A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late May, 1991
by Richard Grayson
Thursday, May 23, 1991
7:30 PM. The ocean and beach look so pretty from the bedroom window now. Summer is starting, and even if it’s much cooler here than the 85° temperatures in the city, I like being in Rockaway.
In the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve made a little life for myself and have worked out a pleasant routine. It’s also great to be living by myself again, the master not only of my living quarters but of my moods and interests.
I didn’t work on the diary book today, not only to avoid getting too caught up in and obsessed with it, but also because my neck hurt, probably as the result of cricking it and compressing my upper vertebrae.
I’ve been sleeping well here, going to bed before 10 PM and getting up before 6 AM. This morning I went out at 9:30 AM after aerobics, Morning Edition, a glance at the paper, and a shower.
The Journal story on the Brautigan Library hasn’t yet appeared, unless it’s been in a place in the paper I didn’t expect (because I haven’t been buying the issues, just looking through them).
After returning from Beach 116th Street, I put away my lunch salad from the Korean store and went out to Woodmere. In the back, I met Aunt Tillie and told her I’d stop by over the weekend.
Because I missed the bus connection in Far Rockaway, I didn’t get to the home until 11:30 AM. Grandma was sitting out in the hall with other ladies. Her cold seemed better, but she complained bitterly about her lips (which looked chapped) and tongue (which looked fine to me).
I’d bought her plastic utensils and scissors, as well as an apple – one of those new New Zealand varieties – because she’d asked for all that. Next time I have to bring her some summer-weight blouses or dresses, and I’ll get her Chapstick. She wants her sunglasses, but I think I may have thrown them away when I emptied the drawers, so I’ll buy her a new pair.
Grandma’s cousin Sylvia Frank, to whom I’d spoken on Saturday, was as good as her word and actually did drive from Bayside for a visit, which is remarkable, since Sylvia is about Grandma’s age.
However, she sounded to me like an educated woman, and that can make a difference, along with a greater zest for life. Grandma said the “personal problem” Sylvia referred to in our conversation was the death of the man she’d been living with, who left her his house.
When lunch came along, I left, but again I just missed the N32 bus and I didn’t get back in the neighborhood until 1:15 PM. I had the dollar van let me off at Beach 92nd and I went to the McDonald’s by the bridge to use the last of my coupons for a 91¢ McLean Deluxe. From there, I walked home via the boardwalk, where I saw Hispanic teenagers enjoying a day at the beach.
Mom called with a bit of news. First, I got a letter of acceptance from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at UF, letting me know I’m in the joint J.D./M.A.M.C. program. I’d wondered what happened with that.
Although the two degrees will take four years, I plan to accept. For one thing, it will give me a base outside the law school and in the graduate school, widening my contacts, broadening my horizons (cliché?) and giving me more career options.
Next, Mom and Dad plan to go up to Gainesville on Monday and Tuesday to find me an apartment while Dad is on a sales trip.
Later, I went to the post office and by Express Mail sent them the off-campus housing packet I’d received from UF.
I got Billy’s address and phone number in Orlando from Ronna, and I’ll call him in the next few days to ask his advice about apartment complexes.
Dad just got back from L.A., where it was still as chilly as it had been a month ago when I was there. Dad told me the people in New York told him business is totally dead here even though national economic statistics have led many people to say the recession will end this quarter and that it may, in fact, already be over.
Nobody predicts anything other than an anemic recovery, and I still think we could slip back into recession, if not depression, because of all the coming cuts in government budgets.
CUNY may turn away 10,000 community college students and fire 900 faculty members and staff, though that’s under Dinkins’s “nightmare scenario,” generally believed to be scare tactics to win union concessions. However, with no state budget yet, the nightmare could become real.
Another nightmare is today’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the ban of government-funded clinic doctors and personnel from even mentioning abortion, not only because it means Roe v. Wade will likely be overturned – thanks to Souter – but it also has chilling implications regarding free speech, which seemingly can be regulated if federal money is involved.
For example, the NEA could probably control the work of grantees under the logic of today’s decision, I’d imagine. For a long time, I’ve felt the U.S. is moving toward a kind of dictatorship, a national security state where the executive branch holds more and more power.
In the mail, I found out the Florida unemployment people had dismissed a challenge from FIU, but the challenge I’m worried about is from BCC, and I won’t be able to get benefits until that’s resolved. I did get a $100 check from the State of California for the writing conference.
Ronna, who’s going to visit Russ and Pat and their kids in Pennsylvania this weekend, said that I could stay over at her place the night of my birthday, though we were both embarrassed to explain that, well, nothing was going to happen.
I wasn’t sure how to say it, but I wanted Ronna – and her boyfriend – to know how I felt. Sleeping over allows me to spend an evening in Manhattan, and so I’m grateful for that.
I’ve been reading Teachers College Professor Frank Smith’s Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. All the mindless workbooks that purport to teach reading and writing may be reason why my BCC students don’t really read or write.
Unfortunately, computers have been used mostly to promote more of the same mindless busywork and drill-and-practice in education. I’m convinced that the system is hopeless, that it’s too late to fix it.
Monday, May 27, 1991
5 PM. A warm, cloudy Memorial Day provided me with the opportunity to enjoy myself by reading, writing and doing laundry. I got through with all of the 1984 entries in my diary book, which means I’m a third of the way through the manuscript.
Today I thought about how Neil Rogers sometimes calls his radio program “the honest show” and it occurred to me that that I could title this manuscript The Honest Book if I had the balls.
It might be very foolish to open myself up for charges that I wasn’t really honest – and of course I’m not, for who could be? My fantasy is that by using the Brautigan Library, I could create a mystique about my manuscripts so that publishers would go up to Burlington, read them, and be convinced of my genius.
But I’d tell them I was pretty certain I did not want the books published and they’d raise their ante until I got a great deal because nothing entices people as much as a refusal.
Obviously this is a fantasy. What publisher in his right mind would bring out my diary books in today’s publishing climate? (Whether anyone should want to publish such manuscripts is a different question.)
Anyway, whether the Wall Street Journal article mentions A Version of Life or not, someday someone will recognize what I’ve done. And I love the purity of writing a book and not wanting most people to read it.
By sending it to the Brautigan Library, I’m assured that I’ll get only dedicated readers who can’t take the book from the room. In my case, my total powerlessness makes me totally powerful, because the truth is I don’t have all that much to gain from publication, and what I might gain, I’d probably be better off without.
It’s a chance for me to test my ideals and attitudes about publishing – the ones Chauncey Mabe thought were ridiculous in his piece on me a year ago today.
I’m almost finished with Frank Smith’s exhilarating Insult to Intelligence. I keep wanting to shout “Yes! Yes!” when he describes what good teaching can be: collaboration, the willingness and desire of the teacher to be a learner, spontaneity, initiation into the literary club – I’ve tried all these methods lately, except they’re more attitudes than methods – and I feel secure that my BCC students get a lot out of my classes, particularly English 102, where I felt free to share my enthusiasm for writing and literature.
It’s too bad educational reforms just make things worse with more testing and programmed instruction, and of course, computers in the classroom aren’t usually introduced by people like me who understand their dangers as well as their promise (simulations, subversion of the usual paradigm as teacher as the most knowledgeable person in the room).
If I was asked, as Harold was, to teach a lesson on fragments as part of a job interview, I’d start by asking the students why they thought I’d been asked to teach such a lesson and find out how they feel about their own writing and if they thought their professors had learned not to write fragments by listening to such lessons as the one I was supposed to teach.
Thank God I’m old enough to have missed language instruction as a medley of skills to be mastered one at a time. In P.S. 203’s fifth and sixth grades, we were provided with loads of books – good real books and not silly skills workbooks – and we read them avidly.
When we were in sixth grade and I tried to read John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and Clifford Schwartz attempted 1984, Mrs. Zweig praised us to the assistant principal even though she wasn’t sure we’d succeed. Today, teachers would tell us we hadn’t yet mastered the proper cognitive skills and make us do mindless exercises.
What else would you call the bureaucratic requirements I had to put up with at BCC? However much I may know Smith, Calkins, Graves, Atwell, et al., are right, I also know the system will not change, and that’s a tragedy.
Tuesday, May 28, 1991
8 PM. Mom and Dad called yesterday from Gainesville. I was surprised they’d gone up there without calling me.
They told me most of the apartments they’d seen were junky, but there was a new one a mile away from the law school that had all these great features but was $450 a month. That sounded steep to me.
This morning they phoned again, from the rental office. The new apartment had an August 1 certificate of occupancy scheduled, but it could be delayed.
Most other apartments had a very late starting date for a lease – after the start of law school – but there was one I could have had if I wanted it, for $390; however, my parents said, it was “disgusting.” I told them my tolerance for “disgusting” was higher than theirs and to use their judgment.
I just called them, and they had just that minute gotten in the door. They were tired and had a lousy trip home – Dad got a blowout on the Turnpike (“Thruway,” he mistakenly said) – and I don’t know which apartment they took because right away Mom read me a letter denying me any scholarship or fellowship money, and then another call clicked on, and I told them to phone me tomorrow when we were all thinking clearly.
Right now I feel confused. I’d pretty much counted on some kind of financial aid other than a loan – and I don’t even know if I can get a loan because of my bankruptcy and my delinquency on outstanding student loans.
All of a sudden, my life – which had seemed to be falling into place – now appears to be falling apart.
Today I also got the letter from UF officially admitting me to the joint J.D./M.A.M.C. program, and I mailed back a letter of acceptance.
I guess if I explain that I have no money, they’ll try to do something for me at the school, but maybe I can’t afford even UF’s bargain-rate law school education.
I’ve just been sitting on a bench on the boardwalk for the last hour, trying to sort everything out. Today it hit 95° and it was terribly humid, too uncomfortable to try to get myself to Woodmere to see Grandma, who’d just complain about her awful life.
Hey, according to her, all she’s got to do is want to die. Some problem! I’m all mixed up now and this isn’t coherent; it’s not the kind of diary entry I wanted to write.
God, yesterday’s fantasy about achieving fame through my diary books sounds so juvenile now. The Wall Street Journal article appeared today, but it didn’t mention me. Maybe I wasn’t “bad” enough to list among the authors represented in the Brautigan Library; maybe a section about me was cut for lack of space. Who knows?
I got up to typing July 1985 today, and my confidence in the diary book project is starting to lag. What if A Version of Life and this book are interesting just to their author and boring to everybody else? How could I ever have the balls to even think about the title The Honest Book?
In a week, I’ll be 40 years old, and I’m scared and just starting to realize it. I can’t, I won’t, teach at Broward Community College again this fall, and I can’t, I won’t, live with my parents again.
What if I just can’t afford to go to law school? I’d better ask for a Stafford loan application right away. I know I’m not thinking clearly, and I also know my mind is racing ahead of itself and things will look different in a week or a month.
If I truly want to go to law school, I’ll find a way, no? Otherwise, at this point, what’s left? I’m out of options, and I don’t have Grandma’s: I can’t just want to die, and I’m not depressed enough to kill myself because I do know that things change, unless you’re dead.
11 PM. I’ve been going to bed so early these past three weeks in Rockaway, I think this is the latest I’ve stayed up. What I wrote three hours ago was honest. It was embarrassing, melodramatic, full of self-pity and confusion, but it was honest.
I just watched the last episode of Thirtysomething, a show I probably would have liked if I’d watched it regularly because it seemed more honest than most network TV.
After Thirtysomething, there was a commercial for the United Negro College Fund – you know, a mind is a terrible thing to waste – about a grandfather being asked why he never achieved his dream to become a doctor and it had some new slogan I can’t recall exactly but it had to do with keeping dreams from dying.
Mikey called at 9 PM. I blabbed on about Grandma and the apartment and getting laid off and hating teaching at BCC and applying to grad school and law school and finally I told him about the University of Florida and the J.D./M.A.M.C. program.
I expected Mikey to be discouraging, but he thought it seemed like a good idea. Maybe it was because Mikey has gone through changes of his own and enough stress to get him thinner than I’ve ever seen him.
He and Amy are getting divorced. “I’m surprised,” I said, though I wasn’t shocked because nobody’s divorce would be surprising these days except maybe my parents’. Amy and Mikey seemed happy in the few times I saw them together over the past years.
He said they separated amicably. Amy moved out in September, and then he got a sublet in the city in December, and Amy moved back into the Riverdale co-op.
Mikey just got a new sublet on Fifth and 11th Street, and he didn’t get back to me earlier because Amy got the message, of course, and didn’t get it to Mikey till last week.
Amy’s looking for a new job, but they want to sell the co-op and get the money from it soon.
Probably in July they’ll sit down and do the paperwork and their divorce should be final by the end of the year. I talked with Mikey for an hour, and he said he’d take me out to lunch next Tuesday.
It must be hard for him to face the end of his marriage, and it made me feel kind of stoopid: after all, my little problems with money are nothing compared with the divorce that Mikey and Amy or Sat Darshan and Krishna are having to deal with.
Somehow I’ll get the money for law school: Stafford loans, SLS, National Direct Student Loans, whatever . . . begging, if I have to. And I still have $5000 in credit card cash advances I can use – although I will have to pay it all back now that I can’t go bankrupt again till 1998.
The hero of Thirtysomething ended up saying he needed to find out what he wanted to do when he grew up. I know the feeling. Is it only our generation who’ve had to deal with that?
Tomorrow I’ll go to the home and bring Grandma Ethel her summer blouses. Was it easier in her day, when people just stopped growing at a certain point in their adult lives? Well, I guess they had different problems, as my grandmother herself can attest.
Alice called; she’s making this big deal about taking me out next Friday, and we agreed to meet early in Brooklyn Heights. Actually, Alice has to go to somebody else’s fortieth birthday party at 9 PM that night, so I can get back to the beach early and she can celebrate the birthday of someone who wants it celebrated.
At 7 PM today it finally cooled down enough to enjoy the beach, and the sun fell behind the buildings here, so I could sit overlooking the Atlantic and be in the shade.
For the first time, I noticed I could see the Atlantic Beach Bridge way off to the east; when the drawbridge was raised, I could make it out. I never realized I could see that bridge before the drawbridge went up and the image of it moved a little in my line of vision.
Is that some profound insight or metaphor? If this were a novel, it could be, but this is just real life.
Friday, May 31, 1991
4 PM. I’ve kept to myself the past week, not even venturing out of Rockaway except to nearby Woodmere to visit Grandma Ethel. Today was a carbon copy of yesterday, except that the severe thunderstorms began earlier, a couple of hours ago.
I just got off the computer, having finished the entries for January to March 1986. I’m approaching the halfway mark of the book, although the stuff from August 1986 to July 1991 is probably longer than the first half of the decade.
It’s hard since I began this project, not to be self-conscious about writing in this diary, but I’ll probably pick out a May entry that doesn’t mention the diary book project.
Last night I fell asleep very early, and so I again awoke before 5:30 AM. As is my usual routine, I opened the door and picked up the paper, scanning the front pages of each section of the Times as I put on WNYC, and after 6 AM, I made breakfast: oatmeal, skim milk and grapefruit.
At 8 AM, I did aerobics to Homestretch, and after I cooled down, I shaved and showered. Before dressing, I applied self-tanning lotion, which I bought yesterday along with sunblock. The products actually cancel each other out, I know, but at least I’m protecting myself – I hope – against skin cancer.
I put the air conditioner on and read the paper and listened to the radio. All the recent economic statistics, including today’s third monthly rise in the index of leading indicators, suggest the recession is nearly over, but everyone seems to be predicting a weak recovery.
What if we get one or two quarters of slightly positive growth and then a new decline caused by state and local budget cuts and tax increases and layoffs? Also, people are too much in debt to make major purchases, especially because their incomes aren’t rising.
I can’t believe the imbalances in the American economy can be solved by this recession. William Greider argues that the big banks are already insolvent, and the government should shut Citibank and company down now. But they won’t.
Just as in ’88, when the politicians didn’t deal with the savings and loan mess, Bush and his ’92 opponents won’t talk about the banks or anything else of substance.
If the issues of ’92 were crime (as personified by Willie Horton), the pledge of allegiance and the “un-American” ACLU, Bush and the GOP will make next year’s campaign issues racial quotas, crime and Kuwait.
Will it work? Are the American people idiots? Yes, and yes – unless things get so bad economically that even idiots can see through a smokescreen.
Unfortunately, the Democrats are so inept, they probably couldn’t even a turn a Great Depression to their advantage.
Mom sent along the letter from the law school financial aid office turning me down – though they told me I’m an alternate for a scholarship. But that’s probably just to make me feel better.
“We hope that you will still be able to enroll in our law school,” the letter ended. Fella, I’m going to try.
There’s more money available for second- and third-year laws students, and maybe if I get good grades, I can get some. It’s the first year that will be the killer all around, and if I make it to this time next year, I’ll be halfway there.
Mom also sent a copy of the leaflet about College Park Estates, where my apartment will be. My address is going to be 334 NW 17th Street, Gainesville, FL, though I don’t know the apartment number or the ZIP code.
I may actually be going back to Florida on the day I’ve currently got a flight back, Monday, August 12, and I probably won’t be able to move in before then anyway.
In any case, I still have at least two months left in New York City, which is enough time to get myself ready for law school at UF, see my friends just a little, and finish my diary book.
They say this was New York’s hottest May on record, and it has felt much more like summer than spring. Except for my time in California, where it’s still cool, I’ve been having an endless summer.