Wednesday, June 23, 1976
11 PM. Driving home from Rockaway just now, over that familiar route I’ve taken thousands of times, I thought how today – my graduation – had been a perfect day.
And then I thought: No, it wasn’t perfect; things went wrong. But it was the most perfect day one can expect in this life, this life that is so sweet. I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I think they are tears of gratitude, of blessing.
For I have, at this moment, a kind of wonderful peace. Oh, there’s turmoil inside of me somewhere, and anxiety, and worry and plenty of meanness, I’m sure. But it’s okay: I’m human; I’m entitled.
Even to this day I still think of myself as my own therapist. When I think I’ve done something “wrong” or have thoughts that are not “nice,” I ask myself: Am I a bad (or stupid or crazy) person?
And the answer comes back quickly these days: No, you’re just a person who does this or that, or a person who feels such and such. You’re just you, Richard Arnold Grayson. In the end, the only relevant question seems to be: “Are you living up to your potential?”
Same Sam Levenson spoke about this in his remarkable commencement address today. (I’m very proud of the Freudian slip I just made, writing Same Levenson, linking him with little old me). He said that every single person has a message to give the human race, and ultimately the judgment of a person rests on whether he has delivered his message.
The message, Levenson said, may only a semicolon or a comma – but each person has a unique impact on something. We all can’t be Einsteins or Marxes or Freuds or Christs, but it’s important – from a very selfish point of view – that we each be allowed to deliver our message.
I feel I have a message to deliver, too, and with all the advantages I’ve had in this life, if I don’t do it, it will only be because I didn’t work hard enough.
Levenson quoted his immigrant father: “If you’re looking for a helping hand, look down at the end of your own arm.” I know that a sophisticate, like I’m supposed to be, would find Sam Levenson unspeakably corny and sweetly trite.
And maybe in the past I thought that way, too. But today I saw Sam Levenson as a mensch, my highest compliment: a person who does what he does best, adding to human understanding with compassion and humor, and not letting himself get pretentious or pompous.
If I could achieve what Sam Levenson has – Dean Ethyle Wolfe compared him to Socrates – I will be happy.
It was a beautiful day for graduation: I finally learned how to put my master’s hood on correctly and got in line early. I love the ritual of graduations, the pomp and circumstance of “Pomp and Circumstance” playing during the academic procession.
I guess rituals are comforting. I got to sit in the first row, so for the first time I was able to see as well as hear everything going on in front, the President and deans and guests and honored alumni sitting facing the audience in front of LaGuardia Hall.
I love Brooklyn College so dearly, and I want to give back to it one-tenth of what I’m taking with me. Seeing Meyer Kantor there, I know he feels the same way, as do other people: Marie, Hilary Gold, Ira Harkavy.
And now I’m going to plunge into the depths of sentimentality by admitting that I had the most terrific chills up and down my spine during the national anthem.
I nearly hated myself for feeling patriotic; I was amazed that I felt that way. Why is it so much easier to confess to sexual feelings than it is to admit to anyone that I’m – can I get out the words? – proud to be an American. There, I said it. Oh well, nobody’s looking.
I have to confess I watched the flag wave, too. And when Harold Jacobs, Al Giardino and Borough President Leone spoke, I felt proud of being from New York, from Brooklyn, and for having gone to CUNY.
After Sam Levenson’s address, President Kneller conferred our degrees upon us. I was one of only three people among several thousand who stood when he asked candidates for the degree of Master of Fine Arts to rise.
Soon it was over and I was kissing and congratulating Marie and Robin and Mark Cohen and Julian Goldberg. And Mom and Dad were there, saying how proud they were of me. “Even if we do fight,” Mom said.
And so I became Richard Grayson, B.A., M.A., M.F.A., Phi Beta Kappa. I turned in my rented cap and gown, and Mom and Dad took me out to eat lunch at Cooky’s on Avenue M.
Dad and Marc are going to Florida this weekend to again look for a business. Art Pants will vacate its 87 Fifth Avenue fifth-floor loft – “the place” – at the end of the month as its business is being settled little by little.
Back home, I received a call from Alice, with very good news indeed: she got the job as a staff writer on Seventeen. She’s going to be assistant editor of their Mini-Mag section, working 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM for $160 a week.
Alice has quit Vanderveer (again, on short notice), terminated her Courier-Life column, and suspended publication of Henrietta. She hopes this will work out. Alice basically wants a chance to write (though now she can’t write for any of Seventeen’s competitors).
Alice starts next week, and I wished her all the luck in the galaxy. It’s kind of amazing that I met her in second grade in P.S. 203 and knew her through all the years there and at Meyer Levin Junior High and Midwood and Brooklyn College, and now I’ve seen her well along on her way to achieving her dream of being a writer – though a very different kind of writer from me.
I went out by the pool for an hour or so, and when I returned to my room, I found a graduation card in the form of a beautiful photo-plaque with a quote from Thoreau:
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
I take that imperative very seriously. And Mom and Dad gave me $50 in cash tucked inside the envelope. I was really surprised; I hadn’t expected a gift at all, and that made it so much nicer. When I told them that it was very generous, Mom said, “We wish we could give you more.”
All this sounds too sappy and perfect, so let me say that I was a grouch because dinner was late; that should balance things out a bit. After dinner, I deposited some money in my new checking account and went to visit Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia.
I gave Grandpa Nat his Father’s Day card and he gave me a bottle of Brut cologne. We talked about the wedding and everything. Monty’s in the hospital for tests; he’s supposed to be given some new experimental drug.
I thought it was terrific how Monty was able to hold up during the wedding, especially in view of the fact that he’d gone that morning to the funeral of his first mother-in-law. (Their grandmother’s death was why Merryl and the twins weren’t at the wedding.)
I gave Grandma Sylvia a copy of my graduation book and then went across the street to give another one to Grandpa Herb, who was watching the Mets game while Grandma Ethel was out playing cards.
We spent a wonderful hour together. Grandpa Herb is a remarkable depository of oral history, teaching me new things about my family: In Brownsville as a kid, he lived across the street from Grandma Sylvia’s family’s house.
Grandpa Herb said that my other great-grandmother, Grandma Sylvia’s mother Hannah Cohen, looked just like his own mother, Bubbe Ita, and the two women would sit facing each other, talking, all the time.
He said he used to look in the window of the Cohens’ house and always see kids partying and dancing, and how he wanted to meet them, which he did.
Grandpa Herb said it was kind of amazing that on Sunday at the wedding, he found himself sitting at a table with Grandma Sylvia’s brothers sixty years after he’d first met them and used to hang around the poolroom with Uncle Daniel and the others.
Grandpa Herb’s father was an intellectual, a graduate of gymnasium who could speak and read four languages, yet one day back in Russia, he saw Bubbe as a young girl swinging on a gate, and picked her out as the one he would marry (he got his married sister to arrange it with Bubbe’s father) – even though Bubbe Ita was illiterate all her life.
There are many other stories I learned, which I must write down someday, to use them in my own stories.
Saturday, June 26, 1976
6 PM. It’s funny how our waking lives echo and reverberate the stuff of our dreams. Riding on Flatbush Avenue this afternoon, I was stopped at a long light by Kings Plaza.
A baby in its mother’s arms was in the car next to me, and we made eye contact and smiled, and then the baby kept pointing at me. He seemed almost desperate to reach out to me; he tried, I believe, to open the door of his parents’ car. I kept waving and smiling and pointing myself. When the light changed, of course, we lost eye contact.
A nice experience – but it relates to a wonderful dream I had last night, in which an infant too young to speak said to me as I passed his carriage on the street: “I adore you.” I was amazed, in the dream, that such a young child could speak and that he chose those words to say to me. Then I awoke in a kind of ecstasy.
Last evening I was bored, unhappy with myself and troubled by my homosexual desires. All week I’d involuntarily turn my head whenever a shirtless boy appeared. I felt like such a fool and a hypocrite, not acting out my desires.
I figured that’s why Shelli never called me again after my birthday: she saw through me and found me a pompous, moralizing, judgmental, saturnine prig.
Deciding that the ripe old age of 25, I should finally “come out,” I got dressed, intending to go to Christopher Street and Waverly Place in the Village and cruise until I found a guy or he found me.
For a change, I looked really nice, and I started driving on the Belt, lost in thought, wondering why I’ve fought the idea of being gay for so long. Earlier in the day I had bought Gide’s The Immoralist: was I like his protagonist, unwilling to admit my true nature?
But it didn’t seem likely. I’ve known how I’ve felt for close to a decade; seven summers ago, I was absolutely certain I was homosexual. Why, then, have I never had a single gay experience in spite of the fact that I’ve had a lot more gay friends than most people? Why have my lovers been girls?
In 1969, Dr. Lipton chided me for saying “Hooray! I’m a homosexual!” (his interpretation of my attitude, not words I’d ever use); Rochelle Wouk said, “Believe me, Richard, you’re not gay”; and when I told Mrs. Ehrlich that I enjoyed looking at some boys’ bodies, all she said was, “Some boys have nice bodies.”
In the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, I had a revelation about my bisexuality: where homosexuality is forbidden or secret, I crave it, but when it’s available to me, I start feeling more heterosexual. And I noticed that I was feeling more and more like being with a girl the closer I got to my destination.
Blind panic? Rationalization? Perhaps. But I’m not like Gide’s hero; I’m not unsure of what I’m feeling. I am bisexual, but I’ve been using that in a weird way to avoid something much more scary to me than the bugaboo of homosexuality:
I’m scared shitless of any kind of emotional commitment.
That fear of commitment seems to underlie every inch of my life, from my masochistic gay fantasies (they begin and end with no emotional tie, and more hostility than affection is involved) to my whole “solitary writer” bag.
In the Village, this hypothesis was confirmed as I found most of the guys pleasant-looking but so bland and uninteresting, and I had no desire to sleep with any of them; instead, I started staring at women.
The same thing happens whenever gay men are available to me. The last time it happened was at Elspeth’s party, where I wasn’t interested in Elihu’s gay friends – not as potential lovers, anyway.
But I realize the same thing is true of women: I must send out signals to that effect to both sexes, or I would have gotten more involved with someone by now.
Ronna was perfect for me because she was just as terrified by commitment as I was. Since Ronna, I’ve been “cautious” – as with Cookie – but that, like a lot of things in my life, is a copout.
Suddenly feeling both content and dreamily exhausted, I left the Village and made my way home in the summer night.
Sunday, June 27, 1976
3 PM. What am I doing with my life? I tend to wince when people ask me that question. With everything so up in the air, the answer is: I just don’t know. I’m tempted to ask the question, “What should I be doing?” But that’s a dead end.
I know that I want to write more than anything in the world, and I also know I can’t make any money writing fiction. Yesterday Don Fried of New Voices wrote to say he’d love to keep my revised version of “Other People,” if I can stand the long wait until the next issue in March 1977 and if I am okay that the payment is in copies.
I can wait, and I am okay with not getting paid in money – for now. I know I’ve got a little talent, some energy, and a whole lot of dedication. But I can’t starve, and I can’t go on like this forever, treating my parents like some wealthy patrons of the arts.
It’s been so hot and I’ve been very lazy, not wanting to start the search for a full-time job. I’m qualified to do almost nothing. Although I’m sure I’d be a competent employee in many areas, I’d be bored doing most jobs.
Until now I’ve never been willing to sacrifice my writing – some might say my comfort – to financial realities, but there comes a time in one’s life when one gets tired of being broke all the time. I just do not know where the money is going to come from.
Mom is very excited about moving to Florida, but Dad seems a bit less enthusiastic; he and Marc will be going down there soon, but Dad’s in a quandary about his own future. Things are so very uncertain for all of us in the family this summer.
I hesitate to make any permanent plans; I’ve decided to forgo buying a stamp with my name and address on it because I can’t be sure how long I’ll be living here. I haven’t spoken to anyone outside the family about the possibility of me moving to Florida, and I really can’t picture myself living there.
But I can’t picture myself staying here alone, either. I feel kind of guilty and ashamed.
Yesterday morning Gloria called me, asking if I could meet her at Braziller on Tuesday morning. Russell Banks had phoned her with the idea of each judge – himself, Michael Braziller, and Clarence Major – getting fifteen First Novel Contest manuscripts and each choosing five before they met. I told Gloria I’d go in and help her winnow down the manuscripts, but I expect to be paid.
Late yesterday I went out to visit Mikey at the beach, sitting with him and his mother. Mikey’s now working at the new Tuition Assistance Program at John Jay, and that will last until the middle of August; Mike’s doing the same thing at Brooklyn.
Paul, visiting from Atlanta, came over to talk to Mikey, bringing his girlfriend who drove up with him. He didn’t remember me.
Saying that life in Atlanta is “very pleasant,” Paul told us that “it should get even better when Jimmy becomes President and pours all that money in.” (Notice: when, not if; Jimmy, not Carter.)
Mikey said that Mason was on the beach earlier; Mason quit the job at the first camp and has taken another counselor job at a different camp.
Mikey’s mother asked me to stay for dinner, but I declined, preferring to dine at the Floridian by myself. Also, I was hoping that Ronna might return my phone call; earlier in the day, I had spoken with her sister, who said Ronna came back from Canada on Friday morning.
On Friday, Gary called from Prof. Davidson’s office at Columbia; he’s been working on the residence hotel project, arranging interviews for the study, and he’s spending time with Betty and going on his own job interviews. I just hope Gary gets something soon.
Early this afternoon, Alice came over. She said she’s trying to relax but doesn’t remember how to. She’s seeing Andreas, but is also seeing Jim fairly regularly. On Friday night, Andreas dropped off her at home at 10:30 PM, and right after that, she went out with Jim to his boat in Bergen Beach.
Alice and I drove to Rockaway, where we met Larry and Mikey on the beach, but because Alice says she absolutely hates the beach, we didn’t stay long. It’s hard for me to understand people who don’t love the beach at Rockaway as much as I do, but I grew up there and it’s always been an important part of my life.
Tuesday, June 29, 1976
11 PM. It’s been a long and difficult day, and I ache with exhaustion. Uncle Monty died early this morning in the hospital where he was taken a week ago.
The day after the wedding, he became very ill, and Bonnie heard about this doctor who supposedly was having success treating advanced cancer patients with some new medication.
Monty couldn’t eat or drink, and yesterday afternoon he had an operation to try to open up his passages or something – I really don’t understand it – and it seemed to go all right. Of course, the man was extremely ill, and I guess he couldn’t stand the strain.
He died at 7 AM, supposedly from a coronary. Mom told me the news when I awoke an hour later; Dad had already left for Cedarhurst. Seeing as there was nothing I could do, I went ahead with my plans to work with Gloria at Braziller.
We worked hard all day, but Gloria’s easy to work with, and I collected $40 worth of stamps that the authors put in for postage (I can use the postage for my own submissions) since Braziller’s planning to send back the manuscripts UPS.
I think we went through all the manuscripts and rejected most. Now we have to look through the “possibles” to narrow them down to 45 manuscripts, sending 15 to each judge (Russell, Clarence, and Michael Braziller). Gloria said she’ll pay me if I come in on Thursday to finish the job.
I came home at 6 PM, tired and sweaty after a long rush-hour subway ride. Soon afterwards, a tired-looking Dad came home. Together with Aunt Sydelle and Merryl, he made the funeral arrangements, something Dad said he’d never done before in his life.
Aunt Sydelle, Dad said, was carrying on terribly. This morning Dad had to call Merryl with the news about her father, and she was totally shocked. Merryl was the last person to be with him last night – which seems fitting, since I think Merryl was the person Monty loved the most – and she said he’d felt better and was joking around.
But Sydelle told Dad that Monty knew the end was coming soon. He had always been so cheap, and in the last two weeks he started spending a lot more, as if he knew he wouldn’t be around to have to pay for things. He died with $60 in the bank.
Last night he told Bonnie that he wanted her to get married on Sunday no matter what, and according to Jewish tradition, they probably will go on with the wedding.
I feel sorry for his daughters: they’ve lost their maternal grandmother so recently – Monty’s mother is up here from Florida – and they had no mother. Sydelle told Dad that just last week, for the first time in ten years of marriage, Monty said to her that he felt guilty about his first wife dying in childbirth at 28.
Grandpa Nat didn’t tell Grandma Sylvia until tonight, and she took the news very hard. Dad had to call all the relatives and friends.
Robin told me that at least Monty’s suffering is over. For the past year, she hasn’t gone to the house because she couldn’t bear to see Monty fading away: “It was like a terrible rerun of my father’s death.”
This evening I drove to Cedarhurst to see how Aunt Sydelle was doing. Barbara and Scott had come in from Washington and said they’d stay with her. Sydelle was composed, but she looked dreadful. Joined by Barbara’s parents, we sat in the den, talking.
Sydelle would like to sell the house as soon as possible; it’s got so many bad memories for her, and besides, she badly needs the money. She even spoke of having to get a job, not that she really can do anything – and she is nearly 55 years old.
Whatever one may think of Sydelle – and Mom says she feels no sympathy for her although she feels sorry for Monty, “a nice guy” – it’s a pity for her to be in that position.
I realized that I was sitting in the same rocking chair that I had been when I was last there, when Uncle Monty was sitting on the couch and we were talking.
He was a lively, hearty person: kind of a typical jovial uncle, even if I did not know him that well. I hope he is resting in peace.
Wednesday, June 30, 1976
10 PM. Today was a sad day and a strain for everyone. I had difficulty sleeping last night, and I did not sleep well.
Uncle Monty’s funeral took place at 2 PM in a chapel in Rockville Centre. Mom and Dad took their parents while Marc and I went in his car; Marc had never been to a funeral before.
We walked into the room where the family was and I went over to give what I knew was futile comfort to Aunt Sydelle and to Merryl and the twins. I guess it is somewhat comforting, somehow, to know that people care: a touch, a hug, a held hand.
Aunt Sydelle looked awful, and Monty’s daughters were crying so much. It was Grandma Sylvia, though, who was weeping something terrible; she was very fond of Monty, one of the few people who could make her smile. But everyone was fond of Monty.
There was a very large crowd there, an amazing turnout for a funeral in the middle of the week: Monty’s family (he had many nieces and nephews); Sydelle and Dad’s aunts and uncles and cousins from both sides of the family; numerous friends; the in-laws (the Morgenthaus and Barbara’s grandmother; Joel’s parents; Ted’s parents and grandparents; Uncle Ralph’s relatives; Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel).
Just ten days ago I had seen so many of them at the wedding. It was obvious this wasn’t a normal family situation, though; none of Monty’s family went over to Sydelle except for Merryl and her Aunt Belle.
Monty had four sisters, and when everyone but the immediate family went into the chapel, Dad stayed behind with Aunt Sydelle because, he later said, he felt she was “among enemies.”
Everyone has their own ax to grind, of course; Mom will not give Sydelle one ounce of sympathy – Mom can be very hard at times – and in the car on the way to the cemetery Grandma Sylvia called Monty’s mother “that old witch”; Sydelle said Robin’s presence made her nervous; and so on and so on.
The service was short, and the rabbi spoke of Monty’s good nature, his sense of humor, his zest for living – all of which was true. It was good to see the family together; at least I felt that way. I sat next to Great-Uncle Harry in a row with some of Dad’s Ginsberg cousins.
I went in a car with Dad, Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Nat to the cemetery; Marc, Mom, and Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb were supposed to follow us, but they got lost.
On the ride on the Southern State, there were all those trite clichés about life and death. In the end, things (archetypes?) boil down to nothing but clichés: sex, death and money are all that are of interest.
We directly followed Scott’s Pacer – or rather, his mother-in-law’s – to the cemetery and stopped near the gravesite, which, ironically enough, was very close to where Uncle Ralph is buried. Aunt Sydelle cried, “I’ve got one husband there and one husband here!”
I had never been to a cemetery service before, and I was moved to tears, especially when Monty’s mother, who had been bearing up very well until then, completely broke down when someone handed her the Kaddish book.
“Monty!” she screamed. “My only son, my youngest, my pride and joy! . . . My pride and joy, what a lonely grave this is . . . You should have buried me, not this way . . . How can I go on, without my Monty? “
She was so agitated – by chance, I was standing immediately behind her and Scott and Sydelle, who were saying kaddish – that one of her grandsons had to step in and take her away.
What Uncle Monty’s mother was saying were all stock, trite phrases of grief – but when spoken with feeling, they were so powerful that I, and most people, couldn’t help being moved to weep.
It was a pitiful sight at that cemetery; that look of grief is terrible to see.
Sydelle’s sitting shiva at her house, and the others will be at Monty’s niece’s. Dad and I rode back to Cedarhurst with his parents and Robin. Mom and her parents and Marc were already at the house, and Barbara and her mother had a lot of food ready.
We sat and talked and ate. At one point, wanting to be alone, I went into the den – I remember how Uncle Ralph had built that den as his hideout in the 1950s – to catch the cool breezes. I sat on the couch where Uncle Monty sat when I saw him three weeks ago.
I hope the immediate future is less sad.