A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late September, 1985


Saturday, September 21, 1985

5:30 PM. Events like the massive Mexico City earthquake in the past two days drive home that nothing in life is certain. On TV, there were pictures of 21-story buildings that collapsed like soufflés and of hundreds trapped in the ruins of their homes, offices, schools and churches.

We all like to think we have diplomatic immunity from catastrophe, but of course no one does.

Last night I read Emerson’s journals: there was a man who seemed to understand what life was about. The knowledge cost him, though; despite his often being mislabeled a Pollyanna, Emerson knew life’s dark side.

What’s his line: “He who has never entered the House of Pain has seen but half the universe”?

So many of my generation, the baby boomers raised in the comfortable ’50s, who realized we had the power to change the world in the ’60s, have lived lives geared to constant progress and perfectibility.

Tomorrow I’ll see Alice. She’s a good example, but I’m not so bad myself.

It’s regrettable that it takes a disaster like an earthquake or AIDS to remind us how fragile life is. That being said, as Emerson realized, there’s nothing to do but get on with it.

This morning, after a fairly good sleep, I took the IRT to Teachers College; it’s almost a pleasant trip on Saturday at 8 AM.

I enjoyed our Computer Graphics class. Mr. Budin showed us how to create shapes by poking them into memory in BASIC or by using hexadecimal machine language to do it.

I love being around the Apple II, and when he demonstrated SuperPILOT, I felt like I was being reintroduced to an old friend. Aside from our final project, we have to save to disks graphics done with SuperPILOT, the Koala Pad, and in high-res BASIC.

I’ve already done those things. In our “hands-on” hour, I sketched with the Koala Pad, getting the feel of it, and taking pleasure in my efforts.

Where there weren’t enough machines around, I wandered from computer to computer, helping people to transfer from one disk to another, to use PILOT commands, or to save their graphics.

All my knowledge has come back to me, and that’s gratifying, as I stayed away from computers for too long between April and September.

Back in Brooklyn at 2 PM, I got another big mailing from Mom. There were five credit card bills – for which I’d already made out checks – and another nice surprise: Mellon Bank raised my credit limit from $800 to $1599.

Of course I really should pay off some of these cards, but I enjoy the game too much. It delights me to see how close I come to maximum credit line; today it was $1, $5, $7, $8 and $10. And I liked getting a letter from Manny Hanny that began:

Dear Richard Grayson,

You’re a professional and you’re going places with your money. You lifestyle is demanding. You expect a lot from yourself and plenty from the money you make. And there’s no doubt your future is full of potential.

They sure know how to butter up Yuppies, don’t they?

I also received more speaking engagement invitations, a form to send back to Gale Research to put the Committee for Immediate Nuclear War in their Encyclopedia of Associations, and other goodies.

I now pursue getting credit with the same zest and sense of fun and adventure with which I used to submit stories to little magazines and await acceptance and rejection, and with which I’d send out press releases and await a call from a newspaper or wire service.

If it weren’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. Look – as I told Mom – I can’t be so dumb: I haven’t had a paycheck all year and yet I have $15,000 in the bank! I know it’s all pretty silly when you look at the horror of the Mexico City disaster, but it’s not a bad way to pass the time.

A Newsweek essay by a community college English comp teacher amused and saddened me. Called “No Allusions in the Classroom,” the essay details a first-day “general knowledge” quiz given to his students.

They thought Managua was in Iran and Camp David in Israel, and they identified Sid Caesar as an early Roman emperor, Charles Darwin as the discoverer of gravity, Ethel Rosenberg as a jazz singer in the 1930s, and The Great Gatsby as a magician in the same decade.

To these students, J. Edgar Hoover was a 19th-century President, Neil Simon wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Mark Twain invented the cotton gin.

It’s funny but scary. In the classroom, I’ve experienced mentioning some person or historical incident and then uneasily wondering how many students knew what I was referring to.

Didn’t I say this was The Dumb Decade?

Sunday, September 22, 1985

4 PM. It’s a humid, dark first day of autumn.

At 10:30 AM, I met Alice at her building and we went for brunch.

She loves her new job at Redbook, gets along with her editor, gets paid to read People and attend meetings, plays and functions like the MTV Awards – though the party afterwards at the Palladium was too late for her since it started at midnight.

She signed a contract with a packager to do a book for NAL, part of a new series of teenage self-help paperbacks. It’s called How to Get a Boyfriend in Two Weeks. Ahem. Alice said the writing is a snap, but she can’t say anything about sex because of the young audience.

Like several other New Yorkers, Alice can sound paranoid when she’s on the subject of real estate. She says she may stop reading the Times because the prices on condos and co-ops depress her too much.

Sometimes I think I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by real estate.

Alice expressed sympathy for AIDS sufferers and said that reading about them “almost made me want to do the one humanitarian thing I’ve ever done and be a volunteer for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. But then I stopped myself because I knew I couldn’t take it.”

Like most people, she couldn’t understand my credit card scheme; she said it sounded “sleazy” to her, but I explained that I’m actually helping the economy.

She said anyone who wants a lifestyle with “stability” – Alice’s word for what everyone she knows except me wants – couldn’t do it: “For one thing, you could never get a mortgage.”

True, but I don’t want one. She can’t get the old-fashioned concept of debt out of her head. Recently she paid off her credit card bills and felt relieved.

But when her accountant advised her to double her present $5,000 Visa and MasterCard limits, Alice’s bank, Bank of New York, turned her down, saying she had too much available credit already.

I don’t understand how Alice, with her high income, can’t get higher credit limits while I keep getting offered more and more credit – unless it’s because I’m such a heavy borrower.

As we parted, Alice told me about getting a letter from her old friend Rose, who went to junior high and high school with us. Rose said she was prompted to write after her mother saw Alice’s name on the Weight Watchers masthead as editor-in-chief. “I always knew you’d do well,” Rose wrote Alice.

Rose herself has been widowed for two years, has two children, moved near her parents in Rockaway Park, and is returning to work as a kindergarten teacher.

Through the years, Alice has always expressed astonishment that her old friends “who never left the Brooklyn mentality behind” could live such different lives than hers.

To me, it seems natural, but Alice has never been able to understand diversity; maybe that’s why Alice never seems to doubt herself.

My problem is I understand everyone’s point of view, and maybe that’s why I seem to do little except doubt myself.

From West 4th Street, I took the JFK Express to the American Airlines terminal to get a Choice cash advance of $400; since my billing period ended yesterday, I was eligible to get another cash advance today.

At the airport I took a taxi to Avenue J and Coney Island Avenue, passing Kingsborough Community College and Marc’s old Sheepshead Bay apartment where I lived for five weeks in May and June of 1981.

I got to the bank before it closed at 2 PM and deposited my cash. Then I took the Coney Island Avenue bus up to Bartel-Pritchard Square – we passed Dr. Lipton’s house, but only for an instant – and I walked the 18 blocks up Prospect Park West and across President Street here.

There’s a message from Dr. Perkal of Touro College on my machine; they put a blind ad in the paper last week, looking for adjuncts. But I don’t need the tsuris of working there.

Monday, September 23, 1985

8 PM. Watching the nightly network shows – all originating from Mexico City and showing horrible scenes of human misery – makes my troubles seem pretty silly.

Obviously, other earthquakes have caused similar devastation, but they’ve tended to be in remote parts of the world, difficult to get to and not as easy for Americans to identify with.

The news playing up the Mexico City earthquake makes it a more important tragedy since the way to Americans’ minds is through their TV tubes. That was demonstrated when the concern for the starving Ethiopians crystallized after just one BBC report was shown on NBC.

But even so, the earthquake, like AIDS, reminds us of our mortality. Remember in Candide when Pangloss, the ultra-optimist, gets caught in the great (and real) Lisbon earthquake?

Oh well.

My classes today were pretty good, but they took a lot out of me. By my last class of the day, I began to tire and even feel a bit faint. I haven’t adjusted my eating schedule to my school schedule.

Though I read the papers for tomorrow’s Baruch class, I didn’t grade them, and right now I don’t feel well enough to do the job.

I wasted a couple of hours talking to Jim yesterday. . . well, not wasted because I like him and he’s interesting (Jim was in the NAL office the day they got the proposal for Alice’s two-week boyfriend book), but I should have been concentrating on my students. I have half a dozen new ones at John Jay, upping my rosters to 16 and 17.

Before class, I met Pete Cherches’ friend Harold Bakst, who remembered me from years ago. He’s teaching one class at John Jay on Monday/Wednesday and another on Tuesday/Thursday and is tutoring at Brooklyn College.

I had my photo ID taken at Baruch so I can pick up my first paycheck on Thursday, which will also be payday at John Jay.

The kid who came to clean the fish tank filter found another fish dead behind the filter.

The weather turned rainy, cooler; summer is already just a memory.

Tuesday, September 24, 1985

9 PM.  It’s now Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I should do more than be grateful that I can sleep late tomorrow. But I’m such an assimilated Jew that I don’t really understand the true meaning of the holiday.

When I was a kid and Dad dragged me to the synagogue, all I heard was mumbo-jumbo in a foreign language.  It’s sad that my religious “education” – four years of Hebrew school – made me want to forget everything as soon as I could.

Last night I needed to sleep, and sleep I did – from 9 PM straight through to 6 AM, with an interruption from a call from Touro’s Dr. Perkal, whose offer of employment I declined.

I’m glad they’re having a hard time finding adjuncts these days. Maybe one day college department chairmen will have to do what Sun Belt school districts do and go out and recruit adjuncts.

Up early, I got to Baruch at 8 AM and had enough time to grade all the papers before my 8:50 AM class. This SEEK group is feisty and too large, but I like them.

At 10:30 AM, I was free. It was a drizzly day, and I thought of coming home to relax, but I decided to visit Teresa. She wasn’t home, but I had time to hang out there, eat some cookies, read the Times, and get my mail.

As I was about to leave the building at noon, I heard on the lobby’s the radio news: “An explosion at a muffler shop in Davie, Florida, killed four people and injured others.”

At 86th and Broadway, I called home. Jonathan said everyone was fine, but the 8 AM explosion of propane gas had created a loud boom that rattled windows.

Later, Dad told me the Midas shop on Griffin and University was leveled and that the explosion was so great, all the windows in the area – at Publix, Gaetano’s Pizzeria, the bookstore and First Nationwide Savings – were shattered, and the stores had structural damage.

I miss Davie. I guess I feel a little homesick.

On the Broadway bus to Columbia, I ran into Bruce from my Computer Graphics class, and we had lunch together. Originally I thought he was kind of cute – I’m sure he’s gay – but he didn’t seem interested in me.

He did tell me that he thought Teachers College’s computer department was bad. He took a programming course with Prof. Taylor, who was such a terrible teacher that all the students were panicky because they couldn’t follow his lectures.

Bruce said that he’s in a doctoral program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, a field Columbia is well-known for. But he suggested that for learning computers, “the cheaper school you go to, the better off you are, since you mostly learn it by yourself anyway.”

I spent a semi-frustrating time in the computer room, managing to work a little on the mainframe. I know that if I’ve encountered problems, the others in the course – I’m the only male student – must be lost. 

After ninety minutes with the computers, I got on the IRT at 116th Street and was back in the Slope an hour later, just as the sun came out.

On the way to dinner at the Grand Canyon, I stopped for a nice, short $15 haircut. I like having very short hair now; I don’t know how I used to stand long hair or even semi-long hair.

Maybe it’s that young people can wear long hair but it doesn’t look good on a more mature person.

(Well, chronologically I’m mature.)

Friday, September 27, 1985

8 PM.  Today was Hurricane Friday, but as I suggested last evening, Gloria didn’t live up to her advance billing.

Last night the Mayor announced that public schools would be closed today, and private schools, CUNY and other colleges, banks, the stock exchange and most businesses followed suit.

Things sounded awful this morning: the TV stations had hurricane alerts which tried to get people to take the storm seriously. Because they’ve evacuated Fire Island and other shore communities, I was worried about Grandma Ethel, especially after they told Rockaway residents to leave.

I called Grandma several times but she wasn’t moving. “It will pass,” she said.  She did have a neighbor tape up her windows and glass terrace door, though.

At 8 AM, I went out to Key Food, where everyone was busy buying food and candles and batteries. People were more polite than usual and waited patiently on the long lines. The storm certainly seemed fierce: I got soaked to the skin, and my umbrella was useless against the winds.

Back on TV, forecasters said a “worst-case scenario” was approaching, with Gloria due to make landfall in mid-Long Island with 120 mph winds. But although the storm caused lots of felled trees and power lines and a good bit of property damage, it was no killer.

Coming at low tide and moving through the area very quickly, Gloria didn’t cause heavy flooding at the beach. “The beach is still here,” said Grandma Ethel, recalling that back in 1971 the ocean was under the boardwalk.

It turned out that Grandma’s relaxed attitude was more appropriate than my media-fed anxiety. Here in Brooklyn, we had heavy rains and wind – there are a lot of trees and branches down – but by 1 PM, the sun was out and it seemed calm.

I knew that was the eye of the hurricane, though, and expected worse. However, all we got after that were whipped-up winds from the other direction and a little rain. The skies cleared, and out on Seventh Avenue, people were walking around with smiles, cheerfully enjoying an unexpected holiday.

Feeling bored and a bit cranky, I took the IRT uptown to visit Teresa, who had just come back from a walk with Elizabeth, and we sat around talking for an hour. Now that I’ve distanced myself from her, I feel more like Teresa’s friend again.

I’ve been thinking about coming back to her apartment in a month to save money, but Teresa’s involved in a crazy relationship now. I can always spend $800 to $1,000 a month and just sublet somewhere. If I were to return to Teresa’s, I’d miss my privacy, so we’ll just have to see.

At 6 PM, I left with Elizabeth – Teresa had a date with Ken – and before getting on the train back to Brooklyn, I had dinner at the 4 Brothers at 87th Street.

After five weeks in Park Slope, I’ve become very attached to this place. A few weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to leave, but now it seems like home and I dread having to move again. It’s funny how I end up falling in love, a little, with almost every place where I’ve lived.

By now, I also feel comfortable at Baruch as well as at John Jay. I guess it takes me about a month to adjust to a new place or a new routine.

As harried as I sometimes feel, I realize on a boring day like today how much I need the social contact and meaning of work.

Sunday, September 29, 1985

8 PM.  Miriam’s reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe is starting now, but I called her and gave an excuse for not going; I didn’t want to stay out late when I have to get up at 6 AM.

Now I think I made a mistake. I won’t get to see Miriam at all this visit, as we had to cancel lunch on Friday because of the hurricane.

I spent all of today – a lovely, sunny day – indoors, studying and reading and exercising. But all work and no play don’t add up to much fun.

This morning I turned Josh down when he asked if I wanted to go to the Atlantic Antic. And later, when I called Josh because I felt lonely, he said he didn’t feel like going out to dinner.

I shouldn’t let my work make me become a monk. If I was going to be alone most of the time, I should have gone to Florida.  I’ve had too many meals out alone. When Josh and I had dinner out last week, it seemed like, and it was, a real treat.

I need to see people more; I’ve neglected my friends this past month. Not good, Grayson.

I guess I felt this mostly because Jim had Julie and his friend Ron over, and they cooked a big dinner while I boiled a Lean Cuisine.

It would have been nice if they’d asked me to join them, but they’re all friends and don’t really know me, and if I weren’t living here, we’d probably never meet socially.

Today was Ben’s 39th birthday, and all day he got calls from his relatives – but he was working and wasn’t here. If he’d come home earlier, I would have been happy to take him out to dinner. But by the time he got home, I’d already eaten, and besides, he brought up a pizza for himself.

Ben’s life seems sad to me. He admits he doesn’t know very many people in New York and hardly ever is talkative; he eats his meals up in his room alone. (I did that tonight, but only so as not to intrude on Jim and his guests.)

The one time I did go into Ben’s room, I saw a photo of his daughter on his dresser. She’s an adorable girl about five years old, with blonde hair and light skin, so I assume that her mother is white. But Ben is so private that I don’t know anything about his personal life.

Last night I went out at 8 PM to get the Sunday Times, but at the Grand Army Plaza newsstand, a crowd of people was still waiting for the paper, which didn’t arrive until 8:45 PM.

It was a mild night with a full moon like a street lamp, and as I stood out there, I kept thinking how strange it was to be on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn on a fall Saturday night.

I remembered the time a plane fell in the Slope after a midair collision with another plane, and how I went with my parents to that very neighborhood because Mom had to see her obstetrician on Plaza Street, just a few feet from where I was standing.

Then I realized that was 25 years ago, and I didn’t know what to feel.

Jim and his friends expressed amazement when I asked Ben how old he was and he said 39. It seemed natural and unremarkable to me, but Jim and his friends are probably only 23 or 24.

Yesterday at Kings Highway, I was thinking about the health food store that I used to go to there; it opened in 1970 or 1971, I guess, and is now gone.

That got me thinking about the fall of 1971, when I broke up with Shelli and was so unhappy and upset.

I hadn’t thought about that in a very long time, but suddenly I could remember specific days and how I felt (angry, hurt, depressed) and even what I was wearing (bleach-faded jeans with a flower decal by the knee, a white sweater with multicolored threads running through it).

This sounds dopey, but sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s all been one continuous life.  Today’s Michaelmas, I see at the top of the diary page, and tomorrow’s Sukkoth.

Remember that dream where I told Ronna that life is too relentless? The other day I tried to recite Sh’ma Yisroel” but I got the Hebrew words all messed up.

Monday, September 30, 1985

6 PM.  I didn’t sleep much last night, maybe just four hours. Anyway, I didn’t feel refreshed at 6 AM when I woke up, and I thought I’d have a hard time getting through the day.

But I didn’t have to take any of the Tylenol I stuck in my pocket before leaving; I tried to pace myself and relax.

One way I do that is to remember that my jobs are only temporary and a means to an end, and that teaching remedial English is not my career, only a way to earn money. I don’t take things so seriously that way.

It helps to say, “This is not my real life” when my students act up or I get frustrated. The lack of responsibility of adjunct life suits me: I like not being a part of the system – a permanent part, anyway.

After I left Baruch, I went to Columbus Circle and deposited the check Justin gave me, and after doing my own banking, I bought some Mrs. Field’s semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies with macadamia nuts and sat by the entrance to the park, trying to relax, enjoy the fresh air and the trees, and block out any stressful thoughts.

Reading the Times on a park bench, I didn’t get to John Jay until an hour before I taught.

My classes were tiring and tiresome. Though I try to summon all the enthusiasm I can, there isn’t much excitement in teaching verb tenses.

It took me over an hour to get home, but I chose the wrong trains.

Little by little, by trial and error, I’m learning how to ride most efficiently, though the strain of spending two hours a day on the subway isn’t good for me. I did try to do some stretches and little exercises on the way home.

I phoned Ronna and made a tentative date for Friday, after her shrink appointment.  Then I read most of Scott Sommer’s new novel, Hazzard’s Head.

The thirteen “characters” (Boy, Lover, Father, Son, Writer, etc.) in the narrator’s mind make the book hard to read, but I felt I got some insights into Scott’s own neurosis, as Susan had said I would. Whether I’d enjoy the book as much without knowing Scott, I’m not sure.

While I’d hoped to get more interesting mail, what I got was routine – except for a letter from Rick, who wonders why writers our age got passed over in favor of the under-30 crowd. (He said Scott’s book is sinking without a trace in D.C.)

The Washington Post asked him to review Gilbert Sorrentino’s new book, and in typical Peabody fashion, Rick says he’ll probably “blow it.” Give that man some confidence!

The other night Jonathan was shocked when I read him a Times story in which his guru, Bhagwan, urged his followers to stop wearing their reddish colors, to stop carrying his photo in a locket, and to end Rajneeshism.

Jonathan made me read the story three times because he couldn’t believe it.

It reminds me of what I learned about cognitive dissonance in Social Psychology at Brooklyn College. Perhaps Jonathan will learn a lesson, but who knows with him?

His bad timing in committing himself to a cult that’s just about on the verge of extinction is pretty funny.