Thursday, December 13, 1979
2 PM on a cold, rainy afternoon. I felt good today even though I didn’t sleep very well last night. But I got out of the house this morning at 7 AM and drove to the Junction; because of the LIRR strike, there’s no alternate parking.
Getting a seat on the train, I arrived at SVA around 8:30 AM. I entertained my class by reading them my own stories and Crad Kilodney’s, and when they enjoyed them, I felt good about it.
On Tuesday we’re having a party; I can do the final grades this weekend, and then I’ll be free of responsibilities.
After class, I went over to NYU’s Loeb Student Center for a small press book fair and poetry reading. I didn’t see anyone I knew, so I left and had lunch at The Bagel; I’d missed that place. If I do leave New York, what I’ll miss most are my old haunts in the Village and elsewhere.
There’s much to dislike about this city, yet I feel an overwhelming affectionate loyalty to New York. I can’t imagine any other place making me feel this good.
I guess it’s like the old house in Brooklyn: I miss it terribly. I imagine coming home in the middle of the day, walking in to the hustle and bustle of Maud cleaning, Mom putting away groceries, Jonny working out to loud music in the basement.
But the consolation is that 99% of my memories of the old house are good memories. I felt nurtured there; I felt secure there; I know I will never have another home quite like it. It would have been so much easier to move out and still have that house to come back to.
Sometimes I feel like looking back six months and wondering how it got to be this way. If Mom and Dad hadn’t moved, I probably would have gone to Albany; I wonder how I would have liked it.
There are moments I can’t believe I’m living alone in New York City in 1979. It definitely feels like the end of the decade. The Iranian crisis seems to drag on monstrously, as if the hostages will never be released.
Last night I was thinking along these lines: In 1969, I reemerged into the world after being so ill. What if, unbeknownst to myself, I made a pact with the devil to give me just ten years, the decade of the 1970s?
What if I’m going to die with the decade? I think I’d die happy. I accomplished a lot more than I ever thought I would. If I die, I’ll be leaving something behind: a book, lots of stories, my diaries, memories of a lot of people.
Let’s just put it this way: I’m prepared to die, but I’m also prepared to live. God knows what my world will be like in another ten years, but I’m certain it’s going to be an interesting time.
Perhaps many people would say I lived a sheltered life, that I’ve missed so much – and at times I feel that, too – but on the whole (are we getting really banal here?), I’ve enjoyed myself enormously.
Maybe one day I’ll look back on this particular time with nostalgia, the way I now look upon my undergraduate days. I can always talk about the time I lived like a pauper in Rockaway, just on the verge of success.
I finished reading The Glittering Prizes; I loved it and identified like mad with its protagonist, Adam Morris, the writer who finally makes it and yet doesn’t make it.
One day I may be pretty rich, and I predict I won’t be happier at that time than I am now. So why do I aspire to an illusion? Because it’s there, I guess. Besides, I need to have something to do to fill up the next decade.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still very scared about the future. But somehow, at least right now, it doesn’t matter so much what happens to me.
Monday, December 17, 1979
9 PM. It’s so cold I can’t think of anything else. There’s absolutely no heat and the wind-chill factor is six below zero. I don’t know how I’m going to get through the night.
I have on thermal underwear and a bathrobe, and I’m under three blankets and a heating pad. The wind is racing through my apartment. Even my diary is as cold as ice. God knows how I’ll sleep tonight.
All I can think about it is that in a week I’ll be in Florida. I feel miserable right now, unable to enjoy even the good things that happened today. Ironically, they passed a rent fuel-pass-along increase today; I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay it.
Damn landlords! They suck. How many people all over New York must be freezing like I am because of their landlords’ stupid greed. I just want to get out of New York.
Today I definitely decided that I must be out of here as soon as I can. I’ll take any job out of town, and if I don’t get one, I’ll move in with my parents. Living alone in New York sucks.
Don’t anyone ever say I never paid my dues or that I had it easy. At this point I can’t afford more than the necessities of life, and I’m not exactly a kid. I resent my position in life.
Hell, today I was videotaped for a PBS documentary, was invited to read my fiction at the University of Louisville’s Annual Conference on 20th Century Literature, got a letter from John Gardner praising me for my writing, found a press release from Taplinger containing great quotes from reviews, and got a letter from Susan Fromberg Schaeffer telling me to hang on.
Can I hang on? Not much longer. I’m wildly unhappy.
All right. I was in the hellhole of the world today, at the Men’s Shelter on the Bowery. I have never seen such degradation. But the men I saw were mostly insane alcoholics, and I can’t believe they feel pain like I do.
I suppose that’s narcissism. Maybe I’m wrong. I probably am. Still, I know what it feels like to go to bed cold and to feel as though life isn’t worth living. My problem is that I know that life is worth living: I see people who lead satisfying and comfortable lives, but I’m just not among them.
People like Roger Weisberg, the PBS producer, or Gregory Jackson, the host of the program who interviewed me: they’ve made it. They can take time out to help unfortunate people like the ones they’re doing this documentary on.
But they don’t live the lives that more unfortunate people do. They ride taxis and don’t have to wait an hour for a subway to get from Columbus Circle to Washington Square, the way I did.
I hope my interview does some good, but I doubt it will, for there will always be greedy people like Fabrikant making money off others’ misery. Fabrikant was evil; my landlord is evil; they are banal, but then you know Hannah Arendt.
I feel I am now experiencing as much pain as I ever have. If I didn’t know any better, I would be like my neighbors and just accept this – no heat – the way the “good Jews” in Germany did at the beginning when the Nazis started pushing them around.
Someday, if I survive, a lot of good is going to come out of this pain. Still, on the whole, it would be better not to have to go through this.
Hell, this is not the diary entry I wanted to write. I would have liked to give detailed descriptions of my day with the TV crew of From Back Wards to Back Streets and write about my feelings about the nice mail I got today.
But the mail uppermost in my mind are the bills. I’m almost to the point where I can’t think about art because my necessities aren’t provided for.
Tuesday, December 18, 1979
9 PM. The last few days have been the most trying time in recent memory. Life seems to be throwing curve balls at me. Today I was pitched a flat tire, a bathroom flood, and other assorted goodies.
The heat finally did come on late last night and I did sleep fairly well. This morning I found I had a flat tire, so I took the subway to school: four different trains in the rush hour, and I was still half an hour late to SVA. We had a so-so party; most of my class went to a better one next door. I showed up with my fly open, which sort of set the mood for the day.
It was freezing again. When I got home, I called the AAA, and when they came, they inflated my tire, and I went to buy a new one: another $57 gone.
I got a $45 phone bill and a $13 bill from Getty Oil. I have $200 to my name, and I will be going down to Florida with no money at all. I keep getting turned down for credit cards because TRW, some agency, doesn’t like my face.
The toilet stopped up, and Tom, the Irish handyman, came up and fixed it. He said my bed was in bad spot between the two windows, and so we moved it. After Tom left, I rearranged the other furniture for half an hour, but finally I think I’ve got it the way I want it. It does feel warmer this way.
At SVA, I handed in my grades, and so for the next six weeks I am a free man! I’ve decided not to do the textbook job, as it just isn’t worth the hassles to be paid so little.
Last night I was already in bed when Avis called, telling me that she and Justin were just reading about me in the Post. Claudia Cohen mentioned me on Page Six. I ran out and got a copy at the newsstand on Beach 116th Street.
The item was called “The Wrath of Fred,” and referred to me as “playful prankster Richard Grayson.” (I like that, I must admit.) It was about Silverman and NBC’s peacock getting their feathers ruffled by my joke about drafting him for President.
It was quite sympathetic to me, who was portrayed as a nice practical joker, and it made Fred appear not to have the slightest sense of humor. Both Alice and Grandpa Herb had already seen it, so I guess others did, too.
On Saturday, Marie told her that Melvin mentioned reading about me and seeing my book in the window of the Waldenbooks on Wall Street. Among people who know me, I’m sure, I’m being talked about.
Susan Schaeffer wrote that “with your writing ability and genius for publicity, you’ll make it. Pack a box lunch.” Besides, she said, I should get some satisfaction knowing that every success I have just makes Baumbach madder.
I do like Susan. She’s recommending me to Yaddo and MacDowell.
And did I mention that I got a letter from John Gardner? He’s starting up the magazine MSS. again and asked me to send him some material. Gardner thanked me for “making [him] immortal” in “But in a Thousand Other Worlds.” That pleases me.
The Conference on 20th Century Literature in Louisville wants me to read “Nice Weather, Aren’t We.” I think it’s worth it for me to go. I’ll be getting academic exposure and I should enjoy a conference whose theme is humor.
Mom and Dad said they’ll pay for my fare, and there should be a small honorarium. I just want to go to a place where I’ll be treated with respect, so I’ll go to Louisville at the end of February and hope it will be a good experience.
Wednesday, December 19, 1979
10 PM. Last night I finished Scott Sommer’s Nearing’s Grace and was very impressed with it. It’s a novel that worked totally for me; it was quite moving.
Scott’s characters are New Jersey high school kids, and I think he’s got the milieu down perfectly. I can see it as a movie and definitely as a paperback that would sell. I tried to call Scott to congratulate him, but no one was home.
Moving the bed was the smartest thing I ever did, as I didn’t freeze last night and slept well. It felt luxurious to lie in bed all morning, especially on a snowy day like today. I spent the morning in my underwear, cleaning, exercising, taking care of correspondence, watching game shows, and just enjoying my freedom.
Too bad about the snow, but I didn’t really have to go anywhere. About three or four inches fell, and it was slippery, so I decided not to drive and went to Kings Plaza by bus.
Because of the snow, the Christmas shopping mobs were light. At the bank I withdrew all but $5 from my accounts; I’ll be taking no money with me to Florida.
Back home, I did the laundry, read the papers, made dinner. When Mom called, I managed to sound less depressed than I had during our last conversation. In five days I’ll be in Florida for what will be both a homecoming and a visit.
I’ve been living on my own for two months now, a fact which still amazes me at odd moments. Today, for example, I was putting a new roll of paper towels in the thingamajig in the kitchen when it suddenly struck me: I have my own apartment.
Even as I write those words, I still feel a cold pinch of terror at my stomach. A part of me longs to go down to Florida and straight into the protective safety of my parents’ house. I want to be mothered and fathered and brothered. I miss my family terribly. If I didn’t understand it before, I do now: a family is the last refuge of sanity in this crazy world.
Friends are very important; I feel closer to Alice and Avis and Ronna, all of whom I talked to today, than I do to any member of my family. Yet there’s something in a family that friends can’t duplicate.
Gee, I’m starting to get nervous about flying. Last Saturday’s anxiety attack after I left Marie and Stuie’s house really shook me up because it was so severe. But even if I’m that anxious on the plane for three hours, it will be worth it as long as I get to Florida.
Especially after the past few days, I need a warmer climate, and I need a respite in order to marshal my resources – for what I don’t know, but I’ve gone through so many changes that I need to rest up and take stock.
1979 has been the year I finally took risks. My book was published, and I became something of a celebrity. I moved out on my own. My parents moved to Florida. I began therapy again. I taught another six college classes and earned more money than I ever had – though not enough, certainly, for me to support myself comfortably.
I still didn’t fall in love, but that doesn’t seem to matter right now. Love will come again in time, I’m sure, along with everything else – including the bad times.
Will I ever stop being so frightened? I feel a need to shiver, to be held by someone who’ll tell me that it’s all going to be all right. How about my trying it myself? “Richie, everything’s going to be all right.”
Thursday, December 20, 1979
4 PM. It will be dark soon. This is a very strange time in my life; I feel as though I’m going through new experiences all the time. Now that I’m free of school, I have time to reflect on all the changes.
I’ve been annoyed by the artificial parts of my body in need of repair: my capped tooth and my left contact lens. But I want to postpone work on them until Florida.
Maybe I’m placing too much hope on this trip. Twenty-five days in Florida is not going to change my life. In a month, I’ll be back here and there still will be two months of winter to get through and I’ll have a hectic schedule teaching, and no doubt I’ll be miserable again.
I don’t have much to look forward to. But slowly my life is changing. The accumulation of publicity is working. Every day I meet someone or hear of a third person who’s seen my name in the papers.
Last night Pete Cherches said that Bruce Chadwick exclaimed that I’d “gone out of kilter” because my name “is in the Post every other day.”
The publicity is working the same way my accumulation of published stories in little magazines worked. Eventually people knew my name as a fiction writer.
Is there any point in it? I think so. The point is I need an escape hatch from a dull, impoverished existence. I’m aware that my “playful prankster” activities are moronic, but they do seem to have value in the eyes of the media – and hence the public.
That I’ve become a minor celebrity is actually a sad commentary on the times: people are so starved for gossip, trivia and weirdness.
But writing, after all, is the important thing. Today my story, “Douglas, Apropos of Nothing,” was accepted by American Man, a new magazine. I have only a dozen or so unpublished stories left.
But I’m finished with that stage of my career. I need to go on to something new. I know I’ve been saying that for a year and a half, and in all that time, I’ve written almost nothing. Yet I am a writer, and eventually I’ll find what needs writing about.
Last night I called Ronna to say goodbye. She said that Susan and Evan saw the two copies of Hitler in Waldenbooks at Kings Plaza and looked through them (of course they didn’t buy).
Evan told Ronna that she should get a good libel lawyer. What an asshole he is: he and Susan are little people living little lives. Susan must hate me because I’ve done what she always wanted to do in getting a book published; I do get some satisfaction from that.
As Crad Kilodney says, “You should take satisfaction where it comes because there’s not much of it around.”
So I have no money, but I did fulfill my dreams. I know this must sound pompous – I’m sure Ronna would say it does – but I don’t care anymore. After all, this is my diary.
This morning when he phoned, Josh said he’s sending out résumés again. What a drag. I can’t take this adjunct business for another year; forgive me, Father, if I think I’m too good for it.
Tomorrow’s the shortest day of the year, but then the days start to become longer, and in Florida it gets dark later. The driving wasn’t too hazardous today, though the streets are a slushy, icy mess.
Since neither Marc nor Avis can drive me to the airport, I guess I’ll have to take a cab: The guy who’s driven everyone to the airport all these years finally gets to go somewhere on a plane himself and there’s nobody to take me.
My Wizard Owl air freshener is staring at me questioningly.
11:30 PM. What is it that impels us to live? The cockroach that kept escaping me today had whatever it is. And I, for the moment, have it, too.
I’ve just trudged up the block: a desolate winter landscape of dirty snow and ice melted and refrozen. Yet I looked up, and surprisingly, the stars were out, very bright and numerous. Orion’s belt looked so sharp, I felt it was three dots on my contact lens. The sky was beautiful over the boardwalk and beach and dark ocean.
This evening I went to dinner at my grandparents’. Their kindly questions, as usual, had obvious answers: “When you put the laundry in the machine, did you put in detergent, too?” “When you made eggs, did you clean the skillet?” God bless them.
Grandpa Herb will be 76 today, in a few minutes, when it’s the shortest day of the year and the start of winter. On Monday night, my grandparents will have been married fifty years.
They’ve got the aches and pains of old people – like my neighbor Mrs. Epstein, who asked me to mail some Christmas cards for her on my way out tonight. Mrs. Epstein hates to give in to her arthritis, which she calls her alter-itis, alter being the Yiddish word for “old.”
When I returned from my grandparents’, I decided to do some phoning. I reached Elihu just as he was going out. Scott Sommer hasn’t been home for days. Gary wasn’t in, nor was Mikey.
I decided to call Evie Wagner; I had passed the old block today when I went to Deutsch Pharmacy to get myself enough Triavils to last me through Florida.
Evie said that everything was fine except that Jerry Bisogno’s father had died, and she and Lou were getting ready to go to the wake. She gave me the name and address of the funeral parlor, but I wouldn’t go right away because I had just put my lenses in the Aseptron.
To pass the time, I called Mrs. Judson. Wayne answered and said he had to wake up his mother anyway.
Mrs. Judson told me they’ve extended her unemployment benefits, and in January the government will begin retraining her, perhaps as a keypunch operator (although she doesn’t know what a keypunch operator does – of course, neither do I).
The leather industry in this country is dying; Mrs. Judson’s boss had to go out of business.
“Maybe it will come back one day,” she said. “Who would imagine that at 56, I’m going to learn something new?”
We had a great conversation, and then I put in my lenses and drove into Brooklyn for the wake, which was in a giant funeral parlor on Bay Parkway.
Lou and Evie were just leaving as I arrived. Jo Bisogno was very friendly, introducing me to her family and asking how I found living on my own.
Her father-in-law died on Tuesday night, a week after an apparently successful hip operation. Mr. Bisogno lay in the open coffin, his hands folded around a rosary; he looked very serene.
Jerry seemed very upset, of course. But he was gracious enough to introduce me to his sister-in-law Louise, the playwright who either won or placed second in the O’Neill Center Conference competition.
She’s a lovely woman, slim with blonde frizzed hair, green eyes and age lines that show character.
She told me how she – and her husband – began by taking teleplay writing courses at The New School.
Louise has been working as a social studies teacher in Westchester, but now CBS has offered her a job writing a “long form” story for their soaps. She wants to make the shows “have a connection with reality.”
Herb Brodkin wanted her play on abortion and euthanasia, and they’re working on a deal for it to appear on a TV network.
Louise told me that at her age, she feels she has to make up for lost time. But I think she must have more discipline than young writers; moreover, she’s suffered and survived – I can see that in her face.
I was so taken with her that I stayed until the funeral parlor closed.
Then me – who knows Brooklyn like the back of his hand – got absurdly lost on unfamiliar streets, and it took me a while to find my way back to Flatbush and Avenue U.
Still, I loved driving around Brooklyn on a (now) winter night. It made me feel alive.