Lucid Culture


Ghost Hunting in the East Village

A large urban area, particularly its oldest sections, ought to have no shortage of ghosts, at least if you believe in them. We’ll put our cards on the table and reveal that none of the crew here have ever seen one: at least that’s the consensus, even after a Halloween eve trip to the Merchant’s House Museum at 29 E 4th St., reputedly Manhattan’s most haunted house. Ostensibly, one way to encourage the appearance of spectral images is to place two mirrors facing each other (the basic principle of Dr. Raymond Moody’s famous psychomantium). In the upstairs bedroom of the three-story 1832 brick Federal house where nonagenarian Gertrude Tredwell died in 1933 (and supposedly continues to reside), there are in fact two mirrors facing each other across the room. One was in desperate need of a dusting – or was it? Are the staff here more savvy about their ghostbusting than they let on? An attempt by one of our crew to squat down out of range and watch the surface of the clean mirror revealed a nebulous, shapeless blob of whitish grey that could have been…well, you figure it out. Ectoplasm, dust, or just bad eyesight? Maybe that’s why this guy’s experiences of the paranormal have been audio and tactile but never visual.

And if you don’t believe in ghosts, the museum is still marvelous. A current exhibit focuses on postmortem photography common in the late 1800s, including a rather sad collection of wallet-size deathbed and casket shots, most of them children. In the days before the invention of the Kodak box camera, this was a popular phenomenon in upper class America: funeral photos were keepsakes, and frequently the only portraits ever made of many of those unfortunate kids.

The rest of the house is stunning in its lowlit authenticity, complete with its owners’ 19th century furnishings. In the downstairs kitchen, where the Tredwell family’s four Irish servants cooked on the big iron stove, there’s the pie safe (a big breadbox on stilts, typically set in pails of water to keep the bugs from getting into the pastries inside). Outside in the garden, you’ll find evidence of the 4000 gallon cistern – a source of water for washing and cleaning but not for drinking, considering that the rainwater flowed down from the eaves overhead. The first-floor parlor with its chandeliers, high ceilings, pristine 1820 pink silk sofa and vintage 1840 piano, reminds that grubbing for status has been with us since the dawn of humankind (from the looks of it, the Tredwells do not appear to have been the deepest people in the neighborhood). The upstairs bedrooms, also complete with ornate, highly sought-after period furnishings, include both the room where patriarch Seabury Tredwell (1780-1865) died, as well as the actual bed where his daughter Gertrude left this world. Her mirror (the one covered with dust) hangs past it along the north wall. Sadly, the part of the house that probably tells the most tales – the servants’ quarters – is not open to the public. But the rest is a treat, as vivid a look at 19th century daily life in Manhattan as you’ll ever see. The museum is open Thursday-Monday, noon to 5 PM. Admission is a very reasonable $10.

October 31, 2010 Posted by | Culture, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If You See Something, Use Your Brain Before You Say Something

They’re all over the subway: those annoying posters from the MTA, encouraging citizens to get in the frame of mind to spy on each other and take us deeper into the Orwellian nightmare. “If you see something, say something…last year, 3456 people saw something and said something,” it taunts, as if we should all be narcing on our fellow passengers. But now that Bush is out of office, isn’t it about time we turned the page?

Case in point: rush hour, uptown train at Chambers Street, downtown.  A bunch of people get off, I get a seat. A couple of middleschool kids – brothers, from the looks of them – board the train behind me. One sits down across from me, the other stands since there’s what looks like an empty shoebox in a blue plastic bag on the seat next to his brother. Maybe he just doesn’t want to sit – he looks restless, like he’s been cooped up in school all day. I look up at the digital screen in the middle of the ceiling of the car to see what time it is. But the time doesn’t come up. And the train doesn’t move. It just sits in the station.

Waiting on the platform, I’d reflexively looked down the tracks to see if the signal was green, an indication that there hadn’t been a train in awhile. The size of the crowd on the platform had reconfirmed that. And the conductor wasn’t imploring or hollering over the PA to get whoever was holding up the train to get the hell out of the doorway. 

I looked around in frustration. There was an older woman to my right, past the doors. She pointed to the box in the bag. “That’s a suspicious package. Somebody called the conductor, he’s gonna come check it out.”

Calling in a bomb threat used to be against the law, but since the early days of the Bush regime it became mandatory behavior. Still, I’d never seen anyone actually be so stupid as to actually do it. I stood up, reached over and gingerly picked up the bag (you never know what kind of disgusting things people will leave behind in a box). It felt light. Obviously the box, one of the kind that has folding flaps to close it, didn’t have anything in it. I pried it open. Nothing.

I put it back on the seat.  The kid sitting there pushed it off and kicked it underneath so his brother could sit down. Then the conductor showed up, bemused expression on his face. Something told me he found this as absurd as I did. He looked around, puzzled. “It’s empty,” I said.

“Well,” he said noncomittally, “You gotta check these things out, I guess, a passenger called it in.”

“Who? What passenger?” I demanded. I knew it was the old lady.

“It was me,” she announced. Proudly.

I felt around for the right words. Obviously, I wasn’t dealing with the sharpest tool in the shed. How could I make my point in a way that would resonate so she wouldn’t do it again? An exercise in futility, I reckoned. Anger got the better of me. “You know, that was really stupid. All these hundreds of people on the train, they want to get home, they have places they have to be and so do I and you just held up the train because of an empty box!”

She muttered something about patience.

I’d been right: there was no use in talking to her. But now I had an audience. I had to redeem myself. “That’s George Bush thinking,” I said. “He wanted to make everybody so afraid of terrorists on the subway so he could fight his stupid war. There are no terrorists on the subway. Now that Barack Obama is President, do you hear anything about terrorists on the subway? No. That’s because he’s smart. You can’t let George Bush ideas make you afraid of everything.” 

It was all I could do to resist the urge to point out that if she’d really been afraid that the empty box had been a bomb, why hadn’t she left her seat, even left the station? Then it hit me a couple of stops later.

Maybe the box was hers.

Some people will do anything for attention.

February 13, 2009 Posted by | Culture, New York City, Rant | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment