Friday, February 20, 1981
9 PM. I’m alone in the house. Mom and Dad and Jonny went off to see Tess; I would have like to go, but I wanted to be alone more.
It’s warm out and I can hear the crickets. Next week at this time I’ll be in New Orleans. My main fear – and it sounds heartless to admit this – is that Grandpa Herb will die while I’m there.
Uncle Marty called last night and said that Grandpa Herb must be operated on. He can’t have that tube stuck in his penis forever, so his prostate – Marty kept calling it “prostrate” – has to come out.
The problem is that he’s so sick from not eating, he’s in no condition for surgery. Marty said he could make a circle with his thumb and forefinger around Grandpa Herb’s bicep.
Grandma Ethel calls Arlyne several times a day saying that she’s going to commit suicide if Grandpa Herb dies. Selfishly, I’m glad I am not in New York.
I called Teresa and Alice to say hello. Alice said she can’t come down to Florida because she’s beginning her new job at Weight Watchers. That’s a disappointment, but we’ll keep in touch.
Teresa said everything is fine at the Borough President’s office, and she and Frank are enjoying each other “although it’s terrible because we’re breaking all the rules.” Not even Barbara and Diana know that Teresa is still seeing him.
When I told Teresa that Avis wrote me a long letter and signed it “Sat Darshan,” she sighed: “Yeah, I just talked to her. That girl needs someone to take care of her.”
“She’s got her husband,” I said. Teresa sighed again.
Yesterday Mom gave me a letter to mail, but I didn’t mail it. She wrote it to Fredo, and I knew she did it on impulse, without consulting Dad, and I knew it would only cause trouble if it reached Fredo. Here is what she wrote:
This is to inform you that all information regarding the events of December 10, 11 and 12, 1980, have been documented by us and given to very close friends who have important associates in New York.
On Dec. 9, 1980, you and a cohort entered my sons home carrying a gun. You held my son and his girlfriend hostage for the next 3 days.
You tried to extort money from my son and his parents. You beat his girlfriend unmercifully. (Men who beat defenseless women should have their hands chopped off plus other things.)
We have not been brought up like you, and my son hasn’t, either. My son had no choice but to give you his car and his jewelry in order to regain his freedom from you.
You constantly began to harass us by calling us. All telephone conversations were taped and were given to our friends. My sons friends are aware of everything.
Remember – Gifts given with love which are stolen can harm the thief.
Whew. Marc and Rikki are back in Rhode Island, but they plan to move back to New York when the children’s school term is over.
Mom stayed up all night worrying about Marc. Rikki assured Dad she would get a job in the afternoons to help out. Marc will do God knows what. Dad and Mom think Mr. Jackson is not a Mafia bigwig but just a truck driver.
Grandma Sylvia has been ill all week with severe back pains. She doesn’t know it, but her aneurysm is growing and must be pressing in on her aorta. She can’t last much longer.
Today Aunt Sydelle went to the nursing home alone and saw an incredible scene. All the black nurses were all over Grandpa Nat, kissing and hugging him. Yesterday they asked him for a number, he gave them one, and they won $500.
“Nathan gave us today’s number!” they squealed. Grandpa Nat kissed them all and smiled, though of course he didn’t know what going on.
I woke up early today and got to school at 10 AM. My lesson on the library went well; I was funny in class today. God, I love those kids. Sometimes I wish I were one of them, just starting my first term at college.
But then I look at Jonny and how hard it is for him. Maybe it’s more difficult to make friends in college today than it was a decade ago, when there was some kind of a youth movement and some kind of hope – rather than apprehension over the economy.
Will Reagan’s tax cuts and budget cuts work? They’re going to hurt a lot of people, but maybe we have no choice.
After school, I had an Ollieburger at Lum’s, then sunned myself for an hour. I’m tanned already, and my hair and beard are turning blond.
This afternoon I did my tax returns. I also bought ten postcards and sent them all out to people in New York: Simon, June, Mike and Cindy, Linda Lerner, Vito, Denis, Carolyn, Scott, Larry and Elihu.
Dad is looking better these days, especially since we know Sasson is sending him a check for $15,000. The top story on the six o’clock news featured a mass murderer who was arrested wearing a Sasson sweatshirt. “Good free advertising for your company!” I told Dad.
Monday, February 23, 1981
4 PM. I feel very depressed. I got turned down for Unemployment because they said I quit John Jay without good cause and relocated to Florida when there was work available this term. Shit!
I would like to kill S.E. Lovely, the claims examiner. It’s like they don’t give a person a break. I feel rage and despair. I really needed that money to finally get my head above water. Now I’m going to be back in the same position I was, which is nowhere.
I can appeal, but what’s the use? Once again I feel exploited and shat-upon and that my life is completely out of control. So, stupid, is it worth it to you to be an “artist”? Not today, it’s not. Maybe I’ll hang on a little longer, as always, and see if I get tossed a few crumbs.
Yesterday I went through my diaries from 1976 to the present and selected one entry for each month, ending with yesterday. Now all I have to do is edit the entries and type them up, and I’ll have my manuscript.
Not that it’s very good, but that almost doesn’t matter. It’s my life, as best as I can tell it in book form at this time. I’ve got the dates written down, so that even if I did, someone can piece the book together.
I’ve had a terrible headache behind my left eye for two days. Today when I taught my class at BCC, I was boring. I feel lonely. It’s been ages since someone has told me I was loved. I haven’t kissed anyone – not passionately – in years.
Oh, I feel I’ve just fucked up my life terribly. Maybe New Orleans will help; I called Tom yesterday and he said that when he announced to his afternoon class that I was coming, they cheered. I can’t imagine anyone cheering for me. I suppose it would make me feel better if I could just believe it.
I spoke to Grandpa Herb yesterday and he sounded awful. They took the IV out but had to put it back in again because he became very weak. It’s possible he could die during or following the surgery. In my mind, I see the worst possible scenarios.
It seems that every time I’m scheduled to go away, it had to be when someone was very ill. In 1977, I went to Bread Loaf when Grandpa Nat was sick, and last June, I left for MacDowell I was in a terrible frame of mind because of Grandpa Herb.
Well, I’ll hang on, as I said – because I don’t know what else to do. Somehow we survive. Just as Mom and Dad were down to $200 in their bank account, they got a check for $8,338.88 from Sasson today, Dad’s paycheck for December.
But that’s not really security. How long can that sum last? I’m to the point where I actually hope for some great international disaster. I regret that tensions in Poland are easing because a Soviet invasion would have created worldwide chaos, and I need something to escape my stupid little problems.
Dr. Pasquale answered my letter with a brief but friendly note; I wish I could see him. Right now I feel I have nothing to show for my life except my writing – and I don’t know that my writing amounts to anything.
I’m at the stage where all I want to do is sleep. I was complaining last week when I had nothing to complain about, so you can imagine how I feel today.
I know it’s only a matter of perception and that there is a way out, that there are dozens of ways out – but I don’t know how to change my perceptions except to wait for tomorrow. Maybe everything will look different then; it’s happened before.
Thursday, February 26, 1981
9 PM. In New Orleans. Yesterday’s entries seem hundreds of miles away and years ago. I will never be a good travel writer; there’s too much of the agoraphobic still in me. But I’ll try to describe the last day or so.
The flight was a horror; it was actually a pretty smooth flight that lasted less than two hours, but I was more nervous than I expected to be. For a large part of the plane ride, I was trembling.
Yet I think it wasn’t so much the flight itself, but that I was going to an unknown destination. On all of my previous plane trips, I was either going home or to my parents’ home. This was different.
When we landed in New Orleans at 7 PM Central Time, I was a wreck. I spotted Tom although we almost didn’t recognize each other because he grew a mustache and I grew a beard.
As we waited for my luggage, I felt very disoriented and a little sick to my stomach. The ride back to town was uneventful; Tom has an old VW bus and there wasn’t much to see.
He showed me his neighborhood, Carrollton, and Loyola and the levee and the charming streetcars. After I got settled, we went over to see his brother and sister-in-law, Ralph and Emily.
Ralph is one of New Orleans’ top lawyers. A former prosecutor who put half of Death Row in jail, he’s now defending some cops against some charges that they killed blacks.
Obviously, he’s loaded: Emily had just come back from Wichita and bought a Gordon terrier to replace their dog who died. She’s an artist (color field, mostly) who has a magnificent studio in their renovated 1895 house.
I like New Orleans architecture and the look of the trees, swampy and foreboding. Also, there’s a sweet smell in the air which I can’t identify. I didn’t think I could sleep on the mattress on the floor that Tom gave me, but I managed about five hours’ worth.
It was strange being in an old house after all the newness of Florida. We had breakfast and then walked over to the NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which is housed in an old public school four blocks away. (A plaque outside the office honored Huey Long for building it.)
Tom’s early class began at 8 AM. They’re all first-year Writing students ranging in age from Rachel, only 13, to some 18-year-old seniors. After Tom introduced me, I tried to bring out the students, to have them talk about writing, their writing, how they came to it and what they’re currently doing.
Then I read about three stories and we talked some more. Both classes had already “Hitler,” and a guy in the afternoon class, Brad Richard, said I was one of his favorite authors and had me autograph my book for him. (Naturally, he has a pedantic, effeminate, neurotic manner: them’s my people.)
The afternoon class of more advanced students was even better than the morning class. I read and talked with them and enjoyed myself a whole lot. What a pleasure to talk with brilliant, literate kids who know Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence and Tom’s European writers like his Robert Walser.
As I told Tom, he has an ideal job – but then, he’s doing something here that nobody else is doing. He’s got high school kids writing on the level of MFA students! What an enormous amount of energy it must take out of him.
We had lunch at the tavern just across Magazine Street from here – I had a burger on French bread and some Barq’s, a kind of root beer – and then went to Winn-Dixie to get a salad. The highlight of the day was a long walk around Audubon Park.
The weather here is mild and New Orleans seems beautiful. I only wish I had more time to stay.
Friday, February 27, 1981
5 PM. It was a good day. Last night I slept amazingly well and woke up feeling great at 6 AM. Tom had cereal and donuts waiting for me when I got out of the shower (actually just a bathtub) and we went over to NOCCA at 8 AM.
I ran the workshops today, and they went splendidly – although I now understand how much it can take out of Tom. “That was more work than Baumbach does in a week,” Tom said after our morning workshop.
I feel I really earned my $175 fee, but more than that, I’ve learned an awful lot. With the morning class, we first went over Rachel’s remarkable story “Lasagna for Dinner” (which we decided to retitle).
That a 13-year-old girl who looks even younger is capable of producing a piece like that astounds me. It is superior to anything I saw in the MFA program at Brooklyn College.
In comparison, the other piece we covered, Ned’s fantasy about a woman raping him, was shallow and deserved a short shrift. Tom said he’ll probably get rid of Ned, who’s only into drugs and sex.
The class was fairly responsive, and in the end I told them what a
remarkable program they are in and how Tom was an extraordinary teacher. We came home for lunch – kosher yogurt that we bought at a health food store – and I relaxed while Tom took a nap.
Then it was back to school for the afternoon class from 1 PM to 3:40 PM. First we went over an unpunctuated, uncapitalized piece of Brad’s and edited it line by line, word for word, so painstakingly that it took enormous energy out of all of us.
After a break, we did a story by Tonya Foster, a tale that reminded me of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist; tone was consistent throughout, and I could almost echo Jonathan’s sentiments that the story was so good it was disgusting. What will these students be writing in ten years, I wonder.
As we left, Tom picked up his mail and found a package from the Interlochen Arts Academy announcing the winners of the 1980 Young Writers Awards.
Out of 5,000 entries, Brad won first prize – $100 – in poetry; Tonya and Terry got third and fourth prizes in fiction; several others in Tom’s classes were finalists. I was glad I could share the students’ and Tom’s joy.
I’m very pleased with what Tom’s doing here. I told him I’d like to do an article about the program. We took a walk through the zoo and to the levee and I got my first look at the Mississippi River.
It was a gorgeous afternoon on the levee, and out by the river were roller-skaters, joggers, frisbee players and teenage lovers wrapped in a blanket. A car horn played “Dixie.”
Although I have yet to see the French Quarter or any other tourist spots, I like New Orleans. It’s a relaxed place, and race relations seem better than in any other place I’ve been.
Tonight I’ll be meeting some people: coming over are Tom’s ex-wife and her boyfriend, the Lowlands Review fiction editor Nancy Harris, and a few other friends. Whatever happens tomorrow, my trip to New Orleans is already a success.
Saturday, February 28, 1981
10 PM. The last day has been one that I’ll always treasure. I now really think I have the feeling of life here in the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. It’s a great town and I hope to come back someday.
Tom’s party got started at 8 PM last night when his friends Eustace and Mary, both English teachers, arrived with this woman Dixie. Eustace looks and sounds like a typical redneck: baseball cap, pot belly, country accent and old clothes. Eustace began by saying he read my “Hitler” story and “thought it made a good point about the Jewish problem.”
I liked him immediately and soon we were both drinking Pepsi (“Grayson, I never saw a Jew drink a Pepsi before”) and talking about modern fiction (he’s the most well-read person I’ve met, except for Tom), TV (including Another World), junk food and cheap cigars. Eustace is a real good old boy – or as I told Tom later, a real mensch.
His wife Mary and I talked about Faulkner, and she said I was wrong to see his work in mythical terms. For her, growing up in the poor rural South, his characters were the people she knew every day. She said the old woman in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” was her own mother.
Tom’s ex-wife Joan showed up with her turkey boyfriend Sloan. Joan is beautiful and a remarkable painter, intelligent and hopelessly neurotic.
Tom’s co-editor Nancy was dressed bizarrely and soon got very drunk; her friend Red, a musician who didn’t quite make sense and looked much older than 27, told me that he had been an alcoholic for the past fifteen years, so he made a good partner for Nancy.
There was a lot of smoke and cans of Dixie beer everywhere, and I learned quite a bit about New Orleans. Tom and Eustace said that Mardi Gras is a horrible time, but the others advised me to enjoy it by taking LSD, painting my face, and trying to catch the doubloons thrown from the parade floats.
I didn’t sleep much and felt shitty this morning. My contact lens sterilizer broke, so I’m wearing my glasses. Tom and I drove into the French Quarter at 9 AM, and I got a glimpse of one side of the Superdome on the way.
Vieux Carré looked the way I expected it to: those narrow streets and sidewalks (banquettes), trellised balconies, shuttered windows, and weird people.
Obviously, there were hordes of tourists, but there were also lots of locals getting thoroughly drunk by 10 AM. Also there were numerous gays, transvestites, rednecks, blacks, Hell’s Angels, and people of every nationality united in their love for alcohol.
Tom introduced me to his favorite bookstore owner, a suspendered old guy who has a great used book shop. He told Tom, “No wonder young people don’t want to read when teachers send students here to get books by authors like Salinger and Golding.”
We walked up St. Chartres Street, past the gay bars and chic boutiques, and went up Bourbon, which seemed worse than Times Square with its prostitutes, tacky souvenir shops (I did buy postcards), strip joints and boy bars. The whole area has the aroma of decay, and when I saw buses to Desire and Elysian Fields, I understood Tennessee Williams better.
Then we walked to Jackson Square, where Tom pointed out St. Louis Cathedral and on either side, the Presbytere (the old home for the clergy) and the Cabildo (the old seat of Spanish government).
People were having their faces painted, and there were portraitists and street performers and hundreds of tourists. Down by the river, we listened to the steamboat Natchez’s calliope play songs like “Mammy” and “Bye Bye, Blackbird.”
I felt like I was in an old movie or something. Then Tom took me to visit Joan and Sloane, who have a magnificent apartment (three huge rooms, stained glass windows and skylight, large patio courtyard outside) in the Quarter.
We had lunch at Jonah’s, an almost-New York-type deli where some guy played the guitar and sang, and then we walked around some more and took in the Pharmacy Museum (leeches in a bottle), some awful street mimes and jugglers, and the French Market: from the Café du Monde, where you can get café au lait and beignets, to the fruit and vegetable stands and flea market.
And all around us were a sea of people. It was a little too much to take in at once, so I was relieved when we started home at 4 PM. I decided to change my flight to Sunday afternoon, so I didn’t mind the huge traffic jams because of the various Mardi Gras parades.
Back in the Garden District at Tom’s house, he took a nap while I read, and then Eustace came over to bullshit for a while. We went out to eat at McDonald’s and took the trolley to Louisiana Street and back; that was fun for me because I hadn’t been on a trolley since 1955 or so.
What a rewarding experience this trip has been.