A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early August, 1991
by Richard Grayson
Thursday, August 1, 1991
3 PM. I’m going to be fairly busy my last few days here. I finally called Teresa, and of course she wants me to come out to Fire Island, but I first asked her to come here tomorrow, when I‘ve invited Mikey for the day. She had company so I let her off and she’ll call me back.
Although it’s a 90° day, in a few hours I’m going to meet Josh at B. Dalton and we’ll go out to dinner. This will be my last trip into Manhattan, I guess.
I phoned Sat Darshan, who told me that last night she was out with friends, who took her to an off-Broadway revue. She’s been depressed, has been taking L-phenylalanine as an antidote, and has been keeping busy with the kids and avoiding BJ. She’s still upset that he only views her as a platonic friend, not a future spouse.
Sat Darshan fears she’ll crash into despair when Gurujot and Gurudaya go back to India in a few weeks, and she’s FedExed three letters asking Yogi Bhajan for advice. (He didn’t answer her earlier letters, and she blames the secretaries for not giving him his mail.)
She said that usually she’s run away to a new place, even a new country, “and that would give me a few years before my problems started to reassert themselves,” but she can’t go anywhere now. Maybe she can write this all out, I suggested.
I’ve sent out a dozen postcards with my new address and phone, and I was going to send one to Mikey when he called to say he’s on vacation. Tomorrow’s the best time for him to visit, as I’ll be seeing Grandma Ethel on the weekend. I don’t know when or if I’ll get to see Justin, but I did spend more time with him than usual this year.
This morning I did aerobics and went out at 11 AM to the post office and the Korean grocery. The Wall Street Journal has an article about lawyers who are leaving the profession to become novelists, but as one attorney-turned-writer said, unless you’re Scott Turow, writing novels is “the ultimate in pro bono work.”
Mikey said he’ll be over in the late morning, so I don’t want to get back from the Village too late tonight. Right now I’m doing the laundry and feeling a bit rushed, but I’m glad that Marty decided to keep Grandma’s apartment.
10 PM. One thing I’ll always remember about this summer is the cool ocean breeze hitting me as I’d return from the city on a hot night and descended the platform of the el. God, it’s such a gorgeous feeling.
And I’ll remember sitting at the desk in my grandparents’ bedroom as I am right now and hearing the sound of the surf and seeing the lighthouse blinking in the distance, the light disappearing for six seconds and then reappearing.
It’s going to be hard to leave Rockaway, but I’ve savored the time I’ve had here even more because I knew it had to end.
I got home in an hour tonight, hopping right on a C train, which was not air-conditioned but which went express from Utica to Euclid, so I didn’t have to get off and change trains.
The B. Dalton store was closed for renovation, but I met Josh on Sixth Avenue after I spent an hour in the Jefferson Market library. We had dinner at Empire Szechuan on Seventh Avenue and later sat on the steps of St. Vincent’s Hospital, talking.
I think Josh is still mentally ill. At the end of the evening he told me he was punched in the face early last month by a white man who’d bumped him in the street. Josh said he said something to the guy before the guy hit him, and Josh followed the guy all over, looking for a cop, but the man finally got away.
Josh went to the police station but was unhappy because they didn’t do much. He said he had a visible black eye and wanted to press charges, but the officers just treated him as if he were a nuisance.
I’m not certain I believe Josh, and I found myself going over the details of the incident just the way I used to when I got sucked into his stories of continual harassment a couple of years ago.
I’m sure this interest in criminology and John Jay’s M.A. program is tied into Josh’s paranoia, as is his refusal to take a vacation outside New York City and his constant complaints about how blacks in his department discriminate against whites.
It’s an interesting case in abnormal psychology, but Josh is/was my friend, and it’s sad his life is so obsessed.
Friday, August 2, 1991
9 PM. I’m making the most of the rest of my summer vacation. Last night I had pleasant dreams, including one in which I renewed my childhood friendship with Steve Hellman and his sister Leslie.
Steve and I were neighbors but an odd pair because he was mature for his age, a great athlete, had lots of girlfriends, was good-looking and muscular, while I was short and skinny, shy and bookish, babyish and unathletic.
The last time I spoke to Steve was in the early ’70s, a long time after we’d previously seen one another, and I remember telling him I was thinking of going to law school – of course I didn’t actually apply for almost twenty years after that – and Steve said, “Good. We need lawyers.”
I knew what he meant: it wasn’t that we need greedy corporate lawyers. Steve was referring to us, guys who didn’t have much in common – by then he was a Vietnam veteran and recovering drug addict – except long hair and a sense that “we” were part of a generation that was going to change the world.
Is it much too late for that now? For me?
At 6 PM this evening, I took myself across the street to see 23-year-old John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, an autobiographical film about growing up in South Central L.A. With the omnipresent police helicopters, I kept thinking that for some Americans, this country is already a police state.
Spending so much time this summer with black people in subways, buses and especially the dollar vans in Rockaway, where I’m always the only white person, has made me think more about race, especially with incidents like the Jermaine Ewell beating in Atlantic Beach (I was happy to see that he’s home from the hospital and that the Orthodox Jewish stores in Cedarhurst had taken collections for his medical care), the firebombings of real estate offices, and just yesterday, a slashing in Canarsie of a black man walking with his baby.
Last night I caught most of Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, which I’d seen before: a documentary about black gay men that upset all the right-wing loonies who seem to run this country.
It feels as if black men and gay men are both endangered species: Look how that nut in Milwaukee managed to kill off so many gay men of color.
Boyz n the Hood also made me understand Jean Klimeczko, my BCC-South student, a bright, good-looking kid who got me interested in Public Enemy. I was shocked when I read he was arrested for shooting a 14-year-old kid, member of a rival gang, but the movie tonight helped me figure out why he got involved in that kind of life.
I hope black people and white people get the film’s message: we have to stop disrespecting and killing each other and ourselves.
Public Enemy says, “Fight the power.” Is that what I’m going to law school for? Sadly, I know I’m not going to be Thurgood Marshall. (Jordan once told Ronna that his classmates at Boston University law school were there to “make money, not become Thurgood Marshalls.”)
When Mikey came over at noon today, we went straight to the beach, which I know he loves since he’s a Rockaway boy and hadn’t been “home” in many years.
We walked along the ocean’s edge down past Belle Harbor and all those blocks so familiar to him; a house on one corner, once owned by his mother, had been completely redone.
He spotted only a few familiar faces – like Sherri, that girl we went to college with, who’s totally grey now – but said some of the crowds looked the same as in the old days.
I asked him about law school and he said he really struggled his first year. The metaphor everyone uses is learning a new language. Mikey said he studied law seven days a week and only occasionally had time to watch TV. His big treat was to make himself a special dinner on Saturday night.
Mikey did say he had a couple of sadistic Kingsfield-manqué professors in whose classes he’d never volunteer. “Their rationale is that judges will treat you like that,” Mikey said, “which is true, only as an attorney I’ve never been afraid to talk back to judges.”
I noticed Mikey looks pretty good. As for myself, I’ve put on weight this summer. My belly is flabbier than it was, and that’s discouraging, considering how hard I watch myself.
But I’ve had too much time to snack, and hopefully, I’ll do better when I’m out of the house more and don’t have this much access to food. And at least I’m not more than ten pounds over my lowest weight of 135 or so.
Besides, I’m 40 years old, and the fate of all mammals – flab around the middle – seems inescapable; also, it’s partly that my skin sags because it had nowhere to go. Dressed, I look fine. And I should have covered up more today, anyway; despite sunscreen, I got really burned, and that’s not at all healthy.
But Mikey and I stayed on the beach over three hours. He said the water was refreshing, but I avoided the ocean (except for my feet) as we walked the fifty blocks back and forth.
Mikey seems in a good place for a guy getting a divorce. He has a big trial in September so he used this vacation week to veg out.
Saturday, August 3, 1991
7 PM. It’s a cloudy, humid evening, and I’ve been fighting a bad sinus headache for hours. Tonight isn’t my last night here, but tomorrow I’ll have to worry about getting out early Monday morning.
This morning I exercised for an hour and then went to see Grandma Ethel. We sat out on the terrace, and I felt bad for this huge ugly bug stuck on its back in a pool of water caused by the air conditioner.
So with a stick, I uprighted the insect, and Grandma and I watched as it struggle to get dry, crawl away, and attempt to fly – but it couldn’t get its wings going.
Grandma complained about her mouth problems. Yesterday she went to the dentist, and they did give her some mouth rinse. I stayed with her a couple of hours, and when the noon call to lunch came, I hugged her goodbye, told her I loved her and would write, and she began to cry.
Sad. I figured Marty might come in this afternoon – lately he’s been visiting on Saturdays – and that would make her feel the loss less. Certainly I’ve done my part for my grandmother, more than Mom or the other grandchildren.
Grandma could die before I see her again, but I’d be surprised. If she does die, I doubt I’ll come back to New York for the funeral. I visited her, in Rockaway and Woodmere, while she was alive and in need of company, and that’s more important than making an appearance when she’s dead. Not attending either of my grandfathers’ funerals didn’t mean I wasn’t a loving grandson.
I got off the bus at Mott Avenue and walked to Beach Channel Drive to McDonald’s for a McLean Deluxe. As happened so often this summer, I was the only white person around, but somehow I felt I fit in.
Far Rockaway, with its black and Hispanic population, resembled the neighborhoods in Singleton’s movie, and I feel that my experiences in such a place – and also my teaching in Liberty City and Overtown, at Long Island University and John Jay and Baruch – have made me more aware of how nonwhite people live their lives.
Does that sound patronizing? I can’t write black or Hispanic characters too accurately, but at least I know something about life in Arverne, if only by observing my fellow passengers on the buses and the dollar vans.
When Dad called, I gave him my flight number. I should be coming into Fort Lauderdale at around 11 AM on Monday. One more day and my summer is over.
Sunday, August 4, 1991
7 PM. As I look out at the Atlantic for the last time in the evening, I feel sad about leaving Rockaway.
I’ve been methodical about doing everything I needed to do, and I hope that methodical manner will help me survive in Gainesville and in law school.
This is going to be a lollapalooza of a week, but once I’m alone in my Gainesville apartment, I’ll start adjusting.
Looking back at the last three months, I feel privileged to have been here in Rockaway, where I feel at home. I pray that eventually I’ll feel just as at home in Gainesville.
I know it will be different: I’ve never set foot in Gainesville while I’ve been spending time in Rockaway all my life. Still, I liked Los Angeles right from the start and felt comfortable there. As I get older, new places seem less strange.
I bought map placemats like the ones I’ve been using here, and I’ve acquired a big U.S. map and a New York City subway map and borough bus maps and maps of Los Angeles and Florida; I think I’ll put them up in my new home.
I feel I’ve been getting more in touch with the child who loved maps, with the nine-year-old boy who wanted to travel to Puerto Rico even if he had to take a tranquilizer to get on the plane.
Despite my agoraphobia as a teenager and college student, I wanted to go to Miami for Christmas 1969 and the Democratic convention in 1972 enough to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Am I running away, the way Sat Darshan said she did when she moved to Europe to avoid her real problems? I don’t think so. Both New York and Fort Lauderdale seems like dead ends right now, as do my jobs teaching community college English and doing computer education training.
Law school may not be the answer, but at least it will provide me with an alternative.
Today I did all my usual stuff but made sure I packed, used up all the food in the refrigerator (except for tonight’s snacks and breakfast tomorrow), made arrangements for a cab to JFK at 7 AM, gave Aunt Tillie the mailbox keys and Grandma’s checkbook and register, and did one last load of laundry.
Well, enjoy the evening, kid.
Thursday, August 8, 1991
8 PM. Because I was so exhausted from yesterday, I did get some sleep on the floor of my new apartment last night – but not much.
What I didn’t know was that the clock radio Dad gave me wasn’t keeping accurate time, so I couldn’t believe I had slept till 7 AM and it was still dark out here in Gainesville at 8 AM.
Of course, I later discovered that I was two hours ahead of myself, but I put the time to good use, opening cartons and separating stuff into clothing (and sub-classifying the different items), books, computer stuff, video tapes, office supplies, etc.
I did some homemade exercises, too, and by the time Mom and Dad got here at 9 AM, the cartons were all opened and I was ready to go out while they waited here for the beds to be delivered and for the phone repairman to fix the problem.
I feel like a college freshman embarrassed by and hovered over by anxious parents, but it’s useless to resist irresistible force.
So I let them deal with the building management – we worked out the smoke alarm problem and the lack of hot water and the key difficulties – and in fact, in the afternoon the maintenance guy who came in while I was here alone assumed I was a freshman.
I must look like a pretty sorry 18-year-old, though from the stress of moving, I currently have the requisite acne breaking out all over my forehead.
Yes, I feel infantilized, but what’s the good of fighting my parents now?
Last night while I was alone, I got all exercised about this frilly, feminine pillow Mom gave me and the useless tissue box holder and I resolved to tell her I didn’t want them.
But then I thought: My mother’s getting old and Dad is 65. It obviously gives them a great deal of pleasure to do this stuff, and Mom is in heaven playing interior decorator, so why should I spoil their fun?
So I told them to look for furniture without me if they wanted to get it, and that otherwise, I’d be perfectly happy doing it myself. I just didn’t want to argue with them while shopping.
At 6 PM, they brought back a mess of furniture they got cheap at a place where all the students go: bookcases, lamps, chairs, night table, TV stand and dresser. It’s all fine with me.
Okay, so what did I do all this time while my parents were playing College Mom and Dad?
I scoped out Gainesville and UF, trying to get the lay of the land. As I used my automobile to wander around, I got a rough idea of the way the city is laid out. Usually, as in Los Angeles, my sense of direction is good, especially if I’ve looked at maps. But I’m still a newborn infant when it comes to Gainesville.
When I walked on the UF campus, I kept thinking that it showed that I didn’t fit in or know where I was going.
I didn’t park at the law school because I couldn’t figure out where the legal spaces were; I’ll have to study that.
But I’ve got the generalities of where everything is.
I like the WUFT-FM classical/NPR station, and WRUF-AM plays the kind of songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s I like.
The New York Times is readily available at vending machines, as are most of the big Florida dailies. There are neat little cafes and local stores and all the chain stores I’m used to.
Basically, I know I can be comfortable here. It’s too early to say I love Gainesville, but the relationship between me and this city is filled with potential.
After lunch at McDonald’s, I explored the east side of town, starting with Main Street downtown. I noticed that a little further east, it’s all blacks living in rural or Victorian homes.
I’m glad Gainesville isn’t that white; indeed, it seems as racially mixed (or divided) as any small Southern town.
I like the tall oaks and Spanish moss and the tree outside my bedroom window. The heat and humidity are awful for my skin and sinuses, but a thunderstorm late this afternoon brought relief.
Mom and Dad went out to dinner (I ate here), but they’ll be over later.
Friday, August 9, 1991
3:30 PM. Now I really am alone in a strange city. Mom and Dad left, amid lots of hugs, several hours ago.
I hope they’re not running into the heavy thunderstorms we’re getting here, and I hope they don’t have car trouble getting back to South Florida.
They really did a lot for me, and once I stopped fighting them, I felt much better about their being here.
With Mom’s flea market business so bad and Dad’s commissions devastated by the name change and the recession, can they afford to help me out as much as they have?
They said they’ll pay my rent, but I feel quite weird about that. We’ll see, I told them.
Last night, when they returned here after dinner and shopping, they said that now, with all the furniture, my apartment really looks homey.
We watched Beverly Hills 90210 on one of the three channels I can get – 51 from Ocala – and saw the Introspect commercial that was previously running only on MTV.
Like the Fox shows, it’s skewed toward the young and the hip, and the tag line is “Make a statement.” Let’s hope Introspect hits it big so Dad can make some money.
He’s been told he can’t stall any longer and must get a computer. If I sometimes feel like a child when it comes to stuff that’s practical, Dad is so scared of computers that he can’t face the prospect of using one.
All the time I lived with him, I tried to get Dad to let me show him how to use a PC; after all, teaching that was my specialty.
But I guess Dad felt funny because he didn’t want to feel so dependent on me. Obviously, I can relate.
They returned to the Holiday Inn at 11 PM and I slept fairly decently in my new bed. Mom brought terrific sheets, and I didn’t rouse myself fully till 8 AM.
After breakfast, I started to put books and tapes in the bookcases and I was glad I could hook up the TV and VCP to play an exercise video.
Mom and Dad arrived at 11 AM while I was potchkeying around, and Mom did whatever in the bedroom as Dad and I talked and the maintenance man made a new peephole that was not so high that only a UF basketball player could look out of it.
We went out for lunch at a Wendy’s that had a nice salad bar and Crystal Light, something I appreciated since I live on the stuff.
My parents and I had good feelings all around, and considering how crazy we all can be, this worked out rather well. I told them about my law school courses and other stuff.
After they left, I dressed in a sport shirt and slacks rather than my standard attire of shorts and a T-shirt (which fits in perfectly in Gainesville), and I went to the tiny Alachua County unemployment and job service office downtown. (Not far from here, it’s not really what I would call a downtown.)
I have to come back next week to file a claim for the two weeks ending tomorrow, and they already changed my address to my new apartment. The current check may or may not get forwarded by the post office.
I got home just before the thunderstorm struck. It’s incredibly hot and humid here, but I know it will be more comfortable in a couple of months.
I’m glad I gave myself an extra week before law school orientation next Friday. I can use the time to wander around Gainesville and UF and get accustomed to life here.
The most important thing is to be patient with myself and not expect to adjust in one day. While I miss Rockaway, soon I’ll be comfortable here.
This is where my experience at artists’ colonies – MacDowell, VCCA, Millay – helps me out.
Of course, in those strange environments, I was immediately thrown together with others, so I quickly made companions, if not friends. I’m sure the same thing will happen when I meet my law school classmates.
Yes, I fear rejection, but experience tells me that I always meet some people I can relate to.
While I’d like to make good friends here, the way I did at Brooklyn College, I’ll settle for some decent company.
Meanwhile, I’m alone for the weekend. Of course, I’m accustomed to solitude, and I figure I can handle things, no matter how bad they get.
Sunday, August 11, 1991
3 PM. I just came in as our usual afternoon thunderstorms hit.
The lead story on last evening’s local news from Gainesville’s sole network (ABC) station was on a peace rally downtown. The second story was about a fundraiser for buying teddy bears for abused children. I could get used to this change from the endless stories of violence and crime in the New York and Miami media.
Gainesville strikes me as a great place to live. I can see it in little things, like the “Lost Ferret” sign posted on a tree by my corner; the “Lesbian Power” stenciled into the sidewalk a few blocks away; the conspicuous presence of bike lanes, cycle shops and bike racks; the local paper’s listing of meetings of groups like Radical Feminists for Diversity and the Coming Out Support Group (who gather in the Catholic Student Center).
At 7 PM, wanting to see some local color for myself, I drove over to the Gainesville peace rally outside the Alachua County Courthouse in the nearby funky downtown.
Parking the car, I heard songs of the ’60s. Indeed, when I finally got to the plaza, I felt I’d been transported back to Washington Square Park in the summer of 1969: tie-dyed shirts (I had on one myself), long hair, granny dresses, kids with painted faces, a huge balloon held to the ground by ropes amid smaller balloons, and origami cranes swaying in the wind.
The people around me were the types I remember from my undergraduate days, only they were now parents of romping children.
There were tables set up by environmental, peace and pro-animal groups, and a chubby woman onstage was singing a song in protest of the Persian Gulf War.
Transfixed, I sat down on the brick wall. A woman “peace educator” came up and sent people around with photos of Hiroshima horrors, and kids from the local “peace camp” (I’d seen that on the local news, too) spoke about their experiences as I looked at the posters of antiwar quotes (including one by Eisenhower).
It felt like Woodstock or the Vietnam Moratorium or at least as close to anything I’ve experienced since the early 1970s.
This may have been a highly unrepresentative group – I expect UF students are fraternity/sorority types mostly, rich conservative jocks – but I felt comfortable, if a bit cynical, among them.
This morning, at 7:30 AM, I walked to the post office a few blocks away and put my quarters in the vending machines to get the New York Times and Gainesville Sun.
I read, exercised, ate breakfast and watched The McLaughlin Group and David Brinkley and Business World.
A Times front page story highlighted fears of a renewed recession, and I was interested in other news about the boom in personal bankruptcies; the tenth anniversary of the IBM PC, which both did and didn’t change the world; the release of more Beirut hostages; and the dearth of Democratic presidential candidates.
Jay Rockefeller said he wouldn’t run, and there aren’t many people left. Tsongas isn’t a serious contender, and there’s Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas (a moderate, bland guy) and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin (a fiery liberal).
Even though Mario Cuomo is a lousy New York governor, he’d be a good candidate – but he says he’s not running.
I can understand why young people are now registering Republican, since they never experienced Democratic leaders like JFK, LBJ in ’64, Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and McGovern in ’72.
If I wasn’t in law school, I’d probably run for President myself and get a lot of publicity because there’s nobody around. The problem is that everyone on our side assumes that Bush is unbeatable.