A 29-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1980

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Tuesday, September 2, 1980

4 PM. Summer seems very much with us. It’s hot and humid and sunny, and my head is pounding with a sinus headache.

A couple of hours ago, I got a call from Oscar Miller, who gave me eight credits at Kingsborough: one remedial writing course (called C1; the old English 11 has been divided into two courses, and C1 is for those who scored really low on the placement test) and two 2-credit remedial reading courses.

kcc-entrance-2The writing courses will be at 8 AM every day but Monday, and the reading courses will follow immediately on Tuesdays and Fridays, so I’ll be at Kingsborough till 11:20 AM on those days.

Mondays are still open, and I’ll have just the one class on Wednesdays and Thursdays – not a bad schedule at all.

Linda Lerner called me just after Steve Jervis called the Schaeffers’ house, wanting to speak with Neil. Linda told me there might be adjunct positions open at Brooklyn College, especially the School of General Studies special programs.

bc-colorLou Asekoff took Neil’s place as SGS chairman. So I called Steve Jervis, who said that he did get adjunct money and would get back to me in a few days.

Can I teach at both Kingsborough and Brooklyn? Not legally, no – but others have gotten away with it in the past. The worst that could happen is that they find out and fire me at the end of the semester, and I’ll have to go elsewhere or collect unemployment.

If Brooklyn offers me courses that fit in, I think I’ll do it. I think the ban on adjuncts teaching more than two courses deprives people of their constitutional right to earn a living.

I also got a call from Kean College in New Jersey, but of course I turned them down. “This is all crazy,” said the chairwoman. “It happens every keansemester.”

Well, that’s the system, sweetie, and this year I’m going to play it to win so I don’t get screwed like I did last year. I expect more calls in the next couple of weeks and I’m going to accept everything in sight – within reason – and then take the classes that are best for me.

At least I can breathe a sigh of relief now that I know some money will be coming in. And I do need money! Today’s mail brought only more bills, and I still don’t know how I’m going to manage. Everything would be fine if only Clark University called to tell me I’ve got the Writer-in-Residence job for the spring.

clark-signBut it’s unrealistic to think that I’ll get the one thing that could solve my immediate problems. Still, I’ll have a good shot at teaching in the winter module at Kingsborough, and that will bring in extra money.

Consuelo called last night and told me that she and Mark had separated and will be getting divorced. When I said that I wasn’t surprised to hear it, Consuelo asked me if I could see it coming – and of course I could.

She took an apartment in Astoria with the kids, who go to stay with Mark in Brooklyn every weekend. Mark is angry, but she figures he’ll get over it: “I expect him to be remarried in a year.”

astoriaConsuelo doesn’t see marriage in her future. She will be teaching again this year and is considering going to law school. She’d already resumed her maiden name, Consuelo Stein de Carvajal, and she says she’s happier than she had been in years.

Her apartment in Astoria is “the pits,” but she invited me over to spend some time with her. Consuelo has been writing stories and asked me to look them over.

She said one of the biggest disappointments in her marriage was Mark’s not following his college dream and becoming a reporter. (Maybe he could do it now that he’s free.)

do-not-enterJosh called from work. To his surprise, he did get the $3,000 check from his landlord on time – plus the check for security. The $3,000 will go to his mother in repayment of his debt to her. Josh said his new super on Hicks Street, Mamie, has now changed her tune and loves him to pieces.


Wednesday, September 3, 1980

10 PM. There have been only a few totally happy days this year, but the last 24 hours has been one of them.

It startedst-marks-bookshop last evening when I drove in the terrible heat to downtown Brooklyn. Josh didn’t want me to come over until 8 PM, so I had time to kill and figured I’d drive into Manhattan and see if the new Coda was in the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

It was, and I was in Coda: a two-page spread featuring my photo, my name in very large print, and my article, “Fiction Writer as Publicist.” It took a long while to come out, but it came out at a good time, a time when I coda-1980-octcould really use a career boost.

I felt very happy thinking about all the Coda subscribers who can’t help but notice me. Maybe something – I don’t know what – will come of this. It’s probably my biggest break since the Liz Smith item, which of course I mentioned in the article.

Josh was busy sorting things out at his new apartment. He’s very happy that he got the $4,000, and we went out with Harry to dinner in a good mood. It was a pleasant meal, and I drove Harry home before coming back to Rockaway.

fiction-writer-as-publicistDad called with his flight information. He told me to meet him in front of 1407 Broadway, the green building where all the clothing manufacturers (like Marty) are, at 1 PM today.

So anxious was I to see Dad, I couldn’t sleep from excitement; I hadn’t seen him in over four months, and it’s the longest we’ve ever been apart. All morning I kept looking forward to his arrival.

At the post office I got back my manuscript from Love Street Books. They said I was very talented, but it wasn’t their kind of book; they enclosed a waterbearersample of their kind of book, a shoddy volume of “thank you, God” lousy poetry. I’m better off without them.

From the post office, I went to see my grandparents. While Grandma Ethel was talking to Arlyne on the phone, I showed Grandpa Herb the Coda article.

When I got on the line, Arlyne told me that Grandma keeps complaining and that we need to get her a geriatric psychiatrist. Arlyne also read me her first editorial, on Rosh Hashona, which was excellent.

I got to 1407 half an hour early and watched the sharp garment center crowd walk by on their lunch hour. Everyone looked so chic and stylish, I felt kind of fat and dopey in my short-sleeved button-down shirt and non-1407-broadwaydesigner jeans. I thought about Dad and how much style he always had.

He was twenty minutes late. I’d been very impatient, but my annoyance melted when I saw him. We kissed and hugged. (I wonder: did people think we were lovers?) He said he hadn’t realized how much he missed me until last night.

Dad’s meeting with Fred Fischer was a waste; he doesn’t need to invest in a collection agency now that things are finally starting to go well for him.

Over lunch at Steak & Brew Burger, we talked. Dad is very happy these days, and he looked very well. This week he wrote $100,000 in Sasson jeans orders, which means a $2,000 commission for him.

steak-brew-burgerDad is thinking of going partners with some guy, another salesman; I don’t quite understand all the details, but I do understand that Dad has his confidence back. He’s getting job offers right and left these days, and he hopes to do much better financially.

When I asked him about Marc and Rikki, Dad said he wanted to get Marc alone and ask him how he felt about her: “I thought he may have gotten himself into a situation he couldn’t get out of.”

But Marc says he loves Rikki and that otherwise he wouldn’t have gone through so much with her. Dad said she’s got a lot of negatives, but she’s a good person and loves Marc. I agree.

Of course, Rikki is very mixed-up. Her father is in the trucking business and is way up there in the Mafia; supposedly he has to keep a low profile these days.

1981-la-sidewalkRikki went out to California last week to make some kind of deal. As Dad says, he doesn’t want to know what it is; even Marc doesn’t know because he’s better off ignorant. Anyway, she made a lot of money: probably in the tens of thousands and maybe more.

She was in a motel and called a girlfriend to come over. The girl came and brought along a guy who ripped off all of Rikki’s money. So now I know why she was so upset.

It seems she was even more upset that they ripped off the baby ring given to her by her “aunt” in Paris. Rikki’s “aunt” is her natural mother, and the woman she calls her mother really isn’t.

Rikki is the product of an affair between this Frenchwoman and her father. 1980-parisThat’s why she and her father have different last names and why she doesn’t get along with her “mother.”

Rikki is just beginning to fit the pieces of her life together: no wonder she’s so mixed-up. But Dad said he told her, “You’re a pretty girl. Why do you wear so much junk on your face?” and after that, she stopped putting on such garish makeup.

Dad said the guy who ripped her off in California has been “taken care of” on orders of Rikki’s father, but he didn’t give back the money before he was bumped off. It was incredible to think that such things can really happen.

Dad said Jonny didn’t come out of his room to say hello to Rikki until Sunday and that Jonny was repulsed by Marc’s mustache and fat stomach. muscleMom, by the way, is getting thinner; she’s begun lifting weights along with Jonny.

Dad had another appointment at 1407, and I waited for him and then went to another place with him. Dad knows everyone in the clothing business, and watching him operate, I felt very proud.

We took the subway to Newkirk Plaza, where I’d left the car; Dad made some phone calls while I drank soda at a Russian candy store. He said that except for seeing me, his whole trip was a waste.

After picking up Mom’s prescriptions at Deutsch, we drove to Rockaway. Dad said he was appalled by the filth of New York City; to him, it felt like 1981-cop-carhe’d been away for years.

Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb seemed overjoyed to see Dad. He later told me he was surprised to see how thin Grandma had gotten but said Grandpa’s face looked better than it did last March.

Dad talked about his own parents. Yesterday Grandma Sylvia called him and said that Grandpa Nat “isn’t getting any better” and that she thinks he needs “pep pills”!

Grandpa Nat knows Dad when he visits, but basically he’s still the same. Yet after three years with him like that, Grandma Sylvia can’t accept his state as permanent. Dad told Grandma Ethel that she must get ahold of herself because she has Grandpa Herb with her.

garbage-rollsDad said that for the first time in three years, he doesn’t think about suicide and is beginning to feel alive again. He realized this when he noticed that he’d stopped taking tranquilizers. Also, Jonny remarked how relaxed he now seems.

Grandma Ethel listened to Dad talk about his despair and said, “Danny, it’s like you’re reading my mind.”

We spent a good hour there and then Dad and I went to dinner at the Ram’s Horn. Over omelets, we talked about our lives; I told him how much I’ve grown and learned over the past year and how I feel I’ve come out of it a stronger, happier person.

no-admittanceDad said he’s convinced that one day – “whenever” – I will write a book that will be brilliant: “You’ve got so much talent, and I say that not because I’m your father but because of what I’ve heard others say.”

He said that Jonny reads my work and understands it now – and that Jonny has become a studious, serious young man.

At Kennedy, Dad’s Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed till midnight, so we put him on an earlier Eastern flight to Miami. I waited with him till 9 PM, when I kissed him goodbye.


Friday, September 5, 1980

subway-kids3 PM. It’s a cloudy afternoon, which is nice for a change. This summer has been the driest in New York history, as well as the third hottest. All this sunny 85° weather has gotten to be a drag.

I’m feeling pretty good. Dad’s visit perked me up, and so did the Coda article. Debby Mayer sent it in today’s mail and said it was one of the most effective pieces they’d ever published. Bernhard Frank of Buckle also sent me a note, saying he’d seen the piece and my story in the gay issue of Beyond Baroque.

Last night when I called Carolyn Bennett, she also mentioned the Beyond Baroque piece; I guess gay people really respond to it. And Taplinger sent along a fan letter from a “B. Cohen” in Great Neck, a pencil-scrawled note telling me “Introductions” was the best piece in the book.

beyond-baroque-inside-coverSo I feel my writing career is moving forward again. As to my teaching career, I still have had no word from Brooklyn College; last night Baruch College called me, but the courses they offered conflicted with Kingsborough so I had to turn them down. I hope I get more offers next week; I’m almost certain I will.

Yesterday I went down for my interview at Food Stamps. I asked all the bureaucrats their names and carried a briefcase, so I got taken care of rather quickly – unlike an asthmatic Haitian woman and a Spanish couple who waited for hours.

My big break was that I paid off my passbook loan. My bankbook showed I had slowly withdrawn $700 and so that bolstered my claim that I was living on my savings.

food-stampsI got authorization to go to Manhattan – I drove there quickly from Rockaway and I got there by 4 PM, before the office closed – to pick up my food stamps: $63 worth of them issued to me because it was an emergency.

All afternoon, in Arverne and again in Chelsea, I was surrounded by poor people, mostly black and Hispanic. It made me feel funny to be among them, but I think I understand the indignity of accepting government assistance a little better.

My food stamp card is almost like a badge of honor: it says I’ve been down and out, too. The $63 in stamps will come in handy; it’s the maximum for a single person.

1-food-stampYesterday I was at my grandparents’ place. Grandma Ethel was complaining as usual: “Today I had made up my mind that I was going to be well . . . and then the pains began.” Grandpa Herb bugged me to get him cigarettes.

I didn’t go over there today; I don’t want them getting over-dependent upon me. When I think about all my grandparents and the old people around me in Rockaway, I sometimes think that most people’s lives are too long rather than too short.

The Touro check arrived today finally, and the Voice of America check cleared, so I’ve gotten through another week by the skin of my aching teeth and poor gums. (If I had the gum treatments the dentist says I need, I lottery-adwouldn’t be able to survive financially.)

Part of me believes that I’m never going to see a time when I can be financially secure. I’ve held off buying a new car, getting dental care, buying clothes and books for so long that I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to save.

On Wednesday night I had insomnia; for some reason, I felt this neurotic superstition about things going too good. Maybe I’m just accustomed to disasters and crises now. I keep wondering what bad event will occur next.

Jonny called late last night, but I was asleep and not very coherent; still, his calling made me feel that my little brother is now my friend. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my family life; that’s one area in which I’ve gotten more than my fair share.

ny-for-carterTeresa got a job offer to coordinate the speakers’ bureau for Carter’s New York campaign, and she’s going to try to take a leave of absence from the LIRR.

Last night Carolyn told me that she’s just returned from Newfoundland with her lover, Terry, with whom she’s been living. Carolyn lost her job at P.S. 193 because the grant wasn’t renewed and she’s looking for work.


Saturday, September 6, 1980

8 PM. Last night I came home in a rage. There was a rush-hour-style traffic jam down Flatbush Avenue at midnight: If I stayed in the right lane, I would get behind a bus which would stop, and if I stayed in the left lane, I would trafficbe behind a car trying to make a left turn.

In Rockaway, I couldn’t find parking, and on each beach block, there seemed to be a different cat darting about to torment me. I finally parked four blocks away, and as I stomped home, I half-wished some Irish hoods would bother me so I could throw a punch at someone.

I saw this rage well up in me on Thursday, when the Hispanic food stamps worker told me I was ineligible because my Touro paychecks were more than two months old, and I’d felt it earlier in the evening when I was riding with Josh on the Belt when cops pulled him over to ticket him for a defective rear light.

belt-pkwy-plum-beachThis rage is a symptom of my general helplessness about my career. I feel furious that I’m in the stupid position of having to scrounge up adjunct courses to eke out a meager living.

God, I know we’ve gone through it dozens of times, and even I’m bored with it already, but if I don’t express this (partly irrational) anger, it will destroy me.

I’ve had a bad winter, a difficult spring, and a troubled summer, and it terrifies me to think the fall may be even worse. Last night I read Emerson’s “Compensation” for consolation, and I lay, dizzy as usual, staring out at the dumb view.

I hate having to go through this anxiety about a job once again. Josh, Simon, and Denis are all out of this position, so what am I still doing as an adjunct? Josh says I made the choice to be a writer, so I have to expect this kind of life. For how long?

time-lifeJosh was telling me about a co-worker’s daughter who’s 22, works for Time-Life and makes $18,000 – and she feels it’s not enough because she’s already “paid her dues.” How much longer am I going to have to pay my dues?

I guess I’d feel better if Brooklyn College had called, or if I’d heard from other CUNY schools, or if I’d been able to take courses at Baruch.

Today in the mail, I was notified that I got the Kingsborough Adult Ed short story writing course – but that’s only $200 or so, and even though I told them I’d take it, I really need the Tuesday/Thursday Touro class, even if they don’t pay on time.

adjunct-jobs-insecurityTomorrow there’s a faculty meeting at Touro, and I don’t want to go. But what choice do I have? If I teach at Kingsborough and Touro, I’ll be making only $5,000. That’s not much, but it may be the best I can do.

I don’t want to blame myself for being in this position, but my rage often turns inward into self-loathing and despair. Maybe if I sing I’ll feel better: La, la, la, la. . . Shee, I’m in a bad mood.

I spent the day cleaning up my apartment and organizing my closets and drawers. I’m tired and sweaty and fat and sloppy. See, I wish I had the chance to take care of myself, to eat right, to work out, to dress better, to be better-groomed. But my life keeps interfering with my life, and I don’t think I’ll ever catch up to myself and be the person I want to be.

Perhaps I’m too much of a perfectionist, and that accounts for my sense of failure.


Sunday, September 7, 1980

cup-a-soup7 PM. I feel surprisingly relaxed. I’ve just exercised and had a bowl of chicken vegetable soup and some pineapple.

It’s reasonably cool out and it looks like we’re going to have a neat sunset. The sky is clear and I have a good view of Manhattan. This is the first hour out of the last 24 in which good feelings have outweighed the bad.

Last night I stayed in and did my laundry. Larry called to ask if I wanted to go visit Mike and Cindy with him, but it turned out they were busy. Josh and Harry and Simon invited me to go with them to a party in Bay Ridge, but I declined.

I had very bad insomnia and was still awake at 5 AM. This morning I couldn’t move, but finally I roused myself to make the 2 PM School of General Studies faculty meeting at Touro’s new SGS center, a public school ps-chelseain Chelsea.

What a college Touro is! First Dean Jackie Petersen announced some new programs and said that registration was good. Then the controller answered complaints about late paychecks; his response basically was, “It’s too bad, but it has to be.”

Touro has had expenses connected with the law school – which has a huge operating deficit – and new facilities. The dean of students bugged us with a long spiel, and then Dr. Perkal did his thing.

There were innumerable boring questions, and I couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. I can’t be sure my course at Beach Channel will materialize, but if it does, I’ll at least be making $5,000 for the fall: not much, but better than last spring.

pall-mallOn my way home, I stopped off to bring my grandfather and grandmother their Grandparents’ Day card (something new) and to drop off a carton of Pall Malls for Grandpa Herb: just what a man with lung cancer needs.

And that was today. I feel very depressed about my future, but I don’t give up. I answered seven ads in today’s Times, and I intend to keep answering ads all semester. I’ve got to give myself as many options as possible.

Right now I feel restricted in the choices I face. Tomorrow there’s a meeting at Kingsborough, and I get to fill out those lovely personnel forms.

On Tuesday, another fall semester – my third at Kingsborough – will begin. Luckily, the week will end the next day because Wednesday night is the shofarsstart of Rosh Hashona.

I’ve been invited, along with my grandparents, to a holiday dinner with Aunt Tillie and Uncle Morris. It will be 5741, and it does seem like a new year already. Because of the severe drought, the leaves are already beginning to turn colors and fall off the trees.

I’m afraid to imagine what the next year will bring. At the moment I don’t feel as worn out as I did most of this weekend, but I wonder how I’ll hold up, what with all these new crises that are sure to pop up.

Do you know what I’m worried about? Let’s make a list:

seamans-bank1. Money: The Big Problem. Will I have enough? Sometimes it seems that money’s the only problem, but I know that’s not true.

2. My grandparents: Will Grandpa Herb get worse? Will Grandma Ethel sink deeper into illness and depression? Will I have to spend hours caring for them? (The last, selfish, question is the real one.)

3. My career: Will I ever have time to write? Am I up to writing a decent novel, even if I do get the time? How long will I have to be an adjunct? Can I take the pressure much longer?

4. My car – it can’t last much longer.

5. Loneliness: I’ve lived with this for so long that I’m tempted to cross this off the list, but let it stay.

6. My korvettes-out-of-businesshealth: Will my dizziness recur? What if I get really sick? Can I handle it?

7. My family: What’s going to be with Marc and Rikki? Can Dad really do all right financially? I also worry about Mom and Jonny.

8. I’m having trouble coming up with number 8, which is good, I suppose. Let’s wrap it up by calling #8 “my emotions”: Will I sink into a deep depression? Will I be able to get therapy? Will list-making make me go crazy? For the answers . . .


Monday, September 8, 1980

4 PM on a cloudy afternoon. I slept well last night. Tonight I have to start adjusting myself to getting up very early: about 6:30 AM. Actually, it’s no earlier than I got up all last year for SVA.

This morning I picked up my mail and discovered that Touro had indeed sent the August check. Once both checks clear, I’ll have $320 in the bank – chemical-cdenough to get by for a few weeks.

I may have to borrow a little and my parents may have to pay my rent again this month, but I should be okay until the first check from Kingsborough arrives in October.

I was at Kingsborough early for the noon adjuncts’ meeting, so I walked around the campus. The students looked the same, but the students I had two years ago may have already graduated; many of them dropped out.

Few of the old adjuncts were back: only me and Stephen Farber, who said that Elihu did get that job at Goldman Sachs that he wanted so much, and a couple of others. Most of the adjuncts are new, and most are older women.

Dom Carukcc-campus-1so, Oscar Miller, Morty Fuhr and Howard Nimchinsky led the meeting. They keep tinkering with the remedial system. This year, they dropped English 11 and replaced it with two courses: C1, a no-credit course for students who scored less than 3-3 on the CUNY writing placement test; and C2, for the students who scored 3-3. (The passing score is 3-4.)

I’m going to have very weak students, that means. My two English 03 classes will have scored very low on the reading exam. The system is so complex that we spent over an hour discussing it. But the bottom line is that basically I have to make sure my students pass the CUNY tests.

kcc-office-f-bldgI filled out all my personnel forms, handed them in, and came back home. The old lady in the wheelchair on my floor – Dave’s wife – died last night; her funeral is tomorrow. I had just spoken to her last weekend.

God, living with old people makes me feel the world is so impermanent and adds to my experiences with death and dying. I’ve got to keep going, much as I sometimes (stupidly?) wish for the release of death.

Hard as it is for me to keep in mind, there are other people in the world besides me. Tomorrow at 8 AM my C1 students will be having their first class in college; it’s a big day in their lives.

bc-69I remember my first day at Brooklyn College a dozen years ago: my math teacher didn’t show up. He was probably an adjunct, and no one had been hired the day the term began.

I’ve got a slight eye infection in the corner of my left eye, but it doesn’t interfere with wearing my contact lenses.

Joel Agee called last night to tell me that he’s the new fiction editor of the revamped Harper’s and that I should submit stories if I had any. (I don’t.) Joel’s book, the memoir of growing up in East Germany, is now in galleys and will be published in late fall by Farrar, Straus.

Joel said he knows some hustlers who could get him on primetime TV or the morning interview shows, but they wanted 10% of the second printing; joel-agee-twelve-yearsthe publicity people at FSG were horrified by this.

But Joel did get a lucky break when a recent Time article on book editors featured his editor and a discussion of his memoir.

I called Alice, who said her trip to Mexico was “all right.” She was busy at work, catching up at the magazine, and said she’d see me during Rosh Hashona at her mother’s.

Still no word on adjunct classes at Brooklyn or any other CUNY school – and I now don’t expect it to happen. I’ll have to make do with Kingsborough and Touro – if Touro comes through.

*

kcc-sign-belt-pkwy6 PM. Fuck it: Oscar Miller just called and changed my whole schedule. The 8 AM class is now a C2 and meets every day except Thursday. The 9:10 AM English 03 class was canceled, and now I have six credits instead of eight: a loss of $750. The whole thing stinks – but I knew that already.

I’m a nervous wreck, just as I was last year. I’m never going to allow myself to get into this position again.

*

ncc-17 PM. I just took a course Monday and Wednesday afternoons at Nassau Community College. Someone from their English Department just called and offered it, and I said yes. That will make up for the $750 I lost. What a crazy way to live!


Tuesday, September 9, 1980

1 PM. It’s a pleasant, mild afternoon and I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can. I’ve got to keep in mind that adjunct courses are not my life, they’re just a way of making a living. Still, it’s hard to be philosophical at the moment.

I tossed and turned in fury all night and comforted myself with fantasies of machine-gunning Howard, Oscar and Dom, or at least being able to tell kcc-campus-4them what to do with their fucking adjunct job.

I’d love it if I got another offer at another school and could quit Kingsborough. How misplaced my loyalty was last fall when I didn’t quit after one day of teaching there even when Brooklyn’s Department of Educational Services offered me nine credits, guaranteed for two terms.

Even if Oscar does manage to find me an extra course, it will be because he needs a teacher, not because he’s a nice guy. Every other adjunct at Kingsborough but me has eight credits.

I have a right to be furious, especially because I’ve been there longer than anyone else. But seniority, or even being a good teacher, counts for nothing kcc-campus-marqueein the adjunct world.

I must remember what Dr. Pasquale said about being an adjunct producing “adjunct feelings.” I just answered two ads in the Times and I intend to keep looking for a decent full-time job. I wouldn’t think twice about quitting in the middle of the term if I got one.

I didn’t mind getting up early today, and my 8 AM English C2 class seems nice enough. There was the usual first-day chaos, with half the class coming in at 8:30 AM and several people in the wrong room.

At the English Department office, chaos was replaced by pandemonium, with students, faculty and secretaries playing a game of “Uproar.” The Department seemed like a zoo, and I made sure not to stay there long. kcc-stairwayThere has got to be a more humane way of running a college.

The Kingsborough (and CUNY) dropout rate runs close to 50% – that’s why there are always so few courses in the spring – and it’s no wonder. My English 03 reading class is mostly minority kids, and they seem pretty close to illiterate; God knows what I’m going to do with them.

The other night on 60 Minutes there was a segment about a black private school teacher, Marva Collins, who had 8- and 9-year-olds reading Emerson, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Chaucer. Students said they couldn’t stand “baby work”: the kind of work I’m giving my college freshmen.

marvaMrs. Collins runs a private school in the worst ghetto in Chicago, and she manages to turn public school “uneducables” into devotees of Dostoevsky and Hamlet.

How does she manage this? By eliminating art, gym, music and other frills and stressing the 3 R’s and great literature. That’s basically the way I was educated in the “1” classes at P.S. 203, in the three-year SP program at Meyer Levin, and in honors classes at Midwood.

As I often tell Alice, who was with me all the way through, our class got one of the last good public educations in New York City. After the 1968 teachers’ strike – we were gone by then – the public schools got worse and worse until today, when their function is basically custodial.

marine-parkway-bridge-driving-southI ran back to Rockaway half-expecting there to be some wonderful mail or lifesaving message for me – but the only mail was a delightful and encouraging card from Lola Szladits, and my grandparents hadn’t been home to take any phone messages. Lola says to “buy a transatlantic ticket and have it ready when disaster strikes.” I think it already has.

But today’s poor educational system in New York City from kindergarten to college has no connection with me. I’ve got to remember my time at MacDowell and the civilized gentility of that world, Lola’s literary world at the Berg Collection, the world of writers and artists and composers: my world.

Things won’t always be as bad as they are now. (No, they’ll probably be worse.) Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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