A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-May, 1975
by Richard Grayson
A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-May, 1975
Tuesday, May 13, 1975
9 PM. Driving home through a thunderstorm from LIU just now, I felt so content. It was more than that; it wasn’t elation or exuberance, however. The best way I can describe it is to say that I felt a sense of person-ness, the sense that I am real, to myself and to others.
I am me, Richard Grayson, and though I may be both teacher and student, friend and enemy, son and brother, angry or loving, scared or confident – the basic me is always the same. This is perhaps the most wonderful thing I have learned in this life, and it’s more than worth whatever price I paid to acquire it.
It’s so simple, really, but so magical. I don’t have to “act” any way to please people and I don’t have to be anything I’m not.
My class and I had a long and interesting discussion about grades today. It’s a rotten system, but that’s the way it is and we have to operate in it as best we can. I told them not to be nervous about their final and explained how I felt teaching writing was a kind of impossibility.
I urged everybody to just do the best they can, whatever their capabilities, just as I taught them the best I could my first time out. Perhaps in later years I’ll think I wasn’t very good at all, but the point is that I was as good as I could be now. I think my students went away feeling somewhat more relaxed and reassured than they did when they walked in.
Mr. Walek, the Orthodox fellow who took the final tonight because Thursday is Shavuoth, said I was a good teacher and a nice person. (He wasn’t browning me because he’s taking the course Pass-Fail and he’s already assured of a P.)
Earlier in the day, it was hot and sunny. I went to Brooklyn College at 2:30 PM to keep my appointment with Susan Schaeffer; I waited outside her office awhile, and then Dan Mayers gave me a note saying that she was sorry but she couldn’t make it today because something came up.
I had two hours to kill, and while wondering what to do, I was noticing a pretty girl walking in front of me in the hall. She looked familiar to me somehow, and I called “Ronna?” hesitantly.
She turned around and smiled. Ronna had gotten her letters of recommendation from her old Spanish teacher and was going to see Lillian Schlissel. But there were three people ahead of her, so we walked down to Boylan cafeteria and had apple juice.
It was strange, but nice, to be on campus with Ronna again. She said she had lunch with Henry (yes, I’m still jealous of him) and had seen Sid, who quit his job with the Long Branch Record and is working for another paper in New Jersey.
Ronna went to see Prof. Schlissel and I went out on the quadrangle, where I was soon joined by Anna and Simon. When Ronna came out, she said that Prof. Schlissel had told her to apply to Iowa as well as Buffalo, GW, Purdue, Penn State and Michigan, all of which have good American Studies departments.
Later, Ronna told me that Simon and Anna are just what she figured they’d be like from things I’d said and from their stories. A friendly group came by: Ronna’s cousin Ellen, Stefanie and her friend Carol, Marc Cohen, and Alex, who was wearing a suit, coming fresh from a job interview.
We all chatted for a while and it was just like the old days for me. I walked Ronna and Ellen to WBCR, where they were going to meet Henry. Sitting on the grass earlier, I’d found a beautiful gray hair on Ronna’s head and she let me pull it off.
When we parted, I shook Ronna’s hand, but she kissed me. Then her cousin kissed me on the cheek; that was nice. (Ronna said that Susan was surprised when I kissed her hello yesterday.)
Then I ran into Karin and Vito. I hugged him and scolded him for not calling me. He said he’s been feeling guilty about it, but lately he’d been doing things alone: reading a lot and going to films. We made tentative plans to see each other; even from our brief meeting, I can see that Vito’s grown as a person.
I ran off to class, where we did my “Coping.” The class liked it enormously, except for Denis. Simon thought it was well-constructed and Todd said that it was very professional.
Spielberg said he was surprised that I’d written it; he admires my versatility and some of my insights, but he said that while the writing was always competent, the story did not interest him very much. He disliked the soap-opera quality of it (which was deliberate on my part) – but I figured he would.
Wednesday, May 14, 1975
3 PM. A little while ago, I was sitting by the lily pond with Mara and Alex, talking seriously about life. Each of us wants to be somebody, to be known and famous and respected in our field.
But deep down, we know that very few people really make it. (I spent last night reading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, and while I don’t really like the man, I guess I have to sympathize with his ever-present ambition, for I have it, too.)
We had just come from the English majors’ tea. Both Alex and Mara had applied for the Sam Castan Award, but Sean won it. And Cara won the short story award. Two years ago, of course, I just knew I was going to win the playwriting award, and I did, but I never wrote another play.
There were ever so many would-be poets and novelists and playwrights in the SUBO penthouse (I discount the department faculty) that it makes one very despondent. How can someone stand out in such a crowd?
Alex and Mara are both graduating and I know they’re insecure about their futures. Mara was offered a teaching assistantship if she stayed on at BC, but she’s decided to go to Maryland or Ohio for her M.S. in Broadcasting even though they’re not giving her money – which seems like a good move for her.
Alex hopes that he gets that job editing a United Fund newsletter. He’s also a fine artist and would like to put that talent to good use. Alex and I read over Mara’s farewell column and we talked about our fear of the future.
I somehow wanted to cry because we seem so small and afraid and the world so big and challenging. Alex says you have to believe in your abilities, but what if you’re insecure?
Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing to do but hold onto each other – a hand on Alex’s shoulder, an arm around Mara’s waist. And we sort of know that in years to come we probably won’t be seeing each other – that’s how life goes.
But maybe – the thought comes to me now – the secret is to live for now, to understand that life is transitory and unfair, but to seize the day, the old Carpe Diem thing. The past was nice but it’s over; the future is uncertain; so we can immerse ourselves, not in the destructive element, but in the present.
I know what I’m saying is probably trite and hackneyed, but often it takes time before truths become “truths.” I look at myself and I look at people around me and I see we’re all – to use Dad’s phrase – muddling through.
Last night I spoke to Ronna and there were such good vibrations between us; it’s impossible not to know how much we care about one another. But we have to let go because it’s for each one’s benefit.
I literally let her go last night – to talk to Henry on the other line. (I saw Henry today in LaGuardia and he gave me a very open smile; I can’t imagine him being anything other than what he feels, and that’s a very good quality.)
Yesterday Alice called. She’s ill with an upper respiratory infection, which she caught from her students – but she’s not at all sorry to be at home. She doesn’t want to teach sixth graders; she wants to be a famous magazine-article writer.
The other people I see all have similar dreams and discontents. John Zuccarelli (who said I looked “fabulous,” and of course I love him for that) has ambitions in the theater. Carl Karpoff, passing by with a girl, both of them in shorts, wants a career in dance. Yolanda, whose birthday was on Monday, is another aspiring writer.
I’m not sure what Vito wants, but I know he wants to rise above where he is now; maybe he’s just interested in glamour, since he said that going to the Tony Awards and reception was the high point of his life.
Mara said we don’t want to end up like our parents, and that’s true. I love my grandparents, but they are not really alive: their existences revolve around their health (necessarily, I suppose), their meals, the TV set or card game, and their families, who are all really too involved in their own lives to offer them much.
Alex said a person has to keep growing and learning, but how many do? Even at the English majors’ tea, I see people like Professors Murphy, Starling, Mayers, Merritt, Kitch – they are all quite wonderful, but would they rather be somewhere else, doing something else?
I don’t know. Well, summer’s almost here and maybe it’s time just to soak up the sun and relax. But relaxing is never an easy task.
Thursday, May 15, 1975
10 PM. My teaching at LIU is at an end, and what remains is the most obnoxious part of the job: giving final grades. I had a long talk about grading with Jim Merritt yesterday. He says as long as there’s the system, we have to live with it and do the best we can, although it’s so subjective.
Today Susan Schaeffer told me a cute story: that Jim sent a change of grade card to the Registrar and listed as a reason, “I was unjust.” The Registrar’s office sent it back, saying, “Insufficient reason.” So he handed it in again with the notation, “Clerical error,” and it went through.
I’m going to miss my students; as they left after the final, several of them said I did a good job in taking over the class in mid-semester. It was so odd; it was like all finals, with people writing away, staring into space and thinking, cricking necks – except that I was the teacher, the man in front of the room, watching silently as I read a biography of V. Sackville-West.
It’s strange how all of the routines of the various episodes of my life become so dear to me – well, not all of them, as I loathe the sight of Alexander’s at Kings Plaza. But I enjoyed my little rituals: my dinner at the counter of Junior’s, my going to the office I was given use of, my class sessions.
I suspected near the end of the term that some of my students might have been plagiarizing from Time or someplace, and that disturbed me; it had never crossed my mind before that anyone would.
But at the end I knew all their names, even the quiet ones like Mrs. Marryshow, a West Indian nurse; Mr. Anaso, also a West Indian; Mr. Lawrence, who told me of a rough day at work at Chase, where he had to pick up $200 million in government securities; the Orthodox Jew Mr. Walek, who told he was thinking of dropping out (which would be a pity; he wrote a beautiful description of a Chasidic Rebbe).
Maybe I was the one who failed them, not giving them enough mechanics, but I think maybe I tapped something inside some of them. I’ve been waiting for this night, after which I wouldn’t have to be nervous on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but now that it’s over, I feel slightly sad.
Yet no matter how I’m judged, either by Dr. Farber or my students, I know that I’m proud of myself just for having the guts to take the job and to go through with it all, for not running away from something difficult.
Today I got a letter from Rachel. It was a great surprise, and I found myself hesitating about opening it. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I read it and it made me happy in one way and sad in another. It must have been a very difficult letter to write, and I admire Rachel’s courage.
She was avoiding me, she admitted. Through our letters, she had expected so much of me, she had built up a very romantic picture of me and figured I would sweep her off her feet.
No feet-sweeper I, she found out, and so she was disappointed and then guilty about feeling disappointed. So she didn’t see me again.
How I feel now: I can understand completely Rachel’s feeling and I’m not angry at her anymore. I’m glad – and a bit surprised – that I’ve gotten to the point where I didn’t anticipate things. So to me, Rachel was not a disappointment and I felt no letdown upon meeting her.
(And I don’t think it’s that she is simply more desirable than I am, for there were things about her that annoyed me slightly – but I had expected that some of her traits would.)
“Right now,” she writes, “I’m just concerned with letting you know how anxious I am to quit acting this way, and that I like you and I’m glad you’re not my fairytale knight so maybe we can be friends. Were you this messed up at 19?”
She’s going out to Boulder with a roommate after finals, and she’ll be back in the city around the middle of June. Rachel ended by saying, “If I were you, I’d drop me . . . a whole lot of hassles.”
That makes me feel sad and sorry for a person who’d say that about herself (if what she says is sincere, which I assume it is). I want to write Rachel and tell her that it’s okay, that I’m her friend.
But I see now that I don’t want it to go further than that. Rachel’s young and she has growing to do. I shouldn’t compare her with Ronna or Avis, who over the years have become more honest as they’ve gotten surer of themselves. Ironically, it was Rachel who made me appreciate Ronna all the more.
Saturday, May 17, 1975
It’s starting to cloud up a bit, but it was a beautiful day. I don’t think I’d enjoy living in Florida because up North, with the change of seasons, the advent of spring and summer means so much more.
There’s a kind of unleashed sensuality at this time of year as we get rid of our heavy winter clothes and see more of our bodies. This year, particularly, I feel much more comfortable with my bisexuality.
Except for a few people like Alice or Josh, there is almost no one I’d be hesitant to tell about my feelings. Now it seems a joy to be bisexual, an added bit of luck. (In writing to Avis yesterday, I described my life to her as “a long series of lucky breaks.”)
Today on the beach, I enjoyed looking at male and female bodies. Sometimes I prefer one sex to the other, but today I was equally aroused by breasts and chests. Perhaps finally I shall be able to let go and act on all of my different impulses, but for now I feel freer than I ever have.
I recognize that at the core of my homosexual feelings is probably deep narcissism. I keep comparing my body to that of other guys. Sometimes I feel I’m hopelessly fat and flabby, but then I remember that the first guys to take off their shirts in May are the ones with the best bodies.
The really fat and skinny people are probably holed up wherever they disappear to every summer. And I know my body isn’t that bad; I’ve looked at myself in a mirror at a distance and I’ve found myself looking tanned and muscular, and my paunch seems to disappear.
For some reason I’ve always had big biceps, but I wish my chest were more solid and defined. I’d like to have visible stomach muscles, too, but that would mean giving up the foods I enjoy too much.
Of course I always wanted some hair on my chest. That’s always been a symbol of masculinity, and I notice guys unbutton their shirts to whatever point where their chest hair begins.
I have no quarrel with the bottom half of my body: I have nicely muscled legs with nice blond hair. My feet are too small, though.
It’s so odd writing about my body; I’ve never done this before and it embarrasses me, but I think that’s all the more reason why I should do it.
There’s the ever-present issue of penis size, of course, but I’ve never figured out if I’m small, average or large, and it seems to be of no concern for most people, especially the women I’ve known.
That’s enough self-therapy for tonight. I got a letter from Herb Leibowitz at Richmond. A new hassle has come up: they had eliminated the creative writing thesis, so he’s got to call the M.A. committee and see if they’ll waive the rule for me.
Fortunately, he said, my prose style is very good; he’s read the thesis. And he said September is okay for the language exam. I think I’d better take a course in French at the Graduate Center this summer.
I went to Rockaway this afternoon and followed Mikey’s car home from Larry’s house. We stood in front of his house and talked. Dean Vera Tarr walked past us, going to a party up the block, and we exchanged hellos.
Mikey still has two finals and he’s got to work on his thesis. He said that Mike ran into Scott this week. Starting in the fall, Mike is going to grad school in Psych at BC, so now I’ll have an old friend at school again as I go into the second year of the MFA program.
As for Mikey himself, he is going to work in the John Jay Financial Aid office – that is, if nothing better turns up.
Mikey and I went to a store on Beach 116th Street to buy a converter for his TV set; I was so involved in the salesman’s explanations, I didn’t realize that Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel were standing about a foot away. They hadn’t noticed me, either, and the moment of recognition was a funny one for all of us.
Later on I looked for them on the boardwalk, but I found only Grandpa Nat with some friend of his. We talked for a few minutes, and then he had to go pick up Grandma Sylvia at the beauty parlor.
Another rejection from The New Yorker. I guess they don’t need another Barthelme.
Sunday, May 18, 1975
Last night turned out to be one of the craziest evenings in a long time. Scott called at about 7 PM; he finished with law school finals and had finally been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa a year after his graduation, just like I was.
Scott said he’d been planning to stay home and watch TV, so I told him – my biggest mistake – to drop by. He arrived at 9 PM and immediately put on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which he claimed he had never seen an episode of before.
He talked about law school and phoned a friend of his who was trying to get him a girl for the evening. Scott said he hadn’t “been laid” since Christmas, when he came to New York to see Sheila. You can imagine how sorry I felt for him.
But Scott still has his charm. He told me a professional writer had seen the story I sent him and thought it was “as good as Barthelme.” And Scott noticed my arms and asked if I’d been lifting weights.
So I was flattered and I agreed to accompany him to a bar even though I don’t drink and had diarrhea.
I suggested the Pub and so we wound up at a table there. My stomach was acting up, but the Pub’s awful-smelling restroom had no toilet paper.
After watching Scott finish off a roast beef sandwich and fries, we moved to the bar, where he could drink beers and pick up women. I felt so absurd standing there, ginger ale in hand, staring at people who I ordinarily would not associate with.
Scott kept leaving to call his friend who was trying to get him laid. I tried to detach myself from the scene and become an Isherwoodian camera, an observer.
Finally I got on the phone and called Josh. He and his friend Bob, the one he’s going to California with, were just sitting around drinking coffee. I told Josh what I was doing in the Pub – I could hardly hear him over the racket – and he said we should come over.
I mentioned this to Scott and also said that Elspeth lived in Josh’s building as well. At this, Scott’s eyes lit up: Elspeth had come on to him in the past, and he was sure she’d be an easy lay.
For a while, I thought this was funny, but when he rang Elspeth’s bell and she sleepily said, “Who is it?” and he replied, “A voice from the past: Scott Koestner,” I felt so embarrassed. It was only the beginning, however.
We had woken Elspeth up and she was dressed in a work shirt and nothing else. She said hi to me and I wanted to die. I told her I had to go downstairs to Josh’s and said how Scott just wanted to say hello, and I left quickly.
I thought it was so obvious. And I felt lousy. Elspeth has gotten much prettier and I thought of the nice Christmas card she had sent me and how Scott was using her.
I went to see Josh and Bob. Bob’s nice, and he had this really fine dog who was just dying for affection. We talked and read the Sunday Times.
Robbie came into the kitchen with Rose and another girl, who goes to Michigan, where Robbie has been accepted for the Ph.D. program in Developmental Psych.
Half an hour later, Scott came into the apartment and took me aside. He said his timing was awful: that very morning Elspeth had broken up with her boyfriend of eight months and she wanted to cry and talk about the breakup with Scott.
I felt bad for Elspeth but glad that Scott didn’t take advantage of her. But now he had to go back upstairs and use me as an excuse to leave; he had told her that I felt ill and didn’t want to go to Chinatown with them so he couldn’t go either because he had to take me home.
Eventually Scott joined us for coffee, and as usual, turned the conversation to himself, bragging about law school and talking about how he’d written a parody of a brief by Douglas. Bob said, “Douglas who?”
Scott expressed astonishment that anyone could not know who Justice Douglas was and then started going on and on about law school and the Supreme Court and more.
Mostly, Scott’s monologue was greeted with a deafening silence but he plodded on anyway; I felt embarrassed because I’d brought him over. Josh left the room abruptly to walk the dog, he said; I could see he couldn’t put up with Scott.
I rolled my eyes skyward as Scott continued (Robbie and Rose kept exchanging significant stares) so that Bob would realize that I felt the same way about Scott’s talking as Bob did.
Then Scott abruptly said he wanted to score some pot in Long Island City. I just wanted to get him out of there, so I agreed to go along. He drove like the maniac ex-cabdriver he is.
When we got to the guy’s apartment in Long Island City, we found him playing a card game called “Oh, hell!” with his girlfriend and a neighbor. The transaction went fairly quickly (though not fast enough for me) – but on the way back, Scott was stoned from the pot he’d smoked at the apartment and got on the Triboro by mistake.
He tried to talk his way out of the toll, but I simply just handed him the money. Finally – I thought it was never going to happen – I was home and Scott was saying goodbye and swearing me to secrecy, because he didn’t want anyone to know that he had been interested in Elspeth.
Today Alice called at 3 PM and told me to meet her in Brooklyn Heights. In half an hour, I was in front of the Promenade Restaurant on Montague Street, where I saw her.
She told me that she had been at the Promenade Art Show and was interviewing Mr. Blumstein for ninety minutes. I’ve been to so many of those shows, I have almost learned to recognize each exhibitor’s work.
Mr. Blumstein does pen and ink sketches and watercolors, mostly of Brooklyn people, animals and buildings. He’s fairly good, but of course Alice is not interested in him for his art; she still hasn’t outgrown that high school girl crush when he was our Spanish teacher.
We passed by his booth and I said hello. He said, “Stewart?”
“Right.” So he remembered I got mumps when I was a senior.
Alice told me he has a girlfriend named Miriam. He’s a striking man for his 38 years.
No longer teaching, he told Alice his reputation got so inflated he became the “star” of Midwood, a kind of pedagogical Mick Jagger. Kids took his class not to learn Spanish but to be entertained.
For a while, it was “a real trip,” but then he realized he had been more of a showman than a teacher and decided to take a couple of years off.
After we left Mr. Blumstein, Alice kept asking me, “Don’t you think he would have asked me out if he was really interested in me?” and I kept saying, “Yes.”
She’s even thinking of writing Jonathan Schwartz again. But if he failed to respond, she’d want to die. I told her about Rachel’s letter. Rachel reminds me of Alice, who also seems to enjoy things more in anticipation than in actuality.
We had a ginger ale and an iced coffee at a table outside Capulet’s, and she told me how Andreas is so dull and passionless. When they make love, he never kisses her. She loves him, but she’s not getting enough sex from him (on Friday night they just painted their supposed love nest) or enough excitement.
The gym teacher at school is coming on to her more and more; he’s married and something of a swinger, into bisexual swapping and pedophilia and more kinky stuff.
We went to Picadeli for some solid nourishment and Alice continued her litany. Money or no, she’s decided to turn down the principal’s offer to stay on after June; she’s just not happy being a teacher.
Alice said she stopped by Flatbush Life to see about a job. It seems that Denis Hamill, Pete’s brother, has taken over Mark Savage’s job. (I need to call Mark and Consuelo.)
I drove Alice up to the Village, where she was scheduled to meet Andreas. On the way, I told her of the disastrous evening with Scott and mentioned that Scott wanted me to call her to see if she was available for sex; Alice replied that she was in such a bad mood on Saturday night that she might have responded to Scott.
I am disgusted with him. The very last thing he said when we got to my house was, “It’s 2 AM, a great time to pick up the girls who are left when the bars close!” I assured him that the only thing I was interested in was sleep.
And his warning me not to tell anyone about his trying to make Elspeth struck me as sleazy and hypocritical. Avis is so lucky that she’s rid of him.
Surprisingly, though, when I spoke to Josh today, I learned that he wasn’t particularly upset with Scott. He left his apartment so abruptly because he was disgusted with Robbie and Rose and their friend, who were so dull and “like old people.” In fact, Josh said, Scott was the most interesting person there that night, even if he is egotistical.
I can see Josh’s point about Robbie and Rose, who are the only person each other has gone out with and are already like a 45-year-old married couple. Robbie is very nervous and gets an upset stomach when he has to go to Manhattan.
Josh is anxious to go out to California. He and Bob are leaving July 17, and he’s asked me to think about taking over his room in the apartment for the summer.