A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late September, 1988

 

Wednesday, September 21, 1988

8 PM.  What a difference 24 hours and a good night’s sleep make.  Not to mention having $5000 more than I did yesterday.

When I got home from my class at Teachers College this afternoon, there was a message on the machine from Mom: “Richard, call me at your earliest opportunity.  I’ve got some nice news.”

I thought I knew what that news was, and when I phoned, Mom read me the letter from Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith awarding me a fellowship in literature worth $5000 – or in the event of a budget shortfall, somewhat less.

Naturally, I’m very happy, though as I reminded Mom, when I learned I got the first Florida grant seven years ago (from reading it in the Herald), I was jumping up and down so much that Mom suggested I take a tranquilizer.  Mom will FedEx me the forms I have to sign and send back to Tallahassee.

I’d fantasized about getting this grant, and the money will provide me with a good cushion if, as I expect, I won’t net very much money from my student loan check (which hasn’t arrived yet, according to the Teachers College student aid office).

Anyway, I feel excited.  With the NYSCA grant to the Rockland Arts Center for my residency, the West Side Spirit short story contest, and now the Florida fellowship, this has been quite a time for me, and it makes up for those times in the past when I felt rejected and ignored.

Last evening in Rockaway, I went to bed at 7 PM and was asleep soon after Grandma Ethel returned from her dinner at Lillian Goldberg’s.

Teresa phoned from her mother’s to say that Sat Darshan had called me, and that’s about the last thing I can remember.

I slept soundly – which for me means heavy dreaming.  As usual, I woke up several times during the night to go to the bathroom, but the quality of my sleep was excellent.

Up at 8:45 AM, I felt refreshed, and I said goodbye to Grandma less than an hour later.  She said she felt a bit dizzy and I urged her not to fast for Yom Kippur.

At the bus stop, I spoke to an old woman with Parkinson’s disease whose only son had died recently.

She had lived in Daytona Beach and hated it, and she told me her grandchildren never visited her even after she moved back to New York: “No one cares about their grandparents anymore.”

When I told her I had just visited my grandmother, she said, “Well, you’re the exception.”

The bus ride to the Junction went quickly, and the IRT got me to 86th Street by 11:30 AM.  I found a strange cleaning woman here; Teresa left a note that Ruffina hadn’t come yesterday and so she got her friend’s cleaning woman to stop by.

I stayed long enough to look at the mail, and then I went to the post office to pick up a package of shirts Mom had sent.  After a burger and Tab at the 4 Brothers Diner, I went up to Teachers College for Lucy Calkins’ class, which I’m greatly enjoying.

Not only has she got me excited about my own writing, but she’s also revived my interest in teaching writing.  With other writers, I never discuss the writing process; for example, I don’t know how Alice or Tom or Crad or Miriam or Justin goes about writing.

Lucy said that she heard that people at artists’ colonies like MacDowell behave as if they’re living in a writers’ community and that’s how we should be behave with our students.

But I find that professional writers don’t talk about the process, they talk about gossip: who got a good or bad review here or there, who got a grant or a publishing contract, etc.

In any case, taking Lucy’s course is good for me.

Back home, I spoke to Mom and to Dad, who returned from Los Angeles last night; after Dad congratulated me on the fellowship, I told them about moving in with Alicia.  Although they seemed a bit dubious, I think they trust my judgment.

Teresa called to say she wouldn’t be coming home tonight, but she’s not in Fire Island; she’s across town at Bill’s.

Because he lives in the same building where Teresa once lived with Michael, she didn’t want to go there, and last night Bill stayed over here.  (So my leaving for Rockaway actually turned out well for Teresa.)

But today Bill prevailed upon her to get over her fear, and so she’s back at 300 East 73rd Street.  I suspect she’ll be spending more and more time there.  So for now, I’ve got the place to myself.


Sunday, September 25, 1988

9 PM.  Alicia never called me this weekend, and I’ve been unable to reach her.  I’m not certain what that means.  Perhaps she’s changed her mind about having me as a roommate, or perhaps she just didn’t feel like it was necessary for me to meet her boyfriend.

I’m anxious about not having a place to live, though of course Teresa wouldn’t mind if I remained here. She’s in Fire Island tonight, but she’ll be here in the morning.

I guess I feel kind of uncertain about things, even if I’ll have the cushion of the grant money.  I’m nervous about teaching in Rockland, unsure of what to do with elementary school students.  Of course, I’ve got four weeks before I even talk to the teachers in Nanuet.

I don’t have the security of a place of my own. I feel anxious that I won’t be able to write.  I’m very tense, and maybe that’s why my back has gone into spasms even as I write this.

My back seemed to be getting better, and I’ve been exercising lightly, but it seems to have tightened up on me.  I’d better make certain I rest up.  Hopefully I’ll have a chance to do so even if Teresa is here.

In an hour, I’ll watch the presidential candidates’ “debate.”  As a political junkie, I’ve already heard too much about spin doctors, one-liners and gaffes, and the whole thing is so orchestrated that I’m certain neither Bush nor Dukakis will say much of substance.

The nation is in an advanced state of denial of unpleasant truths.

Robert Strauss of the National Economic Commission says that to bring down the deficit, we’ll probably have to cut defense spending and social security and raise taxes, and everyone runs away from him although no one really denies that Strauss is right.

The savings and loan crisis, the poverty among children, our problems with education, drugs, AIDS, health care: nobody wants to face the issues with hard choices.

Simple answers work best on TV, so Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes” goes a lot farther than a reasoned response to the problem of the deficit.

Unless something drastic happens, Bush will win, and if there’s any justice in the world, the chickens of the Reagan administration will come home to roost on his doorstep.

Last night I took a cab down Eleventh Avenue to Hot Rod, the club where Alice was having her “party” that she won in some raffle or something.

I hate discos or clubs or whatever they call them, so when they told me I’d have to wait on a velvet-roped line that stretched around the block, I promptly turned around and caught a cab home.

It amazes me that people would actually wait on line to get into a noisy, crowded, drug-filled arena of schmucks.  (Just why do young writers like Janowitz, McInerney and Ellis write about these club people?  They’re so boring.)

Today Alice called and said she thinks she lost half her friends after last night’s fiasco.  Even she had to wait on line for half an hour, there was no food, and the drinks cost money; it was so jammed that she couldn’t find her own “guests.”

What a ripoff.  I’m glad I went home right away.

Alice and I agreed to meet at the 84th Street Theater, where we saw Sweet Hearts Dance, a warm comedy with Don Johnson and Susan Sarandon.

Alice felt very depressed because her lawyer friend Jon didn’t call her all last week and yesterday left a message that said he had a cold and wouldn’t be coming to the club.

Alice’s women friends told her she wouldn’t meet a new boyfriend right away, but she felt she was different. So she’s taking Jon’s rejection hard, considering they’d dated only twice.

Like Teresa, Alice has a kind of horror of being alone, but in Alice’s case, “alone” means not having a boyfriend.

She says she hates Peter because he said the only way he’d marry her would be if they lived apart, and she even jokingly blamed Peter for getting her in the position where Jon could reject her.

On Friday, Alice will be going to New Zealand on a freebie travel writers’ junket for twelve days.  That should cheer her up.


Monday, September 26, 1988

1 AM and I can’t sleep.  My mind is racing even though I’m so tired.  I’ve been thinking about Alice’s problems, and Teresa’s, and Josh’s, and the debate and God knows what else.

Bush and Dukakis debated to a draw, in my opinion, and although the panelists’ questions were good, the tone of nastiness in the answers made me uncomfortable.

I thought Dukakis was better, but I can’t be objective because I agree with his positions.  Maybe he did a little bit better than Bush, but that’s not nearly good enough to turn this election around, and I still don’t think Dukakis can win even 200 electoral votes, much less the 270 needed to get elected.

Mom told me she hates Bush, but I suspect neither candidate is liked very much by anyone.

Dad had his Miami menswear show today, and the customers stood in line so Dad could work with them; Bugle Boy is still a hot line for spring.

Todd phoned, and mostly we talked about writing.  Josh had shown me a piece Todd did for New York, and Todd said they’d kept it for well over a year and cut it drastically before publishing it.

Before he hung up, Todd told me that while he thought that perhaps someone was harassing Josh this spring, he did not believe anything was happening now.

As Todd says, Josh doesn’t seem crazy.  But I don’t know why I didn’t see what Tom and Crad figured out immediately: that Josh is paranoid.

What can I do to help Josh?  On Friday, talking about the harassment, Josh said, “Don’t humor me.”  Can I tell Josh what I really think and expect it will do any good?

Why should it?  He’s just gotten angry and silent with everyone else who suggested his perception of constant harassment is in his mind.

Josh needs to see a doctor, but I’m afraid nothing I can do will get him into treatment.

I think about Alice’s need to be with someone.  Yesterday she asked me, “Aren’t you always looking for someone, too?  Do you actually like being alone?”

The way she said alone, it meant incomplete, and I said, “I never think of myself as being alone.”

Although I’ve been in love, I’ve never really wanted to live with someone and spend “the rest of my life” with that person.  Am I happier because of that, or am I fool or somehow inhuman?

Lucy Calkins seems to think that writing can cure all human ills.  But writers, however honest and aware, aren’t always nice people. What this has to do with anything, I don’t know.

*

4 PM.  I got about four hours’ sleep last night, enough to keep me from being a zombie today but not enough to forestall a daylong headache and weariness.

Teresa hasn’t returned home yet, but I expect her at any moment.  Already I’ve moved out of the bedroom and have been reading and writing in the living room and kitchen.

I looked over my “Eclipse” story and feel that all that it needs is an ending.  It’s a very low-key story, not giving away very much, and I doubt it will interest many readers.  I just don’t know what to write anymore because I feel so removed from the world of fiction writing.

I now realize that because I read lots of newspapers and magazines and watch news shows, I’m much better informed than anyone I know.  Yet what can I do with my knowledge of economics, politics, business, sociology, education?

It was very helpful to me when I wrote my column for the Sun-Tattler, but it may be a disadvantage as a short story writer.

At my first MFA tutorial with Jonathan Baumbach fourteen years ago, he told me that my intelligence could handicap me as a fiction writer.

Who knows?

It’s a beautiful day, sunny and mild, and I was out a lot, reading on a bench on Riverside Drive, shopping, walking around.  My blood sugar must be very low because I feel empty inside and nervous and I crave sweets.

I’ll call Alicia tonight and find out what’s what with her apartment.  I’m both a bit scared to move and also not to move.

When I listen to middle-of-the-night radio psychologists, their callers’ problems seem so obvious to me.

I just wish I could formulate the questions that would allow me to search for the answers I need.  Is this just psychobabble?


Thursday, September 29, 1988

3 PM.  It’s a brisk, bright autumn day.  I didn’t get to sleep till 2 AM, but I slept soundly, and I got to exercise in the morning, as I did yesterday.

Teresa came over at 11 AM and together we watched the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery.  Teresa was so scared that she went out of the room during blastoff, but there was no repeat of the Challenger disaster.

Later, Teresa drove me to Teachers College, where I swapped some files between the different-sized disks and did some printing out.  My new résumé is eight pages long and looks impressive . . . well, hefty, anyway.

I had a burger at Grandma’s Restaurant on Broadway and 116th; it’s fun to hang out around Teachers College and Columbia during the day.

Last evening Ronna said the chilly weather reminded her of our college days, and I know what she means.

When I got home half an hour ago, Teresa was on the phone.  She and Bill are going to see some movie screenings late this afternoon and evening and probably won’t be coming home tonight, either.

She got a call last night from the Berkshire realtors, who are interested in buying her house.  Teresa’s nervous about talking them tomorrow because she doesn’t know how to negotiate and isn’t sure how much to ask.

Her sister told her to say that they wanted $125,000 but would sell to the renters for $110,000 and keep that price firm.

My new Key Federal Visa arrived today, making one more secured credit card in my portfolio.

I feel comfortable now about remaining here at Teresa’s.  This apartment is so familiar to me that I’ve forgotten just how lucky I am to be able to live in such luxurious surroundings for so little money.

Last night I had a surprisingly good time with Scott and his girlfriend M.J., a Korean-American architect.

M.J. lives on 87th near Columbus, and we had a nice conversation in her fourth-floor walkup before setting out for the Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant on 77th Street.

We sat on stools around a round wicker table on which was served our two main dishes, put on top spongy Ethiopian injera bread.  You pick up the food with the bread (there are no utensils), and it was all very good indeed.

Unfortunately, both Scott and M.J. had colds, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hand contact we had sharing each other’s food gets me sick, too.

However, I’d rather get a cold right now than later this fall when I’m teaching.

(Ron Anagnostis called today and we changed some of the dates for my residency in Sloatsburg.  And instead of meeting the teachers on December 1, I’ll go there on November 17.)

M.J. seems intelligent and sweet, but she wants to improve her English.  She’s been in the U.S. only seven years now, and she sounds fine to me, but M.J. said that she needs to talk more aggressively and understandably in business.

I talked to her about architecture and asked her what she thought of the work of Arquitectonica; M.J. said she likes it.

Justin phoned today and told me that the Werbacher twins’ What Would Esther Williams Do in a Situation Like This? will go on again at the end of this month, and he’s happy about it.

And it’s almost definite that his own two plays will be produced in L.A.

Justin vented some anger towards Anson, who picked his brain about club dates for the political revue (which Ali saw and said wasn’t bad) while Anson was dismissing the Werbachers’ play as worthless.

Justin is fed up with Anson, whom he called a “taker” and a “user.”

Yesterday in class, Lucy knew my name, and I participated (although I gave one pretty lame answer), which made me feel good.

September, ending tomorrow, has been a very good month for me.

The PEN reading at the 92nd Street Y is tonight, but I’m not sure Ronna will want to attend the party at Manhattan Island on 43rd and Tenth afterwards.

She and Leah are getting along okay, but Leah goes to sleep early, which is why Ronna didn’t want me to come into the apartment last evening.


Friday, September 30, 1988

3 PM. September is ending on a beautiful day, much milder than yesterday, with a lot of energy in the air.

Alicia never called last night, so I think I’m entirely justified in not trying to call her again. At this point, I’ve changed my mind about renting her spare room since I can’t get in touch with her.

Ronna’s tutoring session at the St. Agnes library last evening was canceled when none of her students showed up, so I met her at her place and we took the 96th Street bus crosstown to the East Side.

In the lobby of the 92nd Street Y, Pamela Pearce came up to me and said they’d raised a lot of money. “It’s still coming in,” she said, and she thanked me again.

Taking our seats in the Kaufman Concert Hall, Ronna and I looked through the program: notes on the writers who were reading, a message from Gregory Kolovakos, and a list of the patrons and sponsors, including me.

I think I got one $100 gift from my letters, from Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. The program gave me thanks along with other people, and it was nice to contribute to a good cause.

Kitty Carlisle Hart introduced the night’s program with her usual aplomb, but for me, the most moving moment was Gregory’s talk. When he began one sentence, “As a man with AIDS . . . ,” you could feel people’s reactions.

Gregory talked about hatred and bigotry and how the Reagan administration made the crisis so much worse, and he talked about the caring and compassion of many people.

At the end, he was given a long, powerful round of applause. I admire Gregory so much, and Ronna said he always was especially kind to her.

Then Christopher Durang read a monologue which dealt with homosexuality and AIDS, ridiculing the far-right claims about divine retribution.

Ronna’s always thought that Durang and I were alike because we’re both short, chubby, chinless, funny and gay.

May Swenson and James Merrill read some poems (including one in memory of James Boatwright); Marsha Norman read some monologues; and three actors performed scenes from a neat play by María Irene Fornés (she adapted dialogue from a record set that teaches foreigners to speak Hungarian, and the results were funny and moving).

Everett Quinton of the Theatre of the Ridiculous did a one-man scene from Tale of Two Cities, and Susan Sontag read the second half of her excellent story about AIDS, “The Way We Live Now.”

Most of the crowd was better-dressed than I was (Ronna looked good in her dress from work), and neither of us felt like taking the buses down to the Manhattan Island party for contributors.

I did say hello to Zan Knudson, the gravel-voiced writer I knew at VCCA (she didn’t remember me), and I exchanged smiles with Meg Wolitzer as we left.

After getting home at 11 PM, I called Mom and told her I was staying at Teresa’s. I told her about the AIDS benefit and other stuff, and she told me that she and Dad picked out the colors for their new house.

I had mistakenly thought they were moving way out west, but they’re going to a new development near Nova Drive, right by Pine Island Ridge. The house could be ready by May.

I slept well and worked out this morning. At the 42nd Street library, I read American Banker, spending an hour on Monday’s special issue on the credit card business.

I really learned a lot, including ways to make myself look less like a potential bankrupt.

Losses from bankruptcies are now offsetting growth, as there no longer seems to be much of a new base of creditworthy customers.

So Visa and MasterCard are no longer the cash cows for the banks that they once were.

Secured cards and debit cards are more popular, but the affinity-group market may be played out – though one bank introduced an Elvis Presley MasterCard last week and got flooded with applications.

I know Josh said he wanted one, something I take as a sign of his sanity.