A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-July, 1985


Thursday, July 11, 1985

4 PM. Last night my worries finally caught up with me. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do with my life.

I was so upset that in the early morning I had an attack of diarrhea. Although I tried to get to Rockaway to visit Grandma Ethel, I turned around at Columbus Circle because I felt sick.

Last evening was okay, though. Justin came over and we had a pleasant dinner at Marvin Gardens, then saw the new Clint Eastwood movie, Pale Rider.

But during the night I felt hopeless, almost the way I did five summers ago, that horrible time in 1980 when Grandpa Herb was in the hospital, when Janice was dying, when I was broke in Rockaway and saw “no way out” of my situation. It’s not that bad now, though.

I know diarrhea is a symptom of AIDS, and I’ve come to wonder more and more if I have it. With my mind running away with me last night, I visualized Sean dead of AIDS.

Of course, if I do have the disease, all my worries about my finances and my professional future seem kind of silly. But if I’m healthy, I really don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.

I feel torn between New York and Florida, and I can’t seem to commit myself to a career, a job or a relationship. This would be a good time for me to be in therapy, but I can’t afford it.

Well, I’ve had it very easy for over a year now, with loads of good times, so I guess it’s time for me to get down to business. I don’t like the idea of giving up my freedom to return to work, but I’ll respect myself more if I start being productive.

Now I feel like a very shallow person: a parasite, a dilettante, lazy and selfish. That’s got to change.


8 PM. I brought back some chicken lo mein and vanilla Häagen-Dazs to eat, and then, while doing the laundry, I sat outside on a Riverside Drive bench and listened to All Things Considered.

Back up here, I lifted my dumbbells and worked up a sweat, and finally I began feeling somewhat better. This too shall pass.

One important realization: I’ve got too much time on my hands. When I worry about losing my precious “free time,” I’m off-base. As hard and as long as I’ve ever worked, I’ve always found time for myself, and that time has been more precious because I had to steal it away.

Not only am I stronger and more resilient than I think I am, hard work and long hours make me even stronger. I need less time for introspection and more busy-work.

I’ll be giving myself one more week because Crad will be coming in — his latest letter shows him to be heroic in the way he crafted a plan to prevent the suicide of his old girlfriend Pamela — but after Teresa comes back, I get moving. Then I’ll start to feel better about myself.

This has been a strange time. It’s been two years since my last book was published, and I feel less and less like a writer. And my recent efforts to get publicity went nowhere.

I don’t have any of my clippings with me here, either reviews of my work or articles about me. In a sense, some of my identity came from validation by the media. Now I’m forced to get my identity from my own actions and feelings, and it’s caused me a little trouble.

Friday, July 12, 1985

8 PM in Rockaway. I’d forgotten how beautiful the beach can be on a summer evening. A cool breeze is blowing, and I feel pretty good.

I slept wonderfully from 10 PM until 8 AM, getting just the sort of refreshing sleep my body needed. My dreams were nourishing, and I woke up feeling energetic and optimistic.

Because I was already packed, I figured I’d get an early start, so after I read the papers, I took off. I’d been wanting to stop at LIU to see Margaret Rubel, but when I got to the school, I found it closed for the day.

I noted that the second summer session starts a week from Monday and that they’re offering several English classes; though they probably have teachers assigned, it wouldn’t hurt for me to drop by and see if a course is available.

It was interesting to see downtown Brooklyn: Flatbush and DeKalb, Junior’s, the LIU campus, the time-and-temperature sign atop the Dime Savings Bank.

Many years of my life were spent in that part of downtown, and I got the feeling things are on the upswing again. It’s hard to believe, but only six years of my life have been spent living outside of Brooklyn.

I took the IRT to the Junction and got on the Rockaway bus, watching the old neighborhood as we passed by. Although it was a bit cloudy, there were dozens of beachgoers on the Q35; most of them got off at Riis Park.

I, of course, didn’t got off till the end of the line, Beach 116th Street, where I went over to Ciro’s Pizza for lunch.

As I walked along the 13 blocks of the boardwalk to Grandma’s afterwards, I thought about whether to go to Florida or not and realized something that hadn’t really occurred to me before: namely, that there’s no time limit on when I go there.

All along, I’ve been thinking that I have to get to Florida in late August so I can begin taking classes and/or start teaching – or else I have to teach in New York in September and not leave until December or January, when the semester ends.

But what if I don’t get a job in academia? Then I can come and go at any time. I’d miss out on taking or teaching college classes, but even at the public school level, it’s likely there are vacancies during the year; certainly I could work as a substitute.

And again, even if I’ve got a teaching job here, nothing says I can’t quit in October or November if I’m unhappy, and return to Florida before January. Thinking this way makes my decision less threatening and less awesome. There’s always a way out.

Grandma Ethel looks pretty good now that she’s gained weight (a side effect of her antidepressant), but she admits she’s become very forgetful – and she’s still as out of touch with the world as she ever was, though she showed me she could still do a decent disco dance to a Madonna video of “Material Girl.”

We watched TV and talked until 3 PM, when she went out to talk with the ladies in the park and I lay on the beach. The beach is relaxing, but I hate the sand and lack the patience I used to when I was less worried about skin cancer and wrinkles.

So I was back here at 4 PM; Grandma followed half an hour later, and we had a decent supper.

I called Mom, who spoke to Grandma mostly. It was too hot for Mom and Marc to go the flea market today, she said.

Grandma Ethel left to “make a living” (play cards) at 6:30 PM and should be back soon.

President Reagan will require surgery to remove a precancerous intestinal polyp tomorrow. Tomorrow is also the big Live Aid rock concert to benefit the starving Africans; a billion people will see it on TV live from London and Philadelphia.

Sunday, July 14, 1985

8 PM. Today was another humid, muggy day.

This morning I read the Sunday Times. The magazine section had a good profile of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, probably the sweetest person whom I knew at MacDowell five summers ago.

I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch with more of the friends I met at artists’ colonies (Susan and Matthew are exceptions), but that seems to be par for everyone’s course.

Tom called at 11 AM and asked if I wanted to go to a noon showing of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome at the 84th Street Sixplex, and of course I agreed.

While Tom was buying the tickets, I asked Debra what she was doing in New York besides writing, and she said, “Reading Celine.”

And while Debra was in the ladies’ room, Tom told me he’d just finished Gaddis’s new novel and compared him to writers I’d never read and then he began speaking about writers I’d never even heard of.

I nod a lot when I’m with them.

The film was excellent: all the Mad Max movies present an original world, a sexy and almost magical post-holocaust society.

Deciding I could forgo the three-hour Wim Wenders film Tom and Debra were heading up to the Thalia to see next, I had lunch, xeroxed 30 copies of my adjunct cover letter and résumé, and then sent them out to all the CUNY colleges and a number of private colleges.

With the CUNY contract to be voted on, adjuncts — like the full-time faculty — will receive a 5% salary increase retroactive to last year (about $135 extra in my pocket) and another 5% increase starting this September.

If I teach 12 credits at CUNY, I could end up with about $7000: good money by my standards. I don’t really mind teaching four or even five classes; after being off for so long, I can work myself hard for a while. And then I could go to Florida in January and not worry too much about money.

After finishing Newman’s The Post-Modern Aura, I fell into a relaxing sleep.

When I awoke, I phoned Crad at his grandparents’ and found him in a bad mood. His trip was delayed by thunderstorms, and “half the plane was Spanish-speaking,” which he didn’t like.

Then he saw his parents: “My mother’s gained weight, and my father looks terrible.”

And it’s strange for Crad to be at his grandparents’ in Jamaica for the last time: “My grandfather is very fussy. He doesn’t want me to smoke in bed because he thinks I’m going to burn down the house before they can sell it.”

Also, he was annoyed that his niece didn’t recognize him from last year. She’s 18 months old. As my own grandmother would say, “Oh, is that a Crad!”

We made arrangements for him to come here on Wednesday at 2 PM; he said he wants to stop off first at Times Square “to buy some souvenirs.”

Later when I told this to Tom, he said, “It’s not souvenirs. It’s for himself. Crad probably has the biggest pornography collection in Canada.”

Next to my eccentric writer friends, I must appear very dull indeed.

Tuesday, July 16, 1985

4 PM. On another dreadfully humid day, the air is thick and moist, but here in Teresa’s air-conditioned bedroom, it’s comfortable.

Last evening I went over to Ronna’s at 7:30 PM. The night before she’d made some zucchini pizza and invited me over to try it for dinner.

When I discovered that The Year of Living Dangerously, a movie she had been wanting to see, would be on at 8 PM, we decided to watch it while having dinner in Ronna’s bedroom. She prepared a modest meal, but to me it was a feast.

Even walking to her apartment, I felt good, as a thunderstorm had broken and the air was charged with energy. We enjoyed the food and the film, and afterwards, we snuggled up.

I just wanted to kiss and hug her and hold her and be held; I think she wanted the same thing. Of course, we both felt conflicted about it, too, but we’ve been attracted to each other for so many years now, we feel comfortable and natural when we hold each other.

Ronna is going on vacation for a week or so, starting on Friday, and I’ll miss her. I realize that for her own good, I have to be out of her life — at least romantically — but for now, I don’t think some cuddling can hurt either of us.

It certainly made me feel good. When I left her apartment, I practically floated down West End Avenue.

After a decent night’s sleep, I spent this morning reading and doing the laundry. I made a lunch date with Pete for Tuesday and a dinner date with Gary for next Monday night.

A week from today, Teresa will be home. It’s funny, but I miss her a little. I’d like to spend some time alone with her to talk about my future — and hers. We both have some decisions to make.

I’ve definitely decided I want to return to Florida, but not necessarily in August. If I could stay in New York till Christmastime, that would be great.

If I had another adjunct situation like I did last year and had to finish the term in January, I’d do it — but I’d go to Florida for Christmas and pave the way for my arrival.

In 1986, I’ll probably stay in Florida until June, and take classes for the first summer session at FIU or FAU. And I’ll spend only the summer in New York and return to Florida that fall.

Perhaps if I stay in New York for the rest of 1985, I will get the city out of my system for a while. Aside from the great winter weather, what’s good about South Florida is that I can live there relatively cheaply when compared to Manhattan. And I certainly feel at home down there.

I just want to be as happy as possible. This isn’t hedonistic or Yuppie-ish: I know that life is filled with unfair tragedies and horrible events; I don’t believe that I or anyone else is perfectible.

But knowing that makes me want all the more to concentrate on life’s little joys: lying in an air-conditioned room, reading an interesting newspaper article, drinking diet chocolate fudge soda, remembering pleasant times in the past.

While I don’t think I’ve lost my ambition, there are some things I will not sacrifice for fame, money or power.

Boy, I’m beginning to sound pretentious.

Maybe all my hopes will prove futile (watch that soap opera language, kiddo) — but day for day, I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been, and happier, I suspect, than the vast majority of other people.

Still, I’ve been so pampered and I’ve lived life so effortlessly that I haven’t really been tested. Maybe I’d break down in the event of hard times.

It’s silly, of course, to wish for adversity just for the sake of personal growth. Adversity will find me soon enough.

When I began this entry, I felt a bit bored, but now I realize again what a lucky little son of a bitch I am.

Thursday, July 18, 1985

11 PM. Sometimes I think Crad and Tom’s belief in the film-and-popular-culture myth of the struggling writer doing heroic work against the odds (which will inevitably be recognized only after his death) is healthier than what might be my clearer perception of reality: that we don’t matter much.

That may be why they are writing a lot while I remain blocked and silent.

Still, it seems to me that the healthiest response to the question of a writer’s eventual renown came today from Pete Cherches over lunch at Dubrow’s Cafeteria: “I don’t care if I’m famous after I’m dead. I’d rather be famous now and forgotten when I’m dead.”

I jokingly told Pete he and I were Information Age writers while Tom and Crad were Industrial Age writers. “You could write a thesis on that,” he said.

What Tom and Crad have in common with Pete and Josh is revulsion of humbug, cant, and the “accepted wisdom.”

All my writer friends, I think, are good at seeing the emperor’s new clothes for what they are – and when we do that, as Tom and Crad and I did yesterday (Debra was so quiet I kept forgetting she was there) – we have a great old time.

Last night, with a break for dinner at a Greek greasy spoon (Crad refused to go to someplace nicer), we talked away until well after 8 PM, at which time Tom and Debra went home.

Then Crad got out the “snacks” he bought at Sloan’s and started behaving like Mr. Fussy. Although it wasn’t hot last night, he demanded the air conditioner be turned on – and lots of other little things.

He’s not very flexible or adaptable, and in his way, he seems to his creature comforts every bit as much as the Yuppies do. I rented two movies, which kept him amused and quiet, and I fell asleep about 1 AM.

But two hours later I was in the same panic about my future that I experienced a week ago. Scenarios kept popping up my head, and the terror of moving to a new place here in New York City or in Florida and taking on new jobs kept me up for hours.

One way I’ve hedged my bets is to send query letters about adjunct courses to FAU and FIU’s English departments; I might as well find out if the Florida colleges scorn me before I scorn them.

Life is so much easier in Florida, so much simpler – but I feel I’m wanted here in New York and not there. We’ll see.

I’ll talk with Teresa when she comes home; I’ll wait to see what job offers come my way; I’ll check back with Teachers College; and I’ll also see what happens with my teaching license applications.

I know that after a year and several months of an easy life, I’m about to begin a difficult period.

This morning Crad and I had a good conversation as he chain-smoked in his pajamas. When I left him at the 42nd Street station, I felt real affection for him. I certainly wish I had Crad’s faith in himself and his ability to withstand being outside society.

However, I do feel more at home with Pete, whom I met at Dubrow’s. Like me, Pete values the comfort of a conventional job. But he was tired after staying up most of the night mixing the recording he made on Monday.

How long Pete can combine computer programming and his East Village art, literary and musical activities is anyone’s guess.

I exchanged xeroxes of my stories for the work of Lynn Tillman’s and Harrison Fisher’s as we enjoyed the food at Dubrow’s old-style Jewish cafeteria filled with garment workers before they close the place down to make way for a high-rise.

By then feeling hot in my tie and jacket, I took the PATH train to Journal Square in Jersey City, the first time I’d ever been there. It was like an adventure to be in a new city.

I walked past the downtown stores to Kennedy Boulevard and then up a few blocks to St. Peter’s College, a lovely place.

For half an hour, I sat in the quadrangle and listened and watched as a jazz combo (all white guys) entertained and answered questions from a group of kids (mostly black).

Dr. Welsh, the English Department chairman, was an intelligent and perceptive man; we developed a rapport from my first answer. I could tell he was impressed with me, and it would be a real treat and a learning experience to teach at St. Peter’s – but as he himself suggested, I’ll probably get better offers because they can pay me only $330 a credit.

That’s pretty bad. It’s sad I can’t afford to teach there, I thought, as I returned to Manhattan.

Saturday, July 20, 1985

5 PM. The heat and humidity are getting to me. Also, I’ve spent today alone, without any phone calls, and I’m bored. I should be reading or exercising, but I can’t manage it. My head and stomach have been hurting me for some time.

When Josh got here last evening, I felt faint, possibly from not eating although I seem to have no appetite. I did feel better after we had dinner at the American Diner, but I wasn’t up to going to the movies.

Instead, we rented Birdy and watched it here. Both of us enjoyed the film, which had intelligent and sensitive performances.

After walking Josh to the subway station at 10:30 PM, I came home to bed. Despite sleeping well and for a long time, my head still felt heavy all day.

My only journey out was to get a slice of pizza for lunch and then go to the 42nd Street library. At the out-of-town newsstand, I got the Miami and Fort Lauderdale papers.

Reading them depresses me because I remember how narrow-minded and parochial Broward County is. Every time I’m certain I’ll go back there, I’m reminded of what I hated about South Florida.

But New York City seems so expensive and so hard. I’m beginning to believe I need a new option, a city that’s cheaper and more laid-back than New York but more progressive than Fort Lauderdale. I wish I could find a place where I belong.

I know I’ve scattered my efforts. In many ways I’m a confused failure. I can’t seem to focus on anything, not even this agoraphobia book. Probably I need therapy, but I can’t afford it now and don’t know what do about that.

Hey, I see from the top of this page that today is the sixteenth anniversary of the first moon landing. I was pretty confused then, too: I was 18 years old and only just getting over agoraphobia.

If I call myself a failure now, I was certainly one then. I couldn’t even get out of the house to attend college until my first summer session course that year.

That’s the summer I answered Brad’s ad in the East Village Other, the summer he used to pick me up in his green Mustang and I was too scared to do much beyond hold his hand.

The past few days I can’t get Sean out of my mind, and I keep seeing guys who reminded me of him. The truth is, I’m lonely. And confused. And I feel an awful lot like a failure.

But I’m 34, not 18, now, and if I have a record of accomplishments – friendships, love relationships, success living on my own, my jobs and my publications and everything on my résumé – I also know that I don’t have my whole life ahead of me the way I did in the summer of 1969.

True, I was a fucked-up kid, but my life was fairly stable: I had college, my parents and brothers, a secure and safe home. There was almost more permanence in my life then than there is now.

Last night I read a Chinese proverb: “He who does not know where he is going will journey the farthest.” Does that mean life is most difficult for those without a clear goal? Or that life is most rewarding?

When I think too much, as in the past couple of days, I just drive myself crazy.

Remember the Emerson quote I used as the epigraph for Eating at Arby’s:

“Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy . . .”

I feel in turmoil, the way I felt at the end of the summer in 1968, when I couldn’t attend Brooklyn College and didn’t know what to do with my life. I had panic attacks, but before I got worse and became a shut-in, I was able to go places.

I remember spending the Jewish holidays in 1968 with Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb in Rockaway. One evening while I was there I was going to visit Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia. It was just across the street, but I got a panic attack on the way. I can remember thinking I was going to die.

There’s a photograph of me from the terrace from that visit: I am a skinny seventeen-year-old with his hair flopping down into his eyes. I wish I could go back in time, as in this summer’s hit movie, and talk to that guy half my age.

What would I tell him? Would I make him optimistic or despairing if I told him what the next seventeen years of his life would bring? What would the 51-year-old Richard Grayson of 2002 say to me today?

I can’t imagine being 51, but perhaps it’s not as hard as it was for me to imagine, back in 1968, being 34 years old in faraway 1985.

Grandma Ethel says that apart from her aches and pains and memory lapses, she doesn’t feel like an old woman, that in her mind she’s maybe about 27.

Will I ever feel old? I’d almost like to: not tired-old but wise-old, settled-old.

Ah, like all days, today will pass – and the mood with it – but it’s also real enough to return.

This may sound sophomoric – like the kid who started these diaries in 1969 – but I don’t have a clue as to what the fuck life is all about.

Damn this stupid introspection! No wonder my head aches.

Hey, kid, it’s just one of those days. You need to get busy, get moving. I will. Maybe though, for today, I should get all this drecky angst out of my system.

President Reagan left the hospital a week after his cancer surgery. I wish I had his unthinking, optimistic attitude towards life.

Yeah, I’d rather be one of those people who see life as “sturdy,” to use Emerson’s word.