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Spirit away

(Originally published on Oct. 29, 1993) The women are perfectly frank about the ghosts in their downtown antiques shop - although they've never actually seen one.

They do see odd patches of light and dark. They sense hardship and tiredness in the 100-year-old clothes. And they find comfort in their surroundings.

"Some things in here have spirits attached to them," said one woman, furtively polishing the tarnished past from a rhinestone necklace. "They've been shared and loved, and have spirits that carry on with them."

She glanced up from her task, seemingly bemused that anyone would presume otherwise.

"The spirits remain so that nobody ever is forgotten," she said, "so that we all have a little piece of each other. It isn't crazy to believe in spirits."

"They're here to greet us every day," said the other woman, surveying the unseen in the Victorian-era jumble.

Believe it or not, such tales of ghosts and hauntings are rife in Northern California.

Among them is the story that overnight guests at a Coloma inn, the site of tragic death, hear inexplicable footsteps and clanking chains. And diners at a Placerville cafe feel Sarah's "hands" on their shoulders; supposedly she likes to comfort sad people.

Then there's the Victorian house in Sacramento, the residence of a young couple during the late 1800s. The wife died a year after they moved in - but she's still seen there occasionally.

"Spirits are just people without bodies," said Robyn Street.

"Very often, the spirits won't know they're dead and will float along with their objects. Antiques sites can be ghost warehouses. There are ghosts anywhere there's been death."

Street is in the ghost business. People pay her hundreds of dollars to rid their houses of things that go bump in the night. They even hire her to shop for objects with spirits attached. They want to "buy" a ghost.

"At an antiques store," she said, "you pick them. At a graveyard, they pick you."

Robyn Street is more elfin than Elvira. She's a cushy, sweet-faced woman of 42, the mother of two girls, who tends to speak in funereal tones and wear decorative pants outfits.

She was raised in a fundamentalist church in Los Angeles, got a master's degree in psychology from Pepperdine University and once read tarot cards for a living. After settling in Sacramento 13 years ago, she began hanging out in ghost-inhabited houses here.

Sacramento was the hub of an Indian medicine wheel and considered powerful, sacred grounds, she said. Metaphysical people believe the city sits on a strong electromagnetic field, and it is that electricity that attracts the ghosts, who will glom onto any kind of energy.

Street makes her living these days with psychic consulting, card readings, teaching metaphysics and a matchmaking service. Then there's the business with ghosts.

She leafed through some photos the other day, pointing out inexplicable blurs of light and white dots. They indicate energy, she said, which means there's more to the pictures than meets the eye.Then she extracted a large black-and-white photograph taken at a house in Folsom. A dark mass resembling a bearded man's face was in front of a bed.

The house was built a few years ago over Maidu Indian grinding rocks. The current residents rather liked their ghost and hired Street to tell them about him.

"Roger was the name I heard," she said. "It's not like I "hear' someone. I get an impression. It's like the image flashes me a picture. I sensed that he was about 5-foot-11 with dark hair. I saw facial hair, a mustache. I get detail. I don't know where it comes from."

Roger worked in a mine in the mid-1800s.

"He lived a matter-of-fact, mundane life. Not romantic, just a life," Street said. "He is still around because he suffered an emotional loss and had assigned himself to his own hell. He's a very gentle ghost."

It's rare for anyone to see a full-figured ghost. Whiffs of white smoke or merely an inexplicable headache or sudden chest pressure are more common.

"There are a lot of little clues like that," Street said. "It's almost as if you walk into the same space as a spirit and pick up what's going on with it.

"If spirits have unfinished business, they hang around. If they're finished, they go on. It could be that they have something to say, some revenge or punishment to act out. Parents may stay because they're concerned about their kids," she said, and then chuckled. "Some spirits don't know they're dead. They're bumping around and don't know what's going on. When they get the news, it's as if they say, "Well, I'll be going now.' "

Sometimes spirits will stay around for a while and then disappear. Some remain forever. Most are pleasant. But some, as at the Elk Grove house that Street was once called to, are troublesome and scary.

The woman who owned the house had complained of "presences" watching her. Each time she opened a closet, she sensed that things were tumbling out. She heard strange raps, taps and bumpings. She saw the bedspread being plucked.

Street did a banishment - words, prayers and meditations - and a blessing, which usually works. But the problems continued. So Street recommended to the woman that she move away, since she apparently is the agent, the "lightning rod," attracting unpleasantness to that house. Some people are just that way. So are some houses. The last Street heard, though, the woman was still there and having problems with the cranky spirits.

"There are outside spiritual influences, but we create our own demons," said Street, shrugging. "By our own making of choices and our own fears, we create our own evil."

An obvious public place to look for ghosts is the rich repository of a graveyard. Sacramento's Old City Cemetery dates to 1849, and is the resting place of many of our pioneers. But are there ghosts?

John Bettencourt is a cemetery archivist. He's been coming to the City Cemetery for years, first to visit his ancestors, then as a member of the cemetery committee. He's studied the voluminous Record of Death and Interment, the deed books, the plot maps, and he's walked the grounds. He tells endless stories about the residents.

"This cemetery is full of tragedies," he said.

But is it full of ghosts?

Bettencourt grinned. "I've been here at all hours of the evening, and I'm here during the day, and I'm sorry to say that I've not seen any. Most of our people are content where they are. Or maybe I just don't have a feel for it."

Then he remembered something. There was a story told in the 1930s about the ghost of a young girl seen flowing through the graveyard. Turns out, however, that she was a neighborhood child, sleepwalking.Robyn Street walked through the Old City Cemetery the other day, on a wonderfully gray and dreary day that was perfect for ghosts. She stopped at the Van Hagan plot, one of the oldest in the cemetery. Of the four children there, none lived to age 3. They were buried beneath the epitaph, "Weep not for us, parents dear. We are not dead but sleeping here."

Street wrapped her arms around herself. "Logically," she said, "these children are too young for what I'm seeing, which is 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds. One boy and two girls. Ghosts go from one place to another. They could be from somewhere else. They wander."

And then she wandered, among the 100-year-old tombstones, judiciously stepping around aged graves, although she said the dead don't mind if you walk across them.

There was a modest stone with a sweet epitaph: "My darling Nettie, how I miss you. No one knows but my sad heart." Street smiled, as if to say that Nettie is doing fine these days. She stopped at another grave. "Julia's still here," she said. Julia E. Williams died of pneumonia in 1884. She was 27 years old.

Street strolled among gardened plots, planted and cared for by modern-day citizens.

"A cemetery is no different than walking down a street of alive people," Street said. "Some are going to be a lot more interesting than others. This section is particularly peaceful," she said of a particular cluster of graves. "If they're here, they're just looking on."

She saw no ghosts that day. But then, she never has.

"I feel them, but I never see them. I see radiating waves of energy, like you'd see coming off hot asphalt. I've seen fog floating in a number of places, but I've never seen anything in three dimensions. I get evidence on film, but that just hints at what is on the other side," she said.

"In all the times I've been to haunted houses, I've only seen objects move three different times. I've had experiences where I feel a ghost move in around me, like a person walking into a room and then walking out. I've smelled things and heard things and gotten impressions of spirits, but that's all."

The other day at a local antiques store, Robyn Street stood with a silver 1920s party shoe in her hand. She was giggling.

"There's a blonde who wore this, who was racy and promiscuous, by anyone's standards," she said. "She had a compassionate side, but she had a strong interest in men. She was sassy."

Street replaced the shoe. "It's funny how things grab your attention."

She took a gold Elgin pocket watch from a velvet case and turned it over in her hand. After a minute she said, "I see an old black man holding it. He's real wiry, about 5-foot-10. He died of some kind of wasting disease in the chest."

A dowdy brown Victorian-era dress belonged to a woman of strong political and religious conviction who had four children. One was a minister, which made mama proud. A handmade lace tablecloth belonged to another woman who wanted a large family but suffered numerous miscarriages. One child died quite young.

The stories always seem so sad.

"I never know if it's sadness or the closing that comes at the end of life," she said.

Robyn Street goes through life seeing things the rest of us only dream of. She says it's like being in an electronics store with hundreds of television sets flashing images.

"It used to be distracting, but now I just turn down the volume."