Tuesday, October 1, 1974
I feel weary. I didn’t sleep well last night because I was up a lot with these cramps in my legs; maybe they’re the growing pains that were delayed somehow and one of these days, I’ll shoot up and turn into a six-footer.
But I think my weariness stems mostly from living on the edge – on the edge of what, I’m not yet sure. But I seem to spin from crisis to crisis. Today I arrived at Josh’s apartment and said, “I’ve lost my will to live.”
“Nah,” Josh said. “You probably just misplaced it at a Burger King or someplace.”
Anyhow, things are not going well; I could use a therapy session about now. But I can’t afford it. The New Depression may not be so wonderful after all. Mom said today that Dad is very worried: his business is collapsing and probably the only way to save it is for me and Marc to go in with him.
That puts me in a rough spot. I owe my parents a lot, financially – everything, in fact – but I’m not going to go into “the place” with my father and be a clothing manufacturer and salesman. I can’t do with my life what Dad did with his: he wanted to be a journalist but ended up in the pants business with his father. I want to break free.
For me, Art Pants would be a suicide as sure as if I swallowed Drāno or slit my wrists. I want to write, to go on with school. But I realize I am an adult now and I have adult responsibilities.
How ironic that all those years when money was easy for me to get – $40 a week was my allowance – I didn’t ever realize that it would be the time of my entire life when I was the most prosperous.
We may not actually suffer or go hungry, but things are going to be a lot rougher – and they’ve been pretty rough lately. Without therapy, my writing has become my main outlet for getting these problems off my chest.
In a way, I wish it was 1972 again and I had money and LaGuardia Hall was filled with my friends and I didn’t have to worry about, or even think about, the future. If only I realized how good things were then, I’d have savored every minute.
No wonder I can’t stand to stop dreaming at night now. I feel just as I’ve come to the point where I can function totally and enjoy life, I’m facing a drearier, problematical existence.
But perhaps it was meant to be, that I’m more able to cope with these problems at this stage of my life. Although lately at times I feel that I’ve been closer to my nervous breakdown days of six years ago than I’ve ever been since – I guess that’s what I mean by living “on the edge.”
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but if I ever feel madness – or whatever it was – descending again, I couldn’t go back to self-exile; I’d follow Virginia Woolf’s example and one day walk into the ocean off Rockaway.
I went over to Josh’s this afternoon, after visiting Mom at Telepathy: she was pleased with the way Joe does her hair, so I’m glad I sent her there. Josh made us tea, and then Robbie came home and joined us; it was good to see him again.
Josh has got this job in Purchasing at school, and he’s seeing this girl Rachel, whom Robbie and his girlfriend introduced him to.
We went to the Fiction Workshop, which was pretty good today as we discussed Todd’s story. Denis is back, feeling better; last night he called me to tell me he was returning to school today.
After class, I helped Baumbach move to his new office in one of the temporaries. I think he likes me; he asked me to look at a manuscript submitted to the Fiction Collective by a woman whose husband wrote it before he died seven years ago.
Wednesday, October 2, 1974
10 PM on a cold October night. I’m feeling pretty good tonight. Let’s just say there’s almost no possibility that Davey will find my bloated body washed up on the beach when he takes his morning jog tomorrow.
I’ve got a part-time job which seems like it may work out okay – at least it does now; I haven’t started working yet.
Monday night I saw an ad in the Post for Alexander’s at Kings Plaza and I went there yesterday morning and filled out an application; there were dozens of people there. They called me yesterday and told me to report to Personnel today at 4 PM.
(I didn’t mention it yesterday because I was afraid of the old kinahora: you’d think by now I’d be less superstitious about the evil eye.) I went to Alexander’s today, had a short interview, and was accepted.
I had to fill out a lot of forms (lying on some of them about previous employment) and tomorrow I have to be checked by the doctor there. The pay is a mere $2 an hour, but there are definite advantages to the job.
For one thing, I won’t have to spend any carfare to get to work, unlike the $1.40 that I spent commuting to and from Wall Street. And for another thing, the hours – 10 AM to 2 PM, five days a week including Saturday (I get one weekday off) – fit right into my schedule.
I shouldn’t have to worry about the job interfering with my schoolwork and I won’t have to get up that early. And I get a 25% discount at the store and a raise after three months . . . but that’s getting ahead of myself.
Last night I called Avis, who said she was out with Jacob last Friday night when they met Josh, who talked to her for the first time. (Josh had told me about it yesterday; he said he spoke to Avis because he “was in a rare mood.”)
Work is long and dull, Avis said, and she and her parents are moving to Sheepshead Bay in two weeks. Avis called Beverly’s mother to find out where Beverly, was, and it turned out that after a summer in Canada and Salt Lake City, Bev is finally living in Boulder, staying with the friends she and Avis met there. I’m glad Beverly got to her dream place.
Avis and I somehow got to talking about infidelity, and Avis mentioned something Carl Karpoff had told her about a year ago: how, a few years before that, he’d gotten very upset when he discovered that his parents and many of their friends in Rockaway were having affairs with each other’s spouses.
Apparently there was a lot of “swinging” going on in Rockaway, and Avis said it involved a lot of parents of people we know from college. I didn’t press her for details as to whose parents were “swinging,” but I’ve got some ideas. (In fact, the only one I’d rule out is Mikey’s mom, a widow, who’s a straight-arrow like Mikey.)
I had a curious dream last night: in it, I was on all fours, running home from Brooklyn College. Somehow I traveled very swiftly that way – in the dream, I had a pillow on my stomach so I wouldn’t scrape myself – and it was so satisfying and exhilarating. The action vaguely reminds me of something I do in real life, but the connection eludes me.
(This sounds like a job for SuperShrink! Alas, there’s no one around.)
Speaking of psychology: On Saturday, I received a letter from a Jeffrey Owens Katz of the Biology Department at Stony Brook. A member of Mensa, he was doing a study on inherited genetic personality traits among highly intelligent people.
I cooperated with him, took a personality test, and today he sent me my scores on various scales (which are all new to me: for example, Schizothymia vs. Affectothymia; Surgency vs. Desurgency).
He wrote me comments, too: “Super-extroverted! People-oriented. I bet major in Theater Arts? Writing is probably a passing fancy [!] for it requires an introvert like me to sustain effort . . . Definitely an interesting personality, M+ (Autia – bohemianism, imagination, concern with ‘essentials’) is very high, and that is unusual for such an extrovert! High artistic and esthetic skills and interest.”
How odd to see one’s personality measured scientifically.
Once again, I drove into Manhattan to pick Ronna up after her dance class at the New School. When we got back to Canarsie, she served me tea and apple pie while she had dinner. Ronna is happy, but she just wishes her job were more challenging and better-paying.
I was nervous all day before the interview, so I feel pretty high this evening after getting this job.
Thursday, October 3, 1974
The cold spell we’re having makes me realize how much I miss the summer. A trip to Florida would definitely be in order this winter.
I went to Alexander’s this morning to take my physical along with several other guys, mostly high school kids and college freshmen. The physical, if you can call it that, was given by this old Italian doctor whom I wouldn’t call on if my life depended on it: definitely the horse-doctor type.
Mostly he took my blood pressure, saw that my heart was beating and held my testicles while I coughed; I wonder if he got off on that at all.
From Kings Plaza, I went to Brooklyn College, where I immediately heard someone calling my name. It turned out to be Teresa, who was going to see a teacher to straighten out her last impediment to graduation.
She’s decided to go to grad school at the University of Rhode Island; she fell in love with the place when she visited it. She had to rush off, and I had to go to my tutorial with Baumbach.
I showed him my reading list for the comprehensive exam. He scratched off Huxley, Balzac (“You have Galsworthy down, you don’t need Balzac”), Zamyatin (whom he’d never heard of), and added Burroughs, Barthelme, Robbe-Grillet and Grace Paley.
We talked about my writing. He says it’s too old-fashioned and conventional; he’d like to see me experiment more with absurdism and fantasy. I suppose he wants to produce more writers like himself.
If I had guts – or would it be stupidity? – I’d tell him that I find his stuff, like Reruns, to be little more than pure masturbation, all form and no feeling. But that seems to be the way to write these days.
Baumbach deprecated Jong’s Fear of Flying, and I suppose he despises Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. If you ask me, it’s probably snobbery motivated by jealousy. After a trek to the Junction xerox place, our “tutorial” ended.
If I ever thought Baumbach would give me tips on how to get ahead in writing, I’m now sure he won’t. But he’s going on sabbatical this spring; Spielberg will be taking over the workshop and maybe Susan Schaeffer will be my tutor.
I met Davey, with whom I went to Kosher King, where he had three hamburgers and I had one grapefruit juice. (So why is he built like he is with those abdominal muscles and me built like I am with my little paunch? Go ask more foolish questions.)
Meanwhile, back at the Fiction Workshop, we went over Josh’s story today. Denis, Barbara and I liked it, but Simon and Baumbach did not. (Simon is probably Baumbach’s favorite because he writes surrealistically).
Barbara’s really not so bad: she and Josh and I found a common bond in our annoyance at Baumbach (amazing how cognitive dissonance really works).
She even apologized for the way she criticized my story last week, saying that’s what Baumbach likes her to do: Barbara said that last year in her undergrad class, he set her up as the bitch of their workshop by putting her in the position of being very critical, after which he would agree with her more quietly; that way he’d still come off looking like a good guy.
Like I said, Barbara’s not so bad once you begin to understand her.
At 6 PM tonight was Heffernan’s class, where we discussed Dreiser and Sister Carrie. Heffernan actually wore her Phi Beta Kappa key on her blazer, but it fits with the way she teaches literature.
After class, I drove Josh home and then came home myself. Tonight Josh was the one feeling suicidal; I was just numb. Every so often it hits me what an absurd institution the modern university is.
I called Ronna. As I figured, she went to find me at school tonight (yesterday she asked where my class was and at what time, and I know how Caplan operates by now). She’d wanted to bring me a piece of carrot cake from Brownie’s, knowing how much I love it. Too bad we didn’t meet.
I won’t be seeing Ronna for a few days. Directly from work tomorrow, she’s taking the bus to New Brunswick and will spend the weekend at Rutgers with Susan.
Friday, October 4, 1974
I’m not usually home on Friday nights, but Ronna is in New Jersey and I’m tired and feel a cold coming on. So I’m not at all unhappy, staying in my room and lying around in my underwear.
I just finished reading the Wall Street Journal. The news of the economy is bad in every respect. It seems that for so many months, Watergate was the prime topic of discussion everywhere.
Now that that’s virtually over with, we’ve discovered what abysmal economic shape we’re in: terrible inflation, climbing unemployment, with a bleak outlook for the future.
Despite his economic summits and whatever, I don’t think President Ford can get us out of this mess. I feel sorry for him because of his wife’s breast cancer surgery, but he doesn’t seem to be taking command, and I doubt he’ll run for a full term in 1976.
Kennedy has counted himself out of that race, and quite frankly, I don’t know who can lead us out of this mess. All I know is things are going to get worse before they getting better; how much worse, I have no idea.
Today I had a practical lesson in CUNY politics and also acquired some material if I ever decide to write a novel about a great metropolitan university. I was up at 8 AM, off at 9 AM, and by 10 AM I was in the staff room of the CUNY Research Foundation for a meeting of the Chancellor’s Grant Fund Advisory Committee.
After Dean Kingkade called the meeting to order, Gerald Graze, the director of the Research Foundation, told us how much money we had left in our budget. We voted to fund two more proposals, one dealing with a computer-based English as a Second Language curriculum and another with library students videotaping art materials.
Mostly I kept quiet and listened and learned. Some of the committee members are particularly astute: Felix Cardegna, Dean at Staten Island Community College; Kenneth King, University Dean for Computers; and Mary Dolciani, Dean at the Academic Affairs Office.
I especially like Dean Dolciani’s blunt, ironic style: she used to teach math at Hunter and was one of the original recipients of the Fund program. There’s so much politics everywhere; it appears that people in high places want the Fund program scrapped.
And even I, with my minimal experience and expertise, can see that in many ways, it hasn’t been “impactful” (to use a current ungrammatical term that comes up in memos I get from CUNY).
When we broke for lunch, Tom Prapas from Richmond College came over and said hello, and I chatted with Marie Miller for a while.
Dean Kingkade asked me how I liked the committee, and I said, “It’s an education”; she laughed and I told her that I had yet another meeting coming up: the Search Committee for Director of Instructional Resources.
As it turned out, so did she, because she said Harold Proshansky called and told her to go over and chair that meeting and represent him, so the two of us left off our discussion of revising the Fund program guidelines until the next meeting.
Jane – Dean Kingkade – and I briskly walked the four blocks to the Graduate Center. She was very annoyed with Proshansky for asking her to take on this new job today. “But isn’t Berger supposed to chair the Search Committee?” I asked, and she just gave me a knowing, ironic glance.
She told me that sometimes she wishes she were back teaching Organic Chemistry at Hunter. From there, she said, she went to Lehman when that college split off from Hunter, was made a dean, and then got to 42nd Street.
Jane stopped at her office to handle another crisis: the husband of an ex-employee who’s suing everybody and who was on a rampage. (“Why am I doing this?” Jane asked. “I’m old enough to be somebody’s grandmother.”)
I went on ahead and told Leslie Berger that she’d be upstairs soon, and after Jane arrived, the committee interviewed two candidates for the job of Director, finding them both inferior to Mina Shaughnessy, who we interviewed last week (and Leslie’s favorite, according to Jane).
Before we voted on a candidate, Jane went in to see Proshansky, who told her to tell Leslie to call another meeting where he, Proshansky, could be present. Leslie Berger was angry because Proshansky didn’t come to any interviews and he wouldn’t come in today for even a second.
So we selected Shaughnessy anyway, despite what Proshansky said. “There are many ways to insult people,” Leslie Berger said in his thick Jewish accent. Politics, politics.
On the ride home, I thought about my day and drama that’s inherent in any large institution when various personalities are involved. Jane Kingkade was in an admittedly awkward position, serving as Harold Proshansky’s messenger.
Proshansky was trying to play some game with Leslie Berger, not giving him the courtesy of attending the interviews and then wanting to have a vote on the candidate (and then going so far as to tell Jane to “chair the meeting.”)
I had sympathy for Dean Kingkade and even more for Dean Berger, who’s such a hamishe little man, in his bowtie and cardigan sweater. Perhaps Proshansky is trying to ease him out or for some reason did not want Mina Shaughnessy as Director.
I’ll never forget seeing Leslie adjourn the meeting, slam his books and papers down – it was the most gentle slam I’ve ever seen – and say, “There are many ways to insult people.”
I thought about writing a novel about CUNY, a sort of inside look-behind-the-scenes, like Arthur Hailey’s Hotel or Airport. My next story concerns the university. Tentatively titled “The Man Who Refused Tenure,” it’s sloshing around in my mind and I feel it will erupt in print soon.
It’s another story about people facing The Age of Possibilities (which might be a good title for a collection of such stories), the new lifestyles and alternatives suddenly open to them.
As for myself, I’m swinging back and forth every day. Some days I want to stay in school and live at home because being there is, respectively, rewarding and comfortable. Other days I decide that the MFA program is a waste, that I want to find a job and move out finally.
Monday, October 7, 1974
4 PM. It’s cloudy out, but it’s warm. These summery days seem so much more precious in the fall. But lately, all days seem so much more precious to me. I don’t have the slightest idea where I’m heading, but I guess I’m going in some direction. Alone. And it’s scary.
Last night Ronna and I agreed that being apart is scary, but as she said, “That’s exactly why we should do it.” We’re not in love with each other anymore, we’re both feeling that something is missing in our relationship – passion? – and we both want something more.
So why do I feel more in love with Ronna now that we’re just friends? Is it habit or the perversity of wanting something you can’t have? We’re having a “creative divorce” and remain friends. We want to discover ourselves and the world again.
These have been two wonderful years, and now it’s time to move on. It’s the right thing, I know, but it hurts so much. We’ll always be around for each other in case of a crisis, but now we’re not on call 24 hours a day.
We’re being so adult and mature, it’s disgusting. Did you ever hear of two people breaking up by hugging each other? We’ll be brother and sister, with maybe a little sex thrown in now and then. Who knows how it will go? But I’m willing to lose Ronna as a girlfriend if it will prevent my losing her as a friend.
Last night, as I was watching The Last Picture Show, Scott called. I was so surprised to hear from him that at first I didn’t know who it was. Scott said law school’s not that hard but that there’s an awful lot of work involved: he spent twenty hours in the library this weekend alone.
He’s living in a house in Chevy Chase with five other law students. “There are conflicts, but it’s all right,” Scott said. Sheila visited him one weekend, and he asked me to drive down for a visit – especially after he heard Avis was in town. He hung up with me and said he was going to call her directly.
A few minutes later, Avis called. She was also surprised to hear from Scott, and she said she flabbergasted him with the news that she’s returning to Germany. She’s going to the Consulate to apply for a visa, and hopefully then she’ll buy a ticket for a flight in late November.
Helmut writes that he’s in bad shape. He misses her a lot and has been doing a lot of solitary drinking and has become run down and sick. In a way, Avis said, it’s gratifying to know that Helmut needs her, but it also makes her feel guilty about leaving.
Avis was anxious for us to plan a trip down to Washington to visit Scott, but I told her to hold off a while; I’m not sure I could handle a trip like that now.
Today I drove out to the beach to visit Grandma Ethel, but when I got there, she, Uncle Jack and Grandpa Herb were preparing to leave, Jack for his home in Far Rock, and my grandparents about to drive to the hospital to visit Great-Grandma Bessie.
They told me they received a call from Aunt Claire on Saturday night when they were entertaining Grandma Ethel’s aunt and uncle, Shifra and Dave Tarras.
Claire and Sidney were at the hospital yesterday and things looked okay, but last night Great-Grandma Bessie fell out of bed and pulled out all her pipes and tubes. She thought she was at home and wanted to go to the bathroom.
Uncle Jerry, Aunt Claire and Uncle Sidney were at Flatbush General Hospital when we got there. The doctor, whom Uncle Jerry doesn’t like – he wonders why he didn’t spot his mother’s hernia earlier – gives Great-Grandma Bessie a fifty-fifty chance to live.
She was under sedation, and she looked like death; it was awful, with all those tubes. Without her bridge, Great-Grandma Bessie’s cheeks were sunken. At first she thought I was her grandson Howard, but later she said, “How are you, Richard?”
She was in pain and nauseous and very disoriented. It’s such a pitiful thing, getting old and sick. Seeing my step-great-grandmother like that, it made me wonder what it’s all about and if I’ll end up like that someday, dying in a forlorn hospital room with my relatives looking on, suffering with me.
Uncle Jerry – who, unlike Grandma Ethel and Aunt Claire – is her real child, was showing the strain. He said he decided to tell his half-brother Herbert, Great-Grandma Bessie’s other son, to come up from West Virginia, just in case . . .
Thursday, October 10, 1974
I feel good tonight, really good. Today was one of those days when all of a sudden, life looks like it’s got a direction, and I like the direction it’s taking. The MFA program is coming together, my writing is coming together, the people are coming together.
And on Tuesday, I begin work at Alexander’s; they called me from the store today and asked me to report to Personnel at 10 AM on Tuesday. I can’t wait to start, actually.
Last night I was bored. I couldn’t get Vito or Ronna on the phone, and I didn’t really feel like speaking to anyone else. So I took out old letters and was reading them and got this absurd idea of putting snippets from letters into a story.
So I wrote this short piece, using old letters from Melissa’s cousin David Alper, from Jerry, from Alice and Cousin Wendy, throwing them together with fragments from my diaries and other slight anecdotes. I called the whole thing “Rampant Burping” – after an incident at Leon’s draft physical – and will hand it into class next week.
Baumbach likes weird things – Simon is his favorite writer in the class because he writes like Donald Barthelme – and I want to see how he feels about this. The story makes absolutely no sense but was great fun to write.
This afternoon I had a tutorial with Baumbach, and before that, I spotted Denis on the grass of the quadrangle and we bullshitted for a while. Josh was definitely wrong about him being “a fag”; Denis is one of the most heterosexual people I know.
Today I was in such an expansive mood, I even foisted myself on Stacy, who, typically, was trying to avoid me. Baumbach introduced me to John Ashbery, who’s very genial and not at all the sullen poet he appears to be on his book jackets.
Baumbach said he liked the second half of “The Peacock Room” much better than the first. He did catch that it was a mother Leslie was hankering for throughout the story but he felt I could cut out much of the introductory prose and dialogue because they were unnecessary in reaching toward Leslie’s character in the end.
We discussed problems of style, and he gave me interesting little tidbits about various people; for instance, he said that Philip Roth’s wife actually tried the same urine-buying trick that was used in My Life as a Man to get the hero to marry her.
I told Baumbach about my diary and about my psychotherapy, and we had a good talk going. He gave me a manuscript to read for the Fiction Collective: a 300-page thing by a Brian Swann, some poet from Cooper Union.
We went over to the Workshop, where we did a story by Denis, one based on his actual adventures in Europe, which I rather liked.
There was fantastic give-and-take in the criticism and general discussion; the six of us are becoming tight, bantering back and forth good-naturedly, and I enjoyed every minute of today’s class.
And to reinforce the tightness, I joined Denis and Simon at The Pub for dinner; Todd came along later (Josh had to go to work). We got acquainted, and I told them about my family, my life at Brooklyn College, my therapy, and I got to know each of them.
Denis went to Stony Brook and was involved in the loose drug and sex scene there. Now he’s living in Park Slope with his mother, who’s divorced from his father, a bitter Ukrainian refugee in the East Village.
Simon has been living by himself downtown for a few years. His father’s dead and his mother remarried, to a man who Simon doesn’t care for with kids Simon doesn’t care for.
His successful older brother is paying for Simon’s therapy with a woman analyst, so I felt a kinship with him. Another kinship: tonight Simon was nauseous and nervous because of some kind of hassle with his new girlfriend, who weighs 200 pounds.
Todd’s older and straighter. An army veteran who drinks gin and tonics, he’s a straight arrow but sweet and he worships Hemingway and to a lesser degree, Faulkner.
I had a fine time with the three of them: it felt sort of like the old days of hanging out in LaGuardia lobby. And the tutorial, workshop and great dinner made Prof. Heffernan’s class on Hemingway afterward seem not that bad, either.
I’m glad the students in the Fiction Workshop started pulling together as a unit this week, laughing and joking with each other.
Maybe this program will get somewhere after all; if only Baumbach didn’t have his own “shoulds” about writing. It’s the whole Gestalt thing: it calls for even something more than us tolerating or accepting; what is, is, and that’s that.
When I got home, Leslie Berger called me to say that President Proshansky told him that there was a misunderstanding and he didn’t intend to insult anyone.
Dean Berger also said that he’s sending out a letter to Mina Shaughnessy and that he hoped that after everything, she would accept the position as Director.
I also spoke to Alice, who’s busy at school and with her classes. Andreas is on a business trip to Germany, and I told her maybe we can get together this weekend.
In President Ford’s inflation speech, he called for us to make sacrifice and enlist in “an army” to combat inflation. Prices are getting so high so quickly, though, I don’t think Ford’s proposals will help much. Will anything help the economy these days?