First Words — 04 October 2019
Where Every Body Knows Your Name

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

I don’t believe in ghosts.

“So you’re staying up at the Hotel Henry?’’ the Uber driver said at the airport in Buffalo, N.Y. “You know it’s haunted?”

“Haunted?” I said.

“That’s what they say,’’ he said. “It was formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and a lot of strange things have happened there since the 1880s. All the haunted-house tours go there now.”

“House?” I said. “I thought it was a hotel?”

“It is,’’ he said. “It was boarded up for years, but they just refurbished and reopened as a boutique hotel. All new rooms. Big new lobby. Fitness center …’’

“And ghosts?” I said.

“They’re all over that place,” he said. “They say the basement’s a real hotspot for paranormal activity. ‘Something’ is down there, they say.’’

What is it with ghost tours these days, I wondered for this issue before Halloween? They’re everywhere I’ve been lately. St. Augustine. Key West. Mount Dora, just to name a few Florida hot spots. Boothbay in Maine, Stirling in Scotland, Old Town Albuquerque.

Now Buffalo? I picked the Hotel Henry because the conference I was attending was offering a great rate there. I didn’t know about the “amenities.”

“Well, it won’t bother me,’’ I said.

“Oh?” he said.

I don’t believe in ghosts.

We took a left past the “Urban Resort Center” sign, and I watched the gothic spires of the Hotel Henry loom up before us. I had to admit, the stony façade was straight out of central casting as an asylum for the insane.

“Have a nice stay,’’ the Uber driver said.

I pushed through the gleaming new doors and eventually found my way to the lobby over delightfully creaky old wood floors.

“I’d better show you how to get to the elevator,’’ the smiling clerk said. “It’s a little tricky the first time.’’

It was. Institutions for the mentally ill in the 19th Century were designed to keep people in, I figured, so the hallways seemed to curve away and back again to the center of the building in a kind of closed loop. In a jiffy, though, the helpful clerk showed me the elevator up to my floor.

The door opened on what was once a mental ward, now an elegantly decorated hallway illuminated by chandeliers every 10 feet or so. The long hallway, with unusually high ceilings and doors, reminded me of something – but I couldn’t quite place it until I got to my room.

“I think I just checked into the Overlook Hotel,’’ I said to my wife on the phone.

“From The Shining?” she said.

I blamed the Uber driver.

I got dressed, put on the conference lanyard I’d need to get into the dinner, and tried to find my way back to the lobby. But, for some reason, I missed the turn for the elevator and wound up through a door to the “original” stairway – which led down to the fitness center.

And the basement.

They say the basement’s a real hotspot for paranormal activity,” the Uber driver had said. “‘Something’ is down there, they say.

Nothing was down there, as far as I could tell, when I reached the bottom of the curving stairs. Just silence.

Like a tomb.

I blamed the Uber driver.

There were two doors up ahead. One would lead to the conference dinner. The other to … “something” else?

I pushed through the one on the left and was relieved to feel the setting sun on my face. I’d picked wisely.

The conference dinner that night was a delight. We all had a great time, talking shop and swapping stories about the quirky place where most of us were staying.

“Did you take the ghost tour yet?’’ I overhead one of our group say. “I did feel like something was down in the basement. Did you?”

“No,” she said. “But I did feel something upstairs.’’

The party ended around midnight, and I walked across an open field – part of the 100 acres reserved for mental patients to wander in the old days – back to the Hotel Henry.

And I pondered everything I’d heard that day.

You know it’s haunted?

“‘Something’ is down there.”

“The Overlook Hotel… from The Shining?

I pushed through the gleaming new doors into the Hotel Henry and looked up just as a ghost tour was coming out.

“Hello, Mark,’’ the older man leading it said.

“Uh, hello…?” I said, as he passed by, wondering how he knew my name.

A little shaken, I walked on quickly to the elevator. I stepped in, punched the button for my floor and watched the door begin to slide.

Just then, a hand reached in to stop the door from closing.

“Mind if I ride up with you?’’ a young woman from the ghost tour said.

“Uh, no…?” I said.

“OK, c’mon everybody!’’ she said, “Mark says we can ride up with him!”

I pressed myself into a corner of the elevator as six more women crowded into the elevator behind her. How do they all know my name?

Back in the room, a little more shaken, I couldn’t get to sleep. I had an early flight, and I had to get up in a couple of hours anyway, so I got into bed with my dinner clothes on and pulled the covers over my head.

And I listened in the dark, picking out every sound a former institution for the insane with a ghost tour guide who knows my name can make in the night.


Probably just an old water line, I thought.


Probably just an old guest coming home late.


Probably just … something else?

I blamed the Uber driver.

Finally, red-eye sleepless around 4 a.m., I got up, tossed everything into my bag and slipped out of the room. I was determined not to go down the “original’’ stairway to the basement again, so I followed the curved hallways, creaking along the old wood floors, past room after room that were as silent as tombs.

Until I pushed out the gleaming doors of the Hotel Henry and found my Uber waiting in the night.

“Going to the airport?’’ he said.

“As fast as we can,’’ I said.

I didn’t stop moving until I’d checked my bag, cleared TSA and reached the gate for my flight home. I collapsed weak and weary into a chair for the wait to board … and noticed the lanyard with my conference I.D. still around my neck.

MARK, it read.

So, I don’t believe in ghosts.


Photo: The entrance to the Hotel Henry, formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. (Courtesy)

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