“Andrea, you have the strangest collection of jobs I’ve ever seen.”
Some time ago I was driving to work with one of my many bosses and telling him about some of the other gigs I do when not working for him. I think at the time I was up to about five or six occupations altogether, but I can never really keep track. At any given point in the past year I have been a tour guide, a tutor, a videographer, a researcher, a receptionist and a waitress. At times these jobs can be cushy (receptionist), mildly soul-crushing (tutoring rich kids in the SAT, thus perpetuating our society’s heinous class-based educational inequities) and occasionally even satisfying (documentary researcher). But of all my jobs, the strangest has to be working as a guide for a ghost tour company. It is also, needless to say, the most fun.
The outfit I work for will take you around New York City and, for a fee, stand in front of various buildings and tell you they’re haunted. Our stories run the spectrum of truth and every guide delivers them in their own way, from earnest credulity to P.T. Barnum bluster. Some use parapsychological terminology and high-tech terms like “orbs” and “EVP”; others tend to think of themselves as storytellers, drawing on centuries of accumulated legend and urban lore. Some of them wear capes.
Our company has numerous routes and tours, but the ones we do most often are the East and West Village tours. The West Village tours are my favorite, since it’s such a romantic and charming part of town. There’s also the Edgar Allan Poe connection — he lived for a time at 85 Amity Street, now 85 West Third Street — which I can appreciate. I get to talk about how I also write ghost stories, and then make hilarious jokes like, “My mother always said if I was going to be a writer I’d end up in the Poe House,” which always breaks the ice. Then we traipse about the narrow, winding streets of the West side, the spell of my ghostly tales broken only occasionally – and by “occasionally” I mean often – by the shrieking of NYU frat boys emerging from Wicked Willy’s, a pirate-themed bar whose slogan is “Time flies when your [sic] having rum.” I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to lament drunken shenanigans on a Poe-themed walking tour, but sometimes (like when an apparently homeless youth barged into my tour, hugged me, and then proclaimed, “Now you have AIDS”) it can be a bit much.
Though tour guides are notorious talkers, one of my favorite parts about this job actually is listening to the amazing tales my guests have told me. The strangest story I’ve heard on the job came from a woman on one of my Upper West Side tours. At the beginning of every tour I generally ask my guests to raise their hands if they’ve ever had a ghostly encounter, then invite those who put their hands up to tell them to me between tour stops. One particular woman raised her hand but later seemed tentative about relating her story. I remember her as slight of build, with pale hair and a quiet demeanor. As we walked, I asked her to elaborate on her ghost story and she hesitated.
“It’s okay,” I said, “You don’t have to tell me if it’s personal.”
Often these stories involve recently deceased family members, and I’m not about to force someone to talk about that if they don’t want to.
“No,” she said. “It’s okay. I’ll tell you.”
“It involved a guy… a lover, let’s just say.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering where she was going.
“He shot himself in the head in my bedroom with my gun.”
“Holy shit!” I thought. I nodded in a way I hoped came off as sage and understanding. She continued.
“He would appear at the foot of my bed every night, for months. Eventually I had to move. I wrote a play about it.”
The play, she told me, was never produced.
Generally, though, the stories are less dramatic. As I said, patrons’ tales frequently involve departed relatives. “I smelled my mother’s perfume,” guests will tell me, or, “I saw my uncle in the back yard.” I’ve begun to notice commonalities in these accounts. Many of these stories take place at night, often while the person involved is sleeping. The person will wake out of sleep and see Dead Grandma sitting or standing on or near their bed. This rather begs the question: isn’t what you’re talking about called a “dream”? Who knows? Not I, certainly. It isn’t my place to say yes, or no, or why. The more I hear, and the more people I speak to, the less certain I feel.
There is a book called Spindrift that was written about one of the stops on my tour. It’s a memoir written by Jan Bryant Bartell, an actress, signer, pianist, composer and poetess known, apparently, for her “light satiric verse.” She also starred in an off-Broadway production of Bell, Book and Candle. After moving into the house at 14 West Tenth Street, she became obsessed with the idea that she – not only the house, but she herself – was haunted. Her memoir is a catalogue of insanity, littered with the flotsam of an unstable mind. She consistently refers to her “plucked” and “unstrung” nerves, and drops telling little phrases like, “that was the winter I spent on Valium.” She blows up coincidences until they become monumental portents; once, when she found a dried-up grape mysteriously placed on her dinner plate, she began shrieking, “It’s a sign! It’s a sign from the other side!” Apparently this raisin foretold her own death.
It’s easy to laugh at silly old Jan, and yet if you ask anyone who’s read her memoir or visited the house, they’ll agree: though you’ll immediately discount her as crazy, there’s something about her story that gets at you. And there’s something about the house, too, that, well, feels a little funny. There have been, both before and after Jan Bartell Bryant lived there, stories and rumors of hauntings (it was also the house where prominent attorney Joel Steinberg murdered his six-year-old adopted daughter Lisa in the 1980s). She wasn’t the only one to have “felt” something. But whatever she felt troubled her more than most: she actually committed suicide not long after she finished her memoir. Perhaps “sensitives” are more prone to being, well, a little unstrung. A woman on my tour who claimed to have been repeatedly poked and prodded by ghosts at Gettysburg said that she heard and felt ghosts all the time, and often wished they would leave her alone. “There’s just so many of them all trying to talk to me,” she sighed.
Guests like this woman are the true believers. We get many of them on the tours (our patrons are split fairly evenly between hardcore ghost hunter types and people who heard about us on Groupon and thought a ghost tour would be a lark). These are the ones who’ll snap photos with orbs in them and email them to us. One woman sent me a photo of a house on Gay Street, claiming she could see a skeletal face in the window. I couldn’t see it at all but I don’t doubt she could. Psychic abilities, I think, fall somewhere on a spectrum, and I don’t discount what anybody says anymore.
This is why, as a writer, I love my ghost tour job. It’s not only about hearing amazing stories — though that’s obviously extremely awesome — it’s about becoming more open to the whole range of human experience, and becoming more tolerant of things you don’t necessarily understand. On a lighter note, it’s just incredibly damn fun. I essentially get paid to gather ‘round a campfire in the middle of that former potters’ field now known Washington Square Park, only my campfire is an IKEA lantern filled with cut-rate scented candles that are probably giving me brain damage. I also get to surprise stuck-up foodies coming out of Babbo by loudly reciting “The Raven” on the stoop of the Waverly Place townhouse where Poe recited that selfsame poem in 1845. Sometimes these restaurant patrons frown or look confused, but sometimes they stop and listen. One of them listened to the whole poem and joined in with my group’s applause at the final “nevermore.” Then he gave me a dollar.