by Marlene Markard
Most Sag Harborites will proudly tell you that Sag Harbor is a haunted town; haunted mostly by protective, if not cooperative, spirits. If you’re inclined to believe in ghosts, the afterlife and the supernatural, which I am, it’s not hard to believe that such activity exists in Sag Harbor. After all, Sag Harbor is steeped in history. Its buildings and its residents, even its aura, bespeak the passage of time. Walking through the small village of Sag Harbor, it’s easy to be transported back in time. The variety of architectural styles alone mark its passing, from one era to the next: practical capes once belonging to colonial settlers; the stately whaling captains’ Greek revivals, equipped with widows’ walks; the rickety wood-framed cottages once inhabited by fishermen; the magnificent Victorian homes that were built by industrialists; and now more modern homes built by young families, seeking a weekend respite from the maddening pace of the City without compromising creature comforts. Sag Harbor is a fascinating town, brimming with life . . . especially the after life.
Even before I opened my little real estate business on Main Street, I had my first ghostly encounter. It happened one night after I had attended a Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce dinner in May 2007. It was about 11 at night and I was alone, walking back to my office from the dinner. Main Street was shrouded in mist and fog and there were only a few dim street lights illuminating the empty streets. I felt like I was in a scene from Gaslight or, better yet, Jack the Ripper. I half expected to run into a gang of bootleggers or Captain Kidd himself, a once-frequent visitor to Sag Harbor and friend to one of the community’s oldest families.
My office was located in a 250-year old house at 125 Main Street. The building was previously thought to have been a “holding house” during the American Revolutionary War. Don’t ask me what that means, I have no idea. What I do know is that the house has had many lives; my small business just another chapter in its long history. While it’s held up pretty well for an architectural relic, all of those harsh winters and hurricanes have taken their toll. The building is showing its age, but in a charming way.
For example, no one over 6 feet, 6 inches tall could stand erect in my office, at least not without hitting their heads on the ceiling. Even a shrimp like me, all of 5 feet, 4 inches tall, can touch the ceiling with the palms of my hands. Another fun feature was that anyone who stood in my office, stood sideways because the floors deflect by about eight inches, sloping down towards the back. Admittedly, sometimes after business hours, I would spin around in my desk chair and roll backwards down the gentle slope until I was stopped abruptly by the radiator near the back wall. Some of the most intriguing aspects of the house were the beams in my conference room, formerly a walk-in closet. They are said to have come from a 300-year old Dutch ship, parts of which were salvaged from a shipwreck. Since Sag Harbor is an old whaling village with strong ties to a pirate-filled past, I have often wondered whether how that poor Dutch ship might have met its end and whether the ship’s valuables still lie at the bottom of the harbor.
The night of my mist-shrouded walk back to my office, my mind was particularly active. Giddy with the impending opening of my own business, and slightly buzzed from a glass of red wine, I strolled up Main Street from the wharf. As I ambled along, I tricked myself into seeing Sag Harbor the way it once may have been – lined with old pubs and brothels, the town flush with gold-toothed pirates, sea-legged sailors, and weathered fishermen who looked far older than their years. Shaking my head, I smiled to myself, amused by my over-active imagination. “Too many bedtime stories,” I softly muttered, as if there were other people on the street who could have heard me.
I stepped up onto the concrete stair which divided my front walkway from the sidewalk and veered to the right of my building, following the broken brick pathway which lead to the parking lot behind. As I turned, the hairs on my arms, head and back of my neck tingled and suddenly stood at attention. I stopped briefly to survey the dimly-lit lot and I was overcome with fear. My senses were completely heightened. “Too many bedtime stories indeed,” I thought. This time I wasn’t smiling and I didn’t dare say it aloud. Instead, I started to move beyond the building further into the lot and quickened my pace as the outline of my car emerged from the fog. Still about 50 feet away from my car, I nervously pressed the unlock button on my key fob and the interior car lights went on. Though momentarily relieved by the light, my heart was still pounding. I lunged towards my car door and, as I slid into the driver’s seat, I turned my head to the left. I saw a large black shadow from the corner of my eye. It appeared to be a man in a long black coat and knee-high boots, his arms folded sternly across his body. I frantically pulled the car door shut, locked the door, and started the car. Safely inside, I opened the window to look again at the vision I was sure I had seen but couldn’t believe. I slowly shifted my eyes to the left, my head following. Indeed, the black shadowy figure was there. He stood in what looked like a military stance with his feet spread apart by about two feet, arms still folded. He was standing under the solitary flood light that was attached to the back of my building and I saw the figure quite clearly. I threw the gear into reverse and frantically maneuvered my way out of the parking lot.
I was about five blocks away before I realized that my headlights, running lights and dashboard lights were out. They usually came on automatically but they hadn’t, and they refused to go on manually. I was approaching Route 114, the main artery connecting Sag Harbor with East Hampton, where I live. Route 114 cuts through the Northwest Woods of East Hampton and is meagerly lit, making it nearly impossible, even with headlights, to spot the deer that often scurry across the two-lane highway. Not knowing what else to do, I drove along Route 114 at 30 miles per hour, holding on the brights lever with my left hand. Passing cars beeped and flashed their lights to alert me that I was barely visible, as if I didn’t know. I prayed to God that I would not hit anything or anyone and that no one would hit me. After making my way for about two harrowing miles, I had decided to give up, pull over and call roadside service, when suddenly the lights came on. . . . For no reason at all, the lights came on. I remained frozen in my seat, not even moving my head to look behind or to the side of me. I focused straight ahead, afraid to see whether there was anyone hiding in my back seat. When I reached home, I ran up the front stairs and hurriedly closed the front door behind me.
The next day I reluctantly went to my office to continue preparations for my grand opening but I was sure to leave long before sun-down, not wanting to experience a repeat of the prior night. About two days later, a lady with her young son stopped by my office, looking for the photo and copy shop that had occupied the office for five years before I moved in. My office was not officially open yet and I was still painting the walls, which had been covered with chemical splash from the photo shop. Standing in my office in paint-covered sweat pants and a torn Billy Joel concert t-shirt from 1987, I listened as the lady told me about the ghost who supposedly “lives” in the building. “His name is John,” she said.
According to local legend, John was a Revolutionary War soldier who met his demise in front of 125 Main Street. Apparently several locals have seen him on different occasions, including the owner of the photo shop and the previous landlord. “By all accounts, he wore a long black coat,” she continued. “A long black coat?,” I nervously interrupted. “I think I’ve already met John,” I said to the young mother, relieved that I had not been hallucinating two nights before. The lady lingered a bit longer, taking pleasure, I think, in scaring me a little. I may not have been officially open, but I had certainly been initiated.
I never saw John again but I sometimes felt his presence in the office. While it made my hair stand up, I learned to calm myself down by talking to him, as if I were talking to a beloved pet. I never expected to receive an answer – at least not one in spoken English – but I did come to expect an answer of a sort. A light flickering, a sudden patch of cold air, a screwdriver gone missing.
One afternoon, I discovered that John had quite a sense of humor and exercised it pretty regularly. A few days before I opened my office, I was assembling all of the furniture I had ordered from Pottery Barn. I had been sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by furniture and putting together one piece at a time with a screwdriver and an Allen wrench. I am right handed and automatically put the screwdriver down next to my right leg after I finished assembling each piece. This went on for several hours before I needed to take a bathroom break. Upon returning from the bathroom, however, the screwdriver was not in the spot where I had left it. It was not on the floor and it had not rolled on the deflecting floors towards the back of the office. I checked each piece of furniture I had assembled, I checked the bathroom, I retraced my footsteps (all 10 of them) between the bathroom and where I had been sitting on the floor. Then it occurred to me, John was having some fun. I looked up and shakily bleeted, “Well, John, I guess it’s time to go home. Enough for one day, huh?” I paused briefly and, strangely, I waited for an answer. “Let me know what you think of the furniture, OK? If you like what I’m doing, please return the screwdriver so I can finish. We’re set to open Saturday, you know.” A little freaked out, I hurriedly gathered up my purse, locked up the office and drove home. (Yes, this time the lights came on.) As I drove the 12 miles home, I wondered whether or where the screwdriver would turn up. The jury was out. I had placed the fate of my business in a ghost. If he liked what I was doing, we would open Saturday as planned. If he didn’t, well, I hesitated to consider the consequences.
The next morning I went in to my office and found the screwdriver on a shelf in the pantry, a place I had not entered the day before. “I guess you liked the furniture, huh John?,” I said, full-voiced, as if I were speaking to a person standing next to me. Then again, maybe I was. Shaking my head in (dis)belief, I grabbed the screwdriver from the shelf and sat down, Indian style, in the middle of my office. And as I began to assemble the final pieces of furniture I had uncrated the night before, I thought to myself: “John, one day this will make a wonderful bedtime story.”