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

Friday, December 23, 1983

6 PM. I knew I just needed a good night’s sleep to get me out of my funk. At 8 PM, I went to bed and buried myself in sleep and didn’t get up till 9 AM.

I slept like a drugged man and had good dreams. One of the last, toward dawn, was the best: I had been entered in a boxing match and was nervous because my opponent seemed so big and strong. Yet I knocked him out and then went on to more and more victories as a fighter.

I just got in. It’s so gorgeous here, it should almost be illegal to have weather like this in late December. All I wish is that I could share it with someone. No one being around, I shall share it with you, my trusty diary.

At 4:30 PM, I decided to go out to the beach, and I found myself surprised that the traffic wasn’t all that bad. I like going down to Surfside because there are city-like streets there that remind me of New York, down to the same kind of holiday decorations strung along the street lights.

I parked by the post office at 95th Street and walked over to Danny’s, where I had an early dinner. Who should sit down at the counter just two seats away from me but Isaac Bashevis Singer and his wife Alma. He looked very frail, and although he wore a tie, one of his shirt buttons was undone. They argued like any old Jewish couple, and if anyone else recognized them, they didn’t let on.

Of course, I couldn’t figure out what I should say to him and finally I decided to let the man eat his matzoh ball soup – which he did with a trembling hand – in relative peace. Still, I take seeing Singer as a sign of good fortune.

I’m working closer to him than anyone else in Dade County except Lester Goran, I feel, and I like the coincidence or fate of seeing him. How many people in their daily lives get to see a Nobel Prize winner bicker with his wife?

I walked down to the beach, where the last of the tourists or snowbirds were rinsing their feet at the shower. The sand, the water, the sky, the breezes, the palm trees: everything was just perfect, and I felt my whole sense of myself – and of life – restored.

This morning I went to Bodyworks, where I had a pretty good workout; I was pleased to discover they’ll be open Monday.

At my parents’, I showered after Jonathan left for work. Then I stopped off at BCC, where Cindy was just leaving; she said I’d gotten another check, which she’d mailed to my home. A surprise, but a pleasant one!

After stopping off at the credit union to withdraw some cash, I came home and watched Another World. Since I’ve watched the show since it began twenty years ago, I feel close to its fictional families as they celebrate the holidays.

My own Christmas memories are very good: Those dinners at the Judsons’ in Park Slope; holidays spent with Ronna, including that first one in 1972, when she was at her father’s home in the Bronx and I took her to the Cloisters; singing carols and playing word games at Janice’s with Alice; the night Simon had a party in the Heights and how the next day I saw Grandpa Herb at Peninsula Hospital after his cataract surgery; two years ago, at Teresa’s uncle and aunt’s house on Long Island, eating that great manicotti and watching her family exchange gifts; fourteen years ago, in 1969, coming down here to stay at the Carillon; returning to Florida four years ago on Christmas Eve, to my parents’ new home in Davie. South Florida seemed so magical to me then.

On other Christmases, there were parties at Teresa’s uptown and dinners with Avis in Brooklyn and times I was alone, like last year, when I was so hurt about Sean.

As a Jew, I never really celebrated Christmas, but as an American, I’ve never been able to ignore it. Every year around now, I get a sense of time running out – and I feel a bit tense until January and the new year finally get here.


Saturday, December 24, 1983

8 PM. The cold finally arrived with Christmas Eve; it’s expected to be in the 40°s tonight, and only about 65° tomorrow. Fine with me.

Before the cold front arrived, I managed to get in half an hour of tanning at my parents’ pool. Then I got my hair cut and did some errands. I called Mom, who said they’d had two pretty good days at the flea market; today they took in $1300.

I spent the evening watching Annie on HBO and reading Esquire’s anniversary issue: “50 Who Made a Difference,” profiles of important Americans in different fields.

It strikes me that most of them were excellent media manipulators. Even someone as great as Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have achieved what he did without a very clever understanding of the media.

I particularly liked the profiles of Alfred Kinsey, Philip Johnson, William Paley, Abraham Maslow and Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

It’s interesting that I’d pick businessmen, doctors, an architect and an engineer over Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Kerouac.

But look how all those writers ended up – and it doesn’t have to be that way. I may be screwed up, but I don’t drink or do drugs, so I can’t completely destroy myself.

I’m glad I don’t drink liquor, and although abstaining can be embarrassing in social situations, I’m more determined than ever to remain a teetotaler. I don’t even want to smoke marijuana any more.

I got some good letters today. Stacy should be in St. Pete about now, spending the holidays with Jeanne and her mother. She reports that her job at the Transit Authority is hectic because everyone is claiming her to help with their work projects.

Stacy and Jeanne made a bid on a co-op in NoHo, and the deal may go through in January.

Paul Fericano sent me a photo of 10-month-old Kate, who looks like an exuberant little kid. He also enclosed a San Francisco Examiner wire-service story on my plan to move the capital to Davenport, Iowa.

It’s hard on Paul to be “Mr. Mom” but through the ‘lines’ of his letter I can tell that it’s an amazing experience and it probably will help his writing. (It’s Emerson’s compensation at work, right?)

Mark Berman is in Florence, teaching too many classes at the University for too little money. But he decided he needed to get away from Ohio, and when the offer came up, he took it. Mark’s wife is doing well with her M.A in Italian, and the girls are getting by in the local school.

Mark gave me some questions he wants me to ask Barbara Capitman, Art Deco’s grande dame down at South Beach. He is interested in writing about the restoration and renovation of the old hotels there.

Rick wrote that last weekend’s Gargoyle party was the ultimate: 350 people showed up, fifty had to be turned away, and the marathon reading – no more than ten minutes per poet – was exciting.

Though the party got good publicity, not much of the local D.C. lit crowd attended – “but we got lots of new faces, young people . . . we are educating them.”

Good for Rick and Gretchen and Gargoyle. Now Rick needs to have more confidence in what he’s doing and start acting like a winner – because he is one.

Leslie Goff, Josh’s erstwhile admirer in Arkansas, sent a nice letter, again praising my work – and enclosed her column from the University of Arkansas Traveler, giving a nice review to I Brake for Delmore Schwartz. (So that’s the Arkansas paper that Alaskan Steven C. Levi referred to in his letter).

Dean Connie Bauer of Antioch thanked me for being kind to Eric Willcocks during his trip to South Florida, but that really wasn’t any trouble.

Hey, it’s Christmas Eve. And I feel I could not have had a better life than the one which I’ve been allowed to lead (or follow). I don’t need any presents, thank you, Santa.

I really have got everything I need at the moment (though a warm body to hug during the chilly night would not be unwelcome). . .


Sunday, December 25, 1983

7 PM. Santa brought some of the North Pole with him. Not only was this a record-breaking cold Christmas in much of the United States, but even here in South Florida we got a big chill.

When I awoke this morning, it was 36°, with a wind-chill factor of 26°. Incredible! It’s about 40° even now and did not get to 50° all day; tonight it may get even colder than last night did.

It’s very hard to believe that just yesterday morning I was sunning myself by the pool or that on Thursday I had the air conditioner on most of the day because it was too hot for comfort.

The reverse cycle of the air conditioner doesn’t heat very well, and it tends to dry out my throat and sinuses. Still, a taste of winter certainly isn’t uncalled for on Christmas Day.

I spent all morning in bed reading the Sunday papers. My car had a hard time getting started this morning: not its usual trouble but a stubbornness made much worse by the unaccustomed chill.

Even the air of Miami looked different today: it had that glassy texture of winter.

At 2 PM, I went for a long drive that was inspired by an article in the New York Times about Miami’s downtown skyline, which Paul Goldberger claimed was one of the most exciting and prosperous of American cities.

He went on to say that up close, downtown and its buildings were a huge disappointment, that Miami’s downtown has no sense to it.

I agree with him on both counts.

From Biscayne Bay or I-95, the skyline promises an exciting city. Of course, it’s not the view of lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, but nothing can compare with that.

I’ve become something of a Miami buff, and I know the buildings and their histories. I do like the new Southeast Financial Center, tallest building in the Southeast, and the whimsical, colorful Brickell Avenue buildings created by Arquitectonica.

Of course, neither they nor any of the other new buildings have the integrity of the Freedom Tower, the old Miami News building where the Cuban refugees were processed in the 1960s.

After driving down Biscayne Boulevard all the way downtown, I made my way down Brickell and Bayshore to Coconut Grove.

After that, I doubled back and crossed the bay via the Venetian Causeway and drove up Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue all the way to the new 192nd Street Causeway.

Despite all the negative feelings about South Florida that I’ve developed living here the past three years, I really have never fallen out of love with the beauty of the place.

It will never be New York, but that’s both home and the most exciting city on the planet.

I suspect that all cities – and rural areas and suburbs, too – have their magic if you get to know them well enough.

One Christmas, I remember, when I hadn’t driven into Manhattan much yet, I took advantage of the holiday to glide up and down those magical streets. What bliss!

I found a little of the same feeling today in Miami. Maybe wearing a flannel shirt and the down jacket helped.

Last Christmas I was able to go to the beach – a smart move, because otherwise I would have given in to the pain of being dumped by Sean the day before.

Today makes a year of celibacy (of course, I do masturbate quite a bit) – and it’s only seemed a burden on occasion. But I need to be close to someone again; I’m not going to let another year go by without that.

Sean always did have our relationship in better perspective than I did, but I’ve got a handle on it now.

In a week it will be 1984, a year that could bring some nice surprises – or some rotten ones, I suppose. (Just rambling on. . .)


Wednesday, December 28, 1983

7 PM. There are only three days left in 1983 and only a couple after that until my vacation ends.

This week off has been a good time to catch up with life and reflect on the past year, as well as plan for 1984. The quiet has been beneficial: no work, no phone calls about my campaign, nothing doing on the writing front.

Say: if I’m a fiction writer, why haven’t I written now that I’ve had time? I see very clearly that I’ve been pretty blocked for the past four years, almost since With Hitler in New York was published.

I wrote some in 1980, mostly at MacDowell, and in the spring of 1981, in my parents’ house in Davie, I did A Version of Life, which I haven’t looked at in two years and which is probably unpublishable.

Since I began teaching full-time at Broward Community College over two years ago, the only thing of value I’ve worked on was Eating at Arby’s. Those pieces came easily because I was fooling around; it was play rather than serious writing.

I have made no progress on the serious novel I’ve planned, and I think it’s time to admit the truth: I will never write it, at least not in the foreseeable future. What has paralyzed me is fear – fear that I’ve got to write something “important” and “deep.”

But I can’t write when I feel like the New York Times Book Review and every book editor and literary agent in Manhattan are looking over my shoulder.

The solution?

Last Wednesday, with Pete, a writer/artist who eschews the serious and ponderous, I saw the Sackner Archive: a collection of playful literary stuff. That’s the kind of stuff I have to get back to.

Last summer, in 1982, at VCCA, I felt miserable, bored and depressed because I didn’t seem to be a writer in the way that others were.

Unlike Susan Mernit, I did not sit down at my typewriter and agonize and work like a demon. Fundamentally, I’m lazier than most writers. I don’t have discipline except in short spurts. As Ivan Gold pointed out in the Times Book Review, I seem to do best when I’m not threatened by extended narratives.

I can’t be Scott Sommer, Susan Mernit, Jennifer Levin, Ted Mooney or anybody but me. What I’ve got to do is go back to my short stories or semi-essays or whatever it is I take pleasure in.

My “novel” can be put to use as innovative short fiction. Instead of laboring over it, I can already declare it a best-selling important book and write a critique or a kind of Cliff or Monarch Notes version of it.

I’m not a literary genius, but Borges and others did okay with the short form. It all seems to come down to being myself. So relax, Richie, and put the experiences of your last four years to work doing what you enjoy.

(I still feel guilty writing that, though. Why? Because “artists are supposed to suffer.”)

My big worry now is that because of a lack of registration at BCC – and it’s clear that the tougher new requirements are scaring away students – my courses won’t register, and I’ll be jobless come next week.

Obviously, it’s too late for North campus to call me; they’ve decided on someone else for the permanent job. Am I insulted? Slightly. But they’re stupid if they didn’t know what a great addition to their faculty I’d make.

I guess there’s nothing I can do, and I should be grateful I was allowed to teach at BCC in the fall.

I got that check today, and finally I realized it’s the $325 for Pan Ku; obviously someone at the college still thinks I’m the magazine’s adviser.

In time, I’ll be found out and have to pay back the money. But for now, I’m putting it to good use.

I took out cash advances of $600 on my Citibank and First Atlantic Visas, and then I went to United Federal S & L and opened up a $2,500 certificate of deposit.

The CD is for seven days and will initially earn 9% interest. It seems pretty liquid, for I can prevent it from rolling over by withdrawing my money any Wednesday.

Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing with my money, but I feel that if I show large deposits in the bank (currently, a $2,500 CD at United Federal, a $1,000 CD at First Nationwide, a $500 Citibank CD, and $1,000 in the credit union) and if I continue to pay off large debts, I’ll have a really terrific credit rating.

Instead of being broke and having $2,000 in debts, I have $7,000 in debts and have $5,000 in the bank earning 9-10% interest. I guess it’s silly and time-consuming, but I’m betting the system will work in my favor in the long run.

The weather has again turned warm, and now every third person seems to have a cold. I’m trying to sleep and eat right so I don’t get sick. Last night I slept very heavily due to clogged sinuses, and this morning I couldn’t rouse myself as I stumbled from one obsessive dream to another.

My muscles are getting really big, and I don’t know if it’s taking the L-ornithine, but little hairs keep sprouting on my chest. I really feel physically terrific these days.

When I phoned Teresa last night, she explained that she didn’t think it was worth it to pay twice as much for airfare to Florida at Christmas as what she’d have to spend in January. So she’ll come later in the winter – maybe with Amira, who spent the weekend watching Teresa’s Berkshires house, where it was -25°.

Teresa was at her sister’s and then her aunt’s for Christmas and had a good time. This week she’s going up to Albany to make one final push to be transferred to work for Richie Kessel at the Consumer Protection Board. She should at least find out why the Cuomo people screwed her. I hope she gets a better job.

I got the strangest letter yesterday, forwarded to me by Zephyr Press. A woman in Connecticut, Angela McNeely, wrote to say that her fate is tied up with my book.

When she first saw the book in a store window, she later couldn’t remember if she’d just dreamed the title. Her husband Dan got her the James Atlas bio of Delmore Schwartz and also the book containing “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which she read while learning that her husband’s ex-lover would be working with him.

She then goes on to relate bizarre incidents: meeting the woman in a bar, going into labor the next night and, having to have a Caesarian:

As I was coming to (after they took my son out of me) they asked me if I would like to see my husband. I was so out of it, I thought ‘Husband? What husband?’ Next thing I knew, Dan was standing there, and he did look vaguely familiar.

‘We have a beautiful little boy,’ he said.

‘I brake for Delmore Schwartz,’ I said.

Later, Dan assumed I meant that we wouldn’t let happen to our child the things that had happened to us. I’m not sure what I meant, but it seemed appropriate. 

Last week I went back to the bookstore and found your book and read it. I like the ironic tones in your fiction. It’s similar to something I might write if the baby would stop howling. . .

And then she goes on to tell me of her obsession with Dan’s ex-lovers and how she drives around town looking for their cars, and how, when she drinks (Dan drinks heavily, too), she makes “sarcastic, ambivalent remarks about low-lifes and pigs.”

She ends: “Maybe someday we could meet you. – Angela McNeely.”


Saturday, December 31, 1983

5 PM. It’s another raw, chilly, rainy day outside. I’ve got the heat on in my bedroom.

Last night I watched Mazursky’s delightful Tempest on HBO; as usual, he has such a sharp eye. The film made me want to go back to the Shakespeare play and read it again.

I woke up at 11 AM, feeling terrific; the good feelings from my dreams colored the last day of 1983 with a rosy hue.

Rather than go to Bodyworks, I did some weightlifting and calisthenics at home. Because I’m still a bit sore from Thursday’s workout, I figure my body needs a little break.

I stayed under the quilt until noon, when I fetched the mail. Both the University of Florida and Northwestern rejected me for teaching jobs. Miriam wrote that she’s going to Boston next week for her publication party.

After a late lunch at Corky’s, I stopped by the nursing home to see Grandpa Nat, who was in a wheelchair and babbling wildly.

As I extended my hand, he not only shook it but also kissed it. And when I said, “Happy New Year,” he responded, “Likewise, I assure you,” a phrase that still cracks me up.

When I talked about 1984, Grandpa seemed to latch onto the sound of the new year (as he did earlier this week, according to Dad), and when I left he was shouting “1984! 1984! 1984!” to anyone who would listen.

I drove downtown to look at the preparations for tonight’s Orange Bowl Parade: the stands, the lights, and the snack bars and bathrooms are all set up.

Grandma Ethel said it was a mild sunny day in New York and she’d been outside. Tonight she’s going to the New Year’s Eve party in the building – the first one she’s ever attended “because Grandpa Herb didn’t want to go or was too sick.” Good for Grandma.

Having checked in with my grandparents, I called my parents. They were rained out of the flea market today but planning to make it tomorrow morning, so they were staying home tonight with Jonathan. Marc and Adriana will be at a wedding.

They asked me to come over, but I declined. Maybe they just wanted to start 1984 with Big Brother? (Okay, that’s a terrible joke.)

Lisa called and invited me once more to her parents’ party, but since both that and Casey and Mimi’s party, which I also was invited to, are in Boca Raton, I think I’ll skip the festivities. I don’t want to drive all that way in rainy weather when so many drunks are out on the highways.

I’ll be just fine staying home alone here in North Miami Beach on New Year’s Eve. It’s just another night, albeit one ending a surprisingly good year. TC mark

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