To coincide with Halloween, Berkeley, California’s Street Spirit asked those who have lived on the city’s streets for chilling, ghostly stories intersecting with their experiences of homelessness.
The Curious Echoes of Big Pink
By Robin Silver
Big Pink was finished 23 years before the civil war began in America.
Big Pink was made from local cypress trees, impervious to the rot and insidious decay that time brings to most things, the living, the dead, and all those things in between and beyond.
Big Pink still sits proudly on a small knoll in Louisiana, north of Lake Pontchartrain and west of the Tangipahoa River, on the outskirts of Roseland. If houses had gender, Big Pink was definitely a southern belle.
Big Pink was and is a monument, a testament to refined southern living. Her 360-degree Veranda was surrounded first by a circular hedge of Azalea, of the same hue. An outer ring of guardian Oaks drip with the grey green gauze of Spanish moss. I later learned that Big Pink was originally owned by Abolitionists.
Big Pink oozes gossip, history, and secrets from each plank and tile. She shouts when the rain hits the corrugated roof.
Big Pink was and is a respectable, gentile abode with a grand hallway that splits the house in two. When you enter Big Pink through her double leaded glass doors in the east, you can see the sun setting through the backdoor at just the right time of year. She is at the epicenter of a day’s radius, sitting on the crossroad between space and time, now and then, here and there.
On the right of the hallway is first the big commons, living room, dining area, the master fireplace and the kitchen. On the left are her bedrooms. A small cast iron wood stove heated the middle room, which is where my daughter slept when Big Pink chose us to occupy her.
Then there’s the piano. The old upright piano occupies the first of the small rooms on the left of the grand hallway. The ivory and ebony keys are worn like footsteps on a stone stairway through time.
It first began in the piano room, on the outskirts of vision. The first time I touched the upright piano’s keys I played an inversion of an e-minor chord. But you wouldn’t have known what chord was played, for it was horribly out of tune. The dissonance of the chord triggered some chain reaction inside and out of the house. A shelf broke in the kitchen at the opposite end of the house spilling mason jars to the floor, shattering upon impact. The broom on the front porch fell over, startling a small group of quail into flight. The screen door at the rear of the house suddenly slammed shut and the electricity blinked twice and then went off completely. The cardinals atop the pines abruptly went mute and the omnipresent buzzing of the cicadas ceased.
Then, as the piano’s noise slowly died into silence, the electricity came back to life, along with everything else that had seemed to hold its breath.
Without thinking, I almost touched the piano keys again, but then some insistent inkling made me withdraw. I thought I should tune this antique before I played one more note.
I called the only piano tuner within easy reach. As it turned out, Mr. Duchamps knew of this piano because his grandfather had been the last one to tune it, and to his records, that was 33 years ago. Mr. Duchamps mumbled something as he was leaving, something about a notation in his grandfather’s record book that said the piano needed special tuning. One way or another, he finished his work without incident.
I blew off my first encounter with the upright as a fluke. That evening, I had a glass of wine and approached the piano, a bit cautious. I slammed down the rest of the Malbec and sat down and braced myself.
The sun was just setting as I played one note, then a chord, then a short phrase. Nothing unusual happened
I sat back and began to improvise on the worn keys. The piano sounded beautiful, perfect, enchanting. I relaxed more and more and a delicate, soft elation began to fill me as I played and Big Pink listened.
Once I drop into the zone, I often close my eyes, leaving all my attention to sound. And this I did. I felt like Big Pink was enjoying the music. When I brought my improvisation to its conclusion, I let the last notes decay into silence and opened my eyes.
There he was, standing before me.
I was startled to put it mildly. I had not heard him come in. As I looked closer, he was not completely solid. There was a translucency to him. I could see the painting on the wall right through this tall, pale, thin elegantly dressed man in formal attire, the formal attire of the mid-1800s.
Time stood still. Before the next quickened heartbeat, he looked solidly into me and gave a comforting smile, a kind of approval before he transformed into a milky colored mist, quickly churning its way towards me, and then entered me as if I had inhaled his spirit.
It was not an unpleasant feeling, as unusual as it was. I shuddered, and then a warm trust began to fill me. I looked at my reflection in an old window pane, with all of its slight distortions. Who I saw was him, not me.
As I looked closer, he was not completely solid. There was a translucency to him. I could see the painting on the wall right through this tall, pale, thin elegantly dressed man in formal attire, the formal attire of the mid-1800s.
He had become me, sitting at the piano. I looked down at the hands that were no longer mine. They were pale, with long, strong fingers. I watched in silent disbelief as the elegant hands began to play.
The agile hands began to play a waltz unknown to me. It was simple at first and then with each measure, the waltz gained in complexity, and as follows, the hands in virtuosity. I was completely mesmerized.
When the enchanted waltz ended, I heard enthusiastic applause and I looked up to see the room filled with appreciative dancers. The dancers slowly began to fade away still clapping and complementing. I, we, bowed to the finely dressed apparitions.
As I looked to the window, I watched in wonder as the mysterious pianist became me in the reflection. Outside the first rays of a Louisiana sunrise came streaming into the room through the old oaks and pink azaleas. I, we, had played the night away.
To this very day, particularly on a yellow moon, I am borrowed, again, like that first time, by the tall man with fine hands. No objections, mind you. The only difference is I now walk out on the dance floor when the new hands begin to play. I dance until dawn getting to know new friends until the music fades away. After the applause and the ensuing silence, I find myself sitting back at the piano with my hands upon the worn keys, illuminated by the first rays of dawn.
Robin Silver is a musician, audio engineer, and videographer who lives at the Here There camp in South Berkeley.
By Amber Whitson
On 13 August, 2012, I was at home, in my tent at the Albany Bulb [a peninsula in California formerly used for landfill] taking pictures of my clothing after I finally sorted all of it.
Being a perfectionist, I took two pictures from each angle. I figured that I would review the pictures after I was done, keep the best ones from each angle and delete the other ones.
As I was reviewing the pictures I had just taken, I was startled to see the face and torso of a girl! She appeared to be wearing a white blouse in the style of the mid to late 1800’s. Her hair was long and straight and wet. She seemed to have been looking behind me when I was taking the picture. But, I hadn’t seen anything unusual while taking them. She appeared in one picture, but not the other one from the same angle, taken the same minute.
She looked like she was of Native American descent, which would make sense, since the Ohlone and other coastal Native American tribes were inhabiting that area around the time that her clothing appeared to be from.
Besides the fact that she was white and transparent, her lips were the same color as the rest of her face, indicating to me that she was definitely the apparition of someone who had died.
I have always wondered if she had been murdered—possibly drowned. The look on her face was grim. Still the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me.
Amber Whitson is a mechanic who lives in her vehicle who has lived in Berkeley for over 22 years.