Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ghost Stories

I recently went to Boston for a work-related day trip.  I foolishly left my phone charger behind and I'm convinced this small omission resulted in an upending of karmic forces that caused the delay – and finally – cancellation of my flight home to Richmond.  I found myself in the unenviable position of being at the airport, my iPhone running on fumes, and not even a toothbrush in my possession.   After grumbling to the USAirways representative about the weather (she unsurprisingly grumbled back.  Airline counter people are rarely known for their sunny dispositions), I made my way to the ironically named “Customer Services” desk to try and get a hotel for the evening.  The closest hotel was not exactly close, located in the town of Winthrop.  The hotel wasn’t your generic type of lodging, but an inn that the shuttle driver told me was a converted Jewish Community Center.  I was later to be told it was a converted school.  Regardless, it was a converted something and I noted wood floors throughout and very high ceilings as I made my way to my room with complementary toothpaste but no brush.  When I’d asked for both, the desk clerk went to a closet and rummaged through a small plastic basket.  Apparently they don’t often cater to stranded travelers.  I was convinced my room was a converted squash court and soon discovered that the wood floors, high ceilings, and – I swear - paper maché walls resulted in it having the effect of an echo chamber: I heard people walking overhead and down the hallway all evening.  Voices carried, heels on the floor reverberated; it was like trying to sleep at a Celtics game.

I awoke the next morning having gotten approximately 37 minutes of sleep (none of it consecutive) and felt a displacement and weariness down to my bones.  The weather didn’t help: it was overcast and sprinkling outside.  The inn was without a restaurant and the front desk clerk directed me to “walk two stop signs up the street” to a place called “The High Tide”.  The walk up the street was longer than I’d anticipated, and depressing: every house seemed gray, and trees were dropping blossoms that were mashed and tattered on the damp sidewalk.  The whole place looked tired.  I entered the small town center I saw the effects of the recession everywhere: shuttered up business, empty storefronts.  Peeling signs on stores that hadn’t had a person cross the threshold in many a moon.  One hardware store was still operating, rakes and shovels stacked against the end of one wall.  I opened the door to “The High Tide” and a bell jangled.  Every head turned and looked at me from the counter and I felt like I’d interrupted a conversation.  It was the kind of place that has disappeared from most towns and been replaced by generic chains with food as predictable and unremarkable as the clientele.  It had a long counter with stools, a large grill at one end of the counter,  a few tables, painted blue and white tin signs on the walls touting breakfast specials, the prices taped over many times.  I was clearly a stranger here and after an awkward moment of silence that felt like an hour but was probably more like 5 seconds, I shook off my self-consciousness and made my way to the counter and sat down.  I needed coffee and badly.  I ordered my food and the cook – a thin, craggy older guy dressed in a ball cap and plaid shirt and who looked like the love child of actor Steve Buscemi and Gilligan – got busy on the grill.

These were clearly locals and regulars; they knew each other and their banter easy, their regional accents thick as chowder.  Their dress reflected their blue-collar lives and I couldn’t have been more out of place in my business attire if I’d come dressed as Scarlett O’Hara.  One guy got up to pay his bill, easily chatting with and hitting on the waitress.  I guessed him to be in his 50’s, she a good 20 years younger, and he asked her to go to Vegas with him when he and his brothers take their mother for her 80th birthday.  Apparently, I found the place in the world where an appropriate birthday celebration for your elderly mother is a trip to sin city.  He was loud and standing right next to me and it was all I could do not to turn and just look at him, to see what a character like this looked like.  I somehow had the feeling that he wanted me to, so he could size up the stranger in their midst, quiz me on who I was, where I was from, what I was doing here.

As I was sipping my coffee, I looked around the room and marveled that this place, for the most part, had probably remained unchanged since it opened.  The only exception came when the waitress brought me my juice in a small plastic cup and was hit with disappointment that it wasn’t in one of those heavy contoured glasses found at diners.  The plastic was an anachronism here, a disposable item in a place that had endured the years.  The remaining patrons chatted about the murder of a young boy at the hands of his mother, his body found on a remote road in New Hampshire.  “I just don’t understand it…why didn’t she just drop him off with someone, a relative?”  “It’s like that mother in Houston who drowned her five children….” They debated the topic for a while – never once suggesting that perhaps mental illness was a factor at play in the commission of the crime – and an elderly heavy-set guy two stools down from me finally shook his head and ended the discussion with “She’s not from around here.  She’s from Texas.”  

My food arrived, my plate heaped with eggs, bacon, toast, and homefries.  I could have taken the plate and shaken it and the food would have remained stationary: this café was either unaware or unconcerned with the ill effects of saturated fat.  It tasted good.  Really, really good.  I’d bought a book at the Airport and had it on the counter next to me.  The man, who’d neatly explained the crime as a by-product of the suspect’s geography, looked over and asked “What are you reading?  Is it good?”  I explained that I’d bought it at the airport, but hadn’t started it.  He asked where I was staying and I told him about the inn, and then offered up the information about the wood floors and the noise.  He then offered up that the building was in fact a converted school… and the noise I heard?  He had an explanation for that too.  “Old buildings make noise.  I didn’t used to believe in ghosts.  But then I moved into the house of my neighbors.  She’d died of cancer.  He was so sad that he committed suicide after.”  My first thought is WHY on earth anyone would willingly want to live in a house with such a history.  But being the outsider I just nodded my head.  “So, we had a ghost in the house.  I’m sure it was him.”  He went on to explain that he was an amiable spirit who didn’t like discord.  If he started arguing with his wife or daughter-in-law, the ghost would turn on the TV or make things fall from the table.  “He liked the house peaceful.  He’s not in the house anymore though.  He left when my daughter-in-law moved out.”  He spoke so matter-of-factly, and the only thing I could manage to ask was “Do you miss him?”  He replied with quiet sadness “Yeah, I do.  He was a nice ghost.”

Another man got up and made his way to the cash register.  He saw my book and asked “Whatcha readin?  Is it good?”  This question is evidently the local icebreaker.  The cook and two guys in stools at the other end of the counter started arguing about sports.  Boston fans are passionate about their teams, and it was at this point that I noticed the cook was wearing a New York Yankees cap.  In Boston, this would be the same as wearing an “I Heart Bin Laden” shirt at ground zero.  I couldn’t believe the chutzpah of a chowderhead rooting for the Yankees.  I said – without thinking – “You’ve got a YANKEES cap on?  HERE?  IN BOSTON?  Are you nuts?”  He smiled at me and opened the buttons on his navy and white checked shirt to reveal a Yankees t-shirt underneath.  “I gave up rootin’ faw the Red Sawx in 1968.  What – I was supposed ta wait 86 yeahs?  Fahget it.”  I shook my head “Wow, you must catch a lot of flack.”  He shot back quickly “I cook ya food – no one says nothin” and laughed.  

I paid my bill – where can you get breakfast for $6.25 anymore? – and made my way on the damp streets toward the inn and the shuttle to the airport for my flight home.  During the trek back I had this thought that these were the most real people I’d met in a long time.  But later, on the flight back to Richmond, it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t, that if I were to go back to the café tomorrow, I’d find “The High Tide” long ago boarded up, it’s tin signs peeling and hanging neglected on the walls and discover that the folks I’d met weren’t in fact real, but spirits from another time.