A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late July, 1991

by Richard Grayson

Wednesday, July 24, 1991

9 PM. As I look out the bedroom window, I see the lighthouse in New Jersey much brighter than on recent nights as the light turns. The past few weeks, I’ve noticed that I see the flash of the light every six seconds. Probably it looks sharper tonight because the haze is gone, or maybe the full moon helps.

It’s going to be hard to leave Rockaway. I’m going to miss my little life here.

Last evening Josh phoned when the violent storms, which lowered the temperature twenty degrees, stranded him at the office. He got an A in his stat course at The New School, and I know he worked hard for it.

Josh is bright, but I’m still convinced he’s not over his paranoia and psychosis. It’s not any one thing he’s said, but rather a pattern of slightly odd responses or inappropriate questions and comments.

Well, I guess if you’re going to be paranoid, New York City is the best place to live. Josh couldn’t sustain his fantasies of being followed in a car culture or in a small city like Gainesville.

I caught up on my sleep last night and did aerobic exercise at 8 AM today. My back has been hurting me when I wake up, and I’ve been trying to lie, not on my stomach, but on my side. (I really should lie on my back, but that’s always been too difficult.)

It was warm – 90° – today, yet the low humidity made it quite comfortable.

When I visited Grandma Ethel, she had her usual complaints. She’s going to miss my visits terribly, but what can I do?

Seeing her twice a week or more this summer was more than anyone but Marty would do. Neither Mom nor my brothers have been to see Grandma at the home in the nine months she’s lived there, and I’ll probably see her again even after this summer before they get around to a visit.

She again said she has “no future,” but there’s no way she could care for herself at home. Perhaps someday there’ll be a better system of home care so elderly people like Grandma can get support and care while still keeping their own homes.

After I got back from Woodmere at 1 PM, I had lunch and spent much of the rest of the day with my Thirties/Eighties manuscript. I’ve read and corrected typos for more than half the book, and I should be finished in a day or two.

I still feel the book reads well, but it’s hard for me to put myself in the place of a reader. With fiction or less personal nonfiction, I’m better able to judge how a stranger would react to my writing.

In a week I’ll finish the 22nd year of diary-keeping, and on August 1, I’ll begin my 23rd year of doing this. Certainly I realize that my diary entries, like this one, have little or no literary merit, but maybe my books of one-entry-per-month make for a decent narrative.

In today’s Times, I saw Bill Beer’s obituary. He was a young sociology professor I had at Brooklyn, and later he became a good friend of Gary. Bill Beer was married, had a couple of kids, and was very active in community and professional organizations. Dead at 48, he’d been suffering with cancer for a long time.

Whenever I feel a twinge of despair related to money problems, I’ve got to remind myself the most important thing in my life is my health. Most people take good health for granted and feel astonished that they could be affronted by serious illness.

What anyone with a fatal or serious chronic disease wouldn’t give to trade places with me! Being broke and having to give up going to law school certainly won’t end my life. Neither will all the miseries my neurotic side sees happening in Gainesville.

In the next ten days I’ve got some emotional work to do, adjusting to what I’ll be facing in Florida.

Friday, July 26, 1991

9 PM.  Three weeks from tonight I’ll have experienced my first day of orientation at the law school, assuming the fickle finger of fate doesn’t point me in an unexpected direction. It’s hard to believe.

Isaac Bashevis Singer died in a Miami nursing home at 87. Over the years, I saw him a number of times, eating at the diners on Broadway – 4 Brothers at 87th,  the American Diner at 85th – or at Danny’s in Surfside. A waiter at 4 Brothers once remarked to me that he wondered how Singer had the strength to write since all he seemed to eat were vegetables.

He was quite a character; for a Nobel Prize winner, he was about as unpretentious as you can get, though I never quite bought his Old World mysticism. But the man was heroic. He persevered, even after the world he grew to manhood in – Jewish life in Poland – was utterly destroyed.

Singer brought that world to readers, and he kept it in his mind. I remember back in high school or college reading his family saga The Family Moskat over a couple of weeks.

Probably Singer loved the Upper West Side because it reminded him of Europe; at its best, my old neighborhood, and his, is probably the most European place in all of the U.S.

When I read parts of the articles about Singer to Grandma Ethel at the home and remarked how he, a wealthy writer, ate the $5.50 special at the 72nd Street Famous Dairy Restaurant every day for lunch – he and Alma went to the diners for dinner – Grandma said, “Well, sure, that’s a lot of money for lunch every day, but I guess he could afford it.”

Grandma was sitting in the alcove with Christine when I got to the home this morning. I bought her some oranges and apples. She had a bandage on her nose, the result of a visit yesterday to the dermatologist to remove that skin cancer. I assume it was only basal cell carcinoma, but of course the biopsy isn’t back yet.

Back in her room, I asked Grandma, who always is complaining about something, what time in her life was the happiest, and she said it was the early years of her marriage, before children, before the Great Depression took hold and she had to move in with her in-laws.

She and Grandpa Herb had an apartment on East 98th Street near Rockaway Parkway, and Grandma didn’t work. When I asked what she did to pass the time, she said she couldn’t remember: cooking and housework, mostly, and she played cards in the afternoon.

Soon there won’t be too many people of Grandma’s generation left: not only the Russian immigrant Jews of the early part of the century, but people who were newlyweds in 1929 and 1930.

Grandma told me about the eccentricities of various residents, including one old lady who was constantly cursing out a West Indian nurse, who took the abuse matter-of-factly and didn’t let the insults stop her from helping the woman.

I got back here at 1 PM. Both the dollar vans I took today were nearly empty, and I suspect there’s too much competition for riders. Sometimes I see three or four vans together, each vying for passengers.

I spent the cloudy afternoon reading the papers, watching Another World, and making up some packages and boxes to send to myself in Fort Lauderdale.

Lately I haven’t been contacting any friends, though I did speak to Ronna the other night. She was busy with work for her synagogue so I told her to phone me back. This weekend I’ll start calling people to say goodbye.

My stay here will be exactly thirteen weeks: a season, three months. I’ve collected some New York City subway and bus maps, and I can use them to decorate my apartment in Gainesville, along with a big road map of the USA and maps of Los Angeles and Florida.

The map placemats I eat on here – the ones I got at Rogoff’s on Beach 116th Street – got me looking at geographical names I’d never seen before.

Remember how, as a kid, I loved maps and even thought I’d like to be a mapmaker when I grew up. Is that because it was a way I could go to exotic places without leaving my room?

I get sleepy so early, but that’s because I wake up soon after 5 AM every day. My first law school classes start at 9 AM and my last ones end at 4:30 PM or so.

Saturday, July 27, 1991

10 PM. I got home a little while ago. Once again I was the only one to exit the H train at Seaside/Beach 105th Street, but the streets weren’t deserted, and I didn’t feel in danger. It’s pleasantly cool here, and there’s a full moon over the Atlantic.

God, with a week to go in my Rockaway summer, I’m already starting to miss the good times here. Well, I’m not going to get nostalgic for the present for the present [sic].

Last night I slept well and dreamed about being in a college cafeteria that was sort of like the one at Boylan Hall in Brooklyn College, but I also knew it was the University of Florida. I can’t remember the dream’s details, but I think my unconscious is preparing me for the big change in my life.

Today was definitely not a beach day, as it was dreary and cloudy. I spent the morning lolling around, listening to the radio (I heard one of my favorite pieces, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), exercising lightly, reading the paper (I called and canceled my subscription staring after I’m gone), eating meals and drinking the tap water, which I shouldn’t have done, according to a sign posted yesterday afternoon which I saw only when I went out at noon.

I took a couple of jiffy bags of books, including phone books and Black’s Law Dictionary, and at the post office I mailed them to myself in Florida. On my way home, I noticed the annual Irish Festival was starting up. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go over and see what’s doing there.

I left Rockaway at 3 PM, as usual just missing a subway. But I got to West 4th Street/Washington Square by 4:30 PM, early enough for me to buy some supplements (chromium picolinate and gingko biloba) at the Vitamin Shoppe, one of the few stores that takes Diners Club, before I went to Alice’s.

As it turned out, June and her daughter, Kylie, were there. Alice had decided she couldn’t work today and so took Kylie, about 4 or 5, to a carnival near the Intrepid, and June was picking her up.

I was thrilled to see June, who looked fine. She just had her second child, Dawn, a couple of months ago; the baby was at home with Cliff. June’s mother has been living with them, and at 78, she has lots of health problems.

We spoke about early childhood education – June was uncomfortable with the idea of invented spelling in teaching creative writing to kids – and how older patients are treated by young doctors and June and Cliff’s decision to buy a VCR even though they have only a black-and-white TV.

Kylie was mesmerized by a Bugs Bunny video Alice had rented at Blockbuster. After it was over, she and Alice described the nauseating-sounding rides they’d gone on this afternoon at the carnival.

June decided not to join us for dinner at 6:30 PM, so Alice and I ate by ourselves, once again outside at the Riviera Café. She’s almost finished with the book and told me about an insight she’d had while doing stuff for her mother and brother.

The favors for them both involved lying – saying that Alice’s mother wasn’t in Australia to the food stamps people and that she, Alice, lived at the Wall Street apartment she and Michael own (they actually have renters living there) so they could qualify for a better mortgage rate.

Alice realized she hated doing these things – she’s incredibly ethical, at least when it involves legalities – and she realized that she had been lying for her mother all her life, ever since she was a little girl and had to tell her mother’s friends that her mother was ill when she just didn’t want to see them.

Alice’s therapist encouraged her to stop enabling her mother’s behavior, and Alice said her mother will freak out when she tells her that she will no longer lie for her.

I wasn’t surprised when Alice told me she wouldn’t have the courage to move to a strange city the way I’m doing, but I don’t feel particularly brave. We hugged goodbye on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place before I descended into the inferno of the subway.

Sunday, July 28, 1991

6 PM. Next Sunday night will be my last here in Rockaway. But now I’ll be going to Gainesville with a lot less worry.

Mom phoned an hour ago and said that yesterday I got a letter from UF telling me I’d won a Ralph R. Bailey Scholarship of $2500 for each year of law school provided I maintain a 2.85 index and carry a full load of classes.

It’s a relief to know I’ll have that extra money, which will basically cover my entire tuition. That makes it much more likely I can continue beyond the fall semester, but I’m going to take things one semester at a time.

Alice was right last evening when she said the money for law school would come from somewhere. Finally, being a bona fide Broward County resident paid off. Thank you, Ralph R. Bailey: I always did like Bailey Hall at BCC-Central.

It’s odd, but I feel myself not quite believing this good news; however, I didn’t believe I got other fellowships or publications until I saw them happen in some concrete way.

Either I’m naturally cautious or else I feel I don’t deserve good stuff (although I’m pretty quick to feel slighted when I get rejected for one of these honors).

I slept well, having great dreams toward morning, including one in which I became great friends with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, who were living in Rockaway for the summer.

Today was a glorious day: warm, dry and sunny. I spent my usual Sunday morning, mixing newspaper reading with watching public affairs shows.

After lunch, I walked over to the Rockaway Irish Festival and paid $5 to listen to Irish music and wander about.

There were hordes of people and lots of green and orange, plenty of beer, and the usual street-fair/carnival junk food. At the flea market there were all these Irish limericks on plaques and other merchandise, from kitschy T-shirts with sayings like “American by birth, Irish by the grace of God” and “IBM – Irish By Marriage.”

I looked at all the stuff with family crests but I guess Grayson isn’t an Irish name.

Generally I like Irish people. Sean looked really Irish, and certainly his mother was Irish, but he had no ethnic awareness. That’s probably common today among the lace-curtain Irish and WASPified types, but Rockaway brings out a lower-class crowd.

It’s interesting that their pro-IRA stance supports a radical organization when many Irish-Americans are conservative – though of course there always have been fiery Irish radicals in the U.S.

I like Gaelic music and love Irish literature, and I can understand why Norman Mailer always liked to think of himself as an Irishman. The new immigrants are providing fresh blood to New York City’s Irish-Americans.

From the festival I went over to visit Aunt Tillie, with whom I sat for over an hour as she told me stories I’ve heard before: about Morris’s early generosity, which was legendary, and how it led to his meeting Tillie and how he could never stop throwing money away on luxuries like expensive barbers (for which she blamed his early baldness: “The barber told Morris to use a steel brush!”) and how he delayed seeing a doctor about his appendicitis until peritonitis set in.

Aunt Tillie seems to me even sadder than Grandma, although she’s much stronger and more intelligent. But her whole family is now dead – her three brothers and two of her sisters-in-law – or in adult homes (Grandma and Irving). The only one left is Aunt Minnie, who can’t drive from Great Neck to see Tillie.

Really, she has nobody, and she said she worries about her will. First her brother-in-law Ruby Metz was her executor and he died, and now Uncle Irving is, but he’s incompetent. It’s sad.

I feel a sense of responsibility toward my great-aunt, if only because there’s no one else around. I wish I had a car so I could get Tillie and Minnie together.

I’m going to remember Aunt Tillie’s stories; they’re great oral history. My grandfather, her brother, told stories the same way, making myths and legends out of ordinary life.

Monday, July 29, 1991

8 PM. I fell asleep soon after I, Claudius ended last night. I’ve been having vivid, complex dreams, and I suspect my brain is working overtime because of the impending big changes in my life.

In one dream, I walked into a doctor’s waiting room – not the sleek new kind with high-tech furniture and all those media from Whittle Communications, but an old-fashioned waiting room with plush chairs and couches, resembling an English parlor, the kind my pediatrician Dr. Stein or my psychiatrist Dr. Lipton had.

But this room was for meditation, and it had been a gift from some physician who died and wanted a place for people to think about their lives without actually being spurred to do so because of a health problem.

This morning was dark and cool. I worked out starting at 6:30 AM. A couple of hours later, I was out of the house, making two trips to the post office to send off three boxes of stuff to Fort Lauderdale.

Then I hopped on a bus to Far Rockaway. The Green Line drivers may go out on strike on Thursday because they’re resisting givebacks to management. I’m glad I won’t be here to deal with the strike, if it comes off, except for its first few days.

For the first few months when I lived in Rockaway in 1979, the Green bus drivers were also on strike, and it caused me a lot of inconvenience even though I had a car then.

At the nursing home, I first saw Grandma Ethel walking in the hall. We went to her room, where I took out the oranges and apples I‘d brought on Friday and neglected to leave there. Grandma’s complaints were the usual.

“Instead of getting better, I’m getting worse,” she said, meaning the burning sensation and bitter taste in her mouth. I cluck my tongue and say, “Terrible, just terrible,” and wait for her to change the subject and go on to some other topics: Marty’s weight, her daily meal schedule, the pleasantness of some of the nicer workers at the home.

I know I’ll never convince her that she’s not sick any more than I could make Josh realize nobody was harassing him. Perception always beats reality.

I stayed with Grandma until noon, when she and the others went into lunch. It’s going to be very hard on her when I leave and my twice-weekly visits are a memory.

Instead of taking the bus, I decided to walk down Central Avenue to Cedarhurst, about twenty blocks. But it was cool and pleasant and hadn’t yet started raining.

As the homes of Woodmere gave way to the stores of Cedarhurst, I mingled among the frum (“Orthodox”: Ronna uses the term) and had frozen yogurt at TCBY and a big salad at Supples, an upscale deli. For a change it was nice to have my salad in a restaurant.

At the bookstore I found the newest edition of the guide to law schools, and this one seemed to imply that the University of Florida was more competitive, if still relaxed. Their videocassettes and computer files in the law library sound up-to-date, and UF is probably a well-heeled law school.

Obviously if I’m getting a scholarship, I assume someone sent back a “cancel” form when they got the stuff about orientation last week. I hope I prove worthy of the scholarship. Their offer of it makes me feel more warmly toward UF’s College of Law, as if they are really concerned about me.

Perhaps I’m going to blossom in Gainesville. I know I’ve got to make sure I don’t come off as some snotty know-it-all because of my age and experience. As a law student, I’m no more experienced than a 22-year-old who got his B.A. this year. I want to try to fit in at the law school and university and wider community.

At Broward Community College, I always felt alienated and different, and I’m tired of being an outsider. I hope I can be hard-working but also friendly and helpful. We’ll see. I just don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.

My tendency is always to criticize, if only to myself, when I’m in a new group – even at artists’ colonies. For a while I’d like to be just one of the guys.

Back home, I spoke to Pete, who just got back from Europe – he hated Milan but he liked Lugano and other places – and is on his way to San Francisco to earn triple mileage on Pan Am before the airline totally disappears into Delta, United and/or TWA.

I read that Southeast Bank in Miami is close to failure; it must be the $6,700 I owed on my Preferred MasterCard that put them over the edge.

Tom Person sent out a xerox of his New Pages column, in which he reprinted his review of Narcissism and Me. It’s fairly dopey, but at least I can get one good blurb from the only review of that chapbook.

Manhattan D.A. Morgenthau indicted the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, but the scandal’s reach is global.

BCCI seems to have been a Ponzi scheme involved with every evil enterprise from money laundering to bribery to covert actions like Iran/Contra and other arms sales and even murder. The CIA, the Medellin drug cartel, Neiman Marcus, Arab terrorists: it’s as if somebody’s paranoid fantasy about a worldwide conspiracy of evil came true.

Tuesday, July 30, 1991

8 PM. A week from tomorrow I’ll be in Gainesville. Talking to Mom today, I learned that I really screwed up my address. I seem to have a psychological block, but it also confused Mom.

It turns out 342 isn’t the number of my unit but my street address. The complex as whole has a street number of 334 but each unit has its own address because they are like townhouses.

In other words, my Gainesville address is 342 NW 17th Street with no unit number. Mom kindly took care of my phone, and my number will be (904) 372-9842.

Mom also ordered a bed from Burdines to be delivered. I appreciate her taking care of stuff, though I could have done it myself next week in Florida. Mom also told me she’s been paying a few of my bills as they’ve come in; I’d assumed that.

Dad is coming home from New Jersey tonight when his meetings end. He didn’t feel so bad because the other salesmen were also having trouble selling Introspect’s holiday line. His menswear show in Miami was a disaster, and his income from commissions will be cut drastically.

Not only is retail business bad, but he’s selling highly expensive goods of a product which nobody’s ever bought before; their fall line first goes out next month. And aside from the MTV commercials, the advertising hasn’t been rolled out except in Los Angeles and New York.

Up at 6:30 AM, I left the house at 9 AM. It was a clear, mild day, and I thought I’d take a little trip. I figured that maybe I could go to the Great Neck library and find Aunt Minnie there and that she’d give me some of the books she has for Aunt Tillie.

Anyway, for the first time this summer, I took the Q53 bus into Queens, to the last stop at Woodside, where I hopped on the LIRR’s Port Washington line. I’d taken that line, one of the few that doesn’t run through Jamaica, from Douglaston when I spent Christmas 1984 with Teresa’s family.

Great Neck was only about fifteen minutes away. I figured the public library would be near the train station, but following people’s instructions – everyone warned me that it was too far to walk – I strolled north along Middle Neck Road until the tony shops became plain old stores and rich people’s homes gave way to cheaper, smaller houses.

I enjoyed my walk – I stopped off at TCBY and a park – but I’d been stomping around for a couple of miles without a clue, so I finally admitted defeat and got on a Nassau County bus back to the train station.

There I had lunch at the new Pro-Portion Cafe, a franchise specializing in diet foods, using the exchange plan and giving diners the number of calories for each item.

Even if I didn’t accomplish my goal, I had a pleasant journey and saw Great Neck: all in all, I had a nice little adventure.

Ronna and I said goodbye over the phone. She’s been fine and said she’s glad I like Ralph because she does, too: “If only I could get him to communicate more about our relationship.”

In a couple of weeks she’ll be in Fort Lauderdale for Melissa’s bridal shower, being given by the maid of honor. Ronna congratulated me on my scholarship and wished me luck in Gainesville.

Justin called and said he’d been at Brooklyn College, where he got material from the department and spoke to people at the financial aid office. He also interviewed for a work-study job doing PR at the BC Performing Arts Center, a position he’s wildly overqualified for.

I hope Justin has a good experience in grad school at my alma mater; so far, he reports everyone there is quite nice.

Josh and I talked, and I may see him on Thursday.