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

Monday, February 11, 1991

8 PM. Last evening Ronna called; I’d left a message on her machine about my bankruptcy hearing, and she wanted to hear details of how it went. She’s a true friend, and it’s been a blessing to have her in my life.

We talked about her trip to Florida – she said the photos she took at the beach in Hollywood came out well – and her life in New York.

Coming back to her job at Yeshiva University made her realize how much she needs to leave, but Ronna’s been saying that forever.

In that respect, I don’t want to be like her; luckily, I don’t have to worry about giving up job security because I don’t have any.

I told Ronna about the summer job and that I’d see her in three months. In Alice, the great Woody Allen film I saw in Plantation yesterday afternoon, New York City looked so beautiful, I could almost feel the longing I have for it like an ache.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one of my students. I know there’s no chance he’s interested in me, that this always happens, but I don’t really mind because at least I can feel that somewhere deep down and hidden is the ability to become infatuated with someone, to have a crush, maybe even to fall in love.

Nine years ago Sean shared my feelings, but since then I’ve had crushes on other students, and not a thing – nothing like the flicker of recognition I used to get from Sean in class, that raised-eyebrows gesture we used to share months before we slept together – has occurred.

Actually, in my noon English 102 class, my favorite, there are a bunch of skinny guys I think are cute, but there’s only one guy I’ve really noticed. His name is Jamie Andersen, and he’s older, mid-to-late twenties; he used to work at a bank in Rhode Island.

I can tell he’s gay. He wrote an essay about Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and on Friday’s CLAST prototype he wrote about AIDS more personally than the others who chose that topic.

(I was happy to see that 90% of the students are well-educated about AIDS myths and argued that there was no reason that HIV-positive kids should be excluded from schools.)

Jamie’s tall and husky, with nice biceps (a tattoo is on one) and incredible ice-blue eyes. And that’s the end of it, of course; I’m sure he lives with someone.

Right now, while I don’t have my own apartment, I feel I can’t get involved with anyone. But because my world is so cut-and-dried, fantasies provide a touch of color, preventing me from being a total drudge.

Yesterday Mom and Dad bought a huge birthday cake at Publix for Jonathan and took it to the flea market, as they had for Marc’s birthday, to share it with the other vendors.

But Jonathan didn’t want any fuss, and it was such a big cake that most of it was still left last night.

“How am I ever going to get rid of this cake?” Mom said, and Marc replied, “Let’s tie down Richard and force-feed it to him.”

We all broke up laughing, but Marc said he was envious of me; he’s ballooned up again, and he doesn’t want to go back to Nutri/System.

So today I brought the remainder of the birthday cake into the English Department before my 8 AM class, and it was all gone by the time I returned to campus for my noon class.

I’m glad I got the chance to share food with the others; by and large, I’m liked by faculty and secretaries, but I obviously keep my distance from communal activities like the Christmas party.

In my classes, I realized I have to beware of trying to be the Popular Hip Young English Teacher, a role I despise because, in the end, you only come off like an asshole.

I’m coming close to it because today one of my cooler students sarcastically remarked, “Wow, you lie on the edge.”

Still, I’m glad my students know I know stuff like Public Enemy’s lyrics and am aware of things few BCC teachers are.

But that’s probably only because I’m a New Yorker and I read voraciously – or at least I read lots of newspapers and magazines.

It’s my weakness: I keep trying to prove I’m not just a community college English teacher – or a computer ed teacher – or a writer of obscure literary short stories.

Why else have I tried to get myself in the paper, on radio, on TV all these years? While I find publicity exciting, it’s also kind of pathetic.

Wednesday, February 13, 1991

9 AM. I just got back into bed after teaching my first class at BCC. I’m tired because I didn’t sleep enough last night. Yesterday I went to the college at 5 PM to do some xeroxing and to get away from Mom, who was home all day, cleaning and listening continuously to CNN.

There was a note in my box from Dr. Grasso: “Richard, I have bad news and good news.”

The bad news was that the school turned down the full-time positions for the summer; the good news was that I could still have the classes as a part-timer.

I wrote Dr. Grasso a note, thanking her but saying no thanks. I can probably do better on unemployment, and even if I can’t, it’s not worth earning less than $360 a week for a full time job.

Naturally, I feel a little jerked around, but I’m not that upset, for I felt I was giving up a lot in exchange for the money.

If I had planned to be in Florida this summer, that’s one thing, but the plane fare back here would have gobbled up a week’s salary. Besides, I miss New York terribly.

I guess it just wasn’t meant to be: I was fatalistic about getting the job so I feel the same way about losing it.

While I don’t know how I’ll make it financially this summer – I may actually have to try to sell my books on the street to survive – at least I know I’ll be in New York for all of May, June and July and some of August, and I can enjoy the city and see my friends and not feel cheated.

If I do move to Gainesville, Tallahassee or another city, I’ll feel better to have had three months in New York.

I told Eleanor McCluskey about my giving up the classes, thinking she would be pleased she might have another shot at them. But she said while she could take a full-time summer position, she’d already taught the maximum of eight part-time classes this year. Eleanor remarked how bizarre and unfair holding a lottery for the positions was.

In one sense, this confirms my ambition to get out of teaching college English.

I know other people have no control over their jobs, either. My brothers are at the mercy of Preston Henn’s whims at the flea market; Dad can’t control Paul Davril losing the Bugle Boy license, the vagaries of credit denial and shipping foul-ups, and the financial problems department stores are currently having.

Anyhow, I’ve learned to roll with the punches. I don’t know if I’ll be in Rockaway or Brooklyn this summer, but I’m now sure I’ll be in New York.

My American lit students absolutely hated Barth, even after I gave a long speech on behalf of metafiction.

I probably did something stupid next: I read one of my own stories, “My Grandfather’s Other Son,” which they said was a lot better than Barth’s.

My students found Mailer to be obnoxious – one woman said she hated Armies of the Night because it had to do with the 1960s – but at least they like Baldwin.

My parents seemed more upset at the news of my losing the summer job than I was. I broke it to them by announcing, “Mom, Dad: you and Jonathan get a reprieve; I won’t be here this summer after all.”

I didn’t sleep well last night and was awake at 3:30 AM, never to get back to dreamland. I got up at 5:30 AM and exercised before breakfast.


9 PM. I’m not really sleepy yet.

Alice called to ask for my social security number for the Long Beach writing conference. and I wished her a happy upcoming 40th birthday.

I was surprised when she told me she’s dreading the day a little, because I know her friends are throwing a big party for her.

I expect to feel good about turning 40. Just today, as I drove along Nova Drive – I went back and forth to the college three times – I was thinking how, as a teenager, I never expected I’d live to 40. I don’t know why.

Remember how Grandpa Herb once told me he always thought he’d die young and never live to see his children grown? He got to see his grandchildren grown.

So maybe I’ll live to about 80, too – in which case I’ve got a whole another half of my life left.

If I drop dead this year, though, I’ll know that even then, I’ve been a survivor who’s surprised at how cheerful I managed to become. Resilient, too.

But of course, I’ve never faced a real hard test of character, and I know I could fall apart . . . though I tend to doubt it.

Today I had two good classes, and in Food and Nutrition, Ms. Holland reviewed for next week’s 100-question multiple-choice final by reading us the test questions and asking us the answers.

After teaching at BCC for so many years, I shouldn’t be astonished at the ignorance of FAU students, but sometimes these people couldn’t answer the simplest questions correctly – like the girl who thought muscles grow when they’re “atrophied.”

While the U.S. may be able to fight a war with half a million troops and tons of high tech weapons, our mediocre educational system can never inspire the same national will and dedication that’s needed if we’re going to fix it.

The U.S. bombed a military target in Baghdad that women and children were sleeping in, and the photos of hundreds of dead Iraqis were shocking. But that’s war. Life is cheap, whether it’s the lives of Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Israelis, Chinese, Lithuanians, Liberians, and, yes, even Americans.

People don’t want to face that truth, though, so we get outraged when American POWs are “humiliated” before cameras. Even someone as smart as Dad said that was worse than us killing civilians.

Sunday, February 17, 1991

8 PM. I feel exhausted. Being with Pete, and later with Richard Kostelanetz, upset my usual routine, especially my diet.

I looked all over for Pete and me to find a restaurant with a salad bar, but finally we settled on Dalt’s, where I made the mistake of ordering pancakes.

Even though I took off all the butter and ate less than half the serving, I’m so unused to fried food that I’ve felt queasy since then, and there’s a disgusting taste every time I belch.

Probably I’m not able to digest fat anymore; I’m sure a hamburger would make me ill. Or is it all in my mind?

I also missed my huge salad for lunch and consequently developed a craving for fresh vegetables. Driving around so much gave me a bad headache.

Anyway, I’ll describe the rest of the day later or tomorrow; now I need to rest.

Monday, February 18, 1991

4PM. I’d forgotten I’d left this space to write about Sunday. If anything, I feel more tired than I did last night. I’ve got a cold, if not the flu (but I shouldn’t have the flu because I took a flu shot).

This morning I awoke at 5:30 AM with a sore throat, and I rushed to exercise before my body realized it was sick.

At first, I hoped the sore throat was merely from talking too much or from my sinus problems, but by the time I got to BCC, I realized I have a cold. I blame yesterday’s stress. I felt weird not getting my vegetables for lunch, and the day threw my whole body off.

Also, on Saturday this idiot woman with a terrible cold came to my class and sat down right in front of me, and she proceeded to sneeze and sniffle and cough for three hours.

Okay, a lot of people are sick now, and if I get this cold over with, I shouldn’t have to worry about getting it at the worst time: two months from now when I’m going to California.

But I hate being sick, taking it as a rebuke to my attempts to live healthfully. I’ve had two colds since I came to Florida and managed to abort each one, but I can see I’m not going to be able to fight this one off.

Maybe my body needs to break down. At Albertsons this morning, I weighed 141 pounds, so I’m over that 140 barrier I’ve kept as a warning, and that makes me feel discouraged.

Though perhaps I’m gaining muscle? No, I could tell my belly sagged in the mirror yesterday. Am I talking like an anorexic, or what?

Well, I’m tired of “discussions with my life,” as Grandma Ethel says.

Maybe I was starting to get ill before today, and that’s why I felt weird yesterday, but I got up early, exercised, read the Sunday Times, made low-fat French toast with Healthy Choice fake eggs, showered, had half my lunch and went over to Pete’s parents’ house.

His mother and stepfather greeted me, saying I’d lost weight and asking why I hadn’t been in the papers lately.

After Pete looked over the list of local happenings I got from the Herald, he decided to take me up on my offer to see the flea market.

First mistake.

I hate the crowds, the smoke, the trash (human and otherwise), and the ugly merchandise of the Swap Shop, and it took us a long time to get in because of a Jose Feliciano concert at 2 PM.

After we stopped by at my brothers’ spot and I introduced Pete to Marc and Jonathan, we walked around as I realized I had probably brought Pete to the one place in Broward County he would hate the most.

As a bunch of elephants were led in to Preston Henn’s “circus” in the flea market’s main building, where food concessions line the hall, we had to step aside to avoid being trampled by pachyderms.

Pete was hungry, so I said we could go to one of Sonny’s or Shorty’s barbecue places, where I could take advantage of their salad bars.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know the exact location of either restaurant in the area; I just assumed we’d find one in Fort Lauderdale.

Second mistake.

Finally, after an hour of aimless driving, we settled on Dalt’s, where I had those pancakes.

Third mistake.

But at least I got to listen to Pete tell me about his trip to India and I got to see the interesting photos he took in Delhi, in Rajasthan, in Kathmandu in Nepal, and in Bangalore and Cochin in the south of India.

Caryl Phillips set him up with a lot of names in India, and Pete saw a number of literary people, all of whom were quite hospitable.

Pete liked India enough to want to apply for a Fulbright there.

Other news from New York City: Homeless people are selling yellow ribbons on the streets along with the strike-bound Daily News. Park Slope is quiet, and several realtors have gone out of business. And Donna finally married Masa, who can now go back to visit Japan and return here legally.

Pete still has had no luck with his book and can’t bring himself to write anything new until he finds a publisher for his current manuscript.

He’s teaching a private class on unpleasantness in literature or something like that and using a lot of good books for that course as well as in the one for his NYU students.

Next month, thanks to Caryl Phillips, he’s giving a reading at Amherst, and then he’s going to Vienna, Salzburg and Hamburg on a one-week trip.

Although the insurance company isn’t replacing people as they leave to retire or quit, Pete’s job is secure.

We got to the beachfront Villas By The Sea at 4:30 PM and found Richard Kostelanetz asleep in the chaise longue outside.

Neither of us wanted to wake him – would you want to wake up a bear in a red sweatsuit? – so we walked along the beach, and by the time we got back, an older woman was dropping peanuts into Richard’s mouth.

She was very witty and turned out to be his mother, Florence, who will be 80 tomorrow. His father, who continues to practice law despite his advanced age, also came by.

I was impressed by the Kostelanetzes, who are obviously highly educated.

Pete gave us an excuse not to stay long because he had to be at his parents’ house for dinner by 6:30 PM.

But although I was tired, headachy and nauseated, I felt an obligation to drive Richard around Fort Lauderdale.

He talked a lot about himself and his current twelve books in production, one of which is a collection of reference letters he’s written for other people.

Richard is not of this world in the same way that Crad Kilodney is not of this world.

For instance, Richard can’t understand why he doesn’t get plum academic jobs in creative writing when his entire experience teaching is one term at the University of Texas.

When applying for jobs, he sends the colleges his curriculum vitae, which is poster-size, rolled up in a tube.

Richard is also the sort of New Yorker who is a gefilte fish out of water in any other place, and he’s astonishingly naïve about American life.

On the other hand, he’s a generous, tireless advocate of other writers (who generally write better fiction than he does), and his intellectual interests are wide-ranging.

He did quote himself twice, the same quotes he told me on the phone on Saturday.

I dutifully said I’d call him tomorrow, but now I can use my cold as an excuse not to see him again.

While I’m obligated to see Pete for dinner tonight, I’ll end the evening as early as I can. My throat is raw, and I’ve just begun to sneeze; my ears are clogging up, too.

This morning my 8 AM class went to the AT&T lab, so I got to grade the English 102 papers while they were working, and I didn’t keep the noon class very long.

It’s Presidents’ Day, and we shouldn’t have to work on a holiday. Who needs spring break? Give us back the day for Honest Abe and the Father of Our Country.

In normal places, like New York, they get two days off. Having grown up with the city’s more generous holiday policy, I can’t get used to the stinginess or stupidity of Florida’s.

While I haven’t yet read today’s newspapers, I did reread the stories for tomorrow night’s American lit class: Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” and the prologue and “Battle Royal” from Ellison’s Invisible Man.

I’ve got assignments for my English 101 and 102 classes due on Friday, so this week I don’t have papers to grade and return until Saturday.

Well, I’m going to fortify myself with a baked potato and a grapefruit. Tomorrow I’ll lay low and hope I can get through the class at night.