Drinking with Ghosts
 Alibi V.24 No.44 • Oct 29-Nov 4, 2015 

Feature

Drinking with Ghosts

Memory and history in the paranormal spaces of Albuquerque

My favorite bar is haunted. Or so I’ve been told. The ramshackle log cabin that houses the Albuquerque Press Club certainly looks the part, with its dusty, shadowed corners, creaking floorboards and wandering corridors. And there’s a century’s worth of history that must be lodged deep in its bones somehow. But if a spectral presence roams this peculiar old manse, I’ve never seen it, despite many nights where I’ve sat with a beer in hand, waiting for a manifestation.

Are all cities as peculiarly haunted as Albuquerque? It seems like phantasms crowd into every city block here, especially near Downtown. There’s a dimly seen little boy that wanders backstage at the KiMo Theatre, next door to where I work—the staff supposedly leave him donuts and toys to placate his restlessness. The High Noon Restaurant & Saloon in Old Town is beset by a woman in white who drifts through the dining area, alarming the guests. Strange lights float up and down a hill at the east end of Menaul, a child-hungry woman wanders every acequia in the city and when I first started at the Alibi, the cleaning lady’s daughter made sure to tell me about all the spirits she’s seen in our building, after hours, when the lights are low and only the hum of the vacuum cleaner fills the air.

Are all cities as peculiarly haunted as Albuquerque?

We are infested.

But the ghost I spend the most time thinking about is the one at the Club, whom the bartenders call “Mrs. M.” The book Adobe Angels: The Ghosts of Albuquerque by Antonio Garcez, runs down the story of phenomena that staff over the years have apparently witnessed. Mrs. M is said to manifest as a dark-cloaked female figure standing at the bar, simply staring. Or she invisibly clacks her high heeled shoes across the wooden floor on lonely nights. Sometimes she plinks out a few notes on the out-of-tune piano in the main room when nobody else is near. An old cat who once prowled the property was known to stop and stare into space, his back arching at an unseen presence. The bartenders would leave a shot of gin on the bar before closing and the next morning the glass would be empty.

But Adobe Angels was written 20-some years ago and the bartenders who reported these phenomena moved on long ago. As far as I know, no one has left a shot of gin out for Mrs. M. in ages. But I think about her when the house is quiet and especially when I’m in the old front room before the lava rock fireplace. I wonder if she’s lingering unseen nearby and if she feels a spectral content from the crackling pinewood fire. I wonder if there are secrets here she is waiting for us to discover.

Back at the bar itself, I ask the current manager, Maynard Cowan, if he’s ever seen anything.

“No, not seen,” he says with a nervous laugh. “But I’ve definitely felt a presence. Upstairs, by the boardroom, like something brushing by me. Definitely a female presence.”

I’ve asked these questions before. Sometimes people answer that they once heard strange foosteps as they went downstairs to the lower office. Sometimes they say that they’ve been there for years and never seen or heard anything. Sometimes they say they don’t believe in ghosts and sometimes they tell me they worry about seeing Mrs. M, especially when they are alone.

There’s a picture of Mrs. M. by the stairwell, hanging among other photos that depict the house as it stood in the early 20th century, alone on a windswept sandhill above the dirt track of Railroad Avenue, which later became Central. She stands outside the home, a tall brunette woman in a dark cloak, a stern look on her pale face, already looking like a ghost even during her life.

Her real name was Clifford Myrick Hall McCallum—Clifford because her father wanted a boy, Hall and McCallum from two failed marriages. According to Mary Lou Heaphy, her daughter who wrote a memoir about her in A Cliffie Experience, Clifford was a nurse who came from Lousiana in 1916 as the caretaker for several tuberculosis patients back when doctors believed, or hoped, that the dry New Mexico air could cure that particular plague. According to Heaphy, she fell in love with the house the first time she saw it. Later, when her suitor, pharmacist A.B. Hall, asked her to marry him, she said yes, but only if he bought her the “house on the hill.” He did just that, and they moved in as a married couple in 1920.

By all accounts their life together was rich, loving and turbulent. She used the house’s extensive porch as lay-in quarters for TB patients from the nearby pueblos, invited artists and writers to stay in the extra rooms, hosted Will Rogers and the Mayo brothers (founders of the famous clinic) and filled every nook and cranny with art from across the globe, but especially from the Native tribes of the Southwest. During prohibition, she and her husband distilled bathtub gin and brewed bootleg beer—though her daughter claimed she always preferred bourbon.

But her husband’s heart wandered and they soon divorced, although Heaphy wrote that the love between them remained strong. She remained in the house, remarried, divorced again. More artists came, Albuquerque’s legendary Mayor Tingley became Clifford’s confidant, journalist Carl Taylor became her lover, World War II raged half a world away, and the land around her home was converted into a city park. Through it all, she stayed in the house, her true love, until 1960, when her health had declined to the point that she was no longer able to keep the old place up. When she finally left, she had lived there for 40 years, far longer than any other resident, past or future. She died of cancer at the age of 87 and was buried in Fairview Memorial Park.

She is gone, but the house remains. Its present owners, the Albuquerque Press Club, purchased it in 1965 and have been there ever since, doing their best to maintain and preserve this unique part of Albuquerque history. Most articles written about the house focus on its designer and first owner, Charles Whittlesey, the architect who built the Alvarado Hotel, El Tovar by the Grand Canyon and numerous other projects. But to me, the house will always be Mrs. M’s.

I don’t know if ghosts are real. In some ways, I don’t really care if they are or not. But history is important to me, and part of why I choose to have a drink at the Press Club is because of the strange old building and the ghost that is said to haunt it. Perhaps that is all a ghost story really is: another way to remember those who were here before us.

With that in mind, I order another beer, add on a glass of bourbon—not gin—and drink a toast to Mrs. M.