PAUL KATZ October 21 1961


PAUL KATZ October 21 1961



AT FORTY-NINE Morris Gerlovin has a thinning hairline and a thickening waist, and if there is anything that would set him apart in a group of men his age, it is simply that Gerlovin’s skin is pale, very pale. But this ordinary man, as it happens, has an extraordinary history and way of life. He is probably the only adult in the world who is permanently forbidden, on penalty of dangerous eruptions of his skin and extreme pain, to go out into the light of day. Gerlovin is acutely allergic to the sun, and for almost twenty-six years he has lived in the dark or by artificial light.

In this life a wristwatch ticking off the hours until dawn can become an urgent alarm, as it did one night recently when Gerlovin returned late to the Winnipeg suburb where, in a white stucco house among clipped shrubs, he draws the shades as the sun comes up and waits for it to go down. At the front door he couldn’t find his key. He rifled his pockets. He pounded on the door, even though he knew that his parents, with whom he lives, were away at a beach resort. He checked his watch. And then, afraid that the sun might catch him outside if he wasted time trying to force his way in, he drove back to the Selkirk Avenue card club where he had spent the evening, pulled the window blinds, and stretched out on a bench. The next day he phoned his brother, who was at the beach with their parents, and asked him to drive in with a spare key.

Gerlovin, as this moment of panic suggests, is not one of those more than ordinarily courageous men who master their own disabilities, however grave these are. He has never married, nor has he ever worked out a way to hold a steady job. Gerlovin’s victories have been smaller. Once, before a back ailment stopped him, he practised so assiduously at the local ten-pin alleys that he won the Manitoba championship for B class bowlers. More recently, he passed several years in the almostnightly company of the other members of his card club without giving them reason to think his daylight hours were any different from their own. “Thank God,” Gerlovin said the other day, “I have the fortitude and the disposition to stand up to this thing.” He turned his face away from his visitor and crossed the room. He had reached the emotional climax of his own story, and there were tears in his eyes.

His story begins in 1935, when Gerlovin was twenty-four and already laying plans to expand his family’s grocery store, where he was working. It was a weekend afternoon in summer. Gerlovin spent it at the park, in a pickup game of touch football. By the time the game broke up there was a rash breaking out on his body. A heat rash, maybe, or a sweat rash; he shrugged it off. It was still there when he had showered and changed that evening. It was still there the next day, and the next week. By now mounting discomfort had driven Gerlovin from his family doctor to the first of several skin specialists, and he was dosing himself with what seemed like an endless series of antidotes, ointments and pills. The series ended and Gerlovin’s rash was no better. His doctors advised him to try the Mayo Clinic at Rochester. His parents, Jewish immigrants who were prospering but still uncertain in a strange country, were hurt and bewildered by their son’s mysterious ailment. “They tried to help, then and later,” Gerlovin says. “But there was nothing they could do.” He went to Rochester by himself.

The specialists at the Mayo Clinic kept Gerlovin in a hospital bed for three weeks while they ran tests, tried pills and ointments for a second and third time, and treated the rash with X-rays. The summer turned hotter. Gerlovin itched and burned. Alone among strange people, with an unknown illness, he cracked a little. “For a while I thought it would drive me crazy,” he says. When the three weeks were up the clinic discharged him but told him to stick CONTINUED ON PAGE 34

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For two years he sat in the dark. He didn’t go outdoors for a single minute

around while the laboratory ran more tests. He waited in a nearby boarding house for seven more weeks. Then the specialist in charge of his case called him to the Mayo Clinic for an interview Gerlovin has never forgotten.

"It’s an allergy,” the doctor told him, “and we don't know of any cure. There’s only one thing we can tell you. Stay out of the sun. Don't let it get to any part of your body.” Gerlovin remembers the figure of the doctor, his arms folded across his chest, his lips moving, everything else still in the blurred grey outline of the room. Gerlovin thought, "What right has this stranger to pass a sentence like this on me?”

Neither the stranger at the Mayo Clinic nor any doctor since has been able to give Gerlovin a precise explanation of his allergy, but they have given him a few broad leads. His is an acute case of a fairly common class of allergies called “physical” because the people affected react abnormally to such things as heat, cold, and radiant energy. In most cases these allergies seem to be hereditary. Doctors have so far failed to discover whatever it is that specifically causes the skin outbreaks. A guess as good as any other is that exposure to the allergen, in Gerlovin’s case sunlight, causes the nerve endings in the skin to release an unusual amount of a chemical called acetylcholine. This in turn stimulates the nerve ends to produce a high flow' of a second substance called histamine. And the histamine, if there is anything in this hypothesis, so irritates the skin surface that a crawling rash develops and persists.

Allergists have reported many cases of people susceptible, like Gerlovin, to sunlight, but in these cases the itch persists while the sun is high in summer and sinks as the sun sinks in winter. Gerlovin and an eight-year-old boy in England appear to be the only people who cannot tolerate the touch of the sun, however weak. The very vagueness of medical opinion about his condition has made Gerlovin a tireless reader of the medical sections of newspapers and newsmagazines, always searching for word of some new drug or treatment. He now' visits his doctor only once a year, but he consults him by phone con-

stantly, prodding for reports of new leads in the medical journals. "I don’t believe in miracles or anything like that,” he says. “But if they find a cure. I’ll be the first to know'.” As yet neither Gerlovin nor the medical profession really knows much more than they did on that day twenty-six years ago when he first heard the diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic.

“1 came home from Rochester a bewildered and dumbfounded person.” Gerlovin says. “ ’Stay out of the sun?’ I thought. ’Why, that’s impossible. How will I work? What will I do?’ ” He closed his mind to the diagnosis and went back to w'ork in the family grocery store. As the days grew shorter and the weather cooler, Gerlovin’s rash slowly subsided. It returned in the summer of 1936. It struck w'ith such violence that Gerlovin was forced to stay in the house, day and night, for almost two years.

"It was wickedly hot that summer,” Gerlovin recalls. "I went outside one day and stayed in the sun most of the afternoon. Later 1 examined my body and it seemed to be fine. Then, as if they came out of nowhere, ugly red blemishes errupted all over my skin. They seemed to crawl over me, itching and burning at the same time.”

Gerlovin’s father says, “When the doctor came and saw the condition of my son he couldn’t speak. At first he tried to relieve some of the pain by bathing Morris. But then all he could do was apply ointments and give him some pills.” From that time until the rash began to recede Gerlovin couldn't sleep. He paced the floors because the slightest touch of bedding or clothes inflamed the rash. “The first few weeks that 1 had the rash were utter hell,” Gerlovin stammered when he told this story. Then he leaned his head against the back of the cöuch and took a deep breath. "1 stuck it out, though,” he said. “Yes. 1 stuck it out.” In the fall Gerlovin’s rash slowly healed. For the next two years he sat alone in a heavily curtained room in his parents’ house. He was bitter at first. Staring through the shades at people on the street, he envied them so fiercely that he almost hated them. "Why could they walk in the sun?” he remembers thinking.

Toward the end of the two years, dur-

ing which he didn’t leave the house for one minute, day or night, he tried to plan his future. His brother had closed the grocery store. He thought of finding a night job and sleeping during the day, but decided it wouldn’t work: “In the summer it doesn’t get dark until nine-thirty or ten. What would I do then?” He thought of marriage and children: “That’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?” But he decided that wouldn’t work in his abnormal life either. These decisions have stayed with him during the years since he came out of the house to find a life in the night.

“I felt strange walking among people again,” he says. “I passed by strangers and brushed against them, only partly realizing 1 wasn’t still looking at them through a window. It was wonderful, the people and the fresh air on my face.” Slowly Gerlovin drifted back into the real world. One night a group of friends persuaded him, after a great deal of argument, to go bowling with them. At first he wasn’t too good. He practised and played, spending every spare evening at one of the local alleys. After three or four years he got his average up around 230. "And in case you don’t know anything about bowling that’s a pretty good average,” he beams shyly. “At that time they used to score the game differently. The left side of the pin set-up was worth more than the right, so that made the game a lot tougher than it is now. I was even good enough to win a couple of trophies. 1 was proud of them.” Then, while bowling one day, Gerlovin noticed that his back began to hurt. It became worse, until a doctor advised him to give up the game.

Since then Gerlovin has settled into a routine. Every night he drives the family car a few blocks to a small card club in Winnipeg’s north end. In the smoky, dingy room above a bakery shop, Gerlovin sees the familiar faces and finds the friendship he needs. At the card club Gerlovin is known as a quiet guy who doesn’t say too much but is still part of the gang. Many of the members didn’t even know that Gerlovin could not go outside during the day. “The first I knew of it.” one says, “was when I read it in the papers. I just thought he worked during the day and came to the club at night.”

Gerlovin doesn’t play cards, but he likes a good argument about the Bombers or the Yankees. When the nights are fine he’ll go driving or to a movie with a bunch of friends; he goes to every night football game the Blue Bombers play at home. He has occasionally had a date, but he reasons he'll never be able to get married so feels there is no sense in allowing himself to get hurt if he falls in love.

He’s seldom in at night before two, and not often out of bed before noon. Television and magazines occupy most of his afternoons, although he helps his father manage the real-estate holdings the family lives on, by doing some paper work at a living-room table that doubles as an office.

For the past ten summers his parents have vacationed fifty miles away at Winnipeg Beach, leaving Gerlovin to keep house for himself. Last year Gerlovin had his own vacation, a chance to escape the invisible magnet that held him to his home. He arranged a trip to Las Vegas, because, as he reasoned, "What other city is more a city of the night than Vegas? And that’s just what I wanted.” He went by train to Minneapolis last October, traveling all night and arriving just before sun-up. From the train depot he went to a hotel room for the day. At midnight he caught a plane to Las Vegas and arrived before morning. In Las Vegas he saw some of the big shows he had heard so much about and did a little gambling. A week later he took the midnight plane to Los Angeles, where he saw some family friends and some more night life. He returned to Winnipeg the way he had come — by night.

After Gerlovin’s story appeared in the Winnipeg newspapers, the wire services picked it up and carried it around the world. Within two weeks he received letters from most of the countries of Europe and every part of North America. Some held pamphlets advising him to turn to God, others suggested roots and herbs, still more mentioned healers who weren’t actually registered physicians but were a great deal more effective. A letter from Austria came straight to his door addressed to The Sun Man, Winnipeg, Canada.

Gerlovin read his mail tolerantly. “Many people attribute things like this to some higher power,” he said later. “I'm not an agnostic nor an atheist. I believe there is a God but I don’t hold him responsible for what’s happened to me. Somehow, I’ve learned to accept what I have and ask for nothing more.”

Gerlovin was at the end of his story, and it was midday, time for his shower. As the sun reached its peak, shimmers of light slipped through the closed curtains. Gerlovin stood up and faced the window. Shadows played across his chalk white face and seemed to form a point at the top of his receding gray tipped forehead. He walked into the kitchen and took some oatmeal, which he uses for bathing instead of soap. Mixing the oatmeal with a little water he shaped it into a ball and then licked off his fingers. He walked over to the window, parted the curtain, and looked out at his enemy, the sun. it