Working for 13 years at Memphis bar Earnestine & Hazel's, Karen Brownlee has seen it all—from poltergeist jukeboxes to floating orbs to voices from the walls that know her by name.
Photo via Flickr user Sean Davis.
I've been working at Earnestine & Hazel's for 13 years, yes ma'am. If you ever come in, I'll still be here. I'm like a fixture on the wall here. I started working here at the end of 2001. I love it. I'm originally from Memphis, born and raised.
To be honest with you, when I'm at work, I don't really like talking about this stuff. I just get an eerie feeling because I feel like the spirits might be listening and I feel like I'm disrespecting them or something. It's crazy, I know, but I don't know how to explain it.
The Earnestine & Hazel's building originated in the late 1800s, when it was built as a church. Then it was a pharmacy and sundry store, and then an old jazz café and brothel before it became a bar, so there's a lot of unsettled spirits in here. The brothel was upstairs. Earnestine's husband owned the club, and all of the jazz musicians used to hang out here. Ray Charles used to stay upstairs and do heroin and mess with prostitutes.
Earnestine and Hazel, who were sisters, came here in the mid-1950s, and then Russell George reopened it in St. Patrick's Day, 1993. Hazel died in 1995, but Earnestine, she didn't die until 1998. She and Russell became really good friends. She told him all the stuff about the place, and they used to hang out. But having worked here, we've experienced it. Russell, who was the previous owner, committed suicide upstairs a year ago. He made that place what it is today.
One time, my coworker and I were talking about James Brown on the day that he died. All of the sudden, the jukebox blared on out of nowhere and started playing "I Feel Good."
I never went here except one time before I started working here. Even before I started working here, the place is known for its famous Soul Burgers. I used to sell the burgers to Russell. I worked at a meat market for six years, and he told me that if I ever wanted a job to come by. I had never worked in a bar before—I was freaked out in that big old bar by myself.
Weird stuff happens here all the time, though. I've been here by myself and heard the piano playing upstairs. Sounds like people are wandering around, talking up here. All those rooms from the brothel are still upstairs. Paranormal types are always up here, spending the night. You can't take a picture up here without getting an orb in it. They're everywhere.
I heard through the grapevine—though I'm not sure if it's true—that some of the prostitutes were killed upstairs. I'm pretty sure all the spirits are women. I never really studied any of that stuff, and I never believed in it until I worked here. But there's no doubt in my mind there's something in this building.
I feel like whatever's in here will take care of me because I've been here so long, I respect the place. There was this guy who used to work here for 15 years. He went upstairs one day, and I swear, he came running down through the bar, out the door, all the way home. He will not go upstairs to this day. He saw something in here that scared him to death, man. He couldn't explain what it was.
It's mainly been upstairs that I've dealt with, except downstairs, the jukebox sometimes comes on periodically and plays songs at random—and this happens all the time, you can ask my customers this—we'll be sitting here talking about something and the jukebox will blare on a song pertaining to whatever we're talking about.
It's real weird.
One time, my coworker and I were talking about James Brown on the day that he died. All of the sudden, the jukebox blared on out of nowhere, scared me half to death, and started playing "I Feel Good."
Another time, a paranormal was in here talking about exorcism and stuff with Russell, and all of the sudden the song by the Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil," started playing on its own, I swear. I think the only time I really got scared was when I was standing at the jukebox and it felt like somebody touched me.
Sometimes you can take pictures and you can see faces in the walls. Heck, I've got customers who go upstairs with their little gadgets and stuff. I've been up there when they've had their flashlights on and when I come in, they're saying "Karen's here, Karen's here" and the flashlights start going on and off. That's when I get up and leave, you know.
You can hear—every now and then—voices. You can't really make out what they're saying, but people are talking. Everyone used to think that the cleanup guy we had for years was crazy because he'd say that as soon as he'd walk in certain rooms they'd say "Here he is again." But I definitely believe it after being working here for 13 years. Not a doubt in my mind.
All of the sudden the lights started getting brighter, dimmer, brighter, dimmer, until it was as bright as sunshine in here.
I've also had people making fun of the place. One night—this is a true story—some people were sitting at the bar making fun of ghosts, and talking trash about Earnestine and Hazel. All of the sudden the lights started getting brighter, dimmer, brighter, dimmer, until it was as bright as sunshine in here. They freaked out and left.
I've had all kinds of weird experiences with money, too. One time, we had a money bag go missing—couldn't find it, looked everywhere. Then one Friday, literally five years later, I was shooting pool with one a coworker, and it was dead as heck at the bar. I knocked the cue ball of the table and it rolled underneath a couch. We picked up the couch, and underneath it laid a money bag with cobwebs and stuff all over it. I called Russell and he's like, "I have no idea where that came from." The next Saturday, another coworker was shooting pool. Same thing happened—knocked the cue ball off, and it went under the couch. We picked up the couch up and in the exact same spot was the money bag that had been missing for four or five years.
You might not really want to hear this last story, but it's a true story, and this was when I knew something was in here.
Like I said, I've been working here a long time. In 2007, my 24-year-old son got killed. I was at work and found out that he had gotten shot. To make a long story short, this was how I knew that Earnestine—I think it's Earnestine—was watching out for me. When I came back to work, I was sitting at the end of the bar by myself, and I was crying. I said God, please give me a sign that my kid's alright.
It used to be when I got freaked out in here that I would just start talking to Earnestine. I know that sounds crazy, but sometimes you're in here by yourself, and it can get a little creepy. I said, Earnestine, please give me a sign that my kid's alright. Out of nowhere, this little baby bird came walking up to me right over from one of the booths. I looked down, and the little bird walked over to an iron gate, where the door was open, and it flew off. That was my sign that my kid was OK, when I started talking to Earnestine and the bird appeared and flew off. It was weird, man. And just then, this little lady came in that I'd never seen before in my life. She walked in and said "Hey lady, are you OK?" I don't know where she came from, never saw her again, but I started talking to her a little bit about everything. And you know, that lady left my bar and she came back about an hour later, and she had bought me a sterling silver necklace with a bird on it.
I don't know what her name was or anything. She gave me that necklace and a big old hug and left. I never saw her again. Now is that not something right there? That she came back with a necklace with a bird, just like that? True story, I'm not lying about that—none of it. Russell said, Karen, Earnestine is watching over you, man.
I've never really been scared in here ever since. I'll hear weird stuff, but I blow it off. I love this place. It's like my home. I've met so many good people, had so much good stuff happen to me, here. Some people get real eerie and freaked out, but I don't anymore.
Karen Brownlee is a bartender and manager at Earnestine & Hazel's Juke Joint in Memphis, Tennessee.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on October 31, 2014.