Sunday, July 11, 1976
9 PM. Four years ago I was in Miami Beach, attending the Democratic National Convention with Leon, Skip and our delegate, Mikey. It was an exciting time for me, and I thought I’d try to see what was going on at the 1976 Convention today as long as it’s being held in New York, starting tomorrow.
And I did do something I couldn’t do in ’72: get a close-up glimpse of the Democratic nominee. Yes, I’ve seen Jimmy Carter in the flesh, bright smile, cool blue eyes and all.
I figured the best place to go was the Americana Hotel, the headquarters for the Carter campaign as well as the New York and Iowa delegations. I parked my car on Eighth Avenue and 52nd Street, and as soon as I got out, I was approached by a man asking me where Seventh Avenue was.
He had one of those very noticeable non-New York accents (he pronounced his r’s) and I asked him if he was here for the convention. It turned out that he was the chief political reporter for U.S. News and World Report, “that is, I will be if I ever get my credentials.”
I went with him to the Americana, where he picked up his credentials and I walked around. There was really no difference from the lobby of the Diplomat Hotel in Florida in 1972 and the lobby of the Americana in 1976: the people looked the same, spoke about the same things, the hotel glitter was there, the hospitality suites . . . only the candidate and the mood of the party had changed.
This year, after eight years out of power, caused in part what they feel were contentious, bickering conventions, the Democrats smell victory and everybody seems ready to swallow (if not love) Jimmy Carter because he can bring them victory.
Why did I go there today? I’ve always been fascinated by politics, and conventions in particular: seeing people from everywhere, from all ethnic groups and walks of life, get together and choose a President.
And I’m irresistibly drawn to power, to where history is being made. I live in this time, so why shouldn’t I play a role in it, even if I’m only an outside observer?
Certain types at conventions were in evidence along the streets of midtown Manhattan, like a red-haired teenager, a button collector trying to get all the buttons he could; and a middle-aged, slightly drunk-looking man sitting outside the hotel, his sports jacket covered with green Carter buttons as if they were growing on him like ivy (he was selling them for fifty cents each).
There were information desks set up, and downstairs in the Americana, Carter HQ was being set up, with tables for Women, Hispanics, Blacks, Messages, Volunteers, Issues, Southeast – all different Carter committees.
When Rep. Andy Young of Atlanta, Carter’s main black supporter, entered, I shook his hand, saying, “Welcome to New York”; like every good politician, he pretended to know me from somewhere else.
Bella Abzug came in with State Senator Carol Bellamy after some Women’s Caucus. Bella looked good, having lost some weight – but she’ll always be recognizable for her hats.
Then the bright TV lights came on as I stood near the door. Mrs. Carter – Rosalynn – came in first. She’s a pretty slip of a woman. Then Jimmy came in, and the crowd was electrified. I was just a couple of feet away from him, and Secret Service agents would hardly let you get closer.
My first impression of Jimmy Carter: his eyes are a beautiful blue, very cold and determined – and he seems a lot shorter in person.
If Carter was short, Congressman Peter Rodino, who came to talk with him about the Vice Presidency, is a really tiny man, terribly plain and sweet-looking. I chatted with Carter supporters, some very nice Udall delegates from Iowa, and some members of the press – who appear to outnumber delegates.
On my way out I saw anti-abortion presidential candidate Ellen McCormack and her supporters marching down Eighth Avenue.
Wednesday, July 14, 1976
8 PM. It’s been a magnificent day, such as those seen only occasionally in late April or late September: pleasant temperatures, cool breezes, sunny skies. Tonight we sit back and watch the Democrats nominate – some would say coronate – Jimmy Carter.
Last night was all platform debate and committee reports. Hubert Humphrey made a stirring, old-fashioned speech attacking the Republicans as modern Tories.
George McGovern was kind of interesting, but he did not get near the enthusiastic response that Humphrey did. Nor did George Wallace, who looked almost respectable in his small role; all his old sting was gone.
There were also speeches by Ed Muskie, Mayor Daley, Coretta Scott King, and Bess Myerson. It’s amazing that the Democratic Party can hold all these people and that they can unite behind Jimmy Carter (who’s probably the only man who could manage that feat).
In the galleries, there were Jackie Onassis and Lynda Johnson Robb, and delegates ran the gamut from Tom Hayden and Warren Beatty to old-line party hacks who never seem to go out of style.
I’ve never considered myself a very partisan man, but I cannot imagine not being a Democrat.
In addition to watching the convention, I did manage to shake off my lethargy early last evening long enough to finish my story, “The Second Quarter-Century.” I hesitate to call it a “story,” for it’s taken straight from the pages of this diary, from May 29 to June 6, changing only a few names of people and places.
I don’t think it’s publishable because it’s the most personal of any piece I’ve ever written; yet I intend to send it out and see what response it gets. Now that I don’t have my MFA class to see how others react to my work, sending out is the only thing I can do.
Self-disclosure is very important to me, and there are times when fiction inhibits rather than accelerates the process; mostly, though, it’s a wonderful way to reveal my deepest feelings without really taking responsibility for them.
Lately I’ve been sleeping very poorly; the nights aren’t easy. I‘m coming to the realization that I will have to decide just what I’m going to do as far as an immediate way of making money is concerned.
(I’m writing terribly stilted prose, aren’t I? I hate to write that way. Back to basics, Grayson: stiltedness means you’re avoiding something.)
I need some kind of job. I don’t have much money left. But I don’t want to work in a 9-to-5 Manhattan office job – not that I could get one easily. I know I’ll have to do some menial work. I have no marketable skills and I don’t want to waste mental energy that could be going into fiction on some complex job.
Today I went to the Fiction Collective, but there wasn’t really anything for me to do. I helped Gloria out with a mailing of the press release for Baumbach’s Babble; I told her that someone had already sold a reviewer’s copy to the Strand, for I saw it there last Friday.
I just lost my train of thought. I got to thinking about Ronna and how she never returns my calls. In spite of every shred of evidence that she’s a most inconsiderate person, I still put up with her.
I feel used. But I’m not so desperate that I have to cling to Ronna and be content with scraps from her table. I don’t love her anymore, and I suppose I don’t need her anymore. She’ll be gone in a month and out of my life; in a way, I’m grateful for that.
I’d like to establish a new – dare I say the word? – meaningful relationship, and the sooner I get Ronna out of the picture, the better off I’ll be.
I have an idea for a new fiction: a Borgesian piece reviewing the “novels” and “stories” of an imaginary author – except that these will be all the things I’ve planned to write but never had the patience to.
Thursday, July 15, 1976
It’s 1 AM on Friday. I’ve just showered and blow-dried my hair. The 37th Democratic National Convention has faded into American political history and into my consciousness.
This New York convention has affected me more than any other; it’s turned me from a cynic to a believer; I feel like running down to the American Legion Hall on Avenue N and casting my vote for Carter and Mondale right now.
It never occurred to me to be anything but a Democrat, and the last three Democratic conventions have played an important role in my life.
In August of 1968, I was a new high school graduate, suffering from deep guilt, doubt and anxiety, scheduled to attend college in the fall but unsure whether I could manage it.
The Chicago convention – I’ve never expressed this thought before, not even in therapy – was the start of my breakdown and the year I did not leave my room.
The images of that convention are still very fresh in my mind. I remember quite clearly the delegates chanting, “Jul-ian Bond, Jul-ian Bond” very late on the first night during a credentials dispute.
I did not sleep at all that night, and in the morning I was a nervous wreck. By afternoon, I had a sort of nervous collapse. I had to turn off the convention and the screens of violence on the Chicago streets. Mom had to call Dr. Stein, who gave me tranquilizers and told me to take a warm bath to soothe my nerves.
I was 17, skinny, as unsure of myself as anybody has ever been. I couldn’t eat or sleep. But I kept turning on the TV even though I knew it would upset me.
That spring I had been traumatized by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and by my graduation from high school, which, if dreaded, was at least a known quantity.
I had believed strongly in Gene McCarthy’s antiwar crusade – I wore that blue-and-white McCarthy button all the time – but I was too scared of participating in life to take an active role in the campaign the way so many kids did.
That summer I would take the bus to the McCarthy headquarters on Flatbush Avenue, which was only open evenings, and I would take – steal – their mail from the door handle. Doing that made me feel a part of that campaign.
I made “Dump the Hump” signs for myself, and for a time I thought about going to Chicago – but that was impossible: the world was too scary a place to survive a journey like that; at least that’s what I thought in my neurotic mind.
Yet when I saw cops busting the heads of people I could identify with, I saw – and I was right, not neurotic – that one couldn’t be safe anywhere, not even (especially?) if one was right about something people didn’t want to hear.
It took a long time to recover from the shock of the ’68 convention. I didn’t go to college that year; in the end, I came round to Humphrey, but by then it was too late for me and the Democrats. By November, I wouldn’t even take a walk to the corner.
In 1972, I did do the impossible: I went to Miami Beach for the convention – in a car with three friends (by then I had lots of friends), one of whom was a delegate. That trip was a great step forward for me, the first trip I made without parents.
I survived, and it wasn’t a miracle. It was safe to be alive; it was safe to drive through the South, even though there were scary billboards of Klansman as we drove past a Carolina town in the middle of the night.
Miami Beach was friendly. We were all young and black and female and antiwar, and by God, we were up there, running things! We had taken over a party and got McGovern in.
We didn’t realize that the country saw us as crazy radicals; we thought that McGovern sold us out – on abortion, on gay rights, on marijuana law reforms.
I was a part of it and yet still not quite involved. I went to caucuses with Mikey, took photos, chatted with delegates, famous and not. But when Mikey got only two guest passes for the final night of the Convention, I was just as happy to let Leon and Skip go. I watched it on TV and fell asleep, I believe, before McGovern called for America to come home.
I came home – to New York – exhilarated with the possibilities of my own life. I was entering my senior year of college and my phobias were disappearing. But I was soured on politics. McGovern’s cause was hopeless, so why bother working for him?
And that November, the Nixon landslide caused a deep but short-lived depression; still, I had school and friends and falling in love to keep me busy.
This year, four years later, the Democrats came to New York, to my city. I’m now just finished with three years of graduate school and I’m in limbo between the safe haven of academia and the terrors, still untried, of what we call “the real world.”
I have found a vocation: I am a writer, and that is my life. Yet at 25, I still live in my parents’ house – though not for long, as they are planning to move to southern Florida.
The Democrats reversed the trend: they went from Florida to New York, this city that is supposedly dying. This convention is unlike any other: there is unity, harmony, and the feel of victory.
The last eight years have given us one bruising too many. Religion mixes with politics, and we get not a convention but a revival meeting.
And I just didn’t want to sit at home and be detached from it: I went to the hotels and observed things close range because I longed to be a part of this. I did get close to Jimmy Carter and saw his cold steel blue eyes,
and I was impressed.
Last evening he was nominated by Peter Rodino, and there followed nominations of Udall (who graciously withdrew), Brown and McCormack.
Carter easily won a first-ballot victory; the convention went wild as Carter watched it with the rest of us – sitting barefoot in his hotel suite alongside his plain outspoken mother, his adorably pesky daughter and his baby grandson. I responded to that scene and said to myself: Maybe this guy’s for real.
I was pleased with this morning’s announcement that Mondale would be his running-mate: a good, very liberal man. Hubert Humphrey nominated Mondale with a zestful, very personal speech.
Ron Dellums declined nomination for vice president and spoke for the underprivileged and unemployed. A draft dodger who came home to be a delegate spoke for himself, and he was nominated for vice president by a Gold Star mother and a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair.
Mondale made a good old-fashioned rousing speech accepting his nomination; he had the delegates cheering. Next, there was a film on Carter, so effective that it worked even though you realized it would be studied
for years to come as a masterpiece of propaganda.
Finally, Carter himself, with the glow of a winner, speaking low-key, speaking of honesty and decency, calling America not to greatness but to goodness: it was the single most effective speech I’ve ever heard.
If I read it, doubtless it would be run-of-the-mill. But Carter on the podium made it magic. I was mesmerized, thinking: This man might really be able to do all these things! And wouldn’t that be fantastic!
And because of the convention (and, to some extent, the Bicentennial) New York has got a good reputation again. The delegates cheered and chanted “We love New York!”
At the end of Carter’s speech, Rosalynn came up – they really seem to be in love – and the Mondales, and the Carter family, then Udall, Jackson, Brown, Wallace, Coretta King, Leonard Woodcock, Barbara Jordan, John Glenn, Frank Church and the rest, all up on the platform, united for at least the moment.
The delegates were cheering like crazy, waving placards, screaming, crying. It was like a mass hallucination. If this man were a dictator, I thought, this could be like Nazi Germany. But he’s a good man, and maybe he can be a great man – if only he doesn’t get shot.
The convention closed with Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. calling on God – no, informing us of God’s presence – and everyone singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Doubtless in the morning it will all seem slightly silly. But for now, at 2 AM, it’s euphoric, giving me, at least, the courage to go on and explore life.
Sunday, July 18, 1976
8 PM. Aside from some heavy lifting, I did nothing but goof off today, and I felt I was entitled to do so.
Last night I worked for over two hours and managed to come up with what I believe is a passably good story, “Kirchbachstrasse 121, 2800 Bremen,” loosely based on Avis and Helmut.
The idea for the story has been in my head for a long while, and I got the idea for the form while reading Clarence’s Reflex and Bone Structure.
Anyway, just to write two ten-page stories in a single day was gratification enough for me; it’s more than I’ve ever accomplished before and makes me feel somewhat better.
All during the week I’d had the awful feeling I was completely drained of ideas and would never write another story again. This shows me that slumps are natural and that creativity occurs in spurts, not on a set time-schedule.
At midnight, after finishing typing up the story, I fell into a deep sleep and awakened early this morning. In summer, early mornings are the best part of the day and I’ve been missing them.
I drove out to Rockaway and put my car in Riis Park, then walked to Neponsit and lay on my towel at the beach there for some time. Then, restless, I walked all the way to Mikey’s block, where I found him on the porch.
He was waiting for Larry and Stuie to come with Larry’s van so they could move his furniture to Larry’s garage, where it will stay for two weeks until Mikey moves into the apartment he’s taken on West 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues across from the Chelsea Hotel.
Mikey’s mother is moving to her new place on Wednesday, and today Mikey took five carloads of stuff across the street. Their apartment was a mess, and both Mikey and his mother seemed exhausted and disgusted with the moving process.
It’s something I truly dread, and the logistics of our family moving out of this house after nearly twenty years are mind-boggling and stomach-churning.
Anyway, we did a lot of lifting and groaning and complaining but we finally got Mikey’s stuff outside, loaded onto the van and into Larry’s garage.
Back at Mikey’s house, while Larry was taking down the curtains – Larry is the ultimate handyperson who can fix anything – Mike and Cindy came over, too late to help very much. We did get some more things done, and Mike and Cindy and I went back to Larry’s, where he was on the porch with friends.
Mike’s been working at Financial Aid at Brooklyn College, though this past week he took off to learn sign language for the deaf at NYU. Cindy’s been offered a $200-a-week job at another insurance agency, and she can’t turn down the money even though she likes her present office.
We sat around Larry’s house and we got ice cream and then I walked on the beach to join Stuie and Anne and Mikey. Mikey looked very tired; because of the tuition business, he’s been working very late at John Jay and that hasn’t made things easier.
I left at 3 PM and walked along the beach to Riis Park. Luckily the traffic was light coming back from the beach at that hour, so I was able to get some more sun at the pool (and I went into the water some, too). I’ve now revived my bronze look sufficiently.
Actually, I know I look really good; I’m finally not self-conscious about my physique. My body is fairly firm and I think I might even be attractive. I know I got a few stares when I passed the gay section of Riis Park, though all the guys there turned me off; they look the same, full of cotton candy and pipe-cleaners.
Alice came by today while I was away and left me a batch of Seventeen magazines (so I can look at the fiction) and some review copies of books that came into the Seventeen office.
Tuesday, July 20, 1976
7 PM. I feel that we’re all living through a plot in a bad movie, but nevertheless, it is true: some madman has disrupted out lives and upset everyone, most especially Aunt Sydelle.
Last evening I decided to take a drive and thought I’d drop by Cedarhurst to see Sydelle. When I drove up, I saw a police car in front of a deserted house. I didn’t know what to think and started running to the house, only to hear Dad calling me from across the street.
He was with Aunt Sydelle, who was hysterical, as well as a policeman and two of the neighbors, including Edna. Dad took me aside and told me what had happened; he had left the house only a few minutes after I did.
On Friday, a man phoned the house and said, “Sydelle? This is a friend of your husbands . . . You killed them and now I’m out to get you.” She got hysterical, of course, and called Grandpa Nat and Dad; she also called the telephone company, and they said they’d change both her numbers to unlisted ones.
Sydelle went to Washington for the weekend to visit Scott and Barbara. Last evening, she arrived home with Barbara’s parents to find her car’s four tires completely slashed and the word MURDERER written in huge black-paint letters across her garage.
I looked at the house again, and it was incredibly scary to see that. Sydelle was sobbing uncontrollably, completely beside herself. Dad took her into the house, which had not been broken into; obviously, the motive was not robbery but revenge.
The cop said it was probably someone who knew her, and she kept wailing, “But who would do such a thing?!” Along with Edna, she suggested the twins hated Sydelle enough to want to see her suffer; maybe they put some boys up to this.
Dad and I immediately thought of the same person: Flip, Bonnie’s father-in-law, who is such a foul, vicious lowlife that he is fully capable of masterminding this.
When Sydelle got the phone call on Friday, at first she suspected it was Arthur, Edna’s husband who knew both Ralph and Monty. Monty had told Arthur that Sydelle had given him cancer. But I didn’t think that was likely.
To make matters worse, Mom called, saying that she was very ill and for Dad to come home immediately. I felt awful as the world seemed like it was caving in. Was Mom having a heart attack?
Aunt Sydelle was a nervous wreck and said she wouldn’t stay in the house alone at night; I volunteered, dutifully if not happily, to sleep over, and Dad rushed home.
Luckily, a neighbor’s son said he would spend the night in Scott’s bedroom, so that got me off the hook. I was going to take Sydelle out to dinner – she had only a dollar in her pocket and no food in the house – but then the doorbell rang.
The sound caused Sydelle to jump with fear, but it was Arthur, who told her to come to dinner with Edna and himself. At that point, anxious about Mom, I left as Sydelle was crying in Arthur’s arms. Only later did I realize that I might have left her alone with her tormentor – but that seemed out of some Alfred Hitchcock TV show.
Driving home, I dreaded what I’d find there: an ambulance, a corpse? It hit me suddenly that Mom might not be sick at all, but because of her own hatred and jealousy of Aunt Sydelle, she just said that so that Dad would rush home.
I found this was indeed the case. Although Mom had felt physically ill, it was so obviously psychosomatic that I felt relief that she wasn’t really sick. But more so, I felt anger and a hatred for my mother that I never experienced so intensely.
Last night I couldn’t sleep very well, troubled by everything. I wondered why I couldn’t have a mother who’d be more supportive instead of destructive, unfeeling, and yes, as vicious in her way as the maniac who is responsible for all this.
This morning, looking at my mother in bed, that hard look in her face, I could barely manage to be civil to her. I can’t write any more.