July 17, 1980 started like any other day. I woke at 6:00 AM, got out my journal, made a note about my dreams then dressed to leave for work. I remember putting on my favorite red sandals and the fluid Greek dress of blues and reds and gold threads I wore over black leggings. I remember hesitating at my front door as it closed behind me at 1656 Leavenworth. My next memory is one of wincing in pain, opening my eyes to a stranger in a green tunic asking, “Do you remember your name?”
God, my head hurts.
My eyes brought his raven hair and blue eyes into focus. I studied his eyes, feeling dread and panic moving in me.
God, my head really hurts!
“ Anything else?”
“ – Jo Keller.”
“When were you born, Karla? Do you know what day it is today?”
The questions piled into one another as I looked into his eyes more deeply. I kept sailing from the pain into his eyes.
“ It’s Wednesday?”
“ The date?”
Full-blown panic flooded me as I stretched my eyes with terror, compounding the pain. He held my wrist, checking my pulse. I whispered, “ July 17, 1980?”
“Can you tell me what has you so terrified?”
“I’m not sure which reality I’m in and this feels like a serious test?”
He dissolved into laughter. His intensity shattered like a fracturing windowpane as he, apparently, delighted in my fear,
“ Read Oversoul Seven did you?”
“ The old Seth Material panic. I’ll give you this much, you’re lucid and on target, but you have to answer the questions. I promise it’s still San Francisco, 1980.”
Now a lot of other people came into focus. I tried to sit up and blacked-out completely, so much for Twenty Questions. Later, I would learn I had slipped from the running board on the cable car turning from Washington onto Powell Street. I went straight down to the macadam, as my head lodged onto the edge of the running board and the only two other passengers, German tourists, (who’d never been on a cable car before), assumed I was committing suicide. The San Francisco Chronicle writer did apologize a month after I went home from the hospital, noting several other cars had jammed up on the line just prior to my little event: maybe there had been an accident prior to mine.
On day three after the incident, while with friends, I was taking a shower when a perfect pitch B-flat began in my right ear: 40 decibels of pure incessant noise began. For nineteen weeks the audacious tone haunted me, kept me awake, inhibited normal conversations, disrupted my visual focus and most importantly, prevented me from reading.
Over time, my love of books, my passion for reading, had become a joke to those close to me. Devoted to reading since age 4; I found my one true retreat ruined. My only sanctuary had been sacked: pillaged by sound!
Until July 17, 1980, I wrote and read daily. Pure fear, a seemingly permanent nightmare, swamped me as I opened book after book in my library. Seeing the letters move out of sequence and dance across the pages, I would shriek! I knew words as images but to see them animate into strings of unidentifiable patterns then simply swirl into circles until I had to slam the thing shut, forced me into angry tears. Frustrated rage would see to it that any book in my hand flew through an open window. My landlord, Mr. Lee, was a kind Chinese man. He would return books the next morning, leaving them outside my door.
Only chaos followed. I had to stop the work I did in San Francisco. I headed East to Maryland, my birthplace, to be near family. Day in and day out, I would attempt to read. 104 boxes of books had moved with me. Surely, inside the pages of one of them, some key would surface; some single word would remain whole and stop the rest of them from doing the infinity dance on the page?
I began work on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, managing commercial and net fishing businesses with Tom Courtney. On shore, I ran a restaurant and bar, a camp ground, the gas docks and bait (chum or ground herring) sales. I set-up a network of bait deliveries as far South as Georgia for crabbers and other fishermen and I managed to land a contract with the Navy and Army to fuel their convoy boats at our larger dock.
The work, physical and time consuming, kept me distracted from the loss of reading. For creative expression, I took up watercolor (which I had not done since age 10). I also played the piano, but without the comfort of being able to read music, I practiced scales and played tunes from memory or improvised primitive jazz. Nothing linear would hold shape. My attention span was worse than that of a two year-old. I wondered if becoming a fishwife on the Chesapeake was, after all, my real destination?
Unable to tolerate that as my lot in life, I turned away from Maryland on May 24, 1983. Heading West once again, I detoured through Phoenix before relocating to San Francisco in October of 1983; B-flat traveling with me from shore to shore of the country.
Now, 112 boxes of books came with me. I still collected books, even if I could not delve into their recesses or wander in the vivid imagining of others, yet.
I had chucked my typewriter. I would practice writing: pen-to-paper, then become bored by the strain which always prompted the tinnitus to return. Forced back to my journal entries, I sketched, made short notes: two or three words, colors, sounds, and one-word ideas. Nothing flowed; nothing felt cohesive or complete. My life fragmented. What I had known through metaphysical study, intellectually, now became daily life: discontinuity as fact.
I took a screen writing class, hoping that image work might promote the return of reading joy. I went to films for personal retreat. Most often, I watched, attentive, but couldn’t remain focused without B-flat looming up, once more, in my right ear.
A Question of Silence still stands out (1983). I did sit through that film without one tone erupting. I went to Landmark’s Lumiere Theatre often. Only a block from my apartment, it became the private place of contemplation my reading chair had once been. Movies seemed safe haven; no one else could hear that interminable ringing in my ear. My private gift from July 17, 1980, even though it had become intermittent, persisted. I adjusted to living around B-flat. (Animated, B-flat would surely have been twin to Edward Gorey’s: Unwelcome Guest!)
Then, the 1984 Cannes Film Festival arrived. A friend read notes from the newspaper to me. I watched, excited, the day the letters were being installed on the marquee: Paris, Texas. “Oooooooooh, good!” I thought, “ Sam Shepard!” I owned his books, collected his plays. I had seen the shows he did at The Magic Theatre. I “knew him” from the Rose and Thistle Pub; not personally, he was a neighbor attendee at a good local bar. At least, I could count on a good movie. He had teamed up with Wim Wenders. This had to be good; Alice in the Cities, The American Friend, Kings of the Road…oh, yes, this had to be good.
I went to a 12:15 show. I remember falling into the desert scenes deeply. I recall moving, visually, through the film, as though I walked along side Harry Dean Stanton Sometimes I could see him, sometimes not. When he got into the car, I stayed by the railroad tracks. When he went into town, I remained in the desert. I could see him from afar. I wished someone had tried to reclaim me from the wasteland of word loss, like his brother tried to reclaim him.
Friends even became impatient when I asked them to read to me from the newspaper. I compensated with radio and TV. I don’t think people took it seriously, or felt it important. They didn’t read like I did, so for me to complain about not being able to read never made a compassionate dent; my loss did not make much sense to others.
Sitting in the quiet dark of the theatre, I realized I had the film. The film on screen had taken my hand; some intuition assured me I could realize something new. I stayed. I saw the 2.30 show. I sat in the theatre through part of the third screening that day, then walked out onto California Street. I let the sun have me before I headed home. Less than a block away, I stopped for a cup of tea at The Chelsea on Larkin Street. I wandered back into my own place at about 5:30 PM, so the clock on the wall said.
I recall walking to my bookshelf and picking out Colette’s: La Maison de Claudine et Sido. At 8:30 PM, I put the book down and started to go outside to take a walk, to consider what I had just read. The sensuality and warmth of those images collided with barrenness, the sparse desert beauty, I had been watching for hours. The tenderness of human love and sacrifice-for-love felt similar, but the visual components: one arid and highway-driven, the other moist and country flourishing, sat there: juxtaposed. I stopped. Amazed at myself, at my casual sense of things, I picked up the Colette and read another passage aloud. The words remained obedient to the page. Nothing wandered. I opened up Motel Chronicles. Same response, the words stayed linear, in place, where they belonged. “Good words. Stay. Yes. Oh, Yes! YES!”
Then, I opened up Unseen Hand and Other Plays. I read aloud, noting it was The Holy Ghostly: “ A dead body. He walks to the center of the campfire and laughs. He dances in the fire. Oh, didn’t he ramble. Rambled all around. All around the town. Oh didn’t he ramble. Rambled all around. All around the town. He sure did ramble. Rambled all around. All around the town. Boy, didn’t he ramble. He stops…”
I stopped. I threw the book into the air, dancing around the room. A neighbor recalls I shouted something like: “I can read! I can read! I can read!” several times. She always thought me daft anyway, but the joy in my voice told her something truly good had occurred, she let it pass.
After shouting, I sat for a minute to let the sensation of reading sink in, retrench; take over its own inner chair in my mind, once more. Had B-flat had been evicted? Surely, something had changed!
I went outside to walk, to look at the world anew. Giddy, I stopped to read everything printed on every window. I read menus and laughed out loud. I read flyers on telephone poles and street lamp poles; I picked up old newspapers flying across the sidewalk. I stopped in front of the Lumiere and did obeisance. Kissing the sidewalk, I shouted, ‘Thank you, Sam Shepard!” One of the ushers at the theatre leaned out the door, “Would you mind shouting that a bit louder, I think it’s a good film too, but you’re a great promo piece! Want to do that until the 9:45 PM?”
We laughed; he helped me stand. I briefly explained my little epiphany. He smiled, remarking “ San Francisco: you never know what’s going to go right or wrong here, do you? Things change every minute. Glad you got your reading-eyes back.” He gave me another ticket for a show anytime and returned to his own work.
Even as I write this, twenty years after my head crack, the carillon at Grace Cathedral begins its twenty-minute Sunday recital. Gratitude in musical tones echoes the gratitude I felt that day; bell song magnifies the return of Joy once more, so I repeat, ‘Thank you, Sam Shepard! Thank you!”
1221 Jones Street ~ 3G
San Francisco, CA 94109
North American and all International Rights ©2001
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