A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late August, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Tuesday, August 21, 1990

8 PM. When I got a phone call from Aunt Tillie a couple of hours ago, I knew something had happened to Grandma Ethel, but it’s not catastrophic: she’s in St. John’s Hospital for tests.

Because she’d fallen again and didn’t feel well, she went to see the doctors in Far Rockaway, and they decided, probably wisely, to hospitalize her. She told Tillie to call me because Grandma thought I was coming tomorrow. I’ll go on Thursday.

Tillie said my unemployment check came, but of course that can wait. After I spoke to Mom and Mom spoke to Grandma, Mom called me back and said Marty had talked to her doctor, presumably making sure Grandma continues to take her antidepressant while she’s in the hospital.

Because Marty will be there tomorrow, I’ll go to the hospital on Thursday. Marty is also going to the apartment to bring her some stuff, and I don’t want to be there when he is.

Also, I have my dinner with Cousin Michael tomorrow night. But Teresa won’t be coming into the city tomorrow because at the last minute she got catering work on Fire Island for the weekend.

Well, I feel a bit bowled over. Tomorrow I should phone Jane, Grandma’s social worker. I don’t know what’s wrong with Grandma, but I suspect it’s neurological. Or maybe she’s just dying, not of any disease, but from wear and tear. She’s already outlived the ages when her parents and siblings died. Sigh.

Last evening turned out to be fun. Peter Filichia and his writing partner, Doug Cohen, created And the Winner Is . . ., a spoof of the Tony Awards. In it, the “Johnnies” are presented by “Angela Lansbury,” “Tony Randall” and other members of an improvisational group playing various celebrities.

Before the play began, the audience filled out ballots, nominating one audience member for an award, and the show featured audience members as “winners.”

Some people enjoyed the spotlight – I wasn’t called but I’m enough of a ham so that I kept hoping I’d “win” – but others, like Alice, felt foolish. Called up as winner of the Best Featured Actress in a Musical award, she was asked to recreate her performance singing “The Rain in Spain.”

Other “winners” were given bits of business to do, and while some of the jokes could have been fresher, I think Peter and Doug might have hit on a clever idea. People do like audience participation theater like Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.

I finally met Peter’s oldest friend, John (the Johnnies were named for him), who had come from Boston for the reading, and I helped him and Peter and Alice and Doug and his wife clean up afterwards.

Before I got into a cab with the Cohens – I wasn’t just freeloading; I helped them take the four music stands to their apartment on Broadway and 70th – Alice gave me a letter asking for a bio and a description for my workshops at the Long Beach Writers’ Conference next April 21-22.

So I’ll finally be going to California next year!

This morning I finished reading Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor and watched the Middle East crisis news on CNN (and saw the stock market continue to sink on FNN) before I headed downtown at noon.

Mikey works in the dreary state office building at Broadway and Chambers, and although he’s got a nice-sized office as Special Assistant Attorney General in the Medicaid Fraud Division – and I was impressed with the wall plaques and the pile of briefs and documents overflowing his desk – Mikey told me he’d like to be out of there by mid-1991.

Over lunch, at Off City Hall, he said he plans to try private practice. What he’ll do is rent an office in a place where other lawyers share a secretary. He’s becoming active in the state bar association and is starting to make contacts to help him in his practice.

Naturally, he’d prefer to do criminal law, but I’m sure he’ll take just about any kind of case he feels he can handle.

Amy is also unhappy in her job. She wants to do therapy, but at the place in the Bronx where she is, all she can manage is damage control for people whose life situations are already too far gone.

Mikey, too, has just finished Phillips’s book; he said he found all the statistics overwhelming. But both of us hope that the book’s thesis – that a progressive, reformist trend in American politics is starting – is correct.

When Mikey first saw me, he was a bit stunned. He said I looked “a little under the weather,” but that was just because he wasn’t seeing me look so thin. As he said, I wasn’t this thin 21 years ago when we first met in freshman English class.

Even if see Mikey only once a year, it’s nice to stay in touch. He’s a good man, as honest and honorable as anybody my age.

Mom said that Marc flew to Boston yesterday and then hopped a little plane to Cape Cod, where he’s staying with friends in Yarmouth. He told Mom he was totally unprepared for the cool weather there.

Dad is in Bradenton tonight. Mom said he’ll be home tomorrow because he decided he didn’t want to chance driving Alligator Alley in darkness.

Saturday, August 25, 1990

8:30 PM. At this time yesterday I was fast asleep in Rockaway. I made good time via the IRT and Green bus yesterday and I was at Grandma Ethel’s apartment having lunch at 1:30 PM.

On the bus to Far Rock with the peninsula’s black and poor white residents, I wondered how Rockaway will change now that the city has approved a giant co-op complex for Arverne, where the bungalows we spent our summers in were razed over twenty years ago.

Rockaway could become more middle class, I guess, but I wonder if the developers will still want to build in this lousy economic climate.

I liked this quote from James Atlas’s The Book Wars: “For many writers and intellectuals, the Depression was a liberating time, a time of freedom,” I’d like to believe the new Depression will be the same way.

At the hospital, Grandma had diarrhea, and since she couldn’t get up, she had to rely on a bedpan; her sheets were soiled, and the nurse kept yelling at her every time Grandma called her. I noticed in the chart the nurse had written that Grandma was “demanding.” Luckily, that bitch was replaced at 3 PM by an angel who gave Grandma great care.

I sat with her for a couple of hours, talking and watching TV, and then I left around dinnertime, stopping at Key Food to get supplies. I made a great dinner out of a Weight Watchers pizza, broccoli and onions, with strawberries for dessert.

My sinuses must have made me drowsy all day because I got into bed – I slept on the sofa bed, as usual – and I fell asleep during Wall Street Week.

During the night I had vivid dreams: being robbed in an elevator; living in a dorm with other students at BCC-South/FIU (it’s been on my mind that the new school year has begun in Florida), and doing other good stuff.

I must have needed all that sleep, though as usual I got up during the night seven or eight times (after each dream) to go to the bathroom.

After working out to Body Electric at 8 AM, I had breakfast, listened to NPR, and got back into bed on what started out as another dark, dreary day.

It was nice being in the apartment in Rockaway by myself, sort of like a little vacation during which I could put my Manhattan self in perspective.

Mom phoned and told me to call this guy at Nova University, who wanted to know if I’d be interested if they had an opening in January.

Irene Krasner also called. When I told her about what happened to Grandma, Irene said she thought that Grandma shouldn’t live by herself any longer. Aunt Tillie, too, wondered if Grandma would be able to cope by herself, especially since she’s stopped Meals on Wheels.

Neither Irene nor Tillie is feeling well herself, and Lillian Goldberg, who also called, sounds even worse. She has a woman stay with her seven days a week, but I don’t know what the solution will be for Grandma.

I can stay with her when she gets out of the hospital, but I can’t be here past early October. Since my unemployment gets filed every other Sunday – like tomorrow – I figured that I would leave for Florida on a Monday after I file for benefits.

Now that Grandma is ill and in the hospital, I almost definitely will cancel my original flight, which is for September 10, two weeks from Monday. Now I see myself leaving either on September 24 or on October 8.

Of course, my plans may change, depending on when Grandma gets out of the hospital, when Sophie at FIU has computer workshops for me to teach in Miami, and when someone rents this apartment.

I think I’ll probably apply to take the LSAT at Brooklyn College on Saturday, October 6 – or, if I’m in Florida, I can get the test center changed to FIU or FAU. I still need to sit down with the LSAT booklet and the How to File for Bankruptcy book to plan those strategies.

I had intended only to apply to Yale; since New Haven is a liberal campus close to New York City, I thought I’d feel comfortable there. I need to do a lot more research, though, and consider regular three-year law school options. I’ll figure it out.

As for bankruptcy, I’m able to pay all my bills so far, and when I got back home to the Upper West Side today, I found a check for $941 from State Street Bank (the CD account minus my secured credit card debt) which will allow me, perhaps, to get through the next week.

Even so, I shouldn’t be bothered by creditors till October, so I’m safe in delaying my return to Florida.

The sun came out in late morning, when I did my shopping and banking, and it played hide-and-seek the rest of the day. The cool spell seems to be over.

Grandma complained of weakness when I spoke to her this afternoon but said her IV was out: she’d bled from her hand last night while Marty and Arlyne were visiting. The doctors told Grandma they might be moving her soon, presumably from the special care unit to a floor where she could get back on her feet.

Her heart seems to be getting stronger, the doctor said. I suspect that if she were a younger woman, they’d operate on her weakened heart or install a pacemaker.

It appears that they haven’t diagnosed any serious disease or problem, and I can’t help believing that Grandma’s body is just giving out on her. It’s awkward because Mom and Marty don’t speak, but they’ll have to decide soon on how Grandma should be cared for.

Perhaps Grandma’s doctor will place her in a convalescent home for a while, before she can return to the apartment. I wouldn’t mind being Grandma’s primary caregiver for a few weeks, but I need time for myself and to move on with my life.

Even the last couple of days in Rockaway were a bit enervating.

Late this afternoon I spent an hour and a half on the A train to Columbus Circle, where I got the IRT 1 train for four quick stops to 86th,  and it seemed as if I’d spent half my life on the subway by the time I got home, where I attended to my mail, newspapers, bankbooks, dinner, and Judy’s fish.

Sunday, August 26, 1990

8 PM. One way I know the summer’s ending is it’s totally dark at this hour. Next weekend is Labor Day weekend and September already.

Bernie seemed to fall in love with this apartment, and he may want to move in as soon as possible, so I need to begin preparing to vacate. I haven’t readied myself psychologically for leaving, but I might have to rent a car and move to Rockaway as early as next weekend.

Grandma didn’t sound good when I spoke to her today, and she probably won’t be going home before next weekend, if then.

Last evening and most of the day today, I’ve been working my way through newspapers, magazines and newsletters from Associated Writing Programs, MacDowell (Chris Barnes isn’t there anymore; Debra Allbery got some fellowship and will be teaching at Interlochen this year), and PEN.

The Persian Gulf tension seems to be receding as the Iraqis have backed down from confrontations and demands, and they may be willing to negotiate via the UN.

But if we can avoid war, it’s obvious that U.S. troops will be in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms for quite a while. How this will play out, I’m not sure, but I’m glad open hostilities now seem less likely.

I stayed in the air-conditioned bedroom nearly all day, and nobody telephoned.

Tuesday, August 28, 1990

11 PM.  So many days this summer have seemed like gifts to me. Not that life is so perfect; in fact, it’s the imperfection I most treasure.

I’d thought I would sleep really well last night, but for the third night in a row, I was up at 2 AM, unable to doze off again. I did get my five or six hours, though, and I seem to be functioning fine on that.

Jeanette was coming at 10 AM to clean, so I exercised, showered, had breakfast, and got together cartons of my stuff. After she arrived, I walked briskly to National Car Rental on 78th, got my Geo Prizm, which I parked in front of the building – I went over the 11 AM alternate side time, but only by a few a minutes – and loaded up in about six trips downstairs.

Via the West Side and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and Belt Parkway, I made fabulous time and was on Beach 116th Street by noon.

After I did some banking and got my Korean salad bar for lunch, I unloaded the car at Grandma Ethel’s, making another six trips to the tenth floor.

Most of my things I left in boxes, but I emptied the suitcase so I can get the last of my clothes when I leave this apartment for good.

I had a pleasant lunch – the air conditioner works better now that I’ve cleaned out the filter – and watched another Saddam Hussein and His “Guests” video. Though Iraq formally annexed Kuwait today, it also said it would release all women and children hostages.

Driving to Far Rock took half the time the Q22 bus usually does, and Grandma was sleeping when I arrived in her hospital room. Soon the nurse woke her up to take off the 24-hour heart monitor attached to her, and Grandma complained of weakness, dizziness, spinal pain and diarrhea.

All but the last was probably attributable to her lying in bed for so long. Yet Grandma told me she nearly fell when they had her sit up earlier. While she used the bedpan, I went downstairs and got her a bouquet at a vending machine.

Back upstairs with the flowers, I talked with her about the apartment and my plans to move to Rockaway. She looks okay, and I wonder if just being in the hospital has made her worse and reinforced her invalid mentality.

Leaving at 3:30 PM, I made good time through Queens – luckily the Mets game and the U.S. Open were still in progress – and across Harlem.

Back at Teresa’s, I spoke to Pete and Josh. I’m seeing Pete and Harold at 7 PM Friday in the West Village, and I may see Josh tomorrow.

Alice also called and said I could stay at her apartment if necessary. Mom didn’t sound too upset when I told her about FIU not hiring adjuncts for teacher education anymore, and I’m also getting used to the idea that my jobs teaching computer workshops in the Miami-Dade schools are history.

I drove to the East Side, to the Cosmetics Plus store where I knew Cousin Michael works and asked a young guy if he were Mike. He’s a handsome kid with his father’s dark looks but not the pudginess, and I can see he also resembles his mother and the rest of Aunt Sydelle’s family – and perhaps mine, on my father’s side.

He said his father and stepmother had dinner waiting for him at their apartment, but I offered to drive him there – on 15th and Park Avenue South – so we could talk a little more.

Like any 21-year-old, he’s a little hesitant in conversation with an older relative, but from what I could tell, I found him likable. Michael said he still doesn’t have a place to live but maybe he’ll call me later this week.

It had been a while since I’d driven around Manhattan at night, and I liked the feeling. Since I had 100 free miles and only 70 down, I figured I’d cruise around the West Village and Soho.

Driving around may have wasted gas – thus contributing in my small way to the continuing tensions in the Persian Gulf – but it brought back wonderful memories: Going to Sunday noon shows at movie theaters around Third Avenue and 60th Street. A Don McLean concert at Carnegie Hall on a snowy night with Avis (Sat Darshan). Ronna and I walking back to the car from the Whitney Museum. Lots more.

Damn, I thought, why haven’t I written a great memoir yet? I should. My life may not have been fascinating, but I could try to tell it fascinatingly, I bet.

Back home at 10 PM, I returned Elihu’s call and ended up gabbing with him for an hour.

Friday, August 31, 1990

11 AM. I’ve been lying in bed in this dark air-conditioned bedroom with WQXR playing classical music. This is my last day in this apartment, and everything finally hit me, and I feel massively depressed.

I don’t know where I’ll find the resources to get through the next year, which is going to be one of the most difficult of my life.

Ten years ago, August 1980 was a low point: in my little studio in Rockaway, I had no money, no job prospects, not great health, and Grandpa Herb was sick.

But at this point, at the end of August, I was already over the worst of it, and in September I threw myself into adjunct work. When the despair of October came on – triggered by Taplinger’s not doing a paperback version of Hitler – I made the decision to move to Florida, and eventually I brought myself out of that very bad time.

Obviously the other periods of my semi-adult life when I was very low were in 1968, when I was just too sick with agoraphobia to face attending college, and in 1971, when the breakup of my first romance shattered me.

There were other minor but serious depressions in 1974 and 1984, but somehow, on all of these occasions, I managed to heal myself and to put my life back together. The metaphor of a breakdown or a breakup seems apt.

Look what I’m facing: I have no home except by grace of my parents. Not only do I have no money, but I owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have no job and no income, and my ludicrous career as a writer hasn’t gone anywhere.

I feel bereft. Yes, of course, these things are all consequences of decisions I made and actions I took, and I don’t intend to berate myself or say that life is unfair. Nobody told me to do the credit card schemes or to live the way I did for the past ten years.

Like the nation as a whole, I’m facing my day of reckoning, and if you want another cliché, I’m reaping only what I’ve sown (whatever reaping and sowing are).

It’s that last parenthetical remark that gives me hope, because even in the most profound despair, I’ve been able to reach back and look at things with squinted eyes and eke out a smile.

I wish I could transport myself a year ahead in time and know that I’m going to survive this and become a stronger person. (Brad endlessly quoted Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”)

Bernie came over last night and we did the key/check exchange. He seemed to luxuriate in the feeling that the apartment was about to be his.

Yes, I feel a sense of loss, and it occurs to me that all my previous personal crises (and, in a way, most of my best fiction) have involved loss: of childhood, of relationships, deaths, loss of dreams or security.

Now I’ve got to lose all my credit cards and the security they represented. In a way, I’m glad the FIU Teacher Education Center jobs ended because it’s better to have everything dumped on me at once.

I want to immerse myself in the destructive elements, to take on every loss and deal with it. And, yes, more losses are coming, and before this year is over, I’m going to feel as if I’ve been hit by a sledgehammer.

I’m tired now: for five or six straight nights I’ve been averaging six hours of sleep, and I’m sure tonight will be no better.

Perhaps tomorrow night, when I’m at Grandma’s again, I’ll sleep for another dozen hours as I did last Friday night. I’ve really got to watch myself and guard my health and avoid self-destructive behavior.

Last night I filled out the LSAT and LSDAS forms, and this morning I took eleven credit cards to ATMs and managed to get enough cash – barely – to cover the application fees.

At least if I apply to law school, I have something providing me some hope for next year, some sense I can come out of this mess.

Grandma may be coming home this weekend, though I hope I can get to Rockaway before she does and put all my stuff away so it doesn’t trouble her.

Tonight I meet Pete and Harold in the Village for dinner, and tomorrow I get up early to help Bernie move in here and help myself move out of here.

I’m scared I don’t have the stuff to endure what’s ahead.