A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early March, 1975
by Richard Grayson
A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early March, 1975
Saturday, March 1, 1975
It’s almost 1 AM, and I’ve just come home. I’m feeling very peaceful after a day of activity. Today was rather rare; lately I’ve been spending a lot of time by myself, a lot of time at home. But I spent today with friends, doing things, and it was a pleasant change.
Josh called me late this morning, after I had just gotten up and thrown myself into my RCAF exercises; this was my last day on Chart 2. Josh said that Allan was coming over and they’d have breakfast at his house at 1 PM.
Robbie let me in when I arrived. Not only was Allan there, but Andy, too. Andy starts work on Monday at a school in Manhattan Beach for brain-damaged and emotionally disturbed children.
I watched them eat bacon and eggs, and for an hour we tried to figure out something to do.
Allan is into a different scene than I am; I can’t see going out dancing or bar-hopping. He did give us all mimeographed invitations to another Flat Earth party that he and Evan are planning three weeks from tonight.
Finally I said what are we doing, wasting a beautiful day, and Andy agreed, so we hopped into my car and drove out to the South Shore of Long Island.
We found stables in Hempstead and we wanted to go horseback riding, but none of us ever had, and before they would let us out of the corral, we would have had to learn to post and control the horse. Besides, it was $6 an hour, so we left.
I surprised myself, though, in wanting to try getting on a horse; I’m more open to new experiences now.
We went to Valley Stream State Park next and walked around the meager “woods” there; we came across a kid who lived in Valley Stream and he seemed as aimlessly bored as we were. He asked us if we had any acid or anything to relieve the monotony of suburbia.
After that, we tried Green Acres, walking around the mall for an hour or so, and then it was back to Josh’s, where, after much hesitation, we all agreed to Andy’s suggestion that we see the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a nice ride down Flatbush Avenue in Andy’s car; I ate a turkey sandwich on the way.
When we went to the Academy lobby, I felt this freaky déjà vu sensation: sometime in the fall I had a dream in which I was in the BAM, and reality now coincided with the fragment I remembered from my dream – down to the refreshment stands and where they were situated. Now the last time I was there was in 1966 or so, and I didn’t consciously remember the place. Oh well.
The play, Maxim Gorky’s Summerfolk, was very good: a kind of next-generation version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard as the children of the working classes rise to intellectual ennui on a country estate.
It had that curiously Russian mixture of whining angst and degrading comedy. I especially liked Margaret Tyzack, whom I enjoyed in The Forsyte Saga, Cousin Bette and The First Churchills.
The audience was very classy: lots of beautiful Heights and Park Slope people. Josh, Allan and Andy were going to Chinatown afterwards, but I had no money and wasn’t hungry anyway, so I told them I’d take the Flatbush Avenue bus back to Avenue I and my car.
They thought I was being petulant, I guess, but it wasn’t that way at all. I wanted go get home, and even more, I wanted to be myself for a while. Perhaps I’ve gotten spoiled lately, having so much time alone. I can’t be with people for hours and hours.
Can it be that I genuinely enjoyed the bus ride back? Even when I was the only person on the bus, I felt comfortable – no, more than that: I felt comforted. I felt this surge of affection for the good people of Brooklyn and the borough itself on this Saturday night.
As the bus made its way past Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park, and Church Avenue, I thought about a lot of things: of the letter I received from Avis in Germany and the call I got from Ronna last night (more about those tomorrow) and Rachel and Ravel’s String Quartet and how I liked sharing it with her.
Marc and Bunny were in the kitchen when I got in: she’s a cute little girl, very affectionate toward Marc. When I mentioned horseback riding, she got very excited and begged Marc to take her. “Otherwise I’ll make life miserable for you,” Bunny said to him. It seemed cute.
Monday, March 3, 1975
11 PM. I should be asleep by now, but tonight it’s been one thing after another and I just haven’t managed to settle down. Jonny is asleep now, and Marc is out somewhere; as I was coming home from school at about 8 PM, Marc was leaving with Cousin Joel and Joel’s girlfriend.
Right now my ingrown toenail is throbbing; it was getting better, too, and I had to go and “improve” things a bit. Will I never learn? For some reason I must want to deliberately mutilate myself: first my toenails, and then my face. My acne wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so ready to squeeze my pimples all the time.
It’s as if I’m punishing myself; I’m sure a Freudian would say it’s some form of symbolic castration. The other day on TV I heard that if a person goes to a Freudian therapist, he will have Freudian symbols and messages in their dreams, and if the same person then switches to a Jungian therapist, he will have Jungian-themed dreams.
I didn’t dream very much last night; I awoke around 4 AM and never made it back to sleep, which is unusual for me. Still, I felt wide-awake when I went off to work at 8:30 AM. I work only three hours a day this week, so the time goes very quickly.
Then I come home, do my exercises, eat lunch, watch a few soap operas and attempt to write. I’ve been greatly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges and I’m now working on a story that is somewhat derivative of him.
“Summoning Alice Keppel” is a kind of creation of a myth: I see that event, for the purposes of the piece, as a kind of watershed, the end of an era and all that. I’m trying to make it into a Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor thing; in other words, something everyone relates to.
People my age especially like to talk about where we were and what we were doing when we heard the fatal news from Dallas. I was home ill with a very mild cold – probably I was playing hooky – and I heard Carolyn, the cleaning woman, utter a cry.
I went downstairs and Carolyn screamed, “The President’s been shot!” Outside, on our porches, Mom and Evie next door turned on their transistor radios: it sounded unbelievable. It was over in an hour, and Carolyn was crying hysterically and I felt empty and confused.
The events of that weekend – the lying in state, Jackie’s composure, John-John’s salute, the riderless horse, Ruby’s murder of Oswald on camera which we watched as it happened – all seem a blur.
Is it true that that was the beginning of the end, the day when everything turned rotten? One can make too much of it, of course, but in a way the country never recovered its equilibrium from that day on and it can be connected to Vietnam, Watergate and now this economic mess we’re in.
Avis writes, wanting to know if there are breadlines at McDonald’s in the U.S. yet. I don’t know. . .
Dad and his partners in the Pants Set – Syd Siegel, Jack Lubel and Jimmy Saracino – sold their interest to G&G, the stores’ buyer, for $60,000 each. But Dad originally put $100,000 into the Pants Set, and money was worth a lot more then.
At school tonight, Colchie lectured on Kafka. I like his style – Colchie’s, that is – although he seems too abstract for most others, including Simon.
I overheard Simon pressing Megan for a date to go to that new Indonesian restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. She said she’s been very busy but suggested that Cheryl and I go along too.
“Fine,” said Simon. “If you can get them to come.”
Poor Simon. But one must award him Brownie points
When I got home, Gary called. It sounds like he and Kay go to a Broadway matinee every weekend, or else it’s dinner in an expensive restaurant or some such thing. I suppose I could get into that, but I’ve gotten used to living cheaply. Today, for instance, I spent exactly 49 cents.
It turned terribly cold tonight; the wind made it worse than the 28° temperature indicated.
Wednesday, March 5, 1975
I feel so joyful now, so pleased with myself. What it is, is rejuvenation. Somehow I feel better about myself, both as a man and as a writer.
This morning I found myself singing a long-forgotten song from West Side Story: “Something’s coming / I don’t know / What it is / But it is / Gonna be good.”
It all started when I went to the college yesterday. On the English Department bulletin board, I found a notice saying that they were accepting a few graduate students as teachers of one section each of Freshman Composition for the fall.
I went in and got an application right away. I have to fill it out, make up a covering letter, and then get three letters of recommendation from graduate instructors.
I arrived at the English Department faculty office at 3:30 PM or so. Susan Schaeffer and Dan Mayers were going over the latest issue of Commentary, and I started talking with them about Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and other literary politics.
Susan said they didn’t review Falling in Commentary because they only review fiction unfavorably (the magazine’s reason is that they want to balance out the standard views of well-received novels), so the favorable review that the assigned critic wrote was rejected.
It was so nice, bullshitting with them about things like Prof. Mayers’ ancestry (he comes from Barbados, and Stanley Goldstein told him he could be Jewish in part) and his battles with President Kneller when he was chairman of Afro-American Studies.
We joked about regimented teachers like Spielberg and how Susan, who was just made full professor, told Jim Merritt, when he didn’t get a promotion, to act like a maniac and rant and rave and throw books around. Now, she says, Jim does it just for fun.
She liked “Roman Buildings” very much, and after suggesting one small deletion, told me to send it to Esquire and to use her name with the editor, Gordon Lish, although she warned me that he is very cranky and could right “Feh!” on the rejection note.
Even more exciting for me was the fact that she liked “The Peacock Room” and felt that although it needed some work, especially on the dialogue, it was definitely publishable.
Susan suggested sending it to Ms. magazine using a female pseudonym, and she gave me other editors’ names and magazines for the story, and she said I could always use her name.
I felt so happy, for until now, no one – except Ronna and Alice – has had anything positive to say about “Peacock Room.” When I told Susan that Baumbach liked the dream sequence the most, she said, “I could have predicted that.”
I asked her about her literary influences, and she said just about everyone, but especially Faulkner, Wolfe and Woolf. She writes for an alter ego, she said, and told me that the biggest influence on her life was meeting a writer who gave her the impetus to write Falling and complete poetry projects.
She even mentioned that she might have her literary agent look at my stuff! And she said that of course she’d recommend me for a teaching assistantship. Coming out of the office, I ran into Miriam Heffernan and told her about the story I sold; she seemed pleased.
In class, we discussed Anna’s story, which most of us liked a lot: it’s surprising, but despite her naïveté and girlish bubbliness, Anna is kind of a natural as a writer. Although Spielberg is still stiff and bitingly critical, there is definitely more rapport in class these days.
Walking to the Sugar Bowl with Simon and Denis, Denis cried out: “Barbara Cooper!” We had run into Denis’ old friend from junior high. Simon and I recognized her immediately as Miss New York State and the first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant last spring.
The four of us went into Sugar Bowl and I sat opposite Barbara Cooper. Denis was so funny: his hands were shaking noticeably, such was his state of excitement.
From what I could gather from their conversation, Barbara was after Denis in junior high: they once made it on a fence, but he “had other fish to fry.” Denis told her about Stony Brook and teaching in England and the BC MFA program.
Finally she spoke about the pageant and that she had been living with a guy for the past six months; now she’s working as a waitress at Pip’s. Barbara had a dark, sultry beauty; she seemed almost perfect, and I suspect her sexiness was what lost her the Miss USA title.
I went over to Tom, Ronna’s cousin’s friend – it was so good to see him again – and we chatted about operas and the theater, and then I drove Simon to his shrink.
Friday, March 7, 1975
4 PM. An eternity has passed in the last 24 hours. I’m numb with disbelief, so this isn’t going to be very coherent. Yesterday everything exploded and I got a taste of real serendipity. I cannot comprehend it yet, but I am now an adjunct instructor of English at Long Island University.
I’m almost certain I will wake and all this will have proved to be a dream. Perhaps I’d best proceed chronologically:
Yesterday afternoon, Josh called from his brother’s plant store and I picked him up on the way to BC. I enjoyed our Fiction Workshop very much: we did a story of Todd’s, and Spielberg is definitely loosening up.
It was a beautiful evening: warm and still light out. On the way off campus, I ran into Slade, who was going to the gym to play ball after a boring day at work. We were both glad to see one another, and we talked for close to an hour outside on Bedford Avenue.
Slade just moved to Park Slope. He said I should call Elspeth for the particulars of his address and phone number because he had just spoken to Elspeth the night before: she’s working the graveyard shift now.
I inquired after his close friends: Jim Meadow is doing very well with his sports column in Denver; Steve is doing less well with the Massapequa paper; Terry is as crazy as ever. Slade said that all the time Terry was living on Cape Cod, Elizabeth was with her, so Terry didn’t grow any from the person she was.
Slade himself seems all right: he says our generation isn’t needed for anything anymore, not for the job market or as consumers, so it doesn’t really matter if we try for success.
His job is deadly, but it allows him to lead a fairly nice life. Slade hasn’t been writing much, and I think he’s a little envious of me being in the MFA program.
He said Baumbach is a solid writer but has gone off in weird directions. Schaeffer, he says, is energetic, productive and helpful; and Spielberg is “an insecure, talentless man.”
Finally, swearing that we’ll get together again soon, I left Slade to his basketball and began walking to my car. On Hillel Place, I ran into Elayne, and then Alice. Elayne was coming home from the Graduate Center and Alice from Fordham.
While Alice shopped, I walked Elayne halfway to her apartment on Ocean Avenue and Avenue I. She’s been going through a very rough time; it’s seven months and she can’t get over Leroy.
The last few weeks, Elayne said, have been very bad: she tries not to call him, but she’ll watch TV and something will remind her of Leroy, she’ll call him up and he’ll be over in ten minutes.
But Leroy will then rush off at a moment’s notice to another woman in his harem. “I’m an annual in a garden of perennials,” Elayne said.
I told her that it was up to her to break off completely, but I suppose it’s very difficult for her. Elayne sees Leroy on campus, at Melvin’s, at the Junction, and he wants to continue to see her, but he’s cruel and indifferent and he makes her life miserable.
Yet I suppose she’s more miserable without Leroy – or at least she thinks she would be.
I met Alice at Barron’s and we went for dinner at Campus Corner; it was very much like old times, but then, the whole evening was. Alice and Andreas had a miserable weekend in Massachusetts; she got her period and Andreas is “old-fashioned” and they were snowed in for two days.
Alice is also disgusted with teaching: the $60 a day isn’t worth it to her. She doesn’t buy clothes very much and she doesn’t need a car or many luxuries. Her time is the most valuable thing to her, and she doesn’t have enough time. Henrietta is two weeks late. Alice just can’t live her life the way she wants to while she’s teaching.
After I drove Alice home, I got home myself. Jonny said Elihu had called, so I rang him up. He was very tired, as he’d been helping Leon move. It seems that Leon was several months behind in his rent and so he sneaked off to Madison at 5 AM, and Elihu got only a couple of hours’ sleep.
Elihu never mentions Shelli and Jerry to me (Elayne said, “Of that crowd, Elihu is the only one I speak to”), but it occurred to me that yesterday, on my way home from work, I passed Shelli’s parents’ house and saw a large U-Haul truck in the driveway.
So I assume Shelli drove Leon to Wisconsin. Perhaps she and Jerry even went there with him to live for good. Or is that wishful thinking?
Anyway, after a brief conversation with Elihu, I hung up so that he could get some sleep. A minute later, however, he called again, saying that his father would like to speak to me.
I didn’t understand it, but I figured Dr. Farber was going to apologize for not sending a personal rejection notice when I wrote him asking for a teaching job last spring. (Last spring? It seems centuries ago.)
Anyway, Elihu’s father got on the line and said that one of his teachers died suddenly this week. “I’m sorry,” I said, but it didn’t make any sense why he was telling me this.
Then he said he’d like to see me tomorrow (today) to discuss my taking over the dead man’s Freshman Comp course. I told Dr. Farber I’d see him at 2 PM at his office at LIU.
All night I hardly slept and all morning at work in the library I was a nervous wreck, wondering if I’d get the job. I had reread Baumbach’s Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers and was prepared to tell Dr. Farber my ideas on teaching composition.
But when the English Department secretary announced me and I walked into his office, he just said, “Mr. Grayson, your students are going to slaughter you,” so I guess he had every intention of giving me the job.
Dr. Farber, who resembles a fiftyish, crew-cut Elihu, asked me if I was tough. “I can surprise myself at times,” I said.
He gave me the syllabus for English 11 and the textbooks, a writing handbook and a reader, and I tried to listen to what he was saying but I was so astounded, it was hard to pay attention.
The man’s funeral was yesterday. He was a very tough teacher and had 25 years of experience. He had some corrected papers, but Dr. Farber didn’t have the nerve to ask his widow for them.
He emphasized how difficult my job would be: the students will all be older than I, people who work during the day. The class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 PM to 8:45 PM, and they’ll walk all over me if I don’t assert myself.
“You’re a writer and you’ll want to teach them how to express themselves,” Dr. Farber said. “But their literacy is on a very low level and you’ll have to do the drudgeries of grammar.”
At that point I wondered if I was biting off more than I could nibble at, and then Dr. Farber said, “You’ll make a lot of mistakes, but that’s okay. Remember, it’s your responsibility. It’s no longer his class; the class is yours.”
He made it sound as if I was being thrown into the lion’s den.
I told him that I got my M.A. from Richmond (I hope he doesn’t check into that – I’d die if that happened; I’d better get on over to Richmond on Monday and straighten things out with my thesis) and I gave Schaeffer, Baumbach, Cullen and Fuchs as references.
Dr. Farber gave me a key and said I’d have a mailbox and office space, and I said thank you and shook his hand and I walked out of there, still astounded.
Right now I’m feeling very scared about Tuesday night. What the hell am I going to do when I get to class? I’m taking over a class of older people, poor writers, and their teacher has dropped dead in the middle of the term.
I have no experience. I don’t even remember my grammar rules. I just don’t know how this is going to work out. Ever since I got home from LIU, I’ve been having diarrhea. Perhaps I should call upon Mrs. Ehrlich to get me through this very tight spot.
Dr. Farber said I should let the class know I’m boss. Can I do that? “You can be tough first and then easy later, but not the other way around,” he said.
I guess I’ll quit the job at the library. Oh yes, the pay at LIU is lousy: $500 for the term, in two installments, which will probably be delayed – and Dr. Farber assured me the work would be hard.
I’m terrified but I can’t walk away from the challenge. I regret this poor man’s death, but this is undoubtedly the “something” I thought was “coming” on Tuesday when I sang those West Side Story lyrics.
It will be a good experience for me and should assure me of a teaching position at Brooklyn College in the fall; after all, I’ll already have taught a college class before.
Tonight Mom and Dad are coming home from St. Maarten; they’ll be struck speechless when they hear my news. This would be a real egotrip if I weren’t so scared.
Sunday, March 9, 1975
5 PM on a blustery Sunday. I’ve spent this weekend trying to come to terms with the new facts of my life, trying to believe it and get used to it and plan for teaching my class at LIU this Tuesday.
My class? But that’s what Dr. Farber said it would be. There are still so many things floating unresolved inside of me. I’ve been under as much stress as if a tragedy had occurred.
How do I quit my job at the library? Do I have students call me “Mr. Grayson – can I pull that off? How do I appear professional without being so?
Gary found the obituary of my predecessor in the Times today. He was Murray Hartman, 55, a full professor: “an authority on modern drama, he wrote extensively on Eugene O’Neill.” Here I am, me, Richie Grayson – short, shrill-voiced, in appearance a teenager – and I’ve got to take over from a man with 25 years’ experience and a Ph.D.!
But I’ve decided the only way to handle the situation is with honesty; I’ve got to let my feelings flow with me. I don’t think I can pretend to be tough when I’m not – but I’m going to deal with my students honestly.
They’re adults, working people, and they’ve paid tuition, so they must be motivated to some extent. I’m going to help them write clear, concise, logical, honest English, and I’ll do that the best I can and expect them to do their best, too.
I don’t want to prepare a lot of notes; I’m not scared about drawing a blank because I’ll say what I feel. (Perhaps I’ll even phone Mrs. Ehrlich to ask her for her thoughts on what to do.) This is a challenge, and I’m scared, very much so, but I’m also enormously excited about the possibilities.
And it is very nice to be able to tell people, “I’m teaching Freshman English at LIU.” Now I don’t have to be ashamed about working as a library clerk or being a messenger.
It was worth millions to be able to meet Mom and Dad and Irv and Doris at the airport Friday night and tell them about the job. Dad said, “Holy shit!” and kissed me, and Mom’s face was no less startled.
Josh said, “Wow, you’re going places,” and told me not to mention it to our class because they’ll be very jealous. Of course, I intend to disregard his advice.
I called Ronna’s house and she was out, but I told her mother, who said she was “thrilled” to hear my news.
I also called up Aunt Sydelle and Gary, and last night Alice found out when she called.
When I was in Barchas’ bookstore yesterday, it was great to answer Mark Cohen’s “What’s happening?” with my news. And of course Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel were as proud as peacocks when I visited them. Dad called Grandpa Nat, who was so excited he wanted to phone Grandma Sylvia at the hospital at midnight.
This is all well and good, but there’s much to it than the prestige; in fact, that’s the least of it. I’ve got hard work ahead of me, and it will be rough at times and maybe I’ll fail, but I’ll meet the challenge head-on.
Otherwise, my life will be the same. This weekend I finished writing “Summoning Alice Keppel” and “Early Warnings” and today I went to the college library to read Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte for Comp Lit – it was a very powerful novel – and to do research on the Kent State period for a new story I want to write. And I’ve been keeping up with my exercises and getting enough rest.
Mom and Dad had an excellent time in St. Maarten; they’re very tan and said the weather was magnificent and that they met interesting people and won money gambling.
Grandma Sylvia’s getting out of the hospital today and going into a convalescent home. Grandpa Herb got his new, goggle-like glasses and he can see much better. Gary got the ticket for his trip to Europe in May.
Last night, as I said, Alice called. She was very upset. She had gone up to the WNEW radio station to see her idol, disc jockey and writer Jonathan Schwartz, and he was cordial but brief with her. She’d brought him a box of clams from Nathan’s that she’d gone to Coney Island to get after learning they were his favorites. He just took them and said thanks.
I calmed her down and she went back to finding solace in Baskin-Robbins. Despite everything, life goes on. It always does.