Sunday, November 04, 2007

haunted city

Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.

--ARTHUR C. CLARKE, 2001: A Space Odyssey
I met fellow ghost hunters, Tracey K and Annie, at Fado on Clark & Grand to have some spirits before chasing spirits on a ghost tour. A few Jameson's set us off into the night, a perfect night for ghosts. Dark and crisp and wind-whipped. We met the tour bus outside the former Rock & Roll McDonald's now the monolithic flagship two story holy crap of a McDonald's on Clark. The bus: a painted black school bus retrofitted with comfortable seats and a rockin' audio system. Our particular bus was "The Untouchables Gangster Tour" bus with decal bullet holes on the outside.

We were held up waiting for some late-comers. Tour guide Wayne announced if anybody had to pee we should take the opportunity to pee in the McDonald's because the next pee break wasn't coming for a couple hours. Half the bus emptied out and while I didn't get off the bus, once someone suggests I won't be able to pee for two hours, I fixate on the state of my bladder.

Stop#1 - The Iroquois Theatre fire
Off we go, south on Clark to Randolph to Dearborn as Wayne tells the story of the Iroquois Theatre fire (mentioned in this post) and how shady politics and building shortcuts for the sake of a few bucks contributed to the death of hundreds of people, mostly women and children, at a holiday matinee. We got off the bus and visited "Couch Place", the newly spiffed-up well-lit yet assuredly haunted alley behind the Oriental Theatre where many many people died in 1903. Wayne told us to take pictures in all the haunted locations for spectral evidence. Here's my Iroquois Theatre fire ghost:

I really don't care if you have a reasonable explanation for that orb that showed up in my picture. It wasn't there. That guy in the tie? ...he wasn't there either. How do you explain that?!

Stop #2 - The Eastland Disaster
Back on the bus for the next stop on the tour, the 1914 Eastland Disaster in the Chicago River, one of the worst nautical disasters in history.

I used to bartend at 10pin in Marina City, right along the Chicago River, near the disaster site. The only unexplained, supernaturalesque feeling I've ever had took place as I was counting down my register after my shift. I was at the bar, alone, all was quiet. I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turned around. Of course, nobody was there.

But I used that feeling of the supernatural in one of the monologues in my play Diversey Harbor. Now, I walk along this part of the river, along Wacker Drive, every day, the spot where hundreds and hundreds of people drowned just a few feet from the dock. I took a picture of the water:

The bit of trivia here is that many of the bodies were taken to a warehouse set up as a make-shift morgue west of the Loop. The building is still in use today as Harpo Studios, where Oprah Winfrey tapes her show. It's haunted too.

OMG!!!! Ghosts in my studio?!?!

Stop # 3 - Hull House
Our next bus stop was Hull House (It was also the bathroom break. I really really had to pee. Too much pre-ghost tour Jameson). Jane Addams moved her school of social work into the haunted Hull Family House built in 1856. The house is west of the loop, south of Greek town, surrounded by the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. The student center -- containing restrooms and a bowling alley firmly stuck in the 1970s -- sits right behind this house. The famous creepy story here is "The Devil Baby at Hull House." Jane Addams took in on odd child, a misshapen imp: hooves, a tail, spoke in tongues, vomited everywhere, y'know, typical evil baby stuff.

Well, that's the story anyway.

The house itself was haunted before Jane Addams moved in. Addams wrote in her autobiographical book that she kept a pail of water at the top of the stairs, thought to be a way to ward off ghosts who couldn't cross running water. The house was closed for the evening, but I took some pictures of the outside. I caught a ghost in my Ghostbusters trap of a camera:


Supposedly, the land the house was built on was the spot where the Potawatomi Indians cursed the the city of Chicago after the white man forced them to treaty away their lands. Also there's, like, a portal to hell under this tree:

The ground... feels... evil?

Annie and Tracey K won't smile. Too much evil.

Stop #4 - St Valentine's Day Massacre Site
After a detour to check out the site of Mrs O'Leary's barn, where the Chicago Fire started, we had a long trip back to the North Side, but it was a nice ride up Lake Shore Drive. The lake was roiling and crashing on a windy night, one of my favorite sites in Chicago on a fall evening. Something a little scary seeing the lake churning its guts.

2122 N Clark street is where a bunch of gangsters were gunned down by some other gangsters dressed as cops. The massacre happened on a cold Valentine's Day in 1929. The garage where it happened was demolished in 1967 to make way for a senior citizens apartment building, and the land was fenced off to ghost-hunting rubberneckers. Taken through the fence at the approximate location of the garage. Not much to see, unfortunately.


Tour guide Wayne really lit up his storytelling here; unfortunately, it was so windy I could barely hear what he said. I wished he had told his story on the bus. Ah well. We headed back to the McDonald's for the end of the tour. I stepped off the bus and took off running to catch my Metra train.

I don't know if I believe in ghosts. I believe in imagination. Our imaginations need to have an empathetic conversation with history and the dead. The result may be a touch of the unexplained. A chill up the spine, goosebumps, a tap on the shoulder. It doesn't really matter if it's real. A good ghost story is a good ghost story.