A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late December, 1989

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, December 23, 1989

9 PM. What a day. I had a freak accident with the car, which fell into a hole in the ground caused by a water main break. This sounds absurd, and I have to smile despite myself when I think how silly my car looked.

First, I’ll be a writer and set the scene: It’s a very dark, windy, chilly day. The forecast for tonight and tomorrow is chance of snow flurries with below-freezing temperatures.

Earlier, I went to see if I could find Grandma’s friend Jean Morse at the adult home in Fort Lauderdale where she supposedly was living. It turned out that she had to go to the hospital two weeks ago and was transferred to a nursing facility. Well, I tried.

So I figured I’d stop by the main library on my way home. If only I hadn’t, or if I’d taken another route, or found a parking space on the street, everything would have been fine.

(Why is it when an accident happens, people play the “if only” game? It’s not productive.)

Anyway, I was turning into the city parking lot just outside the library entrance when – wham! – I was stuck in a hole – or rather, my right front tire was.

I couldn’t imagine what had happened. I thought I could just get myself out fairly quickly, but that proved impossible.

Then I noticed some city guy – I guess from the water department – and lots of sandy-colored water on the street.

But I couldn’t have seen the hole ahead of time because it was covered with the water; even if I’d noticed that, I would have thought it was just a puddle.

Two guys couldn’t get me out, so they called the police.

Workers from the library told me they had reported the broken water main hours before. A security guard volunteered that they had a record of the call in their office.

People came out to point and look and laugh – and my car did look ridiculous, sticking up out of the ground like that.

Wishing I had a camera, I ran to the phone and called the Sun-Sentinel’s photo department. A photographer came from their office down the street and took pictures.

(I wasn’t just being a publicity hound; I figured having the accident in the paper might help if I have to sue the city of Fort Lauderdale.)

Officer Flanders took my registration and license and talked to me for his report. He was very kind and helpful; this evening I wrote a letter to the chief of belief police complimenting him.

In fact, everyone was pretty nice.

But the well-meaning tow truck guys only made things worse as they tried to get the car out. I heard something crack, and that’s when it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be driving my car home.

Although I was upset, Officer Flanders complimented me on how calm I was acting.

Only after the accident did anyone block think to block off the street and send some guys over with this Geiger counter-type machine that located the water main break.

I didn’t know what to do. But when the tow truck finally got me out of the hole, I decided to have the car towed to the facility where the tow truck came from: a private lot, Daly’s, that gets all the city business.

From a phone booth outside the lot, I called for a cab, and luckily one came soon, for I was in the middle of a crack-infested ghetto.

The driver, an Irish immigrant who just moved here from Sloatsburg, of all places, was very kind and took me to my parents’ house, where I told Jonathan what happened. He loaned me his car for now.

With the Christmas holiday, I won’t be able to get ahold of my insurance company until Tuesday, so I might as well just forget it for now. But I’m still so upset.

I know it could have been worse: I did not get hurt. (My bad headache right now is probably just the result of tension.)

Months from now, this will make a good story, like the time my car caught on fire on my way to a candidates’ debate when I was running for the Davie town council in 1982 or when I got stuck in -20° windchill factor outside Sloatsburg Elementary this past January.

Nothing is permanently damaged. The car is just a car, even if I suspect it will never be the same again.

And I should remember how tenuous normality is: one minute you’re chugging along and the next you’ve gone through a hole in the street.

I had no control over the city’s negligence, and the part of the situation I could handle – my attitude – I managed to.

I’m actually more shaken up at this moment than I was while I was shivering in the street when the accident happened.

This was almost like God’s way of telling me I can’t escape winter, not even in South Florida. Some Chanukah and Christmas. I guess I’ll need to find a lawyer.

I hope my apartment gets heat tonight.

Sunday, December 24, 1989

7 PM. Last night I got the rest I needed, with my blankets and quilt keeping me warm enough to sleep.

From the perspective of another 24 hours, my up-close experience with America’s crumbling infrastructure seems less traumatic, though I expect it will cause me endless needless problems.

Still, in these times of nutjobs and crooks with assault rifles, drunk drivers and fanatical terrorists, I suppose I was lucky: being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have much more serious consequences.

Besides, it’s a good reminder that life is capricious.

When I said to Officer Flanders, “I wish I could undo this,” he laughed heartily and said, “You mean stop time? I don’t think so.”

The writer in me – yes there’s a writer in me, even these days, if you dig deep enough – is searching for a metaphor.

How’s this? The hole, unseen by me, represents the hidden danger of everyday life. Or maybe the rot and corruption underneath a benign-appearing surface.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop.

When I went out this morning, the windchill factor was 10°. At the bookstore where I picked up the papers, there was no electricity – nor was there any later when I got my salad bar at Wendy’s.

That was because selective blackouts lasting 20 to 30 minutes were necessary to divert power that was badly needed in North Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, where ice storms and heavy snowfalls occurred in places that had not had them in over a century.

Marc told me that China refused to go out this morning, but she seemed happier than I was when we took our walk this afternoon.

In fact, she kept nagging me to take her out, so I ended up doing just that – and each time, I was the one who was so cold that I forced us to cut our jaunt short.

It really felt like winter today, and once again I realized how lucky I am to spend winters here, where we only get a couple of days of this, rather than up North, where winter lasts five months.

I spoke to Mikey, who said he and Amy had been ill with walking pneumonia.

Otherwise, not much is new: they’re both looking for new jobs, but things are slow. Mostly they are working on paying off the debts they incurred while Amy was in graduate school.

China was a good companion for a cold Sunday. I stayed with her till an hour ago, when the rest of the family came back from the flea market.

At my parents’, I was watching A Tale of Two Cities on TNT. I’d only seen the old Ronald Coleman movie for the first time earlier this year, but it’s a great film and a great story.

The scenes of the French Revolution reminded me of the images coming from Romania today.

Unfortunately, the last of the Eastern European countries to throw off communism is having a bloody revolution. But I’m sure the pro-democracy forces will prevail.

People wonder: Why didn’t these countries revolt against their dictators before now?

Obviously, Gorbachev – just named Time’s Man of the Decade – made this possible. But I also suspect, like the French peasants, the Eastern Europeans suddenly just couldn’t take it anymore.

When I got home, there was finally heat in our building, so at least I’ll be comfortable this Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 26, 1989

8 PM. I barely slept last night. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t properly regulate the heat, so it was either stiflingly hot or so cold that it left me shivering.

Temperatures have moderated, and it shouldn’t be too bad tonight.

I finally dozed off – I realized that only after I’d been dreaming, because the sleep was light and unsatisfying – around 4:30 AM and awoke 2½ hours later.

Again, I felt dizzy, though I haven’t had the paroxysmal positional vertigo I suffered this summer; this is more of a general floaty feeling as well as disorientation and a lack of balance when I get out of bed and stand upright.

Apparently my State Farm agent celebrates Boxing Day because he wasn’t in today. Tomorrow I’ll go to his office – it’s in the shopping center adjacent to this development – and file a claim, but I expect lots of problems.

My insomnia did allow me to read the first hundred pages of Technical Writing – mostly stuff on organization, writing process, tone, style and mechanics – but the textbook served as a useful reminder of material I already know.

This morning I went out to get the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, deposit some cash in the bank, and buy milk before coming back home to do aerobics and read the papers.

At 4 PM, I went to Nutri/System, where at last I made goal. I weighed in at 149½ pounds, half a pound under my goal of 150.

Julie hugged me while others congratulated me. I was glad they didn’t blow their horn as I’ve seen them do for other people.

They got out a tape measure, which showed that I lost at least an inch everywhere except my upper arm.

Then the nurse took a photo of me – front and side views like a full-figure mug shot.

After that, I listened to the Maintenance tape. The program has me eating Nutri/System food two days a week and table food the other five.

It’s an exchange system, and I’ve got to weigh and measure the food. I have to have six servings from the protein category, five from starches, and two each from fats, milk, fruits and vegetables.

Well, I’ve still got Nutri/System food for tomorrow and Thursday, so on Friday I’ll start Maintenance.

It’s going to be difficult to learn how to make eating decisions on my own, but I’ve got to be weaned away from Nutri/System sometime. Marc said the Maintenance classes are good because they provide solid nutritional information.

At my parents’ house, I collected seven or eight credit card bills.

I’m cutting it very close because I’ve been paying off the cards with much more than the minimum required. I’d like my gold Citibank Visa to get a credit line increase, so I paid $1800 on that bill today.

A year ago I thought I’d be bankrupt by now, but I made $12,000 at BCC this term, enough to keep me afloat till at least next fall.

Wednesday, December 27, 1989

8 PM. The accident on Saturday has been a real pain in the neck, and I mean that literally; I guess the stress caused me to strain my neck – always an easy spot to mess up for me – while I was working out this afternoon.

I’m going to make this painful story brief: When I reported the accident to my State Farm agent this morning, they told me to have the car towed from the Daly’s lot to a body shop where a claims adjuster would look at it.

I went to my parents’ and found no one at home. I’d wanted Dad’s advice, but I said to myself, Hell, I’m nearly 40 and it’s about time I did something by myself, so in the Yellow Pages I found a nearby body shop and went over there; the manager agreed to take the car and give Daly’s a purchase order for their bill.

Then I drove downtown, and after the usual wait and hassle, I got a release with instructions for them to tow the car to the body shop.

From a phone booth, I called the insurance agent and told them where the car would be.

Feeling it had been too easy, I headed to the library, where I found the street still blocked off and the big hole still there, though it was filled in a bit with dirt.

After an hour, I returned to Davie, where I got a salad bar at Wendy’s and put gas in Jonathan’s Camaro.

But when I opened the door to my apartment, I noticed two messages on my answering machine; as I expected, they were bad news.

The body shop refused the car because the manager said it had no body damage and Daly’s said I’d have to tow it somewhere else.

Very agitated, I went back to the agent, who advised me take it to a Pontiac dealer, which is what I should have done in the first place.

This meant driving back to Fort Lauderdale – thank God the new I-595 makes that trip easier now – signing a new release with new instructions to take the car to JM Pontiac in Hollywood, the first dealer I called.

The car is there now, the insurance people know it, and I’ve got a raging headache that evolved from a minor headache earlier in the day.

Between the car problems and the extreme cold, I’ve had more stress on my “vacation” than I did when working full-time. Sheesh.

At least I haven’t turned to overeating although I’ve been tempted.

In a way, I feel I incompetently handled everything since Saturday afternoon. Car trouble sucks.

Remember just a week less than a year ago, January 3, when I got stuck in Sloatsburg with Teresa’s car? (She’s sold it by now.) Or that time in April or May 1988 when my Berlinetta kept breaking down all over Dade County?

Well, if I stop thinking of those bad memories, maybe I could calm down.

Last night I slept okay, but only for six hours, and I had a nightmare about my 11 AM English 101 class pestering me for their final grades and term papers.

That class, in retrospect, was a collection of the most obnoxious students I’ve ever had. Sometimes you just get a bad group. I can only hope that my classes at BCC and FIU you next term will be nothing like them.

Although I did like my remedial class, I wasn’t that crazy about my English 102s. Maybe I prefer remedial students because they know they’re dumb. That’s putting it crudely, but it expresses the general idea.

In the Times Op-Ed page, Christopher Lasch writes that America’s young people have been deeply troubled since the hopes for a better world died in the 1960s. He expects the greed and narcissism of the 1980s to continue because there’s nothing, no value, to replace them.

I’ve got to send Lasch a copy of Narcissism and Me since I wrote the title story ten years ago while reading his Culture of Narcissism, and he and the book are both mentioned it.

That’s another thing making me feel incompetent: getting the book’s cover designed.

Maybe it helps me to understand how lost my students feel while they’re in the library, so outside their field of experience. Of course, I do my best to help them.

I cut out a great Tom Carson article on Madonna to show next term’s students that one can write great criticism about pop music. But sadly, I expect most don’t have the reading ability to understand the piece.

Last night I fell asleep during ABC’s ’80s news retrospective. Tonight NBC had a similar special – with the same clips, probably.

When I went to my parents’ to pick up my mail (six credit card bills and a voucher from FIU for travel expenses for the Coral Gables and Southwood workshops), I skimmed Time’s Man of the Decade article on Gorbachev.

Tonight the Nightly Business Report named Gorbachev their person of the year.

The last couple of months, with the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, seem to cast the ’80s as a decade in which the West ended the Cold War by winning it.

Now the Communists seem to want to be as consumerist as we are; pretty soon they’ll be driving Hondas and watching Sony TVs just like Americans.

But while economists see no recession ahead, just a soft landing, there’s no doubt that, downturn or not, Americans will have to pay for the excesses of the ’80s in the ’90s.

Reading the latest issues of American Banker, all I see are signs of a financial structure on the brink of collapse – just like our drug culture, our healthcare system, our infrastructure, our schools – you name it.

One small note from a New York Times article: Apple seems to be abandoning the Apple II computers despite their being in every elementary school in the country.

They’ve all but stopped promoting them, irking Apple II software vendors and the school systems dependent on these computers.

Apple would like schools to buy Macs, but they’re too expensive and may be losing their edge now that PCs emulate them.

Sunday, December 31, 1989

5 PM. Today is as clear and mild and beautiful as the Sunday this year began on.

I’ve just come back from a long drive, which is what I think I did last New Year’s Eve.

A couple of hours ago, I drove over to  South Campus to walk around their jogging track by the lake.

Patrick honked his horn when he saw me. He’d been using the computer and laser printer to lay out the next issue of The Cathartic.

We talked for a while, and I was glad to see a friendly face. Like me, Patrick plans to go to bed early tonight.

After my walk, I drove west on Hollywood Boulevard till it ended at U.S. 27. Then I drove up that desolate road, imagining what it would be like to take it all the way through the empty center of the state.

It felt great to have the windows open, my hair blowing in the breeze, knowing that even though it was New Year’s Eve, I was comfortable wearing just shorts and a T-shirt.

I thought about the changes in West Broward from a decade ago when I first saw the place. The rural character is almost gone, and University Drive is now a congested suburban strip.

Well, people like me ruined the place, so I shouldn’t complain.

After I called Grandma to wish her a happy new year – she had a terrible headache, she reported, and needed to see a doctor – and had a delicious Healthy Choice frozen dinner, I dropped by my parents’ house.

China seemed better, even a bit frisky. Marc came by on the way to the wedding reception he was attending, and Mom ironed his dress shirt while I took my laundry from the dryer and folded it.

I reminded Dad that while I was a visitor in their (old) house in Davie ten years ago, we were also in Florida twenty years ago, in 1969.

Eighteen years old and scared out of my wits, I flew down with Dad to join the rest of the family at the Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach.

So this makes the third decade I’ve seen out in Florida. (I can’t remember where I was at the end of 1959, when I was only 8.)

What I need to do next year is concentrate less on myself and more on the outside world – in particular, rediscovering relationships with others. But tomorrow’s the time to look ahead.

Is that pompous enough for you?

In three seconds, I’m literally closing the book on 1989.