Till the Crows Turn White by Amy Gerstler

BOMB 36 Summer 1991
036 Summer 1991

For some reason, he wrote to me frequently from Berlin. Two or three times a week. Originally I felt honored. I thought I must save these letters, which constitute a written record of his trip. He was researching a German doctor named Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902) for a film. To say Virchow was the subject of his film isn’t strictly accurate, because his films are never really “about” their subjects in the conventional sense. A turn of phrase, a strange fact, or a list causes some mind-alarm to go off in him. That inspiration, however tiny, becomes a springboard, a divining rod, leading him on a wild goose chase. As he chronicles his odyssey, more odd facts, images, and even people adhere to him, as though he were a magnet, or maybe the tar baby: a sticky pungent little doll. He sifts through it all and uses what he needs for his film. Last year, he stumbled across a one-line reference to Virchow in an article about world public health pioneers. He was lying full length on my couch, a cup of cold coffee within easy reach on the floor. His bare feet, on the couch’s bamboo armrest, were crossed at the ankles. He was wiggling his toes like an infant. He hadn’t shaved in several days. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. Minty bubbles were dribbling from the corners of my mouth when he pushed the door open without knocking and read me this very mundane line from a news article. At that moment, a bunch of crows, cawing like mad, settled on the droopy head of a dwarf palm outside the bathroom window. They made an astonishing and rather admirable noise. Always superstitious, I assumed they were vocalizing to warn me about something. Later I found out the kid next door had been shooting at them with a pellet gun. It took me a moment to realize I hadn’t heard what he’d read. “Please” I said to him “read that again.” Excited, he repeated the sentence. “Berlin’s scientists, especially Rudolph Virchow, the pathologist, helped make the city one of the cleanest and most healthful in Europe.” He sounded as though it said he’d won a lot of money. Clearly, he was getting one of his ideas. I had no choice but to be happy for him. Any other reaction would have been a betrayal. Usually, my enthusiasm for his work came easily. I liked his films so much they seemed holy. Some people become used to offering themselves up to whatever makes them tremble or feel strange, or scares them as much as church did when they were young. Even with a mouth full of greenish toothpaste foam, I got excited too, and laughed. Then I had to spit and towel off my face. That evening at a party he met an elderly Italian hazelnut heiress who had an apartment in Berlin she wanted to rent for a year, and he took it.

An old man stood on the curb next to me looking down as if perched on the lip of a vast canyon, contemplating a dizzying drop. Sixth avenue, in fact, was all torn up. The street was being widened, throwing the area into turmoil that never would have been created in a richer neighborhood. No provision had been made for pedestrians during the construction, so crossing the street was like fording a river. Everywhere you looked were city workmen, yellow bulldozers and earthmovers, mounds of tire-tracked dirt, surveyors holding styrofoam cups of coffee and gesturing with their free hands towards more trenches and mud. The place where the destitute man and I were waiting to cross was fairly flat and walkable, all rocks and soft ochre dirt. Because he could hardly see, I thought about offering him my arm, and wished I could have said easily, “Come on, Grandad, I’ll walk you across.” Instead, I thought, “if you were a woman, I could help you,” and did nothing. He was so skinny he had no butt to keep his pants up. His left hand clutched the pink and white upper plate of his dentures. The other hand held up his lowering pants. No free hand for me to take. Grinning, he pointed at the broken surface of the street with his false teeth and lisped, “What a mess.” It echoed. My ears pounded. I heard a whirr in my head like a cowboy whirling a lasso, the hollow rope whipping through air. The old man seemed to be speaking with far-seeing clarity, handing me some oblique warning like the crows’, a warning not only about the chaos of the street but also the drunken black fear I walk around in. The mess of everything. Woozy, a little high, I hurried home to give myself a shot—still learning how being diabetic works.

I’m no artist, or critic, and therefore lapse into cliches when trying to describe his films’ effects. The first one I saw, in school, remains a favorite, a piece he claims was partly inspired by his unsuccessful attempts to learn Greek one summer. The work consists of a series of very slow visual transformations, black and white, subtitled with phrases from ancient Greek texts, lines like: “Till the crows turn white,” “The potter has a grudge against the pot,” and “Drink or depart.” I liked the piece so much the fine hairs on my forearms stood up in the dark during the screening, a prehistoric mammal response by which I identify what means the most to me. There’s a word for that ancient semi-terrified fascination: horripilation.

He was born without an index finger. The left one is missing. He’s physically perfect except for that. He never considered it a handicap. What obscure vitamin did his mother fail to ingest when she was pregnant with him? Or was it a whiff of something toxic that entered her system and clapped a hand over the mouth of the chemical messenger that was to tell that particular finger to sprout?

I wrote him about the car wreck that occurred while I was walking the dog. There’s at least one wreck per week on this street. A van and a sports car collided. The car flipped over, and the van smashed into the granite base of a traffic light. The dog and I were ambling down Normandie. She stopped to nuzzle an anthill. The echoing thunderclap of initial impact and the sound of shattering glass terrified her. She had been hit by a car as a puppy. I had to go back up Normandie and take her another way home. Later I saw the squashed-looking retarded boy who lives next door peering at the aftermath of the crash: firemen, police, and paramedics milling around, through binoculars.

Another day a man, about 68, with a kind, pleasant face, stopped me while I was walking the dog and pointed at a fir tree we were passing. “If you had lung problems,” he began, lightly touching my forearm to make sure he had my attention, “you could sleep under this tree and it would cure you. This is a very good tree for the lungs.” My first impulse was to ask him which trees were good for all the ailments I do have, since the lungs seem to be one of my few problem-free areas. Sir, which bush is useful in awakening a recalcitrant pancreas?

This morning I woke up so displaced and befogged that I mistook the chattering of birds for the chattering of monkeys.

Fifteen years ago, when I met him, he was toting his possessions around in a well-creased brown paper bag that said LUCKY MARKETS: LOW PRICE LEADERS on it. He never wore less than two shirts at a time because the more he wore, the fewer he had to stuff into the bag and lug. His scent was sweaty. Not athletic sweat but intellectual sweat. Nervous smelling. Perspiring hands and upper lip. In those days, not everyone seemed as thrilled by the way he smelled as I was. For some reason I like to remind myself of this lately, as I try to remember his smell. A bit like grapefruit juice that had begun to turn, or the milk of an onion.

6:50 AM: More crows cawing their heads off. I read his letter trying to shake off post-nap persistence of dreams about empty parakeet cages clanking together. I don’t know why I dream about parakeet cages so frequently. I never had any pet birds. As a child, I had a succession of hamsters. Around age five, I was holding my first, beloved pet hamster in my cupped hands. I no longer remember the hamster’s name, but it had one. The dog of a visitor, a Daschund, bounded into the room, snatched the hamster from me and bit him in half. Ever since my psychiatrist got hold of that memory he has never let me hear the end of it. He brings it up annoyingly often, says it explains so much about me.

The cat has a restless soul, apparently. She stares and cries, stares and cries.

He wrote me: Went to the Tiergarten this afternoon. It means animal garden, but not zoo. More like park or arboretum. Few animals, more statues, though most blasted to bits during WWII. You’d like one survivor a lot: marble queen, base decorated with relief of tiny women binding soldiers’ wounds.

I wrote him: A friend who is in Divinity School, which means she is studying to be a minister, told me the post-Christian concept of forgiveness contains the notion of the forgiver being willing to take a risk. I stumble from moment to moment, making a lovely range of small and large mistakes at a high rate of frequency, as though I were a well run error factory turning out product at optimum levels. I sleep when I am not supposed to, don’t stick to my diet. I become irritable, easily as you well know, wrestle surprising jealousies, waste, miscalculate, long for what has made me ill when I have had it. I used to stay awake all night because your sleep-breathing had slight nasal whistlings in it which sounded like tortured little screams. But I forgive you.

I wrote him: Insomnia again. It’s late enough now, technically well into the next day, that the drunken conversations at the loud party in the courtyard have all converged thematically. Everyone is standing around in little groups, leaning on lawn furniture, either getting horribly drunk or sticking to seltzer—there seems to be no middle ground as regards inebriation lately. Maybe this is a panic reaction to our neo-prohibition times. We don’t know which activities they’ll ban next. Perhaps between meal snacking, scratching certain parts of the body, telling jokes some don’t find funny, and wearing particular colors will become illegal in the US soon. In this tense atmosphere, those that still drink do so with finality, while they still can, thinking they’re exercising their rights, expressing themselves. Everyone is standing around laughing at some retold or physically imitated version of my cowering manner when they see me leaving and entering the building during the day. As they egg each other on, I realize it’s worse to be snickered about dispassionately than with malice. Because I’m not a very riveting topic, the conversation soon moves on. If only I could move on, just like that. Sometimes I feel I have not yet been allowed to know anything of importance. I do so many things wrong that I have to forgive myself and start with a fresh slate every few minutes.

The retarded teenager next door seems to have a two or three word vocabulary. He yells “No,” “Ouch,” and something that sounds like “Mama” or “Allah.”

He wrote that he interviewed a German man who he thought was a relative of Virchow’s but later discovered this wasn’t true. The man was interesting though, and the encounter generated some useful notes. Observing the man was a master of understatement, he used this example, “In talking about bombings during the war, Konrad said quietly, ‘To see one’s own city on fire gives one a feeling of insecurity.’” I feel a bit differently. As long as I was far enough away, maybe flying over at a safe altitude in a sturdy heat-resistant helicopter, such a sight would give me, I think, shivers of uncontrollable elation.

On a postcard of the Brandenburg gates he wrote me: Virchow considered father of modern cellular pathology. Visited his grave today.

I went to see a fortune teller who lives in the neighborhood. Scotchtaped to her front door, a sign, felt pen on cardboard: YOUR PSYCHIC FOR THE ’90s: PALM READING TAROT LOVE HEALTH LUCK $5 AND UP. A rickety card table on her front lawn, covered with plaid contact paper. Two kitchen chairs with stuffed vinyl backs and seats, standing by the table in her bleached dead grass. Hanging from the dented white metal awning over her front door were two heavily embroidered skirts, flapping in the breeze. Gypsy credentials? Decor? She told me that if I wanted to get better, I had to keep taking insulin, exercise more and do some spiritual homework. What’s that last item? I asked. You must forgive all those you feel have harmed you, the people you’re making yourself sick with resentments against. Eight times a day, she told me, which is how often the doctor said I should eat, I am to repeat the names of all those I harbor anger towards, and then say “I release you to your highest good.” For some reason, probably because I am not very spiritually evolved, instead of the faces of my enemies being surrounded by white or golden light, repeating this phrase called to mind pictures of the individuals in question being shot out of a cannon belching sulphurous flames. My enemies destroyed like Konrad’s hometown, in a series of smoky explosions.

Every job I’ve held during the last ten years I got through a constellation of accidents, being totally unqualified. My most often-held job is voice-over work, usually for radio or industrial films. Though I’ve never had any vocal or acting training, I’ve narrated health and safety films, training films for the electric company, a National Geographic video on tigers, a video refresher course for oil field workers who’ve been rehired after long layoffs, a documentary on Tibet, a public radio special on a dead British actor, and a pet food company’s dog training video, which obedience schools use.

Should I be sad? Should I be ashamed? My thoughts need a censor, a translator, or at least a team of editors.

The sound of my medicine cabinet emptying itself into the sink below woke me. The bed was moving. Another earthquake. Later, I wrote to him that the shaking made it seem as though someone wracked with heaving sobs, or someone masturbating athletically was in bed with me. But these clever observations were obvious afterthoughts. I was too surprised to think anything at the time, alone in the room except for the cat staring at me from the doorway, a white gym sock in her mouth. She gave me a dirty look and skittered away. The dog took refuge in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. She stayed there for seven or eight hours, shivering. Since she refused to budge, I gave her dinner there, as though it were the smallest restaurant in the world, while she cowered beneath the plumbing and the garbage disposal. Windows rattled, books pitched from their shelves. An old wooden spice rack holding stoppered bottles fell off the kitchen wall. Ceiling plaster drizzled down in the bathroom. Insulin vials fell from their rack in the refrigerator door and smashed on the bottom shelf, ruining an unwrapped round of Brie by bathing it in insulin sauce. That was the extent of my damage. Others were not so lucky. The day after the earthquake he sent a telegram and I replied immediately to let him know I was safe. I used the opportunity also to ask if he’d left any memento on Virchow’s grave. The next time he wrote the letter began, “You know me too well. Left beautiful German-made test tube with flowers in it by R’s headstone.” He had written a tiny numeral “1” after the word tube, indicating a footnote. At the bottom of the page: “1. Germany great for glassware. Interesting history of that craft here, also glass smashing: Kristallnacht, etc. Tomorrow we visit museum of glass models of marine life, with permit to photograph. Lots of glass in this film.”

For some reason, ever since the earthquake, there has been a ring of ants marching slowly around the rim of my bathtub. It’s their misfortune to be doggedly attracted to water, when they’re so small they drown in a tear. I wanted an ant farm badly when I was a kid. My mother kept saying all I had to do was knock it over once and there’d be ants, dirt, and glass in the carpet forever. Back then I also wanted to have an exotic disease, so I could be pitied and admired for saintly sufferings, and so my parents would finally quit telling me to put down my book and go play outside. I never got the ants till a couple of months ago, (has it been a couple of months already?), long after I’d forgotten wanting them. I am hospitable, though, and wash in the other bathroom so as not to disturb their careful orbit. The doctor keeps telling me, in an attempt to be consoling, that diabetes isn’t exotic at all. She says I’m one of ten million Americans who get to become amateur chemists by testing their blood and urine in the bathroom at home, where I have spent too much time already in the past few years, making a career out of peeing, before I realized something was wrong. My trim, handsome lady doctor thinks misery loves company. Not in my case. I want to be a patient population of one: sick with her own individual ailment, a unique illness no one else can have or know.

He wrote that he wanted me to narrate the film. If I agreed, we would tape sometime in July, when he returned with his footage. “I have been wanting to do a film with narration for years. Besides the fact that you do this sort of thing for a living, you have the perfect voice,” he wrote, “dry and clear. The voice of a witness. The voice of a victim.” I had to walk to Griffith Park, past the funny little bronze statue of the curly, playfully rearing bear cub, and all the way up the bridle path, practically to the observatory and back, to get over the way his remark made me feel. Then I duly released him to his highest power. KABOOM.

He was interested in the symbology of dreams. I wrote him the dream of someone I knew, someone dear to me, who was distressed by having dreamt about an old lover, with whom she’d had a long and difficult relationship. His memory still actively haunted her. She was trying very hard not to think of him, not to dream of him, when she dreamt he came up behind her, embraced her and then grabbed her right hand and snapped off several of the fingers. She said it made a noise like breaking a potato chip in half. Only later did I remember his missing finger and feel strange about having written such a thing to him. He never mentioned it.

I live in an apartment building across the street from a Korean church and next to a Greek restaurant. Sometimes I eat dinner at the restaurant. The proprietor always forgets I’m not allowed to have sugar and tries to force dessert on me. His wife spends all morning ladling steaming rice pudding into custard cups. He also hands me a red carnation with the bill every time, as he does with all female patrons who do not come in with a man. I eat sardine salad at one of the restaurant’s little formica tables. Slightly offkey singing in English and Korean floats out of the church. The choir seems especially fond of the Halleluiah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, which they rehearse endlessly. On Sunday nights, paper airplanes made of worksheets containing questions about Jesus’s teachings litter the lawn in my tiny sideyard, which is directly below the windows of the church’s Sunday School. I collected the paper airplanes for awhile. I thought I would make some sort of sculpture out of them. At one point I had 60 of them in the front hall closet. They didn’t take up much room. Some flew much better than others. Smells of garlicky grilling meat, as well as the yelps of children and music with Greek and Arab influences waft their way to me from the restaurant in the morning. Going there for lunch, I see they have a new addition to their decor. Someone has crudely painted a fake fresco of an Aegean beach scene. It takes up a whole wall. I eat a sardine and crunch its delicate pin-like bones. The calcium is good for me. I look at the painted water so blue it looks completely unnatural, more like the color they paint the bottoms of swimming pools. It’s unnecessary for me to travel, as he does, to soak up exotic influences.

He wrote me: Ever since I decided to use pieces from our correspondence for narration, it has been going very well. The text is almost complete.

I felt queasy. I tried to remember everything I’d written to him over the year he’d been away. Then, on a scale of one to ten, I tried to rate how self-incriminating my letters had been, one being not incriminating at all and ten being hideously incriminating. Some letters were threes or fives. There were a good number of sevens, eights, and nines I thought I could remember. I had written to him about some of the most trying mechanical details of my illness, gross digestive problems mainly. I’d written to him about trying to forgive everyone I felt had done me wrong, only to envision myself tamping enormous amounts of gunpowder into a cannon that would blast their smithereens to the moon and beyond. I had listed the people I would love to thus explode. I tried to imagine myself reading that letter into a tape recorder. I had written to him about my perpetual unease in my own skin, about hating being female, about my dreams and about my friends’ dreams. I’d written to him musingly and often disparagingly about several people I’d slept with. I’d criticized my parents in letters to him, pretty much blaming them for everything; made fun of people he’d introduced me to who were part of the film world, saying that there was so much egotism buzzing around in a room full of those folks that you needed insect repellent to protect yourself from it. I’d named names. Beginning to sweat, I felt like a collaborator. Not like one artist who makes art with another, but like the kind of collaborator that gets tarred and feathered after having had their head shaved in public; a collaborator who is reviled and beaten following a war for having fraternized with the enemy.

Amy Gerstler is a writer living in Los Angeles whose most recent book, Bitter Angel (1990), was published by North Point Press. She is a recipient of the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.

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Originally published in

BOMB 36, Summer 1991

Featuring interviews with Vito Acconci, James Merrill, Mira Nair, John Leguizamo, John Wesley Harding, Jill Eisenstadt, Chuck Connelly, Jane Alexander, Amos Poe, Alan Uglow, Mary Shultz, Joachim Ernst Berendt, and Ann Hui.

Read the issue
036 Summer 1991