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

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, February 11, 1989

6 PM. It’s still light out now. When I finish writing this, I’ll go across the street to my parents’ for dinner.

My throat is still sore, but I don’t have a cold; I suspect I have the same sinus or allergy problem I had in the summer of 1986 when I kept getting sore throats but never really sick.

Tomorrow’s Lincoln’s Birthday, and twenty years ago on that day was probably the low point of my life. I’ve written about it before, but the memory of that day gets hazier over the years.

That winter I mostly stayed in the house, a prisoner of agoraphobia – what I called my anxiety attacks, the overwhelming panic and nausea that overcame me in public. I got plenty of anxiety attacks in my room, too.

That night I hadn’t slept. My bedroom was so small that the heat from the radiator would turn it into an oven. In the morning I felt very depressed, and by 1 PM, I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.

Channel 2 had The Galloping Gourmet on, and I felt as if I wouldn’t live till 1:30 PM, when that show ended and As the World Turns came on.

Mom called Dr. Lipton to tell him how bad off I was, and he prescribed Triavil 2/10, the same pill I’m going to take soon.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the turning point. The medication allowed me to move out into the world.

As spring approached, I gradually began taking walks, driving around the neighborhood in Mom’s red Valiant (illegally, for I didn’t get my license until September), going on buses and eventually subways, fighting the nausea and panic.

I liked tea in those days, tea in exotic – to me, in 1969 – varieties that I got in a gourmet store on Ralph Avenue.

I remember going there with Grandpa Nat a few weeks later, one Saturday in March when there was still a little snow on the ground. Already I was feeling a little better.

At Publix a little while ago, I bought a yahrzeit candle for Grandpa Herb. It shocks me how little I think about my dead grandparents, as if I’ve forgotten them. Yet just remembering them gives me pain.

I was thinking about the time Jonathan was born, exactly 28 years ago yesterday. Marc stayed with the Sarretts on East 43rd Street between Church Avenue and Linden Boulevard, and I stayed with the Ginsbergs a few blocks away on Snyder Avenue and East 46th Street on the half-block that ended at Holy Cross Cemetery.

They had a very high bed, of dark wood, in their spare bedroom on the top floor that faced Snyder Avenue and the apartment building where Sat Darshan and Ellen lived with their parents and grandparents.

The week I stayed with Grandma Sylvia, she and Grandma Ethel took Marc and me to a toy store on Church Avenue.

I can remember getting some toy that heated plastic on a metal sheet into molded shapes: I loved the indescribable industrial smell it gave off. (The fumes were probably toxic.)

We also got eggs of Silly Putty, another industrial-type toy that I fooled around with, mostly lifting images from newspapers and comic books and stretching them into distorted shapes.

At the outdoor newsstand on Utica Avenue, I bought a Dennis the Menace comic book where he traveled to Mexico with his family; I remember it told you to pronounce Xochimilco “SO-CHEE-MILK-OH.”

But what I recall most is Grandma Sylvia’s face, an image that makes me want to cry. She was younger then than Dad is now.

The other day I was thinking that if she were still living in North Miami Beach, I could stop there on my way home from North Beach Elementary or Northwestern High School.

God, why don’t I write like this every day instead of giving the dreary details of the present, where so much of life is eaten up by money, technology and trivia.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Beatles gave their first concert in the U.S.

I was 13, in eighth grade, and about to go to Eugene Lefkowitz’s bar mitzvah. There I had an anxiety attack, something that would recur many, many times throughout my adolescence.

I felt sick and scared, and Arnie Bonk said I looked pale. But it passed. The band played “Twist and Shout,” which we danced to, but my favorite songs of that year were “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The latter song in particular makes me think of a winter Saturday when we all went ice skating – boys and girls – at the Wollman Rink in Prospect Park. Although I was the most inept of our group, I had fun.

I hadn’t realized how cold it was out, and when I got to Billy Sherman’s house, his mother lent me one of his sweaters to wear. How great hot chocolate tasted after we were finished skating.

Another very cold Saturday morning in 1965 was the day we went to the matinee of Goldfinger at the Loews Kings or one of those other nearby Flatbush Avenue movie palaces.

We wanted to get to the box office early to make sure we got tickets, but there was so much time to kill before the noon showing that we had to walk around Sears to warm up.

February 1961, 1964, 1968. . . it’s sad they’re so far away.

Tuesday, February 14, 1989

8 PM. Here’s how my brain works: At Mom’s tonight, I found a notice inviting me to a brunch sponsored by the South Florida Chapter of the Brooklyn College Alumni.

I thought it might be nice to go and meet some people and see Hilary Gold again, and I filled out the form and was about to get out a checkbook when I thought, “Gee, the chapter chairman is young: class of ’83.” Jeffrey Hess was his name, and I thought, “He’s probably the son of BC President Hess. Oh well.”

Then I remembered how Hess nearly fired Elaine Taibi for printing “With Hitler in New York” in the Alumni Association Bulletin and how he said it was a lousy story.

Then I remembered that Hess got rid of the whole Alumni Association, on whose board of directors I served on for ten years, and replaced it with an administration-controlled Alumni Office.

Furious, I tore up the notice and form and started stewing with anger toward Hess and Brooklyn College. Fuck them, I finally said.

This evening, when I pulled into the University Village parking lot after my hourlong drive from Liberty City, Dad was getting into his car. He was going to the new house, so I said he should get in my car and I’d drive him there.

The tiles on the roof are going up, and we walked into the garage. Most of the electric work is done – I could spot the air conditioning ducts – and Dad walked me from room to room.

The house is 80 feet wide – as wide as the four 20-foot houses were we lived on East 56th Street in Brooklyn. Of course, it’s all one floor as opposed to those attached three-story houses.

Three bedrooms are virtually in a separate wing, and the spare bedroom – Jonathan’s is in the back, next to the screened-in porch, and the office for Dad is next – faces the street.

The bathtubs are already installed, and though it was hard to imagine what the house would look like, I enjoyed seeing it being built – just as Marc and I explored our Brooklyn house when it was under construction in 1957 or 1958.

The smell of lumber also reminded me of the time Dad and I went inside Kings Plaza as the mall was being put up in 1970.

My class at Northwestern High School went fine today. I had only a few students, and they worked on Carmen Sandiego and Rocky’s Boots on the PCjr’s after I demonstrated the programs.

You might be wondering if I’m envious of my friends’ recent accomplishments: Alice’s book sale, Wesley’s film, Justin’s play, Crad’s CBC hoax and new books.

Maybe a little, but I’m proud to know such accomplished people. And really, I’ve had my own successes and moments in the limelight before. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy my life.

Doth he protest too much? Well, sure, it’s all too human to think: I wish I had a [book, movie, play] out now.

But more importantly, I know my friends worked hard for what they got; they paid mucho dues.

What dues have I paid lately? Well, maybe not lately, but all my adjunct work at colleges and all my stories in little magazines have to count for something, no? Maybe not.

But day by day, I’m happy. At least I’m not aware that I’m feeling anything other than the usual passing dissatisfactions. I like being me in Florida at my age in 1989.

Wednesday, February 15, 1989

10 PM. Last night I worked with my laptop for a couple of hours, cleaning up the files on my microdisks. Then I phoned Ronna, who said the weather in New York was mild.

She’s busy – not only with her job, but with her volunteer tutoring at the St. Agnes library and a new volunteer project: writing a history of her synagogue, Ansche Chesed, which is 160 years old.

I told her not to take on too much – Ronna, like me, finds it hard to say no – but she said she really enjoys the extra work.

She’ll probably be in Florida in late April, after Passover.

Last night I had a dream in which Ronna and I were in her old apartment in Canarsie, which was invaded by marauding teenagers. We managed to get rid of them, and then Ronna’s mother and grandparents came home and we felt safe again.

This morning I took out $1600 in cash advances to deposit – but I said I wasn’t going to write about the trivia of my financial maze anymore.

Sophie called, and it looks as if I’ve got a new course. When I got home tonight, Dad said she called again, so perhaps things have changed; I’ll find out tomorrow.

I enjoyed today’s session of my loose, free-form Critical Thinking course at North Beach Elementary.

With only three people in the workshop and no real structure, I still found I have enough general knowledge about education to be interesting – and the best part for me was listening to the teachers talk about their own experiences in the classroom.

As I did last week, I had lunch at the City Deli in the 163rd Street Mall and had dinner at Corky’s on my way home.

The new course is supposed to be at Sunset High School, down towards Kendall. One of the fringe benefits of my job is getting to see the varied neighborhoods of Dade County.

When I phoned Grandma Ethel tonight, she told me that Uncle Dave Tarras died on Sunday at age 95. Grandma had heard the news on radio, on WEVD, the Jewish station, just before her cousin Sylvia called her.

I haven’t been buying the Times – hopefully, my mail subscription will kick in soon – so I missed the obituary; I’ll try to find it in the library.

I liked Uncle Dave a lot even if I was a failure as his clarinet student.

Thursday, February 16, 1989

9 PM. My new workshop, at Sunset High School, was moved to two Saturdays, March 11 and 18. I’ll be teaching Introduction to the Computer for Media Specialists.

While it will be good to get the 13-hour course over with in two sessions, this means I won’t be able to teach Weekend College in Term IIB at Broward Community College.

Of course, I don’t know if any English classes would have even been available for me. I make a lot more money at FIU anyway.

At Northwestern High School today, my only frustration was that I don’t have as much time as I’d like to work with people individually.

I try to let people follow through on their own desires and needs, but when two people want to learn two different word processing programs and others are working with learning games or BASIC or spreadsheets, it’s hard for me to get around to everyone.

Next week, in our last two classes, I’ll give some mini-lectures. Anyway, just when I start getting fed up with one course, it’s over – I like that about my job.

Tomorrow I’m going over to Miami Springs High School to see Jackie O’Connell, who wanted to talk to me in preparation for the second half of their interrupted productivity software course. I also need to get the disks for IBM Writing Assistant and Filing Assistant.

This morning I exercised and then worked on my computer for a while before going out at noon.

At the West Regional Library, I found Uncle Dave’s obituary in Tuesday’s Times: “Dave Tarras, 95, Clarinetist, Dies; Purveyor of Klezmer Dance Music.” Written by Jon Pareles, a music writer, it was their biggest obit of the day.

It said Uncle Dave was “one of the few klezmer musicians to assimilate American music [like Tin Pan Alley songs and jazz] without losing traditional feeling and inflections.”

The obit said that “Mr. Tarras was born in the village of Teranovka, near Uman in the Ukraine, to a family in which three generations had been klezmer musicians.”

I wonder if that’s the town where Grandma Ethel, her parents and grandparents also came from.

Dave played the clarinet “for generals on the front lines in World War I. In 1921, he fled the massacres of Jews in Russia and came to the United States” – and of course Grandma Ethel came with him and Aunt Shifra.

Anyway, it was fascinating to read Uncle Dave’s story. I didn’t know that the NEA had given him a Heritage Fellowship in 1984. He richly deserved it.

Tom sent me his review of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses from Sunday’s Times-Picayune. Tom makes it clear that Rushdie is on the level of Pynchon and Barth in his inventiveness and ambition.

Because Islamic fundamentalists are protesting the book’s alleged blasphemy – yesterday Ayatollah Khomeini put a price of $3 million on Rushdie’s head, and the author canceled his American promotional tour – the book has gotten front-page attention.

About the controversy, Tom writes that “all that really need be said is that this is ‘not history’ but ‘a stranger dream,’ a novel; that is, fiction. . . All the rest falls under a civilization’s absolute need for artistic freedom.”

On a less exalted level, here in Florida, the city of Hallandale dropped its proposed resolution against Neil Rogers, using the face-saving excuse that his supporters would have caused violence at next week’s city commission meeting.

Tom also sent a nice review of Crad’s Excrement by Elliott Schreiber, a former NOCCA student, in the Chicago Maroon (presumably the university newspaper).

And also in the mail was a very sweet note from Dorothy Dutter on behalf of the Sloatsburg PTA:

“I really feel that you brought a love of writing to the children that they didn’t have. It was inspiring to see how each child was so proud of their literary accomplishments. They have you to thank for that.

“The six days you spent with them will last well into their educational careers. You may have been the spark for a future professional writer, but each and every student has learned valuable lessons about the process of writing. . . I could tell how much of yourself you brought to this learning experience.”

I only just read the whole letter now because when I began reading it earlier, I felt too embarrassed by the praise to go on. Does that tell you what kind of lunatic I am?

Friday, February 17, 1989

9 PM. This morning I dragged myself awake to exercise with the 8 AM showing of Body Electric. Tomorrow I’ll tape the show when it’s on Channel 17 at noon.

My main assignment today was to go to Miami Springs High School. Although I’ve been in Florida for eight years, I’d never been in Miami Springs before.

Walking through the vast school during the change of periods, I was surrounded on all sides by gorgeous teenagers. I can’t imagine teaching in high school because I’d be discombobulated by the sight of all these 17- and 18-year-old bodies.

I know I’m old enough to be their father, but as Neil Rogers says, there’s no harm in just looking.

And when the secretary at the English Department asked me, “Are you a student?” after I said I wanted to see Ms. O’Connell, I did feel twenty years younger.

Actually, the idea is so absurd – I no more look 18 than I do 75 – that I can’t really be flattered.

Probably my casual dress (white Reeboks, blue jeans, Bugle Boy shirt worn out) does more to confuse people than my face, on which I can find plenty of wrinkles.

Jackie O’Connell and some other English teachers told me they’d had a bad experience the first four weeks of the workshop because the instructor, a University of Miami computer science professor, was so technical.

When I told them I didn’t know how to create subdirectories (what was he teaching them?), they seemed relieved.

The department’s computer has a hard disk, but upstairs they’ve got 32 PS/30s. I took copies of the Writing Assistant and Filing Assistant disks and manuals and will work on them at home.

Back in Broward, I read three days of New York Times editions – my mail subscription finally kicked in – and I paid some bills and began Zora Neale Hurston’s curious autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.

In the foreword, her biographer points out the distortions and lies in Hurston’s book. She obviously felt she needed to hide certain details (she was apparently more than a decade older than she pretended to be) and feelings (she sounds like an arch-conservative on race relations) in order to be accepted in the larger, white-dominated world.

For years I’ve played with the idea of a story, à la Doctorow’s Ragtime or Michael Martone’s Alive and Dead in Indiana, in which Hurston, a Florida writer, has an affair with Ed Ball, the eccentric “uncrowned king of Florida” – a businessman and banker who virtually ruled the state from his Jacksonville hotel room.

If I read Dust Tracks and then biographies of Ball and Hurston, I might get enough material to move forward with this project.