WICKER PARK — Though Halloween comes just once each year, for workers at a Division Street diner, ghostly spirits are part of the everyday routine.
Delivery driver Sam Anderson said he once saw "a shadow of a person with a tall black hat," similar to the kind worn by Orthodox Jewish men, and has never been back to the bowels of Delish Diner, a former funeral home at 2018 W. Division St. in Wicker Park.
Anderson and other workers refuse to go to the basement to turn off the marquee sign at the end of the night, Delish Diner's owner Felipe Caro said during a tour of the building Wednesday.
"The girls, they don't want to turn off the marquee," resident DJ Darrick Alexander said of the diner's waitresses, before adding that he too, avoids going into the basement.
Only the brick walls, tin ceiling, stained-glass windows and original floors remain from the Hartman-Miller funeral home, which operated from 1922 to 1957**, but the past lingers in the century-old three-story building.
One of the first things Caro did after renting the building in 2009 was pour concrete over a small patch of dirt in the basement.
"I wondered why it was a nice rectangular shape like a casket, but I was not sure what the deal with that was," Caro said of the now-covered dirt floor, which also has a drain next to it that he believes was used to "drain blood."
But Jewish people keep their blood during burial, as tradition does not permit blood draining and embalming, so the source of the drain will never be known. Nor does Caro know why there was a cremation furnace in the back of the building's first floor before he removed it.
The area is now a women's bathroom, and customers have told Caro they "feel like someone is watching them" when they use the bathroom.
Two summers ago, in the basement where Caro keeps his office, he was playing a song he wrote using computer software when his acoustic guitar, propped against a wall, strummed on its own, he said.
That same evening, Caro said he watched paper towels and other supplies fly across the room. A few weeks before that, he said he witnessed a broom move by itself.
"It's freaky. I never believed in this s--- or ghosts or anything until I worked here," said Caro, who grew up in the neighborhood and also owns Picante Taqueria adjacent to Delish Diner.
Caro learned that the building was a former funeral home when his landlord died and Caro was invited to tour the vacant storefront, which had been home to a long-shuttered TV repair shop.
Caro was initially unsure of what kind of restaurant to open in the storefront, but a Star of David embedded in stained glass served as the inspiration for the Jewish-style diner, which he opened on June 13, 2011.
During the opening week, several employees saw glassware move by itself, Caro said, while a coffee machine began pouring hot water on a waiter's hand even though no one was operating the hot-water lever.
Last year, Caro was about to tell a line cook to cancel an order when he watched a plate flip out of a dish rack by itself and narrowly miss hitting the cook's head, he said.
Seymour Mandel, a 78-year-old man whose family ran the Gratch-Mandel Funeral Home at 2235 W. Division St., just two blocks west of the Hartman-Miller home, said both Jewish funeral homes were absorbed by larger corporations in the 1950s.
"There was a very vibrant Jewish community around Division Street" in the first part of the last century, and both funeral homes were "very busy," said Mandel, of Northbrook.
Late Wednesday, as diners watched horror movies, Alexander, who goes by the name DJ Pacman, was manning the booth at the diner.
In July, Alexander and another DJ had their own brush with ghosts while they were building a custom DJ booth, he said.
Alexander said two drink glasses "were not near the edge" of the booth before they both fell at the same time, shattering on the ground.
In addition to the shattered glasses, in the last few months Alexander said he's heard "sounds like chairs scraping" or "moving across the floor."
** According to the City of Chicago's Historic Preservation Department, the building at 2018 W. Division St. was built in 1906 as a common store-and-flat building. Based on a 1914 Sanborn map, a sheet metal factory was located there. In 1922 a chapel was added at the rear of the building and historians believe this is when the building began to be used as a funeral home.