A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-May, 1990

Saturday, May 12, 1990

8 PM. A week ago at this time, I was landing in New York City. It’s only in the last 24 hours that I’ve been alone – my usual state – and have begun to process what’s been happening.

Last night I spoke to Mom for nearly an hour, informing her about Grandma’s mental and physical problems and telling her about the social worker’s visit.

Mom said my BCC and FIU paychecks arrived, and she’ll be sending them on.

Up at 7 AM today, I exercised to Body Electric and Homestretch from 8 AM to 9 AM.

My 15- and 20-pound dumbbells now seem very heavy indeed, but perhaps I can use them to bulk up a little this summer.

After breakfast, I lay in bed for a couple of hours, listening to a replay of Mayor Dinkins’s speech.

Koch never could have achieved such a calming tone, and although Dinkins isn’t eloquent, he does seem like a healer.

I don’t know how he’ll cope with New York City over the next few years when things appear to be getting worse.

The economy is already in a freefall. New York lost all those manufacturing jobs a decade ago, but the Reagan/yuppie/junk bond/Wall Street mania disguised that fact and kept real estate prices soaring and night spots and stores hopping.

New York is still very expensive – it’s shocking to compare the prices I pay for food here with what I pay in Florida – and it’s getting beyond the reach of more than just the homeless, who are now no longer allowed to beg in the subway system.

I’ve walked up and down Broadway, and late this afternoon I went out for a 90-minute drive across 86th and the park, down Fifth Avenue, across East 8th Street to Third Avenue. Then I rode around the West Village and Clinton before coming home up Broadway.

It feels like the mood of the city is much more subdued than it was four or five years ago when everyone seemed as ebullient and cocky as Ed Koch.

The gloom isn’t just my imagination or caused by the blustery, chilly weather. (People here are wearing shorts while I’m as bundled up as I can get.)

AIDS, crack, crime – that’s a part of it, but it’s also a sense of missed possibilities, that it’s too late now to put the boom of the 1980s to good use.

More people are going to realize, as Teresa did, that Manhattan isn’t the easiest or the only place to live.

Even if none of my friends are around, I’m still excited to be here. The truth is that my list of friends has gotten shorter.

The only person I called was Ronna, and she and Steve were busy all weekend – I apparently got her in the midst of an argument with him – but we’ll try to get together next week.

By now, most of my friends have spouses, lovers or children, and their lives tend to be centered around them.

Perhaps it’s coming closer to the time when I join the crowd and hook up with someone – though all these years of solitude haven’t made a great training ground for relationships. I barely know where to start, but I suspect it’s like bike riding: you don’t forget how it works.

The mailman welcomed me back, did a double take, and asked, “How much weight did you lose?”

I nearly bought a microwave in Zabar’s, but they took 15 minutes to bring it out and I couldn’t wait.

At Shakespeare & Company I got four magazines, enough to just get over their $15 minimum charge for credit cards, and I bought some household items at the Lebanese discount store.

Although the supermarkets here don’t have the variety of food I’m used to, I’m making do and I welcome the chance to try new foods.

Richard Kostelanetz wrote that he nominated stories in Narcissism and Me for a Pushcart Prize; at the bookstore, I saw the paperback of last year’s Pushcart with “I Survived Caracas Traffic” named in the back as a Special Mention.

It would be nice to finally get into that small press anthology after fifteen years of my stuff in the small presses and little magazines.

In Columbia, Madison Smartt Bell and Meg Wolitzer, among others, took part in a symposium about the death of minimalism.

Will experimental fiction come back into style? Probably not, though I’d like to come back into style.

Well, maybe this summer I can give my fiction writing career one big final push, using the contents of the four cartons of books in my closet.

I feel dizzy now, and I also feel slightly weird about being here. Will Susie be upset I’ve taken her space?

But since she’s leaving in a few weeks, I’m sure she’s out of here mentally; besides, she’s planning her wedding, and I’m sure that’s what she’s thinking about.

Monday, May 14, 1990

10 PM. I left the Upper West Side at 4 PM yesterday and drove back to Rockaway in a hard-driving rain. (Myself, I was driving softly.)

I passed the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Caton Avenue, where earlier a gang of blacks had brutally beaten a Vietnamese man, taunting him with anti-Korean insults as they did so.

The mood of New York City seems uglier than it’s been in a long while, and I’m afraid that when the Bensonhurst juries bring in their verdicts, there could be more violence.

I arrived here before 6 PM, glad to have missed Marty, Arlyne and Jeffrey, especially after Grandma related how Arlyne went ballistic when she found out Grandma had stopped taking her antidepressants three weeks ago when the pills ran out.

Now I understand why Grandma’s been so bad lately, and while I’m upset that she didn’t know enough to keep taking the pills, it wasn’t Arlyne’s place to yell at her.

Just when I had thoughts of letting bygones be bygones, I’m hoping not to see Arlyne for another seven years.

Of course, I didn’t check up on the medication myself, either; I merely assumed that one of the prescription bottles on the table was for Grandma’s mental state and that it just wasn’t working.

The doctor who released her from the hospital should have stressed the importance of taking the antidepressant drugs – or Marty and Arlyne should have.

I’ve told Grandma that she’ll need to take them for the rest of her life.

Anyway, there was good news from Tallahassee: they sent back a form listing me as eligible for $181 a week in unemployment benefits, up to about $4000 overall – which means I can collect all summer.

When I looked at the BCC and FIU paychecks that Mom sent in today’s mail, I realized I’m doing better on Unemployment than I was teaching two classes at BCC and only about $70 less than the BCC and FIU English classes combined.

Yesterday I mailed out my first claim report; if all goes well, I’ll be collecting unemployment compensation all summer for the first time since 1984 and 1985.

On Thursday at Teachers College, if I find I’ll be getting the full student loan amount, then I’ve covered myself financially for the summer, and I’ll be very relieved.

Also in the mail was the letter from Steven Rubin, an English professor at the University of South Florida and associate director of the Florida Suncoast Writers Conference.

I had the foresight to take some résumés with me, but I hope my handwritten letter detailing what workshops I’d like to teach in February 1991 won’t put him off.

Since Barbara taught one workshop there last year and they don’t have any really big names, I don’t see this as a great leap forward, but it’s good enough recognition for me now.

Probably they don’t get big names because they pay $100 per workshop plus travel, lodging and expenses.

I also need to write Clarence Major; as scared as I’d be to fly to California, I’d love to read at UC Davis.

In the AWP Job List I got today, I saw that Susan Ludvigson is the head of the search committee for a composition instructor at Winthrop next year. She’d probably give me high priority if I applied, but I don’t want to grade all those essays, even if it’s just four classes a semester.

On the other hand, it would give me a nice line on my résumé, and doubtless I’d grow from the experience of being in a new place.

Living in Charlotte or Rock Hill would be risk-taking, but the job really wouldn’t be. Hey, if I really want to teach comp, Bob Parham has a job open at Francis Marion.

But, remember: I was setting my sights higher this year. Going to a new place isn’t what I need right now – not if it’s to teach composition, anyway.

I didn’t sleep well last night because my mind was racing. I dreamed about Florida and Broward Community College. When I’m in New York, I dream about Florida, and when I’m in Florida, I dream of New York.

This morning I felt sluggish but forced myself to exercise. Then I read the papers and did a big load of laundry.

After the mail came, I paid the first five credit card bills for May; it’s going to be tight to make minimum payments this month, but I think I can get through it.

At 2:30 PM, I left Grandma Ethel and Tillie and drove into Brooklyn. Today was the first really nice day of my visit: I could go out – in Brooklyn, if not in Rockaway – without a jacket.

After buying some stuff at Kings Plaza, I rode around my old neighborhood. Evie Wagner’s door was open, but I didn’t have the nerve to drop in unannounced; maybe I’ll catch my old neighbors while they’re sitting out on the porch one day.

On the radio talk shows, callers were discussing the “student terrorists” at John Jay, where classes were canceled today as students rightfully continue to protest CUNY budget cuts.

Parking outside Brooklyn College, I walked around the campus. A new, expensive dining facility is being readied in the Boylan basement.

But by the second floor central corridor of the English Department, as far as I could tell from the bulletin boards, things seemed the same as ever.

Because of my falling out with Baumbach, I’ve never been one of the MFA graduates who have been invited back to campus as a “successful” writer. Oh well. Baumbach, like Spielberg – and Dr. Grasso at Broward Community College – won’t be around forever.

I see from the student papers that racism is evident at BC and that President Hess is undergoing a ten-year evaluation.

In a way, I know how Irwin Shaw felt when he was estranged from his alma mater.

I pictured the campus scenes from twenty years ago at the time of Kent State – the strikes and marches and liberation classes – but it’s getting harder to relate to Brooklyn College.

Still, today’s students look pretty much the way we did, though nowadays there’s much more ethnic diversity.

At 6 PM, I returned home and had dinner, watched the news – the Dow hit a record high – and went out at dusk for some TCBY nonfat frozen yogurt in Howard Beach. Good night.

Wednesday, May 16, 1990

10 PM. Grandma seemed to have some kind of psychotic episode this afternoon.

Around 1 PM, when I came in with my salad from the Korean store to prepare lunch, I found Grandma sitting in the chair she usually sits in, only she had covered herself with a sheet or blanket – because she was cold, she said – and kept muttering.

She finally said that Marty had spoken to her a couple of times today. He was having trouble getting in touch with her doctor, and he told Grandma she might have to return to the psychiatric ward at the hospital to “start all over” on the medical treatments begun last October.

Though I didn’t realize it at first, Grandma apparently was adamant about not wanting to return to the hospital, so when I said I’d help her pack and visit her there, etc., I was only making things worse.

When she just kept sighing and moaning the way she did when the social worker was here, I told her I’d call Linda (the social worker) to keep her informed.

At this, Grandma became highly agitated, and stupidly, I tried to argue that we were all trying to help her. She took on this wild look in her eyes and yelled, “You’re killing me! You’re making me sick!”

It was scary, and finally when I yelled at her, “Stop it!” she seemed to be aware how she was acting and said she’d been the same way on Sunday when Marty and Arlyne were here.

Feeling shaky and not knowing what to do, I went outside and called Teresa, who helpfully suggested that I just agree with everything Grandma says. When I returned, I did just that.

For a while Grandma seemed sort of catatonic and didn’t say anything. Finally she snapped out of it and heated up her Meals on Wheels dinner.

Since then she’s basically been “normal” – though of course what’s normal for her means a highly depressed, somewhat distracted state.

What will happen to Grandma? She seems on the edge of being incapable of taking care of herself.

I’m no gerontologist and I can’t say she’s showing signs of senility, but she asks the same question or makes the exact same comment over and over.

When Grandpa Nat was in the nursing home, I naturally treated anything he said as the product of his brain damage, so he could say the craziest things or repeat himself or mumble and it wouldn’t bother me.

While they’re becoming more frequent, Grandma Ethel’s lapses are still unusual enough so that most of the time I interact with her the way I would with a normal person. Maybe that’s a mistake.

I stopped pointing out when she asks me the same question she did half an hour or 15 minutes before; instead, I merely – though sometimes wearily – repeat my answer.

Today I had little planned, and it rained all day and was chilly, so I felt a little bit overwhelmed by Grandma.

As much as I love her and have compassion for her and know that her illness makes her behave the way she does, it’s difficult to be with Grandma, especially when nobody else is around.

Tonight I had to get out again because I felt a lot of stress. If I stayed here, I would have done something destructive like eating lots of cake.

So I drove to Ozone Park and bought a little microwave at P.C. Richard. At least that gave me a sense of control.

And with the microwave safely in the rental car’s trunk (bringing it up here would have only upset Grandma’s routine), I stopped at TCBY in Howard Beach for a low-fat treat.

But even better than the frozen yogurt was having other people – particularly young people I could relate to – sitting all around me.

Hanging out with Grandma makes me feel I’m a million years old.

Saturday, May 19, 1990

10 AM. Last evening I met Ronna outside Broadway Cottage II, a new Sichuan restaurant at 92nd Street. I found her in a crowd watching a fashion show taking place in the window of a nearby clothing store.

Ronna’s hair is shorter and grayer, and she had on new glasses, but she looked much the same: good to my eyes.

I’m used to the stares of people who haven’t seen me since last summer, so I wasn’t surprised – naturally, I’m flattered – when Ronna looked at me intently.

We had a pleasant evening together. Her big news was that she sort of broke up with Steve last weekend. While they had broken up before, they didn’t speak all week and she feels it’s best they break up for good.

She’d just come from her therapist; it was the problems in the relationship with Steve that had led her back into therapy.

Basically, they need to either get married or break up, because both feel an urgency about having children – especially Ronna, who said that 37 was a rough birthday for her.

She clearly loves Steve and talked about many of his good qualities – his concern for his many friends, their shared enthusiasm for a non-Orthodox Judaism, his sense of humor and sensitivity – but he doesn’t share Ronna’s interest in movies, plays or current events.

He liked to play cards and took Ronna to Atlantic City, where he enjoys the casinos. While he’s obviously not a problem gambler, that’s not really her scene.

Steve grew up in our section of Brooklyn, went to Yeshivah of Flatbush and attended law school at Boston University – like Jordan, only five years ahead of him.

Most of Ronna’s friends and relatives liked Steve until they started to see Ronna upset by problems in the relationship.

Ronna has always been cautious about entering into marriage, probably because of her parents’ divorce, and Steve started pressuring her last September after they’d seen each other only for three months.

Well, I didn’t have any advice for her, of course; certainly I don’t know what Ronna should do.

She’s hoping to leave Yeshiva University and has gone on job interviews lately. Ronna is still interested into getting into industrial training.

I talked about my forthcoming bankruptcy (Ronna is one of the few people I trust to tell about my credit card lifestyle), about my plans to try publicizing myself as a writer (though I wasn’t specific), my uncertainty about my future career, and my diet.

For dinner I had chicken with broccoli, and when I felt I’d eaten enough, I poured pepper all over the remaining food so I wouldn’t pick at it.

Now that I’m going to restaurants – I’m eating out with Alice this afternoon – I have to exercise portion control.

Panic sets in when I’m faced with a restaurant menu, but I welcome the chance to test my coping skills when confronted with it.

After all, if I can maintain my weight and eat out, then I don’t have to be afraid of ballooning back to 185 pounds.

Back at this apartment, Ronna and I sat at the kitchen table, talking for hours.

Her sister is doing well on Overeaters Anonymous, and Billy and his girlfriend have moved in with her mother in Orlando, where they’re managing to get by financially.

Ronna’s become closer to her father even though her mother is taking him to court for not paying alimony. (Wisely, Ronna stays out of that.)

While the attraction between me and Ronna will always be there, we’re both too smart to do anything about it; there is no point, not after all these years.

Still, it was great to see her after nine months and pick up our friendship as if only a week had passed.

After walking her home at 11 PM, I strolled down Broadway and returned to Teresa’s, where I promptly fell asleep.


8 PM. There’s a pigeon sitting on her nest on the same ledge outside Teresa’s bedroom where the babies were born last summer. In fact, this might even be the same mother, because the marking are similar.

It will be interesting to watch the progress, the way I did last July. I could get profound about the cycle of life going on, but I’ll spare myself.

It warmed up a bit, though it still hasn’t hit 70°. Still, as long as the sun is out, I feel happy.

Around noon, I drove to the Village, figuring I could find a parking space and save the subway fare. As I’d remembered, on Saturdays it’s not that hard to get a space.

Because I had time before I met Alice, I hung out at the same fountain in Washington Square Park that I used to go to over twenty years ago.

With guitarists wearing American flag shirts and crooning folk songs, guys in ripped jeans and ponytails and long frizzy hair, drug dealers asking if I wanted to buy hash – the scene wasn’t as far removed from 1969 as I expected.

“Well, the Sixties are back,” Alice said later.

Just before I met her, I walked along West 8th Street, passing the B. Dalton where I had my book party for I Brake over seven years ago.

It’s funny how I can go on about nearly every corner and store in the Village and remember how it all looked in the past: The Postermat, The Cookery, the Eighth Street Bookshop, Orange Julius, Nathan’s, the 69¢ Store, Shakespeare’s restaurant – all places I associate with happy times in my life.

In fact, I felt close to the guy I was back in the early ’70s, when I often hung out in the West Village. Perhaps next summer, if I have the money, I can try a sublet there.

Alice looked pretty, and we went out for lunch on Seventh Avenue South, at the outdoor café where I was once interviewed by a transsexual writer for Home Planet News. (See what I mean?)

I had only a salad and my Nutri/System dressing and some Colombo frozen yogurt afterwards as we walked to the Chelsea co-op Alice wanted me to look at.

In a high-rise on West 22nd at Ninth, the apartment needed work, but it’s spacious and bright and has a den where Alice could work while looking out over leafy trees and quiet backyards.

But there are problems with the building, and the renters – enough of whom haven’t joined the co-op plan for it to go through – are discouraging buyers.

The real estate agent told Alice she has to move fast because someone else is putting in a $175,000 bid; the owner is a renter who wants to flip the apartment and sell his right. With Andreas, her usual co-op adviser, out of town, Alice seemed in a quandary.

She left a $50 check and took the prospectus, but I bet she doesn’t buy it: the maintenance is high, and Alice would be stretching it financially.

Mom said she’s sending me the galleys to Alice’s book – she’d asked me for a quote – which St. Martin’s has delayed till September; they’re doing everything half-assed, Alice said, but of course publishers are usually incompetent.

Her book about lottery winners fell apart, and now she’s got a proposal with her agent for a diet book, the nature of which she couldn’t reveal.

Also, her idea for putting stickers next to the TV listings of shows people plan to watch was rejected by TV Guide, but some ABC executives are looking at it. “It’s a real high to be taken seriously for an idea outside your field,” Alice said.

Her brother and his wife are on the West Coast and making their way back to New York.

Alice is relieved they were rejected for a mortgage possibility for a brownstone, but she hasn’t yet told Michael that she doesn’t want to buy a house with them.

Besides, like Teresa, they already have enough real estate problems: Alice and Michael’s Wall Street apartment has no tenant once again.

As I told Alice as we walked back down to the Village, I’m glad nobody would give me a mortgage to even a doghouse.

Very hungry once I got back to the Upper West Side, I had a second lunch here, and then I spent the rest of the day reading.

This evening the new microwave cooked a Healthy Choice dinner just fine.