A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late November, 1988

Monday, November 21, 1988

8 PM. I did finish that final draft of my piece about begging for billions on Wall Street.

Interestingly, there have been more bids for RJR Nabisco, and the price is now above the $25.4 billion I used in my sign that got me in Business Week and the New York Post.

But I think this megadeal will end the LBO craze as people realize how unproductive and greed-driven such deals are.

At 6 PM yesterday, I went out for the first time, to Ronna’s for dinner.  We ate the leftovers from Lori’s bachelorette party: Italian food like eggplant parmigiana and shells.

Ronna calmed me down, as she always does, and we had a good talk.  By now we’re such good friends, it’s hard to believe that there was a time – sixteen years ago this week – when we were college students on our first date.

After learning from Jordan that Susan and Evan are having a baby, Ronna admitted she felt a little envious.  I just hope she gets her wish and can have a child one day soon.

Maybe by the time I come back to New York next summer, she’ll be serious about some terrific guy.

We hugged a little, but even though I stayed later than I planned because it was raining so furiously, I didn’t want to go beyond a few affectionate kisses.

Ronna has definitely decided to start reading the want ads for a new job.

The rain had subsided by the time I was able to go home, but a fierce wind made walking down West End Avenue challenging; I felt as if I could get blown away.

During the night, the window kept getting blown wide open, so I had to shut it every few minutes. Finally I dragged my futon into Teresa’s bedroom.

Because I was up much of the night, I didn’t get a good rest, but at least I managed a few hours’ sleep.

The wind brought down a tree that blocked both northbound lanes on the Palisades Parkway this morning, so I was stuck in traffic on the way to Nanuet.

The third of my five Mondays at the Miller School went pretty well.  I’m getting to know the third-graders, and some of them are so adorable I want to take them home with me.

Dr. Gold came into my second class and heard that gifted writer, Sean, read a piece so sophisticated it scared me.

Written in the second person and the present tense (“You are living in a Victorian mansion in Nyack,” it began), the story was about an eight-year-old boy whose psychiatrist tried to convince him that he really wasn’t seeing “the wee folk” that were haunting him.

Dr. Gold told me I was doing a good job, taking my cues from the kids.  She told me that Julie would be by at 11 AM to take me to lunch.

Julie got there a bit late, but we had time to go out to a health-food restaurant. (Somehow I feel as if I’m writing like a third-grader now.)

We talked about my work with the kids, and she asked if I had any suggestions about how the Writer-in-Residence position should work in the future.

Julie sat in on my 12:15 PM class with Ms. Roher’s kids, and afterwards she told me she enjoyed it and that it seemed to be going well.

My energy flagged a bit by the last two classes (Mr. Slayburg was absent), but the kids were so energetic and eager to share their writing with my class that they perked me up.

After school ended, I stopped by the Arts Center, but Julie hadn’t gotten around to signing my check, so I told Claire, the assistant director, that I’ll pick it up next week.  I don’t need the money desperately.

By the time I got back to Manhattan, I was tired: I paid some bills, read USA Today, and went out to dinner.  Teresa was arriving home from the chicken store as I got back.


Thursday, November 24, 1988

6 PM. I just this minute got in. Grandma must have gone down to her friend Lilian Goldberg’s for Thanksgiving dinner. I have a bag full of leftovers that Alice’s mother gave me.

Although it’s 40° right now, I don’t seem to mind the cold. Perhaps it’s because I’m mainly going from a warm car to an overheated apartment.

All things considered, this was a pleasant Thanksgiving –  although I was upset that Grandma’s been so sick and depressed. While she seems to have no specific pains, Grandma says she feels weak.

It’s hard for me to tell how much of her problem is depression and how much real physical distress.

There’s no question in my mind that she’s deteriorated, even since I returned here from Florida last May. She seems to have no energy and nothing keeping her going in life.

I broached the subject of a nursing home; maybe she’d be better off in a place where she wouldn’t have to worry about her basic needs.

Perhaps her heart and/or the rest of her is giving out, and she’ll die soon. I just don’t know.

This morning Jeff called her, and I could hear Grandma’s end of the conversation.

Aside from consoling him on the breakup with his girlfriend, all Grandma talked about was about how bad she felt. And she said this after telling Jeff how much she dislikes complaining!

To his exhortations that she get out and keep busy, Grandma sighed her trademark sigh, basically telling him, “That’s easy for you to say.”

While Alice complains about her mother, I see that Mrs. D manages to keep busy and involved in life.

But of course, despite her deafness, Alice’s mother is much younger and better-educated than Grandma; she reads voraciously and can deal with things like VCRs, for example.

This morning, after another night of deep sleep, I exercised and then finished the paper for the Software/Social Studies workshop.

That’s one down and two papers to go, so at least I can feel I accomplished something in Rockaway.

After I went out and bought Grandma some medicine and got flowers for Alice’s mother. I drove into Far Rockaway and the Five Towns.

In Cedarhurst, I passed Aunt Sydelle’s old house on Arlington Road – another place from my childhood memories.

Back here, I watched some soap operas’ Thanksgiving dinners with Grandma before I left for Brooklyn.

Alice, her mother and I played scrabble until about 3 PM, when we set the table for dinner: turkey (fairly juicy), stuffing, sweet potatoes, mixed vegetables, cranberry sauce and some coffee cake for dessert.

As I expected, we had much too much food for three people.

Alice’s mother is going to Australia in January, and she plans to stay in Canberra with Michael for six months.

Alice is getting more excited about the Midwood reunion, where she hopes to meet her future husband. She can’t understand why I’m not going, but I think she has unrealistic expectations about the event.

Although I miss about half of what Alice’s mother says (and I’m sure she misses half of what I say to her even though I try to look at her head-on and use exaggerated sounds the way Alice does), I feel very comfortable in her home and enjoyed our holiday dinner.

I’ve known Alice for over thirty years now. Even if I’m not much of a family person, it’s important for me to keep up old connections like that.

It’s been nearly seven months since I’ve seen my own mother or brothers. I guess my family is eating their usual Thanksgiving lasagna dinner tonight.


Friday, November 25, 1988

4 PM. I guess I’ll remain in Rockaway tonight, though I’ll most likely regret it. But since I won’t return here until January, I feel it’s my duty to spend as much time with Grandma Ethel as possible now.

This morning, she told me she “didn’t sleep a wink” and then she started complaining about chest pains and pains in her arms and that weakness and shakiness.

I figured it was nothing, but I decided to see how sick she really felt. So I told her she didn’t look well and maybe I should take her to the hospital to see if she was having a heart attack.

She had me call her doctors, who told me to bring her to their offices for a cardiogram; if the EKG indicated a problem, they’d call an ambulance and get her admitted to Peninsula Hospital.

Although I was concerned, I feigned being more upset than I actually felt.

As we drove to Far Rockaway – this is a terrible thing to admit – I almost wished she were having a heart attack.

That sounds so cruel, but no one else in the family has ever spent as much time with Grandma as I have, and I can’t stand listening to her constant sighs.

If she was having a coronary, she might have died before they got to her at that Medicare mill she goes to. But I felt her pulse as we were waiting, and it seemed strong and regular.

The EKG turned out fine, and the doctor who examined her told me that he sensed she was “uptight” and “depressed.”

I suggested he write out a prescription for a weak tranquilizer. So, as I expected, whatever real health problems Grandma’s been having, they’re grossly exaggerated by her state of mind.

I dropped her off here and went to fill the prescription, have lunch out and calm down; my own blood pressure was probably higher than Grandma’s.

What really irked me was one comment she made while sitting on her “death chair” before we left.

“Now is a time when I could really use Mother,” she said, and then, later, she remarked, “If only Mother were here.”

I’ve always been told that there’s one relative elderly people idealize and compare favorably to the people who do stay at their side.

But I feel like saying, “What am I, chopped liver?”

For whatever reasons, Mom hasn’t seen Grandma in over four years.

During that time, I don’t know how many days and hours I’ve spent with her. It might add up to five months – about 150 days, and maybe more than that.

Jeff is home from college for the weekend, and I don’t see him here. Nor did Marty or anyone else call while I’ve been here.

Lillian Goldberg was here when I came back to drop off the tranquilizer, sitting on the terrace with Grandma.

At the library, I found and xeroxed an article on KidTalk that I’ll use for my Computers and ESL paper. Now I’ve got to figure out what to write about for my final paper in Teaching Writing.

I did sleep well again and had a fantastic dream in which I was skiing down a hill filled with obstacles. I thought I’d crash into one of them, but I kept swerving and twisting so deftly that I managed to avoid them all and end up safe at the finish line.

The feeling of exaltation and accomplishment remained even after I woke up.

I managed to exercise to both Bodystretch and Body Electric today. Though I skipped Monday, I’ve worked out for three hours total this week.


Saturday, November 26, 1988

10 PM. I just got back from having a late dinner at Marvin Gardens with Pete Cherches.

It’s about 55° out, and it seems unbelievably mild compared to our recent weather.

Teresa is out somewhere with Elizabeth, who returns to her home in the Virgin Islands tomorrow.

Last evening at Grandma’s was not totally uneventful. I was sitting on the floor watching TV when I felt the building moving.

For about a half-second, I thought I was having a physical problem; then I realized what it was and I told Grandma, “We’re having an earthquake.”

The floor was swaying beneath me, and I knew the feeling from having been at Park Slope during the October 1985 quake.

Standing in the kitchen, Grandma didn’t feel it at first, but then she noticed the chandelier moving to and fro.

It lasted only a minute, and then we forgot about it until I saw a bulletin about a 6.5 earthquake hitting Quebec. Apparently in New York City, only some people in high-rise buildings felt the tremors.

Grandma took a sleeping pill and went to bed at 9 PM while I stayed up to watch banal sitcoms for another hour or so before I finally fell asleep.

This morning I exercised to the same Body Electric tape that WNYC-TV played yesterday, and I left as soon as my hair was dry from the shower – that was about noon.

I know that as testy as I can be, Grandma hates when I leave. But I had to get the car home, and besides, I would have killed her if I stayed any longer.

Nobody else spends as much time with her as I do, and consequently I see her at her worst. She was still complaining when I left.

I know she’s depressed and angry about being left alone. Ironically, it gets taken out on me – in the form of her kvetching – because I’m the only family member around.

It was a beautiful, mild afternoon. I stopped off at Roma Pizza in Park Slope, but their baby pizza didn’t taste very good to me.

Fighting the traffic in Manhattan was a bitch, and I came home with a headache.

Back in the apartment, I put away my stuff and talked with Teresa before heading off to the Book Fair at the Small Press Center on 44th between Fifth and Sixth.

The fair had only about 85 exhibitors, and it was in an odd space, scattered among classrooms on six floors.

I didn’t see anyone I knew except for Mark Leyner and Judy Lopatin at the Fiction Collective table. The Collective, after thirteen years, has a large number of titles (including five by Baumbach and three by Spielberg) in print.

Saving the Zephyr Press booth for last, I spent about two hours with Ed and Leora. I met Leora’s boyfriend Stuart and Ed’s wife June and her daughter, who’s about 11.

We had a good time, and Zephyr even managed to sell some copies of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz while I was there.

They sold about $100 worth of books total, which was less than they’d hoped to sell, but Leora and Ed seemed glad they came.

We talked about what we were up to, and Leora told a great story about speaking to Dukakis while he raked leaves in his front yard last Saturday.

Dukakis seemed pensive, but he said he was happy to be back on the job as Governor – a job he really likes.

The post-convention world was so different from anything he’d experienced before, Dukakis said, and he had so many people around him that he felt he really wasn’t aware of what was really going on in the ordinary voter’s mind.

Running for President was a better experience for Kitty and the family than it was for him, Dukakis told Leora, and he’s not unhappy that the Secret Service are gone.

Leora said that he had so much magnetism in person, a sense of integrity and purpose which never showed up on the TV screen.

Ed said Zephyr is still doing okay and they’ve got almost all the money to go ahead with the big Akhmatova book.

I thank God for people like Ed and Leora and all the other colleagues in the small presses who’ve published non-commercial authors like myself. I also like Ed and Leora as people.

The Hogans headed for Brooklyn when today’s session of the fair ended, and I went uptown with Leora, who was staying on the Upper West Side.

When I got here, Teresa was entertaining Elizabeth, and Pete phoned to say he’d come uptown if I’d have dinner with him.

While I waited, I went through three days of mail and paid eight credit card bills. I got two checks totaling $120 – refunds from my car insurance and for a secured card I was declined credit for.

I also got a nice letter of thanks from Dr. Garan, Ramapo High School’s principal.

Pete arrived just after Teresa and Elizabeth left, and since he was hungry, we went out right away.

A ten-year old story of his that’s been rejected 25 times just got taken by Fiction International. Jerry Bumpus said it will appear in about a year, and Pete was tickled pink.

His new apartment is small but okay; he doesn’t want to go through moving again for a long time.

Pete was shocked that he didn’t hear about the Book Fair till today even though his pal Donna Ratajczak was reading there.

I told him about my residency at Rockland and we had a decent meal. This is my next-to-last weekend in New York.


Sunday, November 28, 1988

3 PM. Josh just left. He was in the neighborhood, so we had lunch out instead of dinner.

Three weeks ago he learned from the private investigator that Phil Straniere died of AIDS in February, two months before Josh moved.

Josh now thinks the people he’s seen who looked like Straniere are brothers or cousins, and he suspects that the family is harassing him because they think he gave Phil the disease.

I’m not sure that makes sense, but revenge is a more plausible explanation than anything Josh has come up with before.

However, it’s amazing that Straniere could have been dead all this time without Josh suspecting it – or realizing that he’d had AIDS for a while before he died.

Josh claims the harassment is going as strong as ever, and now that he may have figured out a motive, “it may never end.”

The P.I. said that Grosso’s brother works for the Sanitation Department, his mother lives on Staten Island, and they seem “legit” (not Mafia-connected).

I really don’t know what to think at this point.

When Josh and I got back from lunch, Teresa was gone, but I expect she’ll be at home most of the day.

It’s drizzly and mild, but it’s going to get very cold this week. Of course, it will be December in three days.


Wednesday, November 30, 1988

4:30 PM. I just got home from Lucy’s class. The M5 bus not only came right away, but it sped down Riverside almost without stopping.

Already it’s almost dark, and it’s also really cold.

But I’ve got only another week in New York in 1988, and I’ve survived the month of November.

Living here with Teresa has been very oppressive – in fact, I’m writing this now so I can have silence and not the TV blaring or the phone ringing. (If Teresa knew I took the phone off the hook, she’d faint.)

Lucy’s class today was interesting, as she kind of summed up the course and talked about the researchers in the writing field. She discussed editing and mentioned some of Mina Shaughnessy’s work.

She’s obviously smart and quite involved with her colleagues and their work. But she’s also quite ambitious, and it shows.

Tom Brokaw will put the four-minute segment he did of her and the Writing Project on at the end of one of the NBC Nightly News shows next month.

Next week we’ll be listening to Georgia Heard speak about poetry writing at a larger conference, and it appears the last class won’t be very long, so I probably won’t miss anything.

After I looked over my 14-page, single-spaced article on my career as a writing teacher, I need to figure out how to cut it drastically. Lucy wants only five pages because she’s so far behind in her grading.

I spoke to Justin last night. Today’s his last day at Shearson. He’s just catching up on his life after all the work with the play here and then the trip to California and the long Thanksgiving weekend with Larry in Reading.

I don’t know when we can get together – next week I’ll be busy – but I’ll certainly see Justin in January.

I started reading Michael Schumacher’s Reasons to Believe, a series of “conversations” with the hot young fiction writers McInerney, Janowitz, Ellis, Leavitt, Moore, Simpson, Hempel, et al. and their mentors Carver, Jenks, Fisketjon and the inevitable Lish.

Because of my own relative failure as a fiction writer, I can’t be objective about these writers, but they do seem committed to writing and their careers, if not to capital-L literature.

While I admire the late Ray Carver for his dedication, if not his stories, the young guys seem like literary yuppies, the perfect writers for the 1980s.

Now that there are signs everywhere that the ’80s are over – for example, much media talk of a coming recession, and the RJR Nabisco leveraged buyout, still unresolved, seems to have caused a big public outcry about megadeal greed – it will be interesting to see how these writers fare in the ’90s.

Some will survive and mature, certainly, but I’m sure some will fade. Remember what a big deal Richard Brautigan was in the ’60s and how terribly he ended?

I realize I’m not dedicated enough to fiction writing to be a first-class success at it, but it’s hard to say. Maybe I’d be more dedicated today if I’d gotten more encouragement from the literary establishment.

Still, I have no regrets about the ten years since Taplinger sent me the galleys for With Hitler in New York.

Despite my lack of commercial and critical success, I am basically satisfied with my life.

And despite the discomforts of this past month, I’ve learned and grown as a writer and teacher because of my Rockland writer-in-residence duties.