outside near the Central Park entrance. As I recall, a spark from a welding torch had set off a fire in the library, and it wouldn't be open for a few days ... a few months ... I can't even recall how long it took. I forgot about the project until recently, when I found my notes stuffed into an old folder.

Ghosts All Around

I am fascinated by the idea of ghosts: shadowy figures who hang in the air, on trees, just inside subway doors, outside the Metropolitan Museum, or on the edges of twisted paths in Central Park. Ghosts fly through the summer air, going around the world and back home again as if it were nothing -- just a quick trip for a Snickers Bar or a pack of cigarettes and the paper.

I have never met a ghost. I am not sure how they exist: are they figments of the imagination, fragments of time past, anxiety personified, waking dreams? I find the thought of them comforting, sometimes puzzling, but never scary. I am not sure if I will ever see one, nor would I regret it if I didn't.

As we drift into autumn, I start to wonder about how ghosts prepare for the winter. One thing I do know: they always enjoy a good story.

This blog will be free form: stories, thoughts, personal accounts, comments, jokes. Who knows? Please do post your comments as we move through the year.