A 29-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-November, 1980


Wednesday, November 12, 1980

7 PM. Before discussing my individual misery, here are some general observations on the state of the world:

People seem very anxious. Many people I’ve spoken to over the past week are expecting an economic calamity on the order of the Great Depression. From what I’ve been reading, it just might happen. I think inflation could get a lot worse than what it is now if some of Reagan’s policies (tax cuts, increases in defense spending) are enacted.

Also, people are worried about the possibility of war. The Middle East is more volatile than ever, Iran and Iraq are still at war, and it doesn’t look like the hostages are coming back any time soon.

The extent of Reagan’s victory – and the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate – has surprised even the conservatives; some liberals are still shell-shocked. People who never talk about politics are now talking about politics, and that seems to me the worst sign of all.

Renewed unemployment and rising inflation might mean race riots next summer, and there’s a whole group of people called Survivalists who are planning for Armageddon by arming themselves, stocking up on canned goods, and preparing for disaster.

Something stronger than gale winds is in the air. Everything seems to be unraveling. Only the photos of Saturn and its magnificent moons and rings seem calming.

Although I might prefer moving to Titan rather than Florida, I feel this is an opportune time to get out of New York. The streets have never been more paranoid: a berserk man, still not caught, is stabbing people without warning and at random.

I like the TV commercial which says, “If you need it bad, we’ve got it good: Florida” and only hope that turns out to be true for me.

God played another one of his little practical jokes last night. I was thinking of how much money I’ve been trying to save and coming up with the figure that I was about $50 ahead of where I expected to be – when I reached for my glasses, and crunch, they broke in the middle.

I was upset, but I had to laugh and realize that in God’s world, you’re never ahead. My whole philosophy is now akin to that of the Survivalists. I no longer hope for progress, but merely to avoid disaster, or to at least be able to cope with each new disaster as it strikes.

I went to Kings Plaza with Mikey, who also has been getting “gotchas” from Our Lord. At Sterling Optical, I picked out a pair of horn rims and we wandered around the mall for an hour while they made up a new pair of glasses for me. Over coffee and yogurt pie at Zum Zum, I reminded Mikey of his old college motto: “It sucks.”

When I got home last night, of course, I discovered that the glasses – which cost $43 – look good but make me terribly dizzy. And right now dizziness is not something I need any more of.

Somehow, dizzy or not, I managed to get enough sleep to cope with the new indignities of today: two rowdy classes at John Jay, rejections in the mail, three hours of standing on jammed subways and buses.

Mom called last night and said Grandma Sylvia has agreed to go into an adult residence. Mom called up one and they asked $1,600 a month to keep her. Mom is trying some others that may be cheaper. There’s no telling how much – or how little – they can get for the condo: maybe $50,000 or a little more.

Dad is still not doing well in terms of being paid; Sasson is very bad about shipping the goods out and all his customers are complaining. “As usual, I have to be his cheerleader,” Mom said.

Only Jonny, safely removed from the turmoil and immersed in his studies, seems to be thriving. God bless Jonathan: I hope he doesn’t have to face reality any time soon.

Thursday, November 13, 1980

9 PM. It is satisfying to come home after a full day’s work. I’m tired, but I also have a feeling of accomplishment just getting through this long day. These Thursdays aren’t so bad – and there are only four of them left.

Despite dizziness (compounded now by my new oversized glasses, which are very difficult to get used to), I slept well, savoring every moment because I had to be up at 6:30 AM.

Mom called last night to say that Dad will be coming in the weekend of January 9, when the term ends, so I can go back with him to Florida the following week. That means I’ll be moving in two months.

Everyone now knows I’m moving, and I have to start collecting boxes and newspapers to get all my stuff together; I also have to arrange for storing my furniture.

This morning I took the car to Brooklyn College even though it smokes when I stop. I had the veterans’ class write while I did some marking; then I went down to the faculty cafeteria for tea and read the paper until it was 10 AM, when the paychecks are given out.

I had mine cashed at the check-cashing store on Flatbush Avenue and then deposited the money in a Citibank branch.

On the IRT to Manhattan, I began thinking of old friends from college whom I haven’t seen in years: people like Mason and Mara.

I saw Mara’s cousin Buddy today at BC (he works in the business office), and the other night Mikey and I saw Slade at Kings Plaza, but neither of them recognized me. Maybe it’s the beard and my contact lenses.

On the payroll line, I met Bruce Chadwick, who’s got two courses at BC and one at LIU, where they just settled the faculty strike. (Dr. Farber was quoted in Sunday’s Times.)

At John Jay, I had both classes write and I walked over to the Research office to get my handwritten paycheck made out by Mrs. Brody.

That sleazy adjunct at John Jay told me to refrain from telling them I’m quitting until the last minute next term so they won’t have time to hire a new person and that will give the other adjuncts a chance for more courses.

What a creep. Immediately afterwards, he warned me not to tell anyone he had given me the suggestion: “I’m afraid of getting in trouble.”

That guy practically asks to be exploited. When I last saw him, he was in a stew about some memo from SEEK; I just ignore those memos. For $24.01 an hour, they can’t expect too much from us.

For Bruce Chadwick and this guy, teaching is all they can do – but I know I’m so much better than just an adjunct. I refuse to keep myself in an exploited class, and I even think Dr. Crozier, the John Jay chairman, respects me for leaving adjunct work.

I arrived early at Brooklyn College and went to talk to Neil Schaeffer at the English Department. Neil told me that the Appointments Committee has sent out a letter of non-reappointment for next term, but added, “You can come back in the future; everyone likes you.”

Apparently Peter Spielberg doesn’t. He walked by while Neil and I were talking and responded to my hello with an unfriendly glare. “Some people,” Neil said.

I had thought maybe Peter didn’t recognize me with my beard, but John Ashbery came out and said hello to both Neil and me. I guess I’m persona non grata with Spielberg as well as Baumbach. I shouldn’t let it bother me.

After eating dinner in Kosher Country, I walked around the quadrangle; tonight was much milder than it has been. My Liberal Studies class went well, as I went over their papers. I really enjoy that class and always seem to go over the hour.

I have about 35 papers to mark this weekend, but that doesn’t seem too much. Maybe this weekend will have a nice surprise for me.

Saturday, November 15, 1980

9 PM. I was just watching a silly old movie called She’s Working Her Way Through College with Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan. I’d like to see the campus musical updated to today’s situation. Come to think of, it wouldn’t be any more absurd than the original.

I’m trying to get used to my glasses, and I am, but slowly; the dizziness doesn’t help.

Yesterday Alice called. She had news about a job but couldn’t talk about it because she was at the Seventeen office. She sounded optimistic, though.

Alice told me a story – she almost forgot and then remembered just as she was about to hang up – that meant a great deal to me:

Her friend Mark told her he was working in the Poets-in-the-Schools program in Wisconsin and was teaching a high school creative writing class for the first time.

Mark asked them who their favorite writers were, and one, a 17-year-old boy, an aspiring short story writer, said, “Richard Grayson.” He had bought my book and loved it.

Mark, of course, told him that he had published me in Jump River Review. Can you imagine the satisfaction I got, hearing that a boy out there in Wisconsin has been touched by my work to such an extent?

Like Paul Fericano’s comment in the Small Press Review interview, that makes all the shit I’ve gone through to be a writer worth the pain. And it makes me want to go on, if only for some 17-year-old who likes my writing.

It’s odd how all these little satisfactions – the University of Miami letter, the Small Press Review mention, the story Mark told Alice – are all coming at the same time.

Today the MacDowell Colony Newsletter arrived, and I was listed with all the other summer Fellows (most of whom were in residence after I left: Ntozake Shange, Martin Tucker, Ellen Willis Tom Lux. They mention my Coda article, too, so I guess they saw it when it came out.

It was nice to see the names of old Colony friends like David Del Tredici (there was a big piece on him in the Times recently), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Anne LeBaron, Preston Twombly, Mark Dean and Sarah Sutro. I’ll always have fond memories of MacDowell because that place showed me what life could be like.

Last night I thought about my life and my career and I came to the conclusion that it was absurd to think of myself as a failure. Do I know anyone else my age who’s had as many stories published as I? Anyone else who’s had a commercial short story collection released?

I keep telling people that the Taplinger book was a fluke, but I know damn well it wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t a talented writer. And I’ve taught at six different colleges now and gotten more publicity than anyone I know.

Compare me to Baumbach and Spielberg: at my age, they were still unpublished while I’ve already published more (and in better places) than Spielberg. (No wonder he ignored me?) And I got where I am without any influential friends to help me.

Josh and his first girlfriend Candy came over today. Candy works in Rockaway, and they had to pick up a painting of a flounder. Her marriage to Doug just broke up and she seems quite happy about it. Candy is cute and sweet and a little daffy; I could really go for her.

We went out to eat and walked on the boardwalk and laughed – they more than I because they had gotten high on coke beforehand. I liked having company.

Candy couldn’t believe I’d give up such a nice apartment to move to Florida, but she admitted that “I’m giving myself a year here to make it before I go down there myself.” (Her parents are in Sunrise.)

It will be very hard to be in Florida without any friends. I won’t make them there as easily as I did at MacDowell.

Monday, November 17, 1980

6 PM. I got home about an hour ago. It turned cold and cloudy this afternoon and we’re awaiting the first snowfall of the season later tonight. It’s supposed to turn to rain soon after it begins falling, however.

On Saturday, Marc called me. He finally went to a doctor, who told him he had a bad infection in his throat and glands. The doctor put Marc on Ampicillin and told him to spend the weekend in bed.

Rikki went away – of course, she didn’t want to take care of him – and Marc said he was alone and bored.

I don’t know what his relationship with Rikki is, other than the fact that it’s sick, but now Marc knows how the rest of us feel about her. He said he may go down to Florida to recover, and of course he can’t take Rikki to Mom and Dad’s house with him.

I also spoke with Teresa, who’s going on a vacation to California at the end of the week. All she talked about was how men dump on her; she’s becoming very bitter, which I suppose is an improvement over her mooning over her lost beloved, Paul.

Also last night, I did my laundry, then watched Saturday Night Fever on TV. I slept amazingly well and woke up feeling so good that I sang the song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as I showered. I offered to take Grandpa Herb’s car into Brooklyn to have it fixed, but he insisted on doing it himself.

At the post office, I found two encouraging rejections from Epoch and Eureka Review; a second notice to pay my $40 Authors Guild dues; a letter from Steve Jervis telling me I won’t be reappointed at Brooklyn College this spring; an affirmative action form from Mary Washington College, where I applied for a job; and an application for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

I got to John Jay early enough to mimeo some students’ essays, which I went over in my classes. The students seemed chipper and responsive today, and I enjoyed teaching them. I let the second class out early, but because of subway delays, I didn’t get home any earlier than I usually do.

This is the first full week of classes in a while, and I had been thinking of calling in sick one day, but I think I’ll wait until November. Who knows? I might come down with the flu and I might really need my two allowed absences at each school.

Tomorrow should not be too difficult; I’m planning to go over the same mimeos at Brooklyn that I did at John Jay today. If the weather is really bad, I bet few people will show up for my 8 AM class.

I spoke to Simon, who wants to get together so I can help him submit stories to little magazines. Josh seems interested, too. Since Friday I’ve been feeling much better about my career and about my life in general.

I’ve got to take the long view and see these “bad times” in perspective. In truth, there were no major disasters in the past year, just a lot of unfortunate occurrences which taught me a lot.

This morning when I walked on the boardwalk, the world seemed serene. I decided I would try to be like the seagull I saw floating overhead with no apparent stress.

It’s been eight weeks since I last saw Dr. Pasquale, but I don’t feel the need for another therapy session. I’ve made my decision to move to Florida and I don’t really want to discuss it.

Or is that hiding?

Wednesday, November 19, 1980

10 PM. It’s been a long day. Last evening I taught a class on capitalization at BC, and it went well. It was cold and dark waiting for the bus at the Junction and somehow I was reminded of a little booklet Shelli made for Ivan ten years ago: “Things to Do While Waiting for the Rockaway Bus.”

I remember one entry was “Count the number of hairs in your mustache.” I can do that too now. I sometimes wonder where Shelli and Ivan are (Shelli in Madison? Ivan in New Jersey?) and if they’re happy.

In the two months I have left before I move, I’d like to see a number of my old friends. I probably won’t get the chance, though.

When I got home last night, I found a note Mrs. Epstein left; it said to call a Bonnie St. John at a Long Island number. It was a collection agency calling about the $103.18 bill I owe on my Getty credit card. I suppose I’ll pay it, but I think it may be illegal harassment for them to call my neighbors.

I hadn’t been dizzy all day yesterday, but I didn’t have a very good night; still, I managed to get a little sleep. This morning I opened an account at the Jamaica Savings Bank on Beach 116th Street; Citibank’s service charges are getting to be too much.

I have to pay the rent and that Getty bill. It just seems I can’t save money. I called the payroll office at Kingsborough and they said I should have my check on Friday.

At John Jay, I had lunch with Livia, who’s really sweet. She’s been avoiding writing the prospectus for her dissertation; instead, she reads Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries.

In January, Doris is having an operation to remove a tumor of the parotid gland, like Dad had – but Doris’s lump is much smaller than Dad’s was.

My classes didn’t go too well today – I was pretty disorganized and they were rowdy – but I got through them. I think most of my students will pass the CUNY exam, if not on the first try (in three weeks), then on the second during final exams.

In Rockaway by 4:30 PM, I shopped at Waldbaum’s, got a slice of pizza, checked my post office box (nothing for the second day in a row) and came home to read the papers, exercise and relax.

But at 5:30 PM I got a call from Bob Schippa at KCC’s Adult Education division. A writing workshop teacher at Edward R. Murrow High School had just canceled and he wanted to know if I could fill in. I said I would, and he gave me all the information.

Borrowing Grandpa Herb’s car, I drove off into Brooklyn, stopping for an ice cream cone to keep me going. It felt exciting, as if I were a doctor on an emergency call.

Recently I read an article about the joys of substituting; I can understand it better now (though I can also understand why Candy thinks it’s a pain).

I filled out personnel forms and a W-4 and started the class at 7:15 PM. There were about a dozen students: older people, including one married couple, a few young women in various stages of weirdness, and one middle-aged black woman.

They were of course impressed with my book, which I’d brought along, but they wanted to stick with their syllabus. I guess I’d forgotten they were on a beginning level.

Each read a character sketch, and while they were clichéd, they were fairly well-written. I found I had a lot to say about each piece and a lot to say about creative writing in general.

Over the years I’ve picked up so much that I’ve never been able to use because I never have taught creative writing. I feel I could be a great creative writing teacher if I had the chance.

At the end of class, I spoke about markets and manuscripts and they really got interested. Mr. Schippa said he’d mail me a check, probably about $30, by Christmas.

Friday, November 21, 1980

11 PM. Like millions of other people, I just found out who shot J.R. on Dallas: It was his sister-in-law Kristin. So ends the biggest publicity stunt in the history of TV.

I’m dizzy, as usual, but I’m getting used to the feeling at night. Last night it was 2 AM before I got to sleep, but at least I did sleep well.

I dreamed about being in Park Slope with Avis and Libby, and of a map of Brooklyn showing neighborhoods I was unfamiliar with, and of very high bridges and elevated roadways. There’s a New York that exists only in my dreams.

This morning I went to the post office and got letters from Notre Dame, LSU and New Mexico State: all of them want my dossier. I doubt if anything will come of it, but this evening I typed up a new one.

What a job! I almost wish I hadn’t published so many stories. (Of course I’m just kidding.) I put both the Florida and New York addresses on my dossier so it will be up-to-date.

I drove into Brooklyn – yes, my car managed to make it – and picked up my check at Kingsborough. At first the woman from payroll couldn’t find it, and I envisaged having to feign another epileptic attack.

But the check was there: $248 net pay, which I cashed at the Junction and then deposited at Citibank to cover my rent. I should notify my landlord soon about my moving.

If nothing crazy happens in the next few days, this could be the week when I straighten out all my debts. I have $600 in savings now and I’m due to get another $600 this week.

I had lunch at The Floridian – it had been a long time since I’d eaten there – and took some more 4-for-$1 photos of my bearded self across the street at Buddy’s. While I was waiting for the film to develop, I amused myself by paying some electronic computer game.

I spent the afternoon reading, watching soap operas and lifting weights before going over to my grandparents’ for dinner. They are so thrifty, it almost makes me sick.

My grandparents have this Depression mentality and they expect me to live as frugally as they do – but I’m young and they don’t really live.

It’s actually been a long time since I’ve bought new clothes. I have one pair of shoes, which I’ve been wearing now for over two years. My shirts are getting kind of frayed and I need a new suit and some dress pants.

Back home at 7 PM, I received a call from Pete Cherches, who’s planning to go for his Ph.D. at NYU next fall – anything to stay in school and have his parents support him.

After I got off the phone, as I said, I typed up my dossier and watched Dallas. After the show, I called Dad, who was watching it, too. Grandma Sylvia is a bit improved and they’re not taking her to the Heart Institute until Wednesday.

The weather is cool down in Florida, and Dad sold $27,000 worth of Sasson jackets to Burdines this week.

I’m tired and dizzy and I’m going to stop writing here and try to get to sleep.