Things That Go Bump
The Grimes Ghost Project
"I believe in ghosts," David Grimes tells me with a devious smile, knowing full well that saying something to that effect nowadays can get a person in a lot of trouble. We are standing in the entrance hallway of his photography studio, a two-story brick and stone complex on the corner of Fifth & Neches. It is just past four on the first and only unlucky Friday of the year, and the city has already begun to swell with traffic. Sixth Street lies a block to our north and bustles with premature life -- troops of beer trucks line opposite lanes, emergency lights flash in hypnotic patterns, musicians carry amplifiers, instruments, and equipment into their nightly gigs. "There's a club right next door, and they blast their music until about two, so you probably won't get much sleep tonight," Grimes says, flashing me with that same mischievous smile. "Unless, of course, something else keeps you awake."
I follow him down a narrow hallway to the heart of the studio, observing the striking interior decor, a mix of contemporary and antique -- casually elegant furniture, beautiful lighting, and, of course, visually striking photographs. Grimes, who has resided in Austin with his wife Liz since 1990, works as a commercial photographer, his specialties being food, landscapes, and celebrity portraits. At 39, age has graced him with a kiss -- soft brown hair, intense eyes, a statuesque face -- Grimes is the spitting image of actor Kenneth Branagh. He has three children and the eldest, Ian, who is six, tags along behind us, occasionally dashing up to grab his father's hand, glancing back at me under a mess of feathered blond hair.
"You're gonna spend the night here?" he asks.
"You gonna see any ghosts?"
I don't know.
Grimes leads me into the kitchen and pulls out a beer glass, cut almost perfectly in half, smooth on the broken edges. He lays each piece side by side on the marble counter top, like a dissection project.
"The cutting of this glass is one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen," he says. "I took this out of the cabinet, not the dishwasher, but the cabinet, filled it about halfway with water and set it on the corner of the counter, right about here."
He taps part of the counter top with his hand.
"Phone rings, I pick it up and am talking to a client, just looking around at nothing in particular and finally look at the glass. I'm staring at it, and suddenly the thing just splits in half, perfectly, without shattering -- just like the way it is now. I almost dropped the phone."
Strange, dare say paranormal, events are commonplace in this studio, according to Grimes: a remote control car running at high speed around the floor with no one controlling it, the specter Grimes sometimes sees while working late at night, a silhouette of an old woman standing in a doorway. The photography studio is not the sole target of this "paranormal" activity. On the second floor, the employees of Cleo's hair salon have seen their share of oddities. Amanda Musgrove, the facialist at the salon, has watched closed doors open on their own. One hair stylist even claims, after falling down the narrow wooden staircase leading to the second floor, that she was pushed, by some unseen spirit or force. These sorts of things have happened with a disturbing consistency for the last six years, dating all the way back to the renovation, according to the tenants.
"You probably won't see anything right off the bat," Grimes tells me as we walk out of the kitchen and down the entrance hallway. "Things will happen when you least expect it."
He shrugs and smiles and hands me two keys, along with the alarm code, and we walk outside onto the street. I have agreed to come back later after gathering some provisions.
"You'll be back by, when -- seven? We should be gone by then." He stops, thinking. "Did I mention you're the first person to ever spend the night here?" I shake my head as Grimes exposes that devious smile again.
Fifth & Neches is on the national register of historical sites -- Grimes never got a plaque in order to avoid the city's red tape -- and there is a long, rich history associated with the building, dating all the way back to when Austin was no more than a blip on the map of the Western frontier.
Interestingly enough, finding an accurate history of the past owners of the building proved to be quite difficult -- there are no written records about it at the Austin History Center and little usable information in the city directories. The information that Grimes shares is what he discovered on his own shortly after buying the building.
In 1870, an Italian man named Michael Paggi came to town, bringing with him two ice machines from Europe. He made a small fortune and built a house just south of the city, along the Colorado River, better known as Paggi House, a restaurant tucked behind a Taco Cabana on the corner of Riverside & Lamar. Those facts are easily documented.
Paggi was an entrepreneur, and as his fortune grew, so did his interests. In 1874 he built a blacksmith shop on the corner of Fifth & Neches where he repaired and built carriages and then expanded his business into the building that currently houses Aaron's Rock & Roll on Sixth Street. There he showcased his work through large glass storefront windows for all of Austin to see.
When Grimes renovated the building, he found various artifacts dating back to Paggi's ownership -- old blacksmith tools, hammers, discarded and twisted pieces of metal, and even a receipt for the repair of a particular carriage, totaling to an exorbitant one dollar and 50 cents. Some things are visible, even today. On the second floor of the studio, in the hair salon, there is still writing on the walls. A bit of ancient graffiti, faintly scrawled across a beam and part of the rock structure, bearing the name Joe Powell, a man whom one of Paggi's daughters intended to wed, a man who liked to write his name on things. Interestingly, the two were never married.
According to Grimes, in 1911, the building was bought by an African-American man named Rhambo, who converted the building into a black funeral parlor, the only black funeral parlor in the area. For a lucrative business to be owned and run by a black man in Austin during the turn of the century was a paradoxical event in and of itself; 100 years ago, this part of the country was not very accepting of crossing the racial divide. Even more surprising was Mr. Rhambo's celebrity status around the city; he always wore white suits and rode in a white carriage pulled by white horses and was well-known, liked, and accepted in many upper-class city circles. Sadly, his notoriety soon caught up with him. One night, Rhambo was called out to Round Rock, supposedly to pick up a body. He was subsequently lynched. Word had gotten around town that he was an "uppity nigger." After the murder, the building's ownership changed hands countless times until Grimes set up his business in 1993.
"When I bought the place it was in shambles," he says," And we completely remodeled it. Gutted it, tore the inside out from wall to wall."
Late one summer night, Grimes was showing off the wall-less space to a friend. They were trudging around inside when a flashlight beam from a police officer washed over them. The cop had asked them what they were doing, and Grimes explained he owned the property. "So I invite the guy inside, and he kind of laughs at me and shakes his head and tells me, "Hell no, I'm not setting foot in that place.' When I ask why not, he's quiet for a second and then says, "It's haunted,' and just sort of strolls off without ever giving me an explanation."
But as Grimes spent more and more time in the newly finished studio, the hauntings became more and more frequent. So frequent that he and his wife decided to invest in a psychic to search for that explanation. She had walked into the studio, according to Grimes, and immediately became entranced.
"A black man is laughing here," the psychic told them. "He is laughing because he never thought he'd be his own client."
In San Francisco, around 1987, Grimes had his first encounter with the paranormal, an experience which he said, "opened my eyes." He was working as an assistant to a photographer and living in the back room of a studio.
"It was a pretty good deal," Grimes says, "When we finished at the end of the day, this guy let me use his studio to take pictures and work on my own portfolio."
One weekend, while the photographer was out on a business trip, Grimes had built a set for a picture of old doctor's tools -- stethoscopes, turn-of-the-century syringes, and five glass ampules, purchased from an antique store, still filled with chemical remedies from nearly a century before. Around two in the morning, he went to get a drink from the kitchen and was startled by that distinct sound of breaking glass. Grimes rushed back to the set to find one of the glass ampules in pieces on the floor, puzzling, because it was impossible; the ampules were arranged in the middle of the set and were secured in test tube holders.
"I tried to figure out how it broke, but there was just no possible way," he says. "So I leaned down to clean the glass up and it felt like I had just run into a brick wall. My eyes rolled back into my head -- everything went black."
Grimes remembers waking up on the floor, groggy and sick. He crawled out of the room and dialed 911, explained his situation in garbled sentences and passed out again. He awoke to a violent banging on the front door, somehow managed to open it, and found three men standing in front of him, side by side, dressed in silver poison control suits, complete with gas masks.
"I remember the breathing," Grimes says with a smile, "like astronauts. They yanked me out of the studio and got me into an ambulance."
After an hour of various tests at the hospital, he was released, still jittery and drugged. The clean-up by poison control had been a success, and Grimes had been lucky -- the solution inside the ampule was a mutated form of Phenobarbitone, a barbiturate used at the turn of the century to help epileptics control their seizures. The drug was so powerful that doctors told Grimes he was lucky to be alive.
So he returned to the photography studio, hoping to sleep off what was left of the wild night. He locked the doors and turned on the motion sensors, confining himself alone in his room for the rest of the night. Just as Grimes was losing himself in sleep, he was startled by yet another sound -- rubber soles squeaking against a cement floor.
"They walked right by the door to my room," Grimes says. "I figured, "Shit, I didn't set the motion sensors correctly, left a door unlocked, and now someone's robbing the place!' Perfect addition to a perfect night. So I just sat there listening to the footsteps as they passed, listening as they walked into the room beside mine. It was silent for a moment, and then I heard the door to the room slam so hard it shook the walls."
Then the footsteps were gone. Grimes sat on his bed for a few minutes, shoring up his composure to go and check things out. When he opened his door, he heard the most eerie noise of the night -- the high-pitched whine of the motion sensor being set off.
At that point, Grimes was awake for the sunrise. The photographer/landlord found him hours later, wide-eyed and exhausted, spinning off yarns of drugs and spacemen and invisible footsteps. The photographer just laughed hysterically.
"He told me his mother's spirit was still with him, that she hangs around the photography studio," Grimes says. "She was deathly afraid of doctors, so the broken ampule was a bit of sabotage, I suppose. He never told me about her [before that night] because he never thought I would believe him. Before that night, I probably wouldn't have. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if people don't believe in some of the things I've seen, but that's the main part of it. The possibility of belief is what makes these things so real."
The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" is blaring over the stereo system when I arrive at the studios just after 7:30pm, and the sun's muddled, final orange halo dissolves outside in the night sky. The place is dark and I immediately turn on every light I can find, flushing out any unwanted spirits, demons, and monsters with a sharp burst of halogen. For now, the studios are silent and lonely, though a certain creepy feeling fills the air. I wander around, peeking into corners and closets, admiring shelved novelty items and the artwork and photographs on the walls. I especially like the papier-mché Dia de los Muertos skeletons that Grimes' assistant has collected from Mexico -- a real cozy addition to the place.
I set up camp at a desk and check the inventory in my backpack: a camera, a roll of film, a pen and yellow legal pad, some reading material, half a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and a couple CDs. Not exactly Ghostbusters, but it should get me through the night.
Things start to happen quickly -- the sound of shuffling feet from the closed and locked Cleo's upstairs draws my attention. The sound stops abruptly, just as I'm on my way to check things out. The noises start up again maybe five minutes later, and I can feel nervousness creeping up my spine -- a hair-tingling, frightful sensation.
"Stay calm, just relax," I tell myself. "There are no ghosts; it's just your imagination. Doors don't open and close on their own -- they sing. Listen, Jim Morrison's trying to set the night on fire."
Something falls in the entrance hallway with a metallic snap and crash. I dash toward the sound, heart throbbing in my chest, blood roaring in my ears. A bag full of golf clubs has somehow tipped out of a corner and dumped itself onto the floor. As I pick it up, I weigh my options -- screw the story, run out of this place screaming, and find a bar where I can lay low, or tough it out, be a man, and just keep telling myself, "There's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such thing as --"
Another crash and I'm frantic now, running from room to room. I hear voices, growing louder and then all hell breaks loose as Grimes' three children dash past me, followed closely by David, his wife Liz, and two of their friends. Grimes sees the look in my eyes and stifles a laugh. Again, I weigh my options.
After an hour of drinking beer and cajoling, the adults vacate with their kids, leaving me alone again. Night falls on the city, and Sixth Street comes alive. The constant wail of sirens, smashing of beer bottles, and gut-thumping beats from clubs surround me as I sit in near-darkness, waiting for something to happen. Just after 1am, I hear a high-pitched scream from outside and am tempted to investigate. "Probably just another sorority girl who had one too many Jell-O shots, tripping over a curb or puking on her shoes," I tell myself. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. Disappointed, I fall asleep around three in the morning, praying for a real ghost story, with some payoff at the end.
Eight hours later I awake, groggy and a little disoriented. I had made it through the night without incident. No nooses, no knives, no blood and guts. Nothing to classically illustrate the first overnight guest's stay in this intriguing setting. While gathering up what's left of my supplies, I become suspicious and a little antsy, foreseeing a possible lull before the storm. They would wait till I was almost out the door, those monsters, one step away from sunlight and freedom before a gnarled, clawed hand would come out of nowhere and grab me by the throat, pulling me back inside. The door would slam and any poor soul left on the street would hear a muffled scream, followed only by dead silence. As I drive away from the studios, turning onto a dormant Sixth Street, I wonder why I am not satisfied, why all of my hopes and questions had not been fulfilled or answered.
Perhaps I didn't have enough belief, in myself or the surroundings. Perhaps I had fed off of stories and myths of the past, expecting too much to see things that weren't really there. Ghost stories have been repeated throughout history, becoming one with our lore and culture. Our belief in them serves as a solution to the unanswerable questions in life. Sometimes we believe just to help ourselves survive and to hold onto the things we perceive as lost.
Maybe there really is a parallel universe, and our eyes just haven't been opened as David Grimes' were. Maybe we are just seeing half of the world, the living part of the world, the part we want to see. Then again, life may be as we know, gray and gritty and real with few secrets and even fewer unanswerable questions.
Secretly we all want to believe, need to believe, because it is too terrifying to think that in the end everything just stops --
Eli Kooris is a 17-year-old senior at Westlake High. He has been writing and interning at the Chronicle for over a year. This is his first full feature.