Tuesday, June 12, 1979
3 PM. I got a letter of rejection from Bread Loaf today; Robert Pack added a handwritten P.S. saying he was sorry, that he likes my work. I’m very disappointed, but coping with disappointment builds character, right? Oh yeah.
Anyway, the shape of things to come is becoming more distinct. I think I should go to Virginia for the month of August; after all, they wanted me. It will be cutting it close with Albany, where registration starts the Tuesday after Labor Day, September 4. But maybe I can get my head together (hey man, you still into ’60s jargon? ) in Virginia, which might be good preparation for being away in Albany.
I should go up to Albany soon to find out about housing and whatever else I need to know. Today I got an application for a student loan; I’d like to borrow $2,000 so I can live fairly decently.
The $5,000 fellowship won’t go very far, and if I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that I certainly cannot count on getting an NEA fellowship. Deep down, I feel sure that I won’t.
I got three rejection letters from colleges where I applied for jobs, and today a very obnoxious (and dumb) rejection letter came from a literary magazine. I might be crushed under the combined weight of all these rebuffs, but I’m getting immune to them.
Today in the library I read an Atlantic article by some asshole who said that John Irving was “a young writer with nothing to say” and without the ability to sustain a believable narrative. So there’s always somebody out there who’s going to hate you.
Being a public person is like standing in a shooting gallery. If I don’t learn how to handle rejection and sharp criticism now, I’ll never be able to cope with it.
Just think how I used to worry about what Baumbach and my fellow MFA students would say about my stories. Now their opinions seem so pointless. I can’t help feeling that one day my attitude toward the Bread Loaf rejection, the Kirkus review, etc., will be the same.
I got a letter today from Lynn Lauber, whose work I accepted tentatively for the anthology. She’s about my age and from Cleveland, I think; she lives in Westchester now. Her stories are about going with a black guy in high school. She wrote that in real life, she had this guy’s baby and put it up for adoption.
Lynn wrote: “Your letter made my whole dreary month much better. Thank you, thank you for liking my stuff. Writing is such a lonesome thing. I spend half my life with my head in a thesaurus or attached to a Selectric.”
See, it’s hard for everyone. I’m luckier than most. I heard Tom tell Crad as they looked at my book: “It’s the real thing.” I haven’t done badly.
But I’m in turmoil now about so many things. I expect to get through this painful time and I expect things will be better, but I also know it’s going to be difficult. I feel more alone than I have in many years.
Isolation. Abandonment. Death. Dr. Pasquale told me to think about those three things. But I don’t really want to face them.
I had told Josh I’d take him to Richard Price’s reading tonight at Books & Company, but my stomach hurts now and I’m not sure I want to go. No, I’m in one of my just-lie-my-head-on-my-pillow moods.
Wednesday, June 13, 1979
It’s just Wednesday now, 1 AM. I need to atone for that whiny, ponderous, pompous diary entry I wrote this afternoon. You’d think after ten years I’d learn how to handle you better, dear Diary.
I just got in. It’s pleasant out: the few stars look nicer than the fake ones all over the dome of the planetarium.
Josh and I did go to the Richard Price reading at Books & Company.
On the way uptown, we played “Can You Top This?” with our depressions. Josh noted that over the years we seem to have exchanged personalities: years ago he used to call people “hooples” from the car while I cringed in embarrassment; today I embarrass Josh by yelling at pedestrians, “I can’t find a fucking parking space. If I was the Ambassador from Sierra Leone, I’d have one!”
Josh says he’s going to tell my biographer that I used to yell out the car windows. Sometimes I have a lot of nerve.
Books & Company did not have any copies of Hitler and Josh wouldn’t ask for it. Maybe it’s too early. Before the reading, Richard Price was downstairs. Josh pointed out that his right hand was withered; I’d seen Price before but hadn’t noticed that.
Upstairs we sat in the last two chairs in the back. I pointed out to Josh, “That’s Burt Britton, pompous man about town.” I was certain that the well-dressed people in front of us obviously thought I was a boorish buffoon, but one of them said to the other, “He’s right.”
There were the usual sensitive-looking literary types; I spotted Donald Britton, the poet I met at Michael Lally’s party, and some novelists I should have recognized.
Price was with a young bearded guy I thought might be his lover, but Josh said Price wasn’t gay, and he was right: it turned out to be one of his “hot dog” writing students at Hofstra, Keith Greenberg, who read sections of a novel about street life in Queens, ’70s-style. He was good, a lot like Price: punchy, tight writing with lots of metaphors. Greenberg even had Price’s heavily New York-accented voice and the earring.
Price himself read a very good section of a work in progress. It began as a flashback in a false start for a novel – it’s nice to know he has them, too – and it was a terrific piece, obviously autobiographical, about an 11-year-old in the South Bronx and his beloved Bubbe Ethel. (Obviously I could relate to it.)
It was 9 PM and just dark when Josh and I got out of the bookstore. The water along the FDR Drive looked beautiful; June is my favorite time of the year. On the drive back to Brooklyn, Josh and I decided to go to Kings Plaza to see Manhattan.
Walking around the mall beforehand, we ran into one of my Kingsborough students, Ivy Spiegel, whom I called Alison by mistake. Although I looked like a fat schlump – I’m getting so fat I couldn’t find a thing to wear tonight – and felt lousy, I still was the one who went over to say hello to her.
I liked Manhattan more the second time; it erased my doubts fed by recent articles about Allen’s genius. This time, probably because I was with Josh, Mariel Hemingway reminded me of Josh’s old girlfriend Julia.
Leaving the mall at midnight to the sounds of the PA system telling us not to loiter, I told Josh that and said that I once told Julia that she was the best girl Josh ever went out with, and he said, “Yeah, I really made a mistake when I broke up with her.”
I told him I remembered that in Prof. Roberts’ Russian class, I once saw Josh writing Julia a letter. He said he wrote several letters to her, but – as in the movie with Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway – she wouldn’t take him back.
“I need someone soon,” Josh said as we drove home. “I can’t live without a woman.”
“Sure you can,” I said.
“No, I can’t,” Josh said.
“I know,” I told him. “I was just trying to see if I could fool you.”
And we laughed: end of evening.
Thursday, June 14, 1979
4 PM. I’ve just come back from Riis Park. Although I have little patience for the beach now, I did smell coconut incense – or maybe it was suntan lotion – and that smell brought back the summer of 1969 for me, when Dad took us to Greenwich Village and I bought coconut incense at the Postermat.
That’s when I discovered there was a world beyond Brooklyn, and later that summer I began to explore it on my own. I’ve got to buy some coconut incense.
The summer sessions everywhere have begun, and I have no job. I got a call from Pace University about teaching a course in the fall, but I told them I wasn’t interested. Hunter College is not interested in me: I got the rejection letter today. Oh well, I never expected that job anyway.
Yesterday Crad came over and spent the day here. We sat on the porch and he smoked his cigars; we walked to Kings Plaza; we stood on a gas line: this summer, like the summer of ’74, will always be remembered for gas lines.
Mostly we talked – about the futility of small presses (Crad gets around that by selling his books on the streets to ordinary Torontonians), the anguish of rejections (I got another very condescending one today), the joy of seeing our work in print (no matter where).
My friendship with Crad is now very strong; he’s a sweet, gentle cynic, not entirely like his public persona.
Last evening I discovered a Voice story about Dave Tarras and the revival of klezmer music. I was thrilled to see Uncle Dave recognized as “the Yiddish Benny Goodman” and “King Klezmer.”
The article praised his artistry with the clarinet, in particular his doinas: the long, soulful cadenzas in which he improvises masterfully. There was a photo of Uncle Dave and much family history.
The article mentioned his 54-year marriage to Aunt Shifra, how he came from a long line of Hasidic klezmer musicians – he played at Irene Krasner’s parents’ wedding when he was 12 – and how Dave and Shifra left Russia in 1921 (bringing Grandma Ethel with them).
His clarinet, the article said, was ruined when it was fumigated at Ellis Island, and so he had to take a job at the factory of his brother-in-law (Great-Grandpa Max) to earn money to buy another instrument.
The article traced years of his music; he’s the last of the old immigrant klezmer musicians left, it said. I was so excited that I called up Dave and told him I was Richard, Ethel’s grandson. He said he was excited to hear from me, his great-great-nephew and former student (probably the worst).
Dave asked me what I was doing, and I told him if he ever gives another concert like the one mentioned in the Voice article that I would love to go. I also spoke to Uncle Dave’s wife, and she said I should drop by sometime and gave me their address in Brighton Beach.
Uncle Dave seemed very matter-of-fact about the article. I suspect he may never have heard of the Village Voice or at least doesn’t know what its reach is. Or maybe at his advanced age, it doesn’t really matter to him.
Contrasting myself with my great-great-uncle, I felt bad. Dave Tarras never did anything but practice his craft and practice it excellently. He never hyped himself or schemed to get publicity. I wish I had his dignity and sense of purpose.
But Uncle Dave belongs to another time. (Is that just rationalizing so I can excuse myself for the kind of writer I am?)
Teresa got that job at the Long Island Rail Road, working in Jamaica as Assistant Manager for Customer Relations for $18,000 a year. She likes her job and is having fun with her weekends in Fire Island.
Teresa said that Jan is marrying her doctor: “She’s an entirely new person, walking on air.”
Friday, June 15, 1979
5 PM. Talk about anticlimax: Today is the publication date of With Hitler in New York and absolutely nothing happens. It’s really a letdown. Mom is bugging me to make up little flyers that she can send to her friends, but I’m not feeling up to it.
For the past month I haven’t xeroxed any of the stories that have come out in little magazines. I just feel that writing and publishing serve no purpose.
Granted, I am a writer and I will get back to writing again, but I see no point in it now. It’s gotten me nothing except the tangible object on my shelf. I have yet to see a copy of the book anywhere and nobody I know has bought it – or probably will ever buy it.
Lately I’ve been feeling disgusted with myself. For one thing, I am so fat: I just can’t seem to discipline myself enough to diet. I eat cookies in the middle of the night. It’s only because I constantly exercise that I’m not any heavier than I am.
Also, my contact lenses have been giving me trouble; now I’m not sure which lens is which, and neither fits my right eye comfortably. For weeks, the mail has brought nothing but rejections – and there’s nothing to look forward to. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.
When Carolyn Bennett called yesterday, she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t jumping for joy because of the book. She said she’d try to review it for the Courier-Life papers but would need the approval of the interim editor, Richard Steier (who used to be on Kingsman).
Carolyn told me the job of editor is open, so I thought of Ronna and called her to tell her that she might want to apply. Ronna said she didn’t think she was qualified, but I urged her to send Courier-Life a résumé.
Ronna and I got on fairly well. She said she knew I was annoyed about her forgetting my birthday. At least we can be civil and polite to one another, and I still think of her as my friend.
I felt lonely today. It was hot and sunny, so I went to the beach. Instead of going to Riis Park, I went to Belle Harbor, to Beach 137th Street, half-hoping to see Stacy.
As it turned out, I put my blanket not far from hers. I think she saw me before I saw her, and it was obvious she didn’t want to speak to me. Later, I did say hello to one of her friends, who looked very familiar: it was Phyllis.
Ordinarily I’d have felt like a fool, but now who cares what Stacy and Phyllis think of me? I sat on the beach for hours, looking at bodies, listening to soap operas on my new TV-sound radio, eating ices, burning up, eavesdropping on the conversation of the high school girls at the next blanket. I got home an hour ago.
These days I feel so useless, unproductive and superfluous. Dad said he would drive me to Albany next week since he, too, has little to do these days. Yesterday I sent out another résumé for him for a job in Florida.
Dad keeps taking my tranquilizers in the morning; when he comes into my room, I pretend I’m asleep so I don’t embarrass him, but the situation angers me.
I wish it were already August so I could be in Virginia; if I’m unhappy there, at least I’ll be in a new environment and maybe I will get some work done, if only because there’ll be nothing else to do there.
Tomorrow I see Dr. Pasquale. I haven’t told him I’m gay. Is that important? I think I’m finally coming to terms with my sexual identity, and that’s really not my biggest problem now.
Tuesday, June 19, 1979
9 PM. Naturally, after spending most of yesterday in bed, I found it difficult to fall sleep last night. However, I did sleep, and today I wasn’t as tired – although I wasn’t a bundle of energy, either.
I have no gas in my car – about an eighth of a tank – and I can’t drive anywhere until I get gas on Thursday, when it’s an “odd” license plate day. On Thursday I plan to go up to Albany anyway.
Mikey called late yesterday, and I was grateful to be able to turn off Carter’s boring SALT II speech. Mikey is so burdened by his bar exam review course that he was actually happy to listen to my kvetching.
He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps bar review, and he says it’s “suffocating”: all day he’s with other people preparing for the bar, and they talk about nothing else. In a way, though, I wish I had something like that to occupy me totally.
I got a letter from Avis today. She’d been waiting for me to write for weeks and then realized it was her turn. She’s anxious to hear about the book; I sent her back a rather depressed response.
Their “Parkstrasse 83 community is breaking up now and things are beginning to change,” Avis writes. “Heinz has been out since May, and Helmut hopes to have an apartment by July 1.” Avis won’t be moving out of the house until late July, when she goes to visit friends in Munich, Amsterdam and London.
In late August, she goes back to Bremen and will be flying to New York in early September. Avis has filed the papers for Israel and hopes everything goes smoothly.
She feels that Helmut has been very cold to her lately: “I’m looking forward to the separation, but I know I’ll be struck by a sledgehammer when it happens.”
After Helmut leaves, Avis will be alone in the house with Ludger and although Avis will probably continue her affair with him, “it’s a mistake.” And she says she’ll walk, drive or fly anywhere to see me wherever I am in September. I love her so much.
This afternoon I went into Manhattan. At the Strand, I didn’t find Hitler among the review copies sold back. But seeing someone’s novel autographed, “To Barbara – Love, Sandra,” with the review copies upset me. Who would sell back a friend’s book?
At Brentano’s, I saw no copies of Hitler and was too shy to ask for it; at the Eighth Street, I noticed that another copy of Disjointed Fictions had been sold, though I probably owe this to the revival of I, Claudius on PBS: Graves’s book, next to mine on the shelf, is selling briskly.
After getting a quick bite in midtown at the CUNY Graduate Center, I went to Times Square and walked around. New York is such an international city now; there are many more Latin Americans and Asians here these days.
I love the sleazy excitement of Times Square and all that energy. After watching two street magicians tease a crowd, I walked over to the raunchy Hotel Diplomat.
In the hotel’s Crystal Room, a broken-down ballroom that resembled an old Flash Gordon set, Paul O’Dwyer’s Coalition for a Democratic Alternative was having its organizing meeting. There were about a hundred people in attendance.
Paul O’Dwyer still looks the same, and he still has that same unshakeable faith in the system. He and labor lawyer Phil Sipser spoke, saying that the CDA is not supporting any particular presidential candidate but wants a progressive alternative to oppose Carter in the primaries.
Delegates may not be selected until after next year’s New York preference primary so the regulars can pack all the caucuses with their people. A whole cast of characters came up and talked about the need for a liberal candidate.
LeRoy Bowser, the very able black reformer from Brooklyn, spoke, as did Abe Feinglass of the furriers’ union (who probably led strikes against Great-Grandpa Max), and someone from Americans for Democratic Action, along with representatives for Orthodox Jewish, gay rights, and anti-nuclear groups.
It felt like a reunion of the Dump Johnson movement circa 1967.
Thursday, June 21, 1979
7:30 PM. It’s just about summer now; this is the longest day of the year, and I’m reporting from room 149 of the Tom Sawyer Motel in Albany.
Last night I slept well and I woke up early this morning, getting to the Port Authority at 10 AM to catch the 10:30 AM bus to Albany. I was a bit anxious, of course, but generally I enjoyed the ride up.
Funny how many little sights and signs I remember from my last trip to Albany, nearly two years ago. Of course back then I was on my way to Middlebury, Vermont, and today Albany was my final destination.
I played peekaboo with the Hispanic baby in front of me and ate an apple and thought about my life. I like the looks of downtown Albany: the mall, with its futuristic buildings and the grey 19th century look of most other buildings.
Remembering that the hamburgers in the bus terminal were good, I had lunch there, and then I got to Broadway, where I waited an hour for a Washington Avenue bus which never came.
So I went to a cab stand and got in the back seat of a car. I was a little startled when a black man opened the other door and sat down next to me, but I soon realized that sharing taxis is allowed here.
The gas situation is, if anything, worse in the Capital District than it is in the city; there are almost no gas stations open here.
I was dismayed at how far the motel was from SUNY, but after I checked into my room – it’s a little tacky, but fine – I walked along Western Avenue for about a mile and came in to the campus from the back way. It was sunny and hot, but I didn’t mind.
The campus is very stark and white and mostly empty now. A central academic cluster of buildings is surrounded by four housing complexes. The young people I saw seemed nice: this is the first real (non-commuter) campus I’ve been to, unless you count Columbia.
Finding the Humanities Building, I went in to the English Department office, where I was lucky enough to find Donald Stauffer, the director of graduate study, who remembered who I was.
He’s a kindly-looking man who said I looked “tan and fit” (though “fat” might be more accurate). I sat and talked with him for half an hour. They should transfer 30 of my credits and so I’ll have 30 to go: 32 actually, since their courses are four credits each.
Prof. Stauffer gave me a fall schedule – most classes are in the evenings – and said I’ll probably be working in the Writing Workshop under Gene Garber, whom I’m anxious to meet.
He also said I probably will need a car here and told me to go to Housing in the Campus Center for information on places to live. Unfortunately, they were closed, but I saw from the bulletin board that many off-campus apartments are available.
I’ll write them about dormitories, too, and I’ll come back here again and see what’s what. I walked around, looking at the students swimming in the fountain, playing tennis, studying on the grass or benches, motorcycling, and I read all the posters and notices I could find.
Walking back to the motel, I thought: This is a place I could be happy living in. I suppose that’s true. I sat outside by the motel pool and then had dinner at the little restaurant they have here. And now I’m back in my room, undressed, having watched the news and relaxed.
I do feel the slight anxiety of being in strange place, but I’ll have to get over that. There’s nothing more to do at the university, so I’ll leave early tomorrow. All I wanted to accomplish on this trip was to see the campus and get my Albany bearings.
In a way, this is behaviorist therapy: I’m accustoming myself to living here. Yes, I’m still scared (even of tonight), but I also see that I’m capable of getting from here to there and I’m not really so far away from Brooklyn after all.
Friday, June 22, 1979
8 PM. Emotionally I feel quite good, the way I always feel after a trip. My problem is that I need to go on trips more often. Then I wouldn’t feel so anxious about moving or traveling.
Last night I fell asleep early but woke up soon afterwards. My throat was dry and it was too cold with the air conditioner on and too hot without it.
The people next door were having what sounded like a noisy orgy – it might have been a senior prom group – and I couldn’t get comfortable in my bed.
Despite all that, I managed to fall into a deep sleep after 2 AM. I had wonderful dreams about being among all my old Brooklyn College friends; maybe, through those dreams, I was telling myself that I could make friends in Albany, too.
As I was showered and got dressed this morning, I listened to a discussion of agoraphobia on Today. The psychiatrist said that one must confront the feared situation, but not all at once: gradually, and in steps.
I did exactly that ten years ago when I left the house, trying to get a little further every day, and I did that this week. I’ll have to go back to Albany within a few weeks, but I’m already starting to become comfortable there.
After a big breakfast, I checked out and hopped on the Western Avenue bus going downtown. I find Albany a quiet, clean place: a bit drab and sometimes seedy, but I don’t mind that.
Stopping at the Trailways terminal, I learned I could get a 10 AM express to New York rather than waiting for the 10:30 AM bus at Greyhound. So I decided to do that. Having the Greyhound ticket I bought yesterday ensures that I can ride back next time for “free.”
I enjoyed today’s bus ride. I wasn’t anxious at all, and the time flew by as I looked at the scenery, those green rolling hills mostly, and thought about my life. I thought about Avis and how much I miss her and wondered what it would be like if we had a child together. (Don’t ask me why that popped into my mind.)
I felt relaxed and realized that I do like riding on buses, the idea of being away from myself, of seeing new surroundings and remembering them so clearly simply because they are new.
On New Jersey’s Route 17, there were mile-long gasoline lines. A new song asks, “Who Put the Line in Gasoline?” and even the AAA is advising people to stay home rather than drive.
When we entered New York City as we came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, I felt that familiar thrill. Deep down, I know I’ll always be a New Yorker.
I took the A train to West 4th Street, where, instead of transferring to the D, I got out and had lunch at The Bagel, glad to be in a familiar place with people I know. (The restaurant’s owner always reminds me of a Hispanic Truman Capote.)
I even think a guy made a pass at me. “How are you?” he asked, smiling, as I walked down Sixth Avenue. But I was so startled that I rushed on.
There is a Mill Basin bus strike, so at Kings Highway I took the Avenue R bus to Kings Plaza and walked the rest of the way. It had been a perfect day for traveling: partly cloudy and cool. I proved that I could make it home from the motel in Albany entirely on public transportation in just five hours. The trip increased my confidence.
For the rest of the afternoon, I exercised and read my mail: a manuscript from Rick Peabody, plus his Gargoyle, which reviewed Disjointed Fictions favorably, calling me “perhaps the most prolific short story writer in America”; a letter from Crad, in a rage about not getting his Rustler payment, who also says Taplinger’s distributor is Macmillan of Canada and that Hitler is going for $10.50 there (too high); a book of John Bennett’s poetry, autographed “To R.G. for your continued support”; Poets & Writers’ new Sponsors List; and other goodies.
The only call I got while I was away was from the Brooklyn College Alumni Association; it’s Class Notes time again, I guess.
Because I have a slight eye infection, I put my contact lenses to bed early.
I notice that whenever I come back from a trip, everyone at home seems to treat me better, but then, I also treat myself better.