A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early May, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Friday, May 4, 1990

7:30 PM. I know where I was at this time exactly 20 years ago. Like today, I just finished watching the CBS Evening News (then with Walter Cronkite, now with Dan Rather), and I wrote in my diary about the Kent State killings.

The last segment on the news tonight was about the dedication of a memorial at Kent State.

This morning Patrick and I talked about our reactions to the event: he was in the service as a medical corpsman, and though he was against the war, he said “things hadn’t really turned then.”

For my generation – and like most of my BCC students, I was then finishing my first year of college – it was a touchstone event.

From the police riot at the Chicago Democratic conventions in August 1968, I’d learned that people protesting the government’s war policies could be beaten with impunity. From Kent State, I learned that antiwar college students could be killed and townspeople would applaud.

A lot of us were radicalized that week. If the campus takeovers and strikes and “liberation classes” and teach-ins and marches are now all forgotten, they’re still a part of me, and I suspect, of others my age.

Well, enough trying to be profound. I slept only three or four hours last night.

When I got home from Miami an hour ago, the house was empty. This is the first time I’ve been here alone since Monday, and I love the solitude.

But it hasn’t been a bad week. Although I felt crummy this morning, I managed to do my exercises and get to BCC by 11:30 AM.

I said goodbye to Patrick, Barbara, Cynthia, Robert and others, most of whom said the most flattering things to me – usually on the order of “we wish you’d stay.”

I returned papers to the few students who showed up. I’m very careless about final grades, probably because I despise having to give them.

Leaving the campus for the last time this academic year, I was so lost in thought that I forgot to stop at Wendy’s for a salad.

The final Appleworks workshop at Sunset High School went all right, but with only four people at the end, it all kind of petered out.

The scatterbrained, funny English teacher who’d arranged the class is going to try to get me again in the fall for a different workshop.

After handing in the completed course materials to the Teacher Education Center via the school’s interoffice mail, I returned to Davie via the Turnpike, I-75, and I-595.

While driving, I figured out that I taught the equivalent of 10 college classes this year: one at FIU, seven at BCC, and 107 hours of TEC workshops – and got paid less than $20,000.

I’ve got to remember how badly paid I am when I upbraid myself – as I did last night – for getting myself in a position where bankruptcy is the only solution.

In the mail, I found the Utne Reader article reprinted only a slice of my Processed World piece. Of course I sound pretty cocky there about my credit card chassis.

Oh, I can’t eat myself up with worry – if only because when I get to Rockaway, I won’t want to compete with Grandma Ethel.

(She and I both received renewed Chemical Bank MasterCards today; I got her an additional card years ago.)

Clarence Major and Christopher Lasch both sent nice notes about Narcissism and Me; Lasch humorously wrote that he was disappointed the whole book wasn’t about him.

I think I can attract public attention with my chapbooks. I’ve been listening to all those motivation tapes on WNN radio, and maybe I’m more ready for conventional success than I ever have been.

Yes, in the past I’ve sabotaged myself – but that was the past.

Tomorrow I’ve got a flight to Kennedy Airport and a different life.

Sunday, May 6, 1990

9 PM. Exactly 24 hours ago I arrived here in Rockaway.

My plane trip went okay. Every time I fly, I say this, but I always forget just how accustomed I am to flying; my heart no longer pounds during takeoff, and I didn’t have a panic attack.

The film, Driving Miss Daisy, and my vegetarian meal occupied most of the flight; by the end of the movie, we were already starting our descent. I made sure not to look out the window, so I didn’t experience any vertigo.

It was a struggle to deal with my luggage; like all suitcases with wheels, mine kept tipping over, and the strap broke. But I managed to get on the Avis bus, and by 8:30 PM, I had my rental car, a blue Shadow.

Grandma Ethel looked the same to me, but of course it took her a while to adjust to my new appearance.

The two cartons I’d sent last week already arrived, and I chatted with Grandma as I began the seemingly endless process of unpacking.

After calling Mom, I made myself some oatmeal. Then I put the new sheets I’d brought with me on the sofa bed and went to sleep at 11 PM.

Surprisingly, I did sleep well, though I was very thirsty; I guess I missed my usual great quantities of diet iced tea, or maybe I was dry from the plane.

Up at 8 AM after dreaming about being an unwanted intruder in Teresa’s West 85th Street apartment, I was delighted to find Body Electric on channel 25.

It’s on different channels (25, 21, and 31) at 7:30 AM, 8 AM, and 9:30 AM, and Homestretch is on at 8:30 AM and 9 AM, so I can exercise every day.

As I made myself breakfast, Grandma started telling me how depressed she gets, and I asked her to name one reason why.

She said her lack of education haunted her, particularly because she has to ask Aunt Tillie to make out all her checks.

Tillie isn’t well, and Grandma’s unspoken fear is that eventually she won’t have Tillie to help her. So I tried, patiently, to teach Grandma how to make out a check. It will take more lessons than one, I know. I’ve got to make sure that Grandma doesn’t bring me down, that I bring her up.

Today I spent a lot of money shopping at Waldbaum’s and Ark Drugs, but now I’ve got a lot of food and supplies.

I’d forgotten how prices are so much higher here than in Florida; the salad I got at the Korean store cost $1.50 more than my usual one.

In the afternoon, I told Grandma we’d go for a ride, and surprisingly, she was willing.

We explored Brooklyn, heading first to East Flatbush, the neighborhood where she spent much of her life. We drove by her old house on East 43rd Street and the nearby houses that belonged to her in-laws, Grandpa Nat, Uncle Dave, and others in my own life: our rented apartment on East 54th Street, Shelli’s parents’ apartment, Ronna’s grandparents’ house – plus P.S. 244, Meyer Levin Junior High School (now a magnet school for the performing arts) and the stores on Church Avenue.

Naturally, only black people – mostly Haitians and West Indians – populate the neighborhood now. Grandma said that seeing it was like being in a dream.

Before leaving Brooklyn, we stopped at our old house on East 56th Street, which looks much the same.

Grandma hadn’t been in Brooklyn for years, but it also had been over eight months for me, and I, too, felt strange.

I sort of like the brisk spring weather in New York, though.

Back at the apartment at 3:15 PM, I hastily read the Sunday Times; I’ve decided I need to speed up my newspaper-reading.

Because the smoke alarm beeps constantly when the oven is in use, I’ll have to wait till we get the microwave before I can use the Healthy Choice frozen dinners I bought. But tonight I prepared a decent low-calorie meal.

Grandma just eats her Meals on Wheels dinners, although not enough of them; she mostly eats just half and saves the rest for the next day.

It’s hard, adjusting to being here, but it will also help me if I can show I can be more flexible about things like my diet – without going back to bad old habits. A fanatic like me sometimes doesn’t know when to stop, and then I get like Mom in her mania for order and forget the human element.

Teresa will be back home tomorrow afternoon, and I said I’d come over, but we haven’t made up definite plans about my staying overnight, though I suspect she thinks I’ll spend most of my time with her.

After being in New York City for just one day, it’s difficult for me to go from Rockaway to a new place – and a strange one, at that – but hey, I’m on vacation, at least for this week. I haven’t phoned anyone else and I don’t yet have a list of all the stuff I want to do.

After I discovered a few hours ago that channel 6 shows the scene from the downstairs front door, Grandma and I watched her neighbors and the security guard come and go for a while, and then she went to bed.

So I’m back in New York.

Monday, May 7, 1990

11 PM. I’m under two quilts at Teresa’s house in Oyster Bay Cove. I got here around 2 PM after a traffic-snarled drive from Rockaway. It was good to see Teresa again, and she looks fine.

The house is much bigger than I pictured it. Upstairs there are two bedrooms, each with a sitting room plus a bathroom with a shower stall and bath. The downstairs is equally spacious.

Last week, the two oceanographers who are renting the house from Teresa for the summer moved into the basement apartment, and Teresa will give them the rest of the house in June.

She’s got a really nice garden and garage and patio, and there are lovely flowers and trees around. I can see why it’s attractive to Teresa.

This place is really  woodsy, more country than suburbs, though the bay is on the other side of Cove Road.

I remembered coming up Route 106 during those I drives I used to take out to the North Shore back in the 1970s. Cove Road is a winding two-lane highway I’ve taken to Sagamore Hill. Teddy Roosevelt’s grave is just up the road, I recall, before Sagamore Hill.

Teresa seems to be doing fine, though she’s had financial problems. Still, the Berkshires house is now hers and her sister’s (she bought out her brother-in-law when she refinanced the mortgage), the East Side apartment is rented (and hopefully some Japanese will buy it), and she’s set for the summer on Fire Island now that this place is rented for the season.

It’s a bit odd to see Teresa’s familiar appliances, dishes, furniture and linens here and not at West 85th Street. She said I should stay there over the weekend, that Susie won’t mind and is expecting me to be there while she’s in Long Island on weekends.

I sat outside with Teresa as she told me about her catering business and her relationship with Brian – his wife is returning from Sweden in June, at which time Teresa plans to visit San Francisco, but she and Brian get along well, it seems – and other stuff.

We drove into downtown of Oyster Bay, where I met Teresa’s friends who run a bagel restaurant and a balloons-and-party-favors store, respectively. After she bought a microwave in another store, we went grocery shopping at Finast, where I got one of my Healthy Choice dinners to test out the new microwave. (Teresa took the old one downstairs to her tenant.)

After dinner, we went into Glen Cove to the Cineplex Odeon, where we saw Cinema Paradiso, an excellent Italian film. When we came out of the theater, I got some frozen yogurt next door.

Even the ride home was enjoyable. It was neat to be out for the evening.

There’s a great full moon tonight, but it’s a bit chilly for me, especially in this drafty house which dates to the early 19th century.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to the city because I’ve got to start taking care of some business. I need to go to Unemployment to file my interstate claim, and I want to go to Teachers College.

This morning I got a student loan application at Manufacturers Hanover. I don’t know if Teachers College will get it in time for me to register next Friday, but I figure they’ll probably give me a waiver. A more pressing problem is funding my expenses this month.

Grandma is still depressed, and it bothers me that I can’t seem to raise her spirits. I tried buying her a bouquet of daisies from the Koreans’ and talking to her although I lost my patience when she just didn’t react.

But if she doesn’t want to help herself, I can’t do that much for Grandma, and I can’t let her drive me crazy.

It was good to be able to get away for a day. If it were up to Teresa, I could stay here all the time, but I don’t really feel at home here. Of course, I haven’t even spent one night in this house yet.

On Sunday night I left a message with Justin and Larry, and I briefly spoke with Ronna (Steve was over and they were watching a movie, but she said she’d like us to get together).

This morning I exercised to Body Electric at 7:30 AM and then again two hours later. In between, I had breakfast and went out to the bank and the newsstand.

This wooden house, the old furniture, and the country atmosphere here have reminded me of the artists’ colonies at MacDowell, Millay, and VCCA.

I bet I don’t sleep tonight, but I’ve got plenty of planning to do, and I’ve got my notebook to write in.

Wednesday, May 9, 1990

11 PM. As I was coming out of Waldbaum’s this afternoon, a boy of 11 or 12 said to me, “How ya doing, Pop?”

To be called Pop is shocking, especially after I’d been in the library reading Esquire’s cover story on aging in men. The quiz I’d taken figured I’ll live to about 83, given my background, so I guess I am in midlife.

Actually, it’s very funny that a kid would call me Pop.

If you can’t tell, I’m enjoying myself immensely. The change of scene and climate has invigorated me; I feel I’m being kept from going stale.

Last night I slept well, and up at 7 AM, I exercised for an hour (atoning for missing yesterday) before I showered, dressed and made pancakes.

At 10 AM, I left for Jamaica, having decided it would be better to apply for unemployment there than in lower Manhattan.

At least with an interstate claim, I don’t have to go back.

Apart from the one time I got food stamps ten years ago, unemployment offices are the closest I’ve come to being a client of the social welfare bureaucracy. It’s instructive to see the system in action – though I wouldn’t call most of what I saw today action.

Still, I got taken (by number) after half an hour, and once I filled out the forms and was given instructions on how to file weekly claims and mail them to Tallahassee, I could leave.

Although I’m unsure if I can collect benefits, it’s certainly worth a try. If nothing goes wrong, I should hear from Tallahassee within three weeks.

After I got my car out of the parking lot near the LIRR station, I rode to the main library of Queens on Merrick Boulevard, getting a space right in front of the entrance.

Even when I lived in Brooklyn, I liked that library, and I was glad to see they’re expanding it even as hours at branch libraries are being cut.

On the way home, I got a salad bar at the Wendy’s on Jamaica Avenue and took out some TCBY yogurt on Cross Bay Boulevard.

Aunt Tillie was here to watch her soaps, and she said I look good at my new weight.

I spent the afternoon reading the Times and USA Today – not easy to do while the TV is constantly playing.

Although Grandma is still depressed, I think she’s getting used to me staying here.

She’s always asking the same question or making the same comment, but apart from that and other examples of forgetfulness, she seems the same mentally.

Obviously Grandma’s never been an intellect, and she believes old wives’ tales of all sorts, but she seems to have basic common sense.

Mom phoned to say that Macy’s will send someone to pick up the microwave. I’ve decided not to replace it just yet because Grandma seems nervous with all the boxes here; I know I’ve disrupted her routine.

Mom said I got an invitation to read at some College in Tampa next winter. Could that be the Suncoast Writers conference at USF, I wonder?

This evening I spoke with Larry and Justin.

Justin is now working at Gruntal & Company for another few weeks, and he’s in the midst of rehearsals for the play he’s directing; opening night is in two weeks.

Larry is starting a job at the Metropolitan Museum of art, selling headphones for the Acoustiguide tour of the coming exhibit of French paintings from Russia.

He’s completed a tapestry for a New Jersey church, is creating a portfolio of drawings for a gay men’s magazine, and seems to have other recent little successes with his work.

The next few weeks will be busy for them – Justin, especially – but I’ll definitely see them at the play, if not before then.

Gradually, I’m getting to the items on the to-do list I made up yesterday, and I can take my time.

Looking at this experience as an adventure has helped me adjust, and so far I feel I’m doing fine.

Friday, May 11, 1990

11 PM. I’m at Teresa’s apartment on West 85th Street, though it seems odd to be here with most of her stuff missing. The night table next to the bed has a photo of Susie, the woman who lives here, and her fiancé Dan.

They’re an attractive couple, and I feel a bit like an intruder in their space. I gently took Susie’s stuffed animals off the bed, but I’m trying not to leave any traces of my presence.

Teresa called to say that the sonogram Bruce had her take showed she had an infection in her reproductive organs, as she had predicted it would. It’s probably a recurrence of the infection she had in the summer of 1978.

The pain from that infection put her in the hospital, and Bruce, who’s been her gynecologist as well as her landlord, seemed quite concerned about this. He put Teresa on tetracycline and ordered her not to do anything that would cause her to exert herself. Bruce said she should forget about work and shouldn’t even drive.

I hope Teresa follows Bruce’s instructions. The fluid – pus, I guess – is in her fallopian tubes and into her ovaries, and this sounds serious.

It’s hard for Teresa to abstain from sun, work, sex and alcohol (giving up dairy products is easy). especially when she’s on Fire Island. Luckily, she has a solid support system there: Brian, Micki, and all her other friends.

Because of yesterday’s Nor’easter, I stayed in the apartment in Rockaway all day except during a lull in the storm, when I went out to Waldbaum’s to get some groceries for Grandma.

Last evening I read Crad’s new book, which is excellent even though it’s more of his bitter, crude satire, full of anger and contempt for the average moron on the street.

I also finished the latest issues of Poets & Writers and The Associated Writing Programs Chronicle. After dinner, Grandma took a bath and then joined me at the TV.

Up at 7 AM today, I exercised early and then had some cereal and listened to NPR.

Bush seems worried by the likelihood that the end to this long economic recovery is finally upon us. Why else would he have called a summit on the budget and appear to be abandoning his “no new taxes” pledge?

Meanwhile, New York City is filled with enough racial tension to cause Mayor Dinkins to make a speech to try to calm things down.

Blacks are boycotting Korean merchants on Church Avenue by the Brighton train, and the first trials in last summer’s killing in Bensonhurst of a black kid, Yusuf Hawkins, have gone to the jury.

And Newsday has suspended Jimmy Breslin, who should know better, after a horrible anti-Asian outburst directed toward a Korean-American reporter who criticized him.

This afternoon, Grandma’s social worker came at 2:30 PM, and I delayed leaving for Manhattan so that I could be there to see her.

Linda Teitelbaum has been visiting Grandma for months, but in recent weeks she’s been unable to convince her to have a psychiatrist come to the house.

It’s become clear to me that Grandma is clinically depressed, and Linda thinks medication is the only way to help her because the depression is just too deep and pervasive for coping mechanisms or just talking with a therapist to work.

Anyway, with my encouragement, Grandma agreed to let this Dr. Goldberg come see her. Linda explained he can see only one new patient each week, so he might not come next week.

Linda herself has to give up seeing clients because of her administrative duties, but she promised Grandma that her new social worker is very warm and understanding.

While Linda has found Grandma to be stubborn, I’m glad that she finally agreed to see the doctor. Hopefully, he can prescribe an antidepressant which will work – if Grandma takes it properly.

She’s been complaining for days about constipation, and this morning at the drugstore, I was able to get her psyllium only to discover that her doctor had given her numerous packets of the stuff, which she hasn’t been taking.

Sometimes I can’t tell if her inability to follow directions is related to the confusion brought on by her age or by the clinical depression. In any case, she’s close to suicidal, and like the social worker says, the situation needs intervention.

I left Rockaway at 3:30 PM, and because I hit rush hour traffic, I didn’t get to the Upper West Side until nearly 5 PM.

This year I gradually got accustomed to New York City before I came to Manhattan, so basically being here didn’t seem as much of a shock as it usually does when I come up after months in Florida.

Luckily, I got a space in front of the building, and making seven trips to the car, I brought up all my cartons and placed them in the closet.

After I stopped by to say hi to Judy next door – she couldn’t get over how thin I’d become – I moved the car to a legal spot (carelessly, I got a ticket for alternate parking in Rockaway this morning) and took the M5 bus to Teachers College, where I found a summer bulletin.

My little trip to Morningside Heights was a good introduction to the city, and I took the subway back to 86th Street. The fare is now $1.15, and there are new toll boxes at the train entrances.

I bought enough groceries for dinner at the new Gristede’s in the basement of the big condo, The Boulevard, at 86th and Broadway.

A Manny Hanny branch opened there, too, and I noticed that the 4 Brothers restaurant on Broadway at 87th is now called the Hollywood Café although it still looks like your typical Greek diner.

I went through the mail I got here: mostly just stuff for the publishers of Narcissism and Me (Richard Kostelanetz, poor wretch, submitted a manuscript) and notices from PEN.

It’s late, and I’m ready for bed.