A 29-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early December, 1980


Monday, December 1, 1980

6 PM. December already: one month to go, and 1980 will have vamoosed. It’s a mild evening – about 50° – although frigid temperatures are expected tomorrow.

I remember a year ago that first Monday night in December when I thought I was going insane from the cold. However, now I think I may be getting a cold, or maybe the flu.

My glands are swollen and my throat is sore. It wouldn’t surprise me to get sick because all my students are sniffling and so are the crowds who breathe on me in the subways.

On Saturday night I had terrible dizziness and insomnia: it was 7 AM before I fell asleep. Then, exhausted, I lay in bed half-dead until 3:30 PM. Finally I told myself it was ridiculous, that I had to get up – so I showered and went out for some air and a hamburger.

Also on Saturday night, I called Ronna again – Jordan was over – to ask if she would type up my NEA manuscript, and she said she’d do it for $1.50 a page, so I mailed her the copy I have.

I guess I had wanted to reminisce with her, but of course it wasn’t the right time. I’m becoming so nostalgic about everything.

Last night I slept heavily (no dizziness) and I dreamed about Ronna, Shelli, my parents, New York City. All weekend I felt at loose ends and I realized it was because I didn’t have enough to keep myself occupied.

It was better today when I went to John Jay. While I had both classes write, I was energetic enough to mark all their papers as well as the ones I had left over from Brooklyn College. You can feel the end of the term coming on; the students are getting antsy.

It was a tiring ride back home, and by 4:30 PM it was dark. In the mail I got the latest Home Planet News, which contained my story “Partners.” I’ve been too embarrassed to read it, but they put my name up in enormous print on the cover.

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine had an article titled “The American Short Story: An Untold Tale,” about the plight of the new generation of story writers, unknown but to a few, forced to publish in obscure markets for little or no pay.

They mentioned Andre Dubus, who is 44, and said he’s a “young” short story writer. So I’ve got fifteen years to remain young. The article said that short story collections almost never sell unless they’re by big-time novelists or unless they’re hyped the way Jayne Anne Phillips was.

I don’t feel so bad now. I’m more prolific and better-known than many of my fellow short story writers. And I have a long career to look forward to. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “In literature there are no prodigies.”

Alice called last night – she was in the tub, as usual – and she thanked me for coming to her mother’s house. Apparently June felt it had been an ordeal; she found Alice’s mother almost impossible to understand.

I told Alice I can easily understand her mother and that I really enjoyed the dinner, though I did find her cousin Martin a pain.

Teresa called this evening, saying she had a great time in California, “a place with no memories of Paul,” and enjoyed seeing Deirdre, whose marriage to Stan is again on the rocks.

Teresa phoned while waiting around for Richie Kessel, the Nassau County “consumer watchdog” who was her enemy when she was at the LIRR, to arrive at her apartment.

Now she and Kessel – who made Jack Newfield’s “Honor Roll” in the Voice and whose picture was in the Post today – are having “a Monday night affair.”

She says it means nothing because he’s married and too busy with his career.

Teresa said that Jan’s mad at her because she made fun of Reagan, whom Jan supported enthusiastically, and because she went to California on her vacation rather than to Texas.

Wednesday, December 3, 1980

8 PM. It’s thermal-underwear-and-three-blankets time again. I had forgotten how cold it could be in this apartment when the northwest wind whips off the bay. And the winds have been gale force all day today.

It’s supposed to get a bit milder by the weekend, but right now I am freezing and am very glad I will be in Florida soon.

Last night I spoke to Mom and we made some plans. Dad will help me move, she said; after the Coliseum show is over, we’ll rent a truck and take my furniture and belongings down to Florida in it.

I think I’m going to give one of my desks to Anthony. The rest of the stuff – the couch, the table, the desk, chests, bookcase and TV – I’m going to want in Florida.

By now everyone knows I’m moving and it seems like a reality. I am excited in a very positive way; it certainly is going to be a change for me.

There will be very rough times ahead, but at least I’ll have my family. (George Myers writes, “You’ve always been a family man.”) I expect to be lonely, but I’m going to fight boredom by doing everything I can to find a satisfactory career.

The past few nights I’ve had the most vivid dreams: of Ronna and Shelli, of Avis and Libby, of strange landscapes and of being back in college. Despite the cold weather, today I felt pretty good.

This morning I drove into Brooklyn and took the IND into work. I learned I can give the CUNY exam at John Jay next Wednesday, so I can cancel class on Thursday – which is fine with me, since I’ll have to come in Friday for the marking session.

I’m going to take a sick day at Brooklyn College soon; if I have a bad night tonight, I won’t go in tomorrow.

My classes are getting obstreperous and out of control. I hate being called “Teacher” or “Grayson” without the “Mister.” I cannot wait for this term to be over because I can no longer put up with their stupidity.

Not one person knew who Winston Churchill was; a couple of them thought he was a U.S. President. When I told the class he was prime minister of Britain during World War II (“The one with Hitler?”), one student asked if he was a Tudor or a Stuart. At least she had heard of the Tudors and Stuarts.

Tom Whalen wrote that he missed me while he was in New York; he lost my phone number, and then, when he finally got it, he couldn’t locate me. But Tom did have a good time and said he hopes I can get to New Orleans soon.

I came home early and read the papers, watched the news and lifted weights to get warm. Teresa called to say she’s taking me out to dinner and the theater on January 10; I felt so good to hear that.

And Grandpa Herb told me he’s giving me $100 for Chanukah, which started last night. He made $2,500 on his accident claim, which finally came through.

I have such good friends and relatives it will be hard to leave them. But they’ll still be my friends even after I’ve moved away. I remained friends with Teresa while she was in California for two years and with Avis while she was in Europe for five years.

The menorah is up in the lobby and Christmas trees are starting to appear; three weeks from today is Christmas Eve.

The last several weeks really have been pretty good. I’ve got my family, my friends, money in the bank – and so I’m happy for now.

Thursday, December 4, 1980

9 PM. You know, I’m pretty proud of myself. I’ve been handling things well. I got through another week and another killer Thursday – there are only a couple of them left – with my sense of humor and my health intact.

Today might have added up to a mega-disaster, but I kept my cool (easy when the temperature is below 30°) and handled everything with grace,
even if I slept only four hours last night.

At BC early, I had my topic sheet out for the class to write. While they wrote, I read the Times and marked the papers I had left from John Jay. I didn’t think about there being no heat this morning or the elevator being broken; I just functioned.

After class, I decided not to go home but instead went to downtown Brooklyn to explore the new Albee Square Mall. It’s light and airy and a bit tackier than Kings Plaza, but it certainly improves Fulton Street.

There’s a bookstore and a lot of food places and I noticed Fred Fisher’s store, Crazy Freddy’s.

After wandering in the mall for a while, I decided to drop in on Margaret at LIU. Being back in the Humanities Building made me nostalgic for the days I spent teaching there. Margaret was glad to see me and she thanked me for her birthday card.

No one else was around but Dr. Small, the faculty union’s president, who said the school “really sucks” now.

Margaret told me things haven’t been the same since the strike. There are bitter feelings on all sides: students vs. faculty, union faculty vs. those who didn’t take part in the strike.

“Dr. Farber says he’s lost his heart for teaching,” Margaret said. When I mentioned I was getting out of adjunct work and moving to Florida, she heartily approved.

“Otherwise you’d end up like Geoffrey Platt,” she said. It’s odd, but Josh had told me he was going into computers because he didn’t want to end up like Platt – who apparently is on everyone’s shit list for continuing to teach during the strike.

I told Margaret to say hello to Dr. Tucker and Ken Bernard and everyone; she told me to stay warm in Florida.

Because of the usual fire on the tracks, my D train was being rerouted at Rockefeller Center, so I took the opportunity to get out and browse in the Gotham Book Mart (I bought nothing) and have lunch at the Smokehouse.

I went over to Rockefeller Center to see if the Christmas tree was lit up, but the workmen were just putting it up.

At John Jay, I had both classes write. On Monday I’ll give them last-minute instructions and on Wednesday they’ll take the CUNY exam. Prof. Crozier told me he thought the topics were terrible and that he doesn’t really like the system, either.

While the classes were writing, I read Denis’s novel, Brass Fish on Wheels. You know something? I liked it. Sure, it’s amateurish, but there’s real talent there: it has energy, the same kind of energy Bert Stratton’s Gigging has.

They may not be good novels, but they do create a world – something I’ve never been able to do in a sustained narrative. I definitely think Denis could fix up the manuscript so that it’s publishable – and I wouldn’t be envious if it were published and did well.

I went back to Rockaway for an hour to pick up my mail (two more rejections – from friends, which made it worse – and a lit-chat letter from Rick Peabody), shop at Waldbaum’s and stop for ten minutes at my apartment.

After that it was dinner at the Floridian (the diner was almost empty at 6 PM, a bad sign) and then my class at Brooklyn College. “Florida,” someone had written in orange chalk on the blackboard.

I could not bear a day like today if I weren’t moving to Florida. But with another week of the term gone, I do feel a sense of satisfaction.

Friday, December 5, 1980

11 PM. Today was a totally pleasant, uneventful day. Last night I called Florida and spoke with Dad and Jonny. Jonny sounded especially well; it’s been eight months since I’ve seen him, and in that time he seems to have changed enormously.

He had just come home from an art class and said the teacher had let them out early – “because we’re up to Abstract Expressionism and he figured all those paintings look alike.” He told me not to shave off my beard until he can see it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jonny and I could really be friends at last? He sounds like the kind of person I would want to be friends with – and it’s going to be lonely for me in Florida.

Dad said it was beautiful down there: mild but no longer humid. Last night I froze here under three blankets. This morning I lay in bed for three hours after I woke up. Lolling around seemed like such a luxury after yesterday.

I finally got up and went to check my mail. There was a lot of it, but nothing promising, and I have decided to stop submitting to little magazines for a while. I’m moving out now anyway, so it’s not practical.

I am still interested in the small press scene (I read Northeast Rising Sun avidly and I resubscribed), but it doesn’t pay anything. I could have 300 stories published in little magazines and I wouldn’t be any happier or any richer.

I guess Hitler’s failure has made me a little bitter; I expected so much more. But I know my work is good – I just reread Disjointed Fictions and was surprised at how much I liked my old stories – and I know that it was not my fault that the book didn’t achieve more financial success.

But I’m very enthusiastic about my prospects in Florida. I will try any field that looks promising and in which I might have a future. I want to make some money at this point in my life.

My dream is to be able to afford my own little condo in Florida. If I put as much time and energy into finding work and then at working hard as I did on my stories and my publicity campaign, then I’m sure I can do well.

Lately I’ve been telling myself that all my job experiences will one day pay off. Even seemingly irrelevant things I’ve learned – about the publishing business, about teaching remedial writing and controlling a class – will be helpful to me in some way.

I drove into Brooklyn, filled a prescription, had lunch at The Arch, and did some shopping at the Flatlands center at Woolworth’s. Then I came home to spend the afternoon exercising, watching soap operas and writing George Myers, Rick Peabody, Richard Kostelanetz, and Merritt Clifton.

I went to my grandparents’ for dinner, and Grandpa Herb gave me a $100 check for Chanukah; he wanted to share the profits from his accident settlement.

He’s having trouble walking and he’s been having diarrhea (I told him to stop eating raisin bran every morning) and Grandma’s been having heart troubles (the doctor gave her new medicine for her angina).

Grandpa Herb told me something he said he’d never told anyone, not even Grandma Ethel, before: When he was first married, he developed that terrible cough of his and he always assumed he would die before his children grew up.

Odd to think that even old people once thought that they would die young. In a couple of weeks Grandpa Herb will be 77. Back home tonight, I did the laundry, vacuumed, trimmed my beard, and watched junk TV.

Tuesday, December 9, 1980

10 PM. What a planet! Last night I slept well – there was a nice breeze from the open window – and was wide awake when the radio alarm went off just before 6:30 AM. Bob Grant’s show was on, and a woman caller was asking about the funeral arrangements for John Lennon.

I turned on the TV and learned that Lennon was shot to death last night as he and Yoko Ono were returning to their home in the Dakota. He was dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. (Somehow these events seem more real to me because I pass these places so often.)

On the radio they were playing Beatles songs and fans were standing outside the Dakota singing. I was surprised to find myself bursting into tears. I had never been a Beatles fanatic, but how could one be my age and not be affected by them?

Each song brings back a particular memory: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” an eighth-grade ice-skating party at Prospect Park one Saturday; “A Day in the Life,” my agoraphobic days in the house in late 1968; “Give Peace a Chance,” marching against the war at Brooklyn College.

This morning at BC, I taught a class about commas. Teresa and I had made a lunch date, so in the meantime I went to the college library and looked up Florida newspapers and publishers. I want to send out résumés soon.

Somehow I managed to get the right train to the Municipal Building, which I’ve passed hundreds of time but had never been into before. Teresa and her boss Frank share a large office with their secretary in a cluster of Borough President offices.

Teresa was sniffling into a tissue and listening to the radio. She showed me a press release she had written for Borough President Stein expressing grief at Lennon’s death; Teresa called him “the poet laureate of a generation.”

She also showed me some things she was working on, from routine proclamations to chairing Thursday’s hearing on midtown traffic congestion.

We ate moussaka at a neat Greek restaurant, Artemis, and had our usual great conversation. Teresa said that if she’s not over Paul by January 11 (a year after they broke up), she’ll see a shrink. She said she loved my beard.

Back home, I lifted weights, getting all sweaty and out of breath as usual. When I finished, I got a call from Bob Schippa, who asked if I could take over a Kingsborough adult ed course in the evening.

Naturally I told him I couldn’t because I had my BC class this evening. But after a shower, I decided I could use the extra dough, so I called him back.

Meanwhile June called to say hello and to turn me on to an article by Jay Neugeboren in this week’s The Nation.

When I went over to Grandpa Herb’s to borrow his car, he was enjoying his new Panasonic color TV, courtesy of his car accident settlement.

After dinner at Jentz, I got to my Liberal Studies class early, went over the papers I returned, gave them CUNY essay topics to write on at home, and drove to New Utrecht High School, where I was supposed to teach a “very small” class in Basic English Grammar.

Very small it was: only one middle-aged woman. But trouper that I am, I talked about nouns, verbs, pronouns and all kinds of other stuff from 7:15 PM to 9 PM.

New Utrecht is a dreary old school. On the classroom’s blackboard someone had drawn a grave inscribed “John Lennon 1940-1980 – His Music Will Live Forever.” Of course I did not erase it.

After returning Grandpa Herb’s car to him, I came home to collapse. It’s been a long day.

Wednesday, December 10, 1980

It’s just after midnight, two hours after I wrote yesterday’s entry. Earlier, when I tried to call my parents in Florida, I got no response. This seemed odd, and I wondered if something was wrong.

At 11:15 PM the phone rang. It was Mom, in a terribly shaky voice. “Oh, you can’t imagine what’s happened,” she cried.

My first response was, “Is it Dad?”

“It’s Marc,” Mom said. “Some guy is at his apartment and says he’s going to kill him if he doesn’t pay back the $20,000 he owes him.”

Of course Marc would end up like this. My reaction is anger – anger at Marc for upsetting my parents and Jonny, anger at him for fucking up my life.

Mom said Marc will have to give the guy his car and that she and Dad were trying to raise the money. In the background, Dad sounded close to hysteria.

“Maybe it would be the best thing if he did shoot Marc,” I said.

“You don’t mean that,” Mom told me. But at his point I am so angry that is how I feel.

“He’s sick,” Mom said, “and we stood by you when you were sick.” True, but I never did anything illegal or immoral. Mom warned me not to call Marc or contact the police or tell anyone.

So here I am, all keyed up, and the only one I can tell is this diary. I wish I knew nothing about this. If Marc ends up going to Florida, then I don’t want to go there. He’s not only ruining his own life, but he’s ruining mine. Maybe I’m hard, but I feel no sympathy for him.


10 PM. When I got home this evening, I called Florida and Dad told me that the guy Marc owes $22,000 to is – you guessed it – Fredo. Or rather, Marc and Rikki owe Fredo the money.

I imagine owing a guy like Fredo that much money is not exactly like my owing money on a passbook loan at the Dime Savings Bank.

Marc told Dad that Rikki’s father said he will cough up the cash, so it looks like they’re off the hook.

“Until next time,” I said, and Dad replied, “There won’t be a next time.”

Oh, no? Marc is still with Rikki and he’s still into drug dealing as a way of life. Despite Mom’s warnings not to discuss this with anyone, I confided to Alice, Josh and Avis.

Avis said Marc “doesn’t know right from wrong anymore.” Alice said the situation sounded so melodramatic, she couldn’t take it seriously. And Josh told me he doubted Fredo would kill Marc, that he was just trying to scare him.

In any case, I slept fitfully and dreamed that Marc was trying to coerce me into doing his dirty work. I was upset all morning: my stomach churned out acid and my head was pounding.

I don’t think Marc is going to straighten out until he’s taught a lesson, and that lesson is going to cost him a lot. If you want to dance, you have to pay the band. Chickens always come home to roost. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Clichés aside, I don’t want to have much to do with Marc right now. I am not my brother’s keeper and I don’t feel guilty about his situation.

Marc had choices, and he chose – I’ll grant you it wasn’t an easy choice for him – to live the way he does. He’s an adult now, chronologically at least, and responsible for his own actions. If he goes on the way he is, Marc will end up dead or in prison.

Today was CUNY exam day at John Jay. My students were so stupid they couldn’t even fill out the information on the back of the exam.

They really deserve to fail, but I felt bad for them and helped everyone out, surreptitiously correcting errors by silently pointing to them as I walked around the room and answering their questions about grammar.

I shouldn’t have done it. Later I realized I was making the same mistake my parents made with me, Marc and Jonny: they tried to protect us from the world’s realities but really only made it harder for us in the long run.

I wasn’t doing my students a favor by giving them extra help on the exam; even if they pass, they will still be lousy writers and they’ll have trouble in the next course.

God, I’m dizzy. I’d better try to sleep a little.

Thursday, December 11, 1980

3 PM. Feeling good for a change. Oh, I do have a sinus headache and a little dizziness, but I’ve just finished my weight lifting and I’m gaining strength. In the last month I’ve begun to feel so much better about myself. My depressions have been short-lived and not as deep.

The beard really helped me in seeing myself in a new light; I look older and more masculine. Some silly things also made me feel good in the past twenty-four hours:

Twice I was asked for subway directions, and both times, I was addressed as “sir” and I was able to give detailed instructions. (Just as I’m leaving New York, I’ve finally mastered the intricacies of the subway system.)

At Citibank I was asked by some Hadassah woman if I wanted to buy a knit scarf for my wife.

Last night, at the counter of the Ram’s Horn, I sat next to a guy on my block I’d always assumed to be an Irish tough, and I avoided him because of that. But in reality he turned out to be a very meek and effeminate person and when we talked, it was obvious he respected me.

Hey, I respect myself a little more now. I sent Alice a $200 check, wiping out all my debts except the Authors League Fund loan. But I don’t owe any individuals outside my family any money, and I have $1,000 in the bank.

That security is a wonderful feeling, especially when I remember six months ago I didn’t have a dime to my name. When Teresa and I had lunch the other day, she didn’t have to pay for me, and that, too, made me feel better.

I read Jay Neugeboren’s piece in The Nation, as June had recommended. Even with his renown, he still has to submit stories to little magazines; he’s gotten thousands of rejections, and most of his stories get rejected more than twenty times before they’re accepted.

His last novel was rejected a dozen times, then accepted by a publisher who had rejected it a year before. And when Neugeboren edited that fiction issue of Ploughshares, he accepted thirteen stories out of over a thousand submitted.

He sent me a personal rejection, and that means (according to what he wrote in the article) I was one of the lucky few. Maybe I’m wrong about deciding not to submit anymore.

Today there were two manila envelopes in my post office box, but they were not rejections. The Nantucket Review wrote that they’d accepted an old story of mine months ago and only through a mix-up was I not notified before. And another old story was taken by Shadowgraph. Great! Both of these acceptances were longshots.

I was up bright and early today and felt invigorated by the crisp 25° cold. I had my veterans’ class at BC, and then I went into John Jay just to pick up my paycheck.

Back at BC, I got my other check and had lunch in the faculty dining room. Lou Asekoff said he actually wrote me in for Vice President last month!

I deposited my checks, got my mail and came home to relax. Tonight I have the evening class at BC, and all day tomorrow at John Jay we mark CUNY exams. This is a rough week, but I’ve sailed through it with ease.

And there is only one more week left before the holidays. It’s three months since Rosh Hashona and I’ve done well in the time I had. What I’ve finally gained back is my self-confidence.

It’s been rough, but I’ve come through the worst of it – and I can take more if I have to. Last night I dreamed of puppy dogs and Florida (where my parents’ house had been converted into a MacDowell-type artists’ colony).