A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-July, 1997

Saturday, July 12, 1997

10 PM. Last evening I spent a couple of hours on Lexis, reading news articles the way I used to. It’s an amazing luxury to have access to such an incredible search engine and a database of hundreds of periodicals.

I read about Villa Montalvo, which was originally built as the house of the legendary U.S. Senator and San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, as well as articles about Saratoga, California, which sounds as upscale as Lake Forest although with a California-artsy twist.

I called US Airways and made a flight to Fort Lauderdale for Monday, August 4, at 8:45 AM. That means I have three weeks left in New York. I do dread being back in my parents’ house; however, I know I won’t be staying there for long.

In bed, I worried a lot: about how I’m going to live, where I’m going to live, what kind of work I can get, what will happen with my parents, even how I’ll stand the terrible heat in Brooklyn without air conditioning.

I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 1 AM, so it was hard to get up at 7 AM and exercise, but I did it and felt better afterwards.

Earlier, I had heard two guys leaving the house and then noticed cars in the driveway behind Jade’s car and Paul’s van, so that meant that people were still in the house after what must have been an all-night party.

I don’t know whether to tell Paul and Teresa about it. My role as a chaperon to teenagers isn’t a natural fit for me. I don’t like for Jade to think I am spying on her and telling her father and stepmother everything that she and her friends do while I’m here.

Anyway, since I couldn’t get out with Paul’s van, I walked to the Locust Valley station and took the train to Penn Station. Because I assumed Teresa’s parents had gone back to Brooklyn to get their cooler and then slept over last night, I wanted to avoid seeing them.

So I took the subway to Union Square, walked around the Greenmarket, and sat in Barnes & Noble’s third floor café nursing a bitter iced tea for ninety minutes while trying to read the paper and listen in on the conversation of this handsome, effeminate guy telling about his troubles as a law clerk to a federal judge in Puerto Rico.

This guy – I even caught his name, Darren Rosenblum – I don’t know why, but listening to his problems made me feel so good, perhaps because I fantasized about a relationship with him even though he didn’t even notice me and would never be attracted to me.

For some reason, hearing this guy’s troubles and how he was dealing with them made me realize that I wouldn’t sink into a horrible depression once I got to Williamsburg.

Since I got here, I’ve tried to put my stuff where I think it belongs and to make the place “mine.” It took a long while, but I feel better – and it’s quite bearable with the fans on, though it’s only 85° today and quite dry.

I walked to Grand Street and had a duplicate key made up so I can keep it in my wallet (the shorts I wear have shallow pockets and I’m afraid I’ll lose my keychain) and I bought stuff at Key Food. Right now I don’t feel like calling anyone, not even Justin, who left a message yesterday.

I want to be alone in my first night in Brooklyn; that’s how I gather my inner resources.

Sunday, July 13, 1997

8 PM. It’s 90° right now, and I’m trying to stay comfortable although that isn’t easy. Every day this week is supposed to be hot, hazy and humid – today was relatively dry – so it’s bound to get worse in the house when the hot air really settles in.

Teresa and her parents said to keep the windows closed to avoid letting the heat in, but last night I had to open them because there was no air. I took a cold shower last night and I’ll probably do the same tonight.

Teresa’s father probably didn’t want me to run up the electric bill, but I’d pay him whatever the costs of the A/C were if I had one, just as I paid Ronna’s Con Ed bill when I stayed in her Upper West Side apartment two years ago. It’s cooler downstairs if I sit in the spot at the table where the fan hits, but I can’t just sit in one place.

I went on Lexis to read up on this neighborhood, including stories about the Feast of the Giglio and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is going on now a few blocks from here. To commemorate the return of a kidnapped medieval bishop, the parish celebrates, and neighborhood guys carry around this incredibly gigantic tower.

Early this evening, I walked to Bedford Avenue to check out the trendy cafés and bars that have sprung up with the artists who live around there. Then, as I walked around Northside, I stopped at the Giglio feast, which is like San Gennaro, etc., but more honest because it’s run by the church.

For a while, I hung out in the streets of the feast, people-watching, and then, to cool off, I went into the air-conditioned church and attended the celebratory Mass.

I’ve been exploring the area a lot.

When a guy on Grand Street said, “Hi, chief,” to me, I figured I look like I fit in – more like an old-time Italian resident than an artist, I assume. Well, I grew up in a mostly Italian neighborhood, although one a lot less insular than Williamsburg.

Justin left a message earlier (while the phone was occupied with me being online), but his number was busy all evening.

It took me a long time to fall asleep and I didn’t sleep much, but I was okay today. Up at 7 AM, I had breakfast and began to read the paper. When Justin didn’t answer his phone this morning, instead I called Josh, who I agreed to have lunch with at 1 PM.

After I hung up, I got on AOL and Josh knew I was there, flashing me an instant note; I’m on his “buddy” list. I replied, but mostly I checked my mail and responded to a note from Christy, who’s said to be leaving Aix-en-Provence. My “Safejack” connection broke, so I need to buy another one before I can use my modem again.

I left the house at 12:40 PM, and within fifteen minutes, I was downstairs at Josh’s; Williamsburg really is close to the East Village. I spotted a woman sitting in the lobby who looked familiar, and I said, “Elaine?”

It was Elaine Taibi, the former head of the Brooklyn College Alumni Association. She’s now selling advertising for Jewish Week (“Not the Jewish Press, that right-wing rag.”). I told her what I was doing and mentioned Ronna; Elaine is still in touch with some people from BC.

In a way, Elaine’s presence made my seeing Josh less awkward because all of us could talk together. I accompanied Josh to Veselka and had cantaloupe as he had french toast, and we basically pretended nothing had happened.

His mother is a total mess, delusional and completely homebound but still alive. He talked about Todd, who’s still trying to “make it as a writer” but in such a naïve way, he’ll never get anywhere.

It doesn’t surprise me that the one “writer” Josh knows is a total loser even in Josh’s own estimation. (He related how Todd calls up editors at the New York Times and pesters them with story ideas until they hang up on him – and Todd never even reads the paper himself.) Todd still writes on a long-obsolete Adam computer.

Josh didn’t mention much about his job, so I assume it’s still the same, and he related how Denis bought the building KGB is in and is cheating on all the other KGB partners like Josh although he didn’t offer any proof of Denis’s malfeasance.

At Josh’s suggestion, we went to the Cooper-Hewitt uptown to take in the exhibit on Henry Dreyfuss, who designed the Princess and Trimline phones, the Polaroid camera, the Honeywell thermostat, the familiar Westclox Big Ben model, Paul Deere tractors, the Twentieth Century Limited train, and other icons.

There were also a couple of other exhibits, including one in the museum’s garden of tents for camping.

At 4 PM, we got the IRT (my MetroCard worked although I had to swipe it twice when I first used it), and after we got off at 14th Street, I transferred to the L and returned to Williamsburg. Hot as it is, at least I am experiencing New York City.

Tuesday, July 15, 1997

8 PM. The heat index hit 98° today, and the rest of the week is supposed to be this hot and humid, too. At times it feels unbearable here, but then I keep trying to cope. As Alice said, “I guess there’s no such thing as a free apartment.”

To my surprise, I slept very well last night despite the oppressive heat. That helped me get through the day. I spent the morning doing laundry; because there’s no dryer, I had to hang the wet clothes with clothespins on a line in the backyard, something I haven’t seen people do since the 1960s.

My Safejack, the device that fits in my fax modem to a phone line, broke, and I can’t find a replacement part. They tell me I have to get a whole new model, but that seems absurd. I’ll take the computer to CompUSA on Fifth Avenue so I can get online again, but today was too hot.

Michelle Shih of the Times op-ed page called in response to my message to Bettina Edelstein. They’re planning on running my piece in the next couple of weeks, perhaps as early as Saturday, and they wanted to make sure they can get in touch with me because sometimes the decision is made in the afternoon before the article appears.

I told her I’d be home at least part of every afternoon. When I spoke to Judi, she said she’s going to Japan with her mother on Monday, so I’ll see her when she returns. She said Matthew wrote that the new July Ragdale residents got drunk on their first night: a very different group than we were.

I got to Justin’s at 1:30 PM. The G train took me to 9th Street/Smith Street, the F to Seventh Avenue, and my MetroCard let me transfer for free to the Seventh Avenue bus so I could avoid the walk to President Street.

Justin looked fine. Over lunch at the Second Street Cafe, he told me about all his problems with the Brooklyn College Theater Department. He’s made it clear he won’t come back if they don’t find some kind of line for him.

An idealist with institutional loyalty, Justin will just get taken advantage of. Luckily, last week Justin got a call that he got a grant – “in the low five figures” (he can’t reveal the sum) – from the Berrilla Kerr Foundation, which like MacArthur, awards you money without an application based on some anonymous nominator’s judgment.

That made him feel vindicated, especially since he’s facing 40 and frets that he has no security and doesn’t “own anything.” (Of course, his and Larry’s apartment is stuffed with so much crap, it gives me a headache just to be around all that clutter.)

He and Larry are both fine but working too hard. Larry, who now runs Acoustiguide at the Met, had a painting hanging in the museum as part of the annual staff show, and he’s begun doing sculpture.

Perhaps it was the heat, but for once, I was content not to talk too much about my own life with Justin. Instead, we discussed the reasons Brooklyn College’s theater seasons have been losing audience members (old Brooklynites die or move to Florida) and other stuff in his air-conditioned bedroom.

Leaving Park Slope at 4:30 PM, I walked up Eastern Parkway past the Brooklyn Museum of Art (as it’s called now) to the B48 bus, which took me through Fort Greene right up Lorimer Street to within a block of this house.

Wednesday, July 16, 1997

7 PM. Today was slightly less oppressive than yesterday, but not by much. Two more very hot and humid days are expected, with normal temperatures returning on the weekend.

It’s been a challenge to keep cool, and I’ve re-experienced the joys a cool bath when it’s this hot. Once again last night I slept without even a light sheet over my naked body.

After exercising to Body Electric at 7 AM and then eating breakfast, I lazed around till just before noon, when I left for downtown Manhattan, where I met Scott at the lobby of his building, 270 Broadway. (Mikey also works there, but we played telephone tag today.)

I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, of course, while Scott was wearing a suit. Over lunch at an Asian restaurant, I noticed that he looks good but he’s definitely aged: he’s gotten greyer and has lines in his face that weren’t there before.

(Of course – minus the grey hair – the same thing could be said of me, although Scott said my body looked like it was in good shape.)

He’s exercising and eating healthier – he even took me to a new health-food superstore later – and of course since the heart attack he’s stopped smoking.

He showed me photos of his daughter Brianna at a ballet recital. She’s going to start Horace Mann because, in Scott’s estimation, the Hartsdale schools couldn’t help such a bright child.

Brianna already reads on a sixth-grade level and does math on a third-grade level. Scott and M.J. have let their nanny go and instead hired a woman to serve as what he says is a Korean tradition: she’ll puck up Brianna after school and be a kind of tutor in different subjects, including Korean and the piano.

Brianna seems like a delightfully gifted child, but I hope she’s not turned into one of those “designer children;” Scott’s already decided she’s going to go to an Ivy League college.

M.J.’s career, Scott says, has taken off like a rocket, and she’s now one of the leading designers of corporate environments and office furniture. She’s got a deal to design “virtual offices” with a company that will allow video meetings between groups of executives across the country.

They had sold their house in Westchester but couldn’t find another, and in the end, their buyers backed out. They sold M.J.’s old co-op on 87th and Amsterdam at a $30,000 loss, but they may move back to the city. (“Why pay Hartsdale taxes if we don’t use their school system?”)

Scott’s best friend, an ardent conservative, seems to have gone off the deep end, quitting his law practice for a survivalist bunker in West Virginia, where he refuses to pay taxes.

Scott says his work is challenging: it’s a lot of con law and appellate practice, but after all these years in the same job, he gets things done quickly and had a lot of free time.

The office is moving to new quarters on Beaver and Broad (“heh-heh”) in a few weeks after Scott and his family return from a “camping resort” vacation in Amish country.

Now that he’s had a near-fatal heart attack, Scott said he’s turned his life around and expects to live a long time. We parted with tentative plans to see one another again.

Home at 2:30 PM after a hot journey on the subway (the trains were cool inside, at least), I spent the afternoon trying to keep cool. While I was in a bath at 5 PM, the Giglio feast parade passed the block. I’m going to try to get over to the feast again tonight.

Saturday, July 19, 1997

7 PM. As soon as I finished writing yesterday’s diary entry, Michelle Shih called from the Times to say there’d been another op-ed page scheduling change and that they wouldn’t be running my piece today after all but would try for next Saturday.

I felt very disappointed and also angry with myself for getting my hopes up; I was sorry I’d told people about it, and I felt a lot of self-pity. I’ve been dealing with those feelings by keeping busy today and trying to do even silly things just to ward of the helpless feeling that leads to depression.

I have no control over the Times op-ed page or my broken modem, but I tried to exercise control over other aspects of my life. Immediately after I hung up with Michele, I called Mom, and in a 90-minute conversation, I managed to talk her through printing out my manuscript.

Mom had never so much as turned on a computer before and didn’t know what the difference was between the CPU, the monitor and the keyboard – she also can’t type – but Mom managed to do just fine, considering how counterintuitive everything on a computer is.

I knew she’d have a lot of problems, but in the end she managed to get into the word processor and open and print the right file. Of course, in my years as a computer trainer, I did learn how to help computer novices work the machines.

After dinner last night, I went into Manhattan, buying a copy of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. When I got out, a raging thunderstorm got me soaked, and just after I got home, Teresa’s mother called because a neighbor told her the windows were open.

I assured her that nothing was wet – it wasn’t – and said I’d been home all the time. She reminded me to close the windows whenever I leave the house to ward off burglars. That made me feel bad, and I lay down, ready to fall into unconsciousness.

I didn’t feel much better when I got up this morning, although it was much less humid and only 68°. Luckily, it was a gorgeous day; I’ve checked the week’s forecast, and while it won’t stay this nice, it’s not going to be as hot and humid as the last week was.

At Key Foods, I bought $50 worth of groceries; that sounds like a lot, but it really serves me to eat at home rather than at restaurants. I spent nearly all day in Manhattan, but I came home for lunch and dinner.

With the new free bus/subway transfer on MetroCard, I was able to get off the L train on 14th Street, do something downtown and then take a bus uptown for free.

I must have walked many miles today, often with a backpack filled with copies of I Survived Caracas Traffic. At first I thought I’d try street-selling in Union Square, but neither that location nor Bryant Park seemed a likely place.

I took the M104 to the Barnes & Noble at 81st and Broadway, buying their copy of I Brake (they replaced the one I’d bought in May) and putting two copies of Caracas Traffic on the shelves (facing out, of course) there. Is “shop-dropping” the opposite of shoplifting?

I decided that if Ingram wouldn’t put my books in the stores, I would – well, seven copies worth at Barnes & Noble superstores in Manhattan, anyway. By the end of the day, I’d placed copies (facing out, when I could) in the Fiction and Literature sections of the stores on the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center, Chelsea, Union Square, Astor Place and the main store at 18th and Fifth.

At that store, I found the Business, Government and Society textbook, and after reading the table contents, I’m really enthusiastic about teaching this course in the fall at Nova. I guess it’s the thing I look forward to the most about going back to South Florida – because it will be an exciting intellectual experience for me to teach Business, Government and Society as well as a challenge I know I can handle.

Frustrated over my inability to get the modem part I need – I have to find a receipt which may be in South Florida – I went to CompUSA and bought an external modem.

But at dinnertime, after I returned home, I discovered I can’t use it because I need my serial port for the mouse. So I went back to return it; however, I got to the store just as they were closing at 7 PM.

The security guard said I should go their store on Eighth and 57th, which was open till 9 PM, but when I got there after a crosstown walk and an uptown bus ride on the M10, I discovered that store was closed, too.

So I picked up the Sunday Times at Columbus Circle and returned home an hour ago. I haven’t even read the Saturday paper yet; in fact, I lost the copy I bought in Williamsburg this morning and got a replacement from a promotion for subscriptions at 72nd and Broadway.

Obviously, my losing the paper was no accident since today’s paper, with my op-ed article not in it as scheduled, was too painful to read. I don’t appear to have been bumped for anything topical, just another humorous article I might have enjoyed if not for knowing the piece replaced mine.

Needless to say, all this going from one store to another gave me lots of hours walking and taking buses and subways uptown and downtown today.

Oh, I almost forgot. The street booksellers are still out on the blocks below the Barnes & Noble store on 81st Street, so I sat down by the church on the corner of 79th and placed copies of I Survived Caracas Traffic on the railing as I sat crouched on the ground.

Without a sign, nobody could tell I was selling books – but the sign probably wouldn’t have gotten any more responses than I got as I sat there for 25 minutes and maybe forty people passed by. That is to say, I got no response other than people staring as the title registered in their brains.

So I guess what I was actually doing was advertising – although to no discernible end. If someone asked if I were selling the books, I might have said I was actually giving them away, or perhaps that I was “taking them out for an airing.”

I do wish I could be there at the Barnes & Noble when someone tries to buy my book and they find it’s not in their computer. Or, more likely, when the store tries to return it to the publisher and nobody can figure out how it got there.

At least if anyone in New York City asks me where they can get Caracas Traffic, I can say it’s at Barnes & Noble stores. I remember reading about guerilla small press people who’d drop titles onto the shelves of bookstores that refused to carry their books; I guess that’s what gave me the idea.

Call it $35 worth of philanthropy: if the stores do manage to sell the books, they’ll get the profit. As for my buying I Brake (I picked up another copy later today) – well, at $4.95, the 14-year-old book is a bargain even for the author. I wonder if their computers will note that the books sold a bunch of copies in Manhattan recently.

Anyway, that’s what provided Saturday’s physical exercise for me. I also got to spend lots of time with New Yorkers. By now, after six years in Gainesville and few visits here, I feel very much like a New York City resident as I ride the subways and buses and walk the streets.

After being in less diverse places, being with people of every race and nationality makes me strangely happy. I like being aware that as a white man, I’m a minority on this overrated planet.