THE HUNGRY GHOSTS OF BLEAKHAUS
Built by Irish immigrants in 1853, two identical triple story victorian houses were situated at 2429 and next door at 2419 Mission Street near the corner of 20th. A treelined courtyard connected them with a series of smaller rowhouses set behind. A sign above the courtyard's iron gates proclaimed that this was "Catherine's Court".
Archived historical maps of San Francisco denoted the lot at 2429 Mission as "Anna's House" and 2419 as "Catherine's House", the twin O'Conner sisters and original inhabitants. Deeds of ownership never involved the exchange of money. Instead the properties remained gifted within the family, passed down from generation to generation.
The twin houses sat fairly weathered, having survived every natural and manmade disaster over the last 160 years. Constructed of low grade wood lathes and molded plaster, they had a distinctive 16" lean in toward one another. During each earthquake the walls would just wiggle and sway, their weakness being their greatest strength.
Far below modern housing codes, there was no heating, deep layers of paint were peeling, the plumbing was regularly unreliable and old cloth wiring sometimes arced inside the walls. Doorbells had long ago been disconnected. Roofs leaked. Pigeons pooed. Raccoons scuffled. Mice squeaked. Remnants of gaslighting poked out through holes in the walls that went uncapped. Curious ornate iron levers that no longer opened or closed anything rotated with uselessly intricate squeals. Innovative sliding pocket doors stood rusted shut. Hand wrought chandeliers dangled elegantly in disuse, only half lit. But when the late afternoon light shone through her sagging windows, she was still a beautiful beautiful slum.
A beautiful slum to you and to countless other tenants, some of whom had their lives briefly captured on census reports. Such as Theodore Reilly, a watchmaker in 1880 whose hand painted gold entrance sign was still barely visible on the stone front step. And Kate O'Leary, a divorced 43 year old woman who employed herself as a dressmaker in 1890 to some degree of self sufficient success. And the Hanley family who ran a curios and candle shop downstairs in 1900. And maybe even the police officer Thomas Kane who, in 1910, was often shitfaced drunk and terrorizing his wife Sarah and their epileptic teenage son, Thomas Jr. while their temporary lodger, Charles Graves, an unemployed tanner, tried not to get involved.
One day in the autumn of 1994, not long after moving into the front room at 2429, you came home from school resoundingly depressed. Opening your bedroom door with your head hung low, you were assualted by the thought, "i should just hang myself." But this struck you as odd since all of your usual suicidal impulses would shy away from that particular mode of death -- guns, jumping, pills, drowning, bleeding out: yes. Choking or burning: no.
Lifting your gaze you caught a glimpse of a man in haggard 1920s clothing hanging by his neck, the rope taught and swinging from the ceiling. He glared at you with a thick ragged mustache and a disgusted scowl, a dirty black bowler hat plastered to his unwashed disheveled head. In the shock of that moment, he disappeared. But his image would come to haunt you over the years, systematically hijacking every episode of depression with that same thought, "you should just hang yourself."
But you were not alone. Other people from every walk of life and every varying degree of verve would move in, soon become depressed and find themselves fashioning a noose . Mr. Burkhalter, the master tenant, later informed you that over the course of the next 15 years, he had cut down at least 7 of his former roommates to stop them from killing themselves. Their reasoning was always peppered with bouts of amnesia and complaints of an oppressive negative energy from which they could not escape. Until they moved out of that house.
Sadly, after much melodramatic art school agony and hosting many happily chaotic parties in which then unknown bands like the Dandy Warhols played shows in their underwear in your living room, you moved out of 2429 in the spring of 1998.
You went from your huge $260 rent controlled room to living alone in a $600 studio in the Tenderloin that felt too nice for you. Soon, you were living in a non live-in $165 basement cubicle on 16th and Mission. Then you moved into a warehouse around the corner filled with musicians and artists called Pubis Noir.
Litigation meant that you could all live rent-free for a couple years at least. In exchange, you had to walk around the huge hole in the common space where the couch had fallen through the rotting floorboards, ignore the black mold mushrooms sprouting up next to the bathtub, avoid the river of debri and fleas flooding the basement (a.k.a. Mission Creek) and prepare for the dead junkie's body that would be blocking the front door, the only feasible exit.
Every day, soapy bath water would rain down from the residential hotel above. Plastic garbage bags, pvc pipes and buckets would snake around the warehouse making the space look like a scene from the Terry Gilliam film, "Brazil". But life was bearable, marked by fabulously anarchic Noise & Pancakes shows every Sunday afternoon. And for 6 months at a time, a friend would collect your unemployment checks from your first big lay-off and send you these meager funds while you lived low in London, Berlin and Belgium. Good times.
Then eviction came. Another $400 warehouse room sprang up but it soon wilted and died too. So with all the ambitious pride of any aggro 33 year old artist, you moved to New York City and stayed in a room on 139th Street that was a third the size but triple the price.
Still not sure why, but call it what you will ~ destiny, fate, synchronicity, random coincidence, total bollocks ~ but 7 years after leaving 2429 Mission Street, having moved 11 times and going a distance of 32,000 miles, you ended up 6 feet from where you started. Catherine's Court had called you back.
In the spring of 2005, immediately after moving into your new $323 room at 2419 Mission Street, you started having intense lucid dreams. Unlike most lucid dreams that happen within an imaginary landscape, these Bleakhaus dreams always began and ended in exactly the spot where your physical body was sleeping. In them, you'd instantly know you were dreaming, get up out of bed and walk to your bedroom door. But it opened up to a portal that was not entirely pleasant, so turning the doorknob meant swallowing some trepidation and dread. The hallway was a swirling black mass of sadness and timeless resentment, flowing from east to west. It felt like walking under water.
And in the black water you could see so many people from the past whose traumatized emotions held them there, stuck in the riptide.
1984, a frustrated and berated housewife who longed to be with the women she loved overdosed in the kitchen. 1979, a tall blond man in a cowboy hat with a fatal gun shot wound stood in the bathroom. 1877, a starving 10 year old boy by the stairwell begged for some bread. 1816, before the house was built, a group of 6 native Muwekma Ohlone women escaped slavery and ran for their lives but were tracked down by members of their own tribe. Captured and forced to return to the mission, they fought back but were massacred on this hill. In black and white, like an old scratchy film loop, the scene repeated itself endlessly with the lost cries of an unspeakably unjust crime.
In waking life, every late April, the annual arrival of a dark foreboding presence would stalk the hallway, making it nearly impassible to anyone perceptive. You'd stay in your room and pee in a can rather than confront this huge looming shadow until it went away in early May. But in April of 2010 that dark presence became bolder and ventured into your room one day.
Focused on some domestic duty while sitting on your bed, you heard your door swing open and sensed someone skulking around the bend. The air got thick and sticky with ionized threat, then the ghost announced itself with a loud crumbling BOOM. The stereo which was not turned on suddenly sprang to life and began blaring that cd skipping sound. All the lights in the room instantly dimmed, and you heard a man's voice clearly say, "After what's coming, all of this will seem like such a luxury."
Scenes of screaming devastation and infernal fires flashed through your mind. You felt his helplessness as he watched everyone he loved die. And he blamed himself. If he hadn't gone to work that day, he might have been there to save them. It was his fault that his sister, his young wife and his wee child were dead. Towering above you but facing away, his hunched over frame wore dirty work overalls and was burdened by a huge canvas backpack, filled with all the heaviness of his guilt remorse and shame. Another loud BOOM and he was gone. Everything returned to normal.
It didn't take long to piece together that San Francisco's biggest natural disaster happened on April 18th, 1906 and that this man's spirit was still a victim to it.
Events like these prompted a continuous stream of roommates to move in, then quickly leave. Especially if they were sensitive types who could clearly see the ghosts surrounding them. You contacted one of these former roommates named Lucia and relayed this recent appearance to her. She validated that these details were identical to what she had witnessed the previous April.
Reaching out, you needed to find someone who could teach you how to help this greiving man leave the hallway because now you had felt his pain and that overrided any fear. A woman named Crystal Cobra came over one day and showed you the ropes of crossing spirits over.
In preparation for this ritual, you made sure this man knew that you wanted to help him. "It's not your fault. Forgive yourself and let go. Put down that bag and get ready to leave here because your family's waiting for you to join them." Then you played music to calm everything down and serenaded him on his way out.
There was no way to prove that this worked without waiting until the following spring. So you waited. In April of 2011, nothing weird happened. And it felt good, helping someone move on. You trusted this euphoric spiritual gratitude much moreso than the feelings that were conjured up by the unappreciative agendas of the undead.
Keep in mind that these events all occured at times when you were straight, not high, but they did sound crazy enough to drive you back into the arms of drugs where you could be safely numb. Until the next time. But now you had an Open For Business sign above your third eye, so empathy only increased -- regardless of your drug fueled attempts to feel nothing.
Knowing very well what it's like to be overlooked or ignored or belittled, a communal defeat draped over you. Ghosts are people, too. With all the same emotional needs that haunted their living days. Walking around the mission alone in the dark, you could sense the overwhelming pain of everyone in this city who had ever ended their own life. And that was a collective cry you could never hope to repair on that precariously fragile night.
But how would YOU like to be stuck for eternity with no body, screaming out for help? Then whenever anyone hears or sees you, they just run and hide? Or worse yet, use you for amusement to profit in a freak show that's regularly broadcast to self-agrandizing narrow minds?
So you decided to perform one giant Releasing Ritual for every spirit still trapped at Catherine's Court. Months in preparation, it went off quickly and without a hitch. Everyone filed on excitedly to the big caravan in the sky.
Except for those who stayed behind.
The 6 native women were still caught looping in their last tragic moments of struggling to survive. You felt lacking in your ability or rights to move them on from this land, so you sent all relevant information to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council. Perhaps their souls would find peace in hearing prayers spoken in their own language by their own decendants of their own (still unrecognized by the federal government) tribe.
And the hanging man. He resolutely refused to leave. Angry and densely black as ever, his shadow paced up and down your hallway for ages after that. He had some specific need that had not been met yet. But you didn't know what it was. And now, you were tired.
During the last few noise shows at Bleakhaus, other people saw his ghost wandering around and yelped, "Did you see that!?! The shadow of a man just walked across your room!" You non-chalantly replied, "Yeah...he's waiting to be crossed over but...i tried...i dunno what he wants me to do..." People looked at you funny, changed the subject and quickly left the room.
Sinking deeper into depression during the next 2 years, you yelled at his ghost in desperation. "What the fuck do you want from me asshole?!" And after a while, you spent more time getting high and less time caring. Until you got to the point where you started looking up at your painted red glass chandelier, wondering if it would hold your dead body's weight.
"Wait. Hanging? What the Fuck! I'm not actually depressed at all, am I? This is that ghost fucking with me again, isn't it?" To which a chorus of disembodied voices sang out triumphantly, "YES!!!" And your anger at his impetuous invasion of your personal space gave you just enough impetus to get back to work on researching this unknown dickhead's demise.
Online, you found an archive of San Francisco obituaries that dated from the 1870's until the 1950's. Concentrating on the 1920's because of his dated clothing, you began reading through the thousands of entries posted. It was a daunting task. Emotionally taxed after reading the first 700 obituaries, you had to stop and try again tomorrow. It all seemed so pointless, randomly searching for a nameless man but something told you to just keep looking. Somehow, you'd KNOW when you dug up his obit. 3 days and 1200 listings laster, all your hairs stood up on end when you read about the suicide of a 26 year old Mission district resident, John Sinclair.
Deeply in love with his next door neighbor Maggie, she convinced John to murder her husband George so that she and John could be together. She claimed that George was abusive so John stabbed this innocent man to death. Maggie then turned John in. He was found guilty of murder and convicted. Maggie soon remarried someone else and left the city. Abandoned and betrayed, John hung himself in prison.
If you ever thought you knew what betrayal felt like, it was miniscule compared to his story. "I'm sorry... I am so sorry..." was all you said to the ghost of John Sinclair. And then he was gone.
A wave of gratitude, amazement and bewilderment came crashing over you. If emotions are strong enough to bend space and time so that this kind of communication could happen 100 years apart, then all of our emotions deserve respect. Even the dark ones need acknowledgement, just like the rest of us.
Bleakhaus was finally clear. Your job was done.
But it didn't take long for it to start collecting spirits again. 18 months later, your schizophrenic roommate went off his meds and quickly lost his shit. He stopped bathing,
had to urinate constantly and spent every waking moment alone in his little room smoking himself silly until his hallucinations and headbanging and screaming ramblings left everyone else tattered and witless. Kidneys failing, 2 days later, his twin brother went in to check on him, wondering why he was so quiet. He discovered his brother's dead body sitting upright. A rigor mortised fist still clutching his bong. Soft webs of discharge veiled his half open eyes.
3 days later, your dead roommate's face appeared within a whirlwind of confusion and stood hovering in your doorway in the middle of the afternoon. Good ideas and bad smells whipped around him like black sparrows and gray finches. You yelled, "You're dead! Go find your mother!" But the thought of his recently deceased mom just made him sad and lonely. He chose to stay with his living brother who was busy tossing all of his grief and loss and increasing drug binges back into the downward spiral. Carelessly unhinging with every month of nonpaid rent building, the living twin left all other non-lease holding tenants on tenderhooks and wincing.
In the pit of your gut, you knew that if you didn't leave this house, you'd be next. But with nowhere to go and no money to get there, you felt trapped and weak. Eclipses kept coming. And strange things continued happening.
*u can call me ph!*