Tuesday, August 23, 1977
3 PM. I’m feeling kind of restless and I’m starting to get anxious to get back to New York. I’ve decided to leave on Friday so I can spend just a little time with Avis and Helmut before they go back to Germany. I miss them already, and it will be hard not being able to see them for a long time. I miss people I didn’t think I’d miss. I miss Dad most of all.
Robert Pack read a maxim last night: “When the father dies, the son becomes mortal.” And: “When the father feeds the son, they both laugh. When the son feeds the father, even the sea shudders.” I cried at Pack’s reading, the only one which affected me that way.
I was sitting in front of Vincent, the waiter who’s also from Brooklyn, whom I have a terrible crush on. Because I have a crush on him, it’s harder for me to approach him than anybody else. He’s cute and boyish and has a sensitive slender face.
Today I learned that he just graduated from the College of Staten Island, so I asked him if he knew Herb Leibowitz. He said that’s how he got here, that Herb recommended him.
Yesterday afternoon I lay out in the grass for a while. I think that’s where I got the gnat bites, several around each shoulder blade, that are itching me now.
The others came over, and we listened to music from the tape deck of Charles’s car, then drove in for dinner, which was ham again. The food here is pretty bad except for the baked products.
It’s nice to have different meal companions. Last evening we dined with two young women, one going for her M.A. in creative writing at Brown, the other a student at Northwestern.
Pack’s reading, as I said, was quite good. He’ll never be a great poet, I think, but he’s sincere and witty and seems to be a happy man. Mark Strand’s poetry, in contrast, is superior in every respect but there is no warmth in it.
This morning, after breakfast, I went to Elkin’s workshop. Elkin is an intelligent man and the workshop was interesting, but I found the stories so palpably amateurish – full not only of weak plots and dull characters but choked by imprecise, sloppy prose – that I really couldn’t get into it.
I’ve read most of the guys’ poetry and most of it is on a very early level. Of course, they are young, but many of the older people here have no conception of sophisticated writing.
Gardner, in his workshop, had us write beginnings, middles and ends to novels and had us read them aloud. I wrote about a guy who can’t stop pissing and will have to stay in the bathroom for years, the end a riff on the end of A Man of Property: “He might piss and piss and never get it – the beauty and the loving in the world.”
By lunchtime I felt worn out. Rick introduced me to another one of these women he’s always with (why do homosexuals always attract the most interesting women?), Mimi from Austin, who just graduated from UT. She’s a pretty girl: quiet but really sweet.
After lunch, or what passed for it – a terrible picnic on the grass instead of being seated inside – Kevin, Robert and I went to the Snack Bar to get hamburgers.
The woman serving us actually buttered the buns! It’s times like those that make me miss New York. I walked back home, feeling the beginnings of what promises to be a great stomachache.
Wednesday, August 24, 1977
5 PM. Today it’s been raining and bone-chillingly cold, more like the end of November than the end of August.
I really would like to get on a bus to New York tomorrow. I’m bored by now, and after today I feel I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to at Bread Loaf.
Yesterday afternoon I fell asleep on the couch downstairs and later Charles came in and we bullshitted for a while. He says he’d like to work on a fashion magazine and he told me that the trouble with Vietnam was that we didn’t go in there to win.
I imagine a lot of young people today are like that, pretty conservative. In 1969, when I was subject to the draft and marching against the war, guys like Charles and Kevin were only 11 or 12, and there’s a big difference between us. I don’t think they perceive me as an older person, though they kid me about it.
Actually, I’m at a peculiar age. I don’t quite have all the trappings of adulthood around me, but I’m far from being a college kid. If I teach again this fall – I hope to – doubtless I’ll find that my students have gotten still younger than they were last year and the year before. But white, upper-middle-class kids like Charles and Kevin are pretty different from my students at LIU.
Dinner last night was filet of sole, and I didn’t touch it. I probably would have lost weight here, but to compensate for all the poor meals, I’ve been loading up on sugars and starches.
I sat outside the Inn with Kristy Rogoff last night; we showed each other the contents of our wallets. Kristy is sweet, but she seems younger than she actually is.
Later, I met some old lady from Brooklyn, a retired high school teacher who was once a short story writer – she got honorable mention in a ’40s Story Magazine contest that Norman Mailer won – and now is working on her poetry, which is probably bad.
She gave me the password “Sholem Aleichem,” and when I responded warmly, she said, “A landsman, eh?” I’m almost ashamed to say how pleased I was to meet another Brooklyn Jew. It shouldn’t be that Jews are sort of a secret club with its own password and special handshake like the Phi Beta Kappa one Prof. Fife taught me, but I like the sound of Yiddish.
And Hilma Wolitzer’s reading – from her novel about middle-class New York Jews – also made me feel good. Hearing about lifestyles and characters familiar to me got me thinking about my parents and grandparents and friends and Brooklyn stuff.
We went to the Barn afterwards, to an Elvis Memorial Pre-’60s Dance, but I was a little too tired to get into it, though I did get pleasure out of watching Elise and David rock-‘n’-roll together.
After French toast this morning, I went to John Irving’s workshop, which was fairly interesting, and then to Geoffrey Wolff’s, a nonfiction one, which also was pretty good. Richard Marek, the literary agent, was leaving for New York, and I had to restrain myself from shouting “Take me with you!” as he got in his car.
Miriam from Texas and I sat outside the Inn and sang, “I wanna go home” and played with Dudley, a cute little boy who assured me that I would not melt in the rain. After lunch, I went back to the Barn with Marie Flagg, another fiction writer, and Leslea Newman, who’s really cool.
So far there’s been only one nervous breakdown here, but he came back and is now rooming with the staff psychologist. This afternoon Tim O’Brien read, as did two other Fellows, and I caught a lift back in Greg’s Jeep.
I’m definitely going to leave tomorrow. There’s nothing more for me to do here. I’ve gotten way more than my $135 worth and I’ve enjoyed it, but enough’s enough.
Thursday, August 25, 1977
9 PM. It’s strange to be back in my room. I miss Bread Loaf, and I didn’t know I would, and if I had known that yesterday, I would have stayed till Sunday.
I feel I should be listening to Charles moan, “I’m not a well man,” or watching Kevin go crazy when someone mentions Stanford, or driving fast and crazy down the mountain with David, listening to James Taylor and smoking a joint.
I miss that terrible uphill walk on the dirt road and the stars and the green mountains with the clouds going through them and those terrible meals we would complain about and knowing that the next few hours were scheduled with readings, lectures, and workshops. I loved Bread Loaf and it has changed me in a way I don’t believe I can realize yet.
Sick of the food, Charles drove me, Bob and Kevin to A&W for burgers last night; we ate in the car. I love driving fast on those sharp curves. We got stoned in Charles and Kevin’s room and bullshitted for a while and exchanged addresses. I really want to keep in touch with them and hope they’ll visit me in New York.
William Meredith’s reading was pretty good. He’s a fine narrative poet but a bit too formalistic for me. After hanging out in the Barn for an hour afterwards, I got a lift home with Ron Carlson. “It’s winter,” Ron said, and there were actual snow flurries – in August!
I got up early, and not wanting to disturb anyone, I lugged my suitcase the three-quarters of a mile to the Inn. My feet got wet from dew, and I saw clouds – fog – rising from the pond.
I had breakfast with David and Drew. I hate to say goodbye so I didn’t; I just left. The van took me into Middlebury, and I got the 9:05 semi-express bus. It was a pleasant, boring, uneventful trip.
We went right across the New York border and then southward to Albany. Bus-riding isn’t as bad as I thought; interesting people always seem to be around when you’re traveling.
I called from Albany, where I had lunch, and Dad said he’d pick me up. Our bus arrived at the Port Authority right on time, at 3:20 PM, and Dad was there.
He just got back from Florida, where he’d spent an awful four days transferring his father to a nursing home. It’s supposed to be a good one, but yesterday they found Grandpa Nat slumped forward in a chair – so far forward that he was almost choking himself.
Dad said that it’s as though Grandpa Nat is retarded, although occasionally he remembers people’s names. Mom told me that Dad was crying all last night.
Grandma Sylvia can’t cope and is suicidal; she tried to drive, but she really shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe she’ll end up coming back here and we could transfer Grandpa Nat to a place where we could keep an eye on him; I hope so.
At home, I had a pile of mail, nearly all rejections, but also letters from Michael Lally and George Myers Jr., a magazine called Buckle which contained my poem “The Erosion of the Beaches,” and a letter from an editor at Houghton Mifflin who was very impressed by my Epoch story and wonders if I have a novel.
She urges me to respond and send the novel she assumes I’m working on. Of course there is none. All I’ve got are short stories.
Sunday, August 28, 1977
8 PM. It was good to see Avis and Helmut yesterday. They had both just bought jeans and boots. We went uptown to Teresa’s and on the way they told me about their trip.
Ellen and Wade have moved to this terrific farmhouse outside Charlottesville, on a very quiet dirt road. Avis and Helmut arrived in the middle of a heat wave and there was a tornado that tore down a 100-year-old tree, knocked out the electricity, and moved an iron in their room about ten feet.
Then the four of them went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where there was nothing to do but lie in the sun. All of them got terribly sunburned and they were grateful that it rained on the third day.
But Avis said she had a nice visit with her sister, and she repeated Ellen’s invitation for me to come down and stay with them. I thought I might make the visit to Virginia with Elihu, but Avis said Ellen thinks Elihu is such a night person, he might be very bored there, especially with no TV.
Elihu had a pretty hard time visiting the McAllisters when they were living in Middlebury (hard for me to understand after being there; I think it’s wonderful), so Ellen and Wade had to spend all their time trying to entertain him.
Teresa wasn’t in when we arrived, but a note on the door told us to ring next door. Wanda, the Haitian pianist who teaches at Rutgers, told us that Teresa and Jane, her old roommate from Palo Alto, had just gone to the store for some groceries.
Avis, Helmut and I sat in Wanda’s living room as she graciously entertained us and told funny stories about faculty meetings.
Teresa and Jane finally got back from the store, and we had cheese and crackers and drinks. Teresa’s grandfather finally died a couple of weeks ago and she had to go visit her grandmother later that evening.
Grandpa Virgil died at home and it was pretty awful. Teresa said he looked like a monster the last few days. But dying was all he wanted to do; at 87, he had just tired of life.
Don wasn’t around last night, for some reason. Jane, it turns out, works with him in the Times Book Division, selling video cassettes to teachers – so that’s how Teresa met Don.
Jane is very sexy in a big-boned, freckled California way; she said she’d send me some workbooks on teaching basic writing skills that might be valuable to me.
While I was chatting with Jane and Helmut, I could hear Teresa in the background telling Avis about her problems with Don. His wife isn’t making it easy for him to get a divorce, and if she ever finds out about Teresa, that will only make things worse.
Don’s daughters want to visit him in the city, so he’s either got to “borrow” a friend’s apartment or else he and Teresa might get a bigger, three-bedroom place. (Teresa would stay in Williamsburg with her parents when Don’s daughters come to visit.)
But I think Teresa really likes her building. People kept dropping in: Lance from next door, to borrow a pot (his roommate – lover? – Ari was cooking dinner); and Connie from downstairs came by to check out Teresa’s new stereo.
Teresa said she’d tried to call me while I was in Vermont and Jonny just said, “Oh, he’s gone.”
After Avis and Helmut said goodbye to Teresa and she returned my camera, the three of us went downtown and had dinner (my idea, their treat) at 125 Prince Street in Soho.
Helmut has really gotten himself hooked on TV and I told him I’m going to test him on commercial jingles. They gave me Libby’s tent and camping equipment, which I put in my trunk so I can return it to Libby’s house when I’m in the Slope this week.
Helmut was anxious to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry, so we put the car on it. I hate the ferry, but it really wasn’t so bad. I thought I might have an anxiety attack, but I didn’t, even though I tried to induce one. You really don’t feel any motion on the ferry at all.
We drove back over the Verrazano and I dropped them off at Avis’s parents’ apartment in Sheepshead Bay. Back at home, I read the Sunday Times and finally fell asleep.
Helmut’s flight, which was supposed to leave tonight, was delayed until tomorrow morning by the London air traffic controllers’ strike.
Alice phoned early this evening and we went to dinner at the Arch. She wanted to hear all about Bread Loaf and I told her everything; it’s fun to be able to tell someone about my trip for a change.
While we were waiting for a table, I noticed Ronna’s sister in the restaurant lobby. I went over to kiss her hello, and I told her how beautiful she looked. She did – she’s tanned and she’s lost weight; Sue’s face was always pretty.
She told me that they’ve moved, that she’s graduating Brooklyn College in January as a Health Science major, that she had a summer job at the city Health Department. Ronna, Sue said, was at Susan’s house with Susan and Evan, and Mrs. C and her boyfriend went with Billy to Montauk on vacation.
Of course, I didn’t mention Ronna to her sister; instead, I told Sue about Vermont, and when the hostess called “Grayson” to say that our table was waiting, I just said, “Give my regards at home.”
Over dinner, Alice told me about her nightmarish weekend in Washington. That guy she corresponded with, Bill, has something wrong with him. His face, Alice said, was actually so grotesque-looking that she couldn’t eat in his presence.
He must look very gruesome – I can’t imagine it – but Alice said his face gave her nightmares. Alice tried to be her natural irascible self (if she was kindly, Bill would have been even more hurt) and let him down as gently as possible.
“It’s not a question of his being unattractive,” Alice said. “To me, he was repulsive.”
Good news, though: Doubleday is definitely interested in doing Alice’s book.
Monday, August 29, 1977
8 PM. I woke up very early today so I could take Helmut to the airport. It felt as though it was going to be a very hot day, and it turned out to be one. When I got to Avis’s parents’ house, Helmut was finishing dressing while watching the Today show.
After Avis had Helmut make sure he had his tickets, his passport, etc., we drove on the Belt to get to Kennedy. The Laker flight was scheduled – or should I say rescheduled – for 11:30 AM, then 12:30 PM. Avis and Helmut and I went to the bar for beers and ginger ale and sat talking. One thing about them: I can be with them for the longest time and not get bored or tired of them.
Helmut is a great person; it seems to me he closely approaches the kind of loving, natural, careless man that I could only hope to be. He’s kind and wise and witty and warm, and I am now convinced that Avis knew exactly what she was doing when she chose him.
We said goodbye to him at the gate and watched him successfully go through the metal detector. He looked back and waved. Earlier, when I embraced him goodbye, he said, “If only we could visit each other every other weekend.”
I smiled and shrugged and said, “Auf Wiedersehen.” Avis will see him when she gets to London; they don’t plan to take the ferry across the North Sea until Friday or Sunday.
Avis and I then drove back to Brooklyn, where we mailed packages in the post office and had lunch at the New China Inn. How I’m going to miss my talks with Avis! For six years we’ve always been so supportive of each other; our friendship is too strong to let disagreements hurt it.
Avis said she’s worried about Libby, that Libby seems more depressed than she lets on. To Mrs. Judson and Avis, Libby said, “What have I got to live for?”
Going back with Mason would be a regression, a holding action; Mason is too confused and could never give Libby what she needs. She wants to settle down, and she could never do that with Mason.
Thomas thinks he’s gay but is trying to block it out; Libby likes him so much, but he can’t provide the strength she requires. And her other admirers all seem to have shortcomings.
Well, I just hope Libby’s enjoying herself in Portland. Maybe she’ll discover that she’d like to live there.
Avis confessed she’s anxious about going back to Bremen with no job – which reminds me: at the airport, Helmut was singing “An-ti-ci-pa-tion,” the Heinz slow-ketchup song.
I could say only, feebly, that it will all work out. I gave her a kiss and hug goodbye and we made it brief. I’ll miss her terribly. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of strength from her. Just looking at her makes me happy, gives me comfort.
I went to Rockaway to visit Mikey, whom I found swimming in the ocean on the beach. He stopped selling those stupid alarm systems; anyway, next week law school begins again.
Last night was Mike and Cindy’s wedding, at Temple Sholom. Mikey said it was an “all-right wedding, kind of run-of-the-mill.” Larry had to work today, so they left at 11:30 PM.
Mikey gave Mike a check as a gift, but he also slipped him an IOU for $30: that bet they had on who would get married first, remember? Vicky and some friends walked by our blanket as we were talking, and I exchanged hellos with her.
Last weekend, Mikey said, he saw Ivan hanging out with the same people Vicky was hanging out with today. Well, a lot of times couples break up and still have the same friends.
Then – it’s curious how all these chance meetings happen only when you don’t expect them – Stacy walked by with a bearded guy. At first, I didn’t recognize her, but Mikey did.
I didn’t say anything or nod in her direction. But she went a few feet, turned around, looked at us as if in recognition and walked back to say hello. After she’s snubbed me all these years, I must say I was surprised.
Stacy asked what Mikey and I were doing and she introduced her boyfriend, who goes to LIU and chatted with me about the school. When she thanked me for the stories I sent her on her birthday, it embarrassed me. I mentioned Avis and Helmut, and she told the guy that Avis was the girl on her photos of Scandinavia.
Mikey and I were so nonplussed by her unexpected friendliness that we neglected to find out what Stacy was doing these days; she didn’t volunteer any information about a job or school. As she and her boyfriend went off, I realized that Stacy would probably cross paths with Vicky, and the novelist in me burns with curiosity to see that encounter, given their relationships with Ivan.
Mikey and I lay on the beach till 5 PM. He told me that he’d run into Vito, who was going into the McBurney Y next door to his building, and had also seen Hal and Ivy on the beach.
Tuesday, August 30, 1977
11 PM. The texture of life is so sweet – that is, if life can be sweet. I feel happy today because I don’t feel alone. Since I’ve gotten back from Vermont, I’ve been involved with people.
I’ve said goodbye to Avis and Helmut; I’ve seen Alice and Mikey and Teresa; I’ve spoken to Gary, Brad and Vito; I’ve run across Stacy, Vicky, and Sue Caplan; I’ve heard from Mason, and today I got a letter from a new friend, Charles from Bread Loaf.
Charles’s note was incredibly sweet. He said he and Kevin were sorry they missed my departure: “It was quite pleasant meeting you and I enjoyed your work. Your mode of thought deceives me, though, as you move from non sequitur to non sequitur.”
He gave me his phone numbers at his summer home in New Hampshire and at school in Skidmore as well as his address in Rhode Island and said to call or write. Charles’s letter makes me so happy, I almost think I’m in love with him. It just confused me that he’d be so effusive. Could he be interested in me? Or have I just confused friendship and romantic attraction again?
As much as Tim O’Brien feels he must tackle the subject of courage, maybe the great theme I’d like to wrestle with is friendship, which to me seems the most important thing in life. I’d like to write a book celebrating friendship.
Avis must be in London with Helmut now. Late last night I began thinking about my friendship with Avis: how accidental it was, our being so close. On Sunday night Avis flashed on childhood memories of watching me visiting Grandma Sylvia on Snyder Avenue, across the street from her house: she said I was always dressed up in a sport jacket.
I thought of writing a story about my friendship with Avis, and maybe I will. But if I included Libby in the story – both of us knew her for years before either of us separately became friends with Libby – maybe there’s a whole novel in that, taking us through college and the present to beyond.
Yes, that sounds right. There could be all these marvelous minor characters: Mason, Mrs. Judson, Scott, Shelli and Jerry, Helmut. I think it might just work. I’m tempted to start it quickly, but it needs a lot of thought.
It could be – it should be – a beautiful book. The characters’ stories would be separate first, and then, as the years go on, the three grow closer and so do the plots of their lives.
I spoke to Brad last night, and I could tell he was pleased I called. Of course I didn’t mention seeing his latest ad in the Voice personals. All he could speak about was his trip to Iceland in June: he fell in love with Iceland and kept praising the country, its people, its beauty, its climate and its government.
According to Brad, Iceland is paradise, and he spoke with awe of standing with one foot on the American Contintental Shelf and the other on the European. He can find nothing wrong with Iceland, and he’d like to move there someday, though of course they discourage immigration.
Now that Alice’s brother is in Reykjavik, maybe I could go on a trip there now that I know I can travel more easily. Maybe next year I could go to both Iceland and Germany.
Vito called from the hotel newsstand, telling me they’d moved across Coney Island Avenue, because Lou the landlord was giving him and his mother a hard time.
I asked Vito to take me to a gay bar, and he said we should start off with a “normal” place like the Stud, nothing like the Mine Shaft with its backroom sex, which sometimes disgusts Vito even while he’s participating in it.
“I don’t want you to be gay, though,” Vito told me. “You’re my last hope for normalcy.” He said Mara’s back home looking for a job.
Vito told me that six weeks ago he was in a phone booth on Sixth Avenue when he saw Ronna passing by, arm in arm with some guy. I had thought Ronna might call me, prompted by my meeting her sister the other night, but I guess not. It doesn’t matter.
When I called Gary, he was busy with Merrill Lynch work, but he called back later. He’s doing all right in the job – “It’s a holding action” – but Betty really loves working for the Girl Scouts.
Alice called, asking me if I want to do an article, a phony biography of the soap opera character Joanne Vincente on Search for Tomorrow for The People’s Almanac, and I said I would. She’s going to arrange it.
Alice told me that June said she wanted to hear all about Bread Loaf firsthand, so we’ll get together soon.
While I was at Unemployment this morning, Mason called and told Jonny he wouldn’t be in this weekend, so I should go ahead and pick Libby up at the airport when she returns from Portland.
Late this afternoon, Jacob phoned to thank me for my sympathy note. He asked me to go to the movies with him, so I met him at Kings Highway, where we saw A Bridge Too Far. I knew the movie wouldn’t thrill me, but I wanted to spend time with Jacob.
Jacob has always struck me as a Renaissance man, a bit stiff perhaps, but very decent. He’s been going through a rough time since his father’s sudden death, but he’s grown, too.
We talked before the movie, and afterwards, at a diner on Coney Island Avenue. Jacob said he still finds himself breaking down at odd moments, such as when he hears a song from Oklahoma!, a show his father loved, on the radio, or going through the desk and seeing his father’s signature on a check.
It’s been hell on his mother, of course, but at least she has her work. Jay doesn’t go back to work for another two weeks since he’s still recovering from his shoulder surgery.
Jacob has had to learn a lot of things quickly. He’s been going to the synagogue every morning to say Kaddish, and he says that helps because the old men at the shul make him feel part of a community.
At first he recited Kaddish with a vengeance, spitting out the Hebrew words clumsily because he was furious his father had the nerve to die and leave him. Now he recites it in a quieter, more thoughtful way.
Jacob was pretty close to his father. I hope it helped that we talked about it. I’m sure he talks about it with other people, but he probably can’t talk about it enough.
When I got home, Mom and Dad were arguing about what to do about Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia. Aunt Sydelle is going down to Miami again tomorrow, but she can’t be expected to stay there.
The doctors say Grandpa Nat will always be a vegetable although there are moments when he makes sense: today he told a nurse that he manufactured slacks at 87 Fifth Avenue, which of course is perfectly true.
Grandma Sylvia finds it difficult to live alone; everyone advises her to come back up North, but she doesn’t want to.
Today Ataraxia arrived, with my story “On the Boardwalk” and – a first – a photo of me in the contributor’s notes. I miss Bread Loaf.