While looking through some old boxes in a storage locker recently I found a short story I wrote when I was nineteen: “Friendly Ghosts, And The Edge Of Forever”. I had no idea that it even existed; I’d forgotten all about it. I wrote the story, I recalled, on a flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco. It was my first time on an airplane. The title was borrowed in part from an iconic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy journey through a portal in time to Depression-era New York City.
My rediscovered story, a time portal of words, is interesting not so much for the writing itself. While technically much of that writing is surprisingly mature, there is an overabundance of adjectives and the point of the piece wavers like a candle in the wind. A sort of home movie of the psyche, the story is intriguing rather for the glimpse it provides into the mindset of writer and individual more than thirty years ago. I primarily write crime fiction. I think of myself as, or pretend to be, a pragmatist, a cynic and realist with minimal interest in the fantastic or the speculative. In other dimensions or planets, time travel, vampires, dungeons and dragons. But that wasn’t the whole story then, and it isn’t now.
A look at myself at nineteen reveals something, and someone, else: a kid searching for one of those magical portals of time and dimension and finding it. “Friendly Ghosts, And The Edge Of Forever” is fiction. But then it isn’t, really. It’s about events that actually occurred in my life not long before the story was written, about a dream that turned out to be something more, as ‘dreams’ sometimes do.
In the dream I was sitting on a bench in Washington Square in Philadelphia on a bright summer afternoon, feeding pigeons. Washington Square is one of the city’s five original squares. Of those, Rittenhouse is the gem, the largest, most elegant and most popular. But I was always drawn to Washington Square, Rittenhouse’s Cinderella-like stepsister, a leafy urban oasis on the fringe of the historic district. I felt at home there, peaceful and happy. A little known fact about Washington Square is that it was originally a burial ground. An undetermined number of human remains are still interred beneath the feet of tourists, office workers eating lunch and children playing.
A white-haired older woman with very blue and very kind eyes wearing clothing strangely old fashioned took a seat on the bench next to me. She was eating lunch from a brown paper bag: a Lebanon-bologna and cheese sandwich. She had an accent; Irish or Scotch. We began talking. She asked why I seemed pensive. It was about a girl, I said. Tell me about her, the woman said. I did. I was thinking about a serious involvement, but I had reservations. Thought that I might love her, but I was unsure. Stay with it, the old woman advised, and with her. I have a feeling you’ll be very glad that you did. After a time she said, “I’m going back now. I enjoyed our chat. And don’t forget what I told you,” she added with a smile. She departed, vanishing into the noontime crowds.
It was an odd dream, sweet, surreal and powerfully memorable. I told my mother about it the next day. She gave me a peculiar look and asked me to describe the woman. Mom, with tears in her eyes, shook her head and smiled. My mother was, on the surface, a down to earth, no nonsense sort. But she was also a published poet and kept books about Celtic mythology under her bed. Mom, a devout Catholic, had a secret fascination with the ancient holiday of Samhain, a night when the spirits of the dead are said to walk among the living. Mom believed in ghosts. I do too, if not the sort of ghosts popular in film and fiction.
My great grandmother, Mom told me, worked at Curtis Publishing Company across the street from Washington Square. She loved the square and ate lunch on a bench there nearly every day. Lunch invariably consisted of Lebanon and cheese sandwiches in a brown paper bag. But I hadn’t known any of that. My great grandmother died long before I was born. No one had ever told me much of anything about her. A strange addendum to the story was that I hadn’t met the girl that I’d talked about in the dream then—that happened six months later. I had those same questions and doubts at that time. I listened to the old woman’s advice and followed it. I was very glad that I did. But that time warp between dream and linked reality led me to consider a possibility entertained for centuries by physicists and philosophers: that time and dimension are not a rigid, rational continuum. Instead, they are part of a complex river of unpredictable currents and hidden depths, a lighthouse beacon illuminating the misty sea of Forever.
In reading the penciled notes on the back of the story’s pages I was reminded as well that that dream had compelled me to explore other avenues and other explanations. At nineteen I had a fascination with astral projection, with the notion that the soul, or the unconscious, can leave the physical body and journey to other places. I was also intrigued by the interpretation of dreams by the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Romans as inexplicable journeys through seams in time and space, and as a means of communicating with the dead.
That decades-old story grew out of my obsession with and my search for answers about that ‘dream’ of the woman in the square and another unusual incident that had occurred the previous summer, between my junior and senior years in high school. I talked my way into a construction job. It was a massive project, the building of a PECO power plant on the Delaware River in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. I worked the four to midnight shift. Late at night I would kill time before the shift ended by walking down to the river’s edge. I was drawn to one particular spot. There was nothing remarkable about it but I felt an energy there, a force field of subtle electricity of a much different nature than that generated by the power plant just yards away. I sometimes felt chills in the hot air of a Philadelphia summer, but it wasn’t a bad feeling. On other occasions I could’ve sworn that I heard voices, music and laughter, source unknown. But there was no one around. I thought maybe there was a bar or club on the Jersey side of the river, the sounds drifting across the still, moonlit water.
An old man, a local, joined me one night. I told him what I’d heard and what I’d assumed. He looked at me for a second and then looked away. “Ain’t no club over there,” he said. “Maybe you’re hearing ghosts.” I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. The man asked if I knew the history of the spot on which we stood. I didn’t. In 1917, he told me, on the cusp of America’s entry into World War I, sleepy little Eddystone was a much different place, a roaring boom town of large industrial plants, lively taverns and crowded rooming houses, the streets teeming with workers, trucks and activity.
One of those factories, the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation, was located just about where we stood. On November 17th of that year a massive explosion of undetermined origin tore through the facility’s F Building, killing nearly one hundred and fifty people, most of them young women, many of them immigrants like my great grandmother. “Happened right here,” the man said, tapping the ground with his foot. “Ghosts,” he said, tossing his cigarette into the river. Friendly ghosts, on the edge of forever. No, I hadn’t known any of that. But possibly, I thought, on some level I did. It may well be that we all know, or sense, things we don’t consciously realize. And maybe, I thought, the gatekeeper of the portal of time isn’t the funny little man in the Star Trek episode. Maybe we are the gatekeepers.
Few places in my life have had that sort of effect on me, exerted that kind of pull of emotional gravity, that strange magic, for better or worse. In The Blue Route a subplot of blackmail and murder revolves around a house known as The Castle. The Castle actually existed, a massive, mysterious old mansion honeycombed with secret staircases, hidden rooms, trapdoors and revolving bookcases. The place became notorious for a time in suburban Philadelphia. A lot of things happened there, few of them good. I knew the owner and visited the Castle on a number of occasions. I’d wander through the high-ceilinged rooms, but they always seemed unnaturally cold. I felt a deeper chill, an unease, in the house and on the grounds, a much different feeling than at Eddystone or Washington Square. The owner’s mother would die on the property under tragic circumstances. The house turned out to have a dark history. There would be rumors of suicide and murder in its rooms and creepy dungeon-like cellars. I knew nothing of that history when I first visited; the murders in question hadn’t yet occurred. But I knew something, sensed something: malevolent forces at work, ghosts not so friendly or resting in peace, uneasy spirits in the night. A palpable bad karma; you could feel it. I did. I never spent the night there. Something, or someone, told me to limit my exposure. The Castle was dark even at high noon, the shadows too numerous, the chill too deep and inescapable.
More recently I discovered by accident, or not, another place to which I felt a powerful and immediate pull. I was picking up some takeout at an Italian restaurant one day. On a whim I took a different route than usual, one that brought me to an isolated section of the Delaware River. I was making a u-turn in a vacant lot when I glimpsed a building in the background. I parked and walked around the place, fascinated. The long brick Georgian building with dozens of empty windows and a sagging portico was very old and very interesting. It was hauntingly beautiful but sad, like a movie star or heiress reduced by time and circumstance. I had no idea what the place was, or had been, but I didn’t want to leave.
I circled the grounds, and studied a small graveyard behind a black wrought-iron fence, the property serene and silent on that lonely, forgotten stretch of river beneath the flight paths of Philadelphia International Airport. It was eerily quiet when the jets weren’t taking off overhead. There wasn’t another human being in sight, merely the colony of strange feral cats that called the place home and seagulls. I saw a single word carved into a doorway: Lazaretto, the key that unlocked both a mystery and a rich, lost history.
At home an internet search revealed that the place was the Lazaretto Quarantine Station, a hospital built in 1799 in the wake of a Yellow Fever epidemic. People had died there but The Lazaretto was largely a place of healing, of positive energy. It was staffed by doctors and nurses kind and caring to patients—sick, penniless European immigrants, emaciated Africans freed from the shackles of slave ships–that no one else cared very much about, no profit in it but human dignity and compassion. Many of those healed at the Lazaretto became citizens, went on to lead happy and productive lives, fulfilling dreams of a different sort. No, I had never heard of the Lazaretto either and knew nothing of its history when we first met. But I sensed that, unlike The Castle, it was a good place, almost a living entity. There were ghosts about, but they were friendly and at peace, on the edge of the river and the edge of forever. Like the feral cats the Lazaretto was their home, and visitors were welcome.
At times in our lives we’re drawn to certain people and places, feel a powerful bond, maybe even love in its various forms, without rationally knowing why on any conscious level. But there are reasons, unfathomable and mystifying forces, that exist on a level beneath, or above, the conscious. The twilight zone, as I suspected at nineteen and am certain of now, exists but it isn’t necessarily an evil or frightening place.
So while I may write largely about things that are as real and as tangible as a punch in the face or gunshots in the night, I never discount the subtext of emotion and intuition. I never doubt the existence, the magic, of the unseen and unexplained. Like my mother with her fascination with the pagan bonfires and dancing ghosts of Samhain, I don’t doubt that there are times and places where the spirits of the dead walk among the living, sometimes even imparting words of wisdom, offering guideposts, a helping hand, a warning or a directional compass.
I may be older and in some ways wiser but like the 19-year old kid that wrote that flawed story so long ago, trying to work things out, I believe in friendly ghosts and the edge of forever. In fate, karma and the flow of the river through parallel dimensions of time and space in miraculous ways. While I’m not particularly religious in any traditional sense I’ve always believed that things do happen for a reason, even though we may not know what those reasons are. I believe that it’s unwise to close any doors through cynicism or because of what we think we know; we can never be certain where or to whom those doors might lead. Like that kid that believed in astral projection my mind remains open to the power of possibility, and to the possibility of journeys to places inaccessible by conventional means of travel. Places in which we meet people we have no logical reason to meet. Sometimes we see those people, speak to them, sometimes not. But they do exist.
The other thing I learned from looking into the rear view mirror, the crystal ball, of that old story of mine and the thinking, the feelings, behind it? While time may change us as people and as artists, maybe we are what we are and what we’ve always been. Maybe we don’t change nearly as much we think. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.