By John Gray
There are a million reasons to love the Capital Region, and as the air chills and the nights grow blacker than a witch’s cat, it seems appropriate to tell you a tale or two about ghosts and goblins that roam our back roads and cemeteries at night. I’ve never seen a ghost, but something did happen to me once that I’ve never spoken about until today. We’ll get to that in a moment, but for now let me share with you a couple eerie stories I have heard while sipping hot, mulled cider by the safety of the fire.
Graceland Cemetery and The Hitchhiker
They say every town has an urban legend about a ghostly hitchhiker and ours takes place on Delaware Avenue in Albany at the gates of Graceland Cemetery. As the story goes,it was a dark, stormy night (is there any other kind?) when a Clifton Park man was returning home from a friend’s house in Bethlehem. He was traveling down Delaware Avenue close to midnight when he approached Graceland Cemetery. There, standing in a long white gown in the pouring rain, was a beautiful young woman who appeared to be hitchhiking. Normally our level-headed friend would never stop for a stranger, but something seemed innocent and vulnerable about this girl and so he pulled over to offer her a lift. “You’ll catch your death of cold out there miss,” he said to her as she climbed into the front seat. She never returned his glance; instead she just gazed out the car window watching the rain run down the glass. Finally, after a moment she said, “Take me to Lark Street please.” As they drove silently through the night, he stole glances of her beautiful face. Though he wanted to speak to her, something told him to leave her be.
A few moments later he stopped at a brownstone not far from where you would find Justin’s restaurant today. As she stepped from the car, the heavy sadness thatthis girl wore like a blanketseemed to change. She seemed better.As she started up the stairs to the home he pulled away from the curb giving her one more look in the rearview mirror, but she was alreadygone.
A week went by and our friend couldn’t get the image of the beautiful young woman out of his mind. Like a stone in his shoe, it kept nagging him – what was she doing out there so late at night dressed that way? Who was she? Was she okay?When he couldn’t take it any longer,he drove back to that same home on Lark Street, knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman in her 60s with familiar eyes. He told his story of what happened theprevious Saturday night and asked if the young lady was home. The old womanspoke, “You picked her up outside Graceland Cemetery didn’t you? She wasdressed in white and it was raining. Am I correct in my assumptions, sir?” He nodded yes and felt every hair on his body stand on end as she continued. “That was my daughter. She died 20 years ago in a car accident on prom night. She’s buried at Graceland Cemetery. On nights when it rains she gets lonely for her family and comes out hoping someone will see her and pick her up. Thank you for bringing her home.”
He told himself he had must have had the wrong address or that old woman was just plain crazy. Still, on nights when it rains he thinks about driving out to Graceland Cemetery to look for the young woman in white. Then his better judgment prevails and he pulls the shades down, locks the door and tells himself over and over again it never happened. It never happened. The next time it rains, perhaps you should drive out there alone and see for yourself.
Kids in every town are convinced that there is at least one house that is haunted. This area is full of them; from the ghost of a murdered man who walks the empty halls of Albany’s historic Cherry Hill mansion to the ghost of Legs Diamond who frequents a certain restaurant in West Sand Lake. Even the Old Dublin Inn on Route 9 in Halfmoon has a friendly ghost creaking around upstairs while patrons drink Guinness and sing Irish tunes down at the bar.
My favorite ghostly haunting doesn’t involve a house or restaurant, but a Catholic church in our area. One winter night, a homeless man took refuge from the cold by sleeping in the back pew of the church. At midnight an elderly priest appeared on the altar and shouted out, “Is anyone here?” The homeless man didn’t answer for fear of getting in trouble. The next night he slept in the church again, and again, precisely at midnight, the same priest appeared and shouted, “Is anyone here?”
The next day the homeless man saw a younger parish priest shoveling snow from the sidewalk and confessed where he had been sleeping the past two nights and asked who the older priest was, since he had never seen him around the church before. The young priest seemed puzzled because he was the only one assigned to that church. That night he joined the homeless man in the back pew and sure enough at midnight, the older priest appeared out of thin air on the altar. “Is anyone here?” The younger priestanswered, “Yes, we are here.” With that, the older priest conducted the entire mass in Latin and when he was finished with his final “amen,” he vanished.
Later that nightthe younger priest went through the church records and found a photo of the older priest. This was his parish 100 years ago, but he was long dead. Every night his spirit returned to celebrate mass, but only if there was someone to hear it.
Then there’s my story.
In December of 1995, I dropped by my father’s house in Troy to pick up my then one-year-old daughter. My dad was kind enough to watch her, saving us the worry and cost of daycare. It was like any other day; I asked how she ate and slept and then went out the door, telling my father I would see him at Mass a few days later on Christmas Eve. As things turned out I did see him at church that day, but it was his funeral. A heart attack in his sleep a few hours after choir practice took him from us without warning. The death of a parent is such a hard thing, especially when you don’t see it coming. Even though we were on great terms, there are so many things I would have liked to have said to him before he was gone.
A week or so after the funeral, as things slowly returned to normal, I was haunted by this wish to see him just one more time. That night when I slept, something happened. An educated person would tell you it was just a dream, but I know what a dream feels like and this was different. Someone came to me in my bedroom and told me to follow them. In a moment I was in another place and my father was sitting alone in a chair. He looked happy and healthy, but clearly he couldn’t see me. The person who brought me there said, “You wanted to see him one last time. Go ahead. You can touch him.” With that I gently stroked the top of his head as a rush of emotion raced through my entire body. I had a sense of love and closure. It lasted for only a moment and then I was sitting up in my bed.
To this day I tell myself it was a dream, but there’s a part of me that knows different. Something happened that night that I can’t explain. Hollywood portrays ghosts as sinister beings that rattle chains and chase people from their homes. If in fact they do exist, I’d like to think they are nice spirits here with a purpose – maybe to catch a ride home on arainy night, perhaps to celebrate a mass one last time and maybe, just maybe, togive a young man reassurance that his father is okay and in a much better place.
As you pick apples and watch the leaves change, I wish you a happy autumn. I hope the ghosts of your past are friendly ones who watch in delight as you fall in love, raise your children and make the mistakes that all of us mere mortals do.
And maybe on your worst days, when you are alone with your troubles, that sudden brush of air isn’t really the wind, but a friendly spirit stopping by to tell you—“You can’t see me, but I’m here with you always, watching and holding your hand and you’re going to be just fine.”
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writer at the Troy Record. He can be reached at email@example.com