A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late June, 1991
by Richard Grayson
Wednesday, June 19, 1991
8 PM. I’m starting to become enthusiastic about attending law school as I think about the power being an attorney could give me. I see so many things in American life going in the wrong direction, and maybe legal skills can help me make more of a difference than I ever could as a fiction writer.
As I go through the 1980s with my diary book, I see I became progressively more interested in political and social issues.
At this point, when children are treated shabbily, when gay people and people with HIV infections are discriminated against, when women’s abortion rights are in danger, when health care is bankrupting families, when young adults aren’t being educated properly, when racial minorities are victims of a backlash – when everywhere, it seems, the bad guys are winning – I’d like to work for change.
Right now that’s more important to me than expressing myself on paper. I don’t know. I don’t know. But there has to be more to life than writing hermetic fictions and resenting the world for not gasping in awe of them, and I tend to think that’s what Tom does.
Yesterday he did show his mean streak in remarks about successful young writers like Amy Tan – I don’t know her work, I’ve never read her, and for all I know, she may be very good – and his calling Spike Lee “a nigger Nazi.”
I frowned at that, and Tom knew I disapproved. He’s been my friend and my literary champion, but with his rigid views, I can’t help thinking that if he was the one who ran things in the literary world, they would be no better than they are now.
Years ago I stopped bothering to disagree with him. I liked Jungle Fever, but even if Tom despised it, it’s only a movie. Books are only books, even the ones we ourselves write. Literature isn’t life.
Speaking of life – you remember life – today was cool and rainy. I used the dollar vans, along with the Nassau County buses, to get to and from Woodmere.
I took the N31, not the N32, for the first time today; it travels down West Broadway rather than staying on Central Avenue, so I came to the home from the other way, past the LIRR tracks, and I was able to stop at Genovese Drugs and Key Food for some stuff beforehand.
I couldn’t find Grandma Ethel in her room or in the hallway or TV room, but an employee suggested she might have gone to Mass on the first floor.
And as I peeked in the room there, I saw Grandma, her gray hair recently styled, sitting with her walker in front of her as a young priest celebrated Mass for thirty old people.
Not wanting to disturb anyone, I stayed out of the room, but I watched Grandma move her lips to the unfamiliar Roman Catholic prayers and I felt good that at least she was out among people. Her friend Christine in the next room had persuaded Grandma to attend.
Upstairs, Grandma showed me that her upper dentures wouldn’t stay on properly because she broke the hook that holds it on one side. Hopefully, they’ll get her to a dentist soon.
She complained about her tongue and lips again, and of course uttered the sentence I never miss hearing, “I’m so disgusted with my life,” a sentence Aunt Tillie has taken to using, too.
I gave Grandma some candies I’d bought, and we talked until they called her into lunch, and then I left Woodmere for Rockaway.
This afternoon I called Philadelphia and spoke to Ellen as she was monitoring the baby in his bath; Wade and Gabriel were out.
Wade again got turned down for tenure at Penn, but he was hired at every one of the schools he interviewed with at the MLA.
At first he thought he’d go to Purdue or DePaul or Tennessee or South Carolina and wasn’t going to consider Texas A&M. But then he visited all the campuses, and when he phoned from College Station, Ellen could immediately tell how he felt good about the place.
Even though Purdue would hire him with tenure, Wade thought working there would be a drag: West Lafayette felt isolated, and they couldn’t offer Ellen a job.
On the other hand, he was surprisingly impressed with Texas A&M, and when Ellen went down there for her own job interview, she liked the openness of the people.
“So we’ll be Southerners again,” Ellen said. “College Station is a neat little town.”
They’ve met some nice colleagues, and Gabe won’t have to be an outcast for being smart and liking school there. If Wade has had to adjust to what he perceives to be a comedown after Penn – they’ve been in therapy (everyone who’s been denied tenure goes into therapy) – Ellen said there are advantages in “not swimming with the sharks” in the topmost rungs of academic superstars.
Texas A&M agreed to put Wade up for tenure right away and to hire Ellen, maybe on a tenure-track line herself.
The McAllisters’ academic experiences are so far removed from mine.
Selling their beloved house in Regent Square was difficult, and the people they sold it to are horrible, but they bought a new house in Texas into which they’ll move in just three weeks, as Wade needs the money he’ll make teaching summer school in July.
I’m glad the strain is over for the McAllisters, and I told Ellen they should enjoy their adventure. “I think you’ll enjoy your own adventure in Gainesville,” she said.
Ellen and Sat Darshan haven’t been close lately, and she’s not certain how her sister really is, given that Sat Darshan’s ex-husband will be marrying his girlfriend in a few weeks: “She gets mad if I’m too concerned and gets mad if I’m not concerned enough.”
I probably know more about Sat Darshan’s mental state than Ellen does – she may not know about her sister’s disappointment in not getting BJ to be more than friends – but I didn’t say anything about that, as I always make certain not to get into the middle of family dynamics.
I took down the McAllisters’ College Station address, and Ellen said if I ever get any money, I should pay Texas a visit.
Soon after that call, Josh phoned. Like hundreds of other city workers, he got his layoff notice on Monday.
His boss was out, and it wasn’t till yesterday that he learned she had planned to get him another position in the office down the hall.
It’s definite, at the same salary, but Josh was so miffed by the way it was handled that he contacted headhunters and put out feelers for jobs in private industry.
Probably he’ll end up staying at the agency because Josh needs the security, and there are very few jobs open for programmers and systems analysts right now.
As much as I love New York City – and Rockaway in particular – I’ll be glad to move to Gainesville in August.
Saturday, June 22, 1991
11 PM. I had a great time with Justin. He arrived, as I expected, after 4 PM, mostly because he had a lot of work to do.
He got on the 3 train to New Lots instead of the 2 train to Flatbush and had to go back; I told Justin he’d better learn the difference when he starts his Theater MFA program at Brooklyn College.
But the Rockaway bus came right away, so he made pretty good time.
It had turned cooler and cloudy by the time Justin got here; he said there had been a downpour in Brooklyn, but it didn’t rain in Rockaway and it was still pleasant enough to sit on the terrace.
Justin was smart enough to wear long pants and have different clothes in his bag; he later changed into a long-sleeved shirt.
He showed me a brochure for the Theatre Factory’s summer reading series that he made up with his new computer and desktop publishing software.
With that equipment, he’s starting a typing and typesetting service; if I was going to have another chapbook done, I’d have Justin do it.
Not having much to entertain him with, I showed Justin photos from my bar mitzvah album and Marc’s and the video Marc and I made in Florida.
We went over to McDonald’s for a dinner of McLean Deluxes and garden salads; there really isn’t any other place for me to eat out here until the Ram’s Horn reopens.
As we ate dinner outside, overlooking Jamaica Bay and the Cross Bay Bridge, Justin said he felt he had to convince himself he deserved the computer. That led us to discuss our mutual problem of denying ourselves rewards because we feel unworthy of them.
Of course, I deny myself a lot more than Justin does, but then I have no interest in furniture or records or all the tchotchkes that clutter his and Larry’s apartment.
Justin and I are very different – although I have to admit none of my friends shares my apparently strange lack of interest in settling down to a cozy domestic life. He and Larry seem well-suited, and they’re growing into a middle-aged couple.
Already I look younger than Justin; he’s up to 185 pounds and doesn’t exercise or eat right, but he says he needs to fix himself up psychologically first.
We went to the 7:50 PM show of Thelma and Louise at the Surfside Cinema out back. Both of us enjoyed the movie and couldn’t understand why there’s been a fuss about the violence in it. To me, it was a ’90s version of Easy Rider, and I liked the two women a great deal precisely because of their role as outlaws, not in spite of that.
I started to walk Justin back to the Q35 bus, but we caught the Q22 bus on the run, and I picked up a transfer for Justin to use.
As we were walking up Beach 116th, I told Justin that because the Q35 made three left turns after pulling out, “we could catch the bus even if it pulled out now . . . which it’s doing!”
We ran fast and he got on it with no trouble at Beach 117th Street; I used his transfer from when he came to Rockaway (since he’d walked from Beach 116th) to get the Q22 bus for the eleven blocks back home.
It was good to go to the movies on a Saturday night and to have a friend visit me out here. I think Justin liked Rockaway.
This morning I was up at 5:30 AM, had breakfast, exercised and read the Times by 10 AM; then I finished the April, May and June entries for this year for my diary book.
Todd returned my call, and we chatted for a while. He’s had some success with nonfiction, but only occasionally does he publish stories in literary magazines.
Todd is still working on the umpteenth version of his Corvette book, which he’s now sick of.
In a way, Todd’s naïve faith in the publishing industry is a little pathetic: he believes he’s just got to hit the right editor, and his book will get accepted. I’m glad I’m a lot more cynical.
Todd said that his block is now mostly populated by Puerto Ricans, and he sounded down on New York City. He is happy that with the end of the school year, the family’s about to go upstate to their country house for the summer.
Thursday, June 27, 1991
8 PM. This might be a good time to become a lawyer. When I got home a few hours ago, I turned on the radio to learn that Justice Marshall had resigned on the last day of the Court’s term as it handed down more decisions weakening individual rights.
With Brennan gone, Marshall probably realized it was futile to keep on going in a tiny minority at the age of 83. This year showed that the conservatives are firmly in control, and now they should consolidate their power well into the 21st century.
Roe v. Wade will probably be overturned soon as the Supreme Court reverses previous expansions of our rights.
Just as the liberal Warren Court lasted through a conservative era, the Rehnquist Court will probably endure even when the pendulum swings to more liberal times.
I expect the Court will hasten those liberal times as it swings too far to the right. Maybe poor people, gays and lesbians, minority kids, disabled people and people with AIDS will need lawyers in this chilling climate.
Last evening I got to the West 4th Street station on the A train just before 6 PM. I hadn’t been in the Village since last summer, and for some reason I flashed back to the first time I ever got off at that station, in 1969.
Suddenly I had this fantasy that I’d reach the top of the subway stairs and outside it would be the summer of ’69 again.
Walking down West Eighth Street, I looked at how the stores on the block had changed and thought about how many different memories I had from those times: the Postermat, the old Eighth Street Bookshop, dinners at Shakespeare’s, junk food at Nathan’s and Orange Julius, the old Cookery (now BBQ), the Art Theatre and 8th Street Playhouse.
The people on the street seemed as idiosyncratic as ever, though, and part of me decided I still love the Village.
Getting through the security at the co-op, I made it to Josh’s 19th floor apartment, which looked neat and cheerful and homey.
Josh, too, looked healthy, and there wasn’t much sign of his paranoia as we spent hours together, walking, eating at Benny’s Burritos on Greenwich, sitting on a bench on the “good” (eastern) side of Washington Square Park.
Josh’s big news involved a statistics class he’s currently taking at The New School. He’s been studying hard, as he needs statistics because he plans to start grad school at John Jay in the fall: their M.A. program in criminology, with a concentration in computers.
At work, his boss – a black woman whom Josh says is insecure because she knows Josh is very competent and on the other side politically in the department – used the fiscal crisis as an excuse to fire Josh (I’m sure this is true), but the people down the hall were happy to get him. He’ll still be working 30% of the time for his old boss.
Josh turned down a job with the Parking Violations Bureau because it would have been on the block where he lives and he feels the need to exercise on his walk to the Department of Transportation offices.
But if the City Council gets its way, they’ll cut 10% of the DOT’s staff, so like many New York City workers, Josh isn’t totally secure.
He has a girlfriend whom he sees on weekends, and he’s watching his diet.
James Hughes, married and living in St. Louis, has Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease but refuses to get chemotherapy. Elaine, his mother, who refused a mastectomy when she had breast cancer, has James seeing a lot of quacks and faddists, and Josh thinks James will end up a kind of suicide.
Josh’s own mother is a mess: she’s all but blind and crippled, nearly incontinent. And to make things worse, his father – who sort of went crazy when he found out he didn’t have prostate cancer – is seeing a woman in Brighton Beach.
After I talked about my bankruptcy – Josh said I was proved right in my predictions for the economy – and law school and my other friends, Josh walked me to the subway.
It was a beautiful evening, dry and mild. When the train came outside after Euclid Avenue, the sky was inky blue streaked with scarlet, and when I got to Rockaway and descended the el at Beach 105th Street, it felt refreshingly breezy.
Back in the apartment, I watched a panel discussion called Out in America, part of WNET/13’s Gay Pride Week programming. One reason I’m looking forward to Gainesville is I’m interested to see how people relate to me once I‘m out of the closet.
While I don’t intend to broadcast my sexual preference, I’m not going to let people assume I’m heterosexual. The best weapon we have against homophobia is coming out, and I feel guilty I’ve waited so long.
This morning I used my Optima Card to buy stuff at Ark Drugs. I made certain to buy items I’d ordinarily buy, and I used coupons to get $2 off (plus I found $2 in the store). I don’t intend to make credit cards a habit, but I want to pay my bills to reestablish a record.
At 2 PM, I went to Woodmere via buses, but they told me that Grandma Ethel was at the dental clinic at Peninsula Hospital, so I went to the Woodmere-Hewlett Public Library for an hour and read magazines.
I hope law school doesn’t force me to give up my daily hit of The New York Times. (When I asked Josh if he liked his job, he said, “Well, I make over $50,000 and still have time to read the Times every day.”) If necessary, however, I’ll drop the Times and start subscribing again to USA Today so I can at least get some news, pathetic though McPaper is.
I found Grandma back in her room, befuddled and complaining. (She didn’t even realize she’d been in Rockaway, at the same hospital where Grandpa Herb died.) She’s starting to get a little more confused.
For the first time, I got a dollar van in Woodmere – driven by a Hispanic man – to Far Rock, where I got another van home.
I know the vans are dangerous, but they’re fast, and I like seeing how people in the ghetto live. It’s an education for me, listening to the conversations of black teenagers, watching a 12-year-old peel off a dollar from a huge wad of bills, hearing about the routine violence people endure.
(Just yesterday, a five-year-old girl was shot in the leg a few blocks from here when two men got into an argument about making change for a dollar).
I didn’t get my unemployment check, but I did get a copy of P’an Ku from Patrick. The interview with me looks good but I’ve allowed myself only to glance at it so far.
Friday, June 28, 1991
8 PM. This morning Sat Darshan and I decided to cancel our date this evening because it’s so hot (96°) and humid. Perhaps she and a friend will come out to the beach on Sunday.
Gurujot and Gurudaya are spending another week at their camp, and yesterday Sat Darshan did finish the two-mile Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge race although she “felt like death” at the end and injured her good knee.
I spoke to Pete, who’s going to Montreal by train for a jazz festival over the holiday weekend and taking a courier flight to Milan for a week later in the month. He asked if I’d be interested in attending a farewell party for Harold that Jack Roth is planning, and I said sure.
When I visited Aunt Tillie this afternoon, she was very ill. Her hiatus hernia was making her miserable, and she has numerous other complaints. Although more stoic than Grandma, Tillie has taken up Grandma’s lament of “I’m so disgusted with my life.”
It must be terribly hard to get old. When Justice Marshall asked what his health problems are, he crustily replied, “I’m old – I’m just falling apart.”
Saturday, June 29, 1991
5 PM. It’s hard not to get depressed. Dad called with UF’s financial aid letter. It seems the only aid I’m eligible for, according to what he read, is a PLUS/SLS loan for the spring and summer semesters.
That wouldn’t be enough to enable me to go to law school at UF, not really. I could do it, but what’s the point? I’d be struggling and more in debt. If I can’t afford the cheapest law school in the country, what’s the use?
I’ve really got to figure out what to do. All my eggs were in the law school basket. I cut my ties to Broward Community College and I’d rather kill myself than go back there anyway. I don’t want to return to South Florida and live with my parents.
I suppose I could stay here, but where would I find work? Even lousy adjunct jobs at CUNY are unlikely with the city going down the tubes financially. Maybe I should kill myself.
I just tried to watch a Degrassi High episode about suicide, but typically for today, Channel 21 wasn’t coming in at all and I couldn’t understand or see the program clearly. I feel devastated.
In Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers asks if we can say yes to everything life throws at us. Can I say yes to this? Do I have a choice?
I’m so discouraged by all of this – not getting my unemployment check, running out of money, the news from UF – all coming at once. See: recently I’ve been telling myself that I’d had it too easy.
A thought: I’ll kill Grandma Ethel. She wants to die, and then I’ll become a celebrity and the state will have to house me in prison. It’s a measure of my mental state that that sounds rational now.
What else can I do? There’s nothing left of my career as a writer or a computer education trainer or an English teacher. I have fewer friends than I’ve ever had, and if I died or was sent to prison, nobody would be devastated. They’d be upset but not devastated.
At least if I plan to kill myself, I should kill Grandma first, so she would be spared the bad news. Is that a Woody Allen joke?
Part of me always suspected law school and Gainesville were fictions.
(Okay, that’s a line stolen from the end of Sunday, Bloody Sunday, when the Peter Finch character says, “I always knew Italy was a fiction.”)
Or am I giving up too easily? Suddenly I feel old. Am I overdramatizing?
“Beware of overdramatization,” Ms. Stein wrote on a freshman comp paper I wrote 22 years ago, a paper in which I described my emotional problems and sessions with a shrink.
Where do I go now? What do I do? What do I want to do?
Saturday, June 30, 1991
Noon. Sat Darshan and her friend Gabriele are coming over in an hour or so.
I sounded like an asshole yesterday. The universe won’t notice if I do or do not go to law school. But I think that even if I don’t attend law school, I want to move to Gainesville.
That might seem silly, as I know nobody I the town, but I think I need to start over in a new place, and there are more opportunities in a university community than in either New York City or South Florida. Also, the lifestyle is better and cheaper.
In the law school catalog, it says that you can’t defer entrance unless you’re in a joint degree program. Maybe I can start in the College of Journalism and go part-time and work. Maybe I can get a job at Santa Fe Community College or some work-study position or assistantship at UF.
Maybe I can use cash advances for my first term; I’d like to experience at least one semester of law school. If I had to drop out or do something else after that, at least I’d know if I really like studying the law.
In any case, I’m better off in Gainesville; even if I haven’t yet set foot there, I know it’s pretty and quiet and 450 miles from my parents and it has mild winters and lots of cultural and social activities at the university.
It will be a chance for a fresh start, and if I can make friends, do more than just survive, and keep growing, I’ll feel a lot better about myself in Gainesville.
At least at this point I no longer feel victim to that awful negative thinking for more than a day. Years ago I’d put myself into a funk like yesterday’s that would last for weeks.
I don’t want to see myself as a helpless victim but as a resourceful, capable winner. I need to change my life, and I can change my life.