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

by Richard Grayson

Wednesday, September 12, 1990

1 PM. I’ve been lying in a dark room, so depressed that I’m attempting to will myself to get so heavy that I’ll fall through the mattress down ten flights and into God knows where.

What set me off was talking to Grandma Ethel, who said she’s coming home today or tomorrow. She’ll have household help twelve hours a day, but not for the first few days, so she asked me not to make any plans.

That means I’ll have to stay with her all the time before the help comes, and then I’ll have no privacy. If I’d left on Monday, the date of my original flight, I could have avoided this.

But I want to continue to deny what’s facing me in Florida: bankruptcy, joblessness, homelessness, despair. Okay, I’m laying it on thick.

The other thing that set me off was a boiler breakdown or some problem that resulted not just in no hot water, but in no water of any kind.

I couldn’t wash or shower (and I sweated like a pig exercising), couldn’t flush the toilet, couldn’t put on my contacts. That loss of control overwhelms me because it appears my whole life is similarly out of control.

I’m aware that little has changed since yesterday and last week, and that depression – like the kind Grandma suffers from – causes me to see the world in a skewed way.

I tried to cure the feeling with some form of action, making up five boxes of stuff to mail or ship back to Florida.

But right now I feel the way I did when I lived in Rockaway ten years ago: like nothing I can do will make a difference.

I’m scared and I’m angry, mostly at myself. Maybe I need some short-term therapy when I get back to Florida. I feel guilt about my credit card chassis and I guess I feel I deserve to be punished and don’t want to get off easily.

The whole thing became an addiction, and like all addicts, I was under the illusion I could control it. It’s true it was easy – relatively – for me to cut up a dozen or so credit cards in the last week, but it can only get tougher because so much of my identity in the past few years came from what I was doing with money.

Also, though I denied it here too, a lot of me was invested in Teresa’s apartment on West 85th Street and in my job doing computer education workshops at FIU, and I lost both of these elements in my life just in the past month.

Try to remember a September that was more difficult. Well, 1968, when I felt I couldn’t start Brooklyn College, when my panic attacks crippled me, when at 17 I felt I had no place to go and so I just stayed in my room.

Pete says depression is always to be avoided, that people don’t need depression or pain to grow. But maybe Pete, as kind and jovial and good-natured as he is, tries to avoid these deep feelings.

Who wouldn’t want to avoid them? In the Sun-Sentinel interview, I told Chauncey Mabe that I’d choose happiness over a writing career, that even if despair led me to a masterpiece, I’d avoid it like the plague (cliché).

Screw it. I’m not being rational, but I’m sick of rationality. Of my nationality. Of myself. Thank God nobody but me reads – or writes – this. Hey, that’s a good line, says my doppelgänger. (I don’t know where the umlaut goes.)

Maybe this is what I need.

Tom sent me a form letter addressed to all the contributors to the Walser issue. How can I tell him I couldn’t come up with anything? Why did I agree to write something in the first place?

Walser probably wouldn’t have been able to write anything about Walser, either. (Hey, says my other self, not a bad line, either.)

I’ll feel better tomorrow. Or worse. Or the same. I need a good long walk in the snow and to end up the way R.W. did: frozen, clutching my heart.

Thursday, September 13, 1990

9 PM. Yesterday’s inertia was short-lived. At 2 PM, some erratic brown-tinged water came on, and I showered, dressed, and went to the hospital, where I stayed half an hour with Grandma Ethel.

Then, back here, I sat out on the terrace and read newspapers, had some Healthy Choice chicken fajitas, and got a call from MacDowell.

I’d forgotten I was still on their waiting list, and they said they had space for me from September 24 to October 12. I had to make a snap decision, and my gut instinct was no. While I’ve got these money problems, I can’t go to an artists’ colony (which reminds me to call Yaddo and cancel).

I spoke to Mom, who said I’d “made a terrible mistake” in staying in New York City. Now, I don’t like to think I’m the kind of person who makes terrible mistakes but I didn’t contradict Mom.

Instead, I asked her and Dad to be patient with me as I live with them while straightening out my finances and career plans. I cut up another half-dozen cards and sent them back, as I’m forced to stop paying bills.

Actually, if I hadn’t begun cutting up cards, I could keep the chassis going, but enough is enough.

I drove to Brooklyn Heights, getting there after 6 PM, when it became legal to park on Hicks Street. Because it had been so long since I explored the Heights, I walked around a lot, saying hi to Pam at her chicken store on Henry Street and sitting on the Promenade for a long time, thinking.

At 7:30 PM I went to the St. George Tower, where the doorman told me to go to Elihu’s 16th-floor apartment. Elihu has a mustache and looks a lot older than I, but he’s still very thin.

His cat is diabetic (when I first saw the insulin, I assumed it was for Elihu), but Nicky is still getting around at age 15. I got the grand tour of Elihu’s apartment, which he takes great pride in – and should, for it’s quite an elegant space and very neat.

We talked for an hour before we went out to a Henry Street Chinese restaurant, then took a long walk – up the Promenade to Montague Street, where some of the stores I remember from the old days are still around – and headed back to Elihu’s. I left his apartment at 10:45 PM. It was a fine evening.

Elihu hates his job, which is a comedown, both in income and style, from his decade at Goldman Sachs, where he worked around the clock but received a great salary and some spectacular bonuses.

His identity was really tied up with the firm, and although his being laid off didn’t come as a surprise, he seems only now to have recovered from the shock of leaving Goldman Sachs.

Elihu’s best friend died of AIDS in San Francisco this summer, and he no longer has a sex life. As a participant in that landmark study on preventing hepatitis by vaccine, Elihu has blood samples going back to the 1970s, and while he once had a false HIV-positive report, he’s healthy and intends to stay that way.

Elihu gave me regards from his brother and father, who’s still at Long Island University. He also gave me a list of names and addresses for that reunion: everyone from Leon to Shelli to Stanley.

We even ended up getting out Epilog ’68, our Midwood High School yearbook, wondering what happened to various classmates. Elihu had to get up early for work, so I left at his first yawn, but it was good to see him after so many years.

I was also grateful for the chance to remember how much I’ve loved the streets and brownstones of Brooklyn Heights’ streets since that time in 1969 when I first explored the neighborhood.

It would be nice to live there.

Following a New York Times truck down Flatbush Avenue, I got the next day’s paper (today’s) at the newsstand at Grand Army Plaza and made it back to Rockaway in half an hour.

Today I woke up at 9 AM, and when I called Grandma Ethel, she said Marty had told her she’d be staying in the hospital over the weekend until they could get help for her. That was a relief to me, because it gives me four days here on my own.

Justin called, finally reaching me. His life and Larry’s are still unsettled, but they’ve been looking at options, including grad school. I hope to see Justin before I leave, which will probably be Monday, September 24, two weeks later than my original flight but two weeks before my present one.

I should know by early next week. After visiting Grandma briefly, I took a drive to the Green Acres Mall, where, for a change of scene, I window-shopped for a while. On the way home, I got TCBY in Howard Beach.

Back in Rockaway, I sat on the terrace and read as I listened to the Senate’s Souter confirmation hearings.

The New Hampshire judge will probably overturn Roe v. Wade (and that might be a good thing, stirring up liberal activism), but I like him anyway; he seems like a scholarly hermit bachelor.

After dinner I did the laundry and put Grandma’s tattered sheets back on her bed. Everything here is so old.

Friday, September 14, 1990

9 PM. This morning I wanted to go to the free Law School Forum at the Vista Hotel, so at 11:30 AM, after I returned from the post office on Beach Channel Drive, I drove via the Belt to the World Trade Center parking lot.

The hotel ballroom was filled with prospective law students of every conceivable type, though most of them were younger than I. Passing up most booths, I went to Yale, where I inquired about the M.S.L. program.

It’s very small, six or seven students selected out of an applicant pool of about 40, mostly journalists. Stanford also has an M.S.L. program which, like Yale’s, basically parallels the first year of law school. I don’t need the LSAT for admission to an M.S.L. program.

I don’t really know if I really want to devote three years to becoming a lawyer. However, I’d like to take the LSAT and apply, just to see how I’d do; also, I could use the score to apply sometime in the future.

I need to look into all kinds of graduate programs and probably I’ll take the GRE, too. (My original test is too old for the scores to count.)

Back in Brooklyn, I spent a couple of hours at the main library at Grand Army Plaza, where I looked for writers who’d done articles or reviews on metafiction: people to whom I can send the chapbooks. Before returning to Rockaway, I stopped off in the old neighborhood and got my Triavil at Deutsch Pharmacy.

Although I’d intended to skip the hospital today, I ended up dropping in on Grandma Ethel in her new room for fifteen minutes.

She’d been dizzy and headachy in the morning, but she seemed better and was finishing nearly all of her dinner even though she said it had no taste. (She’s on a salt-restricted diet.)

Back at her apartment around 5:30 PM, I sat on the terrace and read the papers until dinnertime. I’ve been very hungry the past couple of days, and I’ve been eating more; however, I still watch myself very carefully and estimate calories and fat grams as I write down every item I eat and continue to rely on food exchanges.

I’ve been living in Rockaway for two weeks although it seems longer.

Saturday, September 15, 1990

9 PM. I spent most of the day in Brooklyn, reminding myself of brilliant Saturdays in September back when I lived there. Justin told me I knew so many great stories about the borough and growing up there in a time very different than now. He said I should write a book about it, and I probably will.

This morning, after some errands in Rockaway – at the bank, the post office, the gas station, the newsstand – I drove to my old neighborhood and sent out a carton of chapbooks via UPS at the Mail Boxes Etc. store.

Then, on the same block of Flatbush Avenue, at Astra Office Supply, I bought my 1991 diary, which will be my 23rd volume.

After lunch and a phone call to Grandma, who was expecting a visit from Marty, I went back to Brooklyn. First I went downtown, but the Business Library on Cadman Plaza was closed, so instead I went to the main library at Grand Army Plaza, where I worked for an hour, reading and doing research.

Then, at 4 PM, I went to visit Justin. He said that Larry, who is hoping to get a permanent job at the Metropolitan Museum, went to Reading for the weekend. When Justin came downstairs to let me in, he picked up his mail, which included a Brooklyn College graduate bulletin.

Justin has been thinking of going to grad school, for an MFA in Theater – I told him not to apply for Jack Gelber’s playwriting MFA – while Larry’s been considering a master’s in Art, looking into Brooklyn and Hunter.

Justin and I had a long talk about our career and life goals. This morning he had lunch with Ali, who did get adjunct work teaching oral interpretation at the College of Staten Island, but who also went to yesterday’s Law School Forum.

Ali said she was tired of trying to make it, and Justin said he felt the same way. He is frustrated that the theater company is broke and will have to scale back to minimum activities: “We couldn’t have picked a worse time, in terms of the economy and the government climate, to start a theater company.”

Justin expressed regret that he hadn’t made a killing in the ’80s, like those people who’d sold away rights to the tiny apartments they lived in or those who, like Elihu, got incredible year-end bonuses. “Now it’s too late,” Justin said, but I pointed out that like me – and unlike most people – Justin had done exactly what he wanted to do and had managed to live comfortably.

He had to agree and said he did enjoy his life. Basically he feels the way I did when I told Mom that I’m tired of paying my dues after 16 years.

Justin wondered why so many bright, competent, talented people in the arts whom he knew never really made it. Although they always seemed on the verge of success, their disparate little triumphs never added up to a breakthrough.

I could only quote Ecclesiastes, not just “the race is not to the swift” (adding Groucho Marx’s “but that’s the way to bet”) but also “time and circumstance happen to all men.”

We went out for dinner. I wanted to show Justin the Floridian Diner, where I’d spent my formative years, but unfortunately the food and service were crummy this evening.

But we had a good time, and before I dropped him off back in Park Slope, we drove past Brooklyn College. Justin thinks it’ll be hard for him to adjust to being a student again.

We talked about the terrible economy and the continuing crisis in the Gulf and noticed a block in Park Slope sporting yellow ribbons tied around every tree; people there must know a hostage.

Tomorrow I’m going to Alice’s at 1 PM and we’ll go to New York Is Book Country on Fifth Avenue. I intend to bring my books to give away; I still have a carton of the chapbooks here. I wish I could sell them, but I’d rather place them with people than let them rot.

Tuesday, September 18, 1990

5 PM. I’ve just driven back from Far Rockaway, where I saw Grandma Ethel, who fell while walking to the bathroom last night. Luckily, she didn’t hurt herself, but there’s no telling when she’s going to come home.

Marty and Arlyne were there last night, and all Grandma said was how lousy Marty looked, that his business was so bad he’ll probably have to “give it up” (go bankrupt?).

Well, right now the lead story on NPR’s All Things Considered is the recognition that a recession is finally here. Today’s gloomy economic statistics included a huge jump in consumer prices.

Anyway, I told Grandma – when I could get a word in edgewise, as her roommate kept jabbering constantly – that I’d probably go to the airport tomorrow and change my ticket for a flight on Monday.

Riding home, I kept thinking how bored and unproductive I feel, how tired I am of New York City – and today’s record 42° morning cold made me even more ready to move to Florida – and how much I feel I’ve put my life on hold here.

My seeing Grandma every day in the hospital isn’t doing her any good, and it’s doing me harm.

When I got back here, I saw a notice in the elevator: “Due to a major water main break, there is no water.”

That did it. A week from now I plan to be in Florida. The hand holding this pen is all dry and chapped from the cold. I feel old here.

This evening I’m going to call Delta and change my flight if I can. Maybe I’ll go out to the movies since I can’t wash or use the bathroom here. Fuck it.

At least I did get eight hours of sleep last night. And this morning I got a few things cleared up.

I wrote Tom a letter explaining why I couldn’t get it together to write a critical essay on Walser, and I wrote Myra Sklarew at Yaddo, telling her I couldn’t come for the residency.

That settled, I called Sat Darshan at the bank and we arranged to have dinner on Thursday evening; I’ll come to her new place on Atlantic Avenue. I plan to call Ronna and arrange to see her before I leave, and to call Teresa and Josh and Pete to say goodbye.

Once I get to Florida, I can begin thinking about what to do next. I may have no job, but I’ll have the familiar security of my parents’ new house and a bedroom to myself. At least I won’t have to worry about eating or having a roof over my head.

In January 1981, the last time I sought refuge at my parents’, I felt protected and renewed. Maybe something like that will happen again.

I realize I’ll have to deal with my family’s craziness and their moods, but it’s a tradeoff, and it’s temporary.

Mom called last night, though we talked only briefly because she was tired after working the Miami menswear show all day. Dad was unable to do much business because his customers worry about buying goods for spring with the economy so uncertain.

Right now I need to avoid sinking into depression the way I did last Wednesday, when the water also went off.

While the water main break may have nothing to do with my life, it serves as a non-literary objective correlative, highlighting my helplessness and powerlessness.

The antidote is taking some kind of action: getting out of here for a while.

Wednesday, September 19, 1990

9 PM. The Jewish new year of 5751 began at sundown. It’s raining hard now, but tomorrow it’s supposed to clear up and get warmer.

Getting out last evening was the best thing I could have done. I went first to the airport, where at least I could find a toilet that flushed. After walking around the Delta/Pan Am terminal for a while, I got my ticket changed to a flight next Monday at 8:30 AM.

Then I took the Belt into Brooklyn, to the movies at Kings Plaza. (I never figured how they turned two theaters into four.)

I saw Postcards from the Edge, based on Carrie Fisher’s novel, directed by Mike Nichols.

Although the film didn’t have much substance, I liked it. Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine gave great performances as the movie actress daughter and mother.

The film let out at 9:30 PM, and as I walked through the upper mall to the parking lot, store after store cut their lights and closed their gates: it seemed like a scene in a movie.

But even more surreal was seeing these movie trucks – familiar to me from all the Upper West Side location shoots – when I passed our old block at Avenue O and East 56th Street.

I parked the car and joined a crowd just around the corner from our old house, on East 57th Street between N and O, closer to Avenue O, where Spike Lee was filming Jungle Fever, about a romance between a Harlem man and an Italian woman in Brooklyn.

They were moving inside a house, but then Spike Lee, in a Dodgers jacket and cap (I was wearing a baseball jacket myself), directed an exterior scene of a woman walking down the street and opening her front door.

As I stood among the crowd of ex-neighbors, mostly young Italian kids – the same types from Bensonhurst and Howard Beach – I recognized some of the older people from the old block.

With nothing else to do, I stood on the sidewalk and watched till they wrapped up filming, and I thought – this is going to sound pompous – about reality and artifice, and about other films I’d seen being shot: Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor in the ’70s; When Harry Met Sally at Shakespeare & Company two years ago; Sea of Love on West End Avenue; Caddyshack in Davie; and Bright Lights, Big City.

At a convenience store on Avenue N, I bought bottles of water, but when I got back to Grandma’s apartment, the faucets and toilets were working again. I fell asleep right away.

This morning I put together two more boxes to mail home, and I cut up and mailed in seven more credit cards. I’m putting that chapter of my life away. A Wall Street Journal headline read, “Bankers Are Worried by the Prospect of More Defaults on Credit Card Debt,” so I know I won’t be alone.

And when I got half a dozen bills from Mom in the mail today, I looked at them and put them away rather than worrying about writing out checks.

Mom also sent a $230 check from Bank of Hoven, the interest on my old secured Visa, as well as a $150 check from Newsday for my op-ed article. Both of those will help me when I deposit them tomorrow.

I said it would be a major miracle if I got through August’s bills without bouncing any checks, but it looks like I did it, and I’ll be back in Florida soon to deal with my creditors. At least Mom and Dad haven’t yet gotten any harassing phone calls.

If  didn’t have bankruptcy to deal with, I might have gone to Yaddo or MacDowell, adjuncted in New York City, or taken out one more loan for another term at Teachers College.

But the game is over, and I shouldn’t try to string it out.

I feel the same way about leaving New York City. Now that I’m about to leave, I feel elegiac rather than bored, and every hour here seems precious rather than wasted.

I visited Grandma Ethel at 1 PM, and though she was glad that nonstop talker roommate was getting released, Grandma said she felt depressed that I’m leaving. She’s gotten used to me being around, and despite her being such a burden sometimes, I know I’ll miss Grandma terribly.

Perhaps she’ll be here when I return to New York; perhaps not. But in the last five months I’ve gotten closer to my grandmother than I ever have been, noting her expressions (“What a mouthpiece on her,” she said of her roommate) and moods and peculiar ways.

After I left the hospital, I stopped in Cedarhurst for frozen yogurt; all the Orthodox Jews there seemed to be rushing to get ready for Rosh Hashona.

Back home, I got a call from Ronna, who said I should come over on Friday afternoon. Once I see Sat Darshan and Ronna, I’ll have seen all my New York City friends before I go.

A new year, and a new life – or at least a new lifestyle, to use the ’70s term. In the library, I’d read the  special 1970s issue of Rolling Stone and realized that even I was affected by that decade’s rock music.

A new decade, the ’90s, really began this summer, just as I thought it would. Today I heard a radio talk show panel discussion on “The Recession of 1990.”

With war in the Persian Gulf probable (though I don’t think Americans would stand for casualties of the fresh-faced young men and women we see in TV pictures of Saudi Arabia), public discontent over the inability of politicians to lead (the budget summit fell apart), and the return of ’70s-style stagflation, there’s a new mood in the county, different from the ’80s.

With recent crimes in New York City – from the shootings of numerous children to the shocking murder of a Utah tourist in the subway station on Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street – and the economic downturn, people here are pessimistic. It’s not the brash, Yuppie Big Apple of a few years ago.

This year may be, as Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson used to say, ver-ry interesting. While I may be prepared, I’m not really ready.