Tuesday, July 22, 1975
11 PM. I didn’t get any writing done today as I’d hoped to, but I was involved with people instead of words for a change and that did me good. It’s impossible to hermetically seal myself off from the world: I am somewhat gregarious and need people around me.
Libby called me this afternoon and asked if I could do her a big favor: go with her to a free clinic in Coney Island. I had planned to write all afternoon, but I didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes.
When I arrived at Libby’s apartment, she was getting dressed and she was visibly nervous. She told me that she had never been to a gynecologist before although Avis and others had tried to get her to go, so she was very scared of the procedure.
Her roommate Marisol, who was home with a cold, attempted to reassure Libby, and I of course made my old puns about the miscarriage trade and a gynecologist always being at one’s cervix. At least Libby groaned and it took her mind off her anxiety.
We drove to the clinic, which was in a project in Coney Island’s slums. Libby had an appointment at 3:30 PM, but the doctor didn’t arrive until nearly 6 PM, as there was an emergency in Coney Island Hospital.
In the time we had to wait, I held Libby’s hand (literally) and tried to ease her tension. The people there were very nice; when Libby told them that it was her first time, a woman explained the whole procedure to her beforehand.
Libby was sort of pale after they took four vials of blood, but she felt better after a while. We were practically the only white people in the clinic; there were mostly a lot of Black and Hispanic women and children there.
I went out for a while to call the YWCA and tell them that Libby would be late for work (she teaches swimming and is a lifeguard) and to get some gas for my car.
I felt a little strange waiting by myself in the clinic while Libby was seeing the doctor. One of the few guys there, a teenage boy, said to me, “Hey, man, you done knock up yo’ fox?”
“No, she’s someone else’s fox,” I said. “She’s my friend’s fox.”
But I remembered the time I took Shelli to Planned Parenthood on Court Street; that was nearly four years ago but it’s so clear in my mind. We were scared kids then.
I can even remember what I was wearing that day: a nice grey body shirt and new jeans that Shelli had bleached out for me. Shelli was wearing her purple dashiki that I liked so much, and she got her period right before the exam.
We had been so scared that she was pregnant. Writing about that whole experience, for the first time in many years, I remember those days with fondness and poignancy.
Libby finally came out, a bit pale, and instinctively, she took my hand. It was worth any inconvenience to me to feel like I was her protector. If that’s male chauvinism, then I’m guilty.
She has a simple infection that’s causing a discharge. Libby told me it was the first time in a long time that she’d slept with someone besides Mason and she felt terrible about possibly giving it to Mason when he came in from camp.
The doctor gave her pills for herself and for Mason, and vaginal suppositories, and he told her to douche whenever possible.
But the doctor also told her something a little scary: that she had an ovarian cyst and that she should take x-rays at Coney Island Hospital. I don’t know if that’s super-serious; the doctor said it’s possible that it might get smaller.
But Libby was shaking and so I took her to the Foursome, where we could relax and have some dinner, and afterwards she felt much better. (I was surprised when Libby told me she hasn’t eaten meat in three years.)
Then we took a twilight drive along the Belt and BQE to the YWCA on Atlantic Avenue. Libby told me I was welcome to come in for a swim, but I decided I’d drive over to Coney Island Avenue and Avenue H and spend an hour with Vito, which was a treat.
Vito is still as funny as ever, and all the reasons why I have always liked him still remain. He’s taking an Audiology course this summer, and working hard at it, but he isn’t that happy doing graduate work. He’s still not working, but he manages to go to all the shows and movies around town.
Vito’s gay, but he’s not gay in the weird way that Allan and Jerry and Leon are gay. Vito dresses like an average Joe and he told me that Allan and my other friends “belong to a very strange scene.”
Vito is more easy-going and it seems like he can relate to heterosexuals better. Like he spoke about his crush on Frank or how he likes to look at the cute guys in Playgirl. I guess this could sound ridiculous, but to me, Vito seems really wholesome.
We talked about various people: Tony isn’t friendly with him anymore and he hasn’t seen Joey for some time. He remarked how much friendlier to him Mike and Mikey had become, and he said he saw Debbie, whom he said “now looks good that she’s put on some weight and gotten rid of that makeup.”
Although Vito and I will never be the closest of friends, it’s good to know that we can always pick up the threads of our relationship after long stretches apart.
At the Junction afterwards, I spotted Ronna’s sister – or rather, Sue spotted me. I gave her a friendly greeting but I didn’t ask about Ronna, and later I felt glad I hadn’t.
This evening I spoke to Gary, who said teaching is going fine and that his parents enjoyed their trip to the Maritime Provinces. He spent the weekend at his sister’s in New Jersey and got stuck in a lot of traffic due to the flooding that resulted from the very heavy rains; the whole state has been declared a disaster area.
After I got off with Gary, Mikey called. I had driven over to his house on Sunday after leaving the beach in Neponsit, but by then Mikey’s mother said that he was over at Larry’s and I didn’t feel like going over there.
Mikey explained to me just whose car was in his driveway on Sunday. It seems he met this girl on the beach the previous weekend and took her number although she wouldn’t take his.
He called her on Wednesday night and asked her out for Saturday. She told him she might be going to the Hamptons and to call her back later. He did, and she was still unsure.
The next night he got no answer and on Friday he went to the Mets game with a neighbor and forgot about it. While he was at Larry’s on Sunday, the girl came over and parked in his driveway, telling his mother that she was a friend of Mikey’s and he’d said she could always park there.
When he finally caught up to her, she complained that she ended up sitting home alone on Saturday night.
“That’s the end of that relationship,” Mikey said.
Yesterday Mikey was uptown near Columbia and had to get to Lenox Avenue for a meeting about the Rikers Island program at John Jay, so he walked through Morningside Park and lived to tell about it.
About an hour ago, this guy named Harvey called me. He said that he was one of six people accepted into the MFA program in Fiction for the fall and wanted to know something about it. Slade had given him my number.
So I went into a whole routine about the program and told him that I felt it was worthwhile, but that I felt, as with most things, that you get out what you put into it. Josh puts in nothing and gets nothing from it, while I’ve gotten a great deal out of the program.
Along that line, I told this guy to get another opinion, so I gave him Denis’ number. Harvey also was accepted into the City College M.A. program, which is much bigger and boasts Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme, but he lives in Park Slope and it’s such a hassle to get to Harlem.
It was great for me to feel needed today and to be there for Libby. I am so lucky in all the friends I have made over the years.
Friday, July 25, 1975
11 PM. Today was a rainy day, but I enjoyed my French class, felt great, and was very productive with my writing.
Since I’ve been seventeen, I’ve always wanted to call a book Go Not to Lethe, after the line in Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy.”
But I’m not sure that title would fit the novel I’m trying to write this summer even if it is a dredging up of every conceivable memory and it does contain the almost obsessive concern I have with preserving details and fragments of people’s lives.
What I’m writing is influenced an awful lot by the soap operas which are still my daily companions. Maybe I should call the book A Modern Soap Opera. Anyway, I’m not really concerned with the title. I’m just excited because I finally am coming to the realization that I Am a Writer (with a capital W).
In a way, not having to see rejection notices in the mail every day this summer has freed me to do what I think is right and not worry about whether people will approve of it. And the same thing holds true for the absence of MFA classes this summer.
I guess I’m a young man in a hurry because I don’t know how much time I have before all my creative juices finally dry up or before I’m hit by a crosstown bus. I only know that I do not have enough time to do all that I want to do.
Our poor city is really going down the tubes. Last month everyone thought the so-called Big MAC (Municipal Assistance Corporation) bonds would get us out of our fiscal mess, but no one’s buying these bonds, so the city may have to default on its debts.
There may be desperate measures taken to avoid a catastrophe: even more layoffs, higher transit fares and tuition at CUNY. Giardino and the rest of the Board of Higher Education say they will not impose undergraduate tuition at this time, but at some point that step might be necessary.
It’s only too obvious that there’ll be no adjunct jobs in the Brooklyn College English Department this fall. Yesterday, leaders of the PSC, the faculty union, were on TV with our old friend Jay Hershenson, describing the $87 million in budget cuts as a disaster and threatening a strike for September if the BHE increases class sizes and teaching loads.
And of course the municipal unions’ leaders refuse to take pay cuts. With his usual chutzpah, Albert Shanker is asking for a 20% increase in teachers’ salaries.
This afternoon Hal called and invited me over for dinner tonight. I showed up at his house at 6 PM and was met at the door by Ivy, who did not seem very thrilled by my presence. I later learned that Hal had invited me without telling her, and she was understandably upset, as she had just come off an eight-hour shift at Maimonides.
But what was really bothering Ivy was that she and Hal have to find an apartment in a very short time – by August 18. When we were alone, Ivy expressed her anger at Hal’s parents for giving them such short notice to vacate the house, which they had just sold.
For the first hour I was there, Ivy took a nap while Hal was making the barbecue that was our dinner. Ivy said she oversleeps and overeats when she’s depressed.
Their apartment was a holy mess, but I was given to understand that this was not its usual state, that since the news that they would have to move, Ivy just gave up on housecleaning.
They have three cats and two dogs, and I tried to prevent the animals from getting at the raw hamburgers and frankfurters while Hal, dressed (or not dressed) in his usual jeans held up by a rope and no shirt, tried to light the barbecue in the midst of a teeming thunderstorm.
Hal prepared the whole meal and even made some home-fried potatoes that were not half-bad. We watched the news on TV while all this was going on, and finally, dinner was ready and Ivy drowsily came to the table.
She told me of the goings-on in the hospital; it seems like the doctors at Maimonides have nothing better to do than to play practical jokes on one another all day.
While Hal went downstairs, Ivy told me that her father’s been out of work and she’s been buying her mother shoes and pocketbooks every so often, and that Hal would not approve of that if he knew.
Hal wanted to get my opinion of two stories he had written, so I took the longhand manuscripts written in Hal’s indecipherable scrawl on yellow legal paper with me into a comfy orange chair and tried to read them.
The first was a spy story set in Chapel Hill, obviously inspired by their visit to Steve and Paula Katz, and the second was about a kidnapping by a radical underground organization.
I couldn’t really follow either story, and neither was of much interest to me. Hal’s writings, as he will freely admit, are all his fantasies, sort of James Bond/Hemingway stuff: a lot of macho action, a lot of sex.
Doing my duty as a friend, I made some lame inoffensive comments and suggested Hal try the men’s magazine market – places like Argosy and the like.
Ivy lay on the couch during all of this, reading a nursing journal while Hal cleaned up the after-dinner mess. For a while I was silent as I listened to their conversation. They seem to bicker as much as Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia do, so maybe their marriage will last 55 years, too.
Ivy talks a lot of baby-talk to him, which surprised me, as I’d always thought of her as being very mature and strong-willed. But with Hal, she plays dumb.
They were talking about Drew Pearson’s diaries and his revelations about Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy and President Eisenhower, and Ivy kept whining to Hal that she didn’t want him to have a mistress like Ike did.
They talked about how the Kennedys had to have affairs because their wives were perpetually pregnant, and Ivy asked Hal what he’ll do when she becomes pregnant.
“I’ll do a lot of boxing,” Hal said, and he began shadow boxing and finally sparring with me before he said he and I should go out to Flatlands Avenue for bagels.
I returned to have coffee with them before I left for the evening. They told me they’d really like to move upstate onto a couple of acres of land; he’d have a small law practice and she’d work in some rural hospital.
Hal and Ivy undoubtedly love one another and are pretty happy, but I would not like to be married the way they are. I don’t think I’d like to be married at all.
I enjoyed myself tonight, but seeing Hal and Ivy made me realize that I would always choose the loneliness of being single to the poignant unfulfilled dreams and constant presence of another person in a marriage.
Sunday, July 27, 1975
9 PM. I did no writing today and consequently I feel guilty. That’s good: I’ve found myself developing some kind of Protestant ethic relating to my work.
Once again, I’m not sure how to proceed with my “novel in stories,” and my doubts about its worth keep cropping up. But let me write this novel for myself and not worry about other people’s opinions, much less some publisher’s.
My French work must be sinking in because I spoke and understood French in a dream last night. I’ve forgotten most of it, but it took place in a classroom in the Soviet Union, where I was an exchange student. I remember feeling great love for the old man who was my professor. Although I couldn’t speak Russian and the other students didn’t speak English, we were able to communicate in French.
This morning, after combing out my hair, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I’m a cute little fellow. I’ll never be handsome, but I am definitely cute in a boyish/girlish way. As we know, folks, I’m a “tremendous, tremendous narcissist,” as Dr. Bob Wouk called me. (More and more, after all this time, I’ve begun to think of him as somewhat oafish, and he emerges that way in my fiction).
But if I can’t be narcissistic about myself, who can I be narcissistic about, right?
It was a gorgeous day today: sun, mild temperatures, low humidity. So what does our boy decide to do? That’s right, shut himself up in the movies. No, I’m not becoming a regular Stanley; I just didn’t see how getting any more tan could be good for me, and I’ve been dying to see Nashville since it opened.
So I rode into the city for the 11:40 AM show at the Coronet (or the Baronet – the one downstairs, anyway). Nashville was absolutely superb, a well-constructed movie that managed to be interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Don’t I sound like a critic? I wonder if we think about films in these ridiculous terms because we see movie critics write this way. Doesn’t everything depend upon a frame of reference?
Anyway, if I may be so bold, I’d like to compare my own fiction to Robert Altman’s cinema. I’ve just finished writing a section of the novel that, like Nashville, shows the interweaving of a large number of characters. It’s a soap opera technique, of course, something I’ve always liked. I remember a quotation from Borges stating that a writer writes the books he wishes to read. It’s true.
Around 5:30 PM this afternoon, I headed out to Rockaway; the beach traffic coming back into Brooklyn was very heavy, and it took me a while to get a parking space by my grandparents’.
Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia were finishing dinner when I arrived, and Aunt Sydelle and Uncle Monty arrived just after me.
Grandma Sylvia kept insisting that they eat something, and when they replied that they weren’t hungry, she became furious and kept rattling off all the things she could make for them. As if people committed a sin by not wanting food!
Monty was telling how Sydelle carried on this morning when she found a bump on her forehead; he said she was crying and screaming that she had cancer (sort of a stupid thing to say under the circumstances). I knew everything Monty said was true, but Sydelle became furious with him for saying it.
Then Grandma Sylvia complained that she wants to drive again but that Grandpa Nat gets all excited – I can just imagine them in the car – and they bickered. Then Monty suggested to Grandma that “your daughter” teach her and Sydelle became angry and said that he should do it himself because “I don’t see you working all day.”
I thought that was a horrible thing to say to a man with terminal cancer, and for the first time I saw how stupid my aunt really is; I don’t know how Monty can stand living with her. They’ve taken a hall for Bonnie’s wedding and may soon take one for Scott’s.
At 7:30 PM, I left and walked across the street to see Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb, who’d just returned from his sister’s in Great Neck. At least it was peaceful there: we sat on the terrace and felt the cool sky and watched the sun set over the beach.
Grandpa Herb gave me a Bicentennial proof set to give to Marc; he never forgets to give Marc a proof set of coins every year.
Tuesday, July 29, 1975
10 PM. Fate, as they say, works in mysterious ways. A half-hour ago, Ronna called – just as I had reconciled myself to never hearing from her again. I came to understand her reasons for not calling all these months, and I came to accept it and expect nothing from her.
And in a curious way, Ronna’s calling tonight didn’t make much a difference for me. If she had called last night, or the night before, or any night or day in the past seven weeks, it would have made a big difference; it might have changed things.
I’m not sure how I feel about her call yet – I only just hung up with her – but I do detect a slight feeling of . . . disappointment, strangely enough. In a way, I’m sorry she called and disrupted the life without her that I had been living – the life totally without her that I’d planned.
I guess I don’t really want it to make a big difference to me. I’d like to write the diary entry that I would have written had not Ronna Caplan phoned 338-1577 this evening. If she hadn’t called, I suppose I would have written something like the following:
I’ve just been sitting out on the porch chatting and sharing gossip with Evie. It was pleasant. Lately I’ve been so hungry for company: I didn’t realize how much, until this evening when I was at the Junction, having some writings xeroxed, and I saw Brendan walking, and he said, “How are you doing, Richie?”
I realized that it sounded so good to hear someone say my name. Lately no one has, and I’ve been craving some sort of affection. It’s not only sexual, but that aspect is very strong. My 24-year-old frisky red-blooded bisexual American corpuscles are brimming over with lust.
Last night I even dreamed I was humping a flat-chested 15-year-old girl. I look at boys’ bodies and girls’ bodies and want to get into them. I just want to touch someone and I want someone to touch me.
This is a strange point in my life. For the first time, I’ve been living my life almost completely on paper. I’m in touch with myself, but the world is intangible, as if behind some plastic curtain.
At this point in time, a lot of my good friends are away – Mara, Avis, Alice, Josh, Mason – and I don’t feel like inflicting my loneliness on Gary, Mikey, Libby or Vito. It’s an odd thing: You shy away from people because you’re feeling down, yet that’s when you need them the most.
That’s why I’ve always tried to seek out people so that it would look like an accident if we met; I got to bus stops and the places where people work, and I’ve even rode around Rockaway for hours, hoping to spot a familiar and hopefully friendly face.
Lately I’ve been scouring the personals ads in the Village Voice and the New York Review of Books, hoping to find a person I could read reach out to. Life is such a sad business, really; there’s so little chance to touch anyone.
I think about seeing Vicky and Ivan on the beach as they touched, played, held each other. Watching them, I felt their love for each other, and it made me feel good that people do touch each other and it made me feel sad for the gaping emptiness of my own life.
I think of that woman mayor on TV and of Uncle Monty, both of whom are going to die. I don’t know; in the end, maybe everything comes down to sloppy sentiment. Maybe the only way I can touch people is through my writing.
I hope that my novel does not seem stupid or vicious or absurd; I’m just trying to communicate my experiences and those of people I know – all, of course, through my eyes. I like soap operas because they are life and I like gossip because it is life, too.
For instance, tonight Evie told me that our old neighbor Ellen, Rita’s sister, called her mother from Delaware the other day to say that while she loves Al Ellman, her husband of two years, they’ve got serious problems. Ellen said they got married too young and they’re unhappy because of that.
I don’t enjoy gossip for gossip’s sake although it might seem that way. No, it’s because in pain or in joy or in foolishness we are at our most human – and what else do we have, ultimately, but our humanity?
Wednesday, July 30, 1975
8 PM. I did not have much time to think about Ronna’s call or sort out my complicated feelings. Today was an exhausting day, spent helping another person.
Cousin Robin called last night. Michael had fractured his leg in two places at day camp and she asked if Dad could come over in the morning and take Michael to the doctor. I volunteered to go along, and it turned out I was needed.
Up at 6 AM, I got very little sleep last night, but Dad and I had to drive out to Queens very early. When we arrived at Robin’s apartment, Michael was whimpering in bed, in what seemed to be terrible pain, his leg in a temporary splint.
At day camp yesterday, he tripped another boy, who fell on Michael’s leg. They couldn’t find Robin, who was at work. (She’s sure she gave them her dentist-employer’s phone number, as well as that of Dad’s place.) So they just let poor Michael sit there all day, with the nurse telling him to stop crying.
Last night Robin took him to Booth Memorial Hospital, but they didn’t have an orthopedist on call that could set it. They wanted him to stay overnight, but Robin didn’t agree to that, so they put it in a splint and let him go home.
Neither Robin nor Michael got much sleep last night; the poor kid kept crying out, “I want to go home,” not knowing where he was. It was so pathetic to see him lying in Robin’s bed, unable to bear the pain, and it was frustrating to go through all the hassles of finding a doctor.
Robin called her pediatrician, and she recommended an orthopedist, who told us to get Michael to his office by 11 AM. It was a long, tense wait, but getting him there was the hard part, as he screamed terribly whenever there was the slightest movement of his leg.
Dad and I managed to get him into a stroller a friend had lent Robin, and into Dad’s car, but the child was in agony. We couldn’t even get a pair of shorts on him, such was his pain. And he winced at every bump the car went over on the drive to the doctor’s office in Hollis.
We carried him into the clinic screaming, and thankfully the doctor took him right away. Dad held him as the doctor applied a cast, and Michael howled in pain and fright.
But it wasn’t so bad; I didn’t know before today how doctors put on a cast. Then they took some x-rays, and by that time Michael had calmed down.
While Dad and Robin were still in the office, I sat with him in the car (we’d taken him there by wheelchair) and we talked and he seemed to be in less pain.
The doctor said that he’ll have to be in the cast for six weeks and that he’s too young to use crutches, so he must stay still for some weeks with his leg elevated.
Michael reminded me of myself at that age, very scared but still cracking feeble jokes with the doctor, just as I used to do. We stopped off to get some food, got Michael into the stroller and had lunch in the apartment.
Robin went into Michael’s room to get a little sleep and Dad dozed off in the living room while I lay on Robin’s bed with Michael. He was a little cranky, but we watched TV for a while and he soon became as frisky as he always is, fighting me, twisting my nose, biting my thumb, etc.
Robin had to buy a bedpan for him, as he couldn’t go to the bathroom. I brought him some drinks and donuts and tried to keep him amused. As I lay next to that beautiful six-year-old boy, I thought: that that’s what love really is, when you have to take care of a sick child who needs you.
Dad and I were really needed today. Joel is in Washington, and of course none of Dad’s nervous family can ever be told anything until after things are okay.
Aunt Sydelle called just as we were getting Michael ready to go to the doctor; I had to disguise my voice and tell her she had the wrong number. It’s a very difficult thing for a mother to raise a child alone.
The day seemed five years long: we had gone through so much. I felt bad that we left at 4 PM, but Dad and I had been there for eight hours and we were falling apart. But poor Robin has to deal with this for weeks.
So you can see that today I didn’t have time to think of my problems. And that was a good thing.