when I climb the stairs to the attic above the administration building at Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex. A central spot there, the admin building, it is the place where all sick immigrants checked in a hundred years ago, and is also the place where nurses were quartered, upstairs. The air in the attic is dense with the aroma of old wood. There’s rusted machinery here, the workings of the original Otis Elevator shaft, and the note, age-yellowed, was carefully taped there by somebody, once, who believed it was important.
Also, on the floor below the attic, the ruins of wards, right down the way from where the nurses lived. So they could get there right quick if their help was needed.
Is there anything better than a secret note? I don’t think so. I remember long ago I wrote a poem called The Back of a Love Note, now gone with the wind, as is the life of a poet I fancied myself having. I still love secrets, whether they’re the back of a love note or any other kind. Ellis Island has them in spades.
I saw a lot of secrets today, secrets I hadn’t seen before. In the attic, a trick of the light which somehow produces a mysterious green shadow.
A bird’s nest in a light fixture.
Mysteries everywhere. Spirits? Possibly. Somebody told me yesterday on my tour that they smelled chocolate in the empty corridor. Today, when I took around a group of photographers, they were sure they caught the scent of laundry soap in the nurses’ dorm. Olfactory hallucinations.
I am well aware that ghosts may not be real. I know some people don’t believe in them. I believe that ghosts are the thoughts and ideas and emotions and need we bring to certain spaces. When I enter the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Staff house, where doctors lived with their families, my chest seizes up. The presence of the past is that strong. People lived here. Loved here.
One ward with locked rooms for psychiatric patients has graffiti that someone was smart enough to preserve. Men undergoing treatment here scrawled their names by the door frames. Johnies Room.
Secrets of the past. Someone thought it imperative to pencil a crude drawing of the Immigration Station. And to offer his thoughts on the sad way of the world.
Where the nurses lived a rainbow is a constant on an otherwise neutral wall.
Do the nurses speak to us, sending this prismatic message across the decades? Sometimes things just glow here.
A guest came with me into the room that was the equivalent of hospice a century ago, a place for the sickest of the sick, where many died of multiple ailments, tuberculosis and syphilis and heart disease.
She told me that something had popped up on the ghost hunter app on her phone when she entered the ward. Just three words. Simple: We are everywhere. Make of it what you will. Of course, 40 percent of Americans can trace their family lineage through Ellis Island so perhaps it’s not such a stretch that we are everywhere.
If you look closely, you’ll find secrets. We are told to stop then let go. A fairly wise message, applicable every day, I think.
A resident felt it was important to decorate the edge of a shelf in a hidden closet.
A secret bathtub under the eaves.
Even the textures of wall paint, remnants over remnants over the years, offer their own secret story.
Secrets. Mysteries. Sometimes, love.