A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early October, 1986

Thursday, October 2, 1986

10 PM. This morning I exercised and watched the Oprah Winfrey show, which featured a panel of agoraphobics: people who suffer panic attacks.

One woman, who had to be interviewed from her Indiana home, started getting panic attacks in 1968 and had been housebound ever since. That’s 18 years.

My first real bad attack came in Midwood High School in 1966 – just about 20 years ago. I’d had little panic attacks before then, but after November 1966 when I began therapy, the attacks came every day in school.

Naturally I’ve blocked so much of it out of my mind, but I remember the terror, the nausea, the dread, the dizziness, the cold sweat and pounding heart, the feeling that I was going to have to lose control and scream or vomit, the anticipation of the fear, my little rituals to ward off the panic (Rolaids in my gym socks, drinking out of a certain water fountain every day between classes, writing little prayers or entreaties in my notebook).

If only I’d been able to see a TV program like the one I saw today, or if only I’d known the word agoraphobia. It may sound classic, but I was certain I was the only 17-year-old guy in the world who had this problem.

When I couldn’t go to college that first day in September 1968 and gradually became homebound over that long, long winter, I thought I’d never live anything like a normal life.

Even when I started taking Triavil and feeling better, it was still a struggle all through late spring and summer of 1969.

I had to force myself to ride buses, always going one stop further each day. When I finally was able to go by myself to Manhattan on the D train – and how I trembled as the train went over the bridge – I felt triumphant, but I also couldn’t sleep at all that night.

The summer of 1969 I’ll always recall as my reentry into the world.

And here I am, over 17 years later: not bad for an agoraphobic boy from Brooklyn.

I should always remind myself that no success I could have can really match my victory against the panic attacks. And the feeling lingers only in regard to plane travel. It’s still mostly habit and sensitization, though.

On Monday I’ll go to New York and feel scared – but I’ll go.

I might have even gone today, but Mike Burke called and asked me to come into the Sun-Tattler offices tomorrow to see about my photo for the column.

This afternoon I decided to go into North Dade.

My first stop was Jaffe’s on 167th, where I xeroxed “A Random Walk Down Broadway” and bought manila envelopes; later, I mailed the four copies out to little magazines, just like I used to a decade ago when I’d finished a new story.

Pulling out of Jaffe’s lot, I saw Dad drive by – and he saw me, too, and waved.

Odd to run into him so far from home, but even to a recovered agoraphobic, that’s a good sign. People with panic attacks usually have “safety zones,” and to see Dad in a fairly distant place reminds me that I’ve got a big safety zone.

Sometimes I think wanting to be famous is just a way of enlarging my “safety zone” with friendly faces everywhere I go.

After lunch at the counter of Corky’s – where the waitress knows me – I went to the nursing home to see Grandpa Nat.

At the doorway of his room was a man I’d never seen before – and he grabbed my hand and told me how wonderful it was to see me: “You look just like the little boy I used to hold in my arms. Remember how your mother used to leave you with me?”

I smiled and said yes.

“I gave you your first haircut, remember that?” he said. “And then I gave you away. . . But zei gezunt, I’ll always love seeing you. . .”

I smiled again and broke away to see Grandpa.

He shook my hand, glad for the company – but of course he didn’t recognize me. It’s ironic that my grandfather doesn’t know me, and yet a man who is a stranger thinks I’m his grandson.

I watched TV with Grandpa and sat as he drank a cup of chocolate milk and I talked with him. When I asked about his stay in the hospital, he said he hadn’t been in the hospital.

He looked much the same to me. Grandpa could read words and numbers from the headlines in the paper, and when I left, he said, “Glad to see you again.”

He’s a lovable old guy, but a different person from the man I grew up with. His roommate cornered me on the way out and repeated almost word for word what he’d told me before.

As I was walking to the main entrance, I noticed a familiar figure. “Aunt Sydelle!” I shouted. “I haven’t seen you in years.”

Sydelle gave me these tremendous hugs and kisses; I’d never felt such affection from her before.

She introduced me to her friend Bill, a big, kindly-looking man, and we chatted for a while, and then when we parted, I got another a big hug and kiss, and my aunt told me to come see her.

“I guess we shouldn’t only meet by accident,” I said lamely.

She looked very young for her age – she must be 67 or 68 – and I told her so.

Another chance encounter with a family member, it felt as if it had to be more than coincidence.

I drove up Dixie Highway to my old neighborhood and then turned on U.S. 1 and went to the Aventura library, where I read for a couple of hours.

I found a reference to I Brake for Delmore Schwartz in the Jewish Books Annual fiction bibliography for 1984-1985; I think the description came right out of the Times Book Review for it mentioned “a Brooklyn writer, uneasy in his Jewishness.”

Back home at 4:30 PM, I got two pleasant surprises in the mail. One was a nice letter from Justin, who enclosed and my new Dime Visa card and a PIN number which allowed me to take out a $200 cash advance from a Visa ATM. More credit!

And George Myers forwarded a letter from Marty Sklar of The Spirit That Moves Us Press. Its much-delayed anthology, Editor’s Choice II: Best of the Small Presses, 1978-1983, will feature “The Facts are Always Friendly” from Disjointed Fictions. I always liked that story: it’s nice and 1970’s and college-y.

The book will have only about 18 stories, 54 poems and artwork from little magazines, but it will be about 350 pages and come out in cloth and paper early next year.

Hopefully, it will get some trade reviews and publicity. I feel excited about it. I’ve never made The Pushcart Prize, and a recent review said that volume is now filled with establishment writers anyway.

I mailed out seven or eight manuscripts tonight, so I’m playing the writer game again. It’s beginning to sink in that it’s October already, but it’s still over 90° every day.

Today was a very rewarding and special day.


Friday, October 3, 1986

9 PM. I managed to keep myself busy today.

All night I had ideas for columns dancing in my head. After a morning workout, I did some errands and went to the Sun-Tattler office in Hollywood to get my photo taken.

The air of a newsroom is exciting, and the people who work there seem so much more intelligent than the college teachers I’m used to being around.

After my photo session was over, I went to BCC, where I knocked out another column – but this one, about being an English teacher, may not have the right tone for a humor page.

If Mike Burke doesn’t want it, I’ll send it to the other local papers’ Op-Ed pages. It’s nice to be a working writer even if I’m not getting paid much.

Back home, I got a batch of letters out and read the day’s newspapers.


Saturday, October 4, 1986

8 PM. It doesn’t seem at all like Rosh Hashanah.

In New York for the High Holy Days the last two years, I saw people in the streets going to synagogue. Last year, in the Orthodox neighborhood of Midwood in Brooklyn, I saw people preparing for the holiday by buying the special foods.

Last night and today I saw nothing. They don’t even run the Rosh Hashanah synagogue broadcasts on the classical radio station in Miami anymore.

My parents and brothers worked at the flea market today, though they were amazed at the number of vendors who didn’t open – including several people who looked to them like rednecks.

(Can there be Jewish rednecks? In South Florida, yes.)

We just had a meal of take-in Chinese food, which was good but not exactly traditional.

If I sound as if I’m about to burst into song from Fiddler on the Roof, I’m not. I was the first one in the family to even ride on a bus or train and then drive on the holiday – and did I catch hell for it!

Well, it was a different world then.

Ronna’s family, in Orlando, goes to services and observes the holiday. I would hate having to sit in a synagogue and listen to mumbo-jumbo the way I did as a kid.

Really, all I’d like now is some sign, some indication that it’s 5747.

If we do calculate with the Hebrew year, I must say I had a terrific 5746. As often as I get frustrated, I’ve got to remember how lucky I’ve been. I’ve done things that were interesting and exciting and unusual – at least to me.

This morning I got up at 9 AM after a dream in which I’d gone back to John Jay and saw all the adjuncts – they were all men – dressed in suits and staying late, sitting around a table clipping articles out of the newspaper.

Why? “Because we might get offered full-time jobs if we do this,” one told me.

In or out of that dream, I’m glad I’m not doing something that futile and boring.

As usual on a Saturday, I worked out for about 2½ hours. I’ve got no illusions about ever getting hunky, but at least I’d like to preserve my body and prevent it from becoming worse.

There’s a very pretty girl – about 22, I guess – who lives here whom I’ve known for years. Last night her mother, Dolores, said, “My daughter thinks you’re very handsome.”

“Has she seen an optometrist lately?” was my lame reply, but naturally I was pleased.

And when I spoke to Delia today when I went out to mail a letter – she was sunning herself in front of their townhouse, wearing a red bikini – I felt a little excited. I mean, I’m gay, but I’m not that gay.

“I Survived Caracas Traffic” was rejected by Paris Review, the sixth magazine to reject it. Could I be so wrong about the story?

I immediately mailed it out again, though I’m scaling down my sights to lesser-known little magazines. (That’s what I was mailing when I saw Delia).

The story will get published somewhere if I don’t give up. Remember how many rejections some of my other stories faced? Most of them finally got published and were later praised by reviewers.

I’ve noticed most of my recent stories have focused on the greed of the ’80s, but Russell Baker had a satiric column on that topic today that was so good I’d give up a year of my life to have written it.

This afternoon I saw Hail Mary, Godard’s usual confusing story – but this one’s been picketed by Catholics as blasphemous, and it’s led to three straw ballot questions in Dade County on whether communities have a right to ban films that ridicule religion.

That’s the typical Cuban mentality at work: these people don’t understand the First Amendment.

All these censorship attempts, the McCarthy-like hysterics on drugs with the new mandatory urine tests, Pat Robertson’s run for President, all the fundamentalists’ demands for teaching creation science and other shit – that stuff is depressing the hell out of me.

Maybe it just has to get worse and worse until there’s a reaction. Like with all the greed today.


Monday, October 6, 1986

9 PM. I’m still in Florida. My New York trip is off. I was all set to go when I got a call from Delta that the flight would be delayed an hour.

When I learned it would be delayed two hours, I figured the trip was jinxed, and I shouldn’t go. Otherwise, I’d probably be in Rockaway now.

How do I feel? Well, I was scared about the plane trip, of course, but I was prepared to go.

However, in yesterday’s diary entry, I really couldn’t come up with a terrific reason to go. So, unless something comes up, I probably won’t be in New York till next May, and then I’ll drive up.

I suppose seven months seems like an eternity, but it will pass.

So will this hot weather. Today was a record-breaking 91°, but I’ve noticed the nighttime lows are starting to sink into the high 60°s: 68° or 69° as opposed to lows of 76° or 77° six weeks ago.

And I’ll be back in my apartment in a couple of days.

Teresa had called Grandma’s, as had Alice; I left messages with both of them. I’ll miss seeing my friends, but I’ve got to make an effort to make friends here.

All I really need is one person I could confide in the way I do with Alice, Ronna, Josh, Justin or Susan. Of course, that’s asking a lot. Naturally, I’d like a sexual relationship, but that almost seems out of the realm of possibility.

Last night I saw a TV movie with a young actor who reminds me of Sean.

With Sean, I shared intimacy – and that, not just sex, is what I need. I can have great orgasms when I masturbate, but that can’t compare with the touch and feel of another person, the gestures, the eye contact, the words.

Well, I’ve got to make my peace with South Florida.

The $259 in plane fare I saved can go towards next month’s rent. Better I should spend the money when I next live in New York. I’m a bad visitor there, but I’m a good resident. As my parents said, there was really no reason to go there now.

I did go to class tonight; although Ray had told Joe I needn’t attend his guest lecture because I’d know everything he was planning to say about using computers in the college classroom, it was an interesting overview.

By now I know that I don’t want to make computer education my specialty, but I like being someone comfortable with micros who understands the computer revolution in The Information Society.

I still feel that now I’ve got to make my move as a writer – both of fiction and non-fiction.

A cheery piece of information I picked up in today’s paper: Fiction writing is one of three careers (the others are architecture and composing) in which people don’t start to do their best work until after 40. So I’ve got at least five years to go.

Phillip Lopate reviewed David Leavitt’s novel sympathetically in the Times Book Review yesterday, but he cautioned that the book should be read as an apprentice work, not the product of a mature artist.

I feel I’m still in the apprentice stage, and it’s frustrating. “In this business there are no prodigies,” says Isaac Bashevis Singer.

It’s important for me not to quit now. Even if nothing happens with a major New York publisher, I’ve got to keep at it. Certainly, if I don’t write, nothing will happen.

Now I’m halfway through Ann Beattie’s Love Always, a comic novel I wish I’d written.

While I lack Beattie’s sophistication and doubt I will ever have it, her book spurs me to write my own stories.

I need to keep reading fiction, to keep thinking of myself as a writer. Two years ago . . . a year ago . . . I felt like it was all over, that I’d never have another book published.

Now I feel fairly sure I’ll go on with my writing career, that it will be very difficult but not futile. If it means starting over in the little magazines, I can do that, too.


Tuesday, October 7, 1986

8 PM. Dear diary, sometimes I feel that you’re my only friend. I feel overwhelmed right now, with so much beyond my control.

I’m in the Lauderhill apartment, and my bed is crawling with ants, the air conditioner isn’t getting it any cooler than 78°, there’s not enough light – bad omen: when I entered the apartment to move my stuff in, I clicked on the light switch and a bulb burned out – and the apartment smells bad and is filthy.

Marc’s garbage is still here. Cleaning out the drawers, I found empty vials of crack, which I recognize from seeing them on the streets of Manhattan. Shitfuck.

When I was struggling with a decision about where to live, I knew exactly what would bother me here in Florida: having to deal with my family, the lack of intelligent friends, and the oppressive heat of the first few months.

Yesterday and today were record highs of 92°, and sometimes I think I’ll go mad if it doesn’t get cooler soon. Fuckshit.

Well, at least I got all my stuff over here – most of it anyway.

This move wasn’t done gradually: I just took everything, picked it up, shoved it in the car, and brought it over here. And did I swear while I was doing it.

Later I bought $56 worth of food and supplies at Albertson’s. At about 4 PM, I fell into an exhausted half-sleep.

Well, at least I do have my privacy now. Swell.

Look, this is a natural reaction for the first night in a new apartment, and since I haven’t lived here in over five months, it’s new to me.

Last night I spoke to Teresa and while I’m not happy here, I’m positive I’m better off than I would be at her place.

Anna and Phyllis were over, of course, and they were all in bed, watching TV. Now I know Teresa can’t stand to be alone, but why do her friends give up their privacy?

Teresa is a good friend, but she’s so fucked up, it makes me feel sick.

She said she’s very busy, and she probably is – but she’s lost, in the way that in Death of a Salesman, Willy says of his son, “Biff Loman is lost.”

Well, I guess I’m lost, too – but I’m aware of it.

Sometimes it seems that Teresa, Marc, Jonathan and everyone else will just go on repeating dysfunctional patterns.

And me? Yeah, just look at me. No sooner do I get to one place than I want to run away to another.

But I haven’t really run, have I? I didn’t go to New York.

I’ve said this for years, but I feel it’s very true: I need to find a place where I can live happily, and it’s not going to be either New York or Florida.

Probably I could enjoy New York if I could afford it, but now even the suburbs are becoming so expensive that people my age are fleeing Long Island in search of affordable housing.

Maybe, eventually, as young people turn down job offers because of the prohibitive housing costs, the local economy will decline, and eventually housing prices will move downward again.

Real estate is cyclical: South Florida’s had booms and busts, and back in Brooklyn, neighborhoods go up and down over the decades.

It seems to me the crucial issue in the lives of people my age, people born in the 1950s and early 1960s, is their declining standard of living.

Why no one has really understood that, despite all the talk of Yuppies, we’re worse off than our parents, continues to astound me.

I’m not in the mood to write anymore, or to think about everything I have to do.


Wednesday, October 8, 1986

8 PM. I’m still somewhat overwhelmed, but I felt this way at Justin’s apartment last fall when nothing seemed to go right when the phone and lamp broke and I lost my contact lens, etc.

I’ll get the air conditioner fixed.

But I know how life works. This morning, as I got into my car, I thought, it’s not going to start. And it didn’t – not at first, not for a nervous-making long time.

The same thing happened a little while ago, so tomorrow morning the battery will probably be dead. I knew I’d escaped the car demons for too long. God is after me with His gotchas.

Still, I managed to sleep, mostly because I needed the escape. I was restless because I kept finding little ants, and that made me think that every time I felt an itch, it was an ant – which it wasn’t.

I stayed away from the apartment from 11 AM till just now because I couldn’t deal with it.

At least I did some writing today. I came up with a six-page column on The Committee for Immediate Nuclear War; the idea came to me during the night.

This piece has only a slight South Florida slant, but I hope the Sun-Tattler will publish it.

Now that I feel I have an outlet and at least there’s a chance people will see what I write, it doesn’t seem so futile to go at it.

Also, I expanded and updated my résumé.

Obviously, I should not complain. After all, I’m not working, and my time is my own.

Last night I spoke to Josh, who still hates his job.

He got so mad at a stupid user of his information center that he yelled at her and then hung up. The user complained to Josh’s boss, and Josh said he’s afraid he’ll get fired if he doesn’t change his attitude.

I think getting fired from Blue Cross might be the best thing that ever happened to Josh. His life sounds so boring.

Of course, Josh is secure in a way I will never be.

From the secure to the self-indulgent: I got a letter from Crad today.

After his tortured note a month ago, he now reports that he and Gwen “patched things up” a week later. The next week, however, they broke up again. Now they’re back together, and Crad says he hasn’t learned anything.

He hopes for stability, but I figure he and Gwen will keep breaking up and getting back together the way made-for-each-other neurotics usually do.

September was a good month, as he grossed over $1,100 in book sales, but he feels guilty because he hasn’t written since June.

And Crad rather melodramatically describes having to sell his car this winter.

I see glimmers of my self-pitying self in Crad, and it makes me feel pretty silly.

It turned out that this past September was the hottest ever on record in South Florida with 22 days over 90°. And October is already a record-breaker, with seven days over 90°.

(The previous records were in 1981, the first fall I spent here.)

Now it’s just started raining.

I got a haircut before spending much of the afternoon in the computer lab.

While printing out, I chatted with Robert Burford and with Bill Senior, who’s applied for jobs out-of-town. (He had an interview at St. John’s).

I feel glad to be living here on my own, though I was at my parents’ at 4 PM and stayed for dinner. (I hate when they get their dunning phone calls; they must be behind in every bill payment.)

But as much as I’m starting to adjust to the apartment, I also feel a bit disoriented: I’m not used to not teaching in the fall; I’m not used to being in Florida; I’m not even used to writing and to thinking of myself primarily as a writer.

As always, this period of my life will seem better in retrospect.

The new story’s going to be a hard sell, I’m afraid. I’ve got four stories out now, and none of them will be an easy acceptance.

By 4 PM, I felt bored. I went out for a walk along University Drive and just while I was thinking that I had no friends here, Patrick drove by and he stopped and we talked for over an hour.

Patrick is my friend and though we mostly talk about Broward Community College, which is a very big part of his life, I enjoy our conversations. He’s a good guy and he obviously respects me a lot.

Well, this wasn’t such a bad day after all. I even had a light workout this morning.

Last evening, after watching an enjoyable episode of St. Elsewhere, I called Ronna. She was getting ready for a job interview at Yeshiva University today; the day before, she’d had one at the Friends Academy downtown. She was surprised I wasn’t in New York.

Her Florida trip went well. Her mother had 18 people for Rosh Hashanah dinner and they went to services at the Radisson on International Drive. (Orlando has no synagogues, and the congregation doesn’t have a rabbi.)

I miss Ronna, but I’ll see her if she comes to Orlando this winter.

Right now I have a terrible headache, but I had it during the night, too. It’s probably a combination of sinus trouble and a lack of sleep.

As hard as it’s been to adjust, I do sort of like being in my own domain.TC mark

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