A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-September, 1988

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, September 10, 1988

3 PM. I’ve just spent an hour talking with Anson, giving him suggestions on getting publicity for the revue.

I told him not to just to rely on press releases themselves but that he needed to call editors and reporters and make a pest of himself, stressing the topicality and newsiness of any story they’d write about the show.

To me, the skits would be perfect visuals for any local TV news feature, though I recognize what you can get on the news in the Miami and West Palm Beach markets are not things you can get on the local news in New York City.

Anson seemed to think I’d been of some help. I hope so.

Judy came in this morning, excited after she realized the story she read in the Spirit was mine.

Tom wrote that he liked “the badness of the story, very appropriate for the paper and the subject matter; it’s a bad story in a very different way from Crad’s Worst Canadian Stories, but it’s equally funny.”

Of course, while I didn’t think “Things Are Closer Than They Appear” was a great story, I didn’t deliberately set out to write a bad one. Tom must have really disliked it, but we never seem to criticize each other’s work.

God knows, many of Tom’s stories bore me and I keep saying nice banalities about them.

I wouldn’t ever say that the story is great, but it was selected over lots of submissions; just as it’s futile to argue with the success of bad best sellers, there’s not much point in arguing with the success of contest winners.

Julie sent me carbons of the letters she sent to Dr. Gold, Mr. Anagnostis and the NYSCA Literature Program, which sometimes likes to send people to observe the community service of the writers-in-residence they fund.

She said she has more events planned for me, but I hope there won’t be too many.

Tom says I’ll be fine with the elementary school kids, that he’d rather teach youngsters than his high school students at NOCCA any day. We shall see how well I perform.

Monday, September 12, 1988

4 PM on a mild, sunny day: the kind of day I associate with the Jewish holidays.

In my childhood, Rosh Hashanah meant dressing up, going to the synagogue, not driving or doing any of those forbidden “work” activities.

Little by little, my parents became less observant, and after I turned 18, I started doing as I pleased, as on my trek to the Village in 1969.

That was 19 years ago and the most exciting time of my life because I was getting out into an effervescent world after staying inside for nearly a year.

I had a relationship, however tenuous, with Brad, and I was starting to meet friends. Most thrilling of all, I was starting Brooklyn College at a time when being a college student meant more than it does today.

Peace symbols, incense, long hair, fringed vests, headbands, work shirts, tie-dyed fabrics, the Moratorium against the war in October 1969: I remember that autumn very well.

I’d wake up late, around 10:30 AM, have breakfast and dress, then go down to the basement and do my French or English or math homework.

After lunch (a sandwich, usually American cheese and lettuce and tomato on whole wheat bread, an apple, and a slice of Sara Lee fudge pound cake) while I watched the CBS soap operas Love of Life and Where the Heart Is, I’d take the Flatbush Avenue bus to the college, where my classes started at 2 PM and ended at 5 PM or 6 PM.

Back then, class schedules were complicated, not streamlined, so I had different classes on different days and times. It would get dark by the time I left the Junction for home.

In the evenings after dinner, I’d watch network TV or read. On Tuesday mornings, I had Science lab, and then I had group therapy in the evening with Dr. Lipton until I started going downtown to see Dr. Wouk instead.

I really didn’t have many friends then – it would take the spring strike after Kent State to get me involved with the people in LaGuardia Hall – but I was learning how to be a person.

The fall of 1969 was when I finally passed my driver’s test and got my license. Mom would let me drive her green Pontiac Custom S – or was it her little red car (a Buick, maybe)?

Last night I read until about 11 PM and then slept well. After working out this morning, I showered, dressed, and left the apartment at 11 AM.

Making cash advances at the tellers’ windows at various banks, I walked down Broadway to Columbus Circle, where I had lunch.

The city seemed so busy today, unlike the Jewish holidays of my youth when there would hardly be any cars on the Brooklyn streets.

(Even after I had my license, my parents wouldn’t let me drive on Rosh Hashanah because it would embarrass them – “not so much the Jews, but the Gentiles should know you keep your holidays” – until they stopped going to the synagogue and began driving themselves. By the time I was a college senior, Dad was playing tennis on Yom Kippur.)

I feel a sense of anxiety: Where am I going to live? How will I deal with the cold weather this fall and winter? After all, I haven’t lived in New York after mid-October since 1985.

How will I handle my work with the students at the Rockland schools? Will Grandma get sicker and die? (Eventually she will, but will it happen soon?) Will I write?

Although I’m generally a happy person, I expect the next few months will be challenging and even difficult.

I know I should be riding high because of getting the NYSCA grant to Rockland, but like the 18-year-old boy I was in 1969, I’m still neurotic enough to be scared.

Tuesday, September 13, 1988

6 PM. Yesterday I read a lot further in Donald Murray’s unusual text, which prodded me to do a few pages of writing. I wondered why, in yesterday’s diary entry, I remembered September 1969 and not twenty years ago: 1968.

Obviously, September 1968 is a more painful memory because that was when my agoraphobia was at its worst. In high school, I managed to hang on every day despite the attacks of panic and nausea; I felt I had no choice.

But by the time I was supposed to start college, it became too much for me to handle; even on that first day, I knew I couldn’t go. That time seemed so critical, as if I were taking a step that would forever alter my life and make me a failure. I was so ashamed that I cut myself off from the few friends I had.

There’s a photo of me on Grandma Ethel’s balcony from that Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur: I’m slim, wearing a wool shirt and tan shorts and sunglasses; my hair is combed straight across my forehead; and I look so much more confident than I really was.

Most of that time from September 1968 to June 1969 is a blur because it’s still too painful to contemplate. Still, I want to explore it.

New York’s cover story is on Harold Brodkey, often alleged to be the greatest American fiction writer, who’s been working on his mammoth novel Party of Animals for decades and can’t seem to give it up to publication.

Brodkey had a horribly traumatic childhood, and he seems a bit of a nut: very depressed and insecure, always getting into feuds with other writers. What good is it being a great writer – and though I’ve admired Brodkey’s stories, I don’t know that he’s great – if one is so unhappy and tortured?

Maybe I’ll never be seen as even a good writer, but I’d rather live contentedly from day to day than prepare myself for posthumous glory. Common sense, no?

I just called Grandma Ethel, who’s very sick and depressed still. She doesn’t want me to come over, and that’s okay because I might as well enjoy my last few days alone here. Teresa won’t be back till Monday (actually, I’d expected her to return tomorrow).

Today was as bleak and humid as yesterday was sunny and dry.

Last night not only did I read, but I watched two good shows on PBS: the first of a four-part series on Canada and the premiere of Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas, in which he talks to interesting people who are too intelligent to go on Oprah, Phil or Geraldo.

Yesterday I found a New School bulletin, and it irked me that I can’t just take all the courses I want to take. I have a thirst for knowledge that a teenager should have; sometimes I think that the older I get, the younger I feel. Well, tomorrow is Lucy Calkins’s class.

This morning I got up late – I couldn’t fall asleep till 4 AM – after a hilarious dream that featured a Scottish talking dog, and I exercised and went out at 1 PM.

Ronna asked me to dinner tonight.

Wednesday, September 14, 1988

8 PM. I feel so alive, even though I’ve barely slept in two days. Life has begun moving so fast. Fall is here. I’m wearing long-sleeved shirts. I’m writing. I feel like a writer.

Last evening I had one of the best times at Ronna’s that I can remember. Ronna and her friend Sandy – also a friend of Ellen’s – who stayed over for the entire long weekend, made a feast that was better than any Rosh Hashanah dinner I’ve ever had.

After Sandy made the kiddush and Ronna the brucha over the delicious challah with raisins she baked, we dug in. There was gefilte fish; moist, chewy turkey; tsimmes; pasta; vegetable pie; applesauce and apple cake. I’ve even got some leftovers from the excellent meal, including that sticky honey candy whose name I don’t know.

The table talk was also great. Sandy is a writer who’s done a lot of TV and comedy; she’s writing a young adult novel under contract to Viking, and like most of Ronna’s friends, she’s very bright and witty. I had a great time.

Ronna rode back down with Sandy to her apartment on West End at 76th, and I got out of the cab at the corner of 85th. It took me till 5 AM to get to sleep because my mind wouldn’t stop racing.

The germ of a story kept spinning (to mix metaphors) in my head. It’s called something like “The Secret Files of the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development.” Probably it will take weeks to write, but it’s a story that’s been fermenting the way my old stories used to.

Maybe it’s because I’m thinking of myself as a writer again: Taking Lucy Calkins’s class and reading her and Donald Murray and other writing teachers has me enthusiastic again.

I was anticipating her class – another reason I couldn’t sleep – and I wasn’t disappointed. At everything she said, I wanted to shout, “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” and tell her how my experiences matched what she was saying.

Because the class is so large, we divided up into groups of five for sharing experiences, introducing ourselves, etc. (There are a lot of cute young guys in the class, but I’m in a group with all women.)

I’m so excited by the class that I want to quickly read all the books on our reading list, and I’ve already read Calkins’ own book and most of Murray’s.

The other exciting thing is that I’ve had a lot of responses to my Voice ad, and on Saturday I’m going to look at two apartments, one on Ocean Parkway, the other in Cobble Hill. Someone also called with a place in Carroll Gardens.

But Teresa told me not to sign anything next week because she may be renting a house near her sister in Douglaston that she hopes to look at on Monday. I wouldn’t mind staying here alone, of course, but I’m not sure I should make my decision dependent upon Teresa’s.

I’ll have to sleep on it, but I don’t know that I’ll be able to sleep tonight, either, because right now I feel manic. It’s that all these possibilities and options are open to me. Suddenly life seems full of life: new people, and choices to be made, and writing to get done.

I worked out today when I came home from Teachers College, and it felt good to stretch my muscles. For dinner, I took out some Sichuan chicken and I need to calm down so I can digest the food.

My fortune cookie said, “It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice,” which could be my motto.

I remember how excited I used to feel when each academic year at Brooklyn College would begin in September and I’d see all my LaGuardia Hall friends again. This fall feels the same way. It’s a little scary to be so exhilarated.

Saturday, September 17, 1988

8 PM. Last evening Ronna seemed tired when I went over to her house. She snapped at me a couple of times for joking remarks I made, but I figured she just had a bad week, and she admitted she felt exhausted.

I wanted to take her out to dinner to repay her for the Rosh Hashanah feast, so we went to Hunan Balcony and had a pleasant meal and nice conversation, catching up on each other’s news.

Dropping her off at home at 9 PM so she could get some rest, I walked back to Teresa’s, where I watched a decent movie, Trading Places, on HBO.

This morning I took off for Brooklyn after breakfast, a short workout and a shower. It was cool, and I took an umbrella because rain was forecast for later. After the F train let me off at Church Avenue, I walked to 300 Ocean Parkway, a large apartment building off Beverley Road.

A woman and her father were waiting in front of the building, and they turned out to be Randy Hecht’s 12:30 PM appointment. They didn’t stay long, and then Randy showed me the place, which looked fairly nice.

I could be very comfortable there, but of course it’s pretty far from Manhattan. Randy, a writer of about 26, didn’t have any other prospective tenants to show the apartment to after me, so I took the subway to Seventh Avenue with her.

Walking down to Union Street, I had a baby pizza at Roma, then took the B67 bus in front of the pizzeria to downtown Brooklyn.

At the Business Library, I looked through the last week’s issues of American Banker, and when the library closed at 3 PM, I walked down Court Street, across Atlantic Avenue, and down Hicks Street to Baltic, where Roz Burdman’s apartment was, in the Tower Buildings right off the BQE. Because I was early, I strolled around Cobble Hill for half an hour.

All in all, I did a great deal of walking in Brooklyn today and felt kind of nostalgic as I passed places that had meaning in my life: Dr. Wouk’s building in Concord Village, Mrs. Ehrlich’s loft on Atlantic Avenue and Josh’s old place up that block, the Sikh ashram (reminding me to call Sat Darshan), the entrance to the Prospect Expressway at Church Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

I realized that the first place I lived in, after Grandma Ethel’s on East 43rd off Church Avenue was my parents’ apartment at Aunt Claire’s mother-in-law’s house on Ocean Parkway. Brooklyn is in my blood and in my memory, and I know the borough better than I thought I did.

Not only did I attend P.S. 244, P.S. 203, J.H.S. 285, Madison High, Midwood High and Brooklyn College, I worked at Long Island University and Kingsborough Community College, among other Brooklyn places. I know the streets and feel comfortable there.

I had a very nice time with Roz, who’s about 40 and has been suffering terribly with tinnitus. Of the two apartments, I think I’d prefer the Ocean Parkway one to Roz’s, although those nineteenth-century Tower Buildings are amazing-looking and the bedroom there is furnished nicely.

But I’d have to share the place with Roz, at least some of the time, for $75 a month more than it would be to live alone on Ocean Parkway. And as I walked to the Borough Hall stop in a pouring rain, I realized that the subway was pretty far away, and I don’t think I’d feel safe walking home from downtown Brooklyn at night.

It was 6:30 PM when I got here, and there was a message from Ronna on the machine. She was working with her sister and brother-in-law to get her apartment ready for painting on Monday – Leah’s moving in next Friday – and said they were thinking of going out to the movies.

But when I called Ronna back to tell her I was too tired, she said they’d decided not to go anyway.

Next I phoned Mom, who said she and Jonathan went to see that house that she and Dad liked, and they put down a $1,000 deposit on it. If they get a mortgage, it could be ready by next May.

Speaking of mortgages, First Federal sent Teresa’s mortgage papers on the East Side apartment today. I’ll call her and tell her, though she already knew the mortgage had been approved.

It looks like housing and real estate is involved in everyone’s life today.

State Street Bank sent me MasterCard checks: terrific!

I’ll go out in the rain to get the Sunday Times. It’s a nasty night. Tomorrow I’ll start calling the other people who left messages on my machine.

Monday, September 19, 1988

10 PM. I’m back on the futon in the living room, as Teresa has reclaimed her bedroom. She seems confused about what she’s doing with her life.

Well, I’m not. I met Alicia Barrett and agreed to rent her second bedroom for the next four months.

It’s a tiny room, with only a bed, a dresser and some bookshelves, but I can close the door – something I can’t do here, no matter how lovely it is.

Alicia and I seem to have hit it off right away. She’s 37, black, divorced, with a 14-year-old son who doesn’t live with her; born in Kingston, New York, she grew up there and came to the city twenty years ago.

She used to own a clothing store on the block, but they raised her rent from $600 to $5000, forcing her out; now The Broadway, that monstrous high-rise, is there.

When Alicia lost her store, she was upset and moved in with her boyfriend on 99th Street, returning only in May. David’s been living there with her, but he goes back to Scotland in ten days.

Alicia didn’t want to take my check because she said she trusted me; she was excited and thought we’d get along.

I could tell she’s a nice person because when a wrong number called, she spoke to them with great civility. So I hope my living there will work out. Basically, I’m easygoing, and she seems to be so, too.

I know that it will be hard to adjust, as it is to any kind of change. But the rent is cheap and I get to stay in the neighborhood, my neighborhood.

Apparently, the building will be torn down next summer, and Alicia’s looking forward to getting some money from the landlord and using that to move to Atlanta.

I offered to give Teresa half the rent here, too – it would add up to $700 – but she said she didn’t want it. She may sublet this apartment to some kids, although right now her plans seem very up in the air.

Teresa’s been seeing Bill, who lives in Michael’s old building, and who came in with her today. But Bill doesn’t have a steady job, either; after years of producing TV commercials, he’s trying to break into scriptwriting.

All in all, Teresa’s life seems unsettled. Although she no longer likes this apartment, it’s easy for her to live here, and I’m sure she’ll be back, if only because of inertia.

I certainly wouldn’t want to live here with her if she weren’t working. At least with Alicia, I’ll have the apartment to myself while she’s at work from 9 to 5.

Last night I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for the third or fourth time. It’s a good book, more than worth the latest read, so I’m glad it was on Lucy Calkins’s book list.

This morning I did the laundry so Teresa could have clean sheets; then I exercised, read the Times (the price went up to 35¢ today), and went out to the bank at noon.

Teresa arrived at about 2 PM, looking very tan, somewhat disoriented, and about 15 pounds heavier than she was when I last saw her. She also seems to be getting a cold.

So . . . I’m in the midst of change in my life: Teresa returning, my moving into Alicia’s spare room, the Rockland residency coming up.

This fall may be strange, and I’m scared because of the newness of the experiences coming up.

But I do have a good support system, and I do think I can sail through the rest of the year. Whatever difficulties I have will make me stronger.

On Friday night at Hunan Balcony, I got a fortune cookie that said, “You will enjoy good health.” So maybe I won’t catch Teresa’s change-of-season cold.