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City Desk

The Spirit Level

by Richard Brookhiser

The city is not an obvious candidate to be a ghost town. While it is old for America, it is still not very old. We won’t turn 400 for another eleven years yet — loose change in the time pocket of Rome or Jerusalem. The city doesn’t think about its past the way even other American cities do. How many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb? Twelve — one to change the bulb, the other eleven to say how lovely the old bulb was. Not here, pal. The very streets — one great grid ten miles long — make the place everyday and businesslike. Here are no hidden ramshackle neighborhoods of the sort that Dickens loved; few places that time forgot, and where those outside of time might linger.

The most I hear about the dear not-departed is from my trainer, who is not from here. He grew up on an island where the family cemetery was down the hill and lights-out came with sunset, so it was perhaps natural for him to have seen spirits sitting on gravestones. In ghostly matters he is to me what Jeter is to a Little Leaguer, though he considers himself to be an amateur: His mother knows more, and her mother knew still more.

It looked as if his mother’s knowledge of spirits would have to be called upon, because his brother’s girlfriend was seeing one. The couple lives in Miami, where the brother is a contractor; they moved into their current house a few years ago. The girlfriend saw an old lady, the previous tenant; no one else, neither her boyfriend nor their two children, saw anything or anyone. My trainer and his mother were going to make simultaneous trips to Miami, for a mini–family reunion, and they talked about the problem ahead of time. What will your mother do? I asked. Put a Bible in each room, open to the Lord’s Prayer, he said. It turned out that nothing needed to be done, by the family at any rate. My trainer reported that his brother had called in “a Chinese man” who took care of the spirit. N.B.: Spirits are multicultural.

What about my countryside, upstate? There, among the woods, the farms, the trailers, and the McMansions are a few old fieldstone houses, family cemeteries, and murders lurid enough to have stayed in the local memory. Yet I have read of only one ghost story there, though it suggests how such stories get started. The Reformed Church in the oldest local town went through three languages over the centuries — first French, then Dutch, then English. In the late 18th century, at (I believe) the first transition, a new building was built, to accompany the new rite. One of the older parishioners was so opposed to the change that he continued to go to the abandoned church on Sundays, where his spirit was seen long after it fell into ruin. The ghost in this case is a character study: A man that stubborn might be supposed to stick to his guns even after he no longer had hands for manning them.

I did hear of one ghost in the city just recently. In the center of a city block in the East Village there is a private cemetery, one of the few on Manhattan. The dead, cremated, are stored in underground vaults; up above there are no monuments or even graves, only flat marker stones set into a long, narrow lawn. The cemetery is entered from the avenue side through a narrow gate between two buildings, which is open to the public once a year. Long ago it was thought that the East Village might become a fancy neighborhood, which didn’t happen, but the dead still have a door policy.

The south wall of this cemetery abuts onto the back of a store that sells eccentric housewares and curiosities: paperweights laid over 19th-century lithographs, long-handled shaving brushes arranged in jars. The basement of the store, the cashier told us the last time we shopped there, is haunted by an old woman (another one!). The owner does not believe it, but all his employees do. How does she haunt? I asked. She rearranges things, I was told. This is a depressing view of the afterlife, indeed of life. Restless dissatisfaction, devoted to meaningless tasks. Let it be a lesson to you: Don’t spend eternity or a posthumous century or so sending Instagrams.

I knew a masseuse who was adept in a variety of New Age practices. When I was writing a biography of Gouverneur Morris, whose hour of birth is known, she cast his horoscope. Her interest in the unseen was an extension of her profession, and of her generosity: Being so attuned to every body’s inner weather, she believed she could turn her attention, and her concern, over distance and time. When important people in my life died — my mother, WFB, my father — she reported on their post-life first impressions. My parents were content, WFB a bit “cranky” (contrarian to the last, and beyond). Before the orthodox dismiss such data with that apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quotation — a man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything — they should remember what Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy: “You could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.”

Why did I not want to hear this? Any of this? Why do the vaguely necrophiliac reveries of even such a mind as Lincoln’s — “from these honored dead we take increased devotion” — make me wince? Life is enough for us; it’s where we are. When we move on, then we’ll be there. If help comes from those precincts, let it come, as life has, inexplicably. (The Human Genome Project! The Higgs boson! Yes, I know, but those are not the kind of explanations I am talking about.)

Meanwhile, tell the old lady not to worry, everything is where it should be.

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