A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early January, 1991

Tuesday, January 1, 1991

2 PM. It was great to spend three hours with the McAllisters yesterday. In the months I’ve been in Florida, I haven’t seen any of my friends from up North till yesterday.

When I saw a car with Pennsylvania plates pull up outside, I went out and greeted Ellen and Wade. They needed to find a cash machine before dinner, so I directed them to one, mentioning my bankruptcy (though I’m not sure they know about my credit cards).

Then we went to Sonny’s Bar-B-Q, which has a kids’ menu so the boys could get burgers. Jesse is a cute 4-year-old and Gabriel an intelligent 10-year-old who seemed to have his hand attached to the book he was reading (there’s a kid after my own heart).

Wade didn’t talk about the bad situation at Penn but briefly spoke about the MLA in Chicago, where he had five interviews, mostly with second-rate Midwestern schools, not places as good as Penn. The job market is tight, especially at state schools hit by budget crunches in this bad economy.

Places like Purdue and Tennessee are still looking for scholars to train other scholars. Despite all the talk about the new emphasis on classroom teaching in academia, it’s still research and publications that are the coins of the realm.

Wade applied for a position at FIU and asked me about the school. He’s got applications elsewhere, including Wagner College in Staten Island.

I hope he either gets tenure at Penn or scores a good job elsewhere; I don’t want him or Ellen or their kids to have to suffer because of academia’s ridiculous politics.

Wade could never deal with the humiliation of adjunct hell, and if they’ve got to have scholars, taking the good jobs, they should go for humane, intelligent, caring teachers like Wade.

He and Ellen would really like to go out to California, where she could use her contacts in the film industry to leave academia for a job producing or otherwise working with movies.

They obviously enjoy living in Philadelphia, a city that may be broke but which has avoided the real estate bust affecting New York and Boston – mainly because Philly never really boomed.

Back at the house, we sat in the family room and talked until the boys started getting tired. I give them credit for being incredibly well-behaved kids.

What I loved was the intelligence and sharpness in my conversation with Wade and Ellen; most people in Florida are about as sharp as matzo balls.

I think Ellen and Wade were impressed by the house, which is certainly different than her parents’ condo in the zoo that is Kings Point at Delray.

Ellen’s grandfather, whom they’d visited earlier, is still going strong at 96 and may outlive all of us.

I hugged them goodbye outside at 9 PM.

Today they’re going to Orlando, where they’ll visit Disney World, and then they’ll drive to Wade’s parents’ in Hilton Head before heading home this weekend.

After my own parents returned from dinner out, I watched a New York Philharmonic concert from Lincoln Center with them.

I’ve got to cut back from a daily 1900 calories back to 1700 because I now weigh nearly 139 as my eating is starting to get out of my control.

Originally I’d planned to stop writing down my food, calorie and fat gram intake every day, but I see I need to keep it up or I’ll find I’m heavy again as I gradually eat more.

I couldn’t sleep, so I was up for the radio celebration of 1991 at midnight, and I heard firecrackers from a nearby house. It was after 2 AM when I finally managed to doze off, and I didn’t sleep much.

Today’s a quiet, lazy holiday.

An article says a new temperance movement is afoot in the U.S., as non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-druggies like me become more the norm.

I hope we all don’t become celibate prigs like me in the ’90s. Who’ll be left to feel superior to?

Tuesday, January 3, 1991

4:30 AM and I can’t sleep. I dozed off at about 1:30 AM and woke up 90 minutes later. My mind is in overdrive, and I thought maybe if I wrote a little, I could get rid of some of the racing in the engine of my brain.

I wonder how I’m going to get through my bankruptcy proceedings. The easy part is over and now I have to face very unpleasant possibilities.

Yes, I know: part of the problem is neurotic guilt, the kind Dad’s question tonight (“If you knew what you were going to face now, would you have done it?”) was designed to engender.

By saying “Hell, yes!” I’m being defiant like Frank Skeffington on his deathbed in The Last Hurrah, and part of me admires myself for that, but there’s some superego there telling me I’ve transgressed and must pay.

That, I suppose, is the real struggle, and though it’s hard for me to believe now, ultimately the outcome of the court case in my mind, the one in which I am both prosecutor and defendant as well as judge, is more important than what happens in Docket #90-29476-BKC-SMW in Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of Florida.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I’ve been expecting to return to New York in May, but how can I support myself there now that I’ve got to pay my expenses in real money?

I may have to stay in Florida, as much as I dread doing that. And how can I afford law school, even at UF or FSU with their very low in-state tuition?

Trying to answer these questions is what’s keeping me awake.

And I think about Crad’s bile toward Asians, Arabs, blacks, etc., manifested in his letter, and I feel such revulsion.

He does mention having punk rock musician friends, but I hate his bigotry and wouldn’t tolerate it from my students – or anyone else, for that matter.

The only lesson that I’ve learned from sending Crad a Christmas card was that I was better off before when I stopped contacting him after our meeting in Long Island last summer.

Crad just makes me feel bad about life, and I need to surround myself with people, who, if they aren’t positive and upbeat, at least don’t bring me down with every encounter.

Ed Hogan, for example, returned my Christmas card and thanked me for the congratulations on the Akhmatova book, which Ed says is really putting Zephyr Press on the map; they’re now getting a number of good manuscripts of translated books.

Ed took five copies of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz along to the New York Book Fair at the Small Press Center in December, and every one of them sold.

Chris Barnes, no longer at MacDowell (I guess he was forced out), wrote and sent a form for his fledgling enterprise, which is trying to get writers and artists to do workshops in various places.

I had planned to take my car in and get new front tires tomorrow morning. Yesterday, when I took the car to Firestone, they were too busy.

I also need to type out a letter to the trustee, explaining how I valued my car at $600.

Damn, I had wanted Dad to put the car in his name, but he stupidly forgot his driver’s license the day we bought it. By rights, it is his car because he paid for it.

That kind of thing is what’s behind my insomnia.

Saturday, January 5, 1991

8 PM. Libby wrote that she and Grant would be happy if stayed with them in Van Nuys in April after my work at the Long Beach Writers’ Conference is done.

She responded to my Christmas card, saying she had good and bad news.

The good news was that a son, Wyatt, was born prematurely in late September – but “he’s very healthy and a joy.”

The bad news was very bad: Libby’s mother was supposed to come to see her new grandchild, but diabetes weakened her heart; after being in and out of the hospital all fall, Rose had a heart attack and died in her sleep at the end of November.

Libby returned to New York for the funeral, which Sat Darshan, Mason, and Libby’s old friend Brendan O’Hara attended.

Libby’s brother is in Van Nuys visiting them now, and neither he nor Libby can believe their mother is gone.

I loved Mrs. Judson and I deeply regret not visiting her in recent years. She lit up your whole day when you’d sit with her; she had a genius for making people feel comfortable, and I always will remember fondly the good times we had in her lively house on Ninth Street in Park Slope.

Jesus, the past really was with me today.

I went back to the Ridge Plaza Theater this afternoon to see Goodfellas, Scorsese’s brilliant study of Brooklyn Mafiosi.

I knew people like these guys from our old neighborhood, and so much rang true from my own life, from the flocked wallpaper to the teased hair and loud clothes, mannerisms and sayings of the wiseguys and their women.

I grew up surrounded by people who were mob-connected, though they didn’t really know me and I didn’t know them, as if we lived in parallel worlds.

Next door, Bert’s grandfather would go away for years at a time, and we assumed he’d been sent to prison.

My first home, on Ocean Parkway, was directly across the street from the house of Carlo Gambino, the model for Vito Corleone, and in the neighborhood I grew up in, there were mob-connected people around.

Dad knew Crazy Joey Gallo slightly, and of course the Deauville and La Perville and Frank Pernice (who got the DeVille Country Club for a dollar after making Dad and Lenny an offer they couldn’t refuse) were all connected to the mob.

Marc sold coke like Henry Hill in Goodfellas and got involved with Nikki and Fredo, part of the Rhode Island Mafia controlled by the Raymond Patriarca.

For a few months when I was 13 or 14, I even wondered if Mom and Dad were part of organized crime.

Yet I never really wrote about it, this topic that’s the focus of so many movies and books and plays and TV shows.

Maybe, considering the way I write, I’m lucky I didn’t. It’s one thing to satirize college kids and professors of creative writing and Jewish relatives, but it could be dangerous to make fun of Mafiosi.

Anyway, the film made me homesick for Brooklyn and the ’60s and ’70s, and when I returned here, I got the note from Libby – and another one from Shelli, written from the Keys, where she and her boyfriend often go to a place he has in Pine Bluff.

Shelli sounds like she’s got herself together. She got an M.A. in computer science from American University a couple of years ago, worked for PBS, and is now doing computer graphics for a new interactive video service – TVAnswer – that’s just starting up.

Shelli says it can’t be twenty years ago that we met because she still thinks of herself as being in her twenties.

Asking about the old gang, Shelli reports that over the years she remained close only with Leon and that last year she “reestablished contact” with Jerry, who’s become her friend again.

Shelli sounds like she turned into a nice lady, and I’m glad she was glad that I contacted her.

In Libby’s letter, she said that she and Grant saw me on TV last week, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Yeah, I guess I’ve led a more public life than most of my old friends, but I’m probably less confident and less accomplished than they are.

Look at me: facing 40, living with my parents, bankrupt, not having had an adult intimate relationship for so long that I’ve forgotten what one is.

Would you laugh if I told you I identified with Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather III?

What has all my career stuff, my intellectual shenanigans, all the lines on my curriculum vita, ever gotten me?

Shelli said maybe she’s in denial about her age. I’m in denial about my life, I think. But things will change.

I do feel good about sending my Christmas cards and “reestablishing contact” with old friends.

The best thing about me has always been the friends I’ve been lucky enough to have. How I squandered that treasure.

Oh God, did I really write a line so maudlin?

It’s time to get to bed. But, you know, I like realizing I’m still capable of this kind of feeling.

Amid routine obsession and cascades of information processing, there’s a human being still inside me somewhere, one who isn’t so ironic that he has to self-consciously second-guess himself constantly.

Tuesday, January 8, 1991

3:30 PM. I thought I’d be teaching English 102 at this hour, but today I was reminded again what an adjunct has to put up with. I arrived on campus at noon, figuring to get there early for the 1 PM class.

When I walked into the conference room, Dr. Grasso said, “Sorry about your Tuesday class.”

“My Tuesday class?”

“Yes, Luke’s lit course didn’t make, so I had to give the class to him.”

I asked her if she had a third course for me, and she said she might, if another lit class makes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course, because similar stuff had happened to me in New York as long ago as 1979.

But I was shaken. At this point I’m desperate for money, and I had turned down classes at Miami-Dade and FIU.

At home, I phoned Miami-Dade, but the chairman had just filled the last open course a few minutes before.

If Dr. Grasso had known this morning, she should have called me. I understand the situation, but I think I deserved that consideration instead of me preparing and coming to school like a sap.

I phoned South Campus, and Cynthia said she didn’t know if anything was available, but she’d talk to Betty.

I called Casey at North Campus, and he said he wished he’d have known I was available but he’d filled the vacancies with some inexperienced teachers.

Then Betty called me and gave me a weekend English 101. It’s a 16-week class, from 9 AM to noon, and starts Saturday at the new building.

She said she’d try to put me down for a Term IIB class as well, but I was glad just to get that Saturday section. I like weekend students, and it’ll be more fun to teach English 101 at South, where I don’t have to use Grasso’s text and can be free to try process writing and other new ideas.

I had hoped I might get to take over full-time at Central this term, which was why I didn’t try to go to South for all my BCC classes or follow up on the Miami colleges.

Well, it all worked out okay, but it made for a tense time this afternoon. At least now I have Tuesdays and Thursdays off.

Last night, when I spoke to Teresa, she was at the apartment on 85th Street. I think Bernie lets her stay there sometimes because she gives him off on his rent.

She said I could always stay in Brooklyn at her parents  this summer. If her job with David keeps on as good as it’s been going – Teresa is taking in $700 cash a week – she  might spend the summer in New York, too.

She felt too tired to go to California for Christmas and spent the weekend in bed. For New Year’s Eve, she invited her whole family to Oyster Bay Cove for a low-key evening.

Brian came back from Sweden disillusioned. He’d been assuming he’d get back together with his wife and daughter, but as Teresa suspected, Brian’s wife probably has a relationship – or at least a full life without Brian – in Sweden.

It’s funny how Brian insists on keeping his relationship with Teresa a “secret” even though everyone in Fire Island knows about it.

After an early haircut today, I went to the lawyers’ office, where Mary gave me the documents I need for my hearing in Broward County court tomorrow.

Mary had called yesterday, saying I needed to pick up the copy of the credit union complaint I’d sent them, along with a copy of my bankruptcy petition, to show the judge.

To me, these lawyers don’t seem on top of things. I had to tell her when my creditors’ meeting was.

Luckily, the court date tomorrow is at 1:30 PM, so I don’t have to miss classes.

Wednesday, January 9, 1991

8 PM. Today I got up early, as usual, and made it to BCC half an hour before my 8 AM English 101 class.

After the Writing Lab people came in and talked to my students, I told them about the AT&T Writer’s Workbench lab and the library orientation.

At Central Campus, they try to do too much in English 101: all this stuff, plus the research paper and CLAST practice. No wonder the failure and withdrawal rate is so high.

I got my student histories today, and the only A’s or B’s my current English 102 students got were from me or Richard Applebaum. Well, at least they’re used to C’s and D’s.

About a third of the class was there for the first time, so I had to repeat myself, but I did start talking about writing.

Dr. Grasso said hi as I left the building; perhaps I only imagined that she felt sheepish about taking away my third class. But she sent around a notice to the full-timers about a lit course that had opened up in the evening.

Home for the rest of the rainy morning, I exercised, listened to the radio, watched the hopeful reports from Geneva – Baker and Aziz were meeting for much longer than expected, a good sign according to everyone – read the paper and prepared for my noon English 102, which I went to after lunch.

I talked about literature, fiction, poetry and drama in general terms. Some of the people have brains, but it’s always easy to overestimate students before seeing them try to write essays.

For $20 an hour, I don’t plan to work as hard as I did last term, but oddly enough, I can see I’m a better teacher this term because I have more time to prepare and deal with students individually.

I made it to the courthouse by 1:20 PM. A young woman judge was holding pretrial conferences, and luckily, Broward Schools Credit Union vs. Richard Grayson was called early.

I showed Her Honor my bankruptcy petition, and she stayed this case pending the outcome of that case.

I’m definitely taking my money out of the credit union, but not just because they’ve sued me: the Rhode Island situation has made people aware that BSCU isn’t federally insured, and as the Herald’s financial editors wrote in a column, anyone who puts his money in one of those credit unions deserves what he gets.

As I got into the car, I heard Baker’s press conference. There was no progress in all those hours of talk. Aziz refused to take Bush’s letter to Saddam, and the Iraqis just kept repeating their positions, the Americans repeated theirs, and war looks more likely.

The rest of the afternoon featured pessimistic press conferences by Aziz and Bush, who’s asked Congress for a UN-like resolution giving him the authority to use force after the January 15 deadline. He’ll probably get it, too.

I think it’s still possible that last-minute talks with the UN Secretary-General, the Europeans or Algerians can settle things without military action, but at this point I think the U.S. wants to end all this back-and-forth.

If we’re going to have war with Iraq, let’s have it sooner rather than later and try to conclude it as quickly and bloodlessly as possible and bring back our troops. We’ve got a sinking economy and lots of problems at home we need to concentrate on.

At 4 PM, I went back to BCC for my FAU class in Food and Nutrition. I’m the only non-degree student except for a teacher who needs recertification.

Jeff, one of my South Campus students from the fall of ’89, is in the class. He’s a bodybuilder and a nice kid but sort of boring.

The teacher, Ms. Holland, is a registered and licensed dietician in private practice. She talks with a Jewish/Long Island accent and is the type of petite dynamo who does five jobs and manages to take care of herself.

She asked everyone about their exercise habits and made the non-exercisers promise to start.

Ms. Holland’s orientation seems to be commonsensical, not faddish, but she doesn’t like additives, and I’m probably going to find out I shouldn’t be eating Simple Pleasures or other low-fat goodies I enjoy.

For what comes out to less than $10 a class, it’s a cheap diversion. I may learn something.