A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late December, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Friday, December 21, 1990

9 PM. I can adjust to anything – even relaxation. I slept soundly last night and my sinuses cleared up a bit.

Although it’s the first day of winter, I was able to wear shorts and a tank top. When I’m so busy working, I forget how miraculous South Florida’s winter weather still seems to me.

Up at 6 AM after nine hours of sleep, I read the Herald and enjoyed some low-fat waffles with gently microwaved blueberries on top.

Then I went back to bed until 8:30 AM, when I did aerobics for half an hour. At 9 AM, I tuned into CNN and watched the final segment of Holiday Jitters about 25 minutes into the show.

The segment began with songs about war and recession from the Capitol Steps, a D.C. satirical singing and performing group, and it showed various clips from past hard times: Chaplin in The Great Dictator, the Three Stooges making fun of the Axis powers, Will Rogers joking in 1931 about how America will be the first country to go to the poorhouse in a car.

They contrasted this with a Johnny Carson joke about the recession (“Attention Tiffany shoppers: blue light special in aisle 5”), ads touting “beat the bad times” – and me.

I come on after a Capitol Steps singer talks about being a Yuppie who’s lost his job and I say, “Pauper: the Magazine for the Downwardly Mobile.”

I was identified as Richard Grayson, “a laid-off Fort Lauderdale teacher” and “the man who aims to be the Robin Leach of the poor and unknown.”

They showed me at work on the computer and then being interviewed.

None of the outdoor footage was used, and they broke down my premise to its basics: I said that nobody was interested in rich people anymore and ended by touting the “Pauper 400” and “being poor, but doing it with style.”

I look pretty good, though my neck is still fatty and my skin tones could have been more even – but that’s being hypercritical.

At this point I’m so used to seeing my video image that I can look at myself objectively – it’s easier now that I’m thin – and I’m familiar with my voice, which I’ve grown fond of despite its high-pitched nasal sound.

I had the videotape running, and Mom and Jonathan were watching. At 6 PM, I taped the show again.

The only call I got was from Ronna. I’d left a message about the show on her machine, and she and Steve caught it before their dinner date.

Ronna thought I looked good and was funny –  Steven agreed – and she said it was weird to see my handwriting on TV (when they showed the dummy of the magazine).

I left messages with Alice and Teresa but don’t know if they managed to tape or view it.

Dad came home at 10 AM. His flight out of LAX was delayed for hours last night, and he said he was glad to be out of the unseasonably chilly weather in Southern California.

The company wants him and all the other salesman to get computers so they can hook up with their office’s computers and find out shipping and ordering information themselves.

Dad’s very nervous about that because he doesn’t think he can use a computer, but I told him I’ve spent much of the past few years successfully teaching other computer-phobic people.

At Albertsons this morning, I bought $85 worth of stuff for the house.

After having lunch, I went to the nearby Ridge Plaza theater (in a nearly totally vacant shopping center) to see Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s gentle fable about the artist as misunderstood and feared outsider.

As in any Tim Burton film, the set design was amazing. I love both Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, and basically I thought the movie was terrific. I like movies where I can cry at the end and feel wonderful.

Back home, I read the newspapers; war now seems more a possibility than ever. But it’s clear that Bush, to succeed, needs to convince Saddam Hussein that the U.S. is serious about attacking Iraq if the country’s troops don’t quit Kuwait.

Marc took in only $1200 at the flea market today, compared to $1800 the Friday before Christmas last year. But he’s doing better than most Swap Shop vendors, whose business is down 50% from 1989.

Tuesday, December 25, 1990

5 PM. It was a bad retail season this holiday, and my family seemed satisfied their flea market sales dropped only about a third below last year’s.

I’ve always been pretty oblivious to Christmas, unlike all the Jews who somehow feel like they’re missing something or who feel left out.

Since I don’t really observe any holidays, not having a tree or getting presents never bothered me. In fact, I liked being removed from the mainstream, though I always enjoyed the Christmases I spent with Teresa and her family or with Libby’s family or at Ronna’s father’s house.

I’ve just come in from a long walk – about four miles – to Pine Island Road and Nova Drive and back. It’s perfect walking weather: about 73°, cloudy, with a fine mist coming down as I neared home.

I miss my New York City walks on the Upper West Side and along the streets and boardwalk of Rockaway.

Naturally, I began to think about things on my walk.

I wish I had the keen powers of observation a good writer needs. My pen is a blunt and clumsy instrument, and I can no more describe in thrilling detail the wildflowers I passed than I could stand on my head and twirl around for an hour.

I was thinking about law school and how, while I may not be highly motivated, that wouldn’t stop me from succeeding and enjoying the experience.

At my initial Nutri/System consultation, the counselor worried I wasn’t motivated enough, but my discipline led me to go way down past my goal and remain there while the “highly motivated” people probably are fat again.

Is the lesson that discipline beats motivation? Search me.

I know I have to change my life, yet the irony is as I approach 40, I see I can’t do everything I once thought I could.

People around my age are really important to society – in government, the arts, religion, business, entertainment, to say nothing of literature and academia – while all I’ve accomplished is in my nice little bag of tricks. Which is okay, but I can’t pretend I’ve ever achieved anything of consequence.

For whatever reason, it took me a very long time to accept the fact that I’m not really a fiction writer of note.

Maybe it would have been easier had I been like most graduates of MFA in creative writing programs and not come tantalizingly close to success.

Still, as quirky as my publishing career was, it brought me a lot of goodies, including books, reviews, grants, stays at artists’ colonies and membership in writers’ organizations. Nobody can take that away from me.

I really believe I’m better off following my instincts rather than planning my future out in detail because so much in my “career,” from teaching at LIU in 1975 to being at BCC this term, from the publication of With Hitler in New York by Taplinger to my Hollywood Sun-Tattler newspaper column to my teacher training at FIU to my credit card chassis – happened more or less by chance, or by being in the right place at the right time with my eyes and ears open.

For the most part, I’ve just done what I enjoyed as I drift through life.

Still, I wonder: How will I support myself in law school? There’s much better financial aid available to Ph.D. students. On the other hand, anything is preferable to staying at Broward Community College, which is like a tar baby for me. I don’t want to be in a place where everyone is complaining and discussing how much better things are elsewhere.

Even if I hate law school or flunk out or if it’s some kind of a disaster, at least it will be different.

Yes, I’ve had false starts when I thought I was going into the Doctor of Arts program at SUNY-Albany and the Ph.D. program at the University of Miami, and backing out of those programs still hurts me.

But thinking I was going to Albany in 1979 and starting at UM in 1983 actually got me through rough periods when I needed to believe that things were changing.

And if I don’t end up going to law school but instead make other changes in my life – as I did in 1979 and 1980 when I moved to Rockaway and then to Florida, and in 1983 and 1984, when I decided to go into computer education and stay in New York City – the law school will have served its purpose.

I’ve got to prepare myself for striking out on my own. As gorgeous as the winter is in South Florida, it would be folly to remain here another year.

At the very least, I’ll stay in New York – a city I know – and survive as something other than an English instructor.

With Grandma’s apartment gone and probably no home at Teresa’s, I’ll be more or less on my own in New York City, too.

It’ll be interesting where to see where I’ll be next Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 27, 1990

7 PM. By calling the automated system for the bankruptcy court, I learned from an electronic voice that my bankruptcy was filed on December 17 (why so late?), that my 341 hearing (creditors’ meeting) is in room 206 of the Federal Building in Fort Lauderdale at 9:30 AM on Friday, February 1.

I have five weeks till then. I’m still expecting some kind of adversarial hearing (the Rule 2004 conference); I know this won’t be a neat case.

My trustee’s name was hard to make out from the automated voice: Lucy Something, perhaps. And the judge is Sidney Walker.

Last night I slept well, and I didn’t feel as dizzy today. Up at 7 AM, I potchkeyed around, exercising, reading the newspapers, listening to NPR news.

At 11 AM, I went out to the West Regional library to hang out, read periodicals, and get out of the house. After a week of vacation, I’m so relaxed that I’m starting to get bored.

It was nice to be home alone much of the afternoon. Tomorrow, when nobody works, I plan to be out of the house as much as possible.

In the mail, I got a notice that my GRE scores were sent to FSU, UF and a few other schools.

I dug up my 1972 GRE scores and noticed the changes over 18 years. My verbal score soared from a high 662 to a nearly perfect 780, but my quantitative scores fell from 620 to 580 because I forgot so much math.

Still, my quantitative score still matches the mean score for biology majors, and my score of 700 on the new analytical surpasses the mean of 596 for math majors, the group who scored highest, along with students majoring in the physical sciences and engineering.

Tom writes that he sent the letter of recommendation to the University of Florida’s College of Journalism but said they’ll probably reject me from the M.A.M.C. program because I’m “overqualified.”

Speaking of a job for which I’m overqualified, Tom said I’m crazy to teach comp at BCC for so little money. Even full-time, I make one-third of what he does at Loyola per course.

Tom’s Loyola film class this January will be on Hitchcock. Next year he may take a leave from NOCCA and be full-time at Loyola, replacing John Biguenet when he goes on sabbatical.

Tom still writes stories faithfully, so he’s either more dedicated or more foolish than I am. Still, Tom can’t seem to publish a book.

(How tiresome it is for acquaintances, enemies and friends to ask me again and again when I’m going to publish another collection of my stories. And how depressing for me to have to tell them the truth: that it’ll never happen.)

Tom had been seeing Jennifer, a 21-year-old Loyola senior whose father teaches English there, but now that Debra is in for the holidays, he’s not going to see Jennifer for a while.

Naturally, Tom has told Debra about Jennifer: “At 42, I’m going to do my best not to be lonely . . .  I just couldn’t see another five years with Debra away and me alone in New Orleans.”

It sounds like Tom is doing pretty well.

Friday, December 28, 1990

9 PM. Last evening I listened several times to Public Enemy’s album Fear of a Black Planet, which I bought in June in New York.

Their music is fascinating to me because it’s political and social commentary, and they actually seem to have ideas, even if some of them (like their anti-Semitism) are a bit cracked.

None of my acquaintances seems to appreciate rap music, but I get excited by a lot of it; it does seem to be the way the urban underclass can express itself, and it’s important for the rest of us to listen to them.

Yesterday I got a Christmas card from Wade McAllister saying they’d be down for the holidays, so this morning I called Ellen at her parents’ in Delray Beach.

Wade went to Chicago for MLA interviews after a horrible year at Penn. Once again he’s been recommended for tenure, but he’ll probably get denied it again.

It’s all academic politics, of course, and Ellen has had her own difficulties: she set up a film program that the Preppy Handbook author’s college guide praised, but at the MLA in Chicago, the Penn faculty are looking for a top-name academic to run it.

Both she and Wade feel frustrated that they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, and Ellen sounds as if her Penn students are no more satisfying to her than BCC students are to me: she says the kids “can’t think, don’t read, and need constant direction.”

Ellen and Wade’s boys are doing fine, and both of them sound like bright, interesting, cute kids.

Ellen said she was grateful that I called so she could have someone other than her mother to talk to. I hope to see her and Wade after he returns from the MLA.

Ron Ishoy’s column in the Herald led off with a piece about me and Pauper; I had spoken to him on Wednesday.

He identified me only as a “part-time BCC instructor,” but he mentioned the Times and CNN and used the line about my being “the Robin Leach of the poor.”

Hopefully at least some people at BCC will see it – though of course if I ever wanted to hide anything from BCC students, I’d put it in the newspaper.

Monday, December 31, 1990

4 PM. I’m going to close this diary early. I’ve got the banker’s box of diaries sitting next to me on the bed, and as soon as I finish with this, I’m going to put the 1990 diary in it alongside its 22 older (younger?) brothers and sisters.

Yes, I couldn’t resist reading a few New Year’s Eve entries from the past, but I didn’t go overboard.

What I most remember is the day twenty years ago, that afternoon when you could smell snow in the air and I was nervous about going to Mark Savage’s New Year’s Eve party at his parents’ apartment in Trump Village in Coney Island. That was the night Shelli and I kissed for the first time, I think.

The end of 1970 started me on a new road: all those relationships I had with people from Brooklyn College and LaGuardia Hall. Before that time, I was essentially a lost, isolated child.

Ten years later, my life changed again. As 1980 ended, I sat in my Rockaway apartment surrounded by the boxes I was moving to Florida.

Now my life is about to change once more, although the first half of 1991 should keep me in familiar territory.

My New Year’s Eve diary entries in recent years tend to be a list of accomplishments punctuated by exhortations to take more risks, especially with intimate relationships.

Living with my parents and seeing their rigidities makes me understand how hard it’s been for me to open up and be spontaneous. I came very close to being a complete emotional cripple.

But exhortations to change won’t do me much good. In 1991 – as in the Nike commercials – I’ve got to just do it.

One way or another my financial situation will be resolved. Either the bankruptcy petition will be granted and I can move on, or it won’t be, in which case I still plan to move on, just with creditors’ dunning letters and phone calls following – or I’ll end up in prison for credit card fraud, which guarantees a change of scenery. Next fall I’ll be in Gainesville or Tallahassee in law school or I’ll be in another city somewhere else, not near my family in South Florida.

Want to look back on 1990?

The winter was a snap, with my teaching English part-time at BCC-South and FIU-Broward and my doing computer education workshops in the Dade schools, with New Orleans a nice break.

In May, living with Grandma in Rockaway was hard, but I’ll always remember the time as very special: I was happy there.

And I had a terrific time this summer at Teresa’s, enjoying the Upper West Side, my classes at Teachers College, my friends, and my forays into the media.

Back in Rockaway for September, I shuttled to the hospital to see Grandma nearly every day, and while there were hard times, I enjoyed myself.

Collecting unemployment and getting student loans, I managed to make my credit chassis stretch out to cover my entire stay in New York City.

Back here at my parents’, I’ve lived comfortably – if without privacy – and I think I ultimately did the right thing when I filed for bankruptcy.

This fall, the 2 Live Crew obscenity trials were fascinating, and as much as I hated the drudgery of grading papers, teaching full-time back at BCC-Central (and part-time at South Campus) was good for me: I made a little money and I kept very busy.

– – Hey, I just picked up the mail for today. Remember that letter about a pre-approved Dollar Dry Dock Visa that came the day I signed my bankruptcy papers?

The card, with a $4000 credit limit, arrived today. Obviously, it will be cancelled once the bank realizes I’m bankrupt, but if I have challenges to my petition, it will serve as great ammunition in my defense – as well as adding a finishing touch of unbelievability to my credit card story.

Anyway, all things considered, 1990 was a good year. Maybe I didn’t break any new ground, but I cleaned up after myself – or started to – and by taking the LSAT and GREs and applying to law schools, I’ve laid the groundwork for a new direction (mixed metaphor) in 1991.

Wade and Ellen will be here this evening after they’ve seen Ellen’s Grandpa Glass – yes, he’s still alive – in Hallandale.

I’ll probably go out to dinner with them and their boys . . . so my social life is already improving.

I hope these year-end diary entries are sounding less pretentious and portentous than they used to.

I feel ready for 1991. (Hey, buddy, it’s coming whether you’re ready or not.)

So – ahem . . . I mean, I’ve got to be a little pompous, it’s a Richard Grayson trademark) . . . I now declare this 1999 diary to be complete and will shut it and put it in the box with the diaries from 1969 to 1989, inclusive.