I recently ran across a fascinating website that reminded me of the only ghost story I've ever been a party to.
http://www.darkpassage.com describes a peculiar form of urban expedition: people sojourn into the dark and forgotten places that hide on the periphery of our daily lives. They sneak past guards and razor wire fences to step into the abandoned orphanage days away from demolition, the old asylum whose ghosts are the stuff of city fairy tales. A subtle cross between archaeology and adventure travel, these stories are profound reminders that even in the most modern and gentrified climes, we are only baby steps away from real mystery and wonder. And fear, as well.
One of the most fascinating midnight missions the writers describe concerns the search for a legend that I have actually heard of. There have long been rumors about a secret tunnel connecting New York's Waldorf-Astoria and Grand Central Station. According to legend, the corridor was constructed in the late-teens or early twenties so that imported spirits could be transported freely from inbound Canadian trains to the rich, powerful and desperately thirsty domiciled at the grand hotel. Naturally, the criminal corridor is also rumored to be the resting place for any number of mobsters and lawmen, eternally confined to the subterranean cavern that served as a front line in the wars of prohibition.
The dark passage crew did a great deal of research and made their expedition, discovering more than they bargained for. Though they could not enter the tunnel itself, a Grand Central worker showed them a rusted door that he insisted was the exit FDR used on leaving the Waldorf tunnel. What was more fascinating was the mythology of Grand Central itself that they learned from conversations with its long- time employees. For many years scholars have debated how deep the station runs. The principal arguments are that it is either two or seven levels. The denizens of the great structure have a different view. They believe that additional stairways have been bricked off to hide the station's secrets, and that no fewer than fifteen floors exist below the street. Readers of the X-Men, H.G. Wells and many others will be familiar with various interpretations of mole people living beneath the earth - to the workers in Grand Central Station, there is en entire society under the streets of Manhattan.
Though they lack the name recognition as the icons in New York, there were a number of legendary structures in Atlanta, Georgia when I was growing up. One of them was right near my boyhood home. The moldering Leviathan of the Brookwood Hotel stood in a weed covered field right on Peachtree Road's most desirable stretch of real estate. The word was that the criminal element owned the building, and that a treasure so fantastic was hidden inside that they would not sell the building at any price until it was found.
There were also ghosts unwilling to leave their home, who would terrify any prospective owner away from any thoughts of development.
My father's an interesting cat. He spent much of my childhood chasing UFOs and investigating the occult, so living so close to a local haunted house was too tempting an opportunity to pass up. Shortly after seeing The Shining, he started talking more and more about the Brookwood. Books on local history started to appear, not only about the period when the hotel was constructed and its heyday between the World Wars, but earlier.
It seemed that the innocuous patch of Peachtree Creek where my friends and I played, which flowed by the Hotel, once ran crimson with the blood of twenty-thousand Confederate and Union soldiers. Apparently, ghost stories of skeletal horses and their armless riders predated the hotel, and the farm on which the colonial monster was constructed had laid empty for nearly twenty years. The previous owners had been frightened away.
It took a great deal of begging for my dad to allow his eight-year-old son to come along on the outing, but I always was convincing in the pinch. In theory, we wanted to find the hidden treasure buried somewhere in the hotel. What we were really after was the adrenaline of being frightened. In the end, we would have all we needed.
We initially felt let down. After easily breaking in through a first floor window, we found the hotel to be just what one would expect - a large, dirty trough constructed to receive pigeon droppings. We actually began to get bored walking through the space as the sun set outside. Then we found the ballroom.
The room was massive, with a wide, maple bar on one side and a raised stage at the end. Despite the stifling, humid heat of the Georgia summer, it was cold the moment we crossed the threshold. Dad laughed nervously and we continued into the room. Despite the fact that the door had been open, no animal droppings or empty beer bottles cast off of adolescent romps littered the room. My father leaned down and ran his finger along the hardwood floor.
"My God," he whispered. Except for the thick layer of dust, the wood was as smooth and rich as if it had been polished the night before. Then the trumpet blew, and we all screamed.
It was long and loud and thoroughly toneless, but it was not imagined. It came from the direction of the stage, from on the stage if our senses were to be believed. A single note ripped through the air despite the fact that nobody else was there.
What did we do? The only obvious thing - laughed in the hysterical tones of the insane and ran like hell. We became lost in the twisting corridors of the Brookwood, but we encountered no other strange phenomenon. When we escaped out the side entrance, passing the pool filled with fetid, green liquid, we were still high from the endorphins and giggling manically.
As I grew up I came up with all the obvious rationalizations. Maybe it was pipes. It might have been a bum out to frighten away the interlopers, or kids having fun. I prefer my dad's theory, though. He thinks that what we heard was the ghost of some jazz musician who died unhappy to be trapped in the big band sound. He thinks it was some cutting edge trumpet man who felt shackled by the genteel music he was forced to play for the wealthy in their finery, and that he was released to really wail when he died. This cat probably saw what a great space the ballroom was, and wished he could get some young folks out on the floor to cut loose. That's what I think it was, too. A ghost who wanted us to dance.
To our surprise, the Brookwood was torn down only two weeks after our visit. An upscale outdoor mall was put up in its place. They can dress it up all they like, but with a Blockbuster and a Friday's, it's still a strip mall. I do wonder though. I wonder if some nights the bartender counts his drawer while the manager's in back. I wonder if, after he covers his speed pours with plastic wrap and flips off the CD Player, if for that one quiet moment he hears that ghostly note. I wonder if he hears it and secretly wants to swing.
Contact me at: XanderDG@hotmail.com