The Ghosts of North Beach (Part 1)

The Ghosts of North Beach

The long walk downhill from the Tenderloin to North Beach is not the worst walk in the city. It is mostly downhill, and much of it, if not scenic, is at least good for a little people watching. Last time I walked down towards North Beach an unleashed chihuahua tried to take me out at the ankles, his snide and snippy owner telling me how friendly his dog was, as it growled and snapped at the air straining towards me, while a man on a scooter glided along the sidewalk singing Maria. He sang freely and loudly, as if rehearsing for some big performance, his voice carrying despite the sounds of the city trying to overwhelm it. Apparently, things will never be the same now he has heard her name. The word Maria, carried off into the distance and bounced off the hard baked blacktop, glass fronted buildings, the people and their momentary embarrassment for him. A ghostly figure was trailing behind him. She was barely there, her almost-solid figure scattering black and grey sparks as she ran, her gold necklace spelling out the name “Maria” whipping around her neck as she chased him down Van Ness.

His Maria is a spirit in his wheels, a voice in the wind, a haint who longs to take the object of her affections back into her cold arms and keep him there forever. I see her trail after him, desperately trying to keep up with the singing man on his scooter. His Maria unpins her black braided hair and walks awkwardly, legs twisted as she moves disjointedly, hanging her limbs like rotten fruit on a tree, ripe far past the picking. His Maria will change his life, alright. Nothing will ever be the same, not now. She chases him doggedly as he glides and sings a love song to a name that once was hers. I wondered if he was trying to remember her or else exorcize her. He doesn’t hear the unequal beat of her dragging left foot, or the wail of her voice as the big truck slams it’s brakes on a little too late, every day at 3pm down Van Ness.

I regularly see this poor schmuck and his ghostly Maria when I leave my apartment building, always making sure to close my front door behind me firmly. You can’t be too careful in this part of town. I rarely walk south, even if I need to go in that general direction. I am not reckless, no. Instead, I take an immediate left, trying to ignore Maria and her earthly lover.

I walk this route that takes me away from the ‘Loin and into the slightly more refined atmosphere of Nob Hill proper almost every day, tracing that slight uphill climb, followed by the sharp downhill glide to Grant Street, a throughfare that runs through the center of Chinatown. The ghosts mainly stay away until you are firmly embedded into the heart of Grant, and only then do they come out in force.

I wonder how many walkers can see the semi-solid figures that walk amongst us. Maria is pretty fresh, dressed up for a daytime early 20’s hike to Sea Cliff, or Twin Peaks, but not all of this hidden population are quite so new. It is a mystery to me how some clearly get to move on somewhere else, and others remain in various states of consciousness, to haunt the days and nights of the city and carry on some kind of earthly existence.

I don’t see all of them so clearly, they are not all so crisply defined as Maria. Sometimes it is the frisson of something electric on the back of my neck as I pause for the traffic to head up the hill towards the city center. Sometimes it is a hint of a reflection of a human figure in the window with no corresponding warm human body standing on the street making the image. Some of them dissolve as soon as I peer at them too intently. Some stare right back. Very rarely they address me and want to talk. Sometimes I might pause and look at an embroidered slipper or little jade figure, picking through the goods on the shelves outside of the tourist shops on Grant, and shuffle over to make a space for someone that I feel in my vicinity. A hand on my arm or he hint of a body brushing against my back will send  me spinning round abruptly to confront the potential pick pocket, then I realize that no one is close at all. At least no one that is living. It is that creeping feeling of something being a little wrong and slightly off. Sometimes the uncanny, curious and warm-hearted put their chill fingers on my face and ask me if I see them. Not all the spirits are evil and looking for revenge or blood. Some, like Mary at the Queen Anne Hotel, merely want to tuck the warm bodied patrons up in bed at night and unpack their suitcases for them.

It is a question of who is haunted: the person or the place.  I think I was born haunted though I did not see this underworld that runs parallel to the living one until after the accident. It hardly matters in North Beach anyway; the ghosts are all around. They are just out of reach, a blink around the corner, a disappearing shadow into the alleyway, a hint of a smile in a window, a footstep in the dark missing a leg and the weight that should attend it.

My ghosts are all around me nowadays, I suppose. I can barely blink without one of them tapping my shoulder or twitching the curtain, moving my guitar tuner or hiding my glasses in order to try and force my attention onto them and their loneliness and woe. Me and my ghostly companions have come to a disagreeable entente. I quickly found out that there is a certain amount of relief that can be found from constant company that can be achieved by various esoteric means. When all else fails I sit on my small green couch, turn on the television, and watch something banal and loud and brightly colored on the television.

White sage burns in an abalone shell, selenite sticks sit by windows and doors in my small apartment in the ‘Loin, and anyone who listens closely might hear the words of a banishing ritual being worked in the dead of night. I keep my habits to myself, and do not lend out my talents to others who might be haunted, not for money nor out of kindness. I am no ghost hunter, no exorcist, no con act offering to bring relief to those who think they have picked up a hitchhiker or an unpaying resident in their living space. I live my life, as a freelance writer quietly and alone, and keep my curses to myself. Let others find their own route out of their troubles. I have enough of my own.

I like my privacy, uninvited guests from the afterworld are not welcome in my apartment, yet most of the time my space is not my own, whatever ritualistic fragrant measures I take don’t always work. Sometimes outside of the house they will notice I see them, and of course, they see me, and approach whether I want them to or not. The Dead can be assholes, that much is for sure. The more conscious and developed of the souls can make good company, but then again, I would have liked them when they were alive too and being dead does not change that.

If I didn’t like ‘em alive, it is unlikely that death will improve matters. Not all of them are stuck to place, trapped in time, but many spirits are here for eternity, or so it would seem. I have no idea of the nature of life after death, or possible routes, or other destinations. It would seem that some ghosts want to move on after a little conversation and saying their piece, and after clearing a few things up, simply turn around and walk away, disappearing into the sunset light of a distant tunnel. Others are stuck here as if their feet are anchored in concrete for the duration.

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