A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Early October, 1984

Monday, October 1, 1984

1 PM. It’s a cold, rainy first of October. I’ve just gotten home and am somewhat chilled and soaked.

Well, I’ve got one-quarter of 1984 left to get through. Then a few days after that, I’ll be back in Florida, which I’ve come to appreciate more and more as the weather in New York turns wintry and nasty.

My classes at John Jay are not going well because I have no sense of direction.

It was much easier in 1980 when I could spend all my time coaching students for the CUNY writing exam because I knew where I was heading. Now I’m not sure what my goal is, and I’m floundering as I’m unable to come up with a common theme for the course.

No one really cares anyway. I have no mailbox with my name on it (I’ve just assumed all the mail in the one unlabeled box was for me) and no office, and as long as I show up for classes, there’s no one around to even notice what I’m doing.

Basically, I’m just giving the students the kind of half-assed work they seem to be calling for.

Today I told my classes I’m leaving teaching English for computers. Most of them have no idea what the situation in academia is like, so it was kind of a childish exercise, but I felt I needed to express that I’m not trapped in teaching.

This evening I begin my BASIC course at The New School – the LOGO course starts in three weeks – and I’m hoping that this will help me find a new direction.

I bought a magazine, Computers in Education, as part of trying to systematically learn everything about the subject the way I did when I first got into sending my work to little magazines or when I first tried to get publicity for my electoral antics.

As far as my future as a writer is concerned, I don’t see much happening.

By the end of this month, I’m going to learn I’ve been rejected for my fourth NEA fellowship in creative writing, and I think this will be my last application. Every day I fantasize about getting the $20,000, but the fantasy is hollow, the same kind of con game the state puts poor lottery ticket buyers through.

I really need the fellowship, and I feel I’ve proven I’m worthy of it, but I know the NEA favors safe academic types over flashy, uncool experimentalists.

My only hope is that I can make it on things like my New York Times Book Review coverage, which gives me legitimacy. I’d love to show everyone in Florida I’m not just a joke as a writer.

Of course, I had to make myself into a joke in order to get noticed at all.

Last night I fell asleep at 10 PM and slept fairly well – I dreamed about Avis and Libby and being back in college – but now I feel very sleepy, probably because of my sinuses.

Watching the video of Educating Rita, Teresa commented that the saddest place to be was to be between two worlds, neither of which you fit into comfortably.

I feel more like a misfit than ever, scoring only on a one-to-one basis with friends like Ronna, Teresa and Josh.

This attitude is probably healthy for a writer, of course, but I don’t want to feel like a loser all my life. Being an English teacher certainly makes me feel like a loser. Is that society’s doing or my own?

“We’re all trapped,” writes Rick Peabody, of himself, Kevin Urick, and me.

I’d like to believe I wasn’t trapped, but I think for a while I will be.

I just wish this Reagan landslide would happen already so we could get on to the second-term screw-ups that might foster a national change of mood that would be more generous, tolerant and liberal.

I’m pretty sure the 1990s will be that kind of time, but even after this year ends, we’ve got at least five years left of this age of conservatism, crassness, and pride in ignorance.

I want (parts of) 1972 back. But then, of course, that was year of the Nixon landslide.


Tuesday, October 2, 1984

1 PM. It’s freezing out – about 50°, so cold I’ve been wearing a sweater under a heavy jacket – and I have a bad sore throat and fatigue, yet I feel happy.

School went well today. I really got on with my students and established a rapport; when I talked about prewriting, I was speaking from experience, and I think the students can sense that I’m not bullshitting them.

Doris gave me the key to an office that I share with two other adjuncts, so now I don’t have to hang out in the library between classes.

I’m going to be observed before the end of the month: that’s probably making me more anxious than it should, for I don’t want to be back at John Jay again. Nor do I want to teach college English.

Last night I rekindled my romance with computer education.

It was cold and rainy going downtown, but I had a nice lemon chicken dinner at the Sichuan restaurant near The New School.

Our teacher, Dr. John Kallas, was a programmer for Bell Labs in the 1940s and is an irrepressible great bear of a man. He’s a fine teacher, too; it’s his text – to be published in the spring by Simon and Schuster – that we’re using. (He xeroxed the pages for us.)

We have 90 minutes in the lab with the IBM PCs and then 90 minutes in a classroom lecture: the reverse of what it should be, but The New School is so crowded, we have to switch with another class.

I love the micro. Everything we did yesterday I had already taught myself. I can see my mind is ten steps ahead of most of the other students, who are older, and I can’t wait to experiment with the machines.

John said that of the three uses micros are being put to in education – computer-assisted instruction (CAI), computer science, and computer literacy – it’s the last that needs the most teachers, and they’ll have to come from the ranks of already-working teachers because programmers won’t take the lower salaries.

Also, the computer science college faculties are overburdened and can’t find time to do research. They need people like me (this is my own conjecture) to teach general education courses in BASIC and computer literacy.

Most students don’t need to know theory or specialized languages, but many flock to any course that has “computer” in the title.

What they need is to learn how to operate a micro for the world of work: a little BASIC, word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, database management, etc.

I know this is what I want to do and I’m glad I feel confirmed in my earlier judgment.

John told me PILOT is “a good authoring language.” Ah, so it’s considered just an authoring language; no wonder I never see it mentioned anywhere. Well, for an author, what better language than an authoring one?

Amira was over when I got home after class, greeting me with an effusive shout and hug. It was good to come home to her and Teresa.

Before going to bed, I spoke to Josh, who said that James has been very cheerful lately.

Sal Salasin, the poet we met a few weeks ago, told Josh he could do a Grinning Idiot reading in November at some series Sal runs, and I agreed to perform there.


Wednesday, October 3, 1984

6 PM. I’ve got another cold, though so far it seems to be a mild one, with symptoms of a sore throat, nasal congestion, drip and fatigue.

I can’t remember when I had two colds or viruses so close together. Well, I did in the winter of ’79-’80, when I was under lots of stress. I am now, too, I suppose.

I feel old. But yesterday at the PEN reception at the Salmagundi Club, someone told me I was young for a writer and pointed out that the average age of the people around us, from Norman Mailer on down, was about 55, and I was easily the youngest person in the room.

And when I went to Dr. Gerber a couple of hours ago, he said that people in their thirties often have severe gum problems, as I do.

In the Times yesterday there was an article that said that the human body is at its peak at 30 and deteriorates thereafter. I feel a bit sick, and that’s probably why I feel so old today. The cold doesn’t help, either.

I had forgotten how dreary New York can be on dark, chilly and blustery fall afternoons. As I stay here longer, I appreciate the virtues of Florida more.

Teresa came home early yesterday and was terribly upset because Eddie started complaining about the way that their apartment was left, and one thing – or one scream – led to another until he was yelling that Teresa was a cocksucking cunt and she was tearing up her client forms and walking out.

This morning the crisis intensified on the phone over several phone calls. I’ve never seen Teresa so upset; she was crying and yelling.

I don’t want to get into the details, but as Teresa said, “I have only one rule. If you cross me, that’s it. You’re dead to me,” and she’ll try everything to get revenge. She admitted it’s very Sicilian.

Revenge in this case means taking her clients to other caterers and possibly going to the IRS to report Eddie’s business as a tax fraud.

Eddie called her father, which made everything a hundred times worse, and I don’t see any possibility of reconciliation despite Joseph’s attempts.

I’m sure Eddie can be a real bitch, and what he did was uncalled for, but I hate to see Teresa always ending her relationships with such bitterness and finality.

Of course, she’s now in a bind because she’s lost that extra income, and she can’t live just on her unemployment benefits.

I feel sorry for her because she’s so confused and doesn’t know what to do with her life.

When she’s bitter and vengeful, she hurts herself worst of all, and deep down, when she’s quiet – as she was a while ago, asleep – she seems so vulnerable and scared.

Oh, well. I offer whatever comfort and support I can – not much help, I’m afraid – and try to figure out my own life.

The PEN party was okay; I stayed the whole two hours.

It was the last meeting in the old Salmagundi Club on Fifth and 12th Street (with The New School there, I’ve been in that neighborhood a good deal).

Norman Mailer presided with dignity. He looks well: grey and stout and surprisingly short, only an inch taller than myself.

I didn’t talk to him, though I could have done so, but I couldn’t figure out what to say. Any perfunctory chitchat would be worse than no conversation at all. What was I going to tell him? That I’d taken a grad class in Mailer and Bellow at Richmond College ten years ago?

I was pretty much on my own, though individuals came over to me and chatted.

The only friend I really had there was Ken Gangemi, a down-to-earth guy. Ken could not believe Mailer’s little speech was off the cuff even though I told him anyone could make that kind of speech, an appeal for solidarity and funds.

Through Ken, I met Rosalyn Drexler, the kooky lady novelist; Lucy Komisar; Deborah Lyons, a radio and TV journalist with whom I had a long talk; and Joachim Neugroschel, the translator, a flamboyant and effeminate type who said I had a name like a Henry James character and bitched about how dumb Richard Kostelanetz was.

In the crowd I spotted William Espy, William Cole, Galway Kinnell and Alison Lurie, and I eavesdropped on Walter Abish and a man whom I now realize was Jerome Charyn.

At one point, I joined a circle of people discussing the election. One guy, very worked up, started talking about how there were some kind of nuclear weapons sitting on ships outside New York Harbor.

I was standing directly opposite Mailer and his wife as this nutty guy kept going on and on. Mailer made eye contact with me and rolled his eyes, and I nodded back to him with a smile.

Back home at 8 PM, I began to realize I had a cold and didn’t sleep well.

This morning it was very chilly, and I stayed in bed later than usual.

Then went to The New School, where I worked on the IBM PC until it was 3:55 PM, just five minutes before my dentist appointment.

I love programming baby stuff in BASIC, even though it’s so frustrating because of all the little bugs you can get. But I think a methodical personality like mine could be attuned to programming.

I find I enjoy the math problems; they’re like exercising muscles I haven’t used in years. I like doing arithmetic because it’s satisfying in its fixedness.

Dr. Gerber, a gay, bearish guy about my age, said I’ve got to take better care of my gums. They’re sore now from his cleaning; he said he wouldn’t worry about my cap, that may he’ll shave off a little so it won’t keep hitting against my lower teeth.

Teresa went out to dinner with a Fire Island friend, but she’s still very upset about what happened with Eddie.

If I feel better physically, I may skip the weekend in the city and spend Yom Kippur with Grandma in Rockaway.


Thursday, October 4, 1984

5 PM. My cold broke out a bit last night, and I’ve been sniffling a good deal. It’s weird that my immune system let me get another cold less than a month after the last one went away, and in my wilder fantasies I imagine I’ve got AIDS.

But probably it’s just that I’m under stress because of the uncertainties of my life, because of the shock of cold weather and the contact with so many people who have colds.

Alice told me she was in Sanibel Island off the coast of Fort Myers last weekend, and she and Peter mentioned me to a friend of Peter’s.

“Oh, I hear he’s banned from Florida,” said the friend – a remark Alice expected would amuse me. But instead I felt upset.

Though it might be a kind of honor, I still don’t like to think that people perceive me as someone who’s persona non grata.

Perhaps I’ve been blacklisted by the Florida Arts Council and I’ll never get a grant again. Broward Community College wouldn’t hire me, nor apparently would any other community college.

Of course I sort of like the idea of going back to Florida to “show them all” that I can make it again. It’s like being so far down, I have nowhere to go but up. I’d like to see if I could make it in Florida just to prove myself as a serious writer, teacher and thinker.

I slept well despite the cold and I performed fine at John Jay. When I go over students’ papers with them as the class as a whole is writing, it’s always gratifying because I can see I’m getting through to individuals.

My observation by Mary Regan will be next Thursday at 8:15 AM. At least that means I can relax over the next weekend, when Teresa, Amira and I are planning to go up to the Berkshires. Tomorrow I’ll go to Grandma’s for a few days.

I had lunch with Justin, who today seemed a bit less depressed about his job at Eddie Murphy Productions.

Eddie’s trying out new material at The Comic Strip this weekend, and so Justin’s been calling his media contacts and planting items in Page Six of the Post and elsewhere, a task he enjoys.

Teresa calmed down today after a boring date last night; she’s now in Williamsburg at her parents’ house for dinner. This morning she defrosted the refrigerator.

Though it’s warmed up to about 65°, I’m still chilly, but I realize that it doesn’t get much better than this.

I still haven’t heard from Florida Unemployment, but I’m continuing to send out report forms every Sunday.

A little while ago, I went to the bank to get some badly-needed cash. I still have $1300 in savings, though my checking accounts total only $400 altogether. And I haven’t yet paid Taplinger’s the $500-plus I owe them for the copies of With Hitler in New York.

Still, I’m managing to get through each day. At least I have four days off from work to rest up this cold now.

*

9 PM. I decided to go to a party I’d been invited to, a publication party in honor of Rochelle Ratner’s new book of essays on feminist writers, published by Contact/II.

Its publisher, Maurice Kenny, probably was the one who arranged it to be held in the American Indian Gallery on Broadway off Houston in Soho.

I saw Richard Kostelanetz, who looked the same and was as friendly as ever, and Ken Gangemi, again.

Rochelle, of course, was very friendly to me; she is one of the sweetest people around. I introduced myself to Nathan Whiting, who’s a good poet, but mostly I stayed by myself until Barbara Baracks arrived.

I like Barbara enormously, and we had a good talk. She’s looking for work doing documentation for computers, so I gave her Josh’s number at Blue Cross.

Barbara said Robin told her that last year, while Barbara was teaching, she did nothing but complain. “I realized I had to get out of it,” Barbara said, and she thinks I’m smart to get out of it, too.

When I asked where Susan was, Barbara told me she was ill and that I should call her.

After getting home, I did, and I discovered why Susan was so upset that she didn’t want to go to Rochelle’s party. Susan’s gynecologist told her she had a fibroid tumor or something “as big as a grapefruit” in her uterus or ovary. (I have trouble remembering these details.)

She’s very upset because the doctor said surgery might be difficult. First, she has to go for a sonogram.

I said I’d put her in touch with Ronna, whose NYU Hospital roommate had Susan’s surgeon, because I’m sure Ronna, speaking from experience, could allay some of Susan’s fears.

I spoke to Marc in Florida; his electronics course is going well, but he’s about to give up on Assembler, a low-level language that’s supposed to be a real bitch.

I’m glad I got out tonight. While I’m in New York, I should take advantage of the social life.


Friday, October 5, 1984

9 PM. Yom Kippur eve in Rockaway.

I hope I can rest out my cold here. Though I don’t feel terrible, the annoying symptoms of a scratchy throat and congested sinuses persist – plus I’ve started coughing.

What worries me is the remote possibility that I’ve got some disease like cancer or AIDS, and a cold that won’t go away is just the first symptom. But I’m not really that much of a hypochondriac to think that’s a serious possibility.

Last night Barbara Baracks worried me a little when she asked what I would do, without health insurance, if I really got sick.

“I’d go bankrupt,” I told her. It’s a crime that in America, the cost of health care is such an expense. Every other civilized country takes better care of its citizens.

I slept peacefully and left the apartment this morning at 11 AM. Because I had plenty of time, I decided I could take some side trips, so I took the IRT to downtown Brooklyn and went to look around the Fulton Street Mall.

Going through A&S, I came out on Livingston Street and got the B41 bus heading down Flatbush Avenue towards the Junction.

Actually, the section of Flatbush Avenue between downtown and the park has improved as gentrification spreads northward from Park Slope. Even around Empire Boulevard, it’s not so bad.

But the Church Avenue area is terrible – all those closed movie palaces depress me – and the Junction is really skeevy.

After eating a slice of pizza there, I caught a Rockaway bus, and by 2 PM I was at Grandma’s. For an hour, I sat on the terrace writing letters; the sun was so strong that I didn’t need a jacket.

At 5 PM, Grandma and I walked over to Aunt Tillie and Uncle Morris’s apartment for dinner. Earlier, Morris had broken his bottom dentures, but he kept getting up from the table to get his teeth from the bathroom.

Tillie kept yelling at him, and Grandma and I exchanged smiles, but it’s kind of pitiful that he couldn’t remember from one minute to the next that his dentures were broken.

Still, I enjoyed the meal, and the conversation about their experiences in the old days in Brooklyn. Not only is some of it rich material for my writing, but as I said last week, they’re part of the last generation of immigrant Jews.

Maybe their time should be over, but it’s still kind of sad that their (sometimes ridiculous) ideas and experiences will end in the next decade or so.


Saturday, October 6, 1984

4 PM. I’ve just been lying out in the sun (on the terrace).

It’s a cool, cloudless day and I liked feeling like a recuperating passenger on the deck of a cruise ship. Grandma just came in after being out in the park with the other “senior citizens,” as they prefer to be called.

Teresa phoned last evening with good news. I received a $150 unemployment check from Tallahassee and I’ve got a new form to fill out for the two weeks ending today.

Although there’s no doubt I’m guilty of fraud – I don’t want to rationalize it – I intend to see how long I can get away with getting my benefits from Florida.

Teresa told me that her date for tonight cancelled in a way “that was one for the books”: he sent her a Mailgram!

I couldn’t get to sleep, and Grandma had her usual insomnia due to pain, but she got up before I did and went downstairs to the synagogue.

I felt pretty lousy today: my nose is stuffed, my throat scratchy, and my cough is worse. I’ve been taking the penicillin and decongestant prescribed for me in Florida even though I know this is a virus.

I’m not crazy about being here – the sheer ignorance of Grandma and her elderly friends and relatives is what appalls me most – but I have more quiet than I do in Manhattan.

Tomorrow Marty will pick up Grandma so she can spend the day, Wendy’s birthday, in Oceanside, and I’ll take advantage of having the apartment to myself.

I’ll stay over Sunday night, too, unless Grandma has driven me completely crazy by then.

I find it hard to deal with her Great Depression mentality, the constant worrying about the cost of everything. And she persists in the fantasy that everything in her life would be all right if only Mom still lived in Brooklyn.

I know I sound harsh and unfeeling, but Grandma makes it very hard for me to have sympathy for her.

As for myself, I’ve done some thinking about my life. I’ve decided that I can live without any publicity for a while, and I intend to keep a very low profile in the coming year.

In New York, I don’t need the attention of seeing my name in the paper: I have friends who appreciate me and plenty to do. So I’m going to try to quell any publicity-hungry feelings I have in the coming months.

I need to concentrate on the inner me, not my public image. I want to read and write and learn rather than perform or entertain, at least for now.

Maybe these twin colds aren’t so unusual. I remember when I broke up with Shelli, in the fall of 1971, I kept getting one cold after another.


Wednesday, October 10, 1984

3 PM. I feel so sleepy today even though I got more than enough sleep by putting the mattress on Teresa’s floor.

This morning we did find the bed board, about to be picked up by the sanitation man, so I again have a nice hard mattress on the sofa bed for tonight.

It’s been a dark but mild lazy day. I’ve just come back from The New School computer center, where I got in my weekly lab time.

I enjoy BASIC and the challenge of writing programs without bugs, but so far I’m only a beginner.

It does surprise me how many people are not yet computer-literate, so maybe there is still time to be one of the pioneers in computer education.

It’s funny to be spending so much time on lower Fifth Avenue, right where my father and grandfather worked for decades at the place I’ve known since I was a little boy.

This afternoon I was walking behind a guy with a cigar whose smell reminded me, very pleasantly, of the stogies Grandpa Nat used to smoke.

In New York, I find I miss Grandpa Herb a lot more, too, than I did in Florida. I guess it was being in his apartment for so many days.

Teresa’s not in now, though her cold is horrendous. Although I’m recovering from mine, I’m almost reconciled to catching another one from Teresa. But it would be pretty weird to get three colds in such a brief period.

Tomorrow morning I’m being observed at John Jay. I don’t suppose I’ll get any negative feedback for not showing up today; probably no one will ever know.

I’m not very concerned about the observation. When I used to be observed, I’d get very scared, but now that I’ve faced a lot of different classes and audiences and I’ve given several speeches to large groups, I don’t really fear being watched.

Of course, I also don’t care what Mary Regan thinks of my teaching, and if they fired me (a very unlikely event), I’d actually be happy. Of course, I’ll do my best, as I usually do.

Teresa put an ad in the Jewish Press for the Brooklyn co-op, and people started calling last night. She’s asking $59,000 for it, and she may get it.

The Times today had an article about one woman’s quest for a $500 studio apartment in Manhattan: everyone thinks it’s like a search for the Holy Grail. But things shouldn’t be like that.

I may never be able to live in Manhattan again, given the exorbitant cost of housing, so I’d better enjoy the next three months.

At this point I’m glad I made the choice to stay in New York. It’s been four years since I experienced autumn, and that led me to a kind of emotional ignorance; I forgot what fall is like and how it can be beautiful as well as bleak.

The two classes at John Jay are quite enough for me; I’m glad I didn’t take on any more.

I have time (though never enough, it seems) to attend cultural events, as I did last night; to see Ronna and other friends; and to relax, read and write.

The computer classes at The New School were also a fine idea, as they give me the feeling I’m going forward.

It’s sometimes hard living with Teresa because she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Last night at dinner at Cabana Carioca, before we met Ronna at the theater, Amira said that Teresa is always being sued and ends up making more enemies than any two people she knows.

“It’s a shame,” Amira said, “but she doesn’t know how to behave to protect her own best interests.”

Amira remarked that Teresa has a terrible reputation in politics and the state government and she can’t get along with the people who rent her house in Fire Island because “she tries to run people’s lives.”

I get along with Teresa, Amira said, because I’m a Type B who calms her down and doesn’t get so hyper.

I always thought I was an impatient, nervous Type A, but I guess next to Teresa, I’m a B. Someone has to be relaxed here, so I’ll settle for playing Perry Como.


Thursday, October 11, 1984

7 PM. I’m feeling ‘up’ tonight for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the weather is again mild, and it’s been sunny and warm enough to be without a jacket during the day. I’ve enjoyed walking in Riverside Park.

For another, the work week is over, and I was pleased with my performance this morning during my observation. After it was over, Professor Regan came up to me and said, “It was a good class.”

It did take a lot out of me, however, and I wasn’t as lively during the 11 AM class. But these feisty Black and Puerto Rican kids keep me on my toes. You can’t condescend to them; they may not be sophisticated, but they’ve got street smarts and a tough attitude.

I got my paycheck from Doris and promptly mailed it off to my new checking account at Citibank in South Dakota.

From 4:30 PM until an hour ago, I worked out heavily with the dumbbells, working up a good sweat and a good spirit as I took advantage of Teresa’s absence. (She went to get the car at her parents’ and stayed for dinner.)

After making myself a cottage cheese sandwich for dinner, I got a call from Ned Geeslin from People magazine.

He’s doing a rundown on the “other” Presidential candidates, and after I gave my usual spiel, he said I was one of the more interesting people he talked to and said he might send a photographer around to shoot me.

I gave him the address, and now I’ll sit and hope. My photo in People!

Really, it should have appeared five years ago when Wesley told me People’s photo editor had asked Taplinger for a picture in connection with With Hitler in New York.

Remember how I would go, every Tuesday morning before teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and my heart beating like a trip hammer, I’d look for People and then experience a letdown when I couldn’t find a review of my book?

Exposure in People might lead to TV appearances, and that’s what I really need. This could be a big break – or it could be another disappointment.

Oh, at least there’s the possibility of it. That means there are other good opportunities that are also possible. Hang on, Richie.

Hey, three months from today, you’ll be back in the warmth of Florida while it’s midwinter in the frozen Big Apple. Worse comes to worst, you’ll be a Florida Atlantic University grad student, living in the dorms and studying your kishkas off, preparing for a career in computer education.

I know I said I’d keep a low profile, but I really want to make it big – and I didn’t do anything to encourage this. All the press releases I sent out last month didn’t elicit a single reply.

Last evening was a bit tricky. Teresa expected me not to like Bruce and Lori, and right away I could see they were not my type. Bruce is extremely loud, and his mouth wanders all over the conversational landscape without stopping to rest.

He is a Brooklyn-bred Yuppie stockbroker whom Teresa’s given all of the money she got from her grandmother to invest. His wife Lori is a bit quieter, a physical therapist, but both are into wines, jewelry, real estate, etc.

Bruce does have some real problems: his mother has Alzheimer’s disease or something similar, and all the burdens have fallen upon him.

And he does have the same knowledge of electoral minutiae that I have: he successfully named the winners and losers in the last four Mississippi gubernatorial elections.

Teresa prepared an out-of-this-world dinner, from fantastic appetizers to an unbelievable main course. No one can cook and entertain the way Teresa can; she’s just amazing in that regard.

There’s got to be some way she can exploit that talent in the business world, for she’s got a gift not too many people have.TC mark

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