hrough most of the mid-1960s I suffered from a rare and compulsive brain malfunction known as Insatiable Ear. Insatiable Ear was so rare that only I knew of its existence and symptoms. Its sufferers were demonically convinced that while ears might look like malleable little slippers created to absorb advice and counsel, they were in fact Mischief Warehouses that boys were obliged to fill to fill with everything known as “stuff.”
My own version of the illness began around age 10 and lasted about three years, until The Pained Deafness Incident, which brought all Mischief Warehousing to a sudden end, ruining elaborate plans to move on to pens, paperclips, and maybe even insects.
The Washington, D.C. neighborhood of my preteen life centered around a small grocery store, a liquor shop with an 80-year-old owner at the register, a bank, a drug store, and a toy store. Though I feigned interest in the toy store, playing with Mr. Sullivan’s ample vat of miniature cars (“Stop spinning the wheels!”), it was the drug store I lived to prowl in. I astutely figured that by seeming to adore the toy store, my drug store adventures would go largely unnoticed, since the two shops were all but neighbors.
As a result, no one noticed my relentless return to the drug store’s chewing gum row, which to my eyes offered an immense collection of gums and flavors (immense being more than two and less than five). Most beloved was Adams Sour Cherry Gum and its tangy taste.
For a nickel I’d buy a pack and chew all five sticks at once with what I considered adult diligence (up and down, back and forth). The gum-chewing project lasted weeks and months. When my parents demanded to know what was wrong with my mouth (gum was forbidden), I shrewdly answered, “Nothing.”
But after many months of sour cherry antics, including swallowing whole packs to prove my manhood and escape sure punishment, Insatiable Ear made its appearance.
One Friday, after purchasing, chewing, fondling, and generally admiring my wad of gum, I was seized with the urge to do something special. This, I later recognized, was the untreated malady at work (these days I would have been sent to a gum therapist and amply medicated).
The temporary insanity led to lodging a sliver of sour cherry gum in my left Mischief Warehouse. For whatever reason, the warehouse resisted. When pain reduced me to whimpering, I was eventually taken to the Downtown Cold Wizard (most colds occurred downtown, or so I assumed). The Wizard was a small, bi-speckled doctor named Irwin Feldman who knew my head by heart, including the location of all my special glands, which I considered a gift.
Hauled to his court, I was installed in room where he pushed a tube into my nose and ran warm water through my invisible sinuses, but only after he convinced me my brain wouldn’t wash out. I liked Dr. Feldman, whose office also included his wife. His sons sometimes came by. Only in their presence did the Downtown Cold Wizard smile broadly.
But explaining Insatiable Ear to Dr. Feldman posed a challenge.
“So, your ear hurts?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“Are you coughing?”
“Did you put anything in it?”
“Are you sure, young man?”
I kept mum.
“Well then, let’s have a look…”
Twenty minutes later, the Wizard extracted a fat piece of sour cherry gum, my father called in to examine the malignant evidence.
“This isn’t nothing,” scowled the Wizard.
I started sobbing.
After the Wizard and my father consoled me and I howled about the compulsions brought about by Insatiable Ear, the gumdrop was placed in a vial and given to me.
“Every time you want to do that, look at this, remember the pain, and don’t…” said the Wizard.
Amazingly, I was never again stricken with Insatiable Ear.
I did not, however, live happily ever after. There were many other visits to Dr. Feldman, as well as a heartfelt handshake when he retired, and kind words after the death of my father. His sons took over his practice, and, working overseas, I saw them rarely. But somewhere in the files a historical thread — a printed file of my 1960s history — remained.
Now, as American doctors necessarily reorganize their files electronically and kowtow to the web, those threads are vanishing. When I recently called Feldman’s offices for an appointment I was asked if I was an old patient.
Very old, I said, citing the wizardly days.
No, came the reply. That couldn’t be right. They had no such record. Most electronic medical records last three years.
Many are the wonders of the web, but it tends — in part usefully — to prefer the now ahead of the then, sadly dispensing with the eccentric side of personal histories. The medical efficiency that keeps the present “current” tends to banish the past’s peculiar, and occasionally useful, anecdotal evidence.
Leaving Insatiable Ear trapped in a Mischief Warehouse that no one can get to, let alone hear about.