This is a ghost story for Halloween. But, if you expect to be scared, you will be disappointed. Most ghosts are simply there. They are a presence some of us are sensitive to, and just that, a presence. We recognize those times when we do not feel quite alone. In some instances, those presences seem negative and hostile, but most ghost stories are fairly ordinary. I could tell some frightening tales, but they will be for another day. After decades in San Francisco, I can attest to creepy Victorians and haunted offices in former brothels, just to get things started.
This ghost story goes back to Buffalo, New York to an old house on Norwood Avenue. It was the first home my parents owned. When the house was built in 1896, it was essentially a tract home, identical to the row of houses on the block. It its day, it would be what we now call a McMansion. By the time my family moved in, it was 1969 and the house had been altered and renovated a few times. Maids’ quarters adjacent to an attic were expanded into an apartment. Walls built, walls knocked down, stairs blocked off. There was an attempt to remove and cover much of the Victoriana when one owner aimed for some 1940s Beverly Hills glamor. That said, it was their huge wall of built-in book cases that sold my parents on the house.
The house could be spooky, but I would never say scary. The cellar was dominated by a massive, ancient furnace. The previous owner, an antique dealer, did things like board-up or nail windows shut to thwart burglars. He even added a huge steel door. In 1969, the cellar was still a warren of original rooms for things like laundry and storing canned goods. The cellar came with a pile of debris under the stairs. When my father began to remove the debris, he discovered it was covering an opening to an old well. The pile was immediately put back on top of the hole and remained there.
The attic was equally mysterious. I don’t believe anyone ever explored the crawlspace above the apartment. Some things are best left undisturbed.
We lived there about eight years, a brief period in the house’s history. But, as my childhood home, I remember it well. The house made a big impression. I still dream about it. Now that we can access so much minutiae online, my curiosity lead me to search. With old census records and directories one can see who used to live in a house years ago. When you find the names of former residents, a quick search of genealogy websites might even yield photos.
The place on Norwood saw a lot of occupants. By the 1920s rooms were let and the house started to be carved up into small apartments. The resident that captured my attention, and imagination, was Barton Molyneux. He and his family lived there in 1910.
Barton Molyneux was a successful inventor, not quite famous, but he did invent machines to sort mail. Before his inventions, mail could only be sorted by hand. With his machines, the postal service could process and then deliver mail much faster. As an artist who makes and sends mail art, I felt a connection.
One can’t say for sure if Barton was one of the presences who remained in the house. This could just be a story with an interesting coincidence, or, we can wonder, can ghosts play a role in the choices we go on to make in our lives?