New York: A Ghost Story

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New York: A Ghost StoryI’m a slow processor, I guess, or maybe that’s called repression. But it’s been 16 years since September 11th and I still have basically nothing to say about it. I was in Manhattan. And my husband, then my boyfriend, Adam, was there in Tower 2, when it happened. He was a temp working for Silverstein Properties, and his job was photocopying leases for offices that, after that morning, no longer existed. He still has the key to that building that no longer exists. A ghost key to a ghost job for ghost offices for ghosts.

I don’t remember Halloween 2001. I think I was at my parents’ house in Illinois, having retreated from New York for a brief, confused, confusing hiatus. Maybe I handed out candy to the three or four kids in their quiet neighborhood, or maybe I watched a scary movie in our old, creaking, scary-movie house. September 11th had shaken us all, and Adam and I had temporarily left the city, as if we could outrun danger, as if peril were a matter of zip code.

Now I work in a Lower Manhattan office tower as an editor. It’s the kind of job I wanted when we first moved to New York City in 2001. Adam had his crappy temp job at the World Trade Center, and I had my crappy temp job as the world’s worst receptionist for a magazine office. Close, but also, not close.

From my current office, if you look out the kitchen window while waiting for your Keurig coffee to brew, you can see the new World Trade Tower, and the gleaming black holes of the 9/11 memorial. Before I started working here two years ago, I had never seen the memorial. Adam never wanted to go. Now every time I look at it I think about how this part of Manhattan is lousy with ghosts. Ground Zero of 9/11, yes, but it was also Ground Zero of the slave trade in New York, and before that there were battles with the Lenape which are now memorialized by rows of Halal lunch carts and not much else. All the gruesome layers of America.

Oh, and Alexander Hamilton is buried across the street from my office building. Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, his grave is on every tourist’s bucket list.

At first it was weird to be back in this area, to see it slickly transformed from maw of tragedy into a maudlin tourist hotspot. And then it wasn’t anymore.

My office building did freak me out, though, especially at first. I hadn’t worked in an office full time since my children were born, and now that I was a mother everything felt scarier, more serious, full of peril. The building had vibrated with a long, inefficient renovation process ever since I started working there, and the elevators were famously unreliable, often shuddering and dropping, trapping people within. I can’t get trapped in an elevator, I would think. I’m a mother! What if my children need me? For a while I was taking the stairs, but my office is on the 17th floor, and I soon gave up.

My son, who is now six, wants to be a soldier for Halloween, with a toy gun. I say no. I’m pretty flexible about most things—by the end of the night, the kids will be poisoning their sweet little bodies with obscene amounts of sugar and artificial coloring—but toy guns is where I draw the line. Yes, I know that my son just picks up umbrellas and sticks and pretends they are AK-47s. Still. I’m not into violent imagery.

My husband also works in Manhattan, for a company that makes violent video games. Sometimes this means he spends all day virtually robbing and pillaging and shooting. We don’t talk about this much.

This Halloween, I’m getting ready to leave my office early to pick up the kids and take them trick-or-treating, when an announcement crackles over the loudspeaker. “May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please,” says the building manager in a monotone, as if he were about to announce one of the endless fire safety system tests he seems addicted to, “There is an active shooter in the area. Please stay in the building, and if you have to leave, use extreme caution.” My first thought is: they better not shut down the subway; I do not want to disappoint my kids on Halloween. I also realize that I lack a backup plan in case I ever can’t get off this island and onto the island where my children are, like on 9/11 when everything was shut down and people streamed off Manhattan on the bridges, in the most grim of parades. What would I do? I always knew I’d get trapped in this tower somehow, I think.

Generally speaking, I’m a worrier and a planner, but only in impotent ways. We don’t have anything by way of backup plans, emergency supplies. We used to have an emergency flashlight in case of blackout, but even that is sitting somewhere in the kids’ room, battery drained from a tour in a make-believe forest.

Five Halloweens ago, Sandy hit New York. I think we had an extra gallon of distilled water by way of “emergency supplies.” I’m not sure what we planned to do with a gallon of water. We felt safe, out of the floodplain, in our sturdy building. That day I took the kids to play with a friend in another apartment on the other side of the building, on a higher floor and facing the parkway. There the wind rattled the window panes, cartoonishly whistling, as rain came down in sheets. It was only facing the other direction that had made us feel so safe, so insulated from the storm.

As it turned out, our part of Brooklyn wasn’t seriously affected by Sandy, but there was still a whiff of (perhaps unearned) defiance in the air as we stepped out to trick or treat. Neighbors posted triumphantly on the neighborhood listserv: “That storm won’t stop us! We’ve put our decorations back up, everyone come on out!” We stepped gingerly over downed trees and power lines, believing our children’s holiday mattered.

Active shooter be damned, a coworker and I dash out together across the street to the subway. A few blocks away a horrible scene is unfolding. There are people covered in blood on the train. Because it is Halloween, I remember a second later, and they are in their costumes.

The coworker and I discuss danger, and our children. “I guess we are all just supposed to stay inside forever and that’s the only way to be safe in this world,” she says. “Sure, but what about carbon monoxide poisoning? Intruders?” I say. I don’t say, nannies who stab children to death in the bathtub, because that seems too dark, but I add it silently. “True,” my coworker agrees. We talk about our kids, the lockdown drills they have at school. The kids at the lower Manhattan schools are probably still in that moment locked down in their classrooms, as authorities try to untangle the terrifying mess outside. My kids love lockdown drills. They get to cozy up in the classroom closet and miss a few minutes for normal school work, what’s not to love? They don’t know that they do these drills because a few years ago, when they were toddlers, a crazy person walked into an elementary school and shot a bunch of kids the same age they are now. “Their schools would protect them though, right, if anything happened?” my coworker and I ask each other, and ourselves. “Right? We are right to trust them with our babies, right?”

I get to my kids’ school right on time. The security guard at the door is asleep in his chair, like something out of Scooby Doo. I walk past him unquietly. He never stirs.

I have won the Halloween costume battle, and my son is not a soldier with a toy gun. He is a nice wholesome vampire instead. As I apply fake blood to his soft cheeks, I furtively check the news – a suspect has been arrested for driving his truck into a bike lane, mowing people down, and crashing into a school bus full of children, and then jumping out of the truck and brandishing “imitation fire arms.” Friends text: Am I dead or anything? I text back: Nah, I’m good, back safe in Brooklyn with all the ghouls and goblins and ghosts. The imitation fire arms scared everyone; a cop shot the suspect; later we will learn that five of those killed were tourists celebrating 30 years of friendship. One woman killed was a mother of young sons. One grieving father tells the newspaper that he had to identify his son’s body at a morgue a few blocks from where his son was born.

A few minutes later we are trick-or-treating in a huge mass of people and children, all trusting each other. We pass in front of cars stopped at stoplights, trusting they won’t suddenly accelerate and flatten our children, because that’s not how we have known the world to work. But they could, at any moment. At any moment I could lose my children in this crowd of disguised people. Any of these people behind masks could be killers. Any of the “imitation fire arms” brandished by lanky tweens could be, in fact, not imitation.

The reason why they are renovating my office building, by the way, is in part to move the front doors to other side of the building, so that the address can be changed. It strikes me as an incredibly expensive and complex way to don a disguise. The problem is, if you Google my building, what appears is the story of a gruesome murder. A cleaning lady’s body was found stuffed in an air vent on the 12th floor, five floors below where I work. She was the mother of three children. She was killed by one of the elevator operators.

No wonder the elevators don’t work.

This murder happened around the time my son was born, when I was home in a new baby haze. I never heard about it at the time, and if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have suspected I would one day work with her ghost.

I am often at work early, while it’s still dark out, and no one else is on my floor. In fact, as far as I can tell there are very few floors even occupied in this building – there are two or three law firms with wisecracking secretaries who put cigarettes in their mouths before they leave the lobby, but no one ever presses the elevator button for the other floors. I’ve never seen anyone get off on 12. My floor itself contains many empty cubicles and offices. It’s a bit eerie, a corporate ghost town. I think the building management believes that if it can have this new address, people will not be as concerned with the cleaning lady’s ghost, and more floors will get rented. The building, like the city around it, will reinvent itself and shed its bloody past.

It’s always Halloween in New York City.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. Her essays and short stories have appeared recently in Columbia Journal, Ohio Edit, Electric Literature, Catapult, The Rumpus, Brooklyn Quarterly, and elsewhere. She worked with Anchor + Plume Press to publish a posthumously-discovered novella written by her grandmother, Frances Schutze, called The Little Bastard. Amy received a Promise Award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and has participated in residencies at SPACE on Ryder Farm and the self-directed Artist Residency in Motherhood. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn with her family. You can find her at amyshearnwrites.com or @amyshearn.

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