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


Thursday, September 12, 1985

1 PM. I am so sorry that I decided to stay in New York, I can’t tell you. I hate living here now. Things have been going horribly for me, and yesterday was definitely the worst day I had all year.

This place is definitely a dump. It all started – the bad stuff, that is – yesterday morning, when I dropped my right lens while putting it on. I couldn’t find it. The floor in Justin’s bedroom was covered with about a half-inch of schmutz, and all I got for my trouble was disgustingly dirty hands.

I couldn’t believe the lens had just disappeared, but a fifteen-minute search proved fruitless. Meanwhile, it was getting later and later. I hastily decided to put an old, yellowed right lens in, but in the uncomfortably crowded R train, I took it out after I felt real pain. I’m going to give myself an infection, I thought.

What a crappy way to start the day, particularly my first tough Wednesday.

I managed to teach my class at Baruch. If courage or something is “grace under pressure,” then I did well, for I had a good class. But of course, I was preoccupied and upset.

Everything seems to have started to unravel in my life, and I can only hearken back to the fall of 1979 through the fall of 1980, when I became so disillusioned about living in New York.

Granted, my lens could have been lost in Florida (though I can’t imagine it happening outside this apartment with its filthy floor; it has never happened before in the past eight years) – but everything is fixed more easily in Florida, and even when I worked hard at Broward Community College, I felt under less pressure there.

After class, I took a cab uptown to Pildes Optical, where they did have my lens in stock, but when I put it on, it hurt. The optometrist said that the pain would go away, but it got worse through the afternoon. I’d promised Teresa I’d stop by, and I’d brought my heavy bag so I could stay over.

She had her niece with her, and the last thing I felt like doing was trying to be “up” for playing with a rambunctious three-year-old, but I managed, and I stayed for an hour and rushed to John Jay – again, by taxi – and filled out the personnel forms Doris had left me.

After a quick and unsatisfying lunch, I met my first class at John Jay. It wasn’t till the second class that I realized the sections I’m teaching of English 089 don’t correspond to my former SEEK 094 classes but to the earlier course in the sequence, the most basic remedial class. So I gave the students a lot of wrong information.

Fuck it. The only saving grace was that the classes are very small: 10 and 12 so far, compared to 27 and 28 at Baruch. Again, I seemed to be okay despite my misery as my eye hurt worse and worse.

I put in my lenses, trying to ignore the pain, and then took yet another taxi to Teachers College. This lens business had already cost me $50 or more. In class, my eye hurt so badly, I had to take out my lenses; I realized I had an infection, as mucus or pus was coming out of my eye.

Naturally, it was hard to concentrate on what my Programming I teachers were saying, though the young guy, Chris, was real cute.

The other teacher, Minh, lectured on FPL (First Programming Language), Prof. Taylor’s language, invented to help learn programming. I couldn’t see the board very well, but to me, FPL seems like a trick; it’s simpler to just learn BASIC or Pascal.

At 7 PM, when we got out of class, it was chilly outside. It seems like overnight we’ve gone from hot, steamy weather to unseasonably cool weather.

Because I couldn’t see well, I got on the wrong bus and had to get off and pay an extra fare.

By this time, I was ready to scream. If I had come home to Park Slope to be by myself, I would have collapsed sobbing in bed, but of course at Teresa’s, I had to be polite and talk and make a point of playing with little Heidi.

Teresa did get me dinner: chicken heated in her new microwave oven, which I’d lugged up from her car.

At 9 PM, I opened the couch and got into bed, exhausted. At least I slept. I nearly threw out my lenses by accident, but luckily, they clung to the container.

This morning the right lens went in fine, but the left hurt, and I now think I may have mixed up the lenses and that the right one is just no good.

The rush hour IRT was such a horror, I was almost glad I had about 20/80 vision so I couldn’t see things clearly.

After half an hour in class, my SEEK students and I had to walk the six blocks to Baruch’s 18th Street building, where they learned about their mandatory Comp Lab.

I got back to Brooklyn at 11 AM.

When I tried to find the lens, I drew a blank. When I tried to take a nap, I was bothered because I could feel my crown shifting in my mouth. When I tried to write in my journal, the lamp by the bed didn’t work. The sink in the bathroom is stopped up. I feel nothing is working.

I have tons of things to do, but I’m so exhausted and depressed, all I want to do is nothing – and I can’t even enjoy that.

I has the chance to be a high school teacher in Florida this year. How easy that seems compared to this! I’d have a nice car and a nice new apartment. Boy, did I fuck up in staying here.

Yet I would have left for Florida thinking that I could have done better by staying in New York.

This is a good lesson, but at least it’s not going to cost me a lot. All I can hope for is that the weeks of the fall semester go by as quickly as possible.

Except for Teresa, I haven’t seen any friends in the last ten days, so as far as friends are concerned, I might as well be in Florida.

I’m so tired of seeing poor people everywhere I go; I hate becoming inured to it, becoming hard and cold.

“There has never been an invention like New York,” wrote Russell Baker in a column I read with my class, “for turning a soft-hearted liberal into the kind of unfeeling monster that should be on exhibit at the Museum of Unnatural History.”

I’ve been in New York too long. If only I’d followed my plan of a month ago.

Right now someone with a Spanish accent is screaming out of a nearby window. I feel the way I did in 1980: helpless, hopeless.

Will I get through the next four months? Yes, of course I will, but it’s going to cost me a lot.

Will it be worth it? I think not. I’ll look back at this time the way I do now with the winter and summer of 1980, with relief that it’s over.

It should tell me something that the happiest I was in 1985 was when I was in Florida from January to April.


Monday, September 16, 1985

4 PM. It’s 5746: I wonder what’s inscribed for me this year in the Book of Life. Yesterday I left here at 11 AM, bought Newsday and read it on a bench by the park at Grand Army Plaza. It was sunny and warm.

After finishing the paper, I started reading, for the zillionth time, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” In the month since I decided to move to Justin’s place, I’ve learned a lot, I think. For one thing, I’m less fucked-up than I thought I was.

Justin had me convinced that my uprooting myself all the time was detrimental, but if that’s true, then so is his staying here in this apartment for six years detrimental.

Justin is no less neurotic than I am, and I couldn’t live his life; I’d feel choky here.

Actually, I’m doing what I said I wanted to do: to spend the fall in New York City and go back to Florida in January. This time, however, I plan to stay in Florida through most of 1986.

Now that I have a temporary Florida teacher’s license, I can try to get a job teaching high school English. It will be a new experience and it will give me some stability. I’ll continue to take grad courses in education – now I’ll have to – and I’ll make the race for Education Commissioner just for the hell of it.

I don’t care what anyone else thinks. This is my life, and if I’m making a mistake, I’ll have to live with it – just as I have to live with my consequences of my decisions about this fall.

At noon yesterday, I got off the D train at Avenue J, where all was hustle and bustle as the Orthodox community was shopping like mad in preparation for Rosh Hashona.

At the bank, I deposited the Columbia check and took out a check to send to Citibank (South Dakota).

When I picked up some money inadvertently dropped by an elderly man and caught up with him to return it, he said, “You’ve restored my faith in the younger generation.”

“I’m not that young,” I replied.

“What are you, 25?” he said.

“I’m 35,” I told him, giving myself nine months.

“Well, really?” he said. “You don’t look it, God bless you.”

God bless him. The other day, in Teresa’s bathroom mirror, I saw dark circles under my eyes that didn’t used to be there.

Ah, well: I’m going to see more Rosh Hashonas, and I can only expect to get older. What’s the alternative?

With society now in a panic about AIDS, I do wonder a lot whether I’ll get it. If Sean infected me, which is not all that likely, since we had “safe” sex (I worry more about poor Sean than I do myself and wish I knew the guy was okay) – but even if he did, I still might never get AIDS.

I’d like to take the HTLV-III antibody test just to know, even if the gay health experts advise people not to take it. If I tested positive for AIDS exposure, I’m not sure I’d panic or get depressed, but I probably wouldn’t get so upset at the problems of day-to-day life.

Actually, I should probably live as if I’d tested positive for AIDS exposure: live every day as meaningfully as possible, taking as much pleasure as I could.

Yesterday I enjoyed seeing the Orthodox on Avenue J, even if my bus to the Junction proceeded slowly at first. It made me imagine what it must have been like a hundred years ago, in my great-great-grandparents’ time, in the shtetls of Russia and Poland.

I took the Flatbush bus to Fillmore Avenue and had lunch at the Floridian. At the counter, I was served by Walter, the wisecracking waiter who served me so often before, going back ten or more years ago.

He didn’t remember me, of course, and said, in explanation of his manner with his co-workers: “We like to have as much fun as we can here. It prevents us from going crazy.”

I thought of Emerson’s quote, the one I used as the epigraph for Eating at Arby’s: “Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people to enjoy what they find, without question . . .”

The waiter seemed to be of those “well-mixed people” that I’d like to become. I walked from the diner up to Avenue U, passing the new Burger King that used to be Buddies and watching the horses on the merry-go-round.

How many times had I been there at that place? It was where I had my birthday party in second grade, and I’d gone there in college.

At the bus stop across from Kings Plaza, I passed the wait by watching a couple of cute boys about 17 or 18.

I’ll probably remain celibate for a long time, but the pleasure of watching cute guys is something that almost satisfies me completely. Teenagers can be so un-self-conscious when they think no one’s looking.

The walk from Beach 116th Street to Grandma Ethel’s was one of the great walks I’ve had.

On the boardwalk, it was mild, the sky was cloudless and looked almost as big as the sky does in Florida. The sand was clear, the ocean calm.

As Grandma said when I got to her place: “It’s like Paradise out today.”

Around 5 PM, we walked over to Aunt Tillie’s in the next building.

Although she has a hiatus hernia and couldn’t eat much, Tillie assumed I’m like Morris, who eats whatever is put in front of him. (When he was my age, Uncle Morris ate ten slices of toast every morning.)

I tried to be polite, but the heavy Jewish food was too much for me – I’m not used to eating so much – and I felt sick after the main course.

Half an hour later, when my stomach having been given a chance to digest its contents, I felt better and joined the others for tea and cakes. (I’d bought some sweet kosher cake I saw everyone buying in an Avenue J appetizing store.)

Grandma Ethel, Aunt Tillie and Uncle Morris aren’t much of a family, but they’re enough for me. Morris is pretty quiet; he repeated only one story twice, and Aunt Tillie stopped him. (It didn’t bother me at all that he told it again.)

At 8 PM, Grandma and I went home to watch Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, which was powerful and very tragic.

At the end, when Linda talks to Willy’s grave at the funeral, Grandma said it reminded her of how she spoke when she visited Grandpa Herb’s grave a few weeks ago.

Listening to the sounds of the ocean waves, I slept deeply and long.

At noon, as I was about to leave Rockaway, Grandma Ethel began to cry.

“I miss you when you’re not here,” she said.

Life is so fucking sad, but it’s also beautiful. Or it’s beautiful because it’s sad.


Thursday, September 19, 1985

Noon. I just got home to find one of the fish dead. I flushed it down the toilet. It was Mrs. Mooney, the little catfish whom I had been worried about at the beginning because she always lay across the rocks. Today she was lying face down, though.

Ah, well, that’s life.

This really is a hard time for me, and I know I’d have been better off if I had stuck with my plan to go to Florida. However, without having gone through this semester, I might have continued to complain about Florida and looked upon New York City as a paradise.

In the past two days, I’ve taught four classes – nearly six hours altogether – and I gave my students their money’s worth. Yesterday I talked so much that I ended up with a sore throat. But my classes all like me, and I’ve been working well with them.

At Baruch we’ve done freewriting, and I’ve begun my stuff at John Jay. Now that I’ve got the texts, I’ll have to make a syllabus for each school this weekend. I also need to grade about 25 essays that I got today. But I can’t think about school now.

Do I feel better now that I’m working? Well, I’m not sure.

Yesterday was a very long day, reminding me of my Thursdays in the fall of 1980, when I taught an 8 AM class at Brooklyn, then two classes at John Jay, and then another Brooklyn class that ended 8 PM. Or those Thursdays in the spring of 1984 when I taught from 8 AM to 3:15 PM at Broward Community College and then had my Florida International University PILOT course till 7 PM.

But at the end of yesterday, when it was all over, I did feel a little sense of accomplishment.

Although there were no major disasters in going from Baruch to John Jay to Columbia to Teresa’s, it was very stressful indeed. It didn’t help that I hardly slept the night before.

Even though I have nearly three hours between my Baruch and John Jay classes, and two hours between John Jay and Columbia, I can’t really relax during that time. By noon, I felt very sleepy, but I had to rouse myself for my teaching.

At Teresa’s, I got a letter from Teachers College. They want me to give back the $1250 National Defense Student Loan because I’m not taking 12 credits; they neglected to approve it when I brought in my check.

I told them I’d be in on Monday, but I don’t intend to appear. As much as I hate to, I’ll play Teresa on this one and let them work hard to get their money back.

If it wasn’t for that $1250, I might not have gone to Columbia; it would leave me with only $800 from the GSL loan. Or maybe I got my NDSL mixed up with my PLUS loan. In any case, I plan to hang on to the money and play dumb.

Last night’s class at Columbia was okay. They put us in the computer room, where we got to work on the DEC-20 terminals. I did the keyboarding for my group, and as usual, I went ahead of the teacher.

Working on a mainframe is a good experience for me, and after class, I was foolish enough to try to do some work on the terminal, but I soon gave up when I kept making mistakes out of tiredness.

Teresa was glad I was staying over. She was delighted with her cable TV: the fine reception and the new channels. She said this will be the last weekend in Fire Island and that she’ll get a job “because I won’t know what do with myself otherwise.”

Her sister, back at work for just one week, has decided she misses Heidi and the baby too much and so she will leave her job at the LIRR to stay at home full-time. Like many baby boomer mothers, Donna is learning that one can’t “have it all.”

Her husband is upset by the loss of her income, but Donna was spending a lot of money on babysitters, clothes, and transportation for work. I think she has the right idea, but then, I hate working.

*

8 PM. I rested most of the afternoon. Yesterday took a lot out of me. Today I didn’t make my usual “to do” list; all I wanted to do was take a mental vacation.

By 3 PM, I felt well enough to exercise a little, and then I read the papers for the last two days.

After dinner, I took a short walk to Grand Army Plaza, but I still feel tired and my throat is a bit sore. (Although I know the sore throat is from teaching, these days I imagine every little illness might be a sign of AIDS.)

I guess this experience of the last four weeks of living in Park Slope, going through the stress of finding work, and now settling into what seems to be a tough schedule – is character-building, but I can’t say it’s been fun.

On the other hand, it ain’t Auschwitz by any means. I still live such a comfortable that half the world would envy me, and that is the most important thing to consider. I just complain too much, if only in my journal entries.


Friday, September 20, 1985

6 PM. Today was over 85° and sunny, a very summery day just before the start of fall. I didn’t leave Park Slope today but spent the day relaxing and revving up my engines.

Last evening I called Gary to tell him that I was still around; we didn’t speak very long, as he and Eileen were on their way out to dinner.

I also phoned Miriam in New Jersey, and we made a date for next Friday in Manhattan. “It will be good to see you again, sweetie,” she said.

This morning Alice phoned and said I should meet her for brunch on Sunday. I worry about taking the time away from my work, but also know I need to be with friends.

Alice thinks that if she does everything she can to succeed, she will succeed.  Maybe she will – but to her, success means money and fame – and that won’t make her as happy as she supposes.

I, too, would love fame and money.  So how am I different?  Well, there are things I won’t do to get there.  Alice works within the system; she thinks my publicity stunts “won’t get you anywhere” but she doesn’t understand I value them for their own sake.

She said I should be embarrassed to stand in midtown Manhattan handing out leaflets proclaiming a celebrity shortage, but I’m proud of doing that.

Alice once did a similar thing with her self-published Henrietta, but now she feels we’re too old to do something like that. Agents are the answer, Alice says.

But not for me.  Sure, when I hear a story, as I did this morning on NPR, about the 1980s being the decade of the short story renaissance, I wonder why I’ve been overlooked. Is it that I don’t have an agent? That I don’t have Knopf as my publisher?  That I don’t have any talent?

Or maybe it’s just an accident – and that if I ever am “discovered,” that will be an accident, too.

As for being unfocused: well, that’s not so bad.  The most focused people I know are materialistic, one-dimensional Yuppies.  Better to have no focus than to focus on lousy values.

I’m no saint, thank God.  In my way I’m much more ambitious than anyone – but my ambitions, like Emerson’s, are larger than most people’s – even if they seem to be frivolous.

Mom and I had another good long talk yesterday; she senses that I’m excited about returning to Florida, and I am. Actually, today’s biggest thrill came in a mailing from Mom.

Republic National Bank gave me a $5,000 line of credit on their non-card check-writing program. I immediately sent out a $2,000 Republic check to Citibank (South Dakota), and another one for $2,000 for my Broward Schools Credit Union account, where I incurred an overdraft because I forgot that my American Express travelers cheques at the airport ATM were drawn on my BSCU account.

Hopefully, I’ll be covered when they try to redeposit the money. That’s the first big mistake I’ve made in my finances, and I’m starting to wonder if they’re not getting too complicated.

I’ve made out my checks for this month’s credit card bills in advance already, but I think I should pay off the smaller accounts ($1,000 or less), starting next month.

For one thing, I don’t have the time now to follow twenty or more accounts each month; I already suspect that some of this month’s bills have been lost in the mail between here and Florida. But I like feeling that I’m putting one over on all these banks.

The good feature of Republic’s credit line is that it’s fixed four points over the prime rate for calculation of the annual percentage rate; now it’s only 14% compared to the 18%-21% of most credit cards.

At this point I have about $32,000 in lines of credit, most of which I’ve gotten this year: Republic, Southeast Bank, Bank One, First Interstate, Avco and Choice.

I’m convinced my credit chassis scheme is workable, provided I live cheaply and have some income each year – at least more than I pay in interest – and keep accumulating more credit.

Mom said there’s been trouble at Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, as several of the Bhagwan’s closest advisers have fled to Europe, presumably with lots of money. But Jonathan still has faith in the Bhagwan himself, Mom reports.

She spent most of the conversation going on about the flea market and Preston Henn, the crazy, capricious guy who runs it: he’s so greedy, he may be running it into the ground.

It didn’t take long for me to make up syllabi for each of the schools where I’m teaching. I still have about 25 papers to grade before Tuesday, but I’ll get to them, I’m sure. Tonight I intend to stay in and maybe exercise a little. Tomorrow I’ve got to be up early for my class at Columbia.

Justin phoned and said that Same Time, Next Year is going very well; it opened on Wednesday, and the crowds are appreciative. Moreover, he’s quite pleased with the production.

He was upset but understanding about the fish’s death and offered no comment (though I sensed his disapproval) about my decision to return to Florida for the winter.

Well, I know best for myself. Justin, like Ronna, has never been to Florida, but that doesn’t stop them from considering it an awful place.

Today I don’t feel so much like a loser. Maybe it has to do with the $14,000 I have in the bank.TC mark

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