Seeking out spirits in one of New York’s spookiest bars.
You’d think it’d be relatively easy to pin down a ghost in this town, with all of its historic buildings and unsettled scores. Most of the haunts frequented by the city’s cognoscenti are said to have an apparition or two knocking around, if you believe in that sort of thing. There’s the shadowy figure that paces the shore of Rockaway Beach. A young girl’s screams are sometimes heard coming from within McCarren Pool. And from the stories told about the Brooklyn Bridge, you’d think its walkway would be incandescent with floating orbs and strange lights.
After hearing that a glamorous specter often manifests and smokes sullenly in a corner of the women’s restroom at the Astor Room in Queens, I drank far too much wine and drifted in and out of the bathroom stalls a few weekends ago, but to no avail. And returning home in the early hours that morning, I thought of the original owner of my apartment building, who hanged himself from the front-door frame in 1890. He, too, has yet to materialize.
So I stopped by the perennially spooky KGB Bar in the East Village after work one night last week to see if Dan Christian, the longtime bar manager, might act as my spirit guide. I’d always heard that the bar was very haunted.
“They’re in there,” Dan said, pointing at the cloudy mirror behind the bar. He walked over to it and rapped his knuckles on the glass. “Right. In. There.”
“What is … in there?” I asked, sliding off my stool and walking behind the bar to stand next to him. I studied the reflections of dusty liquor bottles and Dan’s wild white hair. His eyes darted back and forth, searching the mirror.
“Oh just dark figures moving through,” he said softly, still looking into the mirror. “They come late at night when you’re the only one here. I sit at the bar and look into it and see … translucent shadows.”
A poetry reading began and we stopped chatting for a moment as a woman recited verse about her son and the golden flora of the Midwest. KGB is best known these days, perhaps, for nightly literary events like this, but it was, for years, a hideout for Ukranian socialists in the McCarthy era, and before that a Mafia-run speakeasy opened by Lucky Luciano. These days, the bar is painted bloodred and kept very dark: the windows’ heavy red velvet curtains are always drawn; the space is lit by dim chandeliers hanging by metal chains and stained-glass panels glowing just above the liquor shelf.
It’s a place that would have terrified me when I was a child and, frankly, still gives me the heebie-jeebies. Then again, I’ve always been a little bit more susceptible to ghost stories than some—I slept with the light on after seeing the new Ghostbusters, for example, and as soon as I heard the premise of Stranger Things, I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch it. I realize this makes me seem ridiculous, but I’m tired of being ashamed of my fear.
I don’t know why some people are so insistent about the fact that they don’t believe in ghosts, anyway. I think there’s something to be said about reserving your skepticism over a good haunting. Ghosts aren’t really the apparition of the dead so much as they are the manifestation of something fundamentally human: gossip embellished as it passes from friend to friend, until it takes shape, and suddenly, out of the corner of your eye—a trail of white smoke drifting up the stairs.
Dan had mentioned that he didn’t really believe in ghosts, and I wondered if he wasn’t just sassing me with all that mirror stuff. He pressed a finger to his lips and motioned for me to follow him as he walked through a small hallway at the end of the bar. It led into a tiny back room with just enough room for a wooden table, two chairs, and a mirror that was propped against one wall. He closed the door softly behind him, and we sat down, the rhythmic sound of poems being read now muffled and far off.
“Well you know, once, I was taking a nap upstairs in the boss’s office,” Dan said. “And all of the sudden I felt this chill. It started at my face and just went through me.” He wiggled his fingers in front of his face. “I got up immediately and checked the windows to see if there’d been a draft. But there was nothing.” He glanced at the window by the desk. “It was spooky, man.”
“But you said you don’t believe in ghosts,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t.”
“So what was that thing that happened … with the draft?” I asked.
“It was paranormal energy … paranormal activity.”
“But not a ghost,” I said, puzzled by the distinction.
“I just don’t like the word ghost,” he said, laughing. “I think it diminishes the entire reality of it.”
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.