A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-January, 1989

by Richard Grayson

Wednesday, January 11, 1989

6 PM. It’s a relief to have another day’s teaching in Sloatsburg under my belt, and it’s also nice to know that I have six days before I return.

Last evening I took the bus to the Days Inn, arriving just as Dad did. After he changed into comfortable clothes, we went out for dinner at Circle West, an upscale Greek diner on West 58th Street.

Almost all Dad’s appointments for the week were scheduled for yesterday, when he worked with buyers from three big department stores. He told me the sessions went well, so he’s hoping for some big orders.

After dinner, I took a taxi home and tried to get to bed early. I slept well and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go up to Sloatsburg.

There was no traffic and no snow and the temperature was just seasonably cold, about 33°, so today was a fairly easy day – especially since the car worked fine.

But it’s still a bit of a grind: I taught at 9 AM, 10 AM, 11 AM, 12 noon, and from 1:45 PM to 2:45 PM. The classes have different personalities, and today I had varying degrees of success with them.

Today I tried to work with them on the qualities of good writing; mostly we had decent discussions.

The two hour-long sessions are the most difficult classes. The kids in the Learning Unit, most of them, are bouncing off the walls, and they’ve got so many behavioral and learning problems that there’s not much I can do with them but encourage their writing.

Still, last week I was upset when their teachers expressed disapproval, via facial gestures, to some students’ choice of topics.

One boy wrote about a mother burning her son, and I could see the teacher frowning. What I said was that he accomplished something no one else in the class did: he used dialogue in telling his story.

The late afternoon class, Ms. Goldblatt’s sixth-graders, seem bright but very shy and reticent about sharing their work or participating in discussions.

Miss Santy’s sixth-graders, on the other hand, all want to participate, and we had good group conferences with intelligent comments and questions.

The district’s English supervisor observed me with them. Later, he told me he’s trying to implement writing process in the schools; he’d just finished reading Lucy’s book and asked my opinion of her as a teacher.

Ron – “Mr. A,” the kids call him – came into Mrs. Weller’s fifth-grade class, which went very well, as did Mrs. Johnson’s fifth-grade class.

It was a long day for me, but I gained more valuable experience teaching writing to elementary school kids.

Probably a lot of the lessons I learned aren’t readily apparent this evening but will sink in as I process the experience.

(There – now I sound like a real “educator” since I’ve got the jargon down pat.)

I was back at the apartment before 4 PM. Teresa had several young women here as she prepared to cater this evening’s party.

Last night she filled the refrigerator with food for the event, and everything seemed ready when she and helpers left at 4:30 PM.

So now, with the apartment to myself for a change, I’m relaxing.

Yesterday I went to Teachers College and found and photocopied about ten articles on critical thinking to prepare for the workshop I’ll be teaching at North Beach Elementary.

I need to read the articles to learn more about the critical thinking movement, and I still need to find more articles and books.

The CCIMS lab is closed until my final week here, so I won’t get a chance to use their computers to work on the layout for the chapbook.

I want it to look better than the original Disjointed Fictions; I didn’t know anything about book design when I set those pages up ten years ago.

Thursday, January 12, 1989

Noon. Last night Dad called and said his meeting would go on till after 8 PM.

I told him I’d pick him up at the Empire State Building at 8:30 PM, and I made it there in time, driving across the park at 86th Street and then down Fifth Avenue.

As I drove us downtown, Dad marveled he hadn’t seen lower Fifth Avenue and Broadway in years.

Knowing how he likes Ratner’s, I took him to Delancey Street to eat there.

We both had the vegetable cutlet he adores, along with carrots and peas and kasha varnishkes (which I like but Dad doesn’t).

It was fun to have the car in Manhattan at night; luckily, Ratner’s has their own parking lot.

Driving back uptown, I dropped Dad off at the hotel before coming home.

Teresa arrived soon after I did, pleased that the cocktail party had gone so well although it was filled with boring bankers from Citibank.

Some of them knew Gary, who left Citibank to work at Chase a couple of years ago. “These people were so dull, they thought Gary was interesting,” Teresa said.

She told me the guy who threw the party, Amira’s boyfriend, is “very sweet, kind of a Jewishy nerd, a real nice down-to-earth guy.”

Amira wasn’t there, and Teresa was warned not to mention her since Citibank frowns on relationships between their employees.

I missed watching President Reagan’s farewell address on TV, but I heard some of it on radio. The man never changes, repeating his stock phrases filled with corny sentiments from Hollywood movies of the ’30s and ’40s.

Supposedly, Reagan’s great legacies are our new-found patriotic, optimistic spirit and this fabulous economic boom. We’ll see how long-lasting they are.

Mikey returned my call. He and Amy are “suffering” in her second and final year of grad school in social work.

Not only are they struggling on one income, but they exiled themselves to Riverdale when they were accustomed to having an active social life in Manhattan.

Now they don’t have the money or time to do anything. It sounds as if Mikey and Amy have been really unhappy the past couple of years.

We’re tentatively having dinner on Wednesday, January 25.

I’m going to drive to Rockaway now even though it’s raining very hard. I’ll stay overnight and return tomorrow.

At least it’s too warm to be snowing now.

Friday, January 13, 1989

1:30 PM. Yesterday I drove to Rockaway and found Grandma Ethel in a fairly decent mood – though she said she’s still been feeling depressed and it’s been lonely in the apartment.

Since Jean Morse left for Florida, of course, her daily visits are no more; she’s not expected to return until April.

Tillie and Morris visited the day before for only the first time in five weeks, as they’ve both been ill.

And the last visit Marty made to Grandma was in early December.

Grandma still has that bitter taste on the roof of her mouth and in her throat, but she didn’t have any other complaints, and she did go out for a New Year’s Eve dinner with some friends from the building.

This is the first year they didn’t have their annual party. With fewer than 25 people signed up, the usual caterer didn’t think it was worth their while.

Just as with the demise of Grandma’s card games, the reason is the death of people in the building or their move to nursing homes.

With most of the healthy elderly away in Florida for the winter, the majority of the people I saw in the lobby or elevator were my age or younger.

As the dreary afternoon turned into night, I watched TV with Grandma and read the papers and the articles I xeroxed for my Critical Thinking workshop.

We had dinner at 4:45 PM, but both the spaghetti and the meatballs were so overcooked and crumbly-soft that I didn’t enjoy the meal.

I asked Grandma if she wanted to go across the street to the Surfside Twin to see The Naked Gun, but she wasn’t interested and told me she disliked Crossing Delancey, as did all her friends. I found that odd because I figured it would be a movie made for old Jewish ladies.

Grandma’s friend Lillian Goldberg called, as she does most days, but when Grandma’s niece Susan called, you could get an idea of why people don’t exactly flock to her.

Instead of expressing joy that Susan phoned, Grandma started giving her a mock-humorous lecture for not calling before today and then went on to say that Susan’s brother and sister never call her.

It’s the same thing that makes me angry when I come over and the first thing Grandma says is how nobody in the family visits her. You should make it so that people want to be around you, not so they dread being in your company.

One reason I’ll never call Gary after our last conversation is that instead of sounding pleased that I’d contacted him, he spent the whole time berating me for not calling him sooner.

Who needs that? There are some people you want to run away from.

After sleeping very deeply last night, it took all my determination to wake up at 9:30 AM to work out with Body Electric.

I left Rockaway at noon. Driving through Queens and Harlem, I made it back here in under an hour.

The mail I got yesterday included a package from Josh: his log, which runs from April to January and reads like the ravings of a madman.

Along with it, he enclosed photocopies of his negative HIV test, complaints of harassment to the police, the private investigator’s reports on Phil Straniere, and other documents related to his “case.”

After talking it over with Teresa, I decided that Josh probably is insane, hard as it is to see when we’re with him.

But how long can this go on without something happening? It’s been nine months already, and there’s no possible motive for this continued harassment.

Basically, I believe there’s a 10% chance it’s really happening and a 90% chance that Josh is nuts – and that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Sunday, January 15, 1989

9 PM. I’m enjoying the freedom of being alone. With Teresa in Mexico, I can do as I please here, and I have silence (no TV blaring, no constant phone calls) and time to think.

I’ve been reading the Sunday papers – for the first time since October, I bought the Washington Post in addition to the Times – and reflecting on the state of the world.

A great op-ed piece by a CUNY philosophy adjunct characterized academia as a medieval world of lords (full-time professors) and serfs (part-time adjuncts).

The lords are those who yearn to know more and more about less and less, and they write arcane articles nobody cares about and which nobody can understand.

On the other hand, the serfs want to be broadly educated, and so they end up teaching the basics in every discipline.

Why would an intelligent person want a Ph.D. today? Only to become a full-time faculty member. Me, I’m too smart to get a Ph.D.

In English departments, the stars of the academic firmament produce theories so esoteric that they’re totally divorced from literature, not to mention life.

Anyway, here’s my take on the state of the (real) world circa now:

With Hirohito’s death, the 63 years of the Showa era end in Japan, and a new era begins. In the U.S., the eight years of Reagan end on Friday.

Bush’s cabinet members are, like him, members of the Establishment, the guys who ran the show from the New Deal to Vietnam.

Ronald and Nancy are taking their bows, and certainly they did bring us a revival of morale and show us that a President can last two full terms and go out popular.

But it’s been a coarse, shallow, vulgar, greedy, illusory party.

The budget deficit may not matter. The trade deficit may not matter. The widening gulf between the rich and poor, the increasing number of homeless people on the streets, the retreat on civil rights, the decline of education, the worsening of the environment, the S&L bankruptcies, the nuclear weapons plant mess, the sleaze – none of it may matter.

But if Nemesis exists, then maybe Ronald Reagan will live long enough to learn something.

His refusal to pay attention to reality – I remember how he muffed a line in his GOP convention speech and instead of saying “stubborn things,” he declared, “Facts are stupid things” – is remarkable.

His farewell address “warning” was to not let the 1980s spirit of simplistic, jingoistic patriotism (read: nationalism) die with his administration.

Remember how I said this would be “the Dumb Decade”? Was I right or was I right?

Ronna came over today at 1 PM.

We went out for lunch and although we had planned to go to a movie afterwards, the day was so bright and mild – it hit 50° – that we decided to take a long walk instead.

We had a good talk. Ronna contracted with a matchmaker, Dan Field, to provide her with the names of nice Jewish guys interested in marriage.

She met the first guy he sent – Richard Greenblatt, 36, who’s a lawyer and Brooklyn College grad – this week. There was no chemistry on either side, so she’ll keep trying.

We discussed something heretofore left unsaid: that we stopped having sex sometime last summer.

We didn’t make a conscious decision about it, and both of us still hanker after the other, but we agreed that we were probably wise in keeping our relationship away from the physical.

That attraction will probably always be there, but Ronna needs to have a clear head as she goes after what she wants: a husband and kids.

I’ve got little to lose if we sleep together, but why should I complicate Ronna’s life?

Then again, I could have been using my sexual relationship with Ronna as a hideout, avoiding my own need to have a new relationship with a guy, my first since Sean.

As Ronna said last week, maybe both of us will get lucky and fall in love in 1989.

Our friendship is pretty solid right now, but after 18 years, we know each other about as well as two people can.

Ronna is a great intellectual companion, a terrific pal, and she’s as cute as a bunny to boot.

Although I’d like us to be friends forever, I know our relationship will change if she gets married and becomes a mother. Still, if I know Ronna, our friendship will never die.

Dad called tonight, saying he’d had an unexpectedly busy day at the menswear show. Although he had no scheduled appointments, Dad still managed to write $250,000 in orders.

Good for him and Bugle Boy.

Tuesday, January 17, 1989

6 PM. Last evening Dad and I again had dinner at Wolf’s Delicatessen. He’d been working with Jordan Marsh/Maas Brothers buyers all day and expects to get some big orders.

Late this afternoon after his last appointments, Dad flew back to Florida, so I won’t see him again until my return. It was a treat having him here.

I woke up today with a headache which is still with me. My morning workout was cut short by the arrival of the cleaning woman.

Leaving the house at 10:30 AM, I got out of the subway at 42nd Street and Sixth and headed for the main library to do some work. Then I walked uptown to browse in the Gotham Book Mart and meet Sat Darshan for a vegetarian lunch.

Sat Darshan told me she didn’t enjoy the winter yoga festival in Florida as much as she likes the summer one in New Mexico: Lake Wales was too humid and not as beautiful as Española with its mountains.

She says the girls are changing rapidly as they go to school and improve their English. They’re both a grade behind: Gurujot, who’ll soon be 9, is in second grade, and Gurudaya, 6, is in kindergarten.

Sat Darshan said that they’re immature and naïve compared to American kids their age; she and Dharma Singh didn’t expect the girls to be as difficult as they are.

The younger one in particular wants to be waited on hand and foot, and both are often disrespectful and rowdy.

They don’t seem grateful to be in the U.S., and Sat Darshan can’t scare them by saying if they don’t like it here, they can go back to India; they just laugh at her.

Still, they seem to have strong egos, and as they become more comfortable with American life – even a Sikh version – undoubtedly they’ll continue to change.

Sat Darshan said it’s fascinating to watch their growth, and overall, she likes being a mother to older kids: “In in four years, I’ll have a teenage daughter.”

She’s back working at the bank every day, and things seem to be settling down as Gurujot and Gurudaya go to school and the YWCA (the one where Libby used to teach swimming – the girls swim there now).

I told Sat Darshan I’d write her from Florida.

Mom’s four packets of mail arrived, and I paid bills, sent the permission notice to Coach House Press to publish my Jackie Onassis piece in the Brushes with Greatness anthology, and worked with Republic National Bank to straighten out a problem with my account.

This year’s NEA literature fellowships went to the usual suspects – in Florida, to solid academics like Donald Justice, Peter Meinke and Les Standiford – and not to me.

After a dozen years of applying, the odds (now 19-1) just get worse.

I’d say I was the type of writer who never gets grants, but then I copped two state grants totaling $8750 this fall.

Wednesday, January 18, 1989

7 PM. I had a good day in Sloatsburg today.

I wanted to get the kids away from writing Fantasy Island stories about aliens, ghosts, robbers, murders and other subjects lifted from TV or movie plots, so I got them talking about their own experiences.

I started by sharing stories about my own childhood: about my stuffed animals and my brothers’ toys and about how I got three stitches in my forehead and about dreams I had and how I was scared that the cowboys were going to come off the wallpaper at night and get me.

It worked in every class, and afterwards “the room filled up with stories,” to use Lucy’s phrase. Although the pieces they wrote today tended to be skeletal, they were personal narratives that carried a little more weight than fantastical adventures and clichéd science fiction stories.

Two of the teachers were absent today, but that didn’t seem to slow us down.

I tried to have individual conferences with some students, especially the shy ones who don’t read their work aloud, like one boy who only writes in Spanish.

(Luckily, I can read fifth-grade español and I could give him encouragement and a suggestion to start new sentences rather than keep using yand – to string clauses together.)

It was a long day, but I’m not wiped out. In fact, its almost a pleasure to come to know these kids – especially today, when I got them talking and writing about their concerns.

When Julie asked me sarcastically, “Are you having fun?” when I spoke to her on the phone this evening, I could honestly answer, “Yes.”

She may come to observe me on Friday, and she’ll definitely come to our evening presentation next Thursday.

Today I spoke with Ron and Mary Santy about the presentation; I think the kids will do fine if it’s kept informal, like a whole-class share session.

One kid came up to me and gave me a computer-generated newspaper they made that included a story about me.

It was such a sunny, mild (49°) day that I took part of my lunch hour to drive up Route 17 into Orange County, through Tuxedo and Southfields, with the window open.

Home at 4:15 PM, I exercised, and now I’m going over to Ronna’s for dinner.

Friday, January 20, 1989

10 PM on a bitterly cold night. I hate being in New York and wish I could make the next week go by in a flash.

I just spent a few hours with Josh. Immediately after he came in, he started obsessing about the harassment. Now it’s Mafiosi types in black Cadillacs.

As Josh himself said, when I’m back in Florida and he sends me material about this, I won’t believe it and I’ll be certain he’s mentally ill.

Yet in talking to him over dinner at Marvin Gardens, I find him rational on every other subject.

I just don’t know what to believe. Josh keeps going over the same ground we covered last November, last August, last May.

What are the motives for the harassment? Who’s doing this? How is it connected to Phil Straniere? When are they going to contact Josh or use violence?

To be honest, I’m glad to be getting away from Josh and his problems.

Even if they’re real, they’re New York City problems, and I’m sick to death of New York City problems – like Teresa’s problems with the apartment on West 104th Street.

Her sister told me not to worry about accepting the document from the process server, and Connie showed me where to look for the court date, which is next Thursday.

All hell will break loose when Teresa returns tomorrow and finds out about it. I am not looking forward to that. It’s been so peaceful here this past week with the phone barely ringing.

Last night I slept well, but on the drive upstate this morning, my chest continued to hurt and I kept obsessing about it.

It’s probably just the pain I get sometimes from exercise, but I’m afraid of having a heart attack. (Do I sound like more of a nut than Josh?)

Still, I was able to get through the school day in Sloatsburg.

But I feel bogged down: I just can’t seem to get the students beyond first drafts and simple editing. Nobody’s doing deep revision, and I don’t know how to get them there.

The Learning Unit kids were more obstreperous than ever, and the teachers could barely control several of them.

While I know that some of the other kids really like me coming into their classes, I feel kind of frustrated. They’ve written stories with little emotional content; it’s as if they’re hiding their real selves.

Yeah, some of them are working on good pieces, but so much of the writing is shallow and dishonest. Maybe that’s what school does to kids.

I’ve got to keep in mind that even my college students write like that, too.

In only four sessions, I can’t work miracles; all I can do is model for them some of my processes as a writer and give them a writer’s point of view.

Although I was tired when I got home at 4 PM, I exercised anyway (and my chest didn’t give me any more pain).

Then I watched Bush’s inauguration, which I’d videotaped. It doesn’t seem possible that the Reagan administration is over; it felt as if Reagan was going to be President forever.

Bush’s speech was okay. “A new breeze is blowing,” he said, and he called for civility, bipartisanship, kindness, and an active role for government – though he stressed that private groups should do more to help people (his “thousand points of light”).

As old as I am – and I can even remember seeing Eisenhower’s second inaugural in 1957 when I got home from kindergarten at noon – I’m cynical about inaugural addresses. Only JFK’s seemed magical.

Although Bush said some good things, I remember Nixon in 1969 telling us to “lower our voices” so we could hear important sounds or something like that.

At 17, I was impressed enough to give the guy a chance, something Nixon certainly didn’t deserve.

Twenty years older now, and tired and cynical, I understand that Bush doesn’t deserve any of my good will.

I just don’t know if I can bear to watch the crass, greedy 1980s go on and on.