A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, September 1, 1990

9 PM. Luckily, I didn’t have much time for ruminating in a dark bedroom yesterday. I had chores to do: I did a wash so I could give Bernie fresh linens (I slept on top of the quilt last night), and I put away what I could.

By 4:30 PM, I’d done just about all that needed to be done, and I went out for a last walk in the neighborhood.

Then I read USA Today at a bench by Riverside Drive, and I realized that whatever my financial status or career status, nobody can take away from me the enjoyment of sunshine and good weather.

Yesterday morning, when I completed my diary entry, I looked back to the last day of each of 1990’s preceding months, and I saw how I was in New Orleans on January 31, how I moved out of my apartment in Davie on April 30 (I moved in there one year ago today), and how I left Grandma’s for Manhattan a month later.

I met Pete and Harold at the little restaurant Soup’s On on West 10th Street in the Village (where West 10th Street is perpendicular to West 4th). Both of them told me I’m getting too thin.

Harold was impressed by his trip to Ithaca; he’s still searching for a new place to move to, and he’d asked Pete to take photos of Portland, which looks like a great city.

Pete liked Portland, but he spent more time in San Francisco, where he shared meals with Paul Fericano, Don Skiles and other writers. He said his entire Amtrak trip was fun.

Later, we went for espresso at the Peacock Caffe on Greenwich Avenue – Pete knows all the best places – where we continued our lively conversation.

In a couple of weeks, Harold returns to teaching at John Jay. The English Department there couldn’t find a black Ph.D. to be a full-time professor, so they hired Harold’s officemate P.J., who has only an M.A.

P.J. is a nice lady and a good teacher, and I’m sure she’ll be better than any Ph.D. from the outside.

Harold suggested that if I need a job, I could again teach at John Jay, but I told him I intended to return to Florida soon.

Neither Pete nor Harold expressed shock at my taking the LSAT, and both said there’s no reason for me to go through an emotional depression to grow and change. Sometimes Pete is so sensible, I marvel at his equanimity.

It was such a pleasant evening; once again, it was good to be out at night in Manhattan.

Home at 10:30 PM via the subway, I fell asleep an hour later and slept well, waking up at 7 AM to have breakfast, exercise, and read the Times, which I got at a vending machine because I canceled the subscription.

By the time Bernie came over with his rented van at 11 AM, I was all packed, and the apartment was ready for him to move into. He had plenty of stuff, but it didn’t take us more than half an hour to get it upstairs and I think we didn’t attract attention.

I said goodbye to the mailman and to Oscar’s wife – they think I’ll be back, but of course I won’t – though if Teresa keeps the apartment, I guess anything’s possible.

Bernie really is a kid: he’s got posters of marijuana plants and the Mets and kept sounding like such an inexperienced eager beaver. Well, he’s young, and I was probably even less mature at his age.

However, now I see the experience of moving so many times has really made a difference in my life: I’ve learned to deal with practical situations that paralyzed me with fear back when I was 25.

I got car service to Rockaway, which I paid for with my Diners Club card, as I did for last night’s dinner. The driver was a 30-year-old Vietnamese man who says he’s been in this country only nine months.

He spoke English very haltingly, and I wasn’t always able to get what he was saying, but he told an interesting story about “the American” who brought him over.

It was unclear who this guy was, but this driver soon left his American sponsor’s house and has been living on his own in Queens. He said he avoids the Vietnamese Mafia on Canal Street and has a Korean girlfriend who was born here and has “real parents.”

He works seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, and wants to bring his parents over.

This guy had made enough washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and doing other jobs to buy his Cadillac, and he was a sharp dresser – although his style was a sharkskin suit.

When I got here – the driver remembered the way from an earlier trip to Rockaway – I wished him good luck and thought: If this guy can come here, knowing nobody, without family or money or skills, without knowing how to drive or speak English or deal with American ways, and end up taking care of himself, I should be ashamed to imagine that I can’t take care of myself.

Yesterday at least a dozen beggars thrust cups in my face, and then I thought: At least I’ll never be like these people, though my heart breaks for them and I can understand how they feel.

I had a bite to eat and then took the bus to the hospital. The nurse was helping Grandma Ethel to the bathroom when I arrived.

Her new roommate, Jean, told me the doctors want Grandma to sit up and walk, so I took her for two strolls around the ward, where half the patients are “living” hooked up to respirators. It takes a lot to ruffle me, but seeing these people – if they were people – was scary.

Because Grandma’s legs were dry, I put skin lotion on them and on her feet and tried a little massage; they say touching helps. A doctor came in, and Grandma complained to him about pain in her lower spine.

She’s got some degeneration (arthritis) there, he told her, and he advised her to drink more water because she’s a bit dehydrated. Grandma has been avoiding water because she hates using the bedpan or having to summon a nurse to help her to the bathroom.

Several nice people, patients and nurses alike, came by, and I stayed until 5 PM. After waiting half an hour for the bus, I finally took one of those vans: it’s cheaper than the bus (only a dollar), faster, and it puts money back into the local black community.

After shopping at Key Food, I microwaved a Healthy Choice dinner and then spent a couple of hours putting my stuff away. I’m very tired now, but at least I accomplished a great deal. And I have confidence I can survive.

Sunday, September 2, 1990

9 PM. I’ve just been trying to make progress through the Sunday Times (luckily there’s no Wall Street Journal or USA Today tomorrow) and watching sitcoms on Fox.

Last night I went to sleep early and made up for the bad nights when I barely slept over the past week, though I did keep dreaming about those four credit card bills due Tuesday.

In addition to the student loans, I’m going to have to miss payments on these because I have no way to get the cash that will keep the checks from bouncing.

Obviously, I’m a conscientious debtor, and it hurts that I’ll have to declare bankruptcy. Actually, the painful part is what will be the consequences of missed payments. I’ll need to pay off the checks I’ve already written for the minimum payments, and there’s no way I can get that money.

So here I start on the road to debtor hell. Well, I’ll apply triage and pay the most strategic bills first, whenever I can, and hope that I get back to Florida before my parents are besieged by dunning phone calls.

This is not going to be pleasant, so I should enjoy the peace here in Rockaway while I can. I used the videocassette player to exercise to a tape so I didn’t have to start at 8 AM with broadcast TV.

This morning I listened to the radio, had whole wheat cereal and cocoa for breakfast, and walked over to Beach 116th Street for the paper – although on weekdays the Times should be available from the vending machines outside here on Shore Front Parkway.

Back in the apartment, I straightened out the stuff I brought here from Teresa’s, putting away what I could, hiding boxes of my things under tables and stuffing drawers and closets with my clothes.

I plan to pare down my possessions: not only do I have way too many shirts and old socks and briefs, but I also need to get rid of books and other unnecessary items. You’d think I’d have learned to travel lighter after all my moves.

I put up the new shower curtains Mom bought when she was here, and by the time I was finished with all the work, I was very tired and also emotionally drained. Nevertheless, I visited Grandma for two hours this afternoon.

She complained about her back again and kept wanting to get out of bed and then get back into bed. Really, she can be trying. Is it all old people who are so stubborn and obstinate?

I spoke with Aunt Tillie earlier, and she, like Grandma, kept focusing on little irrelevancies that obsessed her. Again, is that typical elderly behavior? Is it just a manifestation of some old people’s feelings of powerlessness that comes from lack of knowledge?

They’re so intimidated by authority and hung up on details. Mom isn’t old or submissive to authority, but already there’s no logistical problem that is so small that she can’t make it seem an insurmountable obstacle.

Perhaps that was always a trait of Mom’s, part of her perfectionism, and it accounts for the view of life I got as a kid: that life was a constant struggle, that everything was difficult.

One thing that so far has been too difficult to accomplish is hooking up my answering machine. Because Grandma’s phones are so old, they were made before the age of modular parts.

Well, I guess I can live without an answering machine – the way I did in 1985, say.

I’m still digesting the changes of the last week. It’s hard – I mean difficult – to start making plans for the future. Maybe I can relax a bit tomorrow. I’ll visit the hospital again.

I notice that Marty and Arlyne didn’t let Grandma’s hospitalization stop them from going away for the weekend.

Monday, September 3, 1990

8 PM. I was just on the boardwalk, watching night fall and Labor Day end.

So the summer of ’90 is over. God, it’s beautiful out here, and I’m glad I didn’t let the weekend go by without my spending some time remembering how the beach, the ocean and the sky look.

Last night I slept well, and after breakfast, I dozed off again, obviously needing more rest. I did feel rested today.

Using the dollar vans – on which I’m invariably the only white passenger – I got to and from the hospital, arriving at noon, just at the start of visiting hours.

Grandma was seated in a chair, and her lunch came right away. Well, actually, the kosher meal of the woman in the next room came, and I had to get Grandma’s lunch from the cafeteria.

I did speak with her doctor, who, once I asked about “cerebellar degeneration,” asked if I were a physician. (No, but I know they treat you more seriously if you use their jargon.)

No, the doctor said, answering my question: the CAT scan showed that her brain is fine and her heart is holding up. When old people fall, he said, it’s often difficult to pinpoint a cause.

He told me Grandma will probably be released soon, but the hospital’s social worker needs to see her and get her some kind help with cooking, cleaning, bathing, etc. I gave him Jane Sanders’s phone number so the two social workers can talk.

Because Grandma has only Medicare and not Medicaid, I don’t know how this help will get paid for. I tried to call Marty, figuring I would only have to leave a message, but his line was busy, so I assume he didn’t really go away for the weekend after all.

I stayed with Grandma for ninety minutes and walked her around and took her to the bathroom.

Wednesday, September 5, 1990

5 PM. This morning I left the house at 8 AM, taking the Q22 bus to Far Rockaway and then walking to the LIRR, which got me into Jamaica at 10 AM.

I wasted half an hour at the Unemployment office before I was told to return tomorrow afternoon because they didn’t see cases like mine on Wednesday.

Having just missed the hourly train back to Far Rock, I took the J train, a line I’d never been on before (it runs on the el over Jamaica Avenue) to Broadway Junction, where I got the A and C trains back to Beach 116th Street.

Yesterday I miscalculated (by $500) the money I had in my Chase account and sent out too many credit card bill payments. Checks are going to start bouncing all over the place.

I’ve got to realize this must end. I can’t go on fooling myself: my credit card chassis is over. I have less than ten dollars in my pocket, and yes, I keep getting reminded of the summer and fall of 1980, when I was in Rockaway, broke, carless (my car kept dying), jobless (and being denied unemployment benefits in Jamaica), getting on food stamps, dealing with Grandpa Herb’s being in the hospital with terminal cancer.

I felt overwhelmed then, and I felt overwhelmed today when I got back to the apartment at 12:30 PM.

But I put on a Body Electric tape and felt better after a half-hour workout; then my Korean salad bar and light lunch pepped me up.

California Federal canceled my checking account because I had a small negative balance all summer, and I had to throw out numerous checkbooks.

Then it hit me: I should start canceling my credit cards by cutting them up and sending them back to the banks.

That will ensure I don’t keep on the cash advance merry-go-round; remember, I can’t get cash advances just before I declare bankruptcy. And cutting up the cards will give me some feeling of control.

Control: that’s what Dr. Pasquale and I used to focus on when I was in therapy a decade ago.

Losing control of situations contributes to my feeling like a victim. Then everything that happens seems part of a conspiracy to defeat me

Although I was tired after spending 3½ hours on public transportation, I went to the hospital to visit Grandma Ethel. She looked better and was walking more, though she’s so forgetful, it’s hard to believe she’s not getting senile.

Marty phoned, and after she hung up with him, Grandma said Marty told her she probably needs to go into a convalescent home after they release her so she can get therapy.

They’re going to spend down her money so she can get on Medicaid. Actually, it will be nicer for me if Grandma doesn’t come home right away and I can stay here by myself a bit longer. Is that selfish?

Earlier, I was thinking I couldn’t bear staying here till October 8, and I may not, but I feel a little bit better about things now. After all, my creditors all think I’m in Florida (or Manhattan).

Next Monday I’ll rent a car so I’ll be more mobile. September may be a tough month, but I’m not a pantywaist – am I?

Thursday, September 6, 1990

9 PM. This has been a stressful week, but I’ve been trying to eat sensibly and live healthily by getting enough sleep and exercise.

Last night Elihu phoned and we made plans to me to come to the Heights next Wednesday. Also, I reserved a rental car at the airport for Monday.

Up at 6 AM, I did my usual morning stuff and went out at 10:30 AM to buy some groceries, use the touch-tone pay phone to check on my bank accounts, deposit some cash advances into my Chase account, to buy a salad at the Koreans’, and to get the paper.

I left here at 11:50 AM, taking a dollar van to Far Rockaway and catching the 12:31 PM LIRR train to Jamaica, where I waited 40 minutes at Unemployment and then got my employment search review taken care of without being interviewed.

I had 45 minutes till the next LIRR train back, so I read the paper, as I couldn’t figure out how to get home via a combination of buses.

Once I was in Far Rock again, it seemed silly not to see Grandma Ethel, so I went to the hospital for half an hour. She’s walking better now and could get out of bed, go to the bathroom and return to bed by herself.

Social workers had been around seeing Grandma earlier in the day, and the best thing they can do for her now is to get someone to come here for three hours a day when Grandma gets back. That’s not enough.

I’d rather Grandma go to a place where she can recuperate with good care, although I can understand her desire to come home. However, I can’t be a full-time caregiver. It will take too much out of me, and I’m not willing to give up my whole life.

As it is, I’ve visited Grandma five of the last six days, and I do feel the strain. Every afternoon I’ve been here in Rockaway, I’ve gotten excruciating gas pains that hurt my stomach terribly, and I’m certain they’re stress-related.

Yes, it’s true that in these six days I’ve learned a lot more about Rockaway: now I really know my way around, from here to Far Rock, and I’ve talked with some interesting people, like Grandma’s friends who call and the patients at the hospital. (Grandma’s new roommate is an old lady from Kiev who speaks only Russian and a little Yiddish, and she’s a pain.)

It’s a different kind of life than I’ve ever had, and I miss my friends and people my own age. I seem to get tired so easily now.

The check from my American National Bank of New York account arrived, and that $1300-plus may keep checks from bouncing. Luckily, it’s drawn on Chase itself, so it should clear by Monday if I deposit it tomorrow.

Yesterday I did cut up five credit cards and send them back to various banks. I’ll continue to do that as I wean myself off the credit chassis. Cutting the cards proved easier than I‘d expected; by now, I’m weary from all the time and energy the scheme requires.

Mom says she sent me a small check for expenses. She also told me that Grandma isn’t my responsibility, so if I want, I can come back to Florida anytime.

The gay rights referendum in Broward died, of course, but at least it got 48% of the vote. And I’m glad Lawton Chiles won the Democratic primary for governor, though he’ll have a hard time with Martinez, even if the latter is such a bad governor.

The Republicans are reaping the benefits of vast public support for the troops in Saudi Arabia and Bush’s decisive military action. For the moment, the economy, the S&L fiasco, abortion, and all the Democratic issues are on the back burner.

But if we’re still in a standoff two months from now, the Persian Gulf may no longer be an asset to Bush.

I think I’m coming around to feeling Operation Desert Shield was a mistake. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant, but the oil sheiks aren’t much better. Yes, Iraq has brutalized Kuwait, but Arab borders are pretty artificial.

On the whole, Americans are ignorant about Arabs and Islam, and I wish we’d learn more about other cultures before running amuck in them.

Tuesday, September 11, 1990

3 PM. President Bush will be on TV in an hour, speaking to Congress about the Gulf crisis, his summit with Gorbachev in Helsinki on Sunday, and maybe the federal budget.

Last night I fell asleep early and woke up at 6 AM feeling refreshed. By 10:30 AM, I’d done aerobics, read the Times, had breakfast, reserved a car at Budget for next week (at half the price I’m paying now; I made a grave error in not checking prices when I phoned National), wrote another workshop description for the Long Beach conference for Alice, and cleaned up myself and the kitchen.

Outside, I used the phone to check my balances; it looks as though, miraculously, my credit card chassis is keeping me afloat this month. But I sent back six more credit cards cut in half, canceling the accounts.

At least that’s the concrete step I’m taking to ensure an end to this scheme. (Tonight on the news was a prediction that many big banks could fail next year, causing the FDIC fund to need the same kind of bailout as the S&L deposit insurance fund.)

At Beach 116th Street, I made a deposit on newly-gotten cash advances, and I used the library. I was actually in three libraries today: Seaside, Peninsula, and Paerdegat back in Brooklyn.

I see Yale Law School offers an M.S.L. degree, a Masters in the Study of Law for non-lawyers who want to learn how law relates to their fields. Maybe I should learn more about that before I apply to law school itself.

After lunch, around 1 PM, I visited Grandma Ethel in her new room. The social worker seemed to have convinced her to go to a convalescent home, but tonight when I called Grandma, she was unsure what she would do.

The doctor told her she can be released at any time, and later Aunt Tillie called me to pick up a registered letter informing Grandma that Medicare wouldn’t pay for her hospital stay beyond Sunday since her doctor thought she was well enough to be released to an HRF (health-related facility).

On the other hand, the social worker said she could get Grandma home care for the entire day. I told Grandma to do whatever she thought best, even though selfishly, I would prefer that she not return here. But it’s her decision.

If she does come home, I’ll probably leave next week. In any case, the uncertainty that’s been causing me stress will be decided soon, and meanwhile I have no control over the situation.

Today was a warm, sunny, gorgeous day here at the beach. They were mowing the lawns here, and the cut grass smelled fresh and new.

At 3 PM, I drove into Brooklyn, past Kings Plaza, where a sign said tomorrow was the shopping mall’s twentieth anniversary.

I still remember that day in 1970 when the mall opened, with Dad and Marty’s Pants Set store in it; I went there with my family and Scott, and later that day Scott and I went to the Club Fair at Brooklyn College, just before the fall semester began.

Parking near Brooklyn College, I walked around the campus. Except for the new construction and a more varied student population, I felt I could have been back in my undergraduate days.

At Boylan Hall, I stopped to get Kingsman and transcript request forms and to drop in on the brand-new basement dining facilities (a lot better than in the old days), and to look at the English Department bulletin boards on the second floor.

I saw Steve Jervis, who was chairman and who observed me when I taught at BC ten years ago.

I guess I feel strange because it’s fall and I’m not teaching or going to school the way I have been, not only in 1970 and 1980 but in nearly every year of my life. (The exceptions were in 1968, my agoraphobic year, and 1987, when I was at MacDowell.)

It felt good to be back in Brooklyn in September, almost like when I lived in Park Slope five years ago. While I’ll be sorry to leave New York, perhaps I shouldn’t drag out this great four-month interlude.