Monday, March 1, 1976
Yesterday, on my way back from Manhattan, as I drove on the Belt Parkway past the Verrazano Bridge, I thought of the Board of Higher Education proposal to shut down Richmond College – or at the very least, merge it with Staten Island Community College.
Even if the latter proposal is accepted, Richmond will lose its special character and flavor. I know the budget cuts must be implemented somehow. Oddly enough, Prof. Ebel predicted the phase-out of the school in November 1973; he’s a wiser man than even I had given him credit for being.
I still remember my year at Richmond College with great fondness: the long drive up Bay Street, listening to Jim Croce on the car radio, the manic and friendly atmosphere of the cafeteria, the walk up “Cardiac Hill” past the St. George Theater on the way to the college, the jam-packed elevators, good teachers and what I got there: some knowledge and maybe a bit of wisdom.
And when the late afternoon classes became too boring, I could always look out the window and watch the ferries pulling in and out of the harbor.
First they took away my M.A. program, now the college itself. John Jay College is also in jeopardy.
I’m afraid that CUNY, an institution where I’ve spent the last seven years of my education, will never be the same as in those exciting, expanding days of ’69-’72. Well, we can’t live in the past, right?
At the playground at Avenue N and Utica, I ran into Alice. She was munching a Kit Kat bar, explaining that she’d been nibbling her sorrows away all weekend after becoming particularly depressed when she got a rejection of a solicited story by American Baby. But at least they paid her a “kill fee.”
Alice was going to meet Andreas in the city, so I drove her to the Junction. She told me she’s in love with the guy she played paddleball with at the playground last weekend, and she’s come back there every day since and hasn’t found her true love again – “but I’m getting very ‘in’ with the Clearasil set.”
I wonder if Alice will ever get over these ridiculous crushes.
Back at home, I called Libby and was glad to hear that she found a job: a $110-a-week position as a clerk-typist in the garment center, but still, it’s a job. Libby said she’d gotten half a dozen letters from Les since she left England; the two of them are so much in love.
A postcard arrived from Avis, who told Libby that she got a good part-time job teaching English at Berlitz, so things seem to be working out all around.
Late last night, I got a call from the next-to-last person I had expected to phone: Scott. (The last person, of course, is Ronna.) He told me he was furious with me for not inviting him to share in Avis’s birthday celebration and just had to get it off his chest after being so angry for the past two months.
I just let him vent his feelings. A call Scott got earlier in the day from Elspeth – “we talked for fifteen minutes” – had obviously prompted him to call me.
Then I explained that while I may have been guilty of thoughtlessness, I wasn’t being deliberately rude. Indeed, I told him the honest truth that Avis and I tried to phone him on New Year’s Eve. Scott’s attitude seemed to soften, and he said he may call me the next time he’s in town. Lucky me.
This morning I had a good class at LIU, a fine discussion of the Carson McCullers story. More and more, I am coming to like the people in my class.
But I’ve got to come up with an idea for the term paper soon. Prof. Economou says he has them write career sketches of the authors in the anthology, but most of the other professors use a casebook.
For the first time this term, I saw Dr. Farber – now the Dean of Humanities – who was, as usual, offhand with me.
This afternoon I called the Savages and spoke to Consuelo, who told me that she and her plump little baby were doing well. Just as his unemployment insurance was about to expire, Mark found a job at the New England Insurance Company. He takes classes at Brooklyn College four nights a week, and that’s very time-consuming.
When I told Consuelo I’d bought the baby a present, she told me I could bring it over this Friday evening.
Tuesday, March 2, 1976
2 PM. In a little while, I’ll be going over to the college to see Baumbach to get his final verdict on my novel. I’m pretty sure that he’ll find it sophomoric (of course it was meant to be) and not at all worthy of any kind of publication. I think I’m prepared to hear the worst and hope that Jon’s critique won’t come as a deadly blow to my ego.
In any case, I’m still glad I wrote the damn book over all these hours and months. For one thing, it helped teach me discipline so that my next novel might be better. For another, “it was the novel I had to write” – to finally get these LaGuardia memories out of my system.
It’s an honest book, and I tried some stylistic innovation; undoubtedly, in years to come, I may see it as an embarrassment but at least it will serve to show Mr. Big Shot here from whence he came.
Remember, Grayson, just seven years ago you were a capital-M mess: a quivering, nonfunctioning bundle of neuroses, phobias and anxieties. That I ever got this far is one of the major miracles of our time, and God only knows how I did it.
Anyway, I’m buoyed today by a charming – and, I hope, sincere – rejection of “Reflections on a Village Rosh Hashona” by Commentary, to wit:
Dear Mr. Grayson:
Mr. Podhoretz, who is currently away from the office, has asked me to write you about the enclosed story. All of us read your story with extraordinary interest, and although in the end we reluctantly decided that we won’t be able to use it, we found it a well-executed and compelling piece of work. We wish you luck in placing [it] and we hope you’ll continue let us see your writing in the future.
Nice, no? Actually, I think I shamed them into such a letter by appealing them to show me that they were not unresponsive to young and innovative Jewish writers. Still, a letter like this is almost worth two acceptances from an unknown little-little magazine.
This morning I went to the Fiction Collective office. Peggy and Julie Garretson (who’s really nice) were there. Thank God both of those rejected authors whose manuscripts I’d mixed up sent back each other’s novel and I was able to send them back to the proper place.
Marianne Hauser called to say that she’d gotten permission to use a highly favorable quote from Anaïs Nin, although it comes too late for our big New York Review of Books ad.
We got a lot of requests for information on the First Novel Contest: people wrote letters on scraps of paper, Massachusetts state welfare application forms, and invitations to weddings that took place long ago.
Julie was busy mailing out press releases on the Donnell Library reading, the one on March 15 where Martin Tucker will introduce Russell Banks, Mimi Albert and Clarence Major. Mimi, I noticed, got a letter from Kurt Vonnegut although of course we didn’t open it to see what he had written.
Raymond Federman is happy with the way Take It or Leave It came back from the printer and he thanked me for my praise of the novel. He’ll be coming to New York in the spring, and Peggy has got to start arranging another party to celebrate the publication of his book, Hauser’s, and Simckes’.
Russell Banks keeps sending us novels by his friends; of all of the Fiction Collective authors, I like him least. His critiques are usually quite cutting (“I can’t believe I read the whole thing!”) and he’s a snob.
Of course, B. H. Friedman tends to be snappish, and Mark Mirsky is the most negligent of the bunch: he still has manuscripts from October and doesn’t return them.
Peggy told me that Peter is taking his family to Paris. Apparently Peter’s sabbatical will last a full year.
I hear a lot of gossip and get a lot of inside information working for the Collective.
Wednesday, March 3, 1976
When I got to the MFA office yesterday, Jon wasn’t there, so I waited at his desk while talking with Jill Hoffman. She seemed very grateful to me for attending her reading at the Brooklyn Museum and told me what a paltry fee she’d received.
One item of gossip was very good news indeed: John Ashbery has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year. It hasn’t been announced yet, but everyone in the office knows about it. Ashbery is a difficult poet, but after reading Three Poems several times over, I’ve gotten into the rhythms of his writing.
Baumbach came in and took me out to lunch at McDonald’s. He finished the first half of the book and gave me his reactions.
Jon said he very much liked the energy of the beginning of the novel, the relationship with the Shelli character and the breakup afterwards, but he felt then the book seems to sputter out as my technical devices seem cluttered with extraneous names.
He wasn’t too interested in the political intrigues or the romantic involvements of characters other than Kevin – whom he said “is the book’s center but is often on the periphery after the breakup.”
Other than the characters based on myself, Shelli, Jerry, Avis and Dr. Wouk, most of the characters are just names who never come alive. He said “it reads like it really happened” but that in general, my insistence on the reality of my fiction works against me.
Anyhow, he’s going to hold off on a final verdict until he reads the last third of the novel. Truthfully, I didn’t expect as favorable a reaction as he gave me, so I was hardly disappointed.
I showed Jon my letter from Commentary and he thought it was quite nice. He gave me back the Connally manuscript; although it’s a weird book, I have the feeling it’s going to get the four Yes votes needed for publication.
Over our McDonald’s french fries, Baumbach told me, “We’re losing Julie.” She and Mark Strand are finally getting married, after breaking up for a long time and then getting back together again.
I remember being told years ago by someone (maybe Susan, who had Strand as an undergrad poetry writing teacher and didn’t like him) that he had “left his wife for a chesty blonde who works at the Eighth Street Bookshop,” but that description doesn’t fit Julie.
And Baumbach said Mark had been divorced before he was introduced to Julie by Sanford Friedman, B.H.’s brother. Julie was scheduled to take over as Coordinator when Peggy leaves in June, and now they’re kind of stuck.
I had this fleeting ego-trip fantasy that they might ask me to take the job – I’m sure I could handle it – but I’m positive they’re looking for a more mature lady-type Coordinator. Before I left, Jon gave me some payment orders signed by him and Peter to take to the Collective office.
Yesterday, in class, we went over my “Beds,” but the class reaction wasn’t very meaningful; it’s the kind of piece you either like or you don’t. I still have confidence in it.
After I drove Josh and Denis to Josh’s house, I stopped off the flea market to pick up Marc, who took in only four dollars all day. Once we got home, I felt in a good mood, so I figured I’d call Ronna.
We talked for half an hour, neither of us mentioning anything other than news. In truth, I’m not really angry with her anymore; I’ve accepted that’s the way Ronna is, and I’ve stopped loving her.
She spoke about her job at Telenet and how she’s put down a deposit for an apartment at Penn State for August. She’ll be out of the city for a year, and like Shelli, Ronna will be completely out of my life except in memory – which is a good thing, I think.
I stayed up late, watching the Massachusetts primary results. Scoop Jackson won a surprising victory with 24% to Udall’s 18% and Wallace’s 17%. Carter finished fourth, and behind him were Harris, Shriver and Bayh.
Bayh’s seventh place showing just about knocks him out of the race, which is really down to the top four finishers now. I’m for Udall, but I could live with Jackson.
This morning my class was fairly awful. I hemmed and hawed as we went over Katherine Mansfield’s “Marriage à la Mode.”
Still, there were a few bright spots, and after class, I was really knocked over by George Economou’s giving me a signed, personal dedication to a little mag, Sun, that had an excellent poem of his.
Friday, March 5, 1976
It’s just about midnight now. Saturday is almost here. I was just lingering on the porch. The night is so warm (65°) and so sweet, it’s almost unbearable to stay out too long. The beauty of life is overwhelming, and I feel so exultant I doubt I will be able to sleep.
If someone had told me seven, five – even two years ago – that life could be this good, I wouldn’t have believed them. Or I would have said: “Yes, perhaps some people’s lives are like that. But not mine.”
But it is. And the truth is in the feelings I’m experiencing now. I know that “getting high on life” is just a lot of anti-drug propaganda, but damn it, I feel so good, it’s like I’m soaring over the city.
Funny, because it feels like I’m in love – only better, because I know another person isn’t the cause of this high; it’s inside me. And if that sounds corny (like my story from last summer, “The Smile in the Closet,” which I could never show to the MFA workshop because they’d laugh) – well, I don’t care, because it’s real.
It’s not been an extraordinary day or a special week, but in a way it’s been super-special. In the last couple of days, I’ve written one story, gotten praise for another, shared memories and confidences with friends, held a three-week-old infant in my arms, learned things about the past from my grandparents, taught a course in a college, helped a friend, dreamed, saw myself doing things that make me happy and proud.
Yesterday I stopped off at the flea market to see if Marc wanted to be picked up after my class. I saw Gary walking up Nostrand Avenue, and he stopped to talk.
When we had spoken on the phone on Monday, Gary felt he was coming down with a cold. He said he stayed in a few days and was feeling better, but he was having a terrible time with his mother, whom he contends has become “a real sickie.”
She’s annoyed with the dog keeping her awake nights with its complaints – the biopsy proved negative, by the way – and Mrs. Marcus wants to put Taffy to sleep. Gary of course yells at her and then she tries to induce guilt by crying for hours or calling up Gary’s aunts and telling them how rotten he is to her.
On Thursday morning when he left, Gary’s mother said, “Say goodbye to the dog because I’m calling the ASPCA and she won’t be here when you return.” Gary doubted that she’d carry out this threat, but he left school early and was rushing home to make sure nevertheless.
In workshop, Jon told me he wants to see me next Thursday; apparently he’s finally finished my novel and I’m about to get the final verdict. We went over the first chapter or section of Simon’s novel, which I liked enormously, though surprisingly, I found myself in the minority.
Josh gave his usual criticism: he keeps telling me and Simon that our latest stories are not up to our “usual standards” but neglects to mention that he never liked my stories or Simon’s in the first place. When I told Josh that, he just became more sullen than usual.
Baumbach liked it, but felt Simon should move at a faster pace and go back to more of his verbal pyrotechnics. I argued the reverse, that Simon had done exactly the right thing in pacing it slow and in subordinating language to plot and character.
I really felt awful, for while I may not like Simon as person, I respect him enormously as a writer, and I felt it was unfair to judge a fractional portion of a longer work by the same standards as we judge a short story.
I told Simon I hoped he wouldn’t let his writing be affected by any negative reactions, but Simon assured me that he was too self-confident and “arrogant” to let the class’s criticisms bother him or affect his work.
Next we took up what I thought was a very weak story of mine, “A Wake in One Zone,” and I was pleasantly surprised by the class’s reaction. Josh, of course, said, “The story did nothing for me.”
But Todd said it was his “favorite” of my stories; Denis “loved” it and was moved by it; Anna liked it and so did the others, although they had reservations about my overly lyrical passages.
And then, at home, I received a rejection notice (one of three that arrived today) that said, “Of all these stories, ‘A Wake in One Zone’ shows the most promise.”
I picked Marc up after class. He told me that he and Arnie will probably make back their investment but that the people in the flea market are folding their booths one by one.
We went out to dinner with Mom and Dad at the Floridian, while Jonny, who’s just like me at that age, naturally stayed home to avoid going out to a restaurant.
There was some bickering between me and Mom about her overprotectiveness toward Jonny, but it turned out to be a pleasant meal in the end.
Back home, I revised and typed up my piece “The Autobiography of William Henry Harrison’s Cold,” (“as told to Richard Grayson”), and I know it’s too early to judge, but I think I’ve got a winner.
The conceit – that of a cold writing its memoirs to get its “proper place in history” – is a good idea, and I think I executed it nicely, giving the cold a very pompous, self-aggrandizing 19th century voice.
I slept okay, and this morning, before I went off to LIU, I said goodbye to my parents, who left to spend the weekend at a Catskills resort. Class went okay today: I assigned another paper, went over the Mansfield story and told them to begin reading their How to Write Your Term Paper text.
After class, I asked Dr. Tucker if he could suggest a casebook, and although he wasn’t very helpful on that, he took me around and introduced me to all the full-time faculty, gave me a message about the Donnell Library reading for Peggy, and told me to submit a story to Confrontation.
The rest of the day I was busy xeroxing, going to the post office, the bank (Ellen and Wade, bless them, sent me a $10 check so I could mail out Avis’s package to Germany), and Kings Plaza.
For dinner, I went over to Grandma Ethel’s, getting there during a brief thunderstorm. We had chicken and chow mein and a great time.
Grandma Ethel told me about being eleven or twelve and sneaking into Rumania to get out of Russia with Dave and Shifra Tarras, her grandparents, and her brother and sister, and how she’ll never forget a parade and seeing the king and queen of some country pass by in a carriage. She’s not sure what country it was, but it sounds like the queen was either Marie of Rumania or Queen Mary in London.
Grandpa Herb told me how his father once studied for the rabbinate and knew Hebrew well, but then gave up on religion after reading Karl Marx; my great-grandfather refused even to go to his son’s (Abe’s) bar mitzvah. Bubbe Ita had Abe go to Hebrew school secretly, but Grandpa Herb and Uncle Jack never did and never were bar-mitzvahed. They’re still atheists.
Zaydeh Isidore, Grandpa Herb said, rolled his own cigarettes and looked like he was 85 when he was 62 and dying of cancer. (Even though he was a vegetarian, he got stomach cancer.) One day Grandpa Herb went to see him and said, “Don’t worry, Pop, you’re going to be okay,” and his father threw off his bedcover to show his shriveled legs and said, “With these matchsticks I’m going to get better? Don’t be ridiculous! I’m dying!”
After dinner in Rockaway, I went to see Mark and Consuelo at their house; when I got there, Consuelo’s father was bringing the baby down to the basement.
Mark and Consuelo were perfect hosts, as usual: they weren’t all over me, but they went about their business as I spent the evening there, making me feel like a member of their family.
David, who’s now three, is a beautiful child, so bright and talkative; I guess he was performing for me. He’s sowing the usual resentment over the birth of his baby brother, but Mark and Consuelo are handling it well.
When David acted up, Mark said, “You can be angry with me and we still love each other,” and Consuelo tries to work things out. I had brought the baby a sleeping-suit, but Consuelo said that the wrapping paper, string and box were for David to play with.
William is such a big baby for a three-week-old. Consuelo let me hold him, which was a joy. The baby had the hiccups, poor thing, but he looked so beautiful, so tiny, so perfect. His eyes followed me around the room. Later, Consuelo breast-fed him as we talked, and it seemed so natural.
Mark and I relived old times at Brooklyn College and we discussed what this person or that one had been doing. Consuelo and Mark really are the nicest people: she’s so sweet, it’s hard to recall that I once found her intimidating.
It was a great evening, being with old friends. They said they don’t see too many old friends, especially since Jerry and Shelli moved away. Anyway, I’d love to see more of Mark and Consuelo.
Wednesday, March 10, 1976
5 PM. It’s a grey day. It snowed heavily, but most of it melted during the course of the day.
Last evening at dinner, I read in the paper that the Eighth Street Bookshop was heavily damaged by fire. I guess Laurie will tell me about it when I see her in Kaye’s class tonight.
I spent the rest of the evening watching The Adams Chronicles and the results of the Florida primary. Ford beat Reagan, 53% to 47%, but Reagan is going to try to remain in the race. Carter won the Democratic primary with about 34% of the vote; he beat Wallace, who got 30%, and that’s an accomplishment.
Jackson finished third, but it looks like he’s going to win the New York primary on April 6 by default. Udall will be concentrating on Wisconsin the same day; Harris and Carter may not make efforts to win New York; and Bayh’s delegate slates no longer have any candidate.
Anyway, I’ve lost interest in the race, as there is no one running who really appeals to me. I like Udall, but he doesn’t have much of a chance.
I had to dig my car out of the snow this morning, but traffic was light and I managed to get to LIU in plenty of time. I got some coffee from the department pot and sat by Margaret’s desk, chatting with her, Gerry Silviera and George Economou.
Martin Tucker will be at a conference at Northwestern until Sunday, but he told me to tell Peggy he’d be back in time for the Donnell reading on Monday night. Gil Brafman, the very nice guy with whom I share my office – he is an M.A. student there and teaching English 10 – will be taking over Tucker’s class while he’s gone.
George and I took our classes to the new library, where they received three separate lectures by the card catalog, in the reference room, and in the periodicals room. I told my class that they’d be doing their term papers on The Great Gatsby, and none of them seemed particularly thrilled; some are very worried about doing a research paper.
But I tried to assure them that I’d baby them along every step of the way; hopefully, today’s visit to the library was useful. In any case, it was nice not to have to teach for a change.
On our way out of the library, George and I met Elihu, who was going to work. Of course everyone at LIU, especially in the English Department, has known Elihu since he was a little kid.
Elihu said he’s working twenty hours a week at LIU and that it’s hard to keep up with his own schoolwork at the Graduate Center. He’s got Arthur Schlesinger for a seminar that he has to do a 50-page paper for.
Leaving LIU, I drove over to the municipal parking lot near the downtown Brooklyn College campus and went up to see what I had to do at the Fiction Collective.
I sent out four or five manuscripts to various author/members to vote on; we’re still a long way from accepting any manuscripts for next spring’s series of three books.
We’ve been inundated with query letters for the First Novel Contest, and quite a few of the letters are nearly illiterate. It appears millions of Americans believe that old saw that “everyone’s got at least one good novel in ‘em.”
Fortunately, most of these would-be novelists sent stamped, self-addressed envelopes, so I just sent them the press release containing the rules.
I heard Peggy speaking to B. H. Friedman on the phone. They were talking about Julie marrying Mark Strand next week (he’s going to teach in Virginia and she’s going with him), and I heard Peggy say, “Oh dear . . . oh dear . . . that’s terrible,” and I guessed (correctly) that B.H. was telling her about the Eighth Street Bookshop fire.
This afternoon I had my new piece (“The Life of Katz”) xeroxed, and I’m going to send it out; both my parents thought it was very clever. I’m tired now, but I do have my class at BC tonight and also the Graduate English Students Association meeting beforehand.
But tomorrow I can sleep late, and on Friday I’ll be home from LIU by noon and have the rest of the weekend at leisure.