Saturday, July 4, 2015

SALEM SPOOKY 4: ENTERING SALEM






Autumn leaves deepen in hue as we traverse Connecticut; when we cut north, the foliage turns to death and dying.  

We wind our way first around Providence, Rhode Island and then Boston, until, at precisely 3:33, an exit dumps us into the outskirts of spooky Salem.



On the approach to its historic center, traffic thickens to a near standstill; a large statue heralding this hub is coupled, ironically, with this dominant street sign:  

DO NOT ENTER.


But we do, and we get nowhere, snarled in an atrocious traffic jam that moves at less than one mile an hour.  


Not knowing how to reach our waterfront hotel, I plead with a whistleblowing traffic cop.

“Turn right on Church Street,” he growls tersely between whistles.


Fifteen further minutes of inching forward lands us at a barricade protecting some kind of parade involving hundreds of motorcycles, blocking access to the waterfront.  


Around us, a sea of cars and rivers of people, many of whom are costumed as witches and ghouls—a nightmare and madness rolled into one.


Exasperated, I pull over, fully intending to dump the Red Beast and bail.  


I walk over to a firemen crew manning the barricade.  


“How the hell am I supposed to get to my hotel?”  


Exasperated, I point at the inaccessible Salem Waterfront Hotel, about five hundred yards away.


“Parade’s ending in a couple minutes,” says one.  “We’ll be opening the roads.”


Another evil vanquished as the barricade parts and we zip into the hotel’s forecourt.  


Inside, the lobby is decorated for Halloween, Salem’s month-long tourist attraction. 


Rooms are drab, perhaps to reflect the grimness of what took place here over 300 years ago when two girls were able to convince the town burghers that witches had infiltrated their pious community.




We check into a two-bedroom suite and immediately set out on foot into the carnival atmosphere, finding ourselves, within two minutes, at the graveyard where Salem’s earliest settlers lay buried.  

It is Disneyesque, cannot possibly be real, with hordes of tourists traipsing over graves.


  




But, in fact, this is the genuine article, which means the perpetrators of the witch trials do not rest in peace, but are trampled daily—an inadvertent but poetic punishment for their sins.


Onward to Essex Street, historic Salem’s main drag, very haunted according to local lore, and on this day especially haunted by several drag queens and macabre mimes entertaining thousands of spirited day-trippers.
  
Add witchy street vendors and souvenir shops chock-a-block with replica occult objects made in China: broomsticks and capes and magic wands, trinkets and trash.

  
But with a ruptured economy, tourists come for beer and buzz, hold the merchandise, so takings—we are told—are down 30 percent.

We are not here to shop.   


We are here to scavenge.  


But only talismans and artifacts possessed of genuine power.  


Hex and Omen—classic witchcraft shops, owned by real witches—do not accommodate. 


We know, instinctually, that to search out Sam Hain we must explore Salem’s shadowy cobblestoned alleys.


These days, older things of quality, one-offs, can be found only in antique shops, and we find such a gallery of dealers on the waterfront.


Van Stein is on the prowl for Witch Spoons crafted in sterling silver by a local jeweler named David Low the late 1800s. (Low’s old factory is now a reputedly haunted restaurant called Rockafella’s.)

  
The story goes that Low, on a trip to Germany, discovered local merchants selling souvenir spoons to tourists hungry for a memento.  

Taken by this idea, Low returned home and designed his own spoon featuring a witch on a broomstick and the word Salem.


“Got any?” Van Stein asks the lone clerk.  (Though Salem booms, we are the gallery’s only customers.) 


“I think so.”  She strolls to a glass display case and reaches into a mug containing several silver spoons.  A quick inspection confirms D. Low stamped in tiny letters.


Carousing the aisles, I hone in on a small brass owl with sparkling green eyes.



It is a gem, forlorn and neglected among cheap bric-a-brac.  

It hoots at me.


“May I see something in this display case?” I call out, alarmed and excited.


A few moments later the owl fits into my left palm—the nest it has been craving. 


This unusual talisman was crafted in brass well over a century ago as a tool to hold matches.


I don’t buy it yet.


I like to think about possible purchases, let objects nag at me to assess the attraction between us.


A few minutes later, mulling through shelves of antiquarian books, I uncover a first edition of The Exorcist signed by the author, William Peter Blatty.

  
On it’s own, rather spooky. 

But found in Salem…?  


On the heels of visiting the famed stairway in Georgetown…!?



Still, I do not buy.  


We need to see everything.  


We need to feel what we cannot do without.





Friday, July 3, 2015

5:33 CLUB






SALEM SPOOKY 3: PICKING UP POE, NOT VONNEGUT






On to Baltimore, to the hallowed grounds where Edgar Allan Poe’s bones lay interred for all eternity.  

Fayette Street mysteriously morphs to Lafayette Street on our navigating instrument—an iPad—so we accidentally (if anything is accidental this trip) land in a downtrodden neighborhood called Druid Hill (of all places), carousing past dilapidation, seedy markets, and corner saloons until we realize our error and scoot a few miles south, nearer downtown, where Westminster Hall reels us in.

Poe doesn’t want to go anywhere, perfectly happy dead, but I plead with his wretched soul to join us on our slog to Salem.  


He has two conditions:  we visit his old Baltimore home, and we have a beer at the bar where he drank his last drink before he died.


Easy.  We were going to do that anyway!



So off we go with Poe, first to 203 Amity Street in a desolate part of town, only to find the forlorn Poe House Museum closed for lack of interest. 

And then a dash to The Horse You Came in On Saloon on Thames Street near the historical waterfront. 









It was outside this bar in 1849 that Poe was discovered incoherent, delirious, and “in need of immediate assistance,” according to the man who happened upon him.


He died in hospital four days later, at five in the morning, after uttering his last words:

"Lord help my poor soul."



His cause of death has never been determined and remains a mystery to this day.

Van Stein and I enter, have a good look around, and order beer.  

Poe directs us to a saloon motto...




Dry your tears and soldier on. 


Soldiering on, we discover a relic of the past:  a CD shop.  


I rush in and depart moments later with a fistful of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jim Croce, and Cat Stevens, which readies us for the road, Salem, and whatever else life, or death, throws at us.


I'd tried to find Poe’s favorite tune, Come Rest in this Bosom, to no avail, so the master of morbidity is disconcerted and wondering why he ever threw his lot in with two madmen as we tear up Interstate 95 over the Wilmington Bridge, through the Holland Tunnel, and into Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon filled with festivity and gridlock.


It doesn’t look like we’ll ever get across town on 23rd Street.  


We inch along until salvation appears in the form of Irving Place and, a few blocks further north, Gramercy Park, where we dump the Red Beast and straggle into The Gramercy Park Hotel, recently transformed into a major cool zone, which means a major price tag, but this being New York City, you’re not going to escape without getting clobbered by high prices plus city, state, and occupancy tax.

Time is short on this fast-paced adventure and there is no time to waste hotel hunting.

  
We dump our bags and quickly decamp to the old Vonnegut house at 228 East 48th Street in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan. 

This was where Kurt lived for decades, and died, soon after tripping on the leash of his dog, Flour, on his front steps. 










It is not a particularly good-looking or well-maintained brownstone.

But if you look hard, you can discern a cherubic angel sitting on a ledge above the door. 



It is otherwise difficult to determine if Vonnegut’s soul resides here or in Indianapolis, where he was born, and more specifically the Red Key Tavern, from where he drew stimulation, perhaps inspiration, from inside a bottle. 


If he’s in New York, we intend to find him, so our next stop is Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, around the corner, where Vonnegut took his dog every day to get away from his witchy wife.



He had a favorite bench where he would sit and smoke a cigarette and read a newspaper and stare inward, hoping not to be recognized.  





(Could he not have simply shaved his mustache?) 


I thought maybe there’d be three or four benches, and it would be easy to figure out which was his. 


On arrival, however, I’m faced with twenty-plus benches and it seems an improbable task to nail Kurt’s. 


But I suddenly remember, in my mind’s eye, a photo of Vonnegut on his bench and, more important right now, the background—and with this image I zero in on the bench.



Van Stein draws his camera and snaps a few.  He inspects his digital screen.  “Got him!” 

Indeed, the curmudgeonly writer is caught in the form of an orb hovering about six feet to my left.  


“Where next?”


“Vonnegut’s favorite restaurant.”  


I do not have a name, just a few leads:  it was Italian, on Second Avenue, a drawing by Ralph Steadman on a wall, a mural of painted mountains—as reported by a British newspaper.


I’d researched all this in anticipation of one day doing Vonnegut. 


Although Van Stein and I travel somewhat prepared (having immersed ourselves totally in all we can learn about subjects and destinations before departure), we always get our preconceived notions turned on their heads, which is why we allow spontaneity and serendipity to govern our directions. 


So when we arrive at Pescatore, which seems the right place, I learn it is Spanish, not Italian, and quite the wrong place. 


A maitre d’ points me elsewhere.


I backtrack, peek into Lasagna, corner of 50th and Second Avenue, but cannot find a Steadman drawing by the bar, so a closer look is necessary.



Upon entering, a hostess intercepts.  

“You mind if I look around inside?” I ask.  “I’m trying to determine if a certain writer used to come here a lot.”


She lets me pass.


Just as I decide this is not the right place, a swarthy man taps my shoulder.  “This is the place.  He came here every day, lunch and dinner.”


I look around, no painted mural.  And more important… “Where’s the Steadman drawing?”


“We re-did the place a couple of years ago.  It’s in the office.”


Just then Van Stein enters and I turn to greet him (“found it!”) and revert to the manager.  “What did Vonnegut drink?”


“Dewar’s on the rocks.” He pauses.  “Until he stopped drinking.  After that, iced tea.”


“Gimme a Dewar’s on the rocks,” I say.  “Screw the tea.”


“Two,” says Van Stein.


We sit in a corner and survey the scene.  Our drinks arrive, along with two menus.


“What did Vonnegut eat?” I ask.



“Always the same,” said the manager.  “Linguine with white clam sauce.  And a Caesar salad.”

“Works for me,” I say.


“Me, too,” says Van Stein.


We settle into cocktails.


“We should ask to see the cartoon,” says Van Stein.




Seconds later, on his own initiative, the manager appears at our table holding the Steadman drawing, which turns out to be a caricature of Vonnegut.  

“Usually, he would come here alone,” says the manager.  “And he’d sit by the bar, back to the wall.  If anyone tried to approach he would raise both hands close to his face and wave them away.  But on this occasion, he was with a British journalist and this artist, and they sat over there.”  He points to a table in the center of the room.


Our salads arrive, followed by linguine, and we eat quietly, solemnly, a séance of sorts, seeking Vonnegut’s presence.


When finally we finish, it is dark, and we return to the brownstone on 48th for a last look and photo op, without a sense that Vonnegut wants to join our adventure.  


While alive, he saw everything as a crock, especially the human race, and wanted to be left alone.  


Death has not changed him. 


And so we went.




Thursday, July 2, 2015

SALEM SPOOKY 2: EXORCIST STEPS






When we arrive at LAX for Virgin America’s flight to Washington DC, the check-in attendant cannot find our names on her computer screen.  

It quickly transpires that Amex Travel never confirmed our seats and hence we are not booked on this flight.

Or, more likely, Salem's witches put a hex on it.

The good news:  they still have two seats left.

The bad:  they are not first class as supposedly discounted by Amex, but in dreaded economy.

Bottom line:  we arrive rumpled and stiff, with a cackling in our ears from Salem’s witches.  

A shuttle dumps us at a depot belonging to Budget car rental.

“What will you be doing in Washington?” asks a corpulent lady of color from behind her counter, either co-opted by Homeland Security or just being nosey.

“Causing mischief,” I say.

Taken aback, she comports herself… until Van Stein manifests by my side.  She takes one look at him beneath his Australian akubra, and assorted wooden boxes, and says, “Wow, you really mean it.”

“Yup.”

As if to remind us that the devil lurks near, she hands me a key to a bright red beast.

As we approach it, Van Stein says:  “They know we’re coming.  And they have a sense of humor.”


An hour later we stand atop the seventy-five steps in Georgetown, a steep, narrow stairway renowned for its role in The Exorcist, arguably the scariest movie ever made.

Van Stein assembles his gear and paints while I photograph the surroundings, including a moonrise over the adjacent structure used in exterior shots as the house in which Regan, a twelve year-old girl possessed by the devil, resided.




After retreating to Morton’s for refreshment—mini-filet mignon sandwiches and cabernet—I propose a twist.  

“We gotta do Baltimore,” I say.


“Why?”


“Edgar Allan Poe.  He’s buried there.  We need him on our side.”


It means switching gears.  No shuttling to Boston.  


Instead, drive the Red Beast north:  Baltimore, the Big Apple—and a final stretch to Salem.



Van Stein digests this.  “We only have till Tuesday,” (this was Thursday) “and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in Salem.”

I nod.  “That’s why we need to work fast.  And if we pass through New York, we can also do Vonnegut.”


“What does Vonnegut have to do with this?”


“Everything,” I say.  “I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for Vonnegut.  Trust me, we’re going to need Vonnegut's sense of irony for Salem.”



Wednesday, July 1, 2015

MASKED MOON






SALEM SPOOKY 1: THE DEVIL'S HOUR





One month after Bakersfield, Van Stein and I sit at a high-top in Lucky’s.

He looks frazzled and discombobulated.

“What’s doing with you?” I ask, sipping a glass of Babcock chardonnay.

“Not getting enough sleep.”  The artist’s eyes are fuzzy, bloodshot.

“Painting?” I am mindful that Van Stein stays up late and to paint the moon, sometimes howls at it.

“It’s not that.  I wake up at three o’clock every morning.”

“Why?”

Van Stein shakes his head, dips into a mound of Lucky fries.  “Not by choice.  I just wake up.  And it’s always exactly three a.m.  My heart races and I can’t get back to sleep.  Sometimes, after an hour, I sleep some more.  But most nights it’s useless to even try.”

“Why three a.m.?”

The artist shrugs.  “Beats hell out of me.  Ever since Bakersfield.”





Three a.m., says Google, is The Devil’s Hour.

So called for two reasons, one religious, the other physiological.

Jesus Christ was crucified at three p.m., so naturally the devil must reside at the opposite time.  

Furthermore, Pope John Paul II decreed 3:00-5:30 a.m. a “demonic period.”

On a secular level, the human body is at its weakest between three and five in the morning, its immune system at its most vulnerable.  

Most people with terminal illnesses or car crash injuries die between three and five. 

In addition, mental health practitioners consider awakening at this time a prelude to clinical depression.  

“It is always darkest,” said the Reverend Thomas Fuller in 1650, “just before the day dawneth.”

I also discover Van Stein is not alone.  

Awakening at precisely three a.m. is a global phenomenon, among all races and faiths.





Next time we meet, I’ve dreamt up a solution. 

“Salem,” I say.

“Where they burned witches?”

I shake my head.  “They weren’t really witches.  And they were hanged, not burned.  It’s one of the most haunted places in the United States, even more haunted than Bakersfield.  But more important,” I add, “is Salem’s legacy.”

“Which is?”

“Yup.  Witches.  Salem has become the world’s Wicca Mecca—and the Samhain capital of the United States.”

“Who the hell is Sam Hain?”

“Halloween is based on Samhain, a pre-Christian Celtic festival to celebrate and pay respect to the dead.”

“What does that have to do with my waking up at three in the morning every night?”

“Simple.  You need to inoculate yourself against evil, the way people take a vaccine to stave off the flu.  Moreover, you may have picked up something in The Bake that needs to be eradicated.”

Van Stein nods.  “When do we depart?”

“Salem celebrates Halloween the whole month of October.  All the witches come out to play.  On top of vaccinating yourself, you might even find a counter-hex against Bakersfield in one of the Wiccan shops.  Or maybe a powerful talisman.  It’ll be one hell of a trip.  Literally.”



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

BAKED 11: SPOOKED





I hear footsteps behind me, so I turn around thinking I'll face Van Stein, and instead I’m looking at two of the mannequins from the thrift shop display window, dragging after me.

“This isn’t happening!” I holler.


Suddenly there are two more zombies on the next street corner, arms outstretched, blood dripping from their horribly contorted mouths.


I cut down a dark alley, 17th Place, and practically collide with Van Stein.


“Mannequin zombies!” I holler.



We both look toward the street and see four zombies staggering toward us.

“Shit!” yells Van Stein.  “Why did you lead them to me!”


We sprint down the alley, turn left onto K Street, double back over Chester for refuge at the Padre.


The bar adjacent to the lobby is in full swing so we feel secure… 



...until we discover it is occupied by the Basque aliens we encountered at Wool Growers, all talking in a language that bears no resemblance to any other on earth. 



Worn down, Padre bar
This misshapen multitude grows quiet when they notice us gawking at them, and we simultaneously realize they would happily sacrifice us to the 
mannequin zombies in a nanosecond.

“This doesn’t feel like refuge,” I say to Van Stein.

And then it hits me—bang!—they won’t gift us to the mannequin zombies—because this is an alien abduction waiting station, and we are the daily catch!


Van Stein must be thinking the same, because he eases himself gently out the bar with a few back-steps.  


“Don’t turn your back on them,” he whispers.


We back all the way to the elevator, back up into it and press the door close button.


It won’t budge.


“It’s like a Bakersfield red light,” I hiss.


And then the zombie mannequins are revolving into view, and staggering toward us!


“Sonofabitch!” Van Stein hollers.  “We’re trapped!” 


But the door closes and we ascend, hop out at the fifth floor, key into our rooms and grab our bags.


“We can’t go through the lobby,” I say.  “There must be another way out.”


“Let’s take the stairs up a few floors,” says Van Stein.


Between the seventh and eighth floors we encounter a little girl, giggling.



“It’s one of the ghosts!” hollers Van Stein.

“Nonsense,” I say, and then, “are you lost, little girl?”


She continues to giggle, and waves me in, as if she wants to tell me a secret.


“Don’t go there,” Van Stein cautions.


“Oh, c’mon.”


The little girl puts her lips up to my ear.  “BOO!”


It’s as if a gun has been detonated. 


My head practically explodes, and then my hearing is gone.


Van Stein, ashen-faced, is hollering about something, but I can’t hear him, can only see his highly animated form, and though I’m not a lip-reader, I can actually make out what he’s saying:  Spar-ta-cus!


I turn around and come face-to-face with a ghostly gray figure with doughy features, a dome of a forehead topped with frizzy, receding hair.  


Its mouth opens and an ethereal voice booms:   


“WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MY HOTEL?”


I point to Van Stein.  “Ask him.  I don’t believe in ghosts.  At least I didn’t until now.”  


I cannot even hear my own voice, but Spartacus seems to understand, for he turns to Van Stein, who is dripping spittle, mouth agog. 


My hearing returns in time for Spartacus to howl: 


“THEY RUINED MU HOTEL!”


“Who?” asks Van Stein.


“THE CITY RENOVATORS!”


“Do you have a message for them?” asks Van Stein, who professes to ask the same of people in his dreams. 


“I have a message for you!” the apparition howls.  “GET THE F--- OUT OF MY HOTEL!”


“We’re trying,” I say helpfully.  “What’s the quickest route out of here?”



Spartacus points to the end of the corridor, a window, from which we see the Fox Theater’s clock tower in the distance.

“Is he suggesting suicide?” I ask Van Stein.


“GO!” booms Spartacus.


We don’t need to be told a third time.  


We’re off, down the corridor, with Spartacus in pursuit, and behind him, four mannequin zombies, a large number of Basque aliens, Oildale rednecks, and assorted Lords of Bakersfield.


Jumping from seven floors up does not seem a bad alternative. 


Fortunately, a relic of an outdoor fire escape hangs outside the window, which, unfortunately, is locked.



Van Stein, closer to the window than I, stands frozen with fear.

“For f---’s sake,” I holler.  

“Break it!” 

He shatters the window with his wooden paint box, and out we climb, scampering down the rickety stairway, dropping our belongings to the ground.


I don’t even take time to look up, but hit the ground running, sprint to the car.


We jump in, lock the doors and I press the start button.


It doesn’t start.


“Check your key!” screams Van Stein.


I check the pocket of my blue jeans.  “It’s not here!”


“What now?” says the artist, a hint of resignation in his voice.


“We are going to be dismembered by aliens, zombies, and rednecks, and probably eaten, slowly.”


Accepting our fate, we sit quietly, this still and silent night, a traffic light at the intersection signaling red.


The engine turns over, seemingly by itself.


I gear into drive, hit the gas.  


My rearview mirror soon reflects one of the world’s finest images...






I rub my aching head… and feel the root of an antler bursting through my scalp.  


Monday, June 29, 2015

TONIGHT'S NEAR-FULL ORB





BAKED 10: ORBS





“Okay, let’s move on to Ghost Three.  It’s at the Bakersfield Californian building.”

Van Stein and I  trudge off to 17th and Eye Streets.


“What’s the story on this one?” I ask.


“It’s where the daily newspaper had its offices,” the artist explains.  “The guy who established it, Alfred Harrell, still stalks the halls.  And a dog, a German shepherd, waiting for its master.  And an old security guard.”


It is a lifeless night in downtown Bakersfield, nobody walking the streets but us, and almost no cars. 


“Is this a trap, or is it always like this?” Van Stein wonders aloud.

“It’s in our minds.”


Our?”


“Uh, I was just thinking it must be a trap, too.”


Van Stein absorbs this.  “Shit.”  He shakes his head.  “A joint possession?”


“What, you think we need an exorcist?  Maybe we just need to get the hell out of Bakersfield.”


“But you just said, all this started way before Bakersfield.”


“Yeah.  But this is where it ends.”


“Wait a second,” Van Stein hushes me.  “I hear something.”


Somewhere, a dog barks.

"Up here, dude!"

“That’s him!” Van Stein cries.  “The German shepherd!  He’s inside the building.”


“Probably a guard dog.”


“Exactly!  Must be with the security guard ghost.”  He pounds his right fist into his left hand.  “Another mystery solved!” 


“It doesn’t solve anything.  We’re still stuck here.”


“Whattaya mean?  We can go anytime we want.”

“You ready?”


“Not yet.  We gotta go do the old Fox Theater.”


“Why?”


“A man fell to his death from that building in 1930.  He was working on the clock tower.  They say his ghost still lingers nearby.”


I shrug, surrendering.  “Lead the way.”


The theater is a great example of retro art deco, or whatever they call something that looks quaint in California.



Van Stein points and shoots the clock tower.  “Yup, got him,” he snorts.  “See?”

The digital image shows an orb hanging near the tower.


“Where did you first discover orbs?” I ask, making a point.


“You mean we.”


“Okay.  Where did we first discover orbs?”


“Gheel.”


“And Gheel is one big open-air mental hospital.”


“And a portal,” adds Van Stein.


“To what, madness?”



Orb bombardment
“No.  Orbs.”

“I give up.” I turn to leave.


“You can’t leave me in Bakersfield.”


“It’s our only hope,” I say.






“Doesn’t sound like much hope for me.”

“No.  Bye.”  I turn my back and pick up stride.









I hear footsteps behind me, so I turn around expecting to face Van Stein, and instead I’m looking at the mannequins from the thrift shop display window, dragging after me.