A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-June, 1985

Tuesday, June 11, 1985

7:30 PM. My mind was racing so fast that I couldn’t sleep last night, and so I read till about 4 AM.

I was up at 9 AM, shortly after Teresa left to go out to Fire Island with Fern and a number of 15-year-old girls, friends of Fern’s daughter.

Nothing seems to go right for Teresa, but most of her problems stem from the way she deals with people.

I hear her on the phone: she threatens when it’s inappropriate, she exaggerates or blatantly lies to make a point, and as always, she can’t be disputed with.

Sometimes I think she’s a model of how not to do things.

All her real estate deals that promised big money seem to have backfired, and the Family Pages – well, she’s forgotten about them (though she may still owe them some of her “draw”).

In two weeks, when I’m back in Florida, she will be in Europe, her haven. I hope she has a good time, but Teresa, who seems to do little but attempt to have good times, is often disappointed.

Me? I have as much capacity for self-deception as anyone, probably – but I like making do with less.

At noon I went to Future Computer Systems in midtown to attend a free demonstration of Jazz, Lotus’ new integrated software package for the Macintosh.

It was a real show-stopper: The latest in office software, Jazz uses Mac’s mouse to create and manage unbelievable effects in spreadsheets, word processing, a database and telecommunications.

I spent part of the morning lifting weights and part of the afternoon, too.

I read a great deal and sent out a silly press release about a committee to draft Claus von Bulow, just acquitted of murdering his wife in a sensational trial, to run for the Senate; the release, since mailed to nine reporters, was filled with puns on the order of “I believe in Senator Claus.”

We’ll see if anyone bites. It would be fun to be in the New York papers again.

A call from the Fort Lauderdale News wanted to confirm if I wrote a letter applauding their editorial on college students’ ignorance of the humanities (I used my own experience at Broward Community College), so I guess that will be printed soon.

Mom sent my TRW credit file: all of the information is positive, and they’ve got my employer as “Computer Learning Systems,” the company I made up!

I’ve been thinking about rampant Yuppieism and wonder if in a few years, Yuppies will go the way of hippies.

Their fast-track, selfish lifestyle can lead only to burnout, disillusionment and dissatisfaction because money and possessions can’t provide them with what they need.

I was so delighted to see two earnest guys in their twenties here an hour ago; they were from NYPIRG, canvassing door-to-door about consumer problems, Westway, etc.

What a relief to see young people working hard (for almost no money – I know how little Ralph Nader pays them) for issues they believe in.

An article I read said that while all Yuppies may be baby boomers, most baby boomers are not Yuppies: 74% of those born between 1946 and 1964 earn $20,000 or less per year.

Yuffies – “Young Urban Failures,” in the article’s term – outnumber Yuppies five to one, but this is certainly an invisible group in the media consciousness.

An hour ago, on Amsterdam and 84th, I saw a bunch of black and Hispanic young men, probably unemployed, hanging out in front of a vacant store which had a sign “GELATERIA OPENING SOON.” The contrast wasn’t funny.


Thursday, June 13, 1985

7 PM.  I haven’t given into despair in a long time.  I’ve been optimistic and on a typically American self-improvement kick.  But today made me realize – again – that life can be terrible for some people.

Going back to Manhattan from Rockaway, I decided, somewhat against my better judgment, to take the CC train right by Grandma Ethel’s.  She’s always hocking me about the money I could save by one fare.

Well, I waited half an hour in the wind and chilly temperatures for a CC train to arrive.  That wasn’t so bad, for I had the book Turing’s Man – I’ve almost finished it – for company.  But at the very next stop, Playland, there was a commotion as a load of high school kids got on.

I was in the first car and I heard the conductor tell the motorman that the teenagers had broken two windows.  We were held up a long time; when we got moving again, I found myself looking at the menacing clouds and the choppy dark water and feeling miserable.

Then a guy and his girlfriend were standing in front of me arguing.  I thought about how seedy they looked when all of a sudden he erupted in rage.  “There’s two broken windows on this train!” he shouted, then put his fist through the window in front of me.  “Now there’s three!”

The window shattered and his hand was bleeding in several places, but his friends couldn’t get him to calm down.  “Is there a problem out there?” asked the motorman.

“No problem!” said the guy, angrily.  I made sure I didn’t look at him because his rage was so great.  Finally, another guy – I guess they were high school seniors, but they looked older to me – gave him a cigarette and took him into another car while his girlfriend sat down, very upset, with another guy trying to console her in vain.

I almost started to cry when I thought about the pain all these people must be in to act like that and how lousy some people’s lives must be.  But it gets worse.

A pathetic guy about 25 came over to me to talk about the window-smashing incident.  “I have to be careful,” he said.  And then: “Look what I got my Dad for Father’s Day.”

He opened a bag that contained a stuffed black duck and a coffee mug in the shape of a garbage can.  “Very nice,” I said.  He got off at Rockaway Boulevard with a wave, poor sucker.

There were police swarming all over that station – the motorman had radioed ahead for them – and as the teenagers got off, they were questioned.

A fat man with a heavy Irish brogue complained that the delay would make him late for work, saying we’d have to get off the train.  And then he pointed across the platform, telling the rest of us that there was a dead man over there.

I went to the window, and sure enough, four cops were standing over the white-sheeted body of a man; his shoes showed through and there was a Pathmark bag nearby on the ground.  How had he died?

The police had put up an absurdly festive and celebratory bright pink ribbon to section off the area.  As we got off the train, I watched as the police uncovered the body – the man looked about sixty, and his eyes were still open – and put him in this chair, then covered him again with the white sheet and strapped him in at his shoulders and waist.

The four cops took him away, and the commuters, who’d been stuck on the platform, went over and under the pink ribbon to go home.  I felt a little sick to my stomach and got on the next train, another CC local.

At Euclid Avenue, the express was waiting, so most of us switched, only to be told ten minutes later that this A train would be going out of service.  Finally another train, an express, pulled alongside and we transferred to it.

A Puerto Rican woman came over to tell me that she hoped that man was really dead and said that in San Juan, her brother-in-law had been put in the morgue, only to be found still breathing when his family came to identify the body.

An hour later, I arrived home to an empty apartment; Teresa and our house guest, Britt – Jerry’s daughter – were at Fern’s for dinner.  There was a note inviting me over, but I felt too numb, so I just went out to 4 Brothers and had a tasteless burger.

Last night I spoke to Josh, who sold the story about his dog’s death to Newsday.  I was impressed, but Josh said he wished it were another publication because he’s already had an article in Newsday.  He’s working long hours this week and went upstate to work today.

Last evening, when Grandma Ethel came home from her card game, we watched TV for several hours.  I couldn’t fall asleep till late, so I read, but when I finally managed to doze off, I slept soundly and heavily, not waking up till 10:30 AM.

I spent the morning with Grandma, who keeps repeating the same stories and obsessing about trivialities.  Oddly, she makes the most sense when she discusses the past.

I was interested to hear how she used to love to visit her grandparents’ grocery store on Pitkin Avenue when she was about 11 or 12; her grandfather would pour milk into the pitchers that the neighborhood women would bring with them into the store.

And Grandma said that the first time she met her father-in-law, he turned to Grandpa Herb and whispered, “Trust me, she’ll make the best wife you could possibly get.”

Around noon, I walked over to Beach 113th Street to get pizza at Ciro’s and to buy Grandma a birthday card for Cousin Jeffrey; I had to remind her that he’ll be seventeen on Sunday.

She made me make out the envelope, but I told her to sign the card herself; she asked me how to spell “Grandma” and I had to write it on a slip of paper so that she could copy it.

All of this today made me feel, if not depressed, then sad.  I’d forgotten how sad life could be, and it’s important not to forget such a thing.


Saturday, June 15, 1985

9 PM. I just discovered why people have been smiling at me as I passed them on the street. My fly was open! Oh well, my mind has been preoccupied.

Today was okay. I’ve just had a pleasant Szechuan dinner with Alice and I did okay on the National Teachers Exam.

This may sound dumb, but I’m proud that I could handle all the arrangements; it wasn’t all that easy to get from Manhattan to Kean College.

Up at 8 AM, I was at the Port Authority for the 10:15 AM bus to Union and Springfield. Bus rides out of the PA always seem memorable because I associate them with going on a longer trip, like to Bread Loaf or MacDowell. But even last year’s bus ride to Morristown and back is pretty fresh in my mind.

Getting off at Union Center, I got the Morris Avenue bus to the college. The morning test was on Professional Knowledge, the Core Battery test for elementary teachers; the afternoon tests were in the specialty areas required for certification in the high schools.

Even though I didn’t expect to feel pressure, the stress got to me a little; partly it was contagious, for others were clearly nervous, and partly it was because of the trip and the wait and my hunger. Also, standardized tests are anxiety-provoking even to those of us who usually do well on them.

And I’m certain I did well in this. It was challenging to be asked questions about books, authors, poems and plays that I hadn’t thought about in years. I liked knowing the answer to so many questions.

Of the 150 questions on the test for high school English teachers,I left about five blank – they were on complicated rhyme schemes or Spenser or the metaphysical poets – and of the other 145 or so questions, I can’t imagine I got more than 10 or 15 wrong.

I was the first one in the room to finish, and in six weeks I should get the results.

I had to wait half an hour for the Morris Avenue bus, and it took 15 minutes to get to Springfield, the first stop of the New York City-bound bus. Still, I enjoyed a chance to be in New Jersey on a sunny, mild day.

Walking around the foliage by the Kean College campus, I smelled that woody smell I associate with picking blueberries in the Catskills when I was a kid. But by the time I got home at 4:30 PM, I felt exhausted.

Josh called soon after to see if I wanted to go to the movies tonight, but I told him I was too tired.

Josh told me that earlier today, James’s mother phoned him to say that James is again missing. James had been very depressed again, so Elaine got him a bus ticket, but he left it behind.

It appears that James always runs away when he’s under pressure. Last time they found him, he was selling his blood to get money. He could be on his way to Massachusetts or Mississippi or California. What a pity.

Josh, who’s like a guardian angel to James, is very upset.

An hour later, Alice called and asked if I wanted to have an early dinner. I again pleaded tiredness, but Alice said she’d come up to have dinner with me around here before going to Peter’s at 7:30 PM. We just went up the block to Szechuan Broadway.

Alice told me she quit therapy even though her therapist told her that she doesn’t trust anyone and can’t make commitments. I said that sounded more true of myself than of Alice.

Besides, I’m not sure being too trusting is very helpful. And, like Alice, I enjoy feeling independent.

If Alice never takes a new job or project without having one foot out the door, what should I say? I can’t commit myself to a person, a job, a career, a book project, or even a place to live.

Pathology? Perhaps. But turn it around and it’s a strength.

Alice plans to co-author a book with an NYU business professor who lectures on how important it is for the lowest level employees in a service corporation to be helpful with the public – because they see the customers more than anyone else does.

However, putting on a smile all the time is an emotional strain.

Anyway, Alice plans to turn his dull academic prose — the professor has already written a big textbook — into a sparkling pop best seller titled Service With a Smile. Already she has visions of becoming a millionaire from this book.

Other news is that June is pregnant and that June and Cliff will be teaching a class at NYU this fall.

Alice would like to join the NYU faculty herself, so she could get their housing; she’s impressed with her co-author’s apartment.

Anyway, we had a typical New York dinner discussion: therapy, business, money and real estate.

Hey, on the “ethnic identification” form on the National Teachers Exam, I said I was Puerto Rican, figuring I’d bring up the average score of that ethnic group.

I was upset yesterday when Mom complained that her neighbor had sold her condo to a black woman.

“I’ve lived around blacks all my life,” I told her, but Mom replied that she wasn’t bigoted, “just worried that my property value will go down.”

I don’t buy that – and probably no one would buy those condos anyway.

If Mom and Dad had stayed in Brooklyn, they could get $150,000 for the house on East 56th Street. They’d be lucky to get half that – about what they paid in 1979 – for the Davie townhouse.

In the past few years, Florida property values have declined rapidly while New York City property values keep rising.


Monday, June 17, 1985

6 PM. Teresa came home alone last night. It seems that Jerry’s daughter Britt was “a real drag” on their weekend, and she got into a big fight (now resolved) with Fern about it.

“Britt wanted to be treated like a peer,” Teresa said, while Fern made them refrain from discussing certain topics, and when they all got stoned, they felt weird because of Britt.

Fire Island sounds so horrible to me, with nothing to offer but vapid pleasures.

When Gary told Teresa he’d like me to come out there – for his convenience, of course – she said it would take a Shiite terrorist to get me to go, and she was right.

Incidentally, Teresa said Gary looks great but that his girlfriend had weird hair. (“Either she’s punk and way ahead of the rest of us, or she’s stupid.”)

Teresa and Fern avoided “the office” when calls came from the Family Pages today. Their new big scheme is to go into business for themselves, “giving Tupperware-type parties for knives” or something like that. It sounds half-baked to me.

I couldn’t sleep because I felt so worried about my future. Do I really want to teach high school, either here or in Florida?

No, not really. To me, being a high school English teacher is a total admission of failure – and I dread dealing with uncooperative, rowdy students. I had enough problems with remedial students in college – who didn’t have to be in school.

And I worry about where I’m going to live if I stay in New York. All I hear or read are horror stories about the high cost of rentals. Deep down, I doubt my ability to make it here on my own.

And I can’t – I won’t – stay at Teresa’s any longer than August. I have to tell her that soon.

I don’t know if it’s images my parents gave me, but I kept visualizing myself down and out. Of course, in the middle of the night my mind runs away with itself.

What’s the worst that can happen? That I’d end up like one of the homeless beggars I pass a dozen times a day? Not likely. I have too much intelligence and too many friends to end up on the streets.

At the very worst, I’d end up living with Grandma in Rockaway, a prospect which seems terribly depressing but isn’t really all that bad.

I’d manage, if I had to; I’d survive; I’d adapt. Maybe I’d gain something in the process.

I don’t think I’d become totally lost, like poor James. My resources are far greater than his. As Ronna – God bless her – said at lunch today, “You have more career options now than you’ve ever had.”

And I have housing options, too. It’s just that it’s hard to imagine them. At his point, it’s scary because it doesn’t seem possible that I can get a job or a place to live.  But I forget how much I’ve adapted to similar situations in the past.

This morning I read in the Mid-Manhattan Library and then met Ronna at 1 PM for lunch at Diane’s. She told me I’d lost weight, but I felt more self-conscious about the terrible outbreak of acne on my forehead.

Ronna’s doing okay: work is going well, she’s seeing a lot of plays, trying to meet guys (it’s hard), planning to take off some time this summer. She even asked if I could think up a trip to someplace for the two of us.

After I left her off at the Hebrew Arts School, I went to the local St. Agnes branch library for an hour, then came home. Teresa was about to leave, and she gave me my mail.

Mom had sent me a check from Manny Hanny for my matured CD, so I made it to First Nationwide Savings before that bank closed.

I also got a letter from an editor at Atheneum who is interested in my book idea about agoraphobia, a form to fill out for the 20th (new) edition of Who’s Who in the South and Southeast – and the editorial page from the Fort Lauderdale News that had my letter about the students’ lack of concern for the humanities.

Those little things add up, I guess.

Last night I felt I might as well be dead, that I have no future. Today I’m still scared but I feel more realistic, if not optimistic. I may not flourish, but I will survive.


Tuesday, June 18, 1985

2 PM. It’s a very humid, dark day. I spent last night reading and doing sit-ups, reverse sit-ups and crunches; now I feel sore in my gut, which needs the soreness.

Pete called to say he’d be setting up a symposium in Literature and Pop Culture with the two of us, Mark Leyner and Harrison Fisher in mid-July; this is the brainchild of Mark, who convinced Rusty Hoover of American Book Review that it would work.

Pete likes his new job, finds the people sociable, and enjoys his biweekly day off.

At 11:30 AM, I met Susan on the corner of 86th and West End. She’s definitely pregnant, very happily so, and told me what morning sickness is like.

She has been feeling nauseated off and on for days, and as we walked to 72nd and Broadway, she alternately felt fine and had waves of queasiness.

A coke at Bagel Nosh made her feel better; after lunch, I walked her to Columbus Circle so she could get the train to Richard Price’s for their interview.

Last night she had dinner with Chuck Wachtel, the novelist who wrote Joe the Engineer; he’s my age and from working-class Jewish/Italian family.

She found him very sweet but surprisingly naïve. He ended up doing a sitcom treatment for David Susskind for free (naturally, it never went anywhere), with the approval of his agent Charlotte Sheedy (Ally’s mother), who should know better.

Susan phoned Jay McInerney in Syracuse. To her surprise, all the media hype didn’t stop him from being a sweet and fairly intelligent guy. He loves the fame and glitz and name-dropping but says he really wants to be a novelist.

For Bright Lights, Big City, he got only a $2500 advance and was working as a liquor store clerk in Syracuse when the novel came out. McInerney was literally waiting on two winos when Paramount phoned the store, telling him to come to Los Angeles the next day.

Many meetings, limo escorts and “high concept” spots later, he may get sole credit for the Bright Lights, Big City screenplay – which Susan says is a bigger feat than the success of his novel.

He’s moving to New York in the fall and asked Susan about the prices of one-bedrooms in Park Slope. When she said “60 or 70,” he was confused, for he was talking rentals, not co-ops; he wants to live on his money so he can write his third novel.

Susan and I talked about all these people (Wachtel, McInerney, Scott Sommer) that she’s interviewed – and she said that besides learning that you’ve got to hook up with a big director or producer to make a project come off, the most important thing she’s learning is that these people all knew what they wanted and went after it.

Of course, I said, she couldn’t possibly speak to the people who might have known what they wanted, gone after it, and failed.

My problem is, however, that I don’t know what I want. I’ve scattered, rather than focused, my energies.

Can I make a go of the agoraphobia book? Susan said I should call up this Atheneum editor at once. I’ll probably write her first. It’s hard for me to follow through; I tend to sabotage my own efforts.

I need a shrink.

*

9 PM. Late this afternoon I wandered over to the Planetarium, where I spent time looking at the exhibits, many familiar to me from past visits. On a humid day it felt good to hide out in the air-conditioned darkness.

The show was “Our Violent Universe,” and I enjoyed looking up at the stars and hearing the little kids in back of me express their fear and wonder (and boredom: one toddler snored loudly after five minutes).

None of the stuff was new to me, but it was a worthwhile two hours.

On the way home, I had a mushroom pizza at Ray’s and bought Alvin Toffler’s Previews and Premises, another book about the change in society, à la The Next Economy and Megatrends. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

This morning Susan said I knew more about social issues than anyone she knew.

And I guess one reason that I can control my envy of successful novelists like Richard Price, Jay McInerney or Scott Sommer is that I have intellectual interests they don’t.

They certainly are better writers and know more about some things than I do, but I have knowledge in lots of areas that they aren’t interested in – computers and banking, for example, or electoral politics or education.

Is that compensation? I don’t know, but I try not to compare myself with anyone else.


Thursday, June 20, 1985

2 PM.  Last evening I shared a good time with Dad.  I went over to the Barbizon-Plaza, where he had a fairly crummy little room.

Dad had a reasonably good day, making a sale of his new Left Bank line to Robinson’s, the Tampa-based department store.  Today he had just one appointment, with Jordan Marsh, and Dad said he viewed this trip more as a working vacation than a real business trip.

The weather – fair, mild and dry – has been perfect, a nice relief from Florida’s brutal heat.  Dad, like Ronna, told me I’d lost weight, though since I’ve been eating so many sweets, it hardly seems possible.

After looking at my mail – nothing urgent – we went outside.  Manny Hanny was sponsoring a three-mile “corporate challenge” run in the park and we passed thousands of runners.

Dad got excited because in Florida, he hardly ever sees another runner, and here, at the race’s starting point, there were about 20,000.

Dad and I walked up Broadway and had dinner outdoors at the Opera Express by Lincoln Center.  He was amazed and horrified to see so many men wearing the yellow tie with dark spots that he’d worn.  I’d previously had no idea that tie has become a sort of Yuppie uniform.

After dinner, we walked up Columbus, where Dad had trouble believing what he was seeing: all the trendy restaurants, hip boutiques and Korean groceries with their salad bars on a street he remembered as dismal.

Then we switched to Amsterdam, still not quite gentrified, and finally Broadway.  Since Teresa was in New Jersey, I took Dad up to the apartment so he could see where I’ve lived, and then we waited on Riverside till 10 PM for the bus back to his hotel.  I’ll probably see him again tonight.

Earlier I’d spoken with Susan, who, in a conversation with Darlyn Brewer of Coda, learned George Myers wrote in, asking if he could do an article on being a book critic.

Rather self-servingly, George mentioned Susan’s name – and that of Bob Fox, whom Susan says is a pompous politicker.  (George publishes Fox, and Fox gives George an Ohio Arts Council grant – I get it now.)

Susan had a lot to say about her hour interviewing Richard Price for her American Film article on novelists as screenwriters.

Like Scott Sommer, he seems “tortured” and burned out, according to Susan.  He and his wife and their new baby live on an opulent loft on lower Broadway, one decorated and furnished like something out of Architectural Digest.

Susan found Price arrogant, and his conversation – she and he both made tapes – was a running argument with himself.  The literary side of him would like to go back to writing novels, but he’s done so much better financially with screenplays that it hardly seems worth it, especially since he hates writing.

Price wrote seven screenplays, none of which Susan said will ever get made, but he earned $60,000 to $100,000 on each.  He castigated the literary West End Avenue types who go to Hollywood with disdain; he loves being flattered and wined and dined by studio brass.

I’d like to hear the tape, but I’m beginning to think that Price, Scott and others may stop doing fiction when they realize how meager the rewards are when compared with Hollywood’s.  And of course I can’t blame them.

Susan said that both Price and Scott are hated by a lot of people, Price for his “throwing his big earnings in your face” (Chuck Wachtel) and Scott for making a supposedly small talent go further than people think it deserved to.

Susan’s reaction to all of these writers seems akin to Jimmy Carter’s, when as a governor in 1972, met all the candidates coming to Georgia courting his support: “I could do what these guys are doing.” She could, too.

So could I, maybe, if I had any motivation to write screenplays. But I don’t. TC mark

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