A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-May, 1991

by Richard Grayson

Sunday, May 12, 1991

3 PM. Yesterday’s entry is embarrassing, but if that was me at my worst, I’m not feeling so bad right now.

Because I’ve been alone and sick, my mood swings have been volatile, and yesterday, listening to my Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway cassette helped me regain some control.

I did some cleaning out of drawers; Grandma has many duplicate pieces of paper with the same recipe for carrot cake or rice pudding or the same phone numbers again and again.

Some of her stuff, like a tube of Vaseline camphor ice, seemed worth saving as a design antique. Little by little, I’ll clean the place out, but that’s emotionally wrenching, too. My grandparents had a life here, and now there’s no place for the artifacts of that life.

I’ve never been to the cemetery to see Grandpa Herb’s grave, and maybe I need to do that now; I found directions to where he’s buried.

If I used to think of colds as little deaths in which recovery is linked with an integration of loss, maybe it’s obvious why I have been sick this week.

Dizzy and congested, I barely slept last night, and today I feel no better, but at least I don’t feel much worse. Up at 6 AM, I again forced myself to exercise lightly – that’s pretty good – and I read the Sunday Times by 10 AM.

Bill Maxwell managed to get an op-ed column, about the irresponsibility of black fraternities, in the paper, which impresses me and should impress everyone at Broward Community College. In a way, I’m sorry Bill won’t be up in Gainesville when I’m there.

I’ve been reading my How to Succeed in Law School book with trepidation and also anticipation. When I assured Justin he’d have fun in Brooklyn College’s Theater MFA program, he told me I didn’t realize everyone isn’t a “school person” like me.

Justin and Teresa and Alice and other friends viewed their undergraduate career as something to be endured and gotten over with, and they don’t feel comfortable on college campuses the way I always have.

Justin reasons that although law school will be a novel experience, it will be familiar because I’ve been in a college classroom for every year of my adult life. That’s true.

New York City, to change the subject, really seems to be going under again. Even if Dinkins’s budget cuts turn out to be less severe than he threatens, some services will never come back, and the important amenities like parks and libraries won’t be what they were.

All New Yorkers seem to feel the quality of life is deteriorating. I bet the city will come back, but maybe not for a while. The decline that started in the ’60s and accelerated through the ’70s, when people like my parents left, is happening all over again.

I took a ride around Brooklyn this afternoon, which was warm enough so I could wear shorts.

The older I get, the more associations flood my brain when I pass my old house, my old schools, familiar stores and corners and hangouts in Brooklyn.

Driving around Mill Basin, Flatlands, East Flatbush and Marine Park reminded me of so many moments in my life. I remember having a cold one May in high school, and reading Franny and Zooey, which I’d bought at the stationery store next to Waldbaum’s on Avenue U.

I remember a Mother’s Day, probably in 1970, when we went to Aunt Sydelle’s house in Cedarhurst and I wore a tie-dyed t-shirt, and using Grandpa Herb’s Minolta, I took photos of Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Nat and baby Michael in the backyard.

Passing the Meyer Levin Junior High School playground, I remember one of my only moments of semi-athletic glory, making something like 27 foul shots in a row. I wondered if the basketball hoop there now is the same one.

There were too many memories for me to process. I may sound more cheerful, but I do believe I’m a mess, as I wrote yesterday. The difference is that today I believe I need to go through this “mess” to come out better on the other side.

There’s no short cut, and the only way to avoid the pain that comes with change and growth is to live in total fear. When I feel anxiety, panic and terror, I need to stop fighting and resisting and let the fear overwhelm me. That way, when – not if – I survive, I’ll be that much stronger.

Monday, May 13, 1991

7 PM. I’m trying my best to cope, but I’m extremely congested and I had several attacks of vertigo today. My sore throat and postnasal drip went away, replaced by a fountain of mucus coming from my nose and a hacking cough.

My right ear feels full, and no doubt that’s the source of my dizziness. Whether this will turn into a months-long battle with vertigo like in ’80 or ’89 remains to be seen.

Sometimes I wonder why people would be interested in knowing the future. I wouldn’t, ever, because all the good happenings would no longer be surprises, and I don’t think I could stand having advance knowledge of bad experiences.

I slept somewhat better last night, but tonight I’m really dizzy again, and I may have to get these tissues surgically removed from my nostrils. Still, I’ve been trying to get through the days and be constructive.

Yesterday I did the laundry, and at Kings Plaza, I bought ten-pound dumbbells and some health foods. I’ve been overeating, if only because I’m alone, bored and using sugar-containing lozenges, and I weigh 143 on the scale here.

I’m annoyed because the woman across the hall told the UPS delivery guy on Friday that no man lived here, and I think they sent my packages back to Florida. It’s a real pain in the ass. The woman wasn’t wrong, just stupid, but the company shouldn’t have left it up to a neighbor as to what to do.

On the other hand, if UPS were on the ball, I never would have gotten that VCR that was mistakenly delivered to me in Davie and left with a neighbor.

The package I was supposed to get here had my exercise tapes and some cereal and food and clothes in it, and I hope it turns up.

I got an acknowledgement of my unemployment claim from Florida today, but I don’t expect word on my eligibility for days or weeks. If I’m denied benefits, I’ll file an appeal.

Scott phoned and invited me to a housewarming party next Sunday. He told me to take a 1:30 PM train and he’ll pick me (and others) up at the Hartsdale station. If I feel well enough, why not?

The problem is getting home late via public transportation; this isn’t the greatest neighborhood. But if I get a bus that leaves me right off in the back, I’ll lessen my chances of being mugged.

Irene Krasner phoned after the woman who takes care of her walked past this building on the boardwalk and noticed a light on in what she knew was Grandma’s apartment.

Irene had no idea where Grandma, her oldest friend, has been all these months. Irene said she herself is lucky to have her neighbors because otherwise she’d be in a home, too.

Aunt Tillie came over this morning, but after searching in vain for the pink sweater she lent Grandma a decade ago, she grumpily concluded that Grandma must have given it to one of her nieces.

I showed Tillie the video of Mom and Dad’s house; at least somebody got to see it.

This afternoon I drove to Beth David Cemetery in Elmont. I’d been there before, to see the graves of my great-grandparents (Ginsbergs and Cohens) on my father’s side.

The Louis Lerner Benevolent Association plots were way out near the cemetery’s edge, and I saw “Sarrett” on the headstone from a distance right away. They got a double one, with Grandma’s side on the left waiting to be filled in.

The headstone had Grandpa’s name in English (it left out his middle name, Parker) and in Hebrew (Chaim Pesach ben Yitzhak), his birth and death dates, and “beloved husband, father and grandfather.” I placed a pebble on the stone but I couldn’t feel anything.

I thought, Well, there’s a skeleton or decaying body under here, but what does that have to do with my grandfather?

Maybe I was denying what I felt because I couldn’t face the enormity of it. But at least I saw Grandpa Herb’s grave since I didn’t attend his funeral or unveiling.

When I did my genealogical research in the ’70s, I enjoyed going to cemeteries, and they really don’t bother me. Today I noticed on a plaque that Ben Krasner, Irene’s husband, and Max Shapiro, Grandma Ethel’s father, and Dave Tarras were members of the Lerner society – although Great-Grandpa Max and Uncle Dave are buried at Old Montefiore with the Shapiros.

While I enjoy making up stories when I see tombstones of people I don’t know and imagining or trying to figure out what these people’s lives were like, I know I want to be cremated.

Going back to Rockaway, I decided to take a long ride, so I went with Linden Boulevard instead of the parkway and passed through black neighborhoods like Cambria Heights and St. Albans.

Mom called me and told me I’d inadvertently addressed the letter I wrote to Beach Drugs to their house. The pharmacy’s address is 200 Beach 116th Street and I must have written “2001” and kept going with the familiar address, 2001 SW 98th Terrace.

Mom said she and Dad will go to Gainesville before the end of June; if they don’t, I’ll go up there myself. She spoke to Grandma yesterday but reported that it took forever for someone to answer the phone and then a long time before Grandma came on. Grandma told Mom she’s just waiting to die.

What Grandma lacks – and I hope I never do – is a sense of curiosity. She’s so self-absorbed, she never thinks to ask about other people. It’s important to remember what not to do when I get old. If I get old.

At least being sick gives me something to do with my time.

Friday, May 17, 1991

4 PM. Just now I got a call from the Florida Unemployment office, asking if BCC had given me reassurance of hiring for the next term. “No,” I said. “They said because of the budget cuts, they weren’t hiring part-timers.”

“Thank you very much,” drawled the lady.

BCC must have challenged the determination that the Unemployment office made to give me $174 a week in benefits. Last year the Florida Labor Department ruled against Florida International University, which also had challenged my claim, and I hope they will rule in my favor again this year.

In today’s mail I got the good news about the $174 determination and I hope my celebration wasn’t premature. As I told Alice, it seems absurd that I should be paid $174 a week in benefits but net only $265 a week for teaching four college English classes in the spring term.

Too good to be true? Why not “too bad to be true” regarding salary? Anyway, I’ll rest a lot easier once I find out I’m definitely eligible for the checks. That will make my summer much easier.

I’ve decided that starting on Monday, I’ll begin writing – or editing, or redrafting – my 1980s diary book, a project which would keep me busy all summer. After I print out the manuscript, I figured I’d sent it to the Brautigan Library as a companion volume to A Version of Life.

Oddly, I got a call from a Boston-based Wall Street Journal reporter just as I was reading the Journal today, and he told me he was doing a story on the Brautigan Library; the director had given him my number as someone who’s had books published but who has a book in the library anyway.

We had a twenty-minute conversation about the idea of the library and why I’d sent my book there. He was driving up to Burlington this afternoon to see the library, and no doubt he’ll look at A Version of Life – a fact that embarrasses me, given the personal nature of the material.

It would be the most ironic thing I could think of if The Wall Street Journal would mention my diary in an article, but it’s a funny old world, as Margaret Thatcher said when she got the sack.

I went to the home at 11 AM today, and Grandma Ethel wasn’t doing too well. She’s more congested than I am, and she told me she wishes she could just take a drink and be dead.

A Times article yesterday, illustrated with a drawing of an old woman with a walker like Grandma, said that modern medicine has allowed people to live longer but at the cost of them having extra years of poor health.

After trying on the pants that Mom got for her, Grandma became exhausted. The pants were too tight due to all the weight Grandma has gained at the home. Given how much weight she’d lost when she was depressed, that’s a good thing.

I asked Grandma if she wanted to be kept alive by extraordinary methods, like on a respirator, and she said definitely not, that that would be horrible.

I hope that Grandma Ethel will never be tortured the way Grandpa Herb was when they operated on him and put in a pacemaker the night before he died, when it was obvious he was at the end of his long battle with lung cancer.

I like the way Grandma Sylvia died of an aneurysm: quick and simple. Or Mrs. Judson: dying in her sleep of a heart attack.

On Friday, June 7, Alice and Peter plan to take me out to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Previously I’d asked Alice to forget about giving me a party.

Last night I slept well, dreaming that I was happily returning to California. And I had a dream about China; it’s weird how I could have become so attached to a dog.

I finished How to Succeed in Law School. The torts cases that made up the last part of the book were challenging reading, but I found them intellectually interesting.

When I was a Poli Sci major at BC, Professor Berkowitz told me that law school was all rote memorization, but I can see great intellectual challenges in the issues raised by case law.

It’s cooler and cloudier here at the beach today, but I like it because the boardwalk is less crowded. I’ve grown used to the crash of the waves and the squawks of the seagulls. Rockaway has been a part of my life every summer since I was a baby, but that will all end after this year.

Sunday, May 19, 1991

7 PM. Tomorrow marks two weeks since I left Florida for New York, and today was the first time I got to Manhattan.

I had planned on going to Westchester, to Scott and M.J.’s housewarming party in Hartsdale, but even though I left at 11:30 AM, two hours simply wasn’t enough time for me to catch the 1:30 PM train at Grand Central that Scott told me I could take.

I’d gotten up early and done everything so I’d be out of the house and prepared. I made myself extra-well-groomed, brought a gift (Nancy Reagan-style, I recycled one of Grandma’s pretty candy dishes), etc.

But neither the Queens or Brooklyn buses came for over half an hour, and by the time I got to the Junction, it was 12:40 PM and I realized there was no way I could get to Hartsdale.

Even if I took the 2:30 PM train, I’d be staying at their house maybe three hours and spending eight hours traveling – about as long as a transcontinental trip.

Rather than return to Rockaway, I got on the subway, and though you would have figured I’d done all The Big Thinking that I could bear while I’ve been alone (and sick) lately, I thought the entire ride into the city.

One of the things I thought about: Really, I no longer have day-to-day friends in New York. I have a number of good friends here, people comparable to Libby and Grant in L.A., whom I could have a great visit with, but nobody I can interact with daily or even regularly.

The run-down: Alice and Peter are close to me, but they’re really the only friends I have remaining in Manhattan. Ronna is busy with Ralph, who probably lives outside the city, and I can’t go on depending on her, particularly after she gets married and has kids – as I hope she will.

Josh is still in Manhattan, but he’s crazy. Scott and M.J., and Mikey and Amy aren’t really close friends, and they live in inaccessible Westchester and Riverdale.

Harold will be leaving the city soon. Teresa is out on Fire Island or in Oyster Bay, and she’s not likely to ever return to the city.

In Brooklyn, I have Justin and Larry, who are busy with each other and their own careers and close friends; Sat Darshan, who’s got her kids and the people at the ashram; Elihu, who I’m not close to; and Pete, who spends much of the year traveling around the world.

I had more daily contact with teachers, secretaries and students at BCC when I was in Florida. That’s why, I realized, going to law school in Gainesville will give me a chance not only to start a new career and live in a new place but meet a new group of friends.

Law school is the kind of environment where people get close, if only because not too many others can understand what they’re going through. If I could make two or three good friends in Gainesville, I’ll be happy.

Part of me wonders if, at my age, I still have the ability to get close to new people, but I’ve got to believe I do.

I’m worried about affording law school, but the University of Florida is such a bargain, I’ll find a way to come up with the money.

Maybe I don’t sound motivated about law school, but at Nutri/System my psychological profile said I wasn’t motivated enough, either, and look how determined and successful I was at losing weight. I respond well to the kind of discipline law school calls for.

I got off the IRT at 72nd Street, and once up those narrow stairs, I emerged on the Upper West Side, a place I will always love.

They finished the new Alexandria tower on the northwest corner – probably the last of the mammoth Upper Broadway buildings of the ’80s boom.

As I walked toward Lincoln Center, I noticed new stores but the same wonderful, eclectic mix of humanity. For seven summers I took strolls on Broadway for granted, but now I’ll have to make the most of my rare visits uptown.

I used the men’s room at Philharmonic Hall, where marchers from the AIDS Walk mixed with Fordham graduates in caps and gowns and refugees from the Ninth Avenue Food Festival.

I made my way down to Columbus Circle, where, for the first time, I read the base of the explorer’s statue (1992 will be the quincentenary of the 1492 voyage to the New World). Then I ate a McLean Deluxe at a vest-pocket park at 56th and Eighth.

Today’s high was 65° but I was bundled up while others lolled in t-shirts and shorts.

At least I had a few hours to spend in the city. As long as I’m staying in Rockaway, my visits to Manhattan will be few, and I can’t see coming home after evenings there. I now remember why I never went back and forth to visit Grandma Ethel in a single day.

I have a lot of associations with Manhattan, though, and I feel that no matter how bad the present fiscal crisis gets, there will always be those magnet parts of the city that people will want to spend time in.

I picked up all the little free neighborhood weeklies so I could get a sense of the city in 1991.

At the Donnell Library, on my way to the downstairs bathroom, I heard pleasant music coming from the auditorium, so I treated myself to watching Filipino folk dances on stage there.

These little pleasures – like the organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the wedding party on the church’s steps, the street performers outside 100-year-old Carnegie Hall – are what make New York New York.

Unfortunately, today’s the last Sunday the Donnell will be open due to the budget cuts, and the recession has given rise to these posters announcing TUE$DAY NIGHT OUT, a campaign to get people to spend money on dining and entertainment on a weeknight.

Passing St. Bart’s on Park Avenue, I went into the 51st Street station and used the new transfer point to take the E back to Queens. The subway had only one beggar, a young white guy giving away baseball cards in exchange for coins, and one musician, a blues guitarist.

Three stops later, I got off at Roosevelt Avenue and waited for the Rockaway bus amid signs in Korean and handouts for 970-BUSH (a porno line, not something for supporters of the President to call).

I tried to make out some skywriting: Did that word say GANE? Oh, GANE UNA CARRERA – it was Spanish skywriting. In the city I saw two AIDS walkers with t-shirts that said NADIE SABE QUE YO SOY GAY.

I was back in Rockaway after 5 PM.