Monday, July 23, 2012

My First Ghost(s).

     The first time I saw a ghost I didn’t know it was a ghost. This is common, and I wonder how many other people have encountered a ghost without knowing it. They look normal. Sometimes they’re dressed in old clothes depending on their age, but so often they are mistaken for actors hired for historical recreations. Most are ignored as we walk on by maybe giving a polite nod to the stranger on the street. Most of us rarely notice the living, so passing an arm’s length away from someone who’s been dead for many years is entirely possible.

     My first ghost showed up in the pizza parlor where I worked as the prep-cook. I was 18 years old. The pizza parlor was in the small shopping center down the street from my home. I had worked there about two years already, and it was my home away from home. At this time of my life I often awoke at 3:00am full of energy, and it would take hours to return to sleep. When I’d finally wake I’d feel like shit for much of the day. I decided the next time this happened I would just get out of bed, and go to work. This is exactly what I did, and for three weeks I thought I had figured it all out.

     So on that Wednesday morning, when I saw the ghost, my eyes popped open around 3:10am. I was up, in the shower, dressed, and out the door in fifteen minutes (this amazes me today because it takes me ten minutes just to make it from my bed to the shower today). I didn’t have a car. I didn’t need one. I loved the way the cool morning air of Carmel pinched my cheeks as I crossed Highway 1. I had a key to the restaurant and there was no real manager so I could do whatever I pleased.

The pickup window. Cathy is in the kitchen.

     The pizza parlor itself was essentially a glorified tunnel with the only windows located at the front. The kitchen was also located in the front, and it wrapped around to the left ending with a long bar at the end. The large pick-up window faced the salad bar, and beyond that was the long dining room. Behind the bar was the huge walk-in refrigerator. In the far corner was the pantry where I did the prep-work.

My late friend, Randy, at the bar. The dining room behind him. I saw the man  standing in front of the  second  post back.

     I made my prep list and began with making pizza dough. I kept the lights off in the dining room because they attracted homeless people (we called them River Rats) who would bang on the door demanding food. A dark restaurant made me invisible. The circuit which powered the rear stockroom also powered the arcade games. Their lights were just bright enough for me to get around, and I could play Asteroids once I’d finished my prep work until we opened. The 25-pound bags of pizza dough mix were in the rear store room so I made a point to get them first.

The old prep-cook carrying bags of dough mix. The office  is to the left behind the bar.

     With the dough mix churning in the Hobart I began work on the other items on my list. I sliced mushrooms, and diced lettuce for the salad bar. There was an order to this, as it was a light day I knew I could knock out the other stuff in the half hour it would take to make the three batches of dough. Once the Hobart was free I could use it to grate the cheese. I had my Panasonic boom-box blasting Van Halen and Ozzy so I was in my own universe.

     The Monterey Jack cheese came in 50-pound blocks. We had a special two-handled knife to cut these blocks into smaller blocks which could fit into the Hobart’s grating attachment. This was also the endless source for “Cutting the cheese” jokes. As I said before I had been here two years. In that time I had developed the sixth-sense every restaurant worker has: the ability to tell when someone behind you is glaring at you. You’ve been there, your order’s taking too long, your coffee’s empty, and your wait person seems to have forgotten you so you shoot invisible death-rays into their heads. As I pushed the blade through the cheese block I instinctively looked up.

     Through the small glassless window of the pantry door I saw a man watching me from the dining room.
I looked down for a second and looked back up. He was still there. He stood silhouetted against the glowing lights of the Stargate Defender game in the middle of the dining room. He was shorter than me. His arms were folded. I couldn’t make out any facial detail but I could tell he wasn’t happy to see me.

     Two months before the pizza parlor had been burglarized. They have come in from the side entrance from the access hall where the dumpster was housed. They had cleaned out all of the video games, the petty cash, and took my first boom box. So as I stood frozen in the pantry I thought they’d come back. No cell phones in 1982. The nearest phone was out in the kitchen. I was locked in, and the front door was not an option anyway. I was a typical 18 year-old male, you know, stupid, and I reached for a carving knife.

     Now armed with the cheese knife and the carving knife I walked slowly to the pantry’s swinging door. I never took my eyes off of the man in the dining room, and he never moved. I took a deep breath. I kicked the door open as I yelled something brave.

He was gone.

     Standing there in front of the ice machine I looked out onto a very empty dining room. He had to still be inside. The side door was a steel fire door which made a loud whoomp when it closed, and that was his only way out. The two bathroom doors also made enough noise to signal that he’d gone in either one of them. I wanted to run for a second, and then I got pissed off. I turned on all of the lights so I could search the entire pizza parlor.

     I checked the garbage-hall door (the side door) first.

     It was locked.

     I kicked open the lady’s room door.


    I kicked open the men’s room door.

    I moved out to the center of the dining room to check the rear where the arcade games were. There was enough space between each for an adult man to hide, so going down the center was the safest move for me. My heart was pounding as I made it to the back wall. There was nobody here. This left the rear party room. I dashed through the entry way to avoid being jumped. It was empty too. I checked the rear exit door finding it secure. This left the long, dark garbage hall to search.

     It was also empty with no signs of disturbance, and the doors at either end were locked from the inside. I returned to finish my work, and when I was done I left the pizza parlor to sit in the diner at the far end of the parking lot until the sun came up.

     I wrote this event off to being there so early, and I theorized somehow part of my brain was still asleep. However on following mornings as I worked away I would feel someone watching me from the dining room. A couple of times I reflexively dropped what I was doing to help the person waiting at the bar, as I often did during business hours, only to remember as I walked out of the pantry that I was locked inside the place alone. One morning I stepped out of the walk-in refrigerator to hear twice girls whispering from the salad bar area on the other side of the bar. I stepped to the end of the counter but saw nobody.

     I stopped going to work so early in the morning. I was certain it was just too early for my brain to work.
Less than two weeks later I was killing the late evening at the pizza place. I had nothing better to do, all of my friends were either working there, or were up at a concert in Oakland. I sat with the shift manager, Danny, and the janitor, Ray, at the table closest to the bar. We were making the usual shop-talk, and telling the usual bad jokes as we waited for the place to close. Ray looked at his watch, and then he asked us if we’d hang out until he finished the janitorial work that night. We both agreed. Danny asked him why.
Ray told us a story.

     He was vacuuming the rear dining room (were the video games were) when he looked up to see two girls about the age of fourteen or fifteen walking toward the bar. He assumed they’d been smoking weed in the restroom, and nobody had checked before locking the door. He turned off his vacuum cleaner to let them out, but as the machine fell silent the girls had vanished. He quickly ran up to search the kitchen, and then the restrooms yet found no one. The next night he came out of the side hallway from the men’s room to see a dark man standing in the back dining room watching him. As he began to ask what the guy thought he was doing the man vanished. Ray quickly locked up and went home. He finished his work the next morning when he knew other people would be there.

     He’d seen the same guy I’d seen.

     Danny said he’d seen the two girls walk past the office door at the end of the bar a couple of times when he was there in the morning alone. He then said he’d thought he’d seen a dark man in the dining room from the corner of his eye, but he wrote it off to long work hours. We sat there in silence for a good minute. Danny and I helped Ray clean up in record time. We decided not to tell anyone. We figured if we were really seeing thing others would too, and if not then we three had a cool story for Halloween.  The wait wasn’t too long.

     Maybe three days later I was closing down the place with the girls, Cathy & Mo (short for Maureen). I had finished my stuff and sat in the front booth where I was soon joined by Cathy. We talked as we waited for Mo to change. Suddenly I could hear the coffee pot on the Bunn begin to rattle. Cathy looked over to see a girl with blonde hair next to the ice machine. She yelled “Mo!” just as the coffee pot flew off the top hot plate of the Bunn machine. Then from the back dining room we hear Mo ask Cathy what was going on.  Cathy looked at me, looked back at Mo, and then got up to look into the kitchen. I went back to check the pot. Somehow it didn’t break in the fall, which was weird because I’d seen them break for less of an impact.
We got out of there fast ending up at the all night diner until Cathy had calmed down enough to drive home. As we sat there I filled her in on what I knew. She was happy not to tell anyone about the incident until more people had seen things.

This picture shows the bar with the pantry door behind the two  men. Just behind the man on the right is the walk-in refrigerator door. The Bunn coffee maker is just out of view on the left.

      As it turned out it wasn’t a long wait. Within the week most of the crew had seen either the man or the two girls in the dining room. Being young we all decided to hang out before work to hash out what was going on (because teenagers are experts in just about everything).

     We decided we had all seen something. Some of the most serious people had an encounter, and this made it credible. The next big question was why? I had been there for two years, Cathy had been there for three, and a few others had been on staff for a year. We had all been in the restaurant alone at many times, and none of us had seen anything strange. Why now? We settled on the theory that construction for the new half of the shopping center had awoken something. My sighting began six weeks after they’d first break ground.

     We did some checking. The initial construction company had been fired, and replaced overnight. In California when construction crews discover burial sites they must halt, and allow for the state to excavate the area. This can cost a lot of money in delays for the contractor. We thought the sudden replacement of the construction crew might have been linked to something dug up. We could never find out more because the new guys knew nothing, and the owner’s people said nothing.

     Over the next couple of weeks things continued to happen. The heavy fire-door would slam for no reason. This continued even after we locked it from the inside. Footsteps were heard walking around the salad bar in the mornings. One of the favorite tricks was to freak someone out as they punched in the code to deactivate the alarm in less than 90 seconds. The fire-door would usually slam. The most memorable incident was the sound of approaching footsteps which sounded like someone walking through an inch of water. I complemented the invisible man on that one.

     After one stressful shift I was alone, and I was getting ready to turn on the alarm. The keypad was located on the wall at the end of the bar. I turned off all of the lights. Just as I reached for the pad I hear a coffee mug jingling. Over on the bar next to the register was a try filled with mugs. The one in the middle of the tray was visibly shaking.
     “You’re gonna have to do something a little more spectacular than that. I just not in the mood tonight” I said to whatever. Damned if that coffee mug didn’t fly up, and bounce down the bar until it fell off the end landing at my feet.  I saluted the unseen, entered the code, and left.

     At some point Danny suggested we do a séance complete with his Ouija board. The first one was a complete waste of time. Danny stuck the Ouija on a shelf in the office and forgot about it. The following week I was recounting the séance to our bartender. When I showed him the board in the office he suggested we try again that night after work. As it turned out a mutual friend was in earshot and begged to be included too. Once everyone else had gone I got out the board.

     The bartender and I decided to wear blindfolds so we couldn’t rig the answers. We wrapped towels around our heads, and gave the third guy a pen to write stuff down. With the lights turned off we placed our fingers on the Planchette and began asking questions. For the first few minutes I felt like an idiot. I’m sitting in a dark pizza parlor with a towel wrapped around my head with Mormon bartender who’s doing the same thing. Then the bartender starts asking questions. The Planchette began to move under my fingers.
“Do you want us to leave?” he asked. The Planchette suddenly jerked to a point on the board where it froze. The bartender and I whipped off our blindfolds to see the board. The answer was “NO.”

     We stood up together, I turned on the alarm, and we went out the front door. The third guy was begging to know what had happened. Neither of us spoke until the bartender’s pickup truck was at the stoplight at the front of the center. We looked at each other as we both blurted out “was that you?” We filled the third guy in. That pointer was yanked hard under our fingers. One of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. The bartender quit soon after this.

     The janitor, Ray, would last another year, but only because he’d come in the mornings to clean. His wife worked in the kitchen anyway. One Sunday morning the ghost was on a tear. I saw him twice that morning already, and I ignored him. So he picked on Ray. First thing was to slam that fire door while Ray was coming out of the Lady’s room directly opposite. He was startled pretty bad, and had to sit for a while. Then later I was in the kitchen and happened to look up to see the dark man standing by the hallway leading to the fire door. Ray saw him too. He looked at me, I said I’d seen him, and he started crying. Ray was a good guy, his parents were killed by Nazis in France, and for this tough guy to break down was unreal.

     I left the pizza place after two more years. I moved across the parking lot to the Crossroads Cinemas. It wasn’t haunted, and it was a great place to make out. I’d been there nine months, and one night after locking up the theater a few of us went to the diner to drink coffee, and shoot the breeze.

      We’d only been seated for a few minutes before two Sheriff’s deputies walked in and approached our table. They asked us who we were, and why we were out so late (it was after midnight).  I explained where we worked, and why we were out late. Then one of the deputies recognized me from the theater, and all was cool. I asked what the problem was, and they said somebody was messing with the janitor at the pizza parlor. They went and sat at the counter, and we shrugged. Then Ray and his oldest son, Charlie, came into the diner, and marched straight up to our table.

     “Just tell me it was you.” He said. I looked at him shaking my head.
“Just tell me it was you, and I’ll have a good laugh.” He said. I told him I’d just got off work, and the other two people worked with me. I asked him what was wrong, and pointed to the deputies as I told him about being questioned a few minutes before. He sat down. His hands shook, and he was sweating badly.

     He said that he and Charlie had shown up at the pizza parlor to start cleaning at 11:00pm. Within minutes they heard loud noises coming from the garbage hall. It sounded like cardboard boxes being tossed around. Charlie went out to take a look. He found boxes thrown up and down the length of the hall, but both doors were locked. He returned to the dining room, but before he could fill Ray in the sounds began again. This time something pounded on the door too. This time Ray opened the door. The noises stopped as it swung open. Ray cursed at the culprit, and locked the door.

     He called mall security, and the lone guard walked over where he met Ray, and Charlie outside of the pizza parlor. As Ray was explaining the situation the sounds erupted again from the garbage hall. They could hear it clearly from outside. The security guard suggested it must be raccoons. Ray escorted him to the garbage hall door inside, and the guard went in to take a look. The sounds stopped again. The guard searched the entire hall, which was seventy feet from end to end. He found only cardboard boxes strewn from one end to the other.

     He came out shaking his head. He found no signs of animals, and the doors were locked. Then the noise started up again. This time it sounded as if the boxes were being thrown from both ends at once. Then something pounded on the door again. The guard checked again. There was nobody in the hall. He suggested they all exit the restaurant until the sheriffs came, and then he called them.

     A squad car arrived in under a minute. As they stood out front explaining the problem, ruckus resumed inside the hallway again for the deputies to hear, and they drew their guns as they went inside. They search the hallway too, and found nothing. Once back outside they didn’t have time to report before the noise started again. The deputies, according to Ray, looked at each other, and said they’d done everything they could do. They told Ray to lock up and come back tomorrow, and then they left.

      Ray just left the lights on, locked the door, and went home. He saw me through the window of the diner, and decided to stop in to see if I had decided to pull a prank on him.  I told Ray I hadn’t thought about the pizza parlor since I’d left. I was surprised by Ray’s story, and noted he was shook up. He quit the place a few days later.

     My life went on largely ghost-free until the 1990s. As things changed my visits to the shopping center dwindled for a time. On one Halloween I happened to be down there for a hair appointment, and I stopped into the book store to see what was new (and because there was a cute redhead dressed as a cat). We started talking. She mentioned she liked working there because the place had a ghost. I asked her if it was a dark man or two girls, and she told me she’d seen both
     The last time I’d heard about the ghosts at the shopping center was two years ago. It’s nice to know their still there.