Ghost Signs

They’re called ghost signs.

The hand-lettered relics of a bygone era, when people still hand-painted things, dotting the upper reaches of the old buildings of Manhattan and beyond.

ghost sign

I’ve written about change here before. Every day, a new crane goes up. I’m waking up to the sound of pneumatic drills again. Progress abounds.

Hypothetically speaking, I don’t mind.

Except, well, this corner of Manhattan feels a bit like a construction site on the weekend. Maybe it’s all this talk of hurricanes and heart transplants of late. It’s hard to know what to say next.

I had hoped to tell you of many things—of Edinburgh and waking up in a castle. Of London. Walking down streets once so familiar so timidly at first, getting my bearings. Then, thinking Yes. I lived here once. Thinking, Yes, this still feels like home.

And, then after the latest in a series of befores and afters it hardly seemed to matter. After I got stranded, it seemed so long ago. After there was just a nagging sense of how difficult it would be to reintegrate myself into my life. I had been gone too long. There was the odd sensation of coming back home for the holidays, except not being able to go home. After finally making it back to the house being assaulted by the smell of mildew, burrowing into every surface. The strange exercise of going through so much from my childhood and seeing what was salvageable.

More than I originally thought, in fact.

There was this: a memory from the early fall, from before, of walking the streets of TriBeCa on a tour about these very artifacts. Of seeing people peering out their windows as curious about what was going on just beneath their windows as I was about what going on just beyond them. Wondering then how many lives have been lived in the shadow of these signs, as they slowly fade into oblivion, whispers of what they once were.

As usual, I was inappropriately dressed for the weather. The rain was pouring, my socks so wet they had colored my feet blue. My teeth were chattering, and I was unwilling go inside. I wanted to see more.

Then, this, too: after when I was finally back in New York, I was walking through the streets of Chelsea. Streets so familiar, I hardly needed to look at where I was headed, or to look up at all. Except that, in finally doing so, I spotted a ghost of the Griffon sign, where my grandfather had once been the comptroller.

Some interesting facts: the most vibrant colors—the blues and the purples—are the quickest to fade, but owing to the lead in the paints, they’re absorbed differently. With enough rain, the paler colors stand out against the rain-soaked bricks in sharp relief.

There are conclusions to be made here, I’m sure.


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