(Editor’s note: San Francisco author and blogger Ronald Tierney has written one previous post for The Rap Sheet, a “forgotten books” piece about Diva, by the pseudonymous Delacorta. Today he offers readers of this page a much different, more personal sort of tale relating to his latest release, a novella called Mascara: Death in the Tenderloin [Life, Death and Fog Books], which serves as a prequel of sorts to his Noah Lang private-eye series.)
I wrote a book in which a man is shot as he sat in an outdoor café on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s legendary North Beach neighborhood.
In April, on my way to North Beach for an appointment with the book’s designers, I stepped off the bus at a stop in Chinatown and walked up the same street my characters walked to witness the assassination. As I walked, I remembered what I’d written about it. Instead of touristy Grant Avenue, the characters picked the more crowded Stockton Street, where Chinese from all over the city come to shop for produce. Nary a Caucasian face among the thousands of people buying fruit and vegetables in the marketplace. The characters chose this path to be able to spot a Caucasian who might be tailing them. As I walked, little bits of the book narrative floated in and out of my mind.
I was in good spirits. I was early enough for my appointment that I could stop for lunch and had just the place in mind. A glass of wine and some pasta at an outside table--a leisurely meal while I sat back and watched the pedestrians go about their business. The other reason I was in a good mood was that while I’ve had 14 published mystery novels, this was one I was doing myself. The very talented designers had sent me a mock-up of new book’s cover. I liked it. They created a sense of drama, of urgency. They used a striking photograph of the San Francisco Fire Department at work. The fire department figures twice in my story--once at a murderous fire in the Tenderloin and again on a medical emergency run on Columbus Avenue, when and where the aforementioned fictional character is shot.
My Sangiovese arrived with a salad and some bread. The front wall of the restaurant sheltered me from the wind and the temperature was just cool enough for me to be perfectly comfortable in my jacket. I was waiting on the Pasta Putanesca, which this restaurant does particularly well.
I took a sip of wine, but had trouble holding a slice of bread. My left hand had gone numb. I was sure it was nothing. My hand had simply gone to sleep. It had happened a few times lately when I tried to type and the sensation always, after a few moments, went away. I waited. But instead of recovering, my hand decided to tap on the table without my willing it to do so. It became clear something was wrong. Even so, whatever it was didn’t seem serious. There was no pain. The strange, independent hand movement would subside, I was sure. It didn’t. In a few moments, I had trouble catching my breath. My body began to shake. Darkness began to seep in from behind me. I tried to call out. I thought I was speaking, but I couldn’t hear my voice. I was being swallowed by darkness. I tried to fight my way out of it, pull myself forward where I thought the light would be. I was losing the battle.
I heard a voice say, “call 9-1-1.” I had no idea who said it.
There was only darkness.
The next time I saw anything there were red fire trucks in front of me and people in uniforms, firefighters in hats--people moving about with a sense of urgency. The paramedics hooked me up to oxygen and were pulling at my jacket, hovering over me and asking questions. The same kind of intense fervor that was on the cover of my new book jacket was happening in front of me.
I could now see and hear the commotion, understand the questions, but my answers came out gibberish. The EMTs were cool, calm, and focused. I was loaded into a red ambulance that bounced and rolled and shuddered like the large tin can it was. The attendants were taking all sorts of measurements, asking questions, trying to figure it out. Left hand. Blood pressure through the roof. Stroke. Nope. There were other indications that didn’t fit. I could raise my arms, turn my palms, do things that stroke victims apparently couldn’t.
Once in Emergency, I was wheeled to different floors of the hospital and my body went through various flickering, humming futuristic contraptions. Pictures were being taken in one fashion or another. One set of films showed blood in my brain. Another located the tumor, which was removed the next day. I was home the day after that with anti-seizure pills and a bottle of Tylenol, feeling nearly normal.
The thing is, I can imagine that the sensations the imaginary character in my book felt when the bullet hit him were at least comparable to the sensations I felt sitting at a similar table at a similar restaurant on the same street when an impenetrable darkness swallowed my consciousness--as it must have for my character, had he actually existed.
Usually, writers try to write about what we know, draw from our real-life experience in order to create fiction. Somehow, I managed to do this in reverse. That is an uncomfortable, chilling thought, especially for a writer who plays around with murder.