Worse ways to spend eternity

When I was looking at microfilm in the Boston Public Library, I noticed a man off to my right, standing and waiting for something, possibly my viewing station. I wasn’t looking directly at him, but I had a fair impression of him: a bony, tallish, scowling fellow in a dark polo shirt and khakis, like a middle school teacher from a white-flight academy. Eventually, I looked up at him to see if there was something he wanted from me, at which point he turned out not to exist. Where I had seen this man, I saw instead the arm of a lamp and the edge of another computer screen, crossing each other like bars.

That, I thought, was a pretty remarkable optical illusion, like the time in a college seminar when I thought somebody else’s butt was an oscillating stand fan.* Once I had noticed it, I couldn’t make myself see the man again, so I put it out of mind and went on. I didn’t think of it again until later, when I joked about my bad eyesight to my mother. She grew briefly quiet, and said: I think you might have seen a ghost.

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library; location of the spooking up (crop of photo by Brian Johnson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Boston Public Library is certainly the sort of beautiful, storied building that you would suppose had a ghost or two to its name, but this does not seem to be strictly true. The old Kirstein Business Branch building was said to be haunted by the ghost of the donor, Louis Kirstein, because he never liked the final design of the branch that he funded. But that branch has been folded into the current library building, and since it is largely the same magnificent old building that Kirstein would have known, it is hard to imagine that he would still be displeased. Besides, Kirstein looked nothing like the man that I saw, and even if he had, I doubt that a dignified community leader who died in 1942 would opt for casual wear developed in the early ‘80s.

I do not believe in ghosts, but then, every day I am forced to see things that I do not believe in. Ghosts are quite the easiest to deal with. For all I know, the gentleman passed away in a chair waiting his turn for a microfilm screener. What can we do, except to be courteous?


*To be honest, this was more along the lines of a hallucination. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep that term.