A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early August, 1989

Tuesday, August 1, 1989

9 PM on an uncharacteristically cool, dry night.

I just turned off the Democratic mayoral debate. As the primary date nears, Koch seems to be staging a comeback, unfortunately, and I’m not sure Dinkins can remain the front-runner.

Too bad, because after a dozen years of Koch, New York City needs someone new.

Last evening I went to the movies in back of Grandma’s house and saw Dead Poets Society.

While I liked Robin Williams’s performance and the message of the film (seize the day/don’t mindlessly conform/language is important), the plot had so many holes you could fly a B-2 through it, and I felt manipulated.

My vertigo was very bad last night, and it’s been bad all day. I’m convinced the problem is in my right ear, as I feel fullness there and had pain there on Saturday.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can almost feel the canals there filling up with fluid as I lie on my pillow and turn my head to the right.

Of course, I’ve slept with vertigo before; last night my insomnia wasn’t caused simply by dizziness. I thought I’d go nuts if I didn’t get to sleep as I began obsessing about this and that.

At 4 AM, I dozed off and slept a little under four hours.

I left Rockaway early, postponing my daily exercise till I got back to Manhattan. Grandma, as usual, seemed sad to see me go.

I’ll be back to visit her only once more this year, and that makes me a little sad, too. Those trips out to the beach and back seem like a big journey; it almost always takes me about two hours.

Back home, I paid the credit card bills Mom sent in the mail. She also sent me a letter from this guy, Kevin Wallace, in L.A., who asked me to autograph his bookplate for a copy of Eating at Arby’s. I mailed it back in the SASE he sent. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from a reader.

I spoke with Teresa, who said she, too, felt dizzy today.

For her, the summer will be ending after next week. She doesn’t seem to have too many catering jobs in late August and September, and she’s been thinking about the fall.

Ideally, she’d like another job like the one she had at the lingerie firm, cooking lunch in an office.

Norton and Pam have decided to sell the chicken store, and when they do, that will deprive Teresa of the use of their kitchen.

Helmut called, sounding crazier than ever. Apparently he’d called the house in Davie and said he spoke “to Dan, who claimed to be your father even though he sounded like he was fifteen years younger than you.”

I’m not sure what Helmut wants. I gave him my new address and phone, and he said I’d be hearing from him “in the next year and a half.” Crazy guy.

Dad said Helmut told him he’d be visiting in 1993 and would kiss Dad, but only if he were circumcised.

I don’t know what Helmut’s problem is, and I think it’s best to keep him an ocean’s length away.

I stayed in the apartment most of the day, ordering in Chinese food for dinner.

So the 21st year of my journal-keeping begins rather inauspiciously with this draggy day.

Helmut said, “We’re coming to the last decade [he pronounced it “de-cahd”] of the millennium, ja?”

When I said, “It will be an interesting time,” he replied, “So now you are telling me the news?”

Wednesday, August 2, 1989

5 PM. I’ve just been watching the pigeons on the ledge. After 24 days, the babies are as big as their parents, though they’re still being fed by them.

I’m sure I’ll miss their first flight – one time I’ll go over the window to look and they won’t be there – but it’s been interesting to watch them get born and grow up.

Helmut phoned again at 11 PM last night. (It was 5 PM Bremen time.) We spoke for over an hour.

“My life is boiling over,” he told me, and I suspect he was drunk or stoned or both. He was funny, and I enjoyed the conversation, but Helmut seems very troubled.

He keeps referring to my “Hitler” story and quoting it, which makes me uncomfortable. He said I’m one of his great friends in America, the others being Sat Darshan, her sister and brother-in-law, Mason, Libby and Glen.

Helmut plans to join his “Persian” wife (twice he called her “my husband,” which is probably a mistake in translation) in Hamburg next year, and he’s going to Crete for three weeks soon.

He made everything in his life sound of momentous importance to the world and apologized for “failing” to make me famous in Germany.

Well, at least he can’t call me that often: the 65 minutes we spoke must have cost him a fortune.

I slept about six hours, enough to be rested but not enough to be really satisfied. It’s hard to sleep on only my left side because my ear and shoulder ache from the pressure.

A bad sinus headache came upon me during the night and it hasn’t gone away as hot, humid air comes into the city.

Probably that’s why I’m so dizzy – though I was able to lie on my back and do stomach crunches when I exercised yesterday and today.

I spoke to Betty this morning, and she said new faculty are expected to fill out all their personnel forms on Friday, August 18.

When I told her I had a Saturday flight, she said I could skip it and go downtown to the Personnel office the following week.

Because it looks like they’re hiring another instructor – someone with a B.A. to teach remedial courses (as if those are easier to teach or less important than regular courses) – she hasn’t made up a schedule for me yet, but in addition to Creative Writing, I’ll probably have two sections each of English 101 and 102.

Unfortunately, I have to use their texts, and I can see already I’m not going to be able to teach the way I wanted to.

But I’m too wrapped up in the writing process ever to go back entirely to the ridiculous old ways.

I really don’t need to know my exact schedule, and I don’t intend to call Betty again though she is fun to talk to. (We both felt the same way about Dead Poets Society.)

I’m going to try to enjoy my stint at BCC’s South Campus; I’m almost starting to look forward to the term.

Of course, I’ll be sad to leave New York.

During the course of the day here, I see so many people who know me from this neighborhood: the mailman, the Koreans at their store, the guys at Caesar’s Pizzeria (I was so intent on reading their English and Spanish signs warning drug dealers to stay away that I banged my arm on their door), neighbors from the building – and then there are all the hip-looking people in the neighborhood and the famous ones (I crossed the paths of the actress Anne Meara and the actor Sam Groom today).

I deposited a check for Teresa, made some ATM withdrawals, read in the St. Agnes library, mailed two boxes of my junk back to Florida, and bought food and other stuff at Sloan’s.

I also left messages for Ronna, Justin and a couple of other friends.

Friday, August 4, 1989

8 PM. Last evening I got into bed and shut off the lights at 9 PM.

But for the second night in a row, I didn’t get to sleep until after 5 AM. My tendency to have insomnia is only worsened by the vertigo I get when I lie down.

At one point around 11 PM, I felt myself drifting off, but I was so uncomfortable having to lie only on my left side that I was soon wide awake again.

Naturally, I was about to throw myself out the window because I was so frustrated – but I didn’t want to leave my air-conditioned bedroom.

Nevertheless, on three hours of sleep – and I haven’t really had a good night in a whole week – I functioned without noticeable impairment today.

Yet I worry that my sleep deficit will screw up my immune system.

The one thing I can’t afford right now is to get a cold, because I’m not going to risk my ears flying with one. I’d take the train to Fort Lauderdale, even if it meant hours and hours of torture.

Ronna called last night after she got back from tutoring, where she was observed for the first time; the class seemed to go well, though.

Ronna and I had a really fine talk. I’ll call her on Sunday to arrange a time to see her and to see Billy and his girlfriend, who are visiting from Florida.

Teresa phoned at 11 PM to get my opinion of an ABC News show I wasn’t watching, and I got off quickly, telling her I was about to go to sleep. Some joke.

At Teachers College, things were screwed up as usual.

First they put our class in an un-air-conditioned room when it was 93° and unbearably humid today.

After we switched to a cool room, the instructor, Ann Williams, director of Columbia’s undergraduate Health Center, discovered she hadn’t been told our class would meet tomorrow.

She’d planned one Saturday class for the end, on August 19 – which is the day I’m flying home. Lucky for me and other students who can’t come that day, Ann agreed to come in tomorrow, as the registrar’s schedule said.

The course is interesting, and because the two-credit requirements were the same as those for three credits, I went to the registrar’s office and dropped the LOGO workshop and added another credit to Alcohol and Health.

That will give me less for my money, but I won’t have to worry about doing another paper and attending classes for an extra 14 hours.

Besides, Ann is requiring us to attend one AA meeting and one Al-Anon meeting this week. We have one paper, a take-home midterm she’s giving us tomorrow.

In the morning session, she discussed alcohol use and its physiological, psychological, cultural and environmental aspects.

After lunch – not wanting to face the school’s hot cafeteria, I went to Grandma’s Restaurant – our afternoon session focused on alcoholism: a definition of it, the disease model and other models (which Ann rejects), and an introduction to AA and 12-step recovery programs.

Only in the last few years has there been so much interest in and knowledge about Adult Children of Alcoholics, a group which has grown tremendously in recent years.

“Co-dependency,” “enabler” – these are terms I’ve heard lately which I wanted to learn more about as a teetotaler (one of several in the class).

It’s fascinating to learn about a subject I’d previously given little thought to. My parents and grandparents rarely drank, and I never did.

Ann said that many Asians and some Jews seem to have genes that are missing a liver enzyme that turns a poisonous product of alcohol into a more benign substance; these people tend not to drink. I suppose I might have that genetic deficit.

On the other hand, when I was younger, I often went to parties where friends and strangers drank. But it was mostly Sant’gria, Boone’s Farm Apple Wine or Blue Nun, and marijuana was the bigger attraction.

My friends who drink don’t seem to do it to excess while I’m around. I know Teresa, Alice, Josh, et al., have all talked about getting drunk at times, but really, I don’t know how they drink.

I did suspect Sean was on his way to becoming an alcoholic because I thought his mother was one (and being Irish, the family was probably genetically predisposed) and because of his stories about getting blotto at the bars most every night.

However, the vast majority of my BCC students got drunk regularly, and Fort Lauderdale’s Spring Break was one big drinking party – so I could never tell whether Sean’s drinking was just the norm among his peers.

As the Bill Cosby tape (Himself) that Ann played for us said, I’ve never understood people who feel they relax and have fun by ending the night vomiting or passing out.

I’m a bit anxious about attending the AA meetings even though we roleplayed a little and Ann told us what to expect.

When I said, “My name is Richard and I’m an alcoholic,” for practice, I felt a sense of shame even though I know I’m not one. That tells me the stigma is incredibly powerful.

I got home at 4 PM and managed to exercise and do the laundry. But I’ll hold off reading the newspapers till tomorrow because I’ve got a stack of interesting reading for class to get through.

I love learning about different subjects, about seeing the inside of a new field of study. Is that compulsive behavior – like alcoholism?

Saturday, August 5, 1989

5 PM. I’ve just showered after an aerobic workout.

Last night I read all the articles and materials Ann gave us, and I felt myself getting excited by some of the principles involved in AA and ACOA and family dynamics.

It’s interesting that Ann remembered my name today and during a break asked me if I were already in the field because I seemed so familiar with the terms like self-esteem.

No, I said, it’s probably from having come from a dysfunctional family and having had therapy.

Of course, I was flattered, just the way I was last summer when the teacher suggested I’d be good in the sex education field.

Today’s session focused on families and co-dependency, I want to read some of the books on the subject that have come out recently.

We also discussed women and drinking. Ann obviously has a politically left-wing, feminist, pro-gay and -lesbian point of view – but I share that, so I’m very happy with her presentation.

Last night I fell asleep easily and slept soundly for ten hours. Probably I could have continued dreaming away if I didn’t have to get up for school this morning.

My dreams seemed to provide me with much-needed nourishment – or maybe it was the sleep and I only assume it’s the dreams that help.

That one good night of sleep always seems to make up for however many sleepless nights that have preceded it. But of course it doesn’t – not really. Are there people who sleep like that every night, I wonder?

I had lunch at a café on Amsterdam with Gene, a student who’s just finishing up a program in organizational psychology.

Like Karen, he’s in transition, making a career change; he had been a restaurant manager for years.

I think people who change careers have a lot of courage. Well, maybe they couldn’t stand their old lives – but then, how many people just continue with unpleasant but familiar routines?

I’m still somewhat anxious about having to attend an AA and an Al-Anon meeting this week, but I bet I learn a lot, maybe even learn about myself.

Concerning health habits: I’m ready to lose weight. I’d like to remember what it felt like to be thin.

I’ve seen photos of myself in high school, and although maybe I was too skinny, I did have these rippling abdominal muscles – which I never remember appreciating when I had them.

I’d like to challenge myself to lose the excess fat I’ve been carrying around all this year.

Would it make a difference in my life if I weighed 153, rather than 183, pounds? Well, I’ll never find out unless I do it, right?

Monday, August 7, 1989

2 AM on a cool, rainy night. Technically, it’s Tuesday morning.

I deliberately fell asleep without writing today’s diary entry because a couple of hours ago, I didn’t think I could do justice to describing the AA meeting I attended tonight.

But I’ve slept, and I’m up, and I’m going to try. I was as nervous beforehand as if I had been an alcoholic attending for the first time.

In the Village at 7 PM, I had a burger at The Bagel, where all the people I used to know were gone – dead of AIDS, maybe – but things still seemed familiar: the cube-shaped ice in the soda, the little holders for the menu and check at each counter seat, the pickles they served, the great slices of onion.

Then, as night fell, I walked around the West Village for an hour. It’s the part of the neighborhood where the streets all seem to intersect at odd angles.

I passed various restaurants (some of which I can recall going to on special occasions),  the lesbian and gay bars, the physique memorabilia store, the sex toys shop, other boutiques. I love seeing the mix of people in the Village.

The open meeting of AA was scheduled for 8:30 PM. I rang the bell at the church on Christopher Street only after having watched others go in ahead of me.

At first I was scared because only seven or eight others were there, but more came in, and in the end there were about fifty people in all.

At the front of the room were large banners with the 12 steps and the 12 traditions, and there were coffee and cookies at one end of the room, and signs with AA slogans like “Take it easy” and “One day at a time.”

Everyone would say, “I’m X and I’m an alcoholic” (some would add “drug addict” or something else) and then everyone would chant, “Hi, X!”

The meeting’s qualification, or testimony, came from Mark, who said he didn’t like to talk.

But he did very well, telling how he started drinking at 15 and taking Valium prescribed by a doctor for his depression, which was a result of not being able to deal with being gay.

He was gang-raped and treated horribly by his classmates at Bayonne High School, but the pills and alcohol made the taunts and threats easier to handle.

Mark talked about his life on booze and how hard it still is, after three years, to remain sober.

He’d never been interested in cocaine, but once he stopped drinking, he felt he wanted to try it. (Others would say the same thing about other drugs.)

He was still worried because he owed $30,000 on credit cards and he knew that was another form of addiction.

Obviously I had to think about that, especially when the other people raised their hands and the guy next to me said he’d just paid off $40,000 – after many years – on credit cards and how he used to think the bank was giving him money.

Isn’t that what I do? Aren’t I a creditaholic?

Maybe I don’t use the money for buying drugs or luxury items, but I’ve been living off credit cards for years and would panic if mine were taken away.

Of course, I’ve been aware of where I was heading: my plans have been deliberate, I’ve never yet missed a payment, and I expect to have to declare bankruptcy. Still, I’m not going to engage in denial.

Anyway, others spoke: a guy who’d just been dumped by his boyfriend on Friday and rushed to a meeting – he said he didn’t want to wallow in self-pity but he felt worthless and fought back tears even as he cracked a joke on himself; a guy who just wanted to say how scared he was and how he desired a hit of cocaine so much; the woman who said she’d just shut herself up in her room for the last three days, whose relationship with her daughter has deteriorated, who wanted to isolate herself and hated talking to other people the way she was doing (she said she still hated, after all these years, saying, “Hi, I’m X and I’m an alcoholic”).

It was a mostly gay crowd, but there were all kinds of people: yuppies in suits, working class types, clean-cut young blacks, older men who looked as if they had good jobs, a woman who appeared to be a street person.

There was no shortage of people who wanted to talk, and I felt I was hearing people talk more honestly and from their guts than I ever did in group therapy.

Nobody gave advice, but after people spoke, Mark would sometimes say something that always seemed to be helpful, as if he were a non-directional therapist.

For example, he told the woman, “You need to come to meetings and do what you just did, talk about how you hate to share.”

There was a real bond between these people as they shared, and sat and smoked (my shirt reeked of tobacco when I got home) and drank coffee.

I probably shouldn’t have raised my hand when the break came and the meeting leader asked who was new, for like the others, I felt I had to say, “My name is Richard and I’m an alcoholic.”

Well, I might be; I’ve never tested it. People were very nice to me, and after we broke up, holding hands and reciting the serenity prayer, the woman next to me – who said she’d been sober for five days – gave me a copy of the prayer.

There’s a lot more I could write, but I need to “process” the experience in class on Friday.

I do know I think AA is a great organization, and I didn’t find it too religious.

Actually, there were a number of attractive people there, and I felt admiration for everyone.

Last evening (Sunday), I made arrangements to see Ronna on Friday night and Alice on Saturday, and this afternoon I had lunch with Karen at Cafe Avenue, where I’d eaten with Gene on Saturday.

I really like her, because we seem to share the same tastes and values, and I’d like to have her for a friend.

She’s also the first new woman friend in years I’ve also been sexually attracted to: an aerobics instructor, she has these muscly arms that contrast with her granny glasses and hair in a prim bun.

Just that sense of romantic possibility, however remote, makes our friendship a little more exciting.

I think if I weren’t going away, I could get to know Karen a lot better. As it is, I said I’d write to her. She’s very smart and cute and together.

At Teachers College, I returned my library books on dizziness (I’ve been feeling much better, knock wood), bought some books at the bookstore (including a book on the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian who sees education as political empowerment – every teacher at the Institute for Teaching Writing mentioned his work), and did other errands.

I also read issues of last year’s College Composition and Communication and College English.

One baby pigeon is left, so I suppose his more adventurous sibling (probably the older one) flew away.

As I watched this guy, I thought: He’s scared to go out in the world, he wants to, but he’s comfortable with what’s familiar.

The bird’s father came and fed him as he cooed for more food.

I hope this bird will fly away, too, in the next day or two.

Obviously, I’m projecting my own fears on the pigeon. I doubt birds are neurotic. How do you like this title?: Dysfunctional Pigeons.

Tuesday, August 8, 1989

9 PM. I’ve just returned from an Al-Anon meeting at a crowded church on Hudson at Christopher Street.

There were about 150 people there, and I doubt any more could have fit in. I, like many others, had to sit on the floor while others stood.

It was a Beginners’ Meeting that started at 7 PM. The group was young, white, about equally male and female, with most of the men gay and about half the women.

By and large, they were the best-looking 150 people I’ve ever seen in one place together, and I can understand why some have touted 12-step groups as a place to meet a prospective lover.

The leader of the meeting had people read the 12 steps in turn and then he talked a bit before giving out the One Day at a Time book for people to read selected passages and then share.

I left the meeting at 8:30 PM, thinking I’d just been in an oasis of security on an island – and a world – where craziness is the norm.

To hear people talk about the realities of slogans like “Take it easy” or “Let go and let God” or “First things first” may sound banal, but it was very moving and liberating to hear people say what they were dealing with and not to hear any advice or admonitions or the usual crap in reply.

I already felt the love that newcomers are supposed to resist. I have no problem with the God talk because this crowd meant God in a spiritual, not a religious, way. I could see making AA and Al-Anon a way of life and being healthier for it.

I know I need to stop thinking all the time, stop trying to control the future (I’m pretty good with people, less so with places and things), and to stop trying to do two things at once.

I need to concentrate on the present.

But of course, during the meeting, I started thinking: If only Teresa could get into this. I was imagining her problems and glossing over mine.

The truth is I am happy day to day. I feel I do have a lot of the common sense AA and Al-Anon promote, but I could use a double dose of it every day for 90 days.

I’m very enthusiastic about what I’ve seen.

Up late today, I exercised and then went out in the afternoon, mailing my last package to Florida, depositing cash advances in the bank, and eating pizza for lunch.

Today was like autumn with a high only around 70°, and I felt wonderful.

This morning the pigeon father seemed to be trying to get his kid to leave the nest, and when I glanced out the window before I left this evening, the ledge was empty.

So I assume the baby pigeon has learned how to fly.