A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late October, 1988

Friday, October 21, 1988

7 PM. It’s a cold, stormy night, and even the Atlantic Ocean looks very rough right now.  This morning, after getting a prescription for Grandma Ethel, I took the bus to Kings Plaza.

For the first time, I took advantage of the transfer to the Avenue U bus to ride down to East 16th Street.  I passed familiar spots like the Foursome Diner, the Eschens’ optometry office, and the orthodontists who used to treat me on East 16th.

Back at Kings Plaza, I had lunch at Bun n’ Burger (it now costs twice what it used to when I first when there) and then purchased some knit gloves in Alexander’s, in the same department where I used to work fourteen years ago.

As I paid for the gloves, I noticed an old lady and a middle-aged woman who somehow looked familiar.  They reminded of Dad’s relatives, and when I saw them with two men, I was sure of it.

“Excuse me, you look very familiar,” I said.

“No,” said the younger woman.

“Cohen, right?” I said to the man I was certain was Grandma Sylvia’s brother, and when I told them I was Richard, Sylvia’s grandson, they said they’d never have known me in a million years.

I heard the man called Fred, and so I think the woman was Pearl and I thought her parents were Uncle Benny and Aunt Molly. They asked about me and the family, and my great-aunt – who shook with Parkinsonism – said she’d just spoke to Sydelle.

We chatted for a little while.  The older couple, especially my great-uncle, who must be close to 90, looked terrific, though.

Of course, Grandma Ethel’s neighbor Jean Morse is 91. I ran into her downstairs this morning and returned to her apartment later with the orange juice I’d promised to buy for her.

When I called Dad, he said I hadn’t seen Benny and Molly but his uncle Joe Cohen (who was actually younger than Grandma Sylvia) and Aunt Bessie.

Of course.  I remember they used to live on Clarendon Road around East 54th Street and Bessie used to call me “Dickie,” the only person who ever did that because that’s what they called her nephew.

Speaking of my great-aunts and great-uncles: Grandma Ethel was upset because she called her sister-in-law Rose, who told her that Uncle Paul, Grandma’s brother, was just hospitalized after a stroke.

Meanwhile, Uncle Morris is out of the hospital – he says he doesn’t even remember being there – and so is Aunt Minnie, who’s being driven crazy by the surgery on her eyeball.

Last night I read Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, and this afternoon I finished the third draft of my article on depression, which will be the final draft I’ll hand in to Lucy Calkins.

It’s a relief to have completed the course’s first big writing project, and it may be good enough for me to try to submit it to some Op-Ed pages.

I wrote a letter to Ed Hogan, asking him for some advice on book production. Actually, I’d love for Ed to typeset and design my new book himself, though I’m afraid he’d be much too expensive. Still, I’d rather have a nice-looking object if it didn’t cost all that much more.

I started reading Stewart Brand’s book The Media Lab, about MIT’s famed media lab, where such brilliant men as Marvin Mirsky, Allan Kay and Seymour Papert have been working on the future.

I get really excited when I think of innovations like hypertext, Dynabooks, personal newspapers, smart cards, high definition TV, interactive video, holograms – even if I have only a small understanding of them.

Being in computer education keeps me somewhat close to the cutting edge in media technology, and I want to keep up with new developments.

After only a month with my rented laptop computer, I feel it would be hard to get along without it – and really, it’s such a primitive device.

Last night I saw a portable VCR advertised, and I’m sure they’ll eventually be as common as my Sony Walkman is today.

Grandma Ethel just went down to visit Lillian Goldberg, so I’ve got about an hour to myself in the apartment.

Even though Teresa will be home this Saturday night, I’m thinking of returning to Manhattan before then.

But I’m comfortable here at the beach. We’ll see.

Monday, October 24, 1988

Almost noon. Today is the first day of my Writer-in-Residence duties, and although it’s simply an hour planning session with the teachers at the Miller School, I’m characteristically nervous about it.

Once it’s over, I’m certain I’ll be less anxious. My first working day isn’t for two weeks, and presumably I’ll feel better about being at the school once I’ve talked with the teachers.

Yesterday I went out and took Teresa’s car for a spin around the neighborhood. It seems to drive fairly well, but I’m worried about it breaking down on the way to Nanuet.

After finding a parking space, I came home, and yes, I did exercise, even with my bad back.

Dad called at 7 PM and I met him in the lobby of the Days Inn 45 minutes later.

He got tied up at the show when a customer came in just before closing at 6 PM, wanting to work with him, and then Dad had to get his luggage at the Penta Hotel and go over to register at the Days Inn.

We had salads at the Flame Diner and then went back to his tiny hotel room, where he gave me my mail.

Mostly it was credit card bills and bank statements, but I did get the announcement about Midwood High School’s 20th reunion.

It’s a Sunday buffet at La Trattoria on December 11, when I’ll be in Florida.

I’m not going to change my plans for the sake of a reunion, and I figure it’s just as well. It’s not like there’s anyone there I really want to see.

Dad told me about his new fax machine and how he’s always sending and receiving stuff to and from California. He uses it as a photocopier, too, and Mom was able to fax some credit information for the mortgage to Sun Bank.

Dad isn’t sure they’ll be approved for the mortgage, but he’s not worried because if he doesn’t get the house, he won’t have concerns about paying the mortgage off in the future.

Although business continues to be good, Dad obviously doesn’t have too many high-earning years ahead of him. Before I left at 10 PM, we agreed to meet for dinner tonight.

Today Teresa had her first day of work making lunch at that company today.

I’ll leave soon for Rockland County.


11 PM. The computer store called at noon, telling me to come in and pay for my next month’s rental, so I stopped on West 112th Street, parked in front of the store, and charged my AmEx.

Then I drove into Rockland County. The view on the Palisades Parkway was as breathtaking a fall scene as I’d ever seen in New England.

The trees were golden and russet and orange and all those colors that leaf-peepers love. (Except I think: this brilliance is the result of decay.) Sunny and about 55°, it was a perfect autumn day to be in the country.

I drove around Nyack for a bit, taking in the view of the Hudson, and I had lunch at a pizzeria on Main Street.

I love Nyack; later today, I saw it described in a New York cover story on “Hot Suburbs” as “Soho on the Hudson.”

After lunch, I took a little walk and then drove west on Route 59, stopping at the Nanuet Mall and a gas station before I got to the Miller School.

Early as usual, I sat in the faculty lounge until Dr. Gold fetched me. On the way, I met Charles, one of the third grade teachers I’ll be working with.

He had to coach some sport, as did another teacher, so I met with only three of the third-grade teachers whose classes I’ll be visiting: Ann-Marie, Karen and Nan.

I will be serving as a model for them, but I’m not certain exactly what I want to do.

In the first class, I’d like to talk about being a writer and how a writer works and I’d like to read to them some passages from my own work.

Because all the teachers weren’t there, Dr. Gold said she’d call me with a schedule, but it will be five classes of 45 minutes each for those five Mondays.

While it will be a lot of work, I’m going to try to enjoy it and learn a little about third graders.

The meeting ended at 4:15 PM and I was back in Manhattan by 5 PM, as Teresa’s car worked fine.

I parked it in a good spot (so I don’t have to move it in the morning) and came upstairs, where I opened the big package Mom mailed last week.

After paying ten credit card bills, I was looking through the Associated Writing Programs Job List when Dad called from the Days Inn.

I met him at his room and we walked to Sixth Avenue to have dinner at Wolf’s Delicatessen.

To his surprise, Dad did $50,000 in orders the past two days at the show.

Dad and I talked about his work and my work, about the election (he’s disgusted that Bush will win the Presidency), and about New York and Florida.

Back at the hotel, we watched a PBS documentary until Dad fell asleep at 10 PM. He gave me five dollars for a cab, and I returned here. Teresa is asleep at Bill’s now.

Wednesday, October 26, 1988

8 PM.  Dad took a cab over here last evening and we went to dinner at Szechuan Broadway. He’d worked the whole day at the menswear show and again did a surprisingly large amount of business.

He even had to go in this morning before his flight left.  Later, I’ll call Davie and see if he got home okay.

Dad told me that he knows many people at the show, and it shocks him how old some of his associates have gotten.

“They probably say the same thing about me,” Dad said, but if any of the Bugle Boy people knew Dad’s real age, they’d be shocked.

Of course, his really being almost twenty years older than they think doesn’t stop him from being “the best salesman in the company,” which is what the boss called him yesterday.

Still, Dad feels that technologically, the world has passed him by.  He said that after I showed him my laptop and after we watched The Computer Chronicles on TV and browsed in the Software Etc. store on Broadway.

But I’m sure Dad could learn technology.  Someday I’d like to work on a project getting older people comfortable with computers.

We tried to watch Roseanne, the ABC sitcom that’s highly touted – it’s Teresa’s favorite – but Dad said it was an insult to his intelligence and made me turn it off.

“I wish I was going back to Florida with you,” I said to Dad as he hailed a cab on West End Avenue.

“I do, too,” he told me.

I kissed him before he got into the cab.  One nice thing about my having to be here in January is that Dad will also be here for ten days then.

I started to read Roy Peter Clark’s Free to Write, about a journalist teaching writing in the public schools, and I phoned Ronna, who has a cold.

She said the bar mitzvah was fine, although it was a little too much for her grandmother, who tires easily.

Ronna said I could stop by Sunday night when she’ll be babysitting for her half brother.

Although I had a very bad headache, it was probably from lack of sleep, and a decent night cured it.

This morning at 9 AM, I did aerobics with Bodystretch. I needed to get out of the apartment by 10:30 AM so I could move the car.

When I came back up, Julie Ramos called: Marty Goldmeer, an administrator in the East Ramapo School District, wanted to know if I could come in to two honors classes at Ramapo High School on November 15.

That’s the day when I’ll be at Judith Rose’s class at Pomona Junior High at 2 PM. The two schools are just three miles apart.  So I called Mr. Goldmeer and have to speak with the high school’s principal tomorrow.

At Teachers College, I went to the computer room and tried to figure out which of my writing projects to use for the next paper for Calkins, which is due in three weeks.

I had lunch with Kevin Sullivan, a classmate who reminds me of Jonathan.  He’s just out of college and is in the English ed program; naturally, he wants to teach English in high school.

In class, Lucy collected our assignments and we talked about different genres, including memoir, autobiography, and fiction.

Fiction, she said was the one area where she and the Writing Project staff haven’t been able to find anything that works.

Most of the stories kids write are terrible, and she and her colleagues just can’t figure out how to teach fiction writing effectively.

I find that news gratifying – because to me, it means that fiction is the most sophisticated and mysterious form of writing, immune to the clear-eyed investigations of the writing process by academics.

Thursday, October 27, 1988

8 PM. Tomorrow I’ve got the first of my all-day Friday and Saturday one-credit workshops at Teachers College.

This one is Software for Social Studies Educators, and it shouldn’t be much of a stretch for me. But it will be a long day, and I’ll need a good night’s sleep.

I’m glad Teresa is at Bill’s tonight. Last night she stayed here and I slept poorly in the living room.

The futon may have been the reason for my recent back and side problems. I could feel it starting again, so I switched to the couch, and while it was too soft to be comfortable, I wasn’t in pain.

Teresa seems to like her job cooking lunch for the people in Molly Parnis’s company – they make Christian Dior lingerie – but she’s having a real problem with the East 87th Street apartment.

The closing is next Tuesday, and she’s had to borrow thousands from her parents. She has to rent it rather than sell it because she can’t handle the $1200 mortgage and maintenance even for a month.

But right now she can’t find anyone to rent it.

An open house this afternoon brought little interest, and real estate agents like Lola say nobody’s walking in to their offices because the East Side one-bedroom co-op market is squishy-soft.

I see this, along with Alice’s problems renting her Wall Street apartment this summer, as an early warning about real estate. I tell everyone just to stay away from it now.

When I called Florida, I was upset to hear that Dad came home with a bad cold. Well, at least he can rest up a little now that the spring line is almost totally sold.

I phoned Grandma to tell her to watch the PBS series The Mind on channel 13 at 9 PM tonight. The episode was on the aging process and the mind, and I’d watched it on channel 21 at 8 PM yesterday.

Grandma said that she felt somewhat better, and I told her I’d try to be out in Rockaway on Tuesday.

This morning, after exercising I spoke to Dr. Judith Garan, the principal at Ramapo High School.

She seemed not to know what the writer-in-residence program was about, and instead of my doing her a favor, it was like I was going through an inquisition.

She wanted me to send her a résumé and some supporting materials and said she’ll get back to me. Sheesh!

I guess her superior, Mr. Goldmeer, didn’t explain things well, so she was concerned about who I was.

After I did the laundry and had lunch, I went downtown to the Financial District with a sign that read “Please Help . . . I Need $25.4 Billion to Launch My Own Leveraged Buyout of RJR Nabisco.”

I wrote breathlessly about the experience when I came home – and I’m going to use this as my next writing project for Calkins.

Here I’ll say that I had the same kind of experience I did in June 1987 when I pulled a similar stunt.

At first, I thought I’d go outside the Wall Street Journal offices so I could get publicity, but the World Financial Center was too isolated, so I returned to Broad and Wall, right by the New York Stock Exchange.

Most people ignored me; some got the joke only as they strode by and did a double take and smiled.

I suspect some couldn’t read the sign and others couldn’t understand it – like the well-meaning Hispanic guy who advised me to instead try for a messenger job at an agency and gave me his name to use as a reference.

When a photographer, an older white man, started snapping pictures, people suddenly paid more attention and got the point of the satire.

Except I’m not sure what the point was: lampooning merger mania and takeover madness?

(Incidentally, the Dow fell 25 points today on skittishness about these merger deals, especially after the Federated buyout may not go through).

Or was I trying to see how it feels to be a beggar in the Big Apple? Well, maybe I’ll work that out in the essay.

Saturday, October 29, 1988

10 PM. This morning I felt eager to start the day, and I was at Teachers College early.

Today’s daylong workshop was more interesting than yesterday’s, as we met as a whole group and together looked at and discussed social studies software, from the old drill-and-practice junk to the ones that use databases to the simulations we played in the afternoon.

Tom Snyder’s Decisions, Decisions is my favorite simulation, but I also enjoyed being introduced to his geography search.

There’s even a simulation called Jeans Factory that I’d love to show to Dad.

I spoke with some of the teachers during lunch and heard the usual stories of frustration.

Rich Allen is taking what will be a 50% pay cut to go into teaching after ten years as an advertising copywriter, but all four of his parents were Teachers College professors, so I guess it’s not such a big leap for him.

I was home at 4 PM. The M5 bus can take a long time to arrive, but it usually has only a few passengers, so the ride down Riverside Drive from 120th Street to 85th Street takes only ten minutes.

Back home, I got Teresa’s messages off the machine, undressed, took out my lenses, and exercised to a tape of Body Electric.

I missed working out yesterday, and it feels odd when I don’t get my muscles moving even a little during the course of a day.

I was reading today’s Times at 5:30 PM when Ronna called, telling me she was going out to get some Cuban-Chinese food for her sister, her father, stepmother and the baby, and that I was welcome to join them for dinner.

I thanked Ronna and said I’d be right over. Before we hung up, she said, “Did you know your picture is in the paper?”

Ellen had phoned her to say she was sure it was I on page 4 of the New York Post even though the caption said I was an “unidentified panhandler.”

I went out to Broadway and got the paper, and sure enough, there was a huge (about 5” x 7”) photo of me with my sign and my cup.  It was a good picture, and the caption read:

“PASS THE AMMO: The war isn’t being waged in boardrooms, but this unidentified panhandler on Broad Street, near Wall Street, is battling to take over R.J. Reynolds Nabisco, if only if he can come up with the $25.4 billion.”

After making up some photocopies and bringing them home, I went over to Ronna’s.

As I walked up West End Avenue, I felt really good – because I did get the media attention I wanted for this stunt.

Cy Rubin, the photographer, obviously took the picture to the Post, and they knew it was a great shot. I feel confirmed in my belief that I had another clever idea in panhandling for the money for an RJR Nabisco leveraged buyout of my own.

Even if I’m only a third-rate writer, I’m a first-rate satirist.

Yesterday, when I looked at the winners of the $25,000 Whiting awards, all writers younger than I, I felt so out of it, a failure.  But I’ve done stuff none of those people can do.

I’ve got a lot of talent, and I’ve been not only a writer of fiction but a satirist, a college English teacher, a computer education specialist, and an expert on living on credit cards.

The Post playing up my photo reassures me that I can still get into the major mass media with new ideas.

At Ronna’s, she and her family kidded me about being an “unidentified panhandler,” and her sister joked that I was an “unidentified celebrity.”

I enjoyed the meal of fried chickens and plantains, rice and black and red beans. Ronna’s cold is still getting her down, and the baby was on penicillin for a cold and ear infection, though he seemed jolly enough at times.

Jeremy walked more than he had the last time I saw him, though his preferred mode of traveling was the crawl.  Ronna’s father and stepmother had a party to go to, but they didn’t leave till 8 PM, after Jeremy had gone to sleep.

Sue stayed later to gossip about them. She couldn’t believe their father didn’t offer to help Ronna pay for dinner: “You’re babysitting for their kid, and you’ve got to feed them, too?”

Sue told me about her work in the South Bronx as head of the Heterosexual Transmission of HIV Pilot Study.

Crack addicts, especially those with venereal diseases, are the latest group to be spreading the virus.

Because crack houses are filled with women who sell themselves for the high, there’s lots of promiscuous sex, and HIV is being transmitted left and right.

I stayed on with Ronna after her sister left, though when she got a call from Jordan, I went out to get us both copies of the Sunday Times.

I’ve been back home for the past half-hour.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Scripps is putting the Sun-Tattler up for sale.  If they don’t sell the paper, it will probably close, like the Miami News did.

Remember how many outlets I had for my publicity in South Florida in the early 1980s?  Now it will be just the Herald and the News/Sun-Sentinel.

Oh, well, I’ve gone national.

Monday, October 31, 1988

4 PM.  I just spoke to Grandma Ethel, who had to go to her brother’s funeral today.

This morning I saw Paul Shapiro’s obituary in the Times, and of course when I saw that his wife was Rose and that his children were Myra and Phyllis, I realized it was my great-uncle.

Tomorrow I’ll probably go to Rockaway to be with Grandma, though I have to be back on Thursday to get to my workshop early Friday morning.

Yesterday afternoon I wrote a press release and sent it out to the major papers with the Post photo of me panhandling.

If they pick up on it, great, but if not, I’ve already documented the joke.  (Yesterday Kraft agreed to be taken over by Philip Morris in a $13 billion deal.)

Josh arrived at 6 PM, and although we were together for three hours, he didn’t once mention anyone following or harassing him.  I didn’t want to broach the subject, either.

Perhaps the delusion is over, or Josh realizes that he’d better not talk about it anymore, or maybe he realizes that none of it actually happened and is getting treatment.

He told me about a 21-year-old girl he met, a Columbia student who was his waitress before he went to a movie one night at Lincoln Center. She’s the daughter of the writer Frederic Morton, and they had one informal date.

Josh has finally finished with War and Peace and has started reading Moby Dick.  He seemed okay as we sat around here and went out for dinner at Marvin Gardens, though we got into a big discussion of success and failure.

To me, it sounded as if Josh were labeling himself a failure because he didn’t achieve his goal, whatever that was, being a writer or working in film.

I told him that while success and failure are relative terms, I certainly feel like a success and I’m not going to let anyone else define me as either a success or a failure.

This morning I exercised and then went out on the coldest day yet. No trick-or-treaters have rung my doorbell yet.

Mom called to say they got approved for the mortgage and would soon get a letter of confirmation.

After that, the builder can start work on the house and it should be ready by late spring. “That means we have to sell this house,” Mom said.

For a long time, throughout the 1980s, while I’ve lived in many places, the University Drive townhouse in Davie has served as my permanent address.

Next year I’ll have to change everything, and this new address will probably be Fort Lauderdale because the house is in unincorporated Broward County.

I told my parents that I wished them luck in their new home – while I silently hoped they can afford to keep it during the uncertain years ahead.

One Times op-ed column today hit the nail on the head: We’re all aware that a new order is almost upon us, but we’re in the stage where we deny it and hope that if we don’t discuss it, things will remain comfortably the same.

When I called the Cultural Affairs Division in Tallahassee, they said to expect my fellowship check 30 to 45 days after they got my warrant, so I still have time. If I don’t get it in a few weeks, they’ll investigate what went wrong.

I deposited $1000 into my Chemical Bank account today.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had any income except from my credit card chassis, and I had to pay the November rent to Teresa.