A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early July, 1997

Tuesday, July 1, 1997

10 PM, although it seems earlier because I haven’t yet adjusted to Eastern Time.

Last night I slept well. Up at 5 AM, I lay in bed a couple of hours listening to NPR news; then I showered, dressed and went downstairs for breakfast.

You know me: I was basically ready to leave at 8 AM with all my luggage on the porch as I glanced at the paper.

The limo came ten minutes early, and of course Judi, the late riser, was running a bit slow. But that gave us time to hug Sylvia and Laurie goodbye; both told me they hoped I’d come back to Ragdale.

By paying the driver by credit card, I was able to get $20 each from Kerry and Judi once we’ve gotten ourselves and our luggage all inside the car.

Judi wanted to go with me to a play on July 4 – I’ll call her, but I don’t think this is a great weekend.

We got to O’Hare early, and Kerry and I were both going to United, so after we checked our luggage, we sat down at the Starbucks concession and talked as she ate breakfast and I had some fruit.

Kerry isn’t the person I was closest to at Ragdale, but we share the same sensibilities. She’s going on for two weeks at the Hambridge Center in the mountains at the northwest corner of Georgia, so she had a 2½ hour ride when she landed in Atlanta.

After we parted, I sat down by the gate for my flight once I got my boarding pass, and after telling a woman that I knew Gay Courter, whose novel she was reading, I discovered she was a Jewish former junior high school English teacher who was with by her retired professor husband. They both graduated from Brooklyn College 50 years ago and seemed very intelligent.

On the plane, I had an aisle seat with nobody next to me. Across the way was this precocious five-year-old boy sitting between “Bubbie” and “Zadie.” He reminded me a lot of myself at that age and the good times I had on trips with Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb.

For the last half-hour of the flight, I turned my headset to Channel 9 and listened to the cockpit crew and those of other jets in communication with air traffic controllers.

We arrived early at LaGuardia, and I soon found Teresa and we picked up my luggage. She dropped me off at home while she took Jade to her ophthalmologist in Huntington. Jade couldn’t drive back because they were going to give her eye drops.

I lugged my suitcases back up to the Lincoln bedroom. P.J. had been staying here and just left here on Sunday.

Getting on Lexis, I didn’t find anything amazing that I’d missed. Although I didn’t want to stay online for too long, I checked my e-mail; there were two messages from Kevin, one from Christy, and one from Tom in Stuttgart with his usual frustrations about publishing and what seemed to me naive hopes that his and Daniel Quinn’s book with Bantam is actually going to be noticed (“But what all the public think of it?”).

Perhaps Tom is right and this book will completely change his career, but I doubt it. At least nothing’s worked that way with my books.

The room was hot, so I took Ollie and Hattie – who’d greeted me with wagging tails and didn’t stray from me all afternoon – out to the shady part of the deck to sit.

I read the Times and sipped water out of the Lexis sports bottle I relied on in Ragdale. Paul came home at 5:30 PM and Teresa and Jade soon after.

Jade has all her Purchase College stuff, and she needs to pre-register soon.

At her high school graduation, she got the award for “most improved,” which Jade calls “the dirtbag award.” She cut her hair and colored it so that it’s not so platinum-blonde, and she looks very beautiful.

Surprisingly, she even ate with Teresa, Paul and me this evening, something that never happened on my previous visit.

This morning at O’Hare, Kerry and I were talking about house-oriented people like Teresa and Paul; they love their pool (they took a swim before dinner), their house, their garden. Neither Kerry nor I could ever imagine being like that, and I hope never to own my own house.

If I were rich and could afford anything, I’d choose to live in a hotel. Maybe that’s why I adored staying at Ragdale and love being someone’s houseguest.

Paul and Teresa still bicker, but they seem as if they’ve been married 25 years rather than just one.

I feel slightly disoriented, but it would have been worse if I’d gone directly to Brooklyn.

Wednesday, July 2, 1997

10 PM. I slept well last night despite feeling a bit warm; I took off my t-shirt and used only a thin sheet as my cover, so I managed without the air conditioner.

Up at 6 AM, I exercised the Body Electric at 7 AM, then dressed and showered (not in that order). I had breakfast at 8 AM.

I went with Teresa to the ShopRite Farmers Bazaar on Forest Avenue, where we each bought a cart of groceries; hers, mostly for Fire Island, cost $135 while my food bill ran to $45.

We talked at home as we put away groceries and I had lunch. She wanted to make the 3 PM ferry, and we had to stop at the sushi place and the Italian bakery by the Syosset railroad station.

Today was humid but not hot, and it began to rain as soon as we approached bay shore. I felt like Teresa’s colonial manservant as I carried her coolers behind her and followed her with package after package – but I enjoyed the feeling.

After everything was unpacked, I had the minivan to myself and headed to Hicksville, to the New York State Unemployment office, where I stood on line for half an hour and then spent twenty minutes filling out an Interstate claim.

After briefly seeing a worker, who had me sign stuff and said she’d send the papers to Tallahassee via mail and the Internet, I drove back to Locust Valley.

When I called Fort Lauderdale, Dad said he also went to unemployment today, but they couldn’t find any record of his wages and said they want him to come in tomorrow with his W-2 form. Of course he doesn’t have a W-2 form but a 1099.

I told Dad he’s employed by a California firm and his checks come from Los Angeles, so he needed to file an interstate claim.

But he doesn’t want to call the Paul Davril offices in Los Angeles. While the guy in New York was the one who fired Dad, he said he wouldn’t tell Los Angeles so Dad could get his commission check for the month of June.

I asked Dad how the hell could he expect to collect unemployment benefits – even if he could get past the hurdle of being an independent contractor – without them notifying his employer.

Talking with him and Mom is as exasperating as talking to a couple of children. In today’s mail, I got the “contract” from Nova, which turned out merely this stuff regarding the Saturday morning class in Business, Government and Society, which looks interesting.

Mom swears that she sent another contract to Ragdale weeks ago, but Dad can’t remember if he mailed it.

“Mom, I think you’re a little confused,” I told her.

“Yeah,” she said huffily, “I have Alzheimer’s,” and hung up.

I’ll call or e-mail someone at Nova, but it’s just as well. Usually, though, “contracts” for adjunct work don’t come until the course is under way.

Paul is taking Teresa’s minivan in the morning and leaving me his beat-up work van for the weekend.

Ragdale was such a refuge from real life for me. No wonder I loved the place.

Thursday, July 3, 1997

7 PM. I’ve got the whole upstairs in Locust Valley to myself tonight. Jade’s downstairs, and Teresa reported that Jade told Paul they’re bad hosts, leaving me here while they go to the beach. “She doesn’t know you hate Fire Island,” Teresa said.

Jade probably also figured out that I’m here to look after her, so she rightfully resents me. But she’s only 18 and only got off heroin eight months ago. Still, I’m certainly going to let her and her friends do whatever they want, short of burning down the house with me in it.

Last night I had a hard time getting to sleep, as I worried about my parents’ financial situation and ruminated about mine.

Dad actually has a job offer, beginning next Thursday. He’s supposed to be working at the menswear store Surrey’s for $300 a week plus 3% commission.

That’s a comedown, but maybe Dad needs a steady if small salary as well as avoiding the problems he had when he essentially worked for himself as a manufacturer’s rep.

I don’t know when he and Mom are going to have to face the fact that they have to give up the house. I worry that they’ll delay too long until they’re foreclosed upon.

My parents never planned anything – which is odd, considering how Mom obsesses about details. But in another way, it’s true to form, considering Mom’s enormous capacity for self-deception.

Paul developed a cold overnight, and it seems there’s a bad cold going around in New York. I haven’t had a really bad cold since the July 4 weekend three years ago in 1994, when I made that ill-fated day trip to Tampa to look into moving there.

If I’m just as much at loose ends now, at least I have more experience behind me. Besides, I feel I’m in a better position now. At the very worst, I’ll go to South Florida and teach at Nova and work wherever else I’ll be able to do so.

I got up at 6:30 AM today, exercised at 7 AM, showered and dressed at 7:30 AM, and finished breakfast by 8 AM. Paul had errands to do and didn’t leave with the dogs until about 9:30 AM.

I washed some clothes and my perspiration-stained sheets (I may put on the A/C tonight), then put up the dishes and went out to get the Times.

Later I drove into Oyster Bay – I know three different ways to get there, but I finally figured out the shortest route – and deposited Teresa’s tenants’ check (which came in the mail) into her bank account. I also went to CVS on Pine Hollow Road to get a prescription for Jade.

This afternoon I went on AOL, which kept knocking me off, and Delphi and Lexis. I e-mailed Kevin, who’s gone to Seattle again this weekend to see his friends and that special guy – and I also e-mailed Sean.

I answered Tim Gage, the Australian literary magazine editor, who read my books and got my e-mail address from Ed Hogan, and I tried to answer a brief note from Harvey in Santa Barbara, who wanted to know if I was the Richard Grayson in the Brooklyn College MFA program two decades ago. But my response came back, saying his address was “unknown.”

Sat Darshan e-mailed that she’s totally fed up with her job and wants to quit the VA because of the mindless work and stupid people there. She wrote me on June 15 and obviously had not yet gotten the postcard I’d sent her from Chicago.

I left messages with Cousin Suzi, Alice, Josh (yes, he replied and said that maybe he, Todd and I should go for a drink together), and a couple of others. I spoke to Pete and made tentative plans to see him in Park Slope on Saturday afternoon because he’s going to the Amsterdam Jazz Festival on Monday.

I don’t know if I can drive Paul’s van to Brooklyn. It’s a heavy, lumbering vehicle, and the brakes aren’t great, but Paul said I can’t do much damage to it, and if I do get into an accident, the other car and driver will get the worst of it.

I finally got to talk to Justin. He and Larry are just getting over colds they had, and he said he wanted to wait until he saw me to discuss the uncertain position he’s in vis-à-vis Brooklyn College.

We made plans to call each other on Tuesday; I’ll probably be in Conselyea Street by then. I should actually go there tomorrow and try to set the place up for myself.

Friday, July 4, 1997

8 PM. Last night I had such bad insomnia, I didn’t know what to do with myself. (Well, yes, there’s that – but you can only do it once.) I felt so bloated due to constipation, and I was too hot with the windows open and too cold with the air conditioner on.

Perhaps I am getting sick. But like last week at this time, when nights of sleeplessness catch up with me, I always feel sick.

I did get some things accomplished before I went to bed. Using Teresa’s Mac, I wrote and printed out letters of appreciation to the head of Ragdale’s board of trustees and to the mayor of Lake Forest, as suggested in our exit packet material.

I also wrote Amy. For her newspaper, I decided to send “Boys Club.” Kerry said that Strong Coffee has some pretty bad material in it, but I don’t care. “Boys Club” has been rejected about a skillion times, and a story about queercore might fit an art tabloid.

Actually, the story might be too long for them. But at worst, I got practice in word processing using the Mac and ClarisWorks and in using Teresa’s inkjet printer.

Anyway, unable to sleep by 2 AM, I was so fartoozt that I began reading Teresa’s Cliff Notes of Greek classics, going over summaries of Euripides’ plays and Plato’s dialogues.

Finally, at 4:30 AM, I drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours before I woke up to exercise at 7 AM. What did make me feel better was when all the fiber I’ve been eating finally kicked in. What a relief.

Since nobody had returned my call, I decided to go to the city on my own; I didn’t want to vegetate here all day. But when I got in the van, I noticed that the passenger side mirror was all shattered, and I felt sick.

When had that happened? It looked okay yesterday, but maybe I hadn’t noticed. I dreaded telling Teresa and Paul.

Because I was so distracted, I got totally lost – until finally I decided to go to Port Washington (I’d never been there), the first and last stop of the quickest LIRR line to the city because it bypasses Jamaica, going through northern Queens from Little Neck to Bayside to Flushing to Woodside.

The train left at 11:30 AM and got into Penn Station at 12:10 PM. I snacked on Weight Watchers peanuts and a marshmallow bar and figured that I wanted to get back to Long Island early.

So I took the IRT local two stops to 50th Street and Seventh Avenue/Broadway and walked over to MOMA on 53rd and Sixth. It was warm today, but very dry and windy, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable.

While I didn’t like paying $9.50 for museum admission after shelling out $8.50 for the train fare, it was worth it. The show I was most interested in was Cindy Sherman’s complete movie stills, the ones where she photographed herself as if she were an actress in iconic ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s films.

I also liked Paris in the 1890s, an exhibit of prints: many familiar Toulouse-Lautrec ones, and others by Bonnard, Vuillard, etc. Also interesting was a show of Soviet Constructivist movie posters, from the 1920s or so, by the Sternberg brothers.

Another show, Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life, was great, featuring everyone from Cezanne and Matisse to Duchamp’s ready-mades, Dali’s lobster telephone, and the famous fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon by Oppenheim.

I went more quickly through the traditional tour of the permanent collection, stopping to admire work by Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollack, Joseph Cornell, Francis Bacon and the older artists whom I’ve known about since I was a teenager.

In the cafe, I had yogurt and grapefruit juice as I looked out at the sculpture garden, and I made my way back to Penn Station to get on the 2:19 PM train to Port Washington.

Back here in Locust Valley at 3:30 PM, I lay down and listened to All Things Considered on NPR. Even on the train coming home I’d heard about the successful July 4 landing on Mars of the Pathfinder probe, which should start sending back pictures soon.

Sat Darshan responded to my e-mail; she’d read my card and said when I go to Silicon Valley, I shouldn’t forget to visit her sister, who’s visiting Phoenix this weekend, and who Sat Darshan berates for not helping out more with their father.

Sat Darshan passed the test to be a mail career. She’ll be assigned to deliver mail via one of those right-handed jeeps, and the money is better than she’d get at the VA even without her promotion. Her main worry is having to deal with dogs.

She reported that Ravinder is in New York for a while, making money driving a cab.

Saturday, July 5, 1997

5 PM. Last night I slept the entire night without even getting under the covers. I was really exhausted, but the long sleep refreshed me.

Jade had people over for a pool party last night, and Teresa had been somewhat concerned they’d be wild, but I didn’t hear any loud music or screaming; to me, it just sounded like a bunch of nice kids just sitting around and talking, though I made certain to stay out of sight and didn’t make a big effort to see what was going on.

Today was a perfect day. I’ve just arrived back here, and right now it’s 80°, the warmest it’s been all day, and it’s comfortably dry.

Up at 7:30 AM this morning, I tried to exercise to a tai chi show on WLIW/Channel 21. I liked this show better than the one that ran in Chicago every day, but tai chi makes me feel uncoordinated.

I know it takes practice, and I understand that my inability to balance other things in my life may have something to do with my incompetence. Maybe at another point in my life, I’ll be able to take up tai chi.

With Jade sound asleep at 8 AM, I felt free to play a Body Electric tape in the living room. After breakfast, I lay down and listened to the radio and put up the dishwasher and finally went out at 10:30 AM.

At first I planned to take the LIRR into Brooklyn, but then it occurred to me that if I wanted to go to Conselyea Street, there’d be less traffic today than tomorrow, when people would be returning from the holiday weekend.

I found little traffic on the LIE, the Cross-Island or the Belt. Exiting at Ocean Parkway, I took that up to the Prospect Expressway, passing all the Syrian Jews and other synagogue-goers as well as the house Uncle Sidney and his brothers used to own – my very first home – between Avenue V and Gravesend Neck Road, directly across from Vito Genovese’s house.

Then I took Eighth Avenue down to Garfield Place and parked right on Pete’s block. (The van is too big for me to parallel-park so I need room to ease into a space.)

Pete came down soon after I rang the bell; he looks the same, although he (like Dad) really should do something about that hair in his ears. He didn’t seem to notice I was clean-shaven, perhaps because I’ve grown accustomed to my beardless face myself.

We walked to Prospect Park and sat down at a bench, with me trying to stay upwind of Pete’s cigar. He had an interview at Hamilton College upstate a couple of weeks ago, and he’s waiting to hear if he’s got the position: a one-year renewable position for a fiction writer.

They liked that he could teach American Studies and playwriting. This was a job he’d applied for last year, but the black writer they hired left for a tenured position elsewhere. Hamilton is in the town of Clinton outside Utica, which itself is halfway between Albany and Syracuse.

I hope Pete gets the job. It would be two or three courses a semester, with a salary of around $40,000. Otherwise, he’ll stay on at the insurance company only if he can continue to be a consultant or if he can work part-time with benefits.

On Tuesday he takes a courier flight to Brussels and goes to Amsterdam, where he’ll hook up with Harold and they’ll attend the Amsterdam Jazz Festival with “everyone” performing over just three days.

Pete sent regards from Donna, who said to phone her when I’m in the city, and from Bruce, who’s desperately seeking a full-time teaching job. Pete said when I go to California, I can finally meet Paul Fericano and Don Skiles.

Pete and I walked past a greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza to the main library so he could return Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. Then we walked up Union Street to Sixth Avenue, where we had lunch at Henrietta’s on the Slope, a Northern California-style Mexican/macrobiotic restaurant that just opened. I had Buddha’s Delight – tofu, rice, steamed veggies – and a glass of celery-carrot-ginger juice.

After we parted, I drove past the Judsons’ old house on Ninth Street (Libby’s brother still lives there, I think) and got on the BQE in bustling downtown Brooklyn. Exiting at Metropolitan Avenue, I went to Conselyea Street.

I just wanted to be in the house to check it out. It was warm, but that was because the windows have been shut; once I put on the kitchen fan, it was fine.

I plugged in the microwave and checked out the refrigerator, and I finished the leftovers from my lunch, which I’d taken in a brown bag.

Upstairs, I checked the room out; I’ll stay out of the master bedroom and sleep in the back room.

Leaving the house, I drove around the neighborhood, which is funkier than what I’ve gotten used to. This part of Williamsburg is very ethnic-Italian, with Latinos nearby, and a lot of run-down stores.

But I found a large Key Food on Grand Street, about five blocks away, and it has all the groceries I need. Somehow I’ll adjust, and after a week in Williamsburg, I’ll probably feel at home.

The ride back to Locust Valley was relatively painless. When I got home, Jade was again in the kitchen, fixing some food.