A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late July, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Tuesday, July 24, 1990

8:30 PM. I’m doing everything I can to avoid working on my final project for Interface Design: straightening out drawers, watering plants, taking out the garbage, noshing despite heartburn.

At least I finished the Creativity paper this morning. After using Teachers College’s laser printer to get a hard copy, I delivered my stuff to Tannenbaum’s office – and Budin’s – hoping they’ll pick up their mail before the end of the month.

So now I have the subway token dispensing machine to work on. Robin gave me some comments and suggestions, but I just can’t seem to work on the project tonight. Well, I have till next Wednesday.

Tomorrow we visit TransFiction Systems, and on Thursday I have to go to Teachers College to get my loan check.

Grandma Ethel called to say my unemployment check came early this week, so I can pick it up when I visit and get the claim form mailed by Monday. Money is really a problem, and I was floored by all the credit card bills Mom sent yesterday.

Today I cut up four secured credit cards and asked the banks that issued them to cancel my accounts and return to me any balance once they’ve subtracted what I owe them. I figure it will just make my life simpler, and I should net close to $2000 when the money comes in, though I expect it will take a long time.

Last evening, before I left for school, I watched Bush nominate a New Hampshire judge, David Souter, to the Supreme Court. Though Souter’s a conservative and will undoubtedly overturn Roe v. Wade, I can’t see how the Senate can reject him because he’s written no opinions on abortion and seems like a brilliant attorney.

Donna Ratajczak called to invite me to a dinner gathering – Pete Cherches will be there – at the loft she shares with her boyfriend Masa. Since I’m free on Saturday, it worked out fine.

Narcissism and Me got its first review from a broadsheet of reviews put out by Paul Fericano’s YU Press syndicate. Paul praised me to the skies and called “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp” one of the funniest stories ever written.

It was good of him. I only wish people would notice the book. Leaving copies at ATMs isn’t my idea of how it was going to be. This is Manhattan: what influential person is ever going to read my little chapbook? Still, it’s out there as an object – as is The Greatest Short Story That Absolutely Ever Was.

I wrote in the Creativity paper that both chance factors and my lack of social skills and “the culture of the studio,” as Tannenbaum calls it, contributed to my failure ever to get much recognition.

While I never say never, it’s doubtful I’ll have any more fiction published, and at this point I don’t care.

Wednesday, July 25, 1990

11 PM. This morning I started designing my token dispenser, and it soon became obvious what a difficult process this was going to be.

It felt a lot like writing fiction or nonfiction, with that sense of having no idea what choices to make and the uncertainty of where I was heading.

I decided to carry over from teaching writing the emphasis on process, and to record all my drafts and thoughts so I can show Robin how I got there; I hope she judges me, not on the final product, but on the work and thought I put in getting there.

I have new respect for people who design systems like the one I’m trying to create.

In the afternoon, I took my notebook to ATMs up and down Broadway from Citibank to Manny Hanny to Marine Midland, Chemical and Anchor, drawing the various systems, noting the paths the machines took, and jotting down ideas.

Citibank’s Express box for quick payments and deposits gave me a good name for my project: Token Express.

This afternoon our class met at 5:15 PM at Ron Martinez’s apartment on West 93rd between Broadway and West End.

He and Carol, his production assistant at TransFiction Systems, were there, as was a visitor from an L.A. outfit, owned by Philips, who’s been working on the CD-I (compact disc-interactive) format, which is different from CD-ROM and similar technologies in that it’s expected to have hardware that will be a big consumer item.

Ron showed us on one of his Macs some of the stuff they’d done (aside from Hidden Agenda).

There was an excellent interactive fiction adventure using Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had impressive graphics.

But it was nothing compared to Greed and Lust, a comic soap opera about the Manhattan real estate world. This had an interesting interface (now being updated), organ music and animated graphics.

They used professional actors who show five different emotions in each shot; an algorithm changes their facial expressions depending on what choice of actions the protagonist (the player, user) takes.

Ron said that while computers could always expertly deal with information, the CD technology plus video and its people and “plots” would bring emotion to computers.

It’s mind-blowing to see the infancy of a new technology, a new media, and maybe even a new art form.

That advances keep coming is a problem because you’re always dealing with the form and tools in transition.

While I’m not sure interactive fiction will ever catch fire, the huge entertainment conglomerates are looking at it as a potential money-maker, so right now this stuff is very commercially-oriented.

Perhaps in the future it will become more “literary” and “artistic.” However, the costs are currently so great that for the foreseeable future there’ll be no shoestring budget Spike Lee-quality interactive fiction.

However, the 2½ hours I spent at Ron’s with Robin and the class got me excited enough to go on and on about the technology to Mom and Ronna when each of them called.

I had a long conversation with Denis this afternoon. He talked about the children’s books of his that Viking has under contract (he’s got an agent at William Morris), about the psychotic killers he gets out of jail (one guy he’s springing killed a woman and ate her heart), and his art gallery (after reducing the hours and overhead and his client list to only a couple of artists, he’s now turning a small profit).

Fifteen years ago Denis would have been the last person I’d have pegged as a Renaissance Man. But he made it – through grit, talent and a little luck.

Friday, July 27, 1990

9 PM. I barely worked on my project today although I did check out the Transit Authority’s token machine at Grand Central Station, which was a relatively simply device.

Mostly what I’ve got to do from here on in is refine what I’ve got so far and work on cleaning up interface problems. I’ve already discarded a lot of frills.

Last night I read through Tannenbaum’s book, Gifted Children, which contained some interesting information and a lot of material he covered in class.

Today, like most of July, wasn’t terribly hot, but it was humid. At Teachers College at 10 AM, I picked up my check for $1,730.70 and deposited it in the Chase branch at 42nd Street after I got out of the subway at Grand Central.

The money should clear by Wednesday, but there’s still no way I’m going to be able to pay all my bills on time.

Perhaps I can keep pulling off payments on all my credit cards, but the process is taking a lot of my time and attention. I feel lightened of the burden of paying off the four secured cards I canceled, and I’ll be at least as relieved as I am depressed when I’m off this credit-go-round.

Today I found myself feeling exceptionally horny and thrilled by the sight of every good-looking young guy – and my type is definitely getting older, finally – in shorts and a t-shirt that I saw on the streets of Manhattan.

What makes me feel different this year is knowing that I look as good as most of the guys I’m looking at.

After taking the subway from Times Square to 86th Street, I came home to do aerobics, read the papers, and watch FNN and CNN.

Later, I went over to Amsterdam Avenue, where I got frozen yogurt on at TCBY and found the Q&A page from the real estate section in last Sunday’s Times at the St. Agnes library.

A neighbor had told me about a question regarding Red House, the name on 350 West 85th Street. It turns out our building was landmarked in 1982.

It was built in 1904 by Harde and Short, who did Alwyn Court (on West 58th and Seventh), and it is “French Renaissance” in style: “Among its most interesting features is the salamander and crown motif set in its brickwork.”

Saturday, July 28, 1990

8 PM. Although I slept soundly for eight hours, today began badly at 7:45 AM when I called the Chase bank line and learned they had no record of yesterday’s deposit. I do have a receipt, and the person I spoke to told me to take it into my branch if the check doesn’t clear by Tuesday.

I was so upset that my stomach hurt, but as I worked out (forcing myself), I figured my mixing cash with a check deposit may have done the same thing with a teller that it did a few weeks ago, when I used a machine.

What was I so worried about: So what if I’m late with a payment? After all, I’m planning on bankruptcy anyway, so it shouldn’t matter if I start fouling up my credit rating now.

From that point of view, my concern seem ludicrous – but it tells me that, deep down, I haven’t yet accepted that I’ve come to the end of the road, that this is finis, the end. I now realize that I’m going to have a hard time emotionally dealing with this.

Rick Peabody’s book of poetry, Sad Fashions, which came in yesterday’s mail, gives me a model for how somebody triumphs over hard times. His inscription was, “To Richie, the prisoner of 85th Street – a souvenir of four terrible years.”

Rick meant his breakup with Gretchen and his father’s sudden death. But eventually he came out of those bad days, just as I got over my agoraphobia in 1969, my breakup with Shelli in 1971, the problems I had in 1980 in Rockaway, and all the other tough times in my life.

Rick once told me that we’re both survivors, and I’d like to believe that. However self-destructive Teresa may be, she’s a survivor, too. Otherwise she would have been crushed by all the mishaps in her life, many of which she brings on herself.

In the past two days I’ve sent along her notices of bounced checks and a “final disconnect” bill for Fire Island. (She requested a call-by-call printout because she thought the charges were much too high, but she doesn’t realize how much time she spends on the phone.)

It’s almost August, and there have been no callers coming to see the apartment. I don’t intend to pay rent for September, because I’m better off renting a car with Diners Club and living at Grandma Ethel’s, but I’ll stay if Teresa wants me to keep showing the apartment to people.

Tonight I have the thing at Donna’s. She made me feel self-conscious by asking me what I do or don’t eat; I told her I hate the idea of hosts adjusting their menus to fit guests.

Last night I called Dad and got the flight number for tomorrow; they’re coming in around 4:45 PM at LaGuardia. So I feel really pressed for time in regard to the Token Express project, though I suspect that I need that feeling to get the job done.

Why, if I’m so harried, am I all of a sudden getting ideas for promoting my chapbooks now?  At Shakespeare & Company, I bought some magazines I can use to get names of reviewers and writers who might be sympathetic to my work.

Sunday, July 29, 1990

10 AM. Last evening I took the 1 train to Houston Street, then walked east to Greene Street, where the loft was.

It’s a huge space, the biggest I’ve seen in Manhattan for someone’s living quarters. It belongs to a Japanese artist, Mr. Kawahara, and his family, who sublet to Donna and her boyfriend Masa every summer.

Masa remembered me, as we’ve met on several occasions. Ken, a guy from Tokyo who staying with them while making side trips to Europe and Chicago, was there, as was Pete. The other guests were Amy and Kim, whom I met once before, years ago.

The table was filled with carefully prepared Japanese food, and there was a large flat solid griddle in front of Masa, who stir-fried vegetables, beef, shrimp and squid during the evening.

I ate a tiny bit of everything except seafood, and I especially liked the gingery cellophane noodles.

This was a very cosmopolitan crowd, people who’ve been everywhere from Siberia to Nepal. Unlike Alice and Peter, who travel like tourists, they are artist types who go abroad to meet the people and really experience the cultures.

Everyone except me was really expert on different cuisines, and of course they knew what all these different food items were and could rattle off their Japanese names.

But I enjoyed the conversation as I awkwardly ate my slippery cellophane noodles with chopsticks. (I’ve never mastered chopsticks.)

Mostly I listened to stories about the East Village art scene and contemporary Japan and the different projects people are working on.

If it isn’t quite my world, I felt comfortable there, and I enjoyed being out with people.

We watched a Japanese video – a cartoon for kids, kind of Bergmanesque – about an Indian family and its encounters with Death (a witch-like woman).

Oddly, although I can’t understand Japanese, I felt better when this sound was turned up so I could hear it without straining. Masa and Ken translated a little, but really, it was self-explanatory.

I was grateful to Donna for inviting me and gave her my chapbook; I guess she wanted to thank me for driving her from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach.

(That youth hostel was nice, Donna said, but she got bitten up by bedbugs and should have brought her own sheets as others did.)

Pete and I left at 11:30 PM and walked to the Broadway/Lafayette subway stop, where he got the D train to Brooklyn and I went uptown.

Getting out of the subway at 86th Street just before midnight, I felt secure walking home on crowded Broadway, and once in the apartment, I quickly fell asleep.

Monday, July 30, 1990

10 PM. Yesterday I worked on my project for several hours. Then, at 2:30 PM, I left for the airport, taking the subway (the 1 train to 59th, the D to Seventh Avenue, and the E to Jackson Heights) to the Q33 bus.

It was a tedious ride but cost me only $2.30 instead of the much larger cab fare, and I got to LaGuardia’s main terminal in time to have some TCBY yogurt and call Grandma Ethel, who’d been sick with her back pains and dizziness, before my parents’ plane landed.

I saw Dad first and then Mom and kissed them both. After we got their suitcase, we took the courtesy bus to Thrifty’s car rental place on 23rd Avenue, where Dad rented a Mitsubishi, putting me down as an extra driver.

I helped Dad remember how to get to Rockaway, and we stopped off for some very good Chinese food on Cross Bay Boulevard. (Like most Chinese restaurants in New York City, this one had a diet menu.)

As we got back into the car to drive over the bridge to Grandma’s, Mom said she hadn’t experienced such cool weather in months.

I was surprised Grandma Ethel didn’t start crying when she saw Mom; their meeting was pretty sedate. The last time Mom saw her mother was May 1989, when she was very ill, and Dad last saw her in the hospital last October – so Grandma probably didn’t look so bad to them.

I took my unemployment check and mailed out my claim form postcard that came with it.

Listening to my parents, I decided that they, too, are getting old. Dad acts so impatient with Mom, and he seems to be getting crotchety.

I can’t put it into words, but I can see my parents are getting behind the times, as when Dad makes a racist remark he thinks is funny – I mentioned all the immigrants from Guyana in New York, and Dad called them “guineas” – or when he couldn’t deal with his phone call to the Days Inn. (But at least, unlike Grandma, he is used to a touch-tone phone.)

At about 8:30 PM, Dad drove himself and me to back to the city – I mean Manhattan, of course. (I see I’m picking up outer-borough talk.) Because of traffic on the Belt, we had to go through Brooklyn via the entire length of Flatbush Avenue.

Dad got out at the Days Inn and I drove the car uptown, where I could park it for free. Mom had given me a big batch of mail, and there were eight more credit card bills to pay with future deposits.

This morning, after doing the best I could to make “final” screens for my Interface Design project as well as a report for Robin, I left the apartment at 10:30 AM and sat in the car till just before 11 AM, when I moved it to a space that became legal then.

At Teachers College, I printed out my files on the laser printer and transferred some demo disks to a smaller 3.5” disk.

Finally finished, I took the IRT to 72nd, where I made a deposit at Chase and inquired about my missing deposit from Friday.

Yesterday, in a Times article about the new subway token vending machines, I read they had them at 72nd Street. If I’d known that earlier, I could have saved myself a trip to Grand Central last week and that foul-up with my student loan check deposit.

When I got home, I phoned Chase and spoke to Evelyn Noriega, the teller manager at the 42nd Street branch, who did find a copy of my deposit slip in teller #16’s pile for Friday. She said other deposits made from that pile hadn’t yet been credited, either, so I should wait till tomorrow.

God, this student loan has been trouble from start to finish: I had the wrong loan application (Manny Hanny’s fault) and then the amount was lowered, paid in two installments, and delayed even to the last day – and now the check may have gotten lost in the banking system.

I still have both my deposit slip copy and the stub from Teachers College’s check, so I don’t expect to lose the money, but I may have a long wait before I get it.

Well, getting upset won’t help.

This evening in class, when Robin lectured about navigation, I realized I could have refined my project’s system more. However, like writing or programming, designing an interface is a never-ending process in that it can always be refined to make it better.

Now all I plan to do is make a neat system flowchart and a design on poster board so I can present it to the class.

Back home an hour ago, I had a message from Mom, who wants me to call her in the morning.

I’m driving to Rockaway then, and after spending the day there, I’ll bring Mom to Manhattan.

Dad’s PDI meetings end tomorrow, so he and Mom can relax in the city on Wednesday.

Tuesday, July 31, 1990

9 PM. When I got up this morning, I phoned the Chase audiotext information line and learned my account was credited with a deposit of $17,030.70.

Now the Teachers College check was for $1,730.70, and even if they put in an extra zero, what happened to the $200 in cash I put in?

I’ve never experienced such incompetence. I called Ms. Noriega, but she’d already seen the account and put in an inquiry.

I’m sure this will further delay my check, which was supposed to have cleared by tomorrow.

Now it’s too late to send in my payments on time. Or maybe I should mail the payments and let them bounce – because it is Chase’s fault and I’m sure they are liable for errors.

I know the law requires that in-city checks clear in three days. After all, I do have my deposit slips as records.

At 9:45 AM, I left the house and drove the rental car to Rockaway, where Grandma Ethel looked terrible, as if she were in one of those catatonic states. Mom said she’d been fine yesterday but started feeling this way after Mom said she was going back to Manhattan tonight.

Originally, Mom hadn’t planned to return to Rockaway, but now she says she hopes to come back on Thursday. It’s understandable that Grandma would be depressed that Mom’s leaving but typical that she couldn’t even enjoy her presence today.

All Grandma did was sit in the chair, stare vacantly, sigh, and mumble about the burdens she has and how she wishes she were dead. Well, I’m glad Mom got to see what I’ve had to deal with.

I was also glad that the social worker, Jane Sanders, came today. She gets along well with Grandma and says that a lot of her recent setbacks seem to stem from Aunt Tillie’s health problems, which prevent her from visiting Grandma every afternoon. Tillie was too sick to come out today and accompany us to Waldbaum’s, for example.

Jane said Grandma’s medication needs to be monitored and that we should call Marty to find out where Dr. Sussman, the psychiatrist who prescribed the antidepressants, has his office so that I can take Grandma there to be evaluated to see if her medication needs to be changed or the dose modified.

Medication definitely helps, but you can’t just give anyone, especially an old person, tricyclics or any kind of antidepressant and not monitor her. Mom dreads calling Marty, but I couldn’t figure out who Dr. Sussman was from the physicians listed in the Peninsula branch library’s New York State directory of doctors.

I can probably get the information from Long Island College Hospital because Grandma said Dr. Sussman treated her there.

Grandma seemed no more interested in calling Marty than Mom or I was, and as Jane said, there’s something there, in her relationships with both her children.

I suspect Grandma’s rage and anger towards Mom and Marty gets turned inward, and that’s when she has these depressions and near-psychotic episodes. They’re also a cry for help, too: a way of letting us see how bad she feels.

Unfortunately, even though Grandma’s miserable attitude isn’t her fault, it’s the kind of behavior that’s very frustrating for people around her.

When Mom and I went to the drugstore and Woolworth’s and Waldbaum’s to get stuff for Grandma, she told me it was difficult to be with Grandma and she understands why I feel I always have to get away so often when I stay with her.

It’s frustrating for me, too, because I’m not helping Grandma as much as I could.

Jane said the best thing we can do is see the information regarding Grandma’s case not be divided: a little bit with her and a little bit with Dr. Sussman and Marty, and a little bit with the doctor she sees in Far Rockaway. We need to manage her care better so that informed decisions can be made.

Mom bought Grandma some new kitchen stuff – she told me she couldn’t stand how dirty Grandma’s dishes were – and also a new shower curtain and bathroom mat, which I advised Mom to hide because Grandma would be upset by it.

And I was right. Grandma’s reaction was, “I don’t want it, not the way I feel” – meaning that she can’t deal with new stuff when she’s depressed.

At 4:30 PM, Mom and I left, and although I took a terrifically roundabout route – via the Cross Island Parkway, Throgs Neck Bridge and Cross-Bronx Expressway – we made it to the Upper West Side in 80 minutes: spectacular time for rush hour traffic.

After we got settled and I showed Mom some sights in the neighborhood, we took a cab in the pouring rain to the Days Inn and went with Dad to the Circle West.

Over dinner, he told us about the new spring line and his experiences with his co-workers and bosses at Paul Davril.