Houses that have been shut up for a while, that have had no humans living in them, or probably no animals either besides rats and mice and pigeons swarming on the sooty window-sills, are disturbing. I find that to be so, anyway, and having been a builder in San Francisco for more than thirty-five years, I’ve had the experience more than once of pushing open a stubborn door and setting foot on a creaky floor that hasn’t felt a human foot for months, maybe years.
That is, a living human foot.
I say that because I did see a ghost once.
But less melodramatically, I’ve entered a number of sour, closed-down rooms – kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, and yes, dank cellars festooned with webs of spiders and webs of sticky dust – and it was not a comfortable experience.
It’s not that I saw, except that one time, any specific object that disturbed me – no blood-stained hatchets, human bones, hangman’s nooses dangling from basement beams. Nor did I hear anything creepy, nor smell anything more sinister than the stale odor of closed-in places that had not been swept through by fresh air nor blessed by sunlight for all too long a time.
But I was made uncomfortable anyway. Something bothered me in the shadows in the corners, and at the tops of squeeking staircases, and the in darknesses of closets, and at the sight of ancient wallpaper falling away to reveal dingier and even more ancient wallpaper behind it.
I believe its what they call my “sixth sense” that picked up something beyond sight and hearing and was bothered by it.
It’s occurred to me, having taken part so often in the typical building process, that there’s something painful about finally closing in roofs and walls, even a little tragic. Here the builders have worked in the open air, the sun, the heat or cold, even the rain and snow at times, for weeks, pouring a foundation, erecting skeletal walls, attaching floors to them, then framing out a roof. But in a day or two or three, all that is shut up by siding and roofing and wallboard. From then on the gang works enclosed in products, man-made or man-transformed products, consisting of God-knows-what corporate secrets.
And when that enclosure occurs, that new house or extension is cut off from nature, from the profound healthiness of nature. And so an unhealthiness develops inside, the unhealthiness we moderns know about all too well – that of enclosure in its many forms.
What mitigates this unhealthiness in the house, however, what keeps it at bay so to speak, is the presence of people, particularly of families. Mothers and fathers, girls and boys, dogs and cats, music and television, work and fun, fights and laughter, and growing up and leaving. And dying.
This activity keeps the unhealthiness at bay – the talk and the rattle of dishes in the sink and the pounding of childrens’ feet in the hallways and the barking of the dog beat back the darkness.
And so, I have thought, when people move away entirely and a place is shut up and abandoned and silent and cold, the unhealthiness emerges once again in the shadows and in the wallpaper and in the cracked linoleum and the dripping basements, as if it were only waiting to do so.
And this is what my sixth sense feels when I’ve moved through shut down, abandoned houses – not evil, but sickness.
But now to the ghost, the only one I actually layed eyes on and not just brushed by while not seeing a thing – felt certainly, but still not seeing a thing. This one I saw.
A crew and I were working on a very old Victorian house, as I recall somewhere in the Haight-Asbury. It was older than 1906. It had survived the earthquake, that devastation that like a brutal cleaver cut through the history of this city, leaving a few old remnants, but not many.
This house was a genuine remnant. It resembled its neighbors which were post-earthquake imitation Victorians. It had, like them, three stories, a front exterior staircase, and a peaked roof. But it was smaller than they, with smaller windows, smaller rooms, narrower doorways. It contained intriguing ancient hardware, quaint fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, and gorgeous, perfect redwood wainscotting and molding where we had scraped off layers of paint, redwood milled from the heart of the immense trees that used to cover much of North Coast California. And the “garage” underneath had obviously housed horses. There were several moldy pieces of leather horse gear hanging on the walls and what was left of two wooden stalls.
The “sickness” I definitely felt when I first entered the place with the enthusiastic new owner was mostly dispelled, what with our forcing windows open that had been shut for years, our knock-about work in there, our mere loud presence.
One gray day we were doing something or other on the third floor. In the middle of it all I realized I had left a necessary tool in my truck and headed for the staircase. In those days I was strong and agile – we all were – and when I flew down a flight of stairs I did so at super-human speed. So I did that day and in a second reached the second floor, my mind on a dozen things, which is usually the case with me.
I swung around the ornate post at the base of the stair and impelled by sheer momentum began to race along the second floor balcony toward the lower flight of stairs to the first floor and then the street.
But I stopped. I stopped dead. I had seen something. As I swung around that post, I had seen something clearly. A woman was standing at the window that looked out into the street. She was no child, nor a matron, but something in between. She wore a Victorian dress. It flaired out from her tightly cinched waist and reached to her ankles. Her hair was swept back into a bun. She faced the street, and so I couldn’t see the front of her face, only one ear and a cheekbone. Somehow she was all gray, or shades of gray – her hair, her dress, and maybe her face. Mind you, this was a split-second sighting.
I whirled around back toward the window, my heart beating beyond description. And she was gone. Period. I walked over there and stood where she had stood. Nothing. A smelly carpet. A dusty window. And the concrete street outside.
I went out. I got my tool. I also looked up and down the street for a glimpse of the lady. Nothing.
Later I asked everybody if they had seen a woman anywhere in the house, a woman in a long dress. They looked at me and shrugged their shoulders, even our lady plumber. They more or less all had the same response: “What, are you kidding me?”
I wasn’t. Nor am I kidding this afternoon, thirty years later. Even less so because by now I’m not embarrassed to say I saw what I saw. I don’t explain them away with shrugging shoulders or “common sense” or the Ten Commandments of Science or the systems analyses of psychology. I saw what I saw and accept it as I do the sparrows chipping outside my window.
That just may be an important acheivement.