Tuesday, March 1, 1977
8 PM. I feel so put-upon. I’ve just taken a couple of tranquilizers and I hope they’ll put me out soon. I wish I could get away; I wish I could just wake up tomorrow morning and drive off to Boston to see Caaron (yes, I heard from her today).
I cringe at the thought of going to LIU, to BC, to get in front of my classes or think about all the work on the Conference ahead of me. I’d like to disappear into the dimension of Mr. Mxyzptlk in the Superman comic books.
One-sixth of the year has gone by, and I’ve perceived it only dimly, numbly. . . What it is: I’m merely going through the motions of living, but inside I’m hollow and rotten. There’s no zest in things anymore.
I know, I know: Zest is only the brand name of a soap and nobody gave it to me with a guarantee. Tell me, Dr. Brothers, is it all human creatures who are never satisfied or is that my especial talent? I can’t take boredom and I can’t take pressure.
Everybody’s birthdays are flying by: Grandma Ethel’s today, Mom’s on Thursday, Mike’s tomorrow, Elspeth’s last week. I send everyone cards because I always remember these things. How did we all get so old, anyhow? And what am I doing with my life?
On Sunday, Brad asked me sarcastically, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” A nasty question, but a very pertinent one.
Aunt Sydelle sold her house and is moving to Florida at the end of the month. Dad is on jury duty and is hoping he won’t be called for this manslaughter case. Mom made meat loaf today. For some reason Jonny likes to put wheat germ in the refrigerator, but I eat it anyway. My throat is very, very sore. One of my English 10 students writes that his calling is to become a pimp: that’s my buddy Michael Evans.
Gloria, it turns out, is getting paid $10,000 in her job as Fiction Collective Coordinator – not the $8,000 Jon told me when he brought up my taking her job part-time – and Peter told Gloria that they could keep her on through November.
Jon and I spoke about the Conference today, but things are so up in the air: I’m getting no direction from him or Jack. Gloria says that if Peter were working on the Conference, I’d have an easier time.
Gloria and I mailed out review copies of Statements 2 today, and after seeing 500 copies, I can no longer stand to look at the book. We went to Valco in Borough Park and I priced a brochure for the Conference; we don’t have much time. Aargh.
Hilary and Isadora invited me to their Academy Awards night party in four weeks, and I accepted with thanks.
The University of Victoria’s Creative Writing Department sent me a form letter acknowledging receipt of my job application; it was a form letter because their secretarial staff couldn’t write individual replies to what were probably 1,500 applicants. What would I do in British Columbia anyway?
Idi Amin is crazy. The Mill Basin bus is on strike. I owe too many people telephone calls. I don’t know why I’m writing these words. I have no energy; I just want to dream, and not about elevator rides, either. Let me turn some lines of this diary page over to Caaron:
I have no good reasons for failing to write except maybe that my job is making me illiterate. Anyway, I’ve been laid off, and I’m back to job-hunter status. Unfunsville, drag time, general pain in the tuchas period. . .
I’ve decided I limit myself too much. I should no longer be afraid of stardom. What can I lose?
I’ve been angry for ten days. . . I had a big horrible fight with Stephen last night.
I might be able to collect some unemployment. I hope I hear from grad school in April.
Please visit me. Of course, I should do the same, but I hate spending money unless I have it. I might come anyway. I need a vacation, dear, and I also miss you even though I never met you.
I still care, as you know. I do not know why I had to say it but I did. I hope you are not too mad that I neglected you.
I don’t know what else to write. So I will sign off.
That was the one ray of spring day, the first day of March.
Wednesday, March 2, 1977
11 PM. It’s been a long, peculiar day. A woman named Mary called me an hour ago to invite me to a Mensa party on Saturday and we ended up talking all this time about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Miss Speiss of the Flatbush branch library – Mary is a librarian and says Miss Speiss is “famous for being a bitch” – and various other flights of fancy.
While I enjoyed talking to Mary, she interrupted my writing of a story, and I’m afraid I’ll never finish it now.
I slept well last night, got up early, had diarrhea, found that the milk I poured on my Product 19 cereal was sour, bought new milk, talked to Kenneth Bernard about fiction writing when I got to LIU, told Devra that all writers aren’t crazy, taught subject-verb agreement in English 10, had diarrhea again, ate lunch, went over a Hemingway story in English 12, got told by a student that I looked haggard, got another sore throat, drove home, watched portions of Days of Our Lives, looked at two rejection notices and a cryptic and infuriating postcard, felt dismayed about my acne, marked papers, exercised, masturbated, changed my underwear, picked up Dad at the Junction, was told by him that he was the last person to be picked for the manslaughter case jury, that at first he was upset and tried to get out of it by saying that he knew an assistant district attorney (Hal) but that didn’t work, that now Dad accepts his fate and will try to be a good juror even though it means that he and Mom will not be able to go with the rest of the Leukemia Society to a hotel in the country this weekend.
At 5 PM, I drove off and had dinner at a diner on Queens Boulevard, wondered if I was having a nervous breakdown, wanted to say out loud, “I was a decent, respectable person until Maurice Nadjari ruined my life” but didn’t. When I paid my check, the cashier looked at me funny.
From the diner, I went to Queens College. As I was walking by Colden Auditorium, feeling as though I was traipsing through an old dream, a guy about 22 came up to me and asked by any chance did I know where Allen Ginsberg was reading.
Yes, I said, the Student Union, I’ve been there before, I’m going to the reading too, follow me.
Joe, I found out, used to work at the Strand Bookstore, thinks Burt Britton is pretentiousness personified, admires Dick Cuffari, lives in a boarding-house in New Jersey, works in Queens for a publisher who does only medical books, the only job in publishing he could get without a degree, for although he went to Columbia and Penn, he never finished either school because he goofed off and smoked dope.
Joe and I had tea in the cafeteria. I told him about my writing and the Fiction Collective and the sport jackets we wore at Franklin School and other strange things I had no business telling a stranger.
I wasn’t attracted to Joe and didn’t even care for him as a friend, but he was nice enough for me to sit next to him in a large crowd for Allen Ginsberg and I began, after a while, to think of Joe as the only person I knew in the world.
This was after I felt I had spent my whole life sitting in that chair listening to Allen Ginsberg sing Blake’s Songs of Innocence and recite his own poems about his father’s dying (“Don’t ever get old,” Louis Ginsberg told Peter Orlovsky) and poems about meditation, the CIA and the Mafia, faggotry, cemeteries near Newark Airport and other topics.
Ginsberg is older than my father. He looked good, he sounded dynamic, he obviously has grown old very well, he played the squeezebox nicely.
Joe dropped his book, M/F by Burgess, but I didn’t tell him and he left it there.
I offered three times to drive Joe to the bus in Flushing and he finally accepted and on the way we smoked a joint. “See you around,” Joe said as I dropped him off.
Then I drove home, thinking a lot more than I usually do about getting into an accident.
I started to write a story about my relationship with Truman Capote when, like a visitor from Porlock, Mary phoned. She told me, “God don’t make mistakes.”
Friday, March 4, 1977
8 PM. I’ve just come back from Rockaway in one hell of a rainstorm after having dinner with Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb and stuffing myself on hamantaschen. We went over a lot of early family history tonight; I decided that I can be Alex Haley, too.
Grandma Ethel’s early life is especially exciting. During the Revolution, the Bolsheviks were confiscating her rich grandparents’ property. One of her great-uncles went to a town where they took his carriage and killed him: Grandma remembers seeing the man’s bloody body being brought home. They slit his throat.
Her father, Max Shapiro – who I remember but didn’t like very much – went to America with the intention of returning to Russia a rich man. But his wife, Grandma Ethel’s mother, died at 29; Grandma’s not sure whether she was killed by the Cossacks or died of malnutrition or natural causes.
Grandma Ethel, her brother Paul, sister Claire, their Shapiro grandparents and her aunts Chaikah and Shifra – her father’s sisters – along with Shifra’s husband Dave Tarras, all escaped to the Romanian border under cover of darkness. They were caught by soldiers, but the officer knew Uncle Dave from the Czar’s army, where he played in the band, and let them go.
They journeyed through Europe – Grandma says she saw King George V and Queen Mary heading a parade in London celebrating victory in World War I – finally coming to America, where Max had already remarried Great-Grandma Bessie.
Grandpa Herb’s father, Isidore Saretsky, had to leave Russia because of his anarchist activities; suspected of planting a bomb, he had to hide in the woods for three weeks.
He managed to make his way to Liverpool and arrived in Boston in 1905 or so. Later he sent for Bubbe Ita and their three children: Jack, Grandpa and Tillie (Minnie and Abe were born in America.)
I prodded my grandparents’ memories and they gave me their names of their aunts and uncles, all of whom are dead except Dave Tarras and maybe a couple of others like Grandma’s Aunt Clara. But they did give me the last names of their cousins who live in places like Youngstown, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Erie, Pennsylvania; Chicago; L.A.; Toronto; and Philadelphia.
And I took down the names of the cemeteries where my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents (the Shapiros) are buried.
Back at home last night, we had a party for Mom: a Carvel cake, a few gifts, just the family and Deanna (whom Jonny thinks will be in the family sooner or later; he may be right).
I called Brad and we set a date for tomorrow at 6 PM: dinner and maybe a movie.
Jon phoned, of course. He and Jack want me to be the one to call Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme to find out why they haven’t said yes. I’ve got their phone numbers but haven’t worked up the nerve yet.
When I called Mikey, I was so surprised to get someone else’s voice answering that I hung up twice before I realized that it was Larry, who explained to me that he always stays over on Thursday night because he takes a course at the Print Center and it ends too late to go back to Rockaway.
Mikey was at the law library, of course, but Larry said he was expecting Mason to come over for dinner.
Somehow Larry and I got on the subject of Mike – I sent him a birthday card this week – and Larry said he and Mikey are pretty fed up with Mike: “He always wants to be the most superior person in the room, and if he’s not, he’s not happy.”
So Larry talks to Mandy instead. Mike gives the excuse that he’s got too much work and that’s why he’s avoiding us all. But we too are all very busy, and we still have time for our old friends.
Today began with a delightful rainy Friday morning. By 10 AM, I got to my office, where I met with one student, Marianne George, a really nice Indian nurse. Then I chatted with Devra, who’s a nice person but a Victorian at heart; I guess she’s in the right field, then.
Devra’s husband is making $25,000 a year as a Wall Street lawyer, and they live without benefit of television around the Met, on East 84th Street near Fifth Avenue.
Devra said that lately she’s been having panic attacks because she feels so isolated from humanity while she’s sitting at home, writing her dissertation. She feels she doesn’t fit in to her husband’s high-powered world and is a bit competitive with him.
She told me that she’d just gone through “an experience that would make a good novel,” and I gathered that it involved some sort of romantic triangle.
My English 12 class was mediocre, as they usually are. There’s a definite lack of energy in that class, and I don’t know how to get the people stirred up. I hate to keep relying on the few same students – Cynthia Ford, John Broxton, Cheikh Soumare – to carry the discussions.
Sunday, March 6, 1977
5 PM. This weekend has been so leisurely, it’s made me dread the hectic pace of the next few days, of the weeks to come. I wish I had not accepted the job of coordinator of the Conference. With only my classes and my own writing, I’d be so relaxed.
Jon Baumbach will call me tonight, no doubt, and I’m going to have Jonny say I’m not home. I never made the phone calls I should have on Friday. I haven’t done a lot of the things I should have.
At this point, I’m so disgusted that I don’t really care if the Conference is a smashing success. It doesn’t interest me all that much. I’ll do an adequate job and nothing more. I am not going to make myself ill over this for so little money. I feel Jon and Jack are exploiting me. (Ashbery, sensibly, seems to have stopped caring about the Conference.)
Yesterday it was twilight when I arrived at Brad’s apartment. He was wearing the same Gucci shirt, jeans and loafers he wore the last time I saw him. I’d never really noticed before how frail he looks.
We went to the San Francisco Plum, a restaurant around the corner on Sixth Avenue. I made the mistake of saying I was having the chopped steak because it was the cheapest thing on the menu; actually, I wanted the chopped steak. (To be honest, I would have preferred a burger, but Brad said after we sat down: “No copping out with burgers now.”)
Anyway, Brad got it into his head that I really wanted pork chops but didn’t order them because they were too expensive. When the waiter came, Brad said we were having two orders of pork chops. I contradicted him; he contradicted me.
I was very firm and told the waiter, “He’s very difficult.” I guess I embarrassed Brad. He told me it was understood that he was to pay for me, but I said I understood no such thing, and anyway, how dare he take away my privilege of ordering my own dinner?
We both sulked silently for a while and finally I told him that he could pay for me if he wanted, but I was still having chopped steak.
I also said that I thought it was stupid for him to pay for food that was going into my stomach and that I had no intention of ever doing the same thing for him. Still a bit hurt but somewhat mollified, Brad started talking about Danny.
Danny’s going to be 16 in a month – he has the same birthday as Shelli – and next month will also mark a year that he and Brad have been seeing each other. Brad glows when he talks of Danny: he’s brilliant, he’s gorgeous, he’s a little too shy and self-effacing.
Danny comes from an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Bayside, somewhat resembling mine. He recently told his 22-year-old sister he’s gay, and Brad met her and they liked each other. (“It was funny,” Brad said, “because she kept referring to their parents as ‘Danny’s parents.’”)
Brad is astounded at how long their relationship has lasted, and he fears Danny will eventually realize that he’s “giving over all his youth” to Brad. They don’t see each other evenings, of course, but confine themselves to weekend days and occasional weekday lunches at Brad’s hospital, which is near Danny’s house.
Brad and I went back to his place and played Scrabble, then we went to the movies with Les and his friend Harley. I guess I wanted to go along with them more than Brad did, but after seeing Silver Streak at the Art – we walked down to the Village – I realized that Brad and I would have had a better time alone at home.
I thought I saw Ronna’s mother in the theater and worried about her seeing me there with gay men, but almost immediately I thought, Who cares? It turned out not to be Mrs. C anyway.
On 8th Street, Brad bought the Sunday Times and I tried to keep up with his giant strides as we walked back up Fifth Avenue to his place.
We chatted on the couch and read the paper, and Brad showed me some magic tricks, the same ones he taught Danny. I saw how one trick worked, and that made me feel sad; of course, I pretended not to notice.
Brad told me a couple of the same stories he told me in the fall (again he mentioned his favorite line in Hamlet – “Shall we lug the guts?” – and the word crepuscular, meaning “of or pertaining to twilight”).
He means to do only good, and he’s a far better person than I am. Brad is very interested in money, but I can’t fault him for that.
Even if I were so inclined, I wouldn’t find Brad attractive: he’s got a long nose, he’s too skinny, and I don’t like his hair, which he combs frantically in the wind. I guess I don’t find him scruffy enough; he’s too neat.
But I do care for Brad as a friend, and I even think he cares for me although I’m sure he wishes I weren’t so loud and obstinate and careless about my appearance. I left his house at 1 AM and slept late today.
Wednesday, March 9, 1977
7 PM. If yesterday was a letdown, today was a plummet off a skyscraper. But things aren’t that bad. I’m still alive and kicking.
My car is in the service station, its brakes shot, its steering mechanism off: everything’s wrong with the damned thing. I’m fed up to here with this Conference nonsense, and tomorrow I’m going to tell Jon that.
I was angered today when an English 10 student wrote on her homework assignment, “If you would do your homework, and we, as students would do ours, this class would go a little smoother.”
I called this brilliant woman, Cassandra Tremaine, back and asked her what she meant by that. She told me I didn’t seem prepared today because I was halting in my delivery.
I was trying to teach about the passive voice in the past tense and the conditional past participle – things they’ve told us not to teach anymore because the students can’t understand them.
I was curt with Cassandra and told her I’d taught the course before and I certainly didn’t any hints on how to prepare for teaching grammar, especially not from a student whose first paragraph is two weeks overdue.
I am still furious, and so disgusted with LIU, with teaching grammar on a fourth-grade level to students who are planning to be journalists but can’t write a coherent sentence, with students who don’t do their assignments, with students who casually walk in an hour late to class.
Teaching doesn’t feel like much of a joy at the moment. My stomach is churning now, and my head aches. I know it’s rage and frustration.
I did a little better in English 12, where we (make that 85% of the students and I) discussed a Salinger story. But after that first class, even with Salinger – a writer I love – I didn’t feel much of anything for my subject or my students.
The only joy I had today came from a trip to Montefiore Cemetery. I went to the Chashwater Young plots and found various relatives. First I came across Shifra Tarras, whose newly-put-up stone had musical instruments and notes on it.
Her sister and brother-in-law, Clara (Chaikah) and Ben Rosenstein were there. When I looked at Great-Great-Uncle Benny’s date of death – August 2, 1962 – I remembered that day. I was in the bungalow at Lincoln Court recovering from bronchitis and an asthma attack when the phone rang and Grandma Ethel heard the news, started crying hysterically, and told Marc to run and get Great-Grandma Bessie in her bungalow.
I also remembered Uncle Benny: a nice man who’d had a laryngectomy and spoke by burping out his sounds.
Uncle Dave put the dates 1900-1975 for Shifra, but he must have done that just to impress his new wife with his youthfulness, for Shifra was older than Chaikah, whose given dates are 1900-1963. (Uncle Benny was Chaikah’s first cousin as well as her husband.)
The first Shapiro I spotted was Great-Great-Uncle Mayer (1894-1958), whom I remember vaguely, and behind him, Great-Grandpa Max (1888-1953), whose stone read “Beloved Husband and Dear Father and Grandfather.” (Why not “Great-Grandfather”? I guess they knew I couldn’t stand him.) Next to Max and Mayer were empty plots for Great-Grandma Bessie and Great-Great-Aunt Clara when they die.
Then, all the way in the back, I found the headstones of my great-great-grandparents, Sam Shapiro (1860-1927) and his wife Sylvia (1862-1931), the parents of Max, Mayer, Shifra and Chaikah. Their photos, clear as a bell, were on the marker; Sylvia’s greatly resembled Aunt Shifra, her daughter, and Grandma Ethel, her granddaughter.
Other cousins, from Uncle Benny’s Rosenstein family, were buried there, too. Grandma Ethel says that Meyer Rosenstein (1862-1931) was married to a sister of her grandfather, Sam Shapiro.
There are other cousins there, too: lots of Katzes and also Uhrmans and Friedmans, but they are so distant I can’t figure out their connections to the Shapiros and Rosensteins.
Way in the back, where little children are buried, there’s a tiny grave for two-year-old Ethel Katz, who died in 1918, perhaps in the Spanish flu epidemic.
It felt really weird and good to be able to stand by the graves of my relatives. Everyone’s been doing this since Roots, I know – but I enjoy amateur genealogy and I want to make trips to the graves of other branches of my family.