A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Late February, 1983

Saturday, February 19, 1983

3 PM. “Everything’s going wrong,” Dad sighed a few minutes ago. I had called him about an hour ago to see if he could take Selma and me to school tomorrow. He just phoned, saying he might not be able to, for Mom may have to go to New York.

It looks as though Grandpa Herb is dying. Yesterday he was very weak, and Grandma Ethel took him to Peninsula Hospital for help. They said they would feed him intravenously.

Today, when Grandma arrived at the hospital, she learned that he became very ill during the night and they put a pacemaker in. It looks very bad, naturally. I knew it.

This would be the week Marty and Arlyne picked to vacation in Mexico, so Mom may try to fly out. Of course, it’s a holiday weekend, one of the busiest of the year.

*

9 PM. “It’s a matter of hours, maybe days.” That’s what Dr. Schwartz told Dad and me over the phone. Mom’s got a 9:30 AM flight tomorrow. I’m driving her to the airport in Dad’s car.

The doctor said Grandpa Herb “is in the terminal stage of a malignancy.” His heart stopped last night; his liver isn’t functioning and “he’s as yellow as a canary.”

Dr. Schwartz told this to Grandma Ethel, “though not as brutally as I just told you,” and she’s home alone, hysterical, saying she’s going to commit suicide.

Bernie, Uncle Marty’s partner, will pick up Mom at the airport; Marty and Arlyne will be coming home tomorrow night. Right now I don’t know whether I will or can get to the funeral.

Grandpa Herb was a terrific person, the one man whom I’ve always felt loved me unconditionally. God, I was crazy about him; I’ll miss him so much. I can’t count the number of times he helped me out of jams.

He was a great storyteller, too. The last thing he said to me – on the phone weeks ago – was about he how he was going to get around to writing that novel someday.

Oh shit. Grandpa, I love you. I want you to die only because I know you want to die.

I wish I was joining you now; I wish we could be together; I wish I were dead, too. I hate life – but it had you in it, so it couldn’t be that bad. Fuck this sentimental crap. I can’t write.


Sunday, February 20, 1983

11:30 AM. Grandpa Herb died at about 1 AM in Peninsula Hospital. I learned that from Marc when I went over to take Mom to the airport earlier this morning. She was very upset, and I waited with her at the terminal.

Dad called Aunt Claire and Aunt Tillie. I don’t know if I’ll go up to New York. I’d like to be there, but it’s so expensive, especially if I have to fly up there again next month for my book party. Maybe that’s when Grandma Ethel will need me more. We’ll see.

Dad and Marc are at the flea market and I have to go to that stupid P’an Ku meeting. I tried to call Wendy in Philadelphia, but her roommate at Wharton told me she was out.

*

7 PM. I’m totally exhausted.

Dad could get out of South Florida only on a single flight – it’s the big holiday weekend of the winter – and he’s going to take it. I just don’t want to go up to New York for the horror of Grandpa Herb’s funeral. Am I a terrible person?

Mom said that Grandpa Herb wanted me to give the eulogy, and if circumstances were difficult, I would have liked to. I wonder: Am I trying to deny Grandpa’s death? Perhaps. I just feel it’s very hard for me to deal with.

And it’s true that it doesn’t quite seem real here. I went to Broward Community College for a headache-making P’an Ku meeting; only my Central Campus students and Betty Owen showed up. Naturally, I was preoccupied.

After four hours at BCC, I got back to Dad’s. Mom had arrived at Kennedy at noon, and Bernie drove her straight to Rockaway, where she broke the news of Grandpa Herb’s death to Grandma Ethel.

“Can you imagine that she didn’t call the hospital?” Dad mused. Yes, I can – because she wasn’t ready to deal with the news. Hysterical in the best of circumstances, Grandma Ethel broke down completely.

When I called, she got on the phone and wailed, “Richard, we lost Grandpa.” And she said, “He hoped he would see you again.” Oh, I feel awful. It was selfish of me not to go to see him then and it’s awful of me not to go to his funeral.

But I can’t, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I’ll be sad, yes, but not guilty. I was close with Grandpa Herb, and I’ll do my grieving in private over the next few days and weeks.

The funeral will be on Tuesday morning. Dad is flying out on Monday and will be back Tuesday night. In the meantime, I’ll have his car; Marc will drive him to the airport and Jonathan will pick him up.

Grandpa Herb lived 79 years and two months. Like Grandma Sylvia, he died on a holiday weekend. Now I have lost two of my four grandparents. It’s odd: I always wondered how it would be.

Still, we were close, Grandpa and I – we got to know each other as adult friends as well as grandchild and grandparent.

Rushes of memory come to me now: little scenes of Grandpa Herb run through my mind’s eye. I hope Grandma Ethel will be all right.

Uncle Sidney tried to get a flight out but he couldn’t, and Aunt Sydelle, who wasn’t even related to Grandpa Herb, got hysterical when Dad called her with the news.

There was some confusion over the cemetery, but I’m certain it’s Beth David in Elmont: the Louis Lerner Society, I think. This year, 1983, will always be a black year in my memory, if only for Grandpa Herb’s death.

I don’t want to live any more myself, really. The worst is yet to come, I feel.


Monday, February 21, 1983

8 PM. I just spoke to Dad. He’s in Rockaway with Grandma and Mom. All the arrangements have been made. The funeral will be in Far Rock at Riverside, where Grandpa and I made final arrangements for Uncle Abe, and then they’ll go to the burial at Beth David in Elmont. Mom and Grandma will sit shiva at Marty’s in Oceanside and Dad will be home tonight.

God knows why, but I slept peacefully and soundly for the third night in a row; that must be a record. When I took the Pontiac in at 8 AM, the man at the station said it would cost $125 plus parts to fix it.

I came home and lay in bed until 11 AM, when I got a call from a very hoarse Bert Stratton. He and Alice and their baby are visiting their parents in Boca, and through Coda and the Times Book Review, they knew how to locate me.

I drove up there on their invitation; it was just the diversion I was looking for. Both sets of parents live in the development called Boca Lago, just off the turnpike, though they spend most of the year back in Cleveland.

Bert had a terrible cold – which I won’t mind catching, since colds are a good way to mourn – but both he and Alice looked well, and their 1-year-old son is very cute (another child is on the way).

We went out to lunch at a Jewish deli, and they filled me in on their life in Cleveland, where Bert works for a local weekly in an inner-city ethnic neighborhood. He’s going to quit soon, though, to write a novel with a crime background – based on what he’s learned as a police reporter.

Obviously, his real income is from managing his father’s real estate holdings. Their parents are, I guess, from the wealthy Cleveland Jews – the Howard Metzenbaum crowd.

Bert and Alice love Cleveland, and Alice put out a guide to Cleveland restaurants that sold fairly well. They were interested in my career, and we talked about books and writers. Both of them are very well-read.

Being in Boca, where I’d never been before, was a treat for me, especially when we went to the gorgeous beach.

Back at home in Sunrise, I called Howard Erlich and told him that I’m not interested in the job at Ithaca College. Foolish? No, I think not. Grandpa’s death has made me rethink things, and I’m starting to put into focus what I want to do with my life.

I remember one evening in the summer of 1980 (when I want to set my novel): It was a Saturday night, and I was broke and I had just tried to sell my silver ID bracelet for ready cash.

Grandpa was in New York Hospital, and he was in a lot of pain from tests, but he counseled me wisely. He said I should get out of teaching and go with a job that had a future, even if I had to start at the bottom.

That’s what I had intended to do when I came to Florida. Well, now I plan to take Grandpa’s advice.

Unless I’m offered a really fantastic teaching job, I plan to find work in Miami this summer. I can pound the pavement – it sounds exciting and painful, but I have to do it.

I know I have lots of skills that would get me far in many fields; I just have to convince somebody how much I can help his/her company.

I suppose I should feel sadder than I do. Right now my neighbor is playing somber organ music; it’s almost funereal. But Grandpa’s death was not unexpected, and I feel he wouldn’t want me to grieve deeply.

I’d rather follow his example: he never gave up till the end, at least not financially, although he had many rough times – especially in the last Depression.


Tuesday, February 22, 1983

10 AM. I just got back from Bodyworks.

Grandpa Herb’s funeral is starting now. I wish I could have been there, and I would have, of course, if it weren’t so far away and so expensive to get to New York.

Grandpa, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you because you were always there for me; I hope you’ll understand. I loved you more, I think, than I loved anyone else in the world. I don’t think I’m very much like you, but you gave me a lot.

I’ll never forget your stories about the Philippines or the Depression or how you permanently hurt your back lifting up the very fat baby who was me: You repeated them enough so that they seem like folklore already.

I remember how you spoke of your own grandparents coming for you in a droshky in the snow. I got to know you longer than you knew your grandparents, and it was a privilege to know you.

We worked together in the Slack Bar in downtown Brooklyn; you used to pick me up and drive me to Midwood High School in the mornings; you took us to Freedomland; you drove terribly, always hugging the bumpers of the car in front of you and making short, jerky stops.

I remember your apartment on East 43rd St and Linden Boulevard – my first home – and your corner chair, the better to see the TV you loved so much. I remember sleeping over all through childhood, and being there the night Jonathan was born, waking up to your sign, “It’s a Boy!”

I remember I used to disobey you summers in Rockaway, and how you would play pinochle with Grandpa Nat and the other men, and how you hated the beach even though you were a good swimmer and how you taught me to ride a two-wheeler in the parking lot by the beach: how you let go without my knowing it and how I was suddenly, without knowing it, on my own.

I guess that’s how I feel now: I’m a little stunned by your letting go, but I know I’ll make it by myself. I don’t know how you could have given me more than you did – and I’m not talking about the money I still owe you for my electric bill, or the savings bond that arrived on every birthday, or the Chanukah money that came every year.

You were an atheist or at least an agnostic – you were never bar-mitzvahed, unlike me, and you didn’t know Hebrew prayers. You wouldn’t understand the words some rabbi is intoning over your now. Although I’m not at the funeral, I try to feel that I’m with you now.

I won’t forget you or the stories you told me about your parents. I don’t know if you’d approve of all I’m going to do, of all that I am, but if you were ever disappointed in me, you never said so. You were a man who counted his blessings.

*

10 PM. In my office at BCC before class tonight, I called Oceanside. Arlyne answered and said the funeral went okay. In that slightly judgmental tone of hers, she said she was “surprised” I didn’t come up.

Mom got on and said the rabbi’s sermon caught Grandpa Herb just the way he was. Since Jeffrey wanted to take a look at the body, Mom also decided to, and was pleased because Grandpa looked so well.

There was a delay at the cemetery, but Mom said Grandpa’s name is on the gate already – the gate near his grave.

Oh, Grandpa, I can’t believe you’re gone, and I’m sorry I missed your funeral.

Grandma played the Barry Farber Show tape for everyone: she was glad I did that, and I’m glad I could comfort Grandma and keep Grandpa alive. (A videotape would have even been better, though.)

I suppose a lot of people there must have said I didn’t care about my grandfather that much if I didn’t come to his funeral, and I feel defensive about it. Now is not the time to start worrying what other people think. No one can tell me I didn’t love my grandfather. I just hope I don’t allow myself to feel too guilty.

All things considered, today went okay. I got my IRS refund and a paltry $335 from Travelers dental insurance – less than half what my caps cost. I had a good class discussion tonight and managed not to get really upset.

I’d rather celebrate Grandpa’s life than mourn his death. The rabbi said of him: “He knew how to make the most of the best, and how to make the least of the worst.” If only I had inherited the gift.


Wednesday, February 23, 1983

3 PM. I’m tired and headachy now and I still have the P’an Ku meeting at Monica’s house tonight. She’s coming to pick me up since I don’t have the car as yet.

Last night Teresa called to offer her condolences; she’s one person who really understood. We talked and I felt a lot better afterwards. I was glad to hear she likes her job at the DOT a bit more after a talk with the commissioner.

I feel anxious to go to New York to be with Grandma, Teresa, Josh, Ronna, Alice and my other friends. I’ve had no word from Ed about the book party, so I assume plans fell through.

I may not come in at all next month and just wait till May; instead of driving up with Lisa, I might fly and spend the whole six weeks in New York, dividing my time between Rockaway and Manhattan.

I’d like to take Grandma out to eat, to the movies, etc. I still feel bad that of all the grandchildren, only Jeffrey came to the funeral.

Dad said this morning that the chapel was filled with people from the building and with Marty’s friends; I’m glad it was well-attended, but, of course, nobody didn’t like Grandpa Herb.

Dad told me Mom and Grandma felt better after they viewed the body, following Dad’s and Jeff’s lead. Grandpa looked very good, and the casket was fairly expensive. They played the tape and people were reminiscing and laughing; even Grandma didn’t cry at all.

I didn’t sleep well last night and dreamed of Grandpa for the first time since his death. I left the station wagon with Dad, and Marc drove me to school; apparently his computer classes are very tough.

My own classes were okay but boring; on Friday, I’ll have them write. That will mean lots of grading this weekend, but I probably won’t have any P’an Ku meetings to worry about.

Bob and I had lunch at Hurdy Gurdy’s, which was a pleasant break from routine. I had to wait for Lisa to get out of class at 2 PM to drive me home; on the way, we stopped to cash our paychecks.

For the first time in ages, I have over $1000 in the bank – but my debts are nearly twice that by now. Even if I loved my job at BCC, I couldn’t afford to keep up my present (non-luxurious) lifestyle with my salary.


Friday, February 25, 1983

4 PM. Yesterday I lay in bed till late afternoon. My stomach hurt and I felt pretty awful. Finally I walked over to the Chevron station – I do miss walking around a neighborhood and looking at people and houses and plants – and picked up my car.

The damage came to $270, which I put on my Visa card. God knows when I’ll be able to catch up on all my debts. It seems like it’s always one thing or another.

I went over to Dad’s house and read the paper and the little mail I’d received. At 6 PM, I drove over to BCC, where apparently no one had missed me during the whole day I was out. I began to feel sickish during the reading of a long story in my creative writing workshop; I was nauseated and chilled and nervous.

Perhaps it was the start of an anxiety attack. I was tempted to dismiss the class early, but I began to feel better during the break, and I really got into the poems we discussed later.

Apparently, Mom came home late last night; I’ll go over there later today. I haven’t spoken to her yet, though. This morning, as I drove to school, I did see Dad running on University Drive.

Last night I slept fitfully but I had some pleasant dreams. In one, I delivered Teresa’s baby and that made me happy.

In another dream, I managed to get a clear picture from a Hartford TV station in the middle of the night here in Florida; Josh came over, and we watched it together.

Last summer at Grandpa Herb’s in Rockaway, I discovered so many different stations I could pick up on his TV station during the night: channels from Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Salisbury, Maryland. Since then I’ve dreamed several times about getting faraway TV stations.

This morning I had my English 100 classes write while I wrestled with the very complicated forms the University of Miami sent over; they were all applications for financial aid.

Perhaps with an assistantship of $5000 and a guaranteed student loan of an equal amount, I can make it next year as a Ph.D. student.

An order for Eating at Arby’s trickled in today; I’ll still have enough copies for my talk at the Fort Pierce library in ten days. Soon I’ll have to start thinking about that.

March begins next week, and I hope it’s an improvement over January and February, which were sucky – but I expect problems will only get worse.

I met with Grace’s son Michael, a read nerd. For Grace’s sake, I tried to be helpful but the guy really needs to get both a job and a therapist.

Michael has been writing for years and has never gotten a single thing published anyplace. He’s written two novels and several nonfiction books, all of which sound dreadful.

At least I can take slight satisfaction that I’m not a schleppy asshole like him – but if I were, I wouldn’t realize it, would I?

What I am is a fat slob. I weighed myself at Bodyworks and was shocked that I’d zoomed up to 166 pounds, five pounds more than I weighed just two months ago. It seems like the longer I work out, the heavier I get. Am I just eating more?

While I had a good negative workout today – I’d never seen my biceps so pumped up – I believe I should concentrate now on slimming down my waist rather than building up the rest of me.

If I could continue to exercise lightly and lose ten to twenty pounds, I’d probably have a really nice physique and maybe my pants would fit me again.

All day at BCC I’m surrounded by muscular 18-year-olds. Sometimes I love just walking through the halls looking at them. Well, I suppose that being horny is a sign that I’m starting to feel less depressed. And I can pride myself in getting through the last few months, which have been difficult.

All I want to do this weekend is endure it.


Saturday, February 26, 1983

9 PM. A week after Grandpa Herb’s death, things are slowly becoming settled.

It must be hard for Grandma at the moment, trying to get to sleep all alone in the apartment. “I keep seeing him sitting on the terrace or in his chair watching TV,” Grandma cried to me a few hours ago.

Marty and Arlyne had just brought her back to the apartment. I spoke to Grandma from Mom’s house; today was the first day I saw her since she got on the plane to New York.

The funeral was sad, of course, but it seemed to make everyone feel better. The rabbi brought out the essence of Grandpa: a good man who calmly accepted life with humor and patience, a man whose family was his whole life.

“You can’t believe how many sympathy cards I got – over 150,” Grandma said. “Everyone liked Grandpa. There have been lots of donations to Hadassah in his memory.”

I’m sure the time spent sitting Shiva helped Mom, Marty and Grandma. Lots of relatives and friends came by, and while Grandma cried, she also laughed at things Grandpa said on the tape or stories about him, and Arlyne noticed that Grandma had started to eat again.

I guess I feel closer to my family, too; I spent a pleasant afternoon in Davie, talking with my parents, watching sports on TV, chuckling at New Yorker cartoons.

Mom and Dad think my idea about videotaping elderly people so they can leave the tapes for their grandchildren is a brilliant idea. It seems to combine “high tech” and “high touch”: what John Naisbitt talks about in Megatrends.

All it would take is some video equipment and some press releases to start. Patrick said he just bought a camera; perhaps he would like to go in with me. (I just wrote Patrick a glowing letter of recommendation for his Florida Arts Council grant.)

I want to think about this idea a lot.

Last night, reading Money’s issue on the Baby Boomers, I found an exhilarating article that said yes, there are jobs apart from those in computers or robotics. There will even be jobs for teachers in industry, in the training and development sections of corporations, and there’ll be jobs for writers.

Look, I’m creative, inventive and practical. Wouldn’t it be great if I could start my own business?

In the Fort Lauderdale News, there was an article on Sam Kaperwas, a Brooklyn College grad (’69) who’s written lots of novels; instead of teaching to earn his living, he owns jewelry stores.

What I think I want to do is stay in South Florida and use the time for my Ph.D. studies, to write, and to work on a new career for myself, one outside academia.

An interview with Richard Price in the new Saturday Review convinces me that someone who has an early success can have it harder than I do; I’m still the challenger, while Price is scared he’s going to lose what he has.

He knows he’s a better writer now than when he started out, but he worries that The Wanderers may end up thought of as his best book. It was published easily, and the subsequent lack of struggling has probably hindered Price’s career as much as my struggling has hindered (or helped) mine.

As you can tell, I spent last night reading, reading, reading – until 3 AM or so. I couldn’t get to sleep until 5 AM. . . I’m trying to remember a dream of accomplishment that I had.

Oh well. I slept till noon, stayed in bed until 2:30 PM. It was another dark day, and three to five inches of rain are scheduled to fall tonight and tomorrow. Meteorologists blame the “Southern oscillation” of the jet stream for our too-wet dry season.

My parents are worried Jonathan is anorexic; Marc said the neighbors say Jonathan looks terrible, and he does. But Mom hopes that Karen Carpenter’s death has frightened Jonathan enough to get him to start eating more. They both loved The Carpenters, especially Mom.

I called Ronna to find out how her surgery went; her roommate said Ronna was out and doing well.

Tennessee Williams died. I was surprised at the importance the media gave this story. His plays meant a lot to me when I first read them as a teenager.


Sunday, February 27, 1983

7 PM. Another rainy weekend spent in bed.

This is the year South Florida had a real winter. The past two winters here, it seemed that every day was sunny and dry. But since the start of 1983, it’s been Noahville all the time: we’ve had more than ten times the normal amount of rainfall, and last year’s drought has turned into this year’s flooding.

Still, I will be looking forward to the warm, sunny weather when it gets here. College students begin their spring break invasion of Fort Lauderdale this week, and I hope, for their sake, that the weather improves.

For me, a compensation would be lower electric bills since I haven’t used my air conditioner in weeks.

Oil prices worldwide seem to be coming down as OPEC stumbles in disarray. Leaded gasoline is now going for 98¢ a gallon here, and it could go down another dime.

That may be good news for the economy and spur on a recovery. The decade-long shock over oil prices really did affect our lives in many ways.

It’s hard to believe that when I was in college, I paid less than 40¢ a gallon for gasoline. How I loved to drive aimlessly on weekends – all over Long Island, up to Westchester and Connecticut, out to New Jersey.

Sometimes I think my weekends in bed aren’t just sloth but that I’m developing ideas for my writing and other projects. I hope so.

Typing up Pac-Man Ate My Cat in my old familiar manuscript format last night, I felt that same sense of satisfaction I used to get upon finishing a story.

It seems as if life is a series of alternating advances and retreats, though maybe “consolidation” is a better word than “retreat.” I stay in my room, and then I go out in the world; I think and I do; I master something, get bored with it, flounder, and eventually go on to something new.

Grandpa Herb would say to make the best of what comes my way, and I’ve tried to do that. In a strange way, his death has renewed, and not diminished, my determination.

Yesterday Mom said that her cousin Chuck picked up one of my books at Grandma Ethel’s apartment after the funeral and was amazed that I knew what Guillaine-Barré syndrome was.

Obviously, all my all reading has made me pretty knowledgeable about some things. That’s why I have trouble relating to the simpletons among my students or the literary magazine editors whose comments on stories range from “Loose [sic] it . . .” to “This is to [sic] long.”

Surely, in a world of incompetents and dullards, someone like me has to at least break even. Some journalists said that Tennessee Williams was “too sensitive” for such a harsh, cold world, but they’re wrong: artists like Williams (and, I hope, myself) are the real tough people in society.

I feel I can go on struggling for another ten years if I have to. Why, all of a sudden, am I so enthusiastic about the struggle? I’m realizing what I’ve got, and as the rabbi said of Grandpa Herb, I’m trying to minimize what I don’t have.

Things will fall into place; I feel it now. I’ve got to get through the next couple of months of schoolwork and the literary magazine, and then I’ll have May and half of June to spend in New York.

During the second summer session here in Florida, I’ll teach in a more relaxed atmosphere and spend lots of time planning my way for the fall.

At worst, I’ll enter the University of Miami’s Ph.D. program and bide my time while I look for a way out.

Well, I didn’t mark any of the eighty papers I took home this weekend, but I already told my classes that I wouldn’t have their papers until Wednesday. Lisa said we need to spend our weekends free to clear our heads for teaching.

Next week, I’ll take off Monday, the day I go to Fort Pierce.

My chest and shoulders are still sore from Friday’s workout. There’s no doubt I’m much more muscular than I was six months ago.

My problem is my genetic predisposition toward getting “love handles” – that and my greater appetite. Exercise makes me more hungry than ever.

I get that from the Sarretts, Grandpa Herb’s side of the family.TC mark

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