A 24-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early April, 1976


Friday, April 2, 1976

7 PM. I’m a bit too tired to do any work tonight, so I think I’ll just take it easy and get to sleep early. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be gotten from the feeling that you’re doing your best, and in my usual immodest manner, I’ll say I did my best all week.

I’ve been having dreams of glory – or close to it, literally. One night I dreamed that Dr. Tucker asked me to join the faculty at LIU, and last night I dreamed that I was asked to take over Baumbach’s class.

I can’t get over how much I enjoyed giving that reading on Wednesday. It’s probably easy to get used to being made a fuss over. I was “up” for teaching this morning, and in going over Gatsby, I was less dull than usual and more animated. (I’d like to be “sparkling,” but one can’t expect miracles.)

I’ve been taking manila envelopes from the office at LIU to use for submitting my stories. There aren’t too many literary magazines left for me to try; it’s mostly knocking on the same doors now.

It’s kind of frustrating when I receive manuscripts back and the editor writes, “I’d like to use this, but we’re not publishing anymore.” That’s happened frequently, as little magazines tend to have short and erratic lifespans.

This afternoon I drove into Manhattan, and for once, things went smoothly. I found a parking space on 79th Street and Central Park West, just outside the New-York Historical Society, where I went to do research on Eliza Custis.

They have a very old-fashioned, 19th-century, clubbish library, and I found an excellent article on my dear friend (someday, I shall have to figure out why her story intrigues me so much) and had it xeroxed at a ridiculous cost.

But it was well worth it, for I beat the rush hour traffic and arrived home by 5 PM. Now I feel I can complete my story on Eliza Parke Custis without taking too many liberties with history.

Oh, I have fantasies that I can sell her story to a big woman’s magazine like Redbook or McCall’s and rake in $1,000: that would be delightful. But I enjoy doing the work for myself and its own sake.

Borges said that writers write the things they’d like to read, and that’s true of me. (On Wednesday, David Lehman told me he admired the “Borgesian allusions” in my writing.)

Instead of going to the house first, I had dinner in Kings Plaza, at the old Bun ‘n’ Burger counter.

Last evening, while Dad and I were watching Slaughterhouse-Five on TV and eating sunflower seeds, he said I should find a girl. My response was basically: “What would I do with her when I found her?”

And that seems true for me now; a lover, male or female, would only be an intrusion. I’ve been too busy to be lonely, and when I am, I enjoy my loneliness – or solitude – or I take it to be the natural human condition.

Doubtless, married people are lonely (as Gary may be surprised to find out) and so are people in love and famous people and rich people and happy people. Maybe a writer welcomes solitude more than others do because, after all, we can’t write in a room full of people.

There are a lot of changes everyone here is going through. Dad begins work on his new job this Monday, and I still find it hard to believe that he’s getting out of his business.

Grandpa Nat is leaving for Florida to bring back Grandma Sylvia, and I suppose Joel and Marc will keep “the place” in operation for a while.

Dad said he’s going to be working very hard, very long hours at the store on Long Island for the next few months. They’ll open after Passover and be open seven days a week and stay open till 9:30 PM on weeknights.

He has 10% of the store, and I hope this isn’t just another one of Lennie’s schemes that Lennie will lose interest in and let die – as he did the racehorse, the hotel, the diner, the flea market, etc. If it is, my parents will really be left without anything.

But I suppose it’s not much of a gamble for Dad, as his business is going nowhere. You can’t really manufacture fine slacks in America anymore. At Alexander’s, most of the merchandise came from Portugal or some other country.

Sunday, April 4, 1976

7 PM on one of those somber, grey, chilly Sundays that New York is famous for. I feel kind of sleepy now, although I’ve done nothing constructive all day.

I’ve been reading about est, this new pop therapy which has gained such a fantastic following among those who seek instant understanding, tranquility and harmony. Every year a new crazy fad sweeps eastward from the Orient and California, and people swear that it changes their lives.

But I’ve never seen these “changes” last, and in a few years, no one will remember est or Primal Therapy or Transactional Analysis or Transcendental Meditation or Nude Encounters or whatever; they’ll be as quaint as Coué is today, and looked upon as about as useful as repeating “In every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

All these vogues take common sense and mix it with mysticism to produce that instant satisfaction that Americans crave. That kid in McDonald’s yesterday, who was “saved” by Jesus just one month ago, was so dogmatic and intense that he didn’t know how to cope with my quiet faith in rationality and my good-natured cynicism.

By no means am I saying that I have found the answer, but I mean to leave fairly satisfactorily – and, unlike Werner Erhard or evangelical Christians, I don’t go around trying to convert people to do what I do.

But I know that change and growth take years, and it’s a process that doesn’t stop until death. Each day is a kind of blank check, and we do the best we can. If, at the end of a year or a lifetime, we are pleased with our lives, fine; if not, we change – but slowly, day by day.

Probably my faith will be shaken, but at this point in time, I believe in discipline, moderation, feelings, honesty, and getting as much satisfaction as I can without hurting anybody else.

Insipid? Yes. But it seems to work, at least for now.

“Why do I live in New York?” I wondered today. Everyone outside New York seems to look at us as if we were the incarnation of evil, and if some snide person asked me why I live in such a place, I’d probably get defensive and angry.

But the real reason I stay here is that the city is my home. I might enjoy living in other places, but there is so much good that is in New York.

This afternoon I went to the Village and had lunch at The Bagel; it’s nice to go to a place where everyone knows you – the grey-haired counter waitress said, quite rightly, “Today’s a relaxed day” – and to share a meal with familiar strangers who do not care what you are.

That idea that New Yorkers don’t care about each other may be true, but it is not such a bad thing. Nobody looks at you twice, and nobody cares how outrageous or different you are.

On the way to The Bagel, I saw an old drunk puking on Sixth Avenue, and on the way back to my car I saw the same drunk, recovered, jauntily lighting up a cigar in a doorway on Carmine Street.

An old man who looked like Auden with his wrinkles stared at me, and I gave him a disapproving look. But I knew he wouldn’t really try to bother me and it’s nice to know that I’m still big with the golden-age gay set.

It seems to me that one is exposed to more varieties of experience in New York, and that can’t be bad.

I went over to a poetry reading at the Anthology Film Archives in Soho, to see George Economou, who seemed glad and surprised that I came. Only 25 or so people showed up altogether.

First, a young man with a mustache named Tony Crea, an elementary school teacher, read his stuff, which was a bit too glib and talky for me. I preferred George Economou’s word play and strong imagery and ideas.

Now I can go to one of these readings and know what it’s like to be the reader, but as I’ve sat in the audience enough times, I also know that the listener very often tunes out, thinking about the details of his own life.

Driving back home, I spotted Simon walking across the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend. See, in a way, New York is a small town after all.

Tomorrow I asked Alice to meet me at the Fiction Collective party; I just hope she doesn’t embarrass me too much.

Tonight I spoke to Josh, who, as usual, was bragging about his failures: in this case, his D on his Drama midterm. Josh said he spoke to Allan on the phone: “I always get along fine with him until Allan uses an expression like ‘Horrid!’ or ‘Oh, Mary!’.”

Monday, April 5, 1976

9 PM. This evening I was back in Soho for the Fiction Collective party for the three spring books. I could easily be swept away by whatever glamour the literary world holds, but I want to be on guard against getting too wrapped up in that and forgetting that the basic thing is my writing.

Already I’m getting an ego too large for my britches, and hearing Jonathan Baumbach tell Michael Braziller that “You’ll be hearing a lot about Richard in the near future” doesn’t help.

I met Alice at the party. Jon already knows her, and before I got there, Peggy had taken good care of her. Alice was talking with Randy Goodman, and I joined them, introducing myself.

Prof. Goodman said he’d heard from Josh that I was the “fair-haired boy” of the MFA program while Josh was the failure. Of course, a failure was what Josh set out to be.

Goodman was rather boring, talking about his thirty years on the Brooklyn College faculty and how he thought Geri Reilly’s writing “stinks”; he didn’t know too many people at the party, and Alice and I finally managed to escape him.

The guests seemed to fall into a few categories: friends of Seymour Simckes, Raymond Federman and Marianne Hauser (the latter group were older lesbians); some media people like Leonard Chabrowe of WBAI (he shows up at every Fiction Collective event, so he must have a novel he wants us to publish); Dick Humphreys’ colleagues from Columbia and members of the Brooklyn College English Department; and some little magazine/small press people.

I went up to Siv Cedering Fox, who remembered me from her Brooklyn Museum reading and started telling me about how she got involved in the little magazine world.

First she started sending out poems and eventually, after a lot of publications, she was asked to be on the board of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM). Now so many magazines ask her to submit poems that she can’t write enough to fill the demand.

That’s a position I’d like to be in. I told her (and just about everyone else; I don’t see any reason to be shy) of my acceptances – but she frowned on my practice of multiple submissions.

Jon said, “Your boss is here,” and I shook hands with Martin Tucker.

“You just keep popping up everywhere,” Dr. Tucker said, and I guess it’s good that he has me in mind.

Dick Humphreys told me he’s been telling his Columbia students what good luck I’ve been having using The Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses and he introduced me to the head of Pushcart Press, the publisher/editor of The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook, Bill Henderson.

I remembered that he had written a novel under a pseudonym, so when we shook hands, I said, “Luke Walton,” and he lit up, pleased I’d recognized him. He’s now editing and publishing a Best from the Little Magazines, and it’s going to be a yearly thing. Maybe by 1980, I’ll have something in that anthology.

Alice and I talked to Richard Elman, but I think he thought we were very peculiar.

Marianne, Seymour and Raymond all had the same complaint when I introduced myself to them: “Stop sending us so many manuscripts!” Marianne gave me disturbing news: New Writers is folding. I guess I’ll have to find a new home for “Coping”; I’m terribly disappointed, but they may fit it in before they go under.

Marianne is a weird old lady (her socks were outrageous!); Raymond is a lovely, debonair Frenchman; and Seymour was a little cool and distant with me. A student of Raymond’s who owns a restaurant in the Village invited us all there for dinner afterwards, but I decided not to go. Alice left early; she was bored, I’m afraid.

Morris Dickstein was as drunk as anything and told me how his book The Sixties was coming out in the fall, two years after its deadline. He seemed so crazy for such a comparatively famous writer. And he was clearly after Rachel Brownstein from Brooklyn College all night.

I met a young guy from NBC News who used to be with NewsCenter 4; he’s now in charge of the West Coast primaries election coverage, and he was telling me interesting stuff about it.

I told Peter Spielberg his class couldn’t stand Jack Gelber, and he said, “Well, your class couldn’t stand me.” Seymour Simckes, standing nearby, guffawed.

It was, all in all, a very heady experience for me. But one thing that struck me was that most of the people at the party kept complaining about how slowly they write. I thought: Sure you’ll write slowly, if you keep going to these cocktail parties.

Tuesday, April 6, 1976

3 PM. In a way, I wish life would slow down a little. It’s all very exciting – my life – but it’s a bit too high-powered for a simple person like me. I wanted success, but I’m afraid it’s going to prove too overwhelming.

Today I took over Jon Baumbach’s undergraduate class and had another story accepted by a magazine. I think I’d prefer just to get under the covers and hide from the world for a while, but I have to go to class at 4:30 PM and Jon asked me to come to see him before that, to tell him how it went this afternoon.

It went fine, naturally. At first, the students were startled to see me in his place, probably because I look so young.

(This morning, when Marc and I went to the American Legion Hall to vote – for the Udall slate – in the presidential primary, a woman at the elections table thought I was the 19-year-old. When I told her how old I really was, she said, “You wear well,” and all the other poll workers broke up, for some reason.)

But Jon’s students listened to me read the stories and I had them discuss them, the way Jon does. Most of them don’t seem particularly serious about writing, and the stories were not very good. The class is too large for a creative writing class, and they seemed to find Prof. Baumbach kind of boring.

I find it extremely comfortable to be sitting at the desk in front of a room full of students; I’ve become an egotistical, power-mad bastard is probably why.

The acceptance I got today was from the Westerly Review, published by Split-Leaf Press in Westerly, Rhode Island. The fiction editor, Dana, wrote that at their last meeting, the editorial board voted unanimously to accept at least one of two stories for publication.

Dana writes that he prefers “Robin, Remontant,” and liked the device I used in that piece (similar, as he said, to Sinatra’s “When I Was Seventeen”). But he says a female editor thinks I really got to the heart of a woman’s soul in “Glen Cove By-Pass,” and it’s a tossup as to which story they will finally decide to print in Volume 1, Number 2.

They will make the decision in May. It would be terrific, of course, if they decided to print both of them, but I’ll be satisfied to see either one published, as they seemed to me only marginally successful stories.

Honestly, I do not really think (emotionally) that anybody would accept any of my stories, and I’ll be quite shocked to see them in print. The acceptance softened the blow of a rejection of “Au Milieu Intérieur” by Transatlantic Review today and by Epoch yesterday; however, I already sent both magazines new submissions. “Just keep sending out,” as Siv Cedering Fox said yesterday.

At the party yesterday, I learned that Jon’s oldest son (by his first wife) David went to Franklin School, and Jon and I joked about the disingenuous headmaster Dr. Spahn and all the basketball trophies in his office.

Jon was called down when David was absent 48 times because “he learned more at home.” I told Jon what Dr. Spahn said about my reminding him of another difficult student, Truman Capote.

Earlier, I ran into Kathy in the hallway in Boylan and she told me that Rose had gotten married on Sunday. Kathy mentioned seeing Ronna at the wedding, and that’s how she already knew I was teaching. Last night I didn’t go to the Alumni Association Board of Directors meeting, but I doubt that Ronna attended it, either.

Gary called yesterday before I left for Manhattan; he was complaining that all the excitement had brought on a cold. Poor Gary: he’ll never change. He and Betty are going to look for an apartment in northeast Queens, and they’re trying to hold down their wedding to a manageable size, but I’m sure it will grow into a regulation-size affair.

Gary said that as of now, he’s inviting only three friends: Robert and his wife, Marty and his girlfriend, and Richie Grayson (and a girl, if Richie Grayson is seeing one). I wonder if Gary will ask me to be his best man. I tend to doubt it, but I would be flattered if he did.

Friday, April 9, 1976

3 PM. I’m feeling pretty crappy: I came down with a cold overnight, and while I did teach this morning, I stayed in for the rest of the day. I feel weak and achy, and my sinus hurt, and I have the postnasal drip which always annoys me so terribly. As usual, I’m treating myself with huge doses of vitamin C combined with some B vitamins.

Class went okay today, I guess – but I feel so useless, as though I’m not really helping anyone learn anything. Maybe it’s the cold that’s making me despair, but lying here in bed, I question what I’m doing with my life. Is it worth it? And if it is, why aren’t I trying harder?

I came up with a poem last night, what may be my first publishable poem. Called “For Edmund Wilson,” this is it:

was ever

it was

Short and simplistic, yes – but I tried to follow a pattern, as in Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem looks like something you’d see in a quarterly, anyway.

And I do have ideas, projects – although everything slows down to a halt when my system goes out of kilter. I have several stories kicking around in my head: a rewrite of my old “A Soap Opera Mentality,” dealing with whether there is such a thing as a homosexual or heterosexual identity; a story about two men lying in a hospital room: one near the window makes up stories about what he sees going on in the outside world, and after he dies, the other man is moved into his bed and sees only a blank wall out the window.

Also, a project called “The Family That Dreams,” in which I want to get from everyone in my family (parents, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles) the one dream they’ve had that is somehow most important to them: I believe I can create a family history through their dreams.

And there are other stories which are only germs now: “Affirmative Action,” “The Cunning Linguist and Other Tories,” “Unobtrusive Methods, Inchoate Designs.”

But as I said, I haven’t the energy to write now, nor can I face sending anything out. Why is it that I always time my illnesses to coincide with weekends and holidays?

Last evening, for the second time this week, I spoke with Gary, who also has been ill. He and Betty picked out her engagement ring: a very small diamond surrounded by emeralds. Gary’s so busy with wedding plans and his job hunt.

It always seems so unreal to me whenever one of my friends gets married, although I suppose that if you go by the statistics, more of my friends should be married by now. Maybe people are getting married later and less frequently these days.

By now, I am certain I shall never marry, although I would have to consider it if by chance I met a woman whom I would want to live with. I almost wrote “share my life with,” but God, I’m much too selfish to share my life with anybody: that’s probably my fatal flaw, the hubris which will lead to my downfall.

I’m unhappy today and I may be unhappier tomorrow and worse the next day – but I know there will be days when I’ll be happy, even joyously happy, so there is no panic now as there used to be. I’ve learned patience. Or have I? I’m so afraid to waste a day or a minute or my life because I’ve wasted too much time already.

My contribution may not be wanted by the world at large, but I’m going to attempt to make it just the same.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to again be in therapy – or to be in love. In a way, I mourn the life I have lost; in many ways, I’ve forgotten what it was like to be me.