A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-February, 1990

Monday, February 12, 1990

10 PM. Today was probably the most hectic day I’ve had in a while. Not only did I have to teach my classes at BCC, but I also had to drive to Miami for my TEC workshop.

Yesterday I didn’t get through all the English 101 papers because I devoted a lot of time to each one, writing numerous comments, but only at the end. (In the text I just underlined errors or wrote “?” where I didn’t understand what they were trying to say.)

My grading was interrupted by a welcome phone call from Donna Ratajczak, Pete’s friend, who wanted advice about a trip to Miami she was considering for next weekend.

Today she was leaving to visit a friend in Melbourne, and Donna, who’s never been to Florida before – and said that like me, she’s not a good traveler – was curious about the Everglades and wondered if I knew of a cheap place to stay in the Miami area.

Because she doesn’t drive, I suggested the Deco District hotels, which have bus tours and shuttles, and told her that in a pinch, she could stay here one night and I’d go to my parents.

While I certainly would like the chance to see Donna, I’m not counting on it.

Falling asleep at this time last night, I dozed soundly for nine and a half hours.

This morning I got to BCC later than usual, and I was pleased to see Jeffrey Knapp, who told me that The Greatest was the best book he got at the Miami Book Fair.

Peter brought Jeffrey in to speak to his classes in exchange for lunch, and when I suggested my creative writing students would benefit from Jeffrey’s insights about poetry, Peter brought his English 101 class into my room.

Jeffrey was terrific, using some of the skills he had honed working in Poets in the Schools to get the class away from thinking of poems as rhymed greeting card verse filled with treacly sentiments and archaic language.

My older-women students were the hardest to convince, and the psycho made herself known through her obsessive outbursts.

But several students told me they got something out of Jeffrey’s exercises and opinions, and I surely did.

My English 101 class also went well. While Shayna is annoyingly talkative, at least she’s not psychotic like Reyna.

Patrick told me he read his son Chris’s paper on me for Pat Menhart’s English 102 class.

Patrick himself would like to use my work for a paper he’s doing for Lynn Barrett’s FIU Form and Theory class, which he finds boring. He’s dismayed that she uses TV references rather than literary ones, and Patrick said she ridiculed Eve Shelnutt’s article in the AWP Chronicle, the same article I found myself in agreement with when I devoured it yesterday.

Basically, Shelnutt criticizes MFA programs for their anti-intellectualism, for creating a system rewarding trendy young names, for encouraging too much publication, and for overreliance on the workshop method.

Here, I think Shelnutt, like Tom, is on solid ground. Today’s MFA students aren’t well-read, and the writers they so admire – the Carvers, Phillipses, Masons and Beatties, to say nothing of the Brat Pack – aren’t remotely the kind of intellectuals that exist among European, Asian, Latin American and African writers.

I’m glad I have my computer education workshops and don’t have to be part of an MFA program. Not getting hired as a creative writing professor has been a blessing that is no longer in disguise.

At Charles Drew Junior High School this afternoon and evening, I acted more like a facilitator than an instructor; the teachers in my class are now working on their own Apple and IBM software.

After tomorrow, I’ve got just two sessions left with them: next Tuesday and the following Monday.

After getting home at 8 PM, I made myself dinner, paid my bills, did my usual chores. Now, headachy and tired, I’m ready to rest my weary eyes till morning.

When will I ever catch up on my reading? Never, I guess.

Tuesday, February 13, 1990

11 PM. I just read through the advance copy (one of two) of Narcissism and Me that I found waiting for me at my parents’ house three hours ago.

I’d made myself a Nutri/System dinner, paid my bills, read USA Today, Interplaked my teeth, given myself a dose of the hemorrhoid medicine, laid out my clothes for tomorrow and did the rest of the mundane chores I usually do before I glanced at the book. My initial reaction is one of pleasure.

Earlier today, when I was writing the names and addresses of the many people I plan to send free books to, I fleetingly wondered if self-publishing was worth it.

I think it is, even if I lose all the money I spent on the book (which I can claim, as I’m doing with The Greatest, as a business loss on my income tax).

This is the first book since Eating at Arby’s that I had total control over. Unlike With Hitler in New York, Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, and I Break for Delmore Schwartz, it’s unlikely to get any reviews. Even so, it was important for me to take control and see my fiction between covers.

Jeffrey Knapp praised The Greatest Short Story That Absolutely Ever Was, which isn’t quite as good as this one although it still contains valuable work that deserved to be seen.

This afternoon I got to Liberty City just in time for class.

I began by reading the teachers the gist of Electronic Learning’s lead article on the hardware crisis caused by Apple’s much-denied but expected abandonment of the Apple II line.

The Apple IIs may be obsolete technology, but they still account for the majority of classroom micros and educational software in this country.

Most observers expect the company to come out with a “baby Mac,” a cheaper Macintosh that will still run the Apple II programs.

Because some of the teachers were using Print Shop to make Valentines for their sweeties, I didn’t get out till after 7 PM.

Thursday, February 15, 1990

10 PM. Last evening after I managed to get through my FIU technical writing class, I figured I’d made it over the hump of the week, but today was by far the most stressful day.

At 1 PM, I got stuck with the car again.

After picking up my FIU paychecks at BCC-Central, I had deposited them – along with some cash advances – in the bank, and treated myself to some TCBY frozen yogurt.

I was on my way to get a salad bar at Wendy’s when the temperature indicator on my dashboard glowed red.

After getting my salad, I was on my way to my parents’ house to see if I could get Jonathan’s car when the Pontiac died in the left-turn lane of University going into Nova.

I was stuck. Two motorcycle cops help push me onto the grass by the corner Mobil station, where I called the AAA emergency road service and spoke to Mom and Jonathan at the flea market.

Jonathan said his car was okay but it had no spare tire.

Stupidly, they didn’t tell me Marc was at his apartment; that knowledge could have saved me a lot of stress.

I tried to keep calm: I read the Times haphazardly and nibbled at my dried-out salad bar after cleaning my hands with the water hose at the service station.

But by 1:45 PM, I got nervous, canceled the AAA call and phoned for a taxi to take me from my apartment (luckily, I could easily walk there) to Mom’s house.

The cab took 45 minutes to get here, and I was frantic by then even though I’d swallowed a Triavil. I left word with Sophie to tell Southwood Junior High School I might be late.

Once I got the Camaro, I rushed back here and tried to eat lunch, but my stomach distress, caused by tension, won out over my hunger.

I tried to relax on the drive to South Dade. For some reason, I thought driving shirtless with the windows rolled down would trick myself into thinking I was in South Florida on vacation on a gorgeous winter day.

But the stress of going from teacher to teacher during today’s workshop gave me sharp stomach pains.

It’s much harder to deal with people when they’re all on different levels of computer knowledge and experience: I need the patience to give them each enough attention as I see what they’re working on at their stations.

My teachers can be both demanding and obtuse – in fact, the most obtuse are the most demanding – and at times I felt as if I were going to lose it entirely. Unfortunately, most of the class wanted to stay for the entire period.

Still, as I rode north on the Turnpike Extension in the dark while listening to one of my favorite pieces, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I felt that at least I hadn’t handled myself too badly today, coping as best I could.

While I did overeat a bit, I made sure not to pig out on unhealthy food.

The last month I’ve been working too hard. I feel like an automaton and a drudge, and I’m not doing any of my jobs really well.

If only I were making tons of money . . .  but I’m just running ever faster to stay in place.

At least while I was gone, Dad and Marc had my car fixed – they bought a new battery at Sears – so it was waiting for me when I got to the house.

This latest car trouble has convinced me of one thing: I’m flying, not driving, to New York. If I need a car for the two weeks I’ll be in Elmira, I’ll rent one.

Right now, not having a car in New York City sounds like bliss.

At least Fred Anderson called to say he’s inclined to send me a check for around $500 as recompense for the sinkhole’s damage to my car from the city of Fort Lauderdale.

What fresh hell awaits me tomorrow?

Sunday, February 18, 1990

7 PM. Although the few hours I spent with Donna were pleasant, the rest of this weekend proved to be an object lesson in the incompetence of the American worker.

Yesterday at Showtime Pizza, the girl working there – who’d incorrectly made change for me on Thursday – had a devil of a time giving me back change when I handed her a five-dollar bill for a $4.35 pizza.

She returned $1.35 to me, and then, when I handed it back to her, thinking she’d immediately see how she screwed up, it was obvious by her confused expression that she couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong.

While she went to the back to get my order, I told Rick, the owner, “She can’t count.”

“She’s new and just learning the register,” he replied unconcernedly.

So now in America a white middle-class girl of 17 or 18 can’t do subtraction on a fourth-grade level?

Next time I’m just going to keep the extra money.

When I picked up my car from Sears at 8 PM last night – I didn’t tell my parents the repairs cost me $466 – I thought the problem was finally licked, but the temperature light glowed red before I got home.

This morning I brought the car back in and they spent the day working on it (for free). But who knows if they have actually fixed the problem? Should I expect better from a department store that can’t even run its main business profitably?

Using this morning’s waiting time at the mall to my advantage – or so I thought – I walked over to the Family Health Center to get a cholesterol and triglyceride test.

I didn’t mind spending 45 minutes in the waiting room because I had the Sunday Times (which had a front-page article on “doctors in distress” that made me feel sorry for physicians).

But when they put me in an examining room and forgot about me for an hour, I grew impatient once I read most of the paper.

So I just opened the door and walked outside without any of the nurses or the receptionist noticing.

I wonder what the reaction was when they couldn’t find their patient in the examining room. Or perhaps it happens to them all the time?

More and more, I’m convinced that if America doesn’t become a third-rate economic power, it’s not for lack of trying.

The Firestone people apparently forgot to give me back my Diners Club card, but at least Citicorp seemed efficient when I called to report it lost.

Of course, I too have been making mistakes lately – probably because I’m so distracted.

For the first time in years, I forgot Alice’s birthday, as I discovered when I spoke to her tonight.

(I’m sending her a belated birthday card and one of the advance copies of Narcissism and Me as an apology.)

While Alice took my oversight with aplomb, she berated me for teaching at BCC for no money and said that I should emulate her and turn down work that doesn’t pay well.

I didn’t do any BCC work this weekend, but as lazy a teacher as I might be, the school is still getting its money’s worth. After all, the general competency level of BCC instructors isn’t very high.

As I said, I enjoyed seeing Donna yesterday. Her Greyhound bus was only ten minutes late coming into the Fort Lauderdale station, and I waved to her as she alighted.

Donna looked very Downtown with that violet-red hair, tortoise-shell sunglasses and New York trendy/poor-artist clothes.

She’d sent a deposit to the AYH hostel in Miami Beach. It was at the Clay Hotel in a funky part of South Beach near the new artists’ neighborhood by Lincoln Road.

The place was full of people who looked like East Village types, only tanner.

Both of us were surprised at the nice little room she got for $20 a night; it reminded me of the kind of cozy but tacky rooms I’ve had at artists’ colonies.

Donna’s a sweet person, and I liked getting to know her better.

We talked quite a bit on the ride down from Fort Lauderdale, and later, after she got settled in, we talked a lot more as we sat at the Cuban diner across the street and nursed Cuban coffee (Donna) and 7-Up (me).

Donna and her boyfriend – that Japanese guy Masa – a have moved to a great Mitchell-Lama building on 25th and Second where she’d had been on the waiting list for years.

She works at some city agency – or maybe it was an insurance company – doing proofreading and all those things artistic types do to make money in New York.

For some reason I opened up to her. I don’t know why I told her about my affair with Sean except that maybe she told me about her affair with a married man. (Was it Jonathan Baumbach? Do I remember hearing that from Pete?)

It was interesting to hear about Donna’s family, her adoptive mother and her birth parents, and how she grew up in Baltimore and lived in Chicago before coming to New York City.

Although Donna wanted to take me to dinner to thank me for bringing her to Miami Beach to get settled, I had to get back to Broward to pick up my car. Besides, post-Nutri/System, I now panic at the thought of eating at a strange restaurant.

We shook hands awkwardly when I left. I’d said I’d probably be too busy to see her today, and as it turned out with the car, I was.

On the phone, Alice said she may be in Miami in April, so maybe I can see another New York friend next month.

Her mother left for Australia a few days ago while Alice and Peter – who threw Alice a big birthday party and bought her a fur coat – will leave for Canberra on March 10.

Her brother’s wedding will be held at the American ambassador’s residence, with a reception in their garden.

The couple will come to the U.S. for cross-country honeymoon in May, and Alice says they plan to settle in New York when Michael leaves the Foreign Service in two years.

Monday, February 19, 1990

7:30 PM. When I went out this morning, I discovered my keys were missing – until I realized I’d left them in the front door last night.

I did the same thing the first night I moved into my apartment in Rockaway in 1979 and also on one of those busy Wednesdays in the fall of 1985 when I taught at Baruch and John Jay and then took a class at Columbia before returning to Justin’s apartment in Park Slope at night.

It’s a sign of distraction, one among others – like forgetting Alice’s birthday – telling me I really needed more than the afternoon off today.

Still, I’m grateful for the free time.

While I slept last night, it wasn’t deep enough to refresh me. And these days I can’t seem to get myself to stay asleep past 7 AM.

After breakfast, I graded a few papers and headed to BCC.

School went okay, but my students – those that showed up on Presidents Day – seemed distracted. Or maybe it was me.

Teaching the BCC English classes leaves me feeling unsatisfied. So Alice is right.

In 1986, I turned down part-time work at BCC because the money was so bad. The next year I took over those three evening classes but hated it, and last term, even as a full-timer, I felt pretty dissatisfied.

When this academic year ends, I’ll have taught another eight sections of college English: that’s more than a full-time professor’s load at most universities.

I’ve “kept my hand in” the field long enough; I’m ready for new and different work.

My current plan is to leave Florida shortly after May 3, the day of my final TEC workshop at Miami Sunset High School.

I’ll go to Grandma’s at first – yesterday she complained of constipation, but that isn’t so bad – and stay there until I can move to Teresa’s at the end of May.

I’ll spend June and July in Manhattan, trying to sell my books on the street, perhaps, or maybe taking a class at Teachers College.

In August I go to Elmira for the Mark Twain Fellowship for two weeks, and then I’ll return to New York around late September or early October.

By that time, I should be close to bankruptcy, at least if I timed it right.

God knows what the general economy will be doing, but it now appears I’ve lost my race with the ephemeral next Great Depression.

If I have to live with my parents next year, I’ll do that – while I teach TEC workshops and try to get my life back on track without my credit cards.

It’s not going to be a fun experience, but then bankruptcy is paying my dues if not my debts.

I’m a survivor, however, and I expect I’ll come out of the pain and depression somewhat rejuvenated.

Remember “Me and Bobby McGee” and its lyric, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”?

I trust in my ability to bounce back – eventually – and go on. And who knows what surprises could be in store?

Maybe – I think about this now that my parents are getting older and have their physical problems: Dad with his heel spur, Mom with her still-undiagnosed urinary issues – I’ll have to cope with someone else’s serious illness. Or maybe even my own.

Am I selfish to try to squeeze out one more great summer, or should I be content with the memories of recent years?

Shit, no one can be content to only remember past happiness. People aren’t made that way – thank God.

Meanwhile, I should enjoy this relative luxury while it lasts, even if I’m very busy. One day I may wish I could feel this harried again.