A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1988

by Richard Grayson

Thursday, September 1, 1988

7 PM. Last night I finished Lucy McCormick Calkins’ The Art of Teaching Writing, which has energized me, given me new ideas, and excited me about taking Calkins’ course at Teachers College.

It also provided me with some artillery in my discussions in Sloatsburg today. Getting there was no problem; I was at the school in 45 minutes even though it’s pretty far away, off the Thruway just before the border with Orange County.

The principal, Ron Anagnostis, was putting out some muffins and coffee when I arrived.

At the meeting were some teachers and PTA members. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Dorothy Dutter and the other mothers were my age or younger, but I’ve always associated the PTA with no-nonsense “older” women.

The district educational specialist and the superintendent – an oily type, he reminded me of all those Broward Community College administrators –also attended. We worked out a schedule after I talked about what I wanted to do with the fifth and sixth graders.

Obviously these people are not as interested in creativity as Dr. Gold at the Miller School in more affluent Nanuet; they stressed neatness (they want the “book” of the kids’ writing to be typed), proper spelling and grammar.

Indeed, I’m not sure why they want an author at all, but maybe I’ll do better with the teachers. I did insist that the evening presentation they want be as informal as possible and that the children have a good deal to say about planning it.

I mean, if I were a fifth- or sixth-grader, I think I’d dread the idea of being in front of an auditorium and reading my work aloud.

I said that this evening should be a presentation, a sharing with the community, not a performance in front of an audience.

Anyway, I’m to meet with the teachers after school on December 1. They want my residency in January: two days a week for the first three weeks and then the evening presentation on January 26.

That probably will allow me to leave for Florida on December 8, as I’d planned, and I got a flight back to New York for the day after New Year’s.

Now, unless Julie at the Rockland Center for the Arts has more for me to do – I’ll call her tomorrow – I can figure out my schedule and living arrangements.

I’ll need to sublet for October and November, but I can stay with Grandma or Alice or Ronna or Teresa for the first week of December, thus avoiding paying rent. I don’t know what to do about January.

Actually, I don’t have – as of now – any formal duties as Writer-in-Residence until late October, but there’s no sense going to Florida now. I’d miss the nicest weather of the year (like today, mild and dry), and I would not be able to get any Teacher Education Center work so early in the school year.

Mom and Dad said they’d be happy to have me in December, although they’ll be very busy at the flea market then. At least I can enjoy three weeks in Florida before having to endure January in Sloatsburg.

I figured I could avoid the horrors of rush-hour traffic if I returned to Manhattan via New Jersey, but it took me forty minutes from the approach to the George Washington Bridge until I got over it and into Manhattan.

Believe me, I’m happy I don’t have to drive in New York City. Traffic has gotten worse in recent years, and I now can remember horrible experiences I had on city highways during weekdays.

A woman named Shelly Diamond from Processed World magazine in San Francisco left a message on the answering machine.

They like “You’ve Got to Give Me credit” and plan to print it in their November issue, but they suggested I could get in trouble if I used my real name.

I left a message on her machine saying I’d use the pen name Gary Richardson (an anagram of my name, obviously) and I’ll call her again to make certain. One thing after another is happening! Great!

Mom said the enjoyed the West Side Spirit story, which arrived in Florida in today’s mail.

After some aerobic exercise, I read today’s papers and watched the news.

It’s an ugly time, I feel. The presidential campaign is on a scarily low level with Senator Hatch calling the Democrats “the party of homosexuals.”

Homophobia seems to be very popular these days, and we’ve had numerous recent assaults on gay people to show for it.

Bush now leads Dukakis in polls, is close behind him even in Massachusetts, and the Democrats look like they’re headed for another landslide loss.

Meanwhile, FSLIC continues to bail out failed savings and loans every day, costing $10 billion since August – and in the end, the cost may be $75 billion, paid for by the taxpayers.

Am I the only one who senses something ominous in all this?

Sunday, September 4, 1988

8 PM. Last evening I met Ronna on West End Avenue and we walked to Marvin Gardens for dinner.

She seemed in an unusually good mood, and told me about her day and how she, Ellen and Ellen’s roommate Tom went to the Renaissance Fair at Lincoln Center.

The night before, she and Ellen and another friend had seen A Fish Called Wanda and they read my story while waiting on line.

I told Ronna about the week’s events and my schedule for the fall. At the 84th Street Theater we met Ellen, who’d just gotten out of Married to the Mob, and she said she’d sneak in and see Crossing Delancey with us.

Ellen went downstairs first, while Ronna and I went to the bathroom. When we joined her in the queue for the 9 PM show, Ellen said, “Jordan is over there with some blonde.”

Ronna said she knew who the woman was, but didn’t want to go over to say hello. This struck me as odd, but Ronna said she’d explain later.

I loved the movie, which combined the uptown world of the literary types (Scott Sommer, Lore Segal and other writers had bit parts in a bookstore party scene) with the Lower East Side world of the Amy Irving character’s “bubbe” (her parents “live in Florida with Red Buttons”), the matchmaker played hilariously by Sylvia Miles, and the hamishe-but-great catch Peter Reigert, playing the owner of a pickle store.

I noticed Jordan and his date as we left the theater, and I felt certain that he and Ronna saw each other.

After Ellen left us to get some bagels at H&H, and Ronna and I walked home, she explained that the blonde was someone Jordan met on a tour of Israel this summer.

Jordan told Ronna that this woman is very jealous and very persistent, that he’d also like to call up other women he met on the tour but couldn’t because she would be furious.

Anyway, Ronna said at one point she raised her eyebrows at Jordan, and he shook his head no, as if to say, “Don’t come over.”

It’s interesting that Jordan now not only looks older than Ronna but also older than me. Anyway, I was wrong to assume Ronna felt jealous or was acting weird.

Back here, we got into bed almost immediately and stayed there till 2 PM today. We slept from 1 AM to 10 AM, but the rest of the time we were having incredible sex.

I feel so free with Ronna, and after so many years, I’m still enormously attracted to her. I don’t really understand it because normally, on the street, I mostly look at guys.

But there’s something about Ronna that gets to me. It’s not a question of my not being gay – but my gayness seems irrelevant when I’m with Ronna.

We had lots of fun with baby oil body mousse (my idea) and today we couldn’t get out of bed till the middle of the afternoon.

That it was raining all day helped us laze around and feel less decadent. I lent Ronna an umbrella to go home, and I stepped into the shower after she left (she decided to shower at her place because she had no clean underwear here.)

The rest of today I did the laundry, read the papers, and made one trip out, to have lunch at the Ottomanelli Café (their sirloin burgers are good) and buy groceries for tomorrow.

Monday, September 5, 1988

3 PM. It’s Labor Day, the end of summer, but I’m not in seventh grade, so why do I feel this dread? Conditioning, probably. For the rest of my life I may always feel exhilarated in May and apprehensive in September.

I am uncertain where I will live in October and November. I spoke briefly with Teresa today, and she said she’ll be coming in this week, probably tomorrow, so I’ve got to give up the reign of Richard in the Kingdom of Apartment 44.

I have to sit down and talk to Teresa about my plans. She thinks I have to be in Rockland most of the time, and when she learns that I’ll mostly be in the city, Teresa may want me to stay here.

But that’s out of the question as long as I can afford to sublet – and I can. I’m too old and too independent to share a one-bedroom apartment with Teresa. Our styles and values are too different. I know that I’ll find a place to live, but of course I’m nervous about it now.

I’m also very nervous about teaching kids writing – but again, I’ve been through many different teaching situations by now.

What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll be a total flop in Nanuet and Sloatsburg? If that happens, I’ll still get my New York State Council on the Arts grant money from the Rockland Center.

This writer-in-residence position is a one-time thing, anyway. Besides, reading all I can about teaching writing to children and taking the Calkins course at Teachers College is a smart way to prepare.

I just phoned Grandma Ethel, whom I had been unable to get on the phone lately. I had assumed she was visiting neighbors, but Grandma told me she went into the hospital on Tuesday and came out only this afternoon.

She had tests, she said, and they told her she had a hiatus hernia “and something wrong with my stomach.”

The doctors prescribed new medication (“I don’t care about the price, but it cost $65”), which Marty picked up when he drove her back home today.

She’s scheduled to go back to the doctor on Wednesday, and Grandma says she feels no better at all. I’m sure this is the start of a serious decline for Grandma.

Why didn’t she call me and tell me she was in the hospital? “I didn’t want to worry you. I figured you’d call Tillie and she’d tell you.”

In a way, I feel guilty that I wasn’t around, but I had just spent three days with Grandma and wasn’t prepared to return to Rockaway right away.

I’m glad I was spared the knowledge of Grandma’s hospitalization when I had to deal with going to Rockland twice last week and that I was able to have a good time with Ronna this past weekend.

I’ve visited Grandma Ethel enough so that I shouldn’t have to feel guilty. I just called Mom and told her to call her mother.

Tuesday, September 6, 1988

9 PM. It was 49° when I woke up this morning, making it feel more like fall. Indeed, the pace of life has speeded up considerably now that summer’s over.

Last evening Josh came over and after talking for an hour, we went to Marvin Gardens for dinner.

The people are still following him, Josh reported, but now they’re middle-aged white men, “the kind of guys who look like they hang out at OTB and work for a car service.” But he expects the harassment to end soon, and he seems to be handling it better.

For example, he went away for three days in Queens with Rand and Corie, and they took him to a barbecue in Connecticut to introduce him to Rand’s ex-sister-in-law Sophia, a Finnish film student at the School of Visual Arts.

And Josh listened to me tell him about my life, so I didn’t feel our conversation was so one-sided. He left at 9 PM, and I turned on Platoon on HBO.

Up early, I wanted to be out before the cleaning woman came. I thought Teresa might be coming home today, and I tried to take my stamp off the apartment, moving my things out of the bedroom and into the living room and closet.

At the post office I traded my yellow call slip for a State Street Master Card – the first new bank credit card I’ve received in six months and probably the last I’ll receive for quite a while.

I was first in line at the Chemical Bank at 81st and Broadway; by the time I was let in at 9 AM, there were about forty people lined up behind me.

I deposited $1500 in cash advances; I intend to keep my cash flow moving and to avoid tying any money up. I didn’t take a cash advance on my new State Street card because the Master Teller logo is on its back and I hope to be able to use it at an ATM if the bank sends me a PIN.

At Teachers College by 9:30 AM, I discovered they weren’t handing out registration materials till noon. So in the student lounge, I read today’s Times (with the first of a three-part series on America’s illiteracy crisis on page one – I have to show that to Ronna) and prepared a schedule.

Lucy Calkins’s Teaching of Writing class was moved to 1-4 PM on Wednesdays, but that poses no problem for me so far.

I decided to take three one-credit workshops, all of which meet over two-day, Friday and Saturday, periods in October and November.

One is on Computers and the ESL Teacher, and the others are Software in Social Studies and Computers and Schooling: Structure and Content.

This way I can avoid another weekly class at Teachers College, either on Wednesday or having to come in a second day, and I don’t have to worry about leaving any course but Calkins’s before the term officially ends in mid-December.

By the time I got home, I was tired – and dismayed to see that the cleaning woman hadn’t come. She finally arrived at 4:30 PM, interrupting my exercise.

At least I got to have a long talk with Teresa – to tell her my fall plans. She told me she may stay out in Fire Island for much of October.

Teresa isn’t going back to work at Norton’s chicken store, as her replacement doesn’t want to leave and Norton pays her $175 less a week than he paid Teresa. Besides, he and Pam hope to sell the store anyway.

Teresa would like to continue doing catering, but she can’t afford a kitchen in the city and doesn’t want to deal with the hoity-toity attitude of Manhattanites who’ve seen it all.

So she may look for a house to rent on Long Island. Or her mother might give her the middle floor of the Brooklyn house.

Teresa is considering subletting this apartment in November if she rents a house elsewhere, but her plans are uncertain. Since she doesn’t need work desperately, Teresa can afford to wait till November to decide what to do.

I also spoke to Grandma Ethel, who finally has begun to feel somewhat better. So little by little, things seem to be getting settled.

I’m not worried, only anxious.

Wednesday, September 7, 1988

11 PM. I just returned home from the premiere of What Would Esther Williams Do In a Situation Like This?, the play by Don and Rich Werbacher that Justin directed.

It was a very enjoyable evening, and I think the playwrights, Justin, the actors and the crew all did a fine job.

The play was a “well-made” three-act comedy about a wacky Staten Island family at the end of World War II. It wasn’t profound, but it was entertaining, and the performances were funny.

I sat with Justin, who was nervous (“A director is useless on opening night”) and with Larry, who was nervous for Justin. Larry also moved into the city more or less permanently today, and I know that’s a big step for him.

Anyway, I’m glad the play went well – it was listed in the TimesVoice and New York – and hope it has a good run.

The theater company, on West 22nd between Sixth and Seventh (on the same block as Taplinger Publishing and Milton Paper), seems like a good group.

Last night Ronna called to say she really had a good time last weekend, and we talked for an hour. Maybe I’ll go over there sometime during Rosh Hashanah; Ronna joined a synagogue, but she’s having some meals in her house.

Up at 7 AM today, I exercised at 9 AM and went out to do some banking, to xerox my “Things” story, and to get the Voice. My “sublet wanted” ad didn’t make this issue, and I didn’t see any good sublets I could afford.

Thursday, September 8, 1988

8 PM. News junkie that I am, I’ve just finished watching an hour of CNN. Dukakis seems to be in a free fall as he plunges in the polls. The Republicans know how to run a TV/image campaign.

Perhaps Dukakis can catch up by doing well in one of the two debates, but I doubt it; he’s got an inept campaign and should be buried in an Electoral College landslide.

Drexel Burnham, the giant Wall Street firm that popularized junk bonds, has been charged by the SEC with massive insider trading, fraud, and stock manipulation.

The FSLIC keeps “rescuing” failed savings and loans, but most observers agree that in the end, the taxpayers are going to bail out the industry to the tune of billions of dollars.

I’d like to think that the shit, as we said in the Sixties, is about to hit the fan – but I have to admit that’s just my hope.

I’d love to see a President Bush, basically an unpopular fellow, face the Great Depression of 1990 as Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Maybe then liberalism could come back into fashion.

However, I don’t know how patient I can be. The Eighties stink worse as they die out, and I admit that it’s possible the Nineties could be even worse and not take the path I’d prefer.

Reading the first chapter of Donald Murray’s Write to Learn made me feel guilty about not doing any writing.

Murray advises people not to keep a daily journal as a bound book, as I do; he tried it and sounded pompous and wrote about trivia. Of course he does say that if something works for you, keep doing it.

Justin sounded very pleased with the show when I called him today to offer my congratulations.

He and Larry didn’t get back home to Park Slope until 3 AM because of trouble on the subway, so they were taking it easy today before returning to the theater tonight.

Grandma Ethel said she felt bad this morning, but the doctor explained that the acid drips into her mouth and esophagus while she’s horizontal; that’s probably why she always feels better later in the day.

Marty got her some board to elevate her head while she sleeps, and maybe that will help. I told Grandma I’d be in Rockaway to see her soon.

Friday, September 9, 1988

11 PM. When Josh came over this evening at 7 PM, he kept me here to listen to a story of what happened yesterday.

Remember how he always talks about that lanky black guy who hangs out at his work building as his principal harasser? Well, yesterday Josh saw him behind a desk, working at Personnel on the first floor.

Josh stared at him, wondering if he had been imagining everything, that maybe he was mentally ill. But that ended he saw an older white guy, whom he’s seen many times on the block where he lives, trying to get the black guy’s attention by pointing to Josh.

But the white guy works there, too. Why would two civil servants be in on this harassment? Josh says he can’t figure it out.

But I can: I’m now 99% sure Josh is imagining everything and is mentally ill. However, I didn’t say anything. Josh seems calmer now, and maybe he’ll just get less and less paranoid.

I’ve read that paranoids can have periods in their lives when they go about their business with few problems.

I see the whole thing as a kind of eccentricity, something like if Josh became a Hare Krishna or started wearing women’s clothing.

So Josh thinks he’s being followed all the time: he’s still okay to hang out with. Or am I crazy?

We had dinner at a café on Columbus and then went to see The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Debate. Anson left me two comps, so we got in for free.

In the theater lobby, I said hi to Anson, who was very busy. Kathy Giaimo, Joe Di Pietro and Mark Michaels all came over to me before the show to talk.

The evening was fast-paced, and only three of the routines I remembered stayed in.

The show had more bite, more bounce, and more topicality, and there were some good actors, especially Mary Testa. (The only actor remaining who was in it when I saw the reading was Christine.)

Although Josh didn’t care too much for it, he said it was about as good as the current Saturday Night Live.

I took the M5 bus home up Sixth Avenue, across 57th Street, and up Broadway and then Riverside.

At 10:30 PM on Friday night, Manhattan is alive with people, making it seem exciting to be living here.