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
“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
“ 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
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
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.
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
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!)
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!
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
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
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
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