A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early February, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Thursday, February 1, 1990

9 PM. This Florida boy was chilly last night despite the unseasonable warmth for New Orleans. I had to ask Tom for extra blankets, and even then I felt cold.

I knew I’d have trouble sleeping, but I only intermittently felt the vertigo that I usually get on the night following a plane trip.

I did drop off to dreams around 2 AM and got up 4½ hours later; that was enough rest to assure I wasn’t fatigued today.

The morning class was from 8:20 AM to 10:45 AM, and it went okay but not great. I blabbed on about myself and my non-career as a writer for too long, and I wasn’t that sharp when we workshopped two stories.

Yet Tom seemed satisfied with my performance, and I feel the eight morning students got something out of my visit.

The afternoon class went very well. Probably reading a story (“But In A Thousand Other Worlds”) helped, and I also picked their brains, finding out about their earlier school experiences learning writing and their views on how computers affect the writing process.

Also, I was more confident about leading the workshops on stories by Sarah and Purnima. There are five in the afternoon, and though they’re not as good as some of Tom’s students from years ago, they make my BCC students appear about as sharp as matzoh balls.

Tonight’s reading went well, although I drew a very small crowd: about four or five students; Dr. Otis, NOCCA’s principal; its former principal, now heading Franklin High School, Dr. Tom Tews, and his wife Mary Kate; Nancy Harris, who used to be poetry editor of Lowlands Review; and about five or six others.

I read two stories from Narcissism and Me – “My Grandfather’s Other Son” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp” – and finished off with “The Greatest Short Story That Absolutely Ever Was,” which had them laughing.

Afterwards, I sold nine copies of the book, and I autographed copies, feeling kind of stupid because as Tom said in his introduction, “He doesn’t think of himself as a writer – which is not a bad stance from which to write.”

I felt comfortable in front of the audience and was pleased with their reaction and comments.

Hey, I could get used to being treated like a writer. Perhaps if I could have gotten this kind of treatment more often, I’d be more serious about writing.

On the other hand, I may have sabotaged my own career by not considering myself worthy of literary attention.

Still, I like being on the outside, where I feel more comfortable and more independent – though I’m also unrecognized and underrated.

Anyway, I worked out lightly before lunch, and then when we got home at 4 PM, I walked with Tom.

Wearing a t-shirt, gym shorts and no contact lenses, I rested my eyes and got a nice blurry picture of New Orleans.

We walked to the Mississippi, which looked placid as well as powerful, though the sewage or pollution gave off an acrid smell.

We had to wait for a practically endless freight train to pass before we could cross the railroad tracks and go past the zoo (it was too late to go in).

I cooked a Healthy Choice dinner in Tom’s oven, and generally I managed to eat okay today, sticking to Nutri/System food for breakfast and lunch.

I’ve still got to read a couple of stories for tomorrow’s workshop, but maybe I can get to sleep soon and wake up early enough to do that in the morning.

Friday, February 2, 1990

9 PM. Last night I slept pretty well and I was up at 6 AM, looking over the pieces for today’s workshops, which went fine.

I did three stories with each of the classes, and while I’m not as sharp a critic as Tom, at least I can keep up with him.

His new full-time but temporary assistant, Michelle, a poet from the writing program at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, didn’t seem able to. She was mostly silent until I called on her.

However, this was only her first week at work, and at least she appears to be a nice person.

It was a pleasure, as I told the students, to read and discuss pieces of real value rather than the TV-plot pap I get from my BCC creative writing classes.

Keeping up with NOCCA students – even if they’re not as brilliant and talented as some of those in the past – isn’t a snap, and by the end of the day at school I felt I’d earned the $433 check Tom had given me yesterday.

Tom said he felt that both classes had produced their best work of the year and that most of the students made valuable comments during the workshop.

I tried hard to be a decent workshop leader. If I sometimes relied too much on Tom for a final judgment, he’s their teacher, he knows more than anyone else at the table, and his insights usually hit the mark with uncanny accuracy.

When the morning class ended at 10:45 AM, I went by myself up Magazine Street to the health food store because I wanted lettuce for my lunch salad.

Again I had a Nutri/System shake for lunch; Tom has a blender, and I made it using a banana I’d bought.

Obviously I’ve been adjusting my program, but I’ve been fairly consistent with the type and amount of food I’ve been taking in.

I didn’t exercise to a tape today, but at 4:45 PM, I did go with Tom for a 90-minute walk, first around the track at Audubon Park, and then all the way from the Uptown Square shopping center across to the levee.

The Mississippi again looked tranquil (but smelled bad) as night descended.

Tom’s talk is 90% references to literature, film or writer/publisher/critic gossip, but it makes me aware of how important these things are.

There’s no way I could ever come close to having Tom’s dedication or depth of knowledge, but then I’m a slouchy generalist and am delighted to be one.

From my vantage point in New Orleans, I’m pretty satisfied with my life in New York and Florida, at least in regard to my interests and my profession (whatever it is).

I don’t want to deal with the pressure I’ll face in the next two weeks; when I get back home, I’ve got a lot of preparation for classes and serious grading of papers as well as the usual time-consuming trivia.

This evening after dinner, Tom wrote while I read the Times arts and business sections from the last couple of days, watched Wall Street Week (God only knows if the economy is slowing down or picking up momentum), and went to the bathroom a lot.

Maybe it’s the oat bran in the Cheerios I had this morning, but I’ve been gassy and my abdomen is bloated.

I do feel I had a successful visit at NOCCA. The classes went well, and so did the reading, and I didn’t let Tom down. I’ll probably come back, though next year would be too soon.

I like New Orleans, especially because the temperatures have been mild during the day, although today was cloudy and very damp.

There’s a smell in the air here, one I’ve never smelled elsewhere.

While this isn’t a city I’d feel comfortable living in, I suppose I could adjust to it, and I like its eccentricities.

Uptown New Orleans seems to have lots of character and a lot of characters. I can see why Tom, despite his protestations, likes it here.

Saturday, February 3, 1990

9 PM. I’m sleepy but I’m not sure how well I can sleep tonight since I have to be up about 5:30 AM to catch a 7:30 AM flight.

Tom says I shouldn’t have trouble getting a taxi even that early. At least I slept well last night.

After breakfast, I read the Times, skimming over the past few days’ news.

Then I worked out lightly, took a shower (actually, Tom has only a bathtub, but I manipulated myself under the spigot), and drove with Tom to the French Quarter.

Parking near the river, we walked around for several hours.

Basically it looked the same as I remembered it, and I wasn’t impressed, finding it tacky, touristy, and dirty. The French Quarter seems like the self-indulgence capital of America.

Tom being Tom, we went into two used bookstores and spent time looking at titles.

I would have been happy to skip Jackson Square with its obnoxious mimes and camera-snapping foreign tourists.

It was hard to find a place where I could eat, and we ended up going to the food court at the new multilevel Canal Place mall.

While it wasn’t coffee au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde by the French Market, I appreciated the bland sterility of a shopping center that could be in Miami or New Jersey or Chicago.

We drove back uptown via Tchoupitoulas Street and got TCBY frozen yogurt on the way home.

I’ve tried to eat okay here, but it’s been difficult and I’m sure I gained a couple of pounds. When I get back to my normal routine, I’ll get on track, but I didn’t do too badly.

Tom gave me a tour of his stomping grounds and sanity saver, the Audubon Zoo, and I enjoyed seeing the animals as much as he did.

Back home, Tom made me watch Street of Crocodiles, a short film by the Brothers Quay, using puppets to suggest the spirit of the Bruno Schulz story.

Tom is a teacher at heart, and while I admired the film’s haunting images, I felt I was going to be tested on it.

It reminded me of how I felt in high school when I rebelled against reading books I was being forced to, only to appreciate the books later when I came to them on my own.

Tom’s life revolves totally around literature and film, and while it’s nice to talk with someone well-read and highly intelligent and opinionated, I tired of the constant references to high art.

Literature never did and never will play the role in my life that it does in Tom’s, and I’m satisfied with being the way I am.

Tom is so alienated from American society; he really hates TV and thinks it’s mind-control and totalitarian. I gave up trying to argue with him that TV, like everything else, isn’t harmful in small doses.

Although this trip has been a fine experience, I’ll be glad to get back to my life.

Sunday, February 4, 1990

9 PM. Back in Florida. I slept from 9:30 PM to 5:00 AM last night, surprising myself with my third night of good sleep in New Orleans.

I bathed, dressed and ate breakfast in darkness, hugged Tom goodbye and thanked him, and I left in a taxi that arrived minutes after Tom ordered it.

We drove to the airport in the darkness, and I was at the gate early enough to catch up on Friday’s USA Today and Wall Street Journal.

The flight back to Miami was uneventful, though I’m now feeling a little dizzy and I expect I’ll get vertigo when I try to lie down in a little while.

Also, tonight I found my briefs were soaked with scary-looking purple dried blood. Is that hemorrhoids? A hemorrhage?

Anyway, I am proud that I managed this trip totally on my own, all the way to getting me and my luggage to the airport parking lot and ultimately back to Davie.

Some liquid spilled in my luggage, and that caused a mess, but it didn’t take me long to get everything in place.

Mom and Dad were glad to see me when I arrived at their house at noon. My mail included the last of my January credit card bills and interest (1099) and wage (W-2) forms for income tax purposes.

Also, Book Crafters sent me some paperwork; since Narcissism and Me is only 64, not 72, pages that brought the cost down.

The job should be finished in two weeks, which means I can expect copies of the book before February is over. It will make for a pleasant surprise.

Mom went to a urologist, who gave her pills for a urinary infection, and Marc apparently caught the flu, but aside from that, and news that Grandma is still sick, everything at home has been okay.

I exercised to one of the new 1990 series of Body Electric programs I taped on Channel 42 (which are black-and-white and very fuzzy because the station’s so far away, but I can follow them), and I paid the bills, brought my checkbook up to date, read the papers, and had a decent lunch.

If I gained any weight while I was gone, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of pounds.

Thinking about Tom, I’m certainly glad he is the way he is, but also I know that I’m only peripherally part of his world.

Like Crad, Tom is often so seriously angry that he’s not the amiable companion that I’d prefer in a day-to-day friend. And I can’t take a hundred literary allusions a day. I don’t know how much I got on his nerves, but Tom didn’t show it.

We’re both set-in-our-ways old bachelors, even if Tom will eventually be getting married to Debra. (It’s no wonder his students become his friends and lovers; Tom is nearly always a teacher.)

I’d like to go back to NOCCA, say, in 1992, when I have new things to say and Tom has new students. He has only four years left before retirement, so I won’t get many more chances.

Tom, with his mostly grey beard and edgier appearance, looks like a middle-aged man, particularly when he wore a suit Thursday night and Friday.

Although I’m only three years younger, I have the attitude of an earlier generation, and my genetics and Bugle Boy clothes make me look more boyish.

I was lucky that New Orleans was in the 70°s every day I was there; yesterday it hit a record-breaking 80°, but this morning it was chilly and getting colder as I left.

Catching up with the world: South African President de Klerk has done the once-unthinkable and legalized the African National Congress. Nelson Mandela may be free soon and apartheid on the way out.

Outside the Kremlin today stood thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, demanding a multi-party system.

Tomorrow at a crucial Communist party plenum, Gorbachev may try to have the party give up the leading role, the way parties in Eastern Europe have.

Who knows where this will lead, but the next few weeks are critical. If Gorbachev survives in power, the U.S.S.R. will be a very different country.

East Germany has pretty much been acquired by West Germany, and there’s still lots of turmoil there and in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.

It’s a dangerous but exciting time for our planet.

Closer to home, regulators finally took over CenTrust, Miami’s high-flying S&L, the largest in the Southeast, and more thrifts are dying every day. The Moynihan proposal has gotten people to see beyond the myths of Social Security. Bush plans more gestures toward education and the environment but little cash to back it up.

I sense the new mood of the ’90s popping up here and there, like mushrooms poking through dirt.

Tuesday, February 6, 1990

9 PM. I feel exhausted. However, this week and next are the only weeks I teach 18 hours.

I wasn’t feeling great when I drove to Miami this afternoon, and my class started off as a disaster.

The Apples in one room hadn’t the extender needed to run my Appleworks tutorial, and I copied the wrong disk.

Then, when I used Trackstar to emulate Apples on the Tandys next door, the programs had difficulty running and finally crashed.

Nevertheless, I told my students they could learn from all the frustration.

And wouldn’t you know it, after that, everything seemed to gel today: the timid white woman began understanding how to load DOS; Sid Berman got farther on Rocky’s Boots than anyone I’ve ever seen; one woman helped another learn Appleworks; and I sat down with a teacher who’s taken “lots of computer classes and never learned anything” and showed her BASIC programming for the Apple. She’ll have learned something with me.

I left Liberty City feeling tired but with the satisfaction of knowing that I’d accomplished a lot.

The only mail at my parents’ (who commiserated with me about my hemorrhoids; Dad says they’ll go away) was USA Today, which I read after dinner.

Wednesday, February 7, 1990

3:30 PM. In an hour my FIU technical writing class begins.

At 10 AM today, I was on the BCC-South campus. Not having an office is difficult, and I keep as many books and papers in my mailbox as I can.

In Creative Writing, we spent the whole class discussing poetry after I read aloud one poem by a middle-aged lady who had no notion of what poetry is: she believes all poems must be in iambic pentameter.

That created a fairly lively discussion. A couple of the students have read contemporary poets, but the older women are all caught in the time warp of the 1930s – when, of course, modernism was in flower but wasn’t being taught in high school.

When I put “The Red Wheelbarrow” on the blackboard, it seemed to have shocked a couple of the older people in the class. They’re basically so ignorant, it’s scary.

In English 101, I had the class get into a circle and I read three narratives, which we discussed. Although that went okay, I feel guilty about not getting them their papers back till Monday.

The attendance in both classes continues to be erratic.

After depositing my pathetic BCC check ($258), I came home to have lunch.

The Times had a column on Nutri/System, Jenny Craig and other prepackaged food programs which said the systems don’t work because once off the food, people don’t know how to eat properly and panic at restaurant menus.

That’s pretty true of me right now, but I’m determined to learn how to eat. I’ll learn on my own if I have to.

Thursday, February 8, 1990

9:30 PM. A week ago I was flying high after my reading at NOCCA, but tonight I feel just as good.

This difficult week is about over and I feel I’ve done a good job juggling all my work. I’m almost surprised to discover I’m enjoying my busy life.

Yesterday I had a good class at FIU. They moved us into the next classroom, where I had to vie for attention with a skeleton in front of the room and a dummy in a wheelchair in the back.

I talked about research and was surprised to find my students weren’t as adept at using the library as I’d assumed.

Then we discussed summary and abstracts, and I gave them a couple of exercises.

For one, I read aloud a New York Times article about the Discover Card and asked them to take notes and write a 250-word summary for the next class.

At 6 PM, we drove over to Central Campus, where I showed them the InfoTrac and CD-ROM databases, which still knock me out; I need time to go over there and play with them on my own.

I’m sure my enthusiasm at having all that information literally at my fingertips got conveyed to my class.

After a quick dinner at home, I rushed over to Nutri/System, where I gained three pounds.

But didn’t let it bother me because I know I’d had a hard time being thrown off my schedule in New Orleans.

Also, I weigh myself on the scale at home every day now, and I know I’m still doing okay.

Sharon conducts more informative classes than Julie and seems to be more on top of her subject matter (probably because Julie has a full-time teaching job).

We discussed the basics of nutrition; I’m still planning to find Jane Brody’s book to educate myself further.

I didn’t come home till 10 PM because I stopped at Albertsons, where I ran up a bill of $145 on my new secured Bank of Hoven Master Card.

Up at 7:30 AM, I had the morning free to catch up on the news, to do aerobics, and to take care of myself.

I’ve been putting hemorrhoidal suppositories in when I wake up and go to bed, and the bleeding and irritation seem less severe by now, though it’s far from healed.

Also, I called the Broward Cultural Quarterly’s Jody Horne, who’s been trying to reach me since last week. All she wanted was to check if the description of my article on the contents page was okay, which of course it was.

At 11:30 AM, I finally drove to Fort Lauderdale’s police station and got the police report on my sinkhole accident.

Then, after xeroxing it at Jaffe’s, I bought some stuff at Kmart, gassed up the car and had lunch.

At Kmart I bought some size small Hanes ribbed athletic undershirts, the kind the Italian kids in Brooklyn wear to show off their lean bodies and muscles.

I looked pretty good in the shirt I tried on – good enough so that I’ve got to remember the satisfaction of seeing my reflection is worth hundreds (well, dozens) of times the pleasure I could get from a hamburger or cheesecake.

Beefcake’s better than cheesecake.

At 3 PM, I left for Southwood Junior High School after calling them to get directions.

I just realized that except for my trip to Puerto Rico 30 years ago, I’ve never before been as far south as I was today.

The school is about 45 miles from here, and it took me well over an hour via the Turnpike Extension.

The area is really nice: modern and suburban. I should probably visit Fairchild Gardens and Metrozoo one Thursday before class.

The computer teacher in whose room we’re holding the workshop is in my class, and she was kind enough to help out with tutorial disks, other software, and advice for some of the computer novices.

Many of the teachers are now experienced with Appleworks or the Apple IIe, so I want the class to be tutored to everyone’s individual needs. They can use the time to explore programs that interest them.

I can’t expect somebody with a master’s in computer ed or someone who knows Appleworks better than I do to sit still for silly canned assignments.

It’s a large class, but we’ve got 20 computers and the teachers all seem like nice people, so I came home feeling good.

Friday, February 9, 1990

7:30 PM. I made it through the week. The last event of the work week happened a couple of hours ago, when I went to the Mobil station on the corner to fill up my tank and get a car wash.

As I pulled up to the pump in one direction, another car pulled up the other way, but since there were two pumps, I figured he had room to get in.

However, he turned around, and I guess he felt that I had tried to best him in a kind of uber-macho test of wills.

He came out of his car screaming, “Asshole! Do you know you’re an asshole?”

“I’m sorry,” I said as I walked into the store to give them my credit card.

What did you say?” he yelled as he took menacing steps towards me. I guess he thought I’d said something insulting.

I said I was sorry,” I told him. “I was just facing the same direction as that car,” pointing to another “asshole” on the other side of the pump.

I was both angry and frightened of this guy, because the thought came to me that he could shoot me; I hear – or more often avoid listening to – similar stories all the time on the local news.

I was less worried about being beaten up because he was a paunchy guy with glasses and I’m pretty strong. But the incident shook me up.

I told the cashier about it – they know me because they see me every couple of days and we usually exchange a few pleasantries – and later, when I returned to pay my bill and get some soda, the guy walked in and out very quickly, aware, I think, that he’d come off as something of a nutjob.

I’m not sure why I dwell on the incident except as an example of how horrible some people can be.

Maybe he’d been having a bad day, but even if I’d been wrong – of course, I wasn’t – I’d rather be an “asshole” than someone who gets apoplectic about such a trivial inconvenience.

I don’t feel I was craven to apologize, for I was indeed sorry I upset him, and I think my show of dignity made him realize what a jerk he was being.

Anyway, I’ve had my fill of other people and I plan to spend the rest of the weekend by myself.

I slept well last night, dreaming about Wesley Strick being filmed on a movie set, where he confided to an interviewer that his pre-Hollywood projects were “a series of failures . . . like Richard Grayson’s book.” Ha ha.