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

Friday, October 11, 1985

8 PM. Yesterday at 3:30 PM, I left for Rockaway. Since I missed my connections, I didn’t get there till 5 PM.

Grandma Ethel had dinner waiting: cantaloupe, stuffed cabbage, sweet potatoes and cole slaw, the best meal I’ve had in a while.

It was a good night to visit because Grandma doesn’t have her card game on Thursdays, so we had the whole evening to sit together, watch TV and talk.

Mostly we watched news of this week’s terrorist hijacking of an Italian cruise ship. Palestinians killed one elderly New York tourist, and just when it seemed the hijackers would get away via an Egyptian airliner, some U.S. military jets forced them to land at a NATO base in Italy.

So Reagan finally has scored a triumph in successfully getting some terrorists. “It’s about time,” said just about everyone, but terrorism will continue.

Grandma Ethel had me go over a homeowners’ insurance policy and write a check for her. She also had her usual complaints about insomnia and her health, but she’s still better than she was a year ago.

I fell asleep before 11 PM and got a good rest. This afternoon I hung around at the beach till lunchtime, then returned to Park Slope, where I worked out for a couple of hours.

Then, at 4 PM, I decided to go to Madison Square Garden for the tenth annual New York Book Fair. Immediately, I saw old friends talking: Bobby Frauenglas and Carolyn Bennett, who both expressed surprise and pleasure at seeing me.

Carolyn has been living upstate in Greene County, where she and her girlfriend own a house. She works as a waitress and still publishes Gull Books. She gave me her latest publications, including a poetry book of her own and one by Zack Rogow, who I also said hello to.

Carolyn doesn’t miss the city much. She confided that the press is getting her a little burned out, so after her next few commitments to books are finished, she’ll take a breather.

I didn’t have much time to talk with Bobby, who was emceeing the poetry reading, but I gave him my number. He did tell me he saw somebody who had bought one of my books.

I found the Zephyr Press table manned by Ed Hogan and Leora Zeitlin, who said she never thought she’d meet me. Their new book is the two reprinted novels by Philip Whalen, though Ed says my book still draws the most comments.

Leora let it slip that they owe me several hundred dollars in royalties; Ed said he feels bad about that, but the press is broke after the Whalen book, and “a substantial check will be coming.”

I told Ed his Somerville house must be worth a fortune if what I’ve read about Boston real estate is true, and he said it was; unbelievably, he lucked into what’s been transformed from a working-class area into one of the new hot neighborhoods.

We chatted for a while, and I said I’d relieve them at the table if they wanted to go out to eat, but they said they’d just stay put till closing time although they would appreciate my spelling them over the weekend.

I’d forgotten how many people I know on the small press scene. Enid Dame and Donald Lev of Home Planet News were glad to see me and thrilled to know I was living in Park Slope; they gave me a free copy of the issue with my ugly face on the cover.

I had a nice talk with Jeff Wright of the new Soho Arts Weekly, who’s doing a book with Carolyn soon. And Martin Tucker at the Confrontation table was glad to see me; he introduced me to his co-editor, Aphrodite Jones.

At the American Book Review table, I got a copy of the issue with Jaimy Gordon’s review of my works, and I saw Allan Bealy of Benzene, Ken Gangemi and Richard Kostelanetz (both of whom are always extremely friendly), and Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press. (I told Bill that Crad’s story in the Prize volume was great, and he agreed, saying, “I’d never heard of Crad Kilodney before.”)

Jonathan Baumbach was manning the Fiction Collective table, so I made sure to avoid it. I have no animosity toward Baumbach, but I’m sure he doesn’t want to be friends after what I wrote about him.

I spoke to people at the PEN, CCLM and Poets & Writers tables, and I looked at lots of books and magazines. As usual, it was a bit overwhelming. Everyone asked me if I was writing, and usually I said no; some asked why, and I said I was too busy teaching now.

Will I ever be a fiction writer again? I saw an issue of Telescope with the only story I finished in 1985, so I’m sort of still writing, I guess. I’ve got about fifteen pages of that story about Sean that I started in late August. Well, we’ll see. . .

After leaving the Book Fair at 7 PM, I had a bite at the Herald Center’s mall-like food patio and came home. My ex-wisdom tooth doesn’t hurt anymore.


Saturday, October 12, 1985

6 PM. This morning Josh called, and we decided to meet at the Clark Street subway station at 12:15 PM and then go on to the Book Fair.

Before that, I did some programming work, and I have to admit, I’m learning about things a programmer should know.

As Josh said about his BASIC class, “We haven’t covered files, records and fields yet, and what’s programming without that?” I really didn’t know that stuff until now.

At the Book Fair, Josh lingered at the booths that didn’t interest me: the Wobblies, Animal Rights – and he kept going away when I’d talk to Julia Wendell of the Galileo Press or Mark Melnicove of the Maine Writers.

Typically, Josh found the whole thing “a bore,” the people “pretentious,” the books “garbage.”

We did chat a while with Pete Cherches and Mark Leyner; later, Josh told me he thinks they’re both pretentious and that Pete isn’t as multi-talented and witty and he, Pete, thinks he is.

Josh also told me he didn’t like Leora Zeitlin from last year, and after I stopped at the Zephyr table, Josh said, “She looked at you as if she thought you were an asshole.” I couldn’t figure out if Josh was seeing something I didn’t see or if he was being his usual antisocial self.

Anyway, I didn’t go back to the Zephyr table although Ed came over to me to autograph a copy of With Hitler in New York for a man who wanted to buy it. I left soon afterward, feeling pretty stupid.

Josh and I had lunch in the Village, and then I came home an hour ago. Probably I shouldn’t have gone with Josh. He has a bad attitude toward the small presses, and partially it’s because he’s never made it as a writer.

But he also makes me feel like I’m nothing, just as all the other writers published by the small presses are nothing.

What bothers me is that he may be right. Who knows? All these people are convinced their work is important, but most of the books at the Book Fair aren’t very good. It’s so hard to sort everything out.

Is it just that I’ve come to realize that my belief in my work is self-delusion – or have I too readily bought the establishment argument that if one is really good, one gets rich and famous?

I really don’t know. Josh, by the way, thought Bright Lights, Big City “a fucking bore – and very anti-Semitic.”


Sunday, October 13, 1985

4 PM. A dark, damp, cool Sunday: perfect for lying around, reading, thinking. Last evening I graded some papers and then went out for the Sunday Times, which I read till midnight.

This morning Josh phoned to say he hated Mark’s I Smell Esther Williams so much that he threw it away in the street. He found it pretentious and nearly incomprehensible. I remember I couldn’t really read it, either.

The Book Fair made me think about writing and about being a writer. I didn’t want to go back today. Ed and Leora probably wondered why I didn’t stay with them more.

Part of it is because I do feel hurt that Zephyr Press treated me cavalierly. I know my book was their best seller, but I always felt that they had mixed feelings about its (modest) success, particularly Leora and the others who’d opposed its publication.

Look, they may think I’m an asshole, as Josh suggested, but at least unlike most of the writers at the Book Fair, I’m aware of my own limitations. To be honest, I’m surprised anyone would want to buy my book.

I can understand someone enjoying it, but it’s hard to see why a stranger would pick up an obscure book by an unknown writer. Now, I’m not being falsely modest: I know I’m an okay writer – but that’s not to say I’m good enough.

Yes, the commercial publishing world can be just as bad as the small presses, and 90% of what both publish is garbage. But I’m still naïve enough to believe that were I a really good writer, someone would have noticed by now.

I don’t want to be some Lyn Lifshin type: a poor writer who manages to be widely published because she’s so persistent and prolific. Nobody asked me to become a writer, and nobody seems to care whether I publish another book, so I’ll go on to other things which may be more profitable and less marginal in society.


Monday, October 14, 1985

7 PM. The Columbus Day holiday was over too quickly. I slept well again last night, and this morning I finished grading my Baruch papers (I still have twenty papers from John Jay), exercised a little, and went to meet Teresa for lunch.

We went to Marvin Gardens and had a good talk. She spent the weekend in Fire Island; now that’s over, and now she starts going to the Berkshires. She’s going to buy the share of the house from her sister and brother-in-law for $9000, but since Teresa can’t get a mortgage, the Foxes will own half on paper as before.

Teresa is still mooning over Ken – it’s her last two serious boyfriends all over again – but she says she’s making a concerted effort to find a job.

However, I don’t expect Teresa will have a job for the rest of 1985. She’s already planning her Christmas trip to San Francisco. We decided that unless I find a fabulous cheap sublet, I’ll return to Teresa’s in two weeks.

I have a lot of misgivings about doing so. Last fall, I remember, I had to steal away minutes to read, write in my journal, or exercise, and I kept hoping Teresa would go somewhere outside the apartment.

My work habits will have to change, because I won’t have the luxury of a bed, where I tend to do my best work and best thinking.

That couch in the living room isn’t very comfortable, and I hope my back can stand it. When Teresa entertains, I’ll be uncomfortable because I won’t be able to go to bed early. And most of all, I’ll have to get used to Teresa’s domineering presence.

On the other hand, I’ll be only fifteen minutes away from Teachers College and also from John Jay, and even if the ride from the Upper West Side to Baruch at rush hour isn’t much better than it is from Park Slope, I can probably sleep another fifteen minutes in the mornings.

It’s amazing how I feel I’ve lived here in Park Slope for years even though it’s been only seven and a half weeks since I moved here. Well, it just shows that I can adjust to a new place easily.

Going back to Teresa’s will be difficult, but I’ll adjust – and of course, I’ll be saving money.

After lunch, Teresa drove me to Teachers College (another advantage: I may get to use her car) and I spent a frustrating two hours working on the computer. A woman in my class told me I’m not really behind yet, and she showed me what Chris and Minh went over last week when I was out.

Back in the Slope by 5:30 PM, I brought in my laundry and got some vittles for dinner.

Later, I had a good talk with Jim. From our talks, I realize that there are probably a lot of people like Jim, a decade or so younger than I, who are really very interested what it was like when my friends and I were in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Jim and I discussed the phenomenon of movies about teenagers and young adults; fifteen years ago, I remember no movies about people my age. It’s curious, too, because there were so many of us. Maybe we were too threatening.

And maybe the same phenomenon is at work in Knopf’s championing David Leavitt and other fiction writers his age when they are other publishers ignored most of my age cohorts.


Tuesday, October 15, 1985

4 PM. I just got home from the dentist, picking up my laundry on the way and probably just beating a downpour.

Today my Baruch students handed in 35 essays, and they will keep me going for a while. Luckily, on Thursday at Baruch we follow Monday’s schedule, so I meet with my Monday/Wednesday class for the next two days – and on Thursday I take them to the computer lab, which Roberta has got all set up now.

After class and a visit to Roberta – who mentioned that she took computer literacy at Columbia and said she thought their program stinks (and Prof. Taylor told her he wished he’d never invented FPL) – I returned home to do some exercises.

Then I went to see Dr. Hersh after lunch. After four visits to the dentist, it no longer seems strange to walk on my old block and to be in my old neighborhood. Memories keep cropping up as I come into contract with familiar sights.

It’s really been good for me, this time in Brooklyn. Although it hasn’t all been wonderful, I’ve learned a good deal.

And I no longer feel “lost” the way I did back in August. If I don’t yet have the clear sense of purpose I might wish for, I trust my instincts more.

Whatever Justin or anyone says about my inability to make commitments or settle down, I feel I’ve settled on a lifestyle which suits me for now. Life certainly isn’t routine or boring. And this semester, I’m learning whatever I can.

For example, I can learn even from my student papers, as badly written as they are, for if I weren’t teaching at Baruch and John Jay, I’d never know what kids in the inner city – blacks, Puerto Ricans, other Hispanics, West Indians, East Indians, Guyanese, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese – think about and the things they face every day in their lives.

And as much as Columbia is a drag, I am learning things about computers that I didn’t know before.

Going to new schools and being exposed to different ideas broadens my experience, just as living day to day with Jim and Ben has shown me more about how to get along with other people. (And I’d never lived with a black person before now.)


Saturday, October 19, 1985

8 PM. I didn’t get to sleep till about 11 PM last night; my sleepiness faded, and I watched Dallas and Miami Vice. The latter show made me homesick when I saw Biscayne Bay, the Freedom Tower – Miami’s only stately skyscraper – and other streets that looked familiar.

I was awakened at about 6 AM by a loud rumble, and for a second or two, the room seemed to shake. The lighting fixture was swinging back and forth.

An earthquake,” I thought – and then said to myself, “Don’t be silly. It must be an explosion or something.” And almost immediately I fell back asleep.

I forgot about it until our break at Columbia, when Dipti, a fellow student said, “Did you feel that earthquake this morning?”

By then, I’d figured I’d dreamed or imagined the whole thing. Ben, in the next room, told me he didn’t feel anything, nor did Grandma Ethel in Rockaway.

But it was a quake centered in Westchester, measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale: very mild, but enough of a jolt to wake me up.

I’ve just finished doing a little packing and a lot of throwing out. It’s wonderful how moving around so much can simplify one’s life. Anything that isn’t absolutely necessary, goes.

When I told Grandma Ethel that I was leaving Park Slope in ten days, she said, “But you just got there!” In a way it does feel like that, but I’ve been here nearly two months now.

Although this hasn’t been the happiest time of my life – and in a number of ways, it’s been the unhappiest time in the last couple of years – I know I’ve learned a lot. If I’d have left New York in August, it would still hold all its charms for me.

Now, as I predicted, I’ve gotten the Big Apple out of my system for a while. Riding the subways and teaching at CUNY, I’m continually aware of the huge underclass of poor, mostly minority, people.

It’s a cliché by now, but New York has become a city of the poor and the rich – with less and less room for the middle class.

Life has become very bland and very stressful. It’s been months since I’ve seen a movie, for instance, and I always feel like such a drudge. Tomorrow I have nearly seventy papers to grade, but I couldn’t face them today.

When I go to Teresa’s, I plan to take buses, not trains, when I come and go to Columbia and John Jay. It took me over an hour and four subway trains to get to Columbia this morning.

We went over more of SuperPILOT in class, and we looked at some interactive educational software and talked about the principles of screen design. The project is due in December, and I’d better start thinking about it. Perhaps I can modify one of my earlier programs; when I’m in Florida, I’ll check through my disks.

I had planned to work on my FPL project after class, but by 1 PM, my energy level was low, so I just came home and rested. At 4 PM, I began a light workout which made me feel better, and then I spoke to Mom and to Grandma Ethel.

But now I will be very glad to leave New York. Next year, if I return at all, it will be at the most for a six-week vacation. I want to stay in Florida for a couple of years.

Knowing me, I’ll get disgusted with Florida after a while, but I’d probably want to move somewhere other than New York next: Washington, D.C., maybe, or some other city.

I still feel I’m “waiting out the 1980s.” This may have been the easier half of the decade. We’ll have to see what the next few years bring.


Sunday, October 20, 1985

8 PM. It felt so decadent to lie in bed until 10 AM. For so much of this year, I took sleeping late for granted.

At 12:30 PM, I met Susan for coffee and muffins on Seventh Avenue. She’s quite big now, and she has to maneuver herself into and out of chairs, I noticed.

We talked far too much about teaching, but Susan did give me the idea to have my students critique each other’s papers, as they discuss in Beat Not the Poor Desk. Doing that on Tuesday will relieve me of grading that class’s descriptions from last week. I’d like my classes to be less teacher-centered, but I fall into old and easy habits.

I’m afraid it’s obvious to my students that I don’t care, but Susan says I give them too much credit for perception. Perhaps. I’m certain that Susan is a better teacher than I am, though; I really don’t know what I’m doing half the time.

We walked through Prospect Park, although I felt a bit chilly, as it was a dark, raw afternoon.

When Susan mentioned that I should try such-and-such a press for reprinting Disjointed Fictions, I shrugged and said that I didn’t feel like bothering.

Because my books haven’t gotten critical acclaim or sales, I feel that I’m probably not a first-rate writer.

Yet I’m aware that Susan is correct when she says many “successful” writers aren’t all that talented, either. Susan says, “They make connections – at writing conferences, in graduate schools. . .”

At Bread Loaf, when I should have been pushing myself on the Big Names, I was too embarrassed and instead hung out with guys my age who couldn’t help me at all but who were good company.

I’m so pushy in other respects – “no stranger to hype,” as the Fort Lauderdale paper said – but I’ve avoided making the right career moves as a writer. Is that self-destructiveness? Am I more comfortable with failure?


Monday, October 21, 1985

8 PM. I’m very tired, but surprisingly, today was a satisfying day. My classes all went okay, I felt well, and nothing went amiss.

At Baruch at 8 AM, I spent the first half of class going over papers, and then we were the first class to go into the new computer lab. The 28 students got in front of the 22 Apple IIe’s (some had to share) and used a random assortment of English software – not only the Houghton Mifflin Micro Lab but others as well.

Today Roberta wanted to familiarize them with the machines. I took great pleasure in going from student to student and helping them out, both with the principles of grammar and the mechanics of the software and hardware.

Next week we’ll use the HomeWord word processing program. I’m going to buy a box of disks and sell them to the students, who will each have their own disk to write essays to. It’s a good experience for me.

I thought I had enough time to go up to Teachers College and work on the DEC-20, and after an hour there, I was pretty much satisfied with my project in FPL and Pascal.

They need a little refining, but they run okay now – and that frees up tomorrow afternoon.

At John Jay at 11:50 AM (I splurged on a cab from Morningside Heights), I asked Harold if he wanted to have lunch, but he’d already eaten. I saw him again about an hour later as our classes were interrupted by a fire drill.

My John Jay students are so weak in writing, I don’t know how I can bring some of them up to even go into English 100, which is still a remedial class.

Some of them asked me to help them with papers for sociology and police science courses, and not only were their papers incomprehensible because of the poor syntax and the grammatical errors, but they showed a woeful inability to think critically, make logical leaps, or even comprehend material they’d been asked to read and summarize.

It’s a great shame that the public schools graduate such students, who are led to believe they have a high school education when my P.S. 203 fourth-grade classmates and I, twenty-five years ago, had superior skills and greater knowledge.

After a brief stop at the bank, I took the subway back home to Brooklyn. I brought in my laundry and got some light fare at a Korean fruit and vegetable store.

I paid some credit card bills Mom sent in the mail, and I was pleased that Julia Wendell of the Galileo Press wrote to say that she enjoyed meeting me at the Book Fair and wanted to let me know that she’d nominated “My BASIC Problem” for the Pushcart Prize.

After so many years of not making it, I’m sure the story won’t get in, especially now. But I’ve had so little positive feedback on my writing this year that I’m very happy indeed to get any kind of recognition.

I spoke to Teresa for an hour. She spent last night with Ken, who had – to her great astonishment – called her.

Teresa has several interviews this week, but she seems most excited by her friend Norton’s idea of opening a chicken take-out place on Seventh Avenue here in Park Slope.

I tried to be negative in order to make her view the idea realistically, but she’s gone on it: I know Teresa. She’s already made up her mind that this chicken store will be a giant success.TC mark

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