Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Ghost of Park Place

When I got a job at Park Place in the 90s doing the front desk on graveyard shift I didn't realize that I would be joining an exclusive club of Downtowner Front Desk alumni whose members occupied my position up to 30 years before I did. Periodically someone would saunter up to the desk with a knowing look and casually let it drop that they, too, did desk clerk duty some number of years ago. They were usually on their way to the bar in the back and not infrequently already not needing to visit another bar. The conversation was polite and pending until sooner or later they came to the real point of the encounter: they asked me if I had seen the ghost.

When the place was built in the early 60s it was called the Downtown Motor Lodge, but we all called it the Blue Dolphin because of the sign out front, and even from the first day there was a ghost who dropped into the Main Lobby around 2 AM. She was said to have been from prior ages when the corner lot site on Park Avenue West was occupied by the home of the Weaver family.

No one knows exactly which Weaver or why but she is always dressed in the voluminous garments reminiscent of 19th Century ladies apparel, and was most often seen in the part of the Hotel that would have been the front porch of the Weaver Residence back in her time.

If it is Helen Weaver, then her disorientation is not difficult to imagine because the world outside of the confines of her time and place is so drastically different now. In the 1880s she was responsible for starting the Public Library and other community institutions that brought refinement, beauty and dignity to this town. How bewildered she must have felt when the Blue Dolphin supplanted the integrity of her realm.

When you take a look at the charming tree-lined hometown appeal of Park Avenue a hundred years ago it is clear that what we see there today is the merest ghost of the personality that is the heritage of our town, and that the real ghost in this scenario is not Mrs. Weaver, but Mansfield itself: lost with no direction, no grounding, no sense of self situated in a dynamic moment of time and place.

Visitors who came to Mansfield between 1890 and 1950 left words behind on post cards and travel reports that still glow today in their appreciation for the loveliness of the streets and neighborhoods. They made picture postcards for people to send home - that people wanted to send home - showing simple views of residential blocks so enchanting that it would be a dream to live there.

So how did we get from that world to this one? Surely that's what Mrs Weaver is wondering too.

I put the question to an old man back in the 70s who had lived through the entire metamorphosis. It was his opinion that the young men who went off to WWII came back from the war with a self-consciousness so poisoned by the horrors they had witnessed that their sense of community was deformed...they were consumed with a desire to get what they could get and obliterate the past. Those young men of the 1950s were in positions of decision by the 1970s when the great demolition was at its height. Facing the economic realignment that our town was struggling through, their vision of what it would take to remain viable in 20th Century American society did not include any consideration of the heart-warming hometown charm that they had grown up with. Old fashioned meant outdated. Historic meant old fashioned.

* * *

I didn't get a good look at her -- it was just a glimpse from the very periphery of vision as I was sitting on a lobby couch watching the television screen -- but I read in an instant by her body language, facial expression and a certain hesitancy and bewilderment that she was lost. I assumed it most likely that she was a hotel guest looking for the ice machine or searching the wrong wing of the building for her room.

Then the phone rang and, stepping behind the desk, I anticipated her coming through the lobby door to ask directions. It was only when the phone distraction passed and she failed to come into the lobby that I engaged my space/time brain to realize that it was a Sunday night of a holiday weekend and there actually were no guests in the hotel.

* * *

So where does she go now? She is displaced once again. And where does Mansfield go now in its search for a sense of identity.