The Trouble With Harry

COTTON MATHER MIGHT have called Jerry Whebbe down the aisle for a hellfire-and-damnation sermon about fraternizing with the devil's dark legion. Dante might have found some likeness to his own purgatorial rhyme schemes in Whebbe's yarns about apparitions wandering the earth. Stephen King might have cast Whebbe into a lead character's role, haunted by a mischievous shade from the netherworld in search of a strong martini. In any case, Jerry Whebbe's response would be undramatic, not the stuff of witch trials or Romantic literature or Hollywood. Simply put, he's seen a ghost. He has, as they say in such circles, "crossed over" into the ranks of true believers.

"We took to calling our ghost Harry, just for the sake of convenience," remembers Whebbe, who used to run The City Club bar and grill on St. Paul's Robert Street, a block south of the river in the part of town known as the old flats: old, because most of the original brick buildings have long since been scrapped and hauled off, replaced by a vast industrial park; flats, because this is where the spring floods used to jump the riverbanks before high-tech grading and dams cured the annual mudslick. Whebbe's bar sat on the foundation of a plank-and-cinder gas station where, mid-century, so the story goes, the proprietor was plugged by thugs and left on the floorboards to die. Rest in peace Harry did not.

He was first spotted back in the early 1980s, in the wee hours of a normal morning soon after Whebbe set up shop. "We'd open up for business at 6 a.m., up and at it with the sun," he recalls, settling into a narrative that, judging by the tone of his voice, Whebbe has clearly spun before. "So at 5:30 we'd get on a pot of coffee, fire up the grills, and open the joint for the guys from nearby American Hoist. That particular morning, they were all settled in at the counter, the waitress was setting up the money, and I was getting the line in order for cooking. Then, whaddya know, this old man wandered in, dressed in a long storm coat and hat. Middle to late 60s I'd figure, about five-foot-seven, and he asked where the bathroom was. It came to me that the man looked like he was on his way to dying, if he wasn't dead already." Holy smoke. Soon-to-be-dubbed Harry beelined to the john. Ten minutes passed, not a squeak. Fifteen, twenty. "We started joking about it, and I sent my waitress Judy in there to check. No trace. Remember, all other doors were locked up and alarmed. I sent the Hoist guys down the hall to check. No trace. The old geezer just vanished into thin air. So then I started getting suspicions. No flesh-and-blood human I ever knew could evaporate that way, so I guessed that I'd just seen a ghost."

Over the years, Harry's haunts raised enough eyebrows to make him near-legend in the old flats. There was the time he nailed Whebbe's dad in the spine with a coffee urn lid--just hauled off and popped him one from across a six-foot stretch of room. There was the time Harry yanked a row of booze bottles off the speed rail behind the bar and hurled them into a heap of splintered glass. Or the time after last call, when Whebbe's brother was shutting the place down, had locked every door, and caught sight of Harry milling around in the back hall. Two bartenders hollered at him through the dark, "Hey, what's going on there, buddy?" and buddy groused back, "None of your damn business."

In his more congenial moments, says Whebbe's son Joe, Harry worked the room after midnight, mixing it up with customers in his dog-eared bowler, asking where they were off too, wishing them a safe trip home. Sometimes Whebbe and old Harry would lock eyes across the bar, give a nod, a wink, and then in an instant, the resident ghost would slip back into the invisible. There was the time the steel door to the liquor stash started breathing. Whebbe got wind of the freak show and escorted a St. Paul cop, a regular who'd been whooping it up out front, to case the scene. "It scared the bejeezus out of us, but as soon as I inserted the key, that door gasped its last breath and Harry quit his tricks." There was the time a bolted and chained door in the upstairs office nearly flew off its hinges on a windless night. And the last time, before Harry made his exit and the bar and grill was sold off to its current owners, when he appeared in an upstairs window during Mother's Day brunch in 1988, just a pale floating face with sunken eyes behind the streaked pane, maybe, Joe guesses, "trying to scare some more hell out of us, or wanting us to find his killers and avenge his murder."

"Who really knows what Harry wanted?" Whebbe wonders. "Who really knows what was the matter with him?" He's mused over the meaning of Harry's antics often, and come up only with the notion that "like any ghost, maybe he just couldn't get where he was going." Funny thing though, what might have been the matter with Harry is that Harry wasn't matter at all. It gets lonely. Trapped in the ethers, perhaps visible only to the vulnerable, Harry's kindred spirits were far off in other digs. Over in the St. Paul nightclub carved from the sandstone cliffs where gangsters used to hide out, a floozy woman still appears with unnerving regularity, gussied up in roaring '20s gear. Rumor has it she was gunned down beside the speakeasy bar, deep inside the echoing cave where you can still stick your pinkie in the bullet holes the machine gun hail left behind. Like Harry, she's fond of passing time in the can, away from the noisy crowds where ghosts turn into forlorn wallflowers waiting for mortals to ask them to dance.

The City Cafe shut down in 1988, and the owners of the revived Backstreet Grill have never caught a glimpse of Harry. The breathing door's been sealed shut. The bar's been replaced with a dry-walled prep station where unsuspecting waitresses shout back to the grill for hoagies and fries. Robert, the head cook on Sundays, dismisses the shady chronicles with a spatula's wave, figuring Harry as "just some guy with three sheets to the wind who never left the bar," and his biographers as "a bunch of guys who must've been drinking alongside him." It's no wonder, with such cynics around, that Harry's been keeping a low profile lately. But when the wind's right, and the stench of river sludge fills the air, as it did in the days when Harry shuffled his route in the flesh, they--his true believers--say his ghost is still thirsty for company, waiting in the invisible for the right kind of mortals to happen by.

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