Saturday, January 1, 1977
And so another year begins. This is the eighth volume of my diary that I’ve begun on New Year’s Day. I feel as though I should begin with an invocation to the Muse, but where are our Muses these days? It’s 1977, after all – God, that sounds so strange and future-y.
For the first time in many years I didn’t make it to see the new year come in. I was fast asleep by 10:30 PM, and when I awakened, as I periodically do every night, it was 2 AM and there seemed nothing to celebrate.
I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have preferred to spend the night at a party, or with friends, or with someone special – but I didn’t mind being alone because I didn’t notice it.
I kept busy, typing address labels and getting my manuscripts in order, and reading Lucretius. Generally, I don’t like to mark off watershed days; I prefer to go on with the business of living.
And to paraphrase somebody, the business of living is living. I don’t intend to speculate what words will fill up the rest of these blank pages; it’s too interesting to guess. I love life, and I love the idea of being alive, I love to watch things unfold, and I love watching myself try to cope with things.
Sometimes I come out ahead, and sometimes I’m a loser and a numbskull and a bore – but it’s my life, the way I see things, and though I am a writer (yes, I’m a writer now and not the adolescent scribbler, God love him, who began this diary), I must try not to write for posterity.
These are letters to my future self, and I should try to be honest and spontaneous and as free as I feel like. I know people must wonder about me (or is this some narcissistic fantasy?), wonder what makes me tick, think I’m passionless and always the observer, the writer-down of anecdotes and stray thoughts.
I don’t believe in destiny, but I have chosen to be what I am, and I am not a miserable man. Someday I’ll change, no doubt – God help me if I don’t – but for now I’m perfectly content to be me. Smug? I hope not.
I’ve never really suffered in my life, unless you want to call my adolescent anxiety attacks suffering – and I’m not sure how I would react to a major disaster. Very likely I would fall apart. Till then, I’ll go about my business. I don’t know how to do anything else.
At least I felt refreshed when I got up this morning; I felt very vigorous, in fact, and after breakfast, I showered and shaved, cleaned my room, exercised and marked papers.
It’s still very cold out. I went to Kings Plaza to see The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a diverting, entertaining film about Freud and Sherlock Holmes that didn’t have much to say – but I enjoyed it anyway.
My right front tire, badly worn, finally gave out, and Marc and Dad came out to help me change it. A new tire for a new year.
I spoke to Alice. She did not slit her throat but instead went out with Andreas last night, although he did bring her home before midnight. She said she’s coming out of her depression and getting back on track again.
Alice is going to have lunch with Janice and Dolores tomorrow at that new “in” Park Slope place, Camperdown Elm. Janice said I should put Dolores on my “unattainable” list, as she’s definitely going back to her husband; hearing this, I was something less than crushed.
Tonight I had dinner at The Arch by myself; I’m becoming a set-in-his-ways old bachelor already. Studiously I avoided the football games – I have no idea which teams play in which bowls – and parades (I despise parades).
Last night I tried to read The Hamilton Years but was so embarrassed I couldn’t bear it. It’s hard to believe that a year ago I took that “novel” seriously. How could it be of any interest to anyone when it’s not very interesting even to me at this point? And all those characters: my God, the book is a holy mess.
At least I have a better bullshit-detector by now. Still, I don’t regret all the time and effort I put in to the novel; at least it kept me off the streets.
Sunday, January 2, 1977
8 PM. Remember what I said yesterday about “a new tire for a new year”? This morning I found that my spare had gone flat. I couldn’t get new tires on a Sunday, so tomorrow I’ll have to brave the rush-hour crowds on the subways to get downtown.
Still, I remain optimistic in my pessimism – like the astrologers who were asked to make their predictions for the Tricentennial. To a man, they predicted that the human race would be extinct by then – and they promptly sealed their predictions in a time capsule to be opened in 2076.
This afternoon Elihu called and said, “I bet you’re saying, like everyone else, ‘I sure hope this year is better than the last one.’”
“No,” I said. “If it’s as good as the last one, I’ll be quite satisfied.”
“If it’s as good as my last one,” Elihu said, “that’ll make two lousy years in a row.”
Elihu said he seems to go from crisis to crisis. At least, I offered, his life wasn’t boring. On New Year’s Eve, he broke up with the guy he’d been seeing; they agreed to be friends, which of course is pure fiction.
Elihu dreads facing his students at LIU tomorrow. I don’t mind going in, although now that I’ve had a taste of sleeping late, I could easily get used to it.
Like most gay men, Elihu hates the prospect of being another year older. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to the aging process; I’m not praying for it to come quickly, but I have a vision of myself as a terrific old man. Obviously, I’m an incredibly obnoxious Pollyanna. Of course I have my very deep despair, too. Oh well: enough playing at philosophy.
Elihu told me he was surprised Shelli didn’t call him, as she said she would while she was in town over the holidays. I managed to get through Christmas without hearing from Shelli or Ronna.
I no longer have any emotional attachment to Shelli, but Ronna’s a different story. Still, it’s two years and two months since we broke up, and I’ve seen her only sporadically since then, and she’s going into my “Past” file too, now.
So last night and today I began whittling away at my diary pages for 1971, trimming all the fat and leaving only the parts that had real resonance: perhaps two or three lines for each entry. I went over the period from February to May, eliminating all “subplots” and characters except Shelli, Jerry, Elspeth, Ivan, Ronna and Elihu, the latter serving as a Greek chorus and a figure representing everyone else in LaGuardia Hall.
This “Diary of a Sophomore 1971” seems to work better than any previous version of the “story.” It may not be quite what I’m groping towards, but it comes close. I’ll try sending it around and see if it gets any response.
It was a joy to write, easy and smooth and fun to remember the days of Shelli and me falling in love. I was so naïve and foolish and stupidly romantic: it’s so cute, really.
I wasn’t a cynic then; I was a sophomore in every sense of the word. Some of my exultations of love and sex are unintentionally hilarious – but they ring true. What am I saying? Of course they ring true: they’re my life!
The past few nights I’ve had anxiety dreams about returning to school. Last night I dreamed my students were totally dissatisfied with me. This is the point in the term when I have to judge them, and I’m not comfortable doing that. I’m much more comfortable being judged.
Well, it will all be over too soon for me. But I suppose four months is long enough for a term before both teacher and students go stale.
Now that I look back, this vacation wasn’t so bad. I enjoyed Christmas at the Judsons’, I got some stories written (more than I had expected to write), slept soundly, saw a lot of movies, phoned a lot of friends.
Of all the months of the year, January has always been my least favorite. But I’ve got to get through January before I can get to February, so I might as well sit back and enjoy it. There’s no choice, really.
Tuesday, January 4, 1977
4 PM. After last week, 40° today makes it feel like spring.
Last evening at dinner, Jonny was reading one of his muscle books, whose cover featured a repulsive photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s Jonny’s idol. Dad, Marc, Mom and I tried to explain to Jonny that looking like that is freaky.
Of course it’s wonderful to have muscles; we all agreed with that. I work out with my Bullworker every day, and I like guys with big muscles, but there’s a difference between being muscular and looking freakish: having a 55-inch chest and 22-inch arms, which seems to be Jonny’s goal.
He’s become a fanatic with this bodybuilding business. He’s always got his head stuck into a muscle magazine, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner. All he can talk about is muscles.
Hopefully his body and his heredity will rebel before he can turn himself into a sideshow attraction. Right now he’s built well, but he wants “perfection.” The more we talk, the more convinced Jonny becomes that he can make himself into a Superman. Logic won’t work.
Later, Marc took me aside and said it’s not the bodybuilding that bothers him: it’s that it’s a cover-up for adolescent insecurities and weaknesses that should be brought out into the open.
Marc said this whole obsession came on the heels of other short-lived obsessions (bowling, golf) and Jonny’s inability to deal with the world. “He used to get nervous in restaurants,” Marc said, “Just like you did.”
Dad joined us and said Jonny was very anxious about their going to the matinee last week; when they couldn’t find parking, Jonny became so anxious that he covered his face with his muscle magazine.
Of course Dad’s so mixed-up himself, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. My father is such a baby; I’ve neglected to realize that emotionally he’s become very dependent these past few months. But his indecision and immaturity still shock me.
Last night he told Marc and me that he had finally decided – and his voice wavered tentatively, on the verge of tears – to remain in New York. He couldn’t wait any longer: the pants had to be ordered from Hong Kong this week.
Then he went to his accountant, who told Dad he’d be “crazy” not to take the cleaning business in Florida, and he was wavering again. Next came a definite decision to take the business in Florida, and then more wavering.
Marc said that Dad’s indecision is costing him a lot of money: the man in Florida sees how insecure Dad is and keeps upping his terms. Mom at this point refuses to talk to him; at first I thought she was being cruel, but now I see she’s right.
Dad does not want to take responsibility for any decision; he’s emotionally paralyzed. Mom said he always was that way: “We’d have never bought this house or gone to Florida if it weren’t for me.” And she’s probably right.
Today I got a letter from Hazel Sanjour, my ninth grade English teacher. I had written her last week and sent a story. She wrote:
In this week of frigid temperatures, your letter turned winter’s discontent into warm summer. It may sustain me, even if briefly, when I return to Tilden to meet the illiterates and mental basket cases that make up my classes.
I’m so proud of you and the few others of my students with whom I had, daily, the immense joy of sharing all the force of Literature.
I’m still in contact with Steven Kahn, who teaches math at Queens College and writes esoteric monographs (one of which was dedicated to me).
I left Meyer Levin for Tilden H.S. in September 1966. There, for the next five years, I still had seniors who could respond to and share my love for all literature. In the following years . . . I found I was teaching the catatonic and the comatose.
She now teaches the “uneducable” remedial reading while her good friend Mrs. Newman – now Mrs. Smith – teaches bilingual Spanish at Meyer Levin. Mrs. Sanjour wishes me her best and sends her affection.
Friday, January 7, 1977
2 PM. I awoke several times to check the progress of the snow. It was coming down pretty hard, so I decided not to risk driving to school; I took the bus and subway instead.
At 8 AM the world looked very pretty, all in white. My footprints were the first in the fresh snow. I have always feared and hated snowstorms because they make me feel paralyzed.
A lot of this comes from the winter I was ill and couldn’t leave the house. But now I see I can get from here to there despite a snowfall, that I can rise above it. Perhaps someday I will be better able to appreciate the beauty of snow.
To my amazement, every one of my students showed up for the English 11 final. One of the topics I asked them was how they would have changed the course. I smarted under the some of the criticisms I got in the answers, but I’ve got to take their remarks less personally and see if I can find any suggestions to use.
They wanted me to be stricter and give them more grammar work and more writing assignments. If I get the chance to teach the course again, I’ll probably do it that way.
Louis Daniel came by so I could give him the makeup English 10 exam; he was badly bitten by his dog on Wednesday and couldn’t come in. I was surprised to see that other teachers had given some of my better English 10 students failing grades on their paragraph while my less bright students were passed.
I did a lot of grading, but I still have some compositions left to mark. I finished my 10 class, but there are some 11 paragraphs I don’t think I feel like getting to for a while.
I’ll probably go in to LIU on Tuesday and hand in my grades. And that will be the end of the semester. This term was the first one I really felt relaxed in front of a class, though I still have a long way to go before I become the kind of teacher I’d like to be.
I must try not to worry so much about being liked. I’m such a softie; I’m not giving anyone less than a C. I know some of them I should probably fail, but I haven’t the heart to fail anyone who really tries. A lot of these people really shouldn’t be in college at all. But if they didn’t attend, I wouldn’t have a job.
I left downtown around noon and was home less than an hour later. The snow has stopped now, and it looks like it’s going to be about a five-inch accumulation.
Avis typed a long letter to me while she was working at the Berlitz office last Thursday. She said she really hadn’t thought I said all those terrible things about her to her mother and said she was only being facetious when she suggested I wrote her a letter and then sent her a carbon copy.
She and Helmut got a lot of presents over Christmas. In Germany, they celebrate it for two days, and they had dinner with Helmut’s parents both days. Helmut had a vacation from the University but spent most of it driving his cab. He drives from 3 PM to 11 PM most days, and Avis has been working overtime a lot; they’re both exhausted and “don’t look too healthy.”
She liked the stories I sent her, especially “Glen Cove By-Pass” and said her father sent her the Alumni Bulletin clipping about her teaching in Bremen; she wanted to know if I’d had a hand in it.
Avis’s friend Paul, the Jewish Cherokee, was sent to prison for 15 months for holding drugs with intent to conspire and to sell. Avis and Helmut went to visit him.
German prisons are nothing like those in America, she writes, and Paul is pretty happy there: he can get dope and they call him Mr. Britt and he doesn’t have to work if doesn’t want to. It’s “all very civilized – he just can’t go out to the bars when he wants to and he said it is difficult without women.”
Avis thinks she and Helmut will be moving in two weeks. They’ve acquired a tremendous amount of junk in just two years on Kirchbachstrasse. It would be so good to see Avis again. Now I feel close to her once more.
So – now I’ve got three weeks staring me dead in the face. I don’t have to get up early for a while; there will be no teaching and no marking papers. Whether I enjoy myself this January is up to me.
Tuesday, January 11, 1977
5 PM. Whew. I really needed to sound off yesterday. I’ve got to let out my frustrations and hostility somewhere, and this was the only place handy. I’d love to be back in therapy again, letting off steam, getting insights, learning more about myself.
But now I have to settle for self-therapy. Work, of course, is the best therapy for me, and last evening I threw myself into “Diary of a Junior,” finishing the story after 21 pages. I can’t yet tell if it “works,” but I’m definitely heading in the right direction.
At this point I can look at my breakup with Shelli from a detached distance. There’s no more anger involved; I’m just fascinated with my emotions and the behavior of myself, Shelli, Jerry and the people in LaGuardia Hall.
I can’t understand how I did such stupid things again and again. I was asking for pain – boy, was I! Still, I did think I loved Shelli. How insignificant it all seems now: the events, not the emotions.
It’s one thing that makes me feel good, seeing my daily misery in the fall of ’71 and knowing that I eventually came out of it rather well (and I was a closet optimist even then). Doubtless I will survive this present misery and I’ll come out of it on top and there will be new problems and frustrations to face.
That is, dum-de-dum: The Challenge of Living – drum roll, maestro, please – how a neurotic boy from Brooklyn can find success and happiness in a world he never made. (Organ music here.)
This morning I went to the Fiction Collective, but Gloria wasn’t there, so I went to LIU and posted my grades, handing the IBM cards to the Registrar. Margaret said she wasn’t sure I’d be back next term. But I’ve decided I’ll need another part-time job to supplement my income.
Everything at home now depends upon Dad. He’s driving us all crazy with his inability to make a decision. Now he tells Mom he’s having a nervous breakdown. I am so furious with him myself.
Last night I dreamed that I started shrieking at him, insulting him so as to spur him to some kind of action. Finally I just began crying and shaking him back and forth, saying, “I love you, but do something already!”
Dad refuses to take any responsibility for the decision. He keeps finding fault with each one of the options available to him. And as the options grow fewer, he’s starting to panic. He blames Mom for not putting her seal of approval on his prospective partner Max.
He’s going back to people like Cousin Joel and Lennie, people who’ve screwed him again and again. And finally he indulges himself in useless guilt: he feels so, so guilty about Mom, my brothers and me. I wish he’d do what’s best for himself for once!
I am so disgusted I can’t even bear to see his hangdog looks all the time. It’s as though someone let all the air out of him, as if he’s broken into unusable parts. Marc waits around for Dad to make a decision, smokes and sells dope and collects his unemployment insurance. And Marc tells me I think I’m “superior” to everyone else.
No, I tell him, I work for a living: I don’t think I’m too good to work in nursing homes and for Alexander’s or as a messenger. I feel totally alienated from Marc. He says he wants to leave the house so he can pursue his own lifestyle because he feels “stifled” here. I’m sure he wants to live with his drugs and his creepy friends like Curt or Joel, who lives off the money his girlfriend makes as a prostitute.
I had wonderful dreams last night, dreams with all-star casts, including Shelli and Jerry, Mark and Consuelo, Avis, Mikey and Larry, Ronna’s mother, and others. I seem to dream about summer and the beach a lot. Yesterday, in the dentist’s chair, I tried to pretend I was lying in the sun; Dr. Hersh’s lamplight was an unsatisfactory sun, however.
Three rejections today, all very condescending: that got me down. I ran into Elayne, who said she heard I was “doing very well” with my stories. She said she’s “this close to” quitting her job at the Art Department.
Everything iced up, but I got stuck only once today.