The Trouble with Ghosts



Neighborhood: Lower East Side


Anton and Lelo were scared. They had seen them every day at the bar where we work for the past several months—lurking in corners, hiding behind shelves, disappearing into cracks in the walls, into drains, into boxes.

Not roaches. Not rats. Ghosts.

It was practically an infestation. A ghost infestation. I wanted to laugh with Anton. Every time he told me about another ghostly vision, he’d chuckle, disbelieving, then sigh. I wanted to console Lelo. He was really on edge. Whenever I passed by unexpectedly, he’d jump two feet, thinking it was her. But I couldn’t. I was too frightened.

I had seen the ghosts too—the man who crossed the floor in the basement, leaned against the wall to stare, just stare, seeing (or not seeing); the girl who stepped out of the wall, spun in circles behind the bar, tapping bottles as she whirled. Hadn’t I? Could it have been a dream?

Still, I felt obliged to help. I couldn’t let Anton and Lelo be terrorized out of their jobs by phantoms. There had to be something I could do.

The thing is, you can’t call an exterminator. Or a priest. Maybe you could call a priest, but that was somehow too frightening for me. I wouldn’t want to be there when a priest showed up and did his thing, just in case. But I had to do something. It was urgent. And unfair. I mean, it was basically harassment! I had to work there, too, and frankly, sprinting down the stairs to my office, slamming the door shut as soon as I got there, all the while singing whatever pop song came into my head as loud as I could to scare the apparitions away, felt absurd. And avoiding work when Anton and Lelo had the day off from their porter duties wasn’t an option either. So, who to call? What to do?

A simple Google search yielded several suggestions: smudging (burning a bundle of sage and walking around so the smoke gets into every corner of the room); talking to the ghosts and simply asking them to go away (?!); a sound bath; crystals; bravery (that is: facing your fears and just dealing with it); ignoring them.  “Goop” suggests sage-smudging for bad energy (sigh), but they one-up it by adding the burning of Palo Santo and a “cocktail” of myrrh, copal, frankincense. Goop also advises creating an “energetic doormat” and thinking positively. Oh, yeah, and to wear black. After scrolling through the article I felt annoyed.

Incidentally, the search also yielded articles about the slow death of New York City: its insanely inflated costs; its loss of small businesses; green spaces; artists; diversity; magic; soul. Suddenly I felt depressed.

And I had hardly even started. Ghosts are actually worse than roaches.

A slight tweak to my search (ghost hunting in NYC) took me to several “paranormal society” websites, all claiming they were able to diagnose supernatural disturbances and systematically cleanse the area.

But I didn’t want to hunt the ghosts. I didn’t want to scare them. Or lose them, necessarily. I just wanted them to be free.

I was reminded of the time the exterminator caught a rat in a metal garbage can at the bar. I begged him to let it live. Please, just take it down to Houston Street and let it go. He looked at me like I was crazy, but then said, “Ok, but the rat might find its way back. You know that, right lady?” I told him, “I understand, just please don’t kill it.” He walked out of the bar and came back five minutes later with an empty can. I never saw a rat at the bar again. I am assuming it crept into some other bar (I probably owe Botanica an apology).

What I needed was the spiritual equivalent of trapping a rat in a garbage can and setting it free on Houston Street (and I would probably owe another apology to Botanica). I wanted that gentle kind of cleansing. That: Look into the light, ghost. Take a walk down Elizabeth Street, turn right on Houston. Just don’t stay here, please. But if you must, you may come back. You may always come back.

In my mind, her name was Alice and his name was Vesper and they were in love. And were searching for one another. Ripped apart in life, they were returning to the places that they had known together, returning, seeking, reaching through time and realms to reunite. At least that’s how I wrote it in my novel. Writing their story was easy, it was like sliding under some radio broadcast. Listening. Witnessing. And the really strange thing was that, as I wrote, as I gave them lives and voices and love, they appeared more and more frequently. This is true. This happened. It was out of control. She showed up behind the bar more, spinning, floating, rattling glasses. He walked across the floor back and forth continually, stopping only occasionally to stare. What was going on? Was I doing this?

It was clearly more than just a haunting. It was a willing. I was calling them. Conjuring. I needed to know something. What else do you have to tell me ghosts? What more? Have you found each other? Have you found what you were looking for? Will I? Why is my life so empty? Will it ever fill? What is on the other side? My mind shoots to that George Saunders book that I read one desperate, feverish weekend, and I am terrified of what they might have seen. Terrified for them. For me. For everyone. Maybe I don’t want to know.

The psychic’s name is Mary. She is a tornado of essential oils and scarves. Bright piercing eyes, enigmatic accent, probably the British Isles. I feel vaguely reassured in her presence. Extremely ridiculous, too. After all, I don’t believe in ghosts.

Ghosts always find their way to bars, she says. I sense two presences here. Maybe three. A girl. She is seven. Maybe ten. She died well over a hundred years ago. She has lost her dog. She is not from here. The man is older, maybe fifty when he passed. He passed more recently. This century. On the Bowery. He has always been homeless.

Alice? Vesper? My witnessing? My knowing? I had heard them. I had stepped into their story as if into a pool of sunlight.

I’m not getting a name. Maybe an M? Anyway… Let’s begin.

Mary lights three white candles. She asks us (Anton and Lelo and me) to hold hands and form a circle where we most frequently see the spirits. She speaks impassively about a white light. It’s okay to go to the light, she says. Everyone is waiting for you there.

And then she is done. She offers a follow-up session by phone if we wish. I thank her and hand her a check, hoping this can be considered a business expense (as if my accountant doesn’t already think I’m nuts).

Everyone is gone. I am alone at the bar. The porters, the psychic medium, the ghosts are gone. The bartender is late. It is twilight.

Later, I sit in the basement staring at the wall, at the spot where we usually saw him. The spot that’s haunted. I stare hard, trying to conjure him. Trying to will him to come back. To feel at home. To appear. He doesn’t. Upstairs there is no angel spinning, no bottle dancing on the edge of the shelf.

No one is there.

There is banging, footsteps, and buzzing: sounds from the empty storefront next door where men are working to build a new business. Noises come from the street, too—bright stripes of laughter, cars passing, cries.

I see something move out of the corner of my eye. A drop of water on the faucet’s mouth, just beginning to fall. When it is gone, another forms. A tear, resplendent in this quiet light.

And I can’t help but think of the people who are gone forever. I think of Sasha, Bobby, Eli—all lost too young, too soon—and my heart spills to the floor. I’m a mess. A fool. A shadow walking through this dim hour. There is no answer. It’s all just for nothing, isn’t it?

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
-Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19 – 28)


Kaarin Von is an entrepreneur in New York City’s bar and restaurant business. She has written a novel about the revelers and ghosts that haunt a dive bar in the 1990’s. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, two black cats and a Sicilian rescue dog.

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