A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late May, 1990

Wednesday, May 23, 1990

9 PM. Last night I centered myself by preparing and eating a decent dinner, watching the news, and reading the Walser book with the pleasure he must have felt in writing it.

When Grandma Ethel returned, she and I played the computer games of Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and Family Feud.

Like most nights here at the beach, my sleep wasn’t long and it was interrupted by frequent trips to the bathroom, but I got rest and had interesting dreams.

As problematic as it’s been living here in Rockaway, there’s something cozy about this apartment overlooking the ocean, especially with this November-like weather.

Expecting a call from Florida Unemployment, I stayed in all morning, but nobody phoned.

I’ve begun thinking in more detail about selling my books on the street. I may be desperate enough to try to make it work. In the past, I’ve been on target about 60% of the time when it comes to figuring out what plays in the media, and I think TV and newspapers might go for this.

Crad still manages to get publicity for his street-selling after all these years in Toronto. However, I may not be aware of the lack of novelty of this in New York City; perhaps other writers have sold their books on the street, though I doubt if any of them have been members of the Authors Guild or PEN, have gotten state grants, and have been reviewed in legitimate media.

I’ll need to keep some documentation of my “professional” status, like copies of reviews, articles, and the Contemporary Literary Criticism entry, in case reporters or potential buyers think I’m just some nut.

I’ll probably need to wear a sign like Crad does or like I did when I panhandled on Wall Street for my leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco.

Back in 1979, I stood on Fifth Avenue at New York Is Book Country with a sign that proclaimed I was hungry for a meal at Elaine’s, but I worked the crowd with leaflets, not books, and people didn’t know what to make of me.

In 1990, New Yorkers are inured to every kind of panhandler – even on Beach 118th Street in Rockaway, I encountered three this morning – so I don’t know whether to stress my “poverty” and “homelessness.”

Should I act like the Fort Lauderdale writer who’s come to the Big Apple to seek his fortune and who’s living on friends’ and relatives’ couches?  That angle might play well; people love an underdog.

I should be funny but not sarcastic. Mock innocence may not wear well as an attitude, but it might be where I have to start.

Where is another problem. To begin, my best bet is probably Sixth Avenue in the 50s, where the TV networks and their New York affiliates are located. I felt pretty safe when I handed out my “celebrity shortage” leaflets around there in 1985.

I probably should carry a minimum of cash, but I’ll need enough to make change. To start, I’ll try charging $5 a book and see if any sell.

In a way, I’d like to go out and try it tomorrow, but it would be better to wait until I get settled in at Teresa’s. After all, I have no other obligations for a month (and no income, it appears).

I do believe in my work and that I’ve been undervalued as a writer. But I know that hype and quality are two different things, and I still feel ambivalent about success.

For example, this morning I read the two latest issues of the Voice and it’s hard for me to relate to all the very hip downtown people who go to clubs and who get gossiped about.

I mean, I’m not a part of the world of magazines like Spy and Details or clubs like Mars or whatever has replaced Area (see, I don’t even know the club’s name) – and I don’t want to be a part of that world. I don’t want to get famous to the point where people know all my personal business and discuss my sex life.

Talk about mock-innocence . . . but the thing is, I feel like I could be famous, and I still don’t know if I want to be.

In the past I’ve always sabotaged my own efforts. Now I have to be aware of my conflicts and make sure I don’t keep undercutting myself.

Being thin helps. I’m not above using my body, of course, and I know that being well-built makes me a more marketable “commodity.”

Walser would be laughing at me now. But look, I might as well try it.

Otherwise, I’ll just go back to obscurity in Florida (and how come the Sun-Sentinel article never came out?) and go bankrupt and do part-time teaching. Well, enough speculation for one day.

This afternoon I made $1000 in cash advances on credit cards that are slipshod about limits, and I’m keeping up with my bills. I read the Times in the Howard Beach public library branch and then went to TCBY.

In Howard Beach, a Jewish/Italian neighborhood of brick homes from the 1950s and 1960s, very much like the community I grew up in, I feel quite comfortable.

Being here these last three weeks and having a car – today I extended the rental another week – has made me get in touch with the neighborhoods of my past.

This evening I drove up blocks in Neponsit and Belle Harbor and looked at the houses where my old friends – Mikey, Mason, Ivan, Larry and others – used to live, and the building on Beach 118th Street where I lived a decade ago.

(At this time of year in 1980, Grandpa Herb was very ill, I was finishing the worst year of my teaching career at Touro College and the School of Visual Arts, and preparing to go to MacDowell).

Later, I drove out to Atlantic Beach and Long Beach. It’s amazing how details about places come back to me.

Grandma seemed a little less depressed today.

Thursday, May 24, 1990

11 PM. Last evening I watched TV with Grandma: a Barbara Walters special (I was impressed with how interviewees Billy Crystal and Kathleen Turner handle the problems of fame) and the season finale of Twin Peaks, which raised more questions than gave answers.

I dreamed that Grandma was on a plane to Europe but panicked during takeoff and had to return. In another dream, I was living in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and visiting MacDowell.

Up at 7:30 AM, I exercised and had breakfast before drifting off to sleep as NPR’s Morning Edition came over my Walkman headphones lying next to me on the pillow.

This morning I met Aunt Tillie in Ark Drugs and drove her back to the house; later, she came up to watch her soaps although she did go into the bedroom when the new social worker, Jane, arrived at 1 PM.

I offered to leave, but Jane seemed glad to have me at her introductory meeting with Grandma. While I could fill in a few loose ends about Grandma’s background and her current difficulties, I made sure I didn’t intrude on the therapeutic relationship Jane was trying to establish.

She made an inventory of Grandma’s drugs and stressed how important it was for Grandma to take the antidepressants. Jane inquired about Grandma’s daily activities and attitudes.

Even as a layperson, I could easily tell – as could Jane, with whom I rode down in the elevator – that part of Grandma’s depression is anger (at her children in particular) turned inward.

Jane encouraged Grandma to take part in activities here or at least to get out a little. (Every day I offer to take Grandma for a drive, but I can’t force her to go.)

It was a bit odd to be present at what was a kind of psychotherapy session for my grandmother, but I’m an adult and I can also relate to Grandma as another adult.

Obviously, the killings Grandma witnessed as a child – during the pogroms and civil war in the Ukraine following the Russian Revolution – caused a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and her father never gave the love she felt she needed.

Grandma discussed her frustrations about her lack of education, and it was interesting to hear her respond to Jane’s questions.

As simple as I think Grandma is, it seems that part of her was once interested in books, if not “being a scholar,” as Jane put it.

Anyway, Grandma seemed to like Jane, who told me in the elevator that Grandma seemed to be better than she expected, given Linda’s recent reports.

Earlier in the afternoon, I drove through the Five Towns – up and down Broadway and West Broadway through Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodmere and Hewlett. On Central Avenue, I enjoyed my TCBY yogurt. (The store is next door to Nutri/System.)

I’ve gotten accustomed to living with Grandma in Rockaway. Already I know the neighbors, and I’ve developed a kind of routine.

Driving around, from Brooklyn to Long Beach and from Cedarhurst to Howard Beach and Neponsit, I remember familiar sites and surprise myself by remembering, for example, that Edgemere Avenue turns into Rockaway Beach Boulevard at Beach 56th Street, where weeds grow in a field on what was the world of my childhood summers: those wonderful bungalows, gone.

Saturday, May 26, 1990

3 PM. Memorial Day weekend began with a chilly rain falling steadily all day. I’d thought about making my first tentative foray on the streets with a few books today, but the weather quashed that idea.

Last evening I took the M5 bus on Riverside Drive, transferring to the M104 at Columbus Circle. Bus rides give me a chance to see the city, and last night Manhattan was at its best.

There was a feeling of summer in the air, what with Friday night crowds at Lincoln Center, and even a New York nutjob sitting behind me: an old lady with a violin case, talking to herself about how all the crazy people come to New York so they can act crazy. She may be right.

The theater where tonight’s play was performed turned out to be the usual tiny space several floors up, in this case in a building at Eighth Avenue and 46th Street.

Justin’s former roommate Fred, who’s Theatre Factory’s business manager, was at the door handling money. He was friendly although at first he stared at me, as if he couldn’t quite place me.

I was puzzled by that because on the few occasions we’d met, I’d gotten the impression Fred liked me.

Anyway, he looked as if he’d put on the forty pounds I lost.

Justin came out and hugged and kissed me heartily, something I have trouble getting used to because I am not touchy-feely; however, by the time Justin hugged and kissed me after the play, I’d warmed up and was able to hug him back more genuinely.

Justin has his beard again, although unlike mine, his seems somehow “theatrical.” He said Larry sent me his regards, as he’d gone to Pennsylvania to see his family for the holiday.

Not wanting to bother Justin on the second night of the play he was directing, I sat down and awaited the show.

Only eight people were in the audience, which was a shame, because Kelly’s play was pretty good, and the four women who played the younger and more elderly lesbian couples who come together in Provincetown were excellent performers.

Against the Rising Sea was well-made and predictable, but it had nice moments and fine characterizations and seemed mainstream enough so that Grandma Ethel would like it.

(Odd that being with her so much has made me often think “Grandma should see this” when I’m in Manhattan or Brooklyn.)

I applauded loudly to make up for the sparse crowd; Fred couldn’t even give tickets away at the half-price TKTS booth.

I told Justin it was probably hard on Memorial Day weekend, but the Broadway crowds seemed to be coming out tonight.

The bus uptown was fun – I like being out in Manhattan at night – and after coming home, I fell asleep early so I could work out at 8 AM.

At 11 AM, I had to move the car for alternate parking, and I said hi to the mailman, who delivered a final disconnect notice for the phone.

Susie hasn’t paid the bills – she left them on the table – probably because Teresa charged lots of long-distance calls to the number.

Well, I’ll pay the $175 on Tuesday. When I called Teresa, she said she’d get the money from Susie’s deposit, but I’m the one who’ll suffer if the phone is disconnected, not Teresa or Susie.

Much of the mail that comes here is a testament to Teresa’s carelessness: notices of bounced checks, unpaid bills, summonses ignored.

I’ve seen Teresa only once, though I hope to see her again this week and maybe a few more times before I return to Florida.

I find myself okay with the fact that will be my last summer at 350 West 85th Street. For one thing, I probably can’t swing this financially next year. For another, it’s time to move on.

But I’ll also be glad to end my participation in Teresa’s business affairs, though I’ve been more than happy to take advantage of her in the past.

Today I called Ronna, who’s going to Pennsylvania for the rest of the weekend and is leaving on Friday for a weeklong trip to Orlando to visit her mother and Billy.

She didn’t mention Steve, nor did she mention what Alice told me when I called her: that they saw each other right here on Broadway and 84th last evening, but weren’t quite sure they recognized each other so neither one stopped.

Alice asked me to an early dinner, after which I’ll accompany Peter to the first act, the ceremony, of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Peter needs to review the new lead, and Alice didn’t want to see the thing again.

I’m happy to accompany Peter, of course, though I have my usual dieter’s panic about having dinner out. Still, I’ve got to learn how to eat in restaurants again.

Recycling of glass and metal is coming to the Upper West Side this week, as special garbage bags have been set up on the curbs. They’ve been separating newsprint and other papers since October, though I don’t know how to do it yet.

Sunday, May 27, 1990

9 PM. Mom just called me and read me Chauncey’s article from today’s Sun-Sentinel, which Marc had brought over to their house. (They just get the Herald.)

My parents didn’t like the line that said my face “sags toward middle age,” but I expect Chauncey knows I look young and suspects I’m vain about it – after all, I dress and carry myself like a kid – and maybe he wanted to zing me.

Anyway, who cares?  If he says that all my stories end up talking about Richard Grayson, all the articles and reviews that are written about me usually tell me more about their authors than they do about me.

Chauncey’s thesis was that I’m afraid of failure, and he wasn’t going to let anything I said stand in the way of his pre-formed opinion.

Still, much of the article was flattering, of course, but it’s designed for Sun-Sentinel readers, not book readers.

In any case, I’m in New York City now and it doesn’t make much difference in my life.

Yesterday afternoon I read most of How to Be Successfully Published in Magazines, which was a good book. When I met Alice, I complimented her on the smooth editing of the magazine editors’ remarks, and we talked about some of the issues she raised.

To be a freelance writer, Alice says early on, one needs talent and “interpersonal smarts.”

Unfortunately, given all the editors’ horror stories and what we know about people, the latter is harder to find than the former, and I suspect morons think the commonsensical rules of social conduct don’t apply to them.

“If my book discourages some people from trying to be writers,” Alice said, “I’ll be happy.”

She showed me her card for her new sideline: booking celebrities for shows and magazine covers. It’s very profitable and easy, she says.

I wish I knew people in Florida who are as swift as Alice, but they probably don’t exist there.

Alice and I had a good talk over Sichuan dinner, on topics ranging from the end of the middle class to Donald Trump’s finances. (Andreas still hasn’t been paid for the anti-pollution device he installed in Trump’s Taj Mahal.)

After we met Peter by Village Cigars, he took me to a church on Christopher Street – the same church where I attended an AA meeting last summer – for the ceremony of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.

We filed in as the best man – secretly a coke dealer, Peter told me – razzed me for not wearing a suit and tie.

The “show” is the presentation of the wedding of two Italians from Queens, the kind of people I grew up with.

Since Peter had been there thirteen times (I was impressed that tickets cost $75), he could fill me in on all the members of the wedding party, actors who never break character, even when talking to the “audience.”

We sat in the second row of the bride’s side, behind her mother and aunt, her perky cousin the nun, her closeted brother and her senile, doddering Uncle Lou.

The groom’s father and his bimbo girlfriend and elderly mother in black all seemed stereotypes I was familiar with, and Father Mark was perfect, as were the attendants, photographer, Tina’s druggie ex-boyfriend, etc.

After the ceremony, which was funny – the difference between this and real weddings is only slight exaggeration and the fact that you can’t laugh at your real friends and relatives – we filed out to the reception line.

I kissed the bride’s mother and offered my congratulations, then threw rice with the rest of the crowd.

Since Peter was only checking out the new actor playing Tony, we didn’t go to the restaurant for the reception, but I got the idea, and it tickled me. The “plot” unraveled like life’s “plot” does.

It was a very clever idea, but on the way home, the real New Yorkers I encountered – the black storeowner chasing a white thief, the talkative bag lady on the subway, a Vietnamese couple with bleached blond hair, a pair of middle-aged hippies dressed for 1970 – all seemed to be actors playing their “parts.”

People look like stereotypes. It got me thinking about 1990s theme parks being like Tony n’ Tina, where people can go to experience rituals with pseudo-family and computer simulations and Nintendo games; about the “virtual reality” promised by cyberspace; about Ann Williams’s term “families of choice” (something I discussed with Grandma when she lamented the loss of her once close-knit family of non-choice).

Well, there’s rich material there.

I read the Times and slept from midnight to 7 AM, dreaming annoyance over the success of people less talented than I.

After working out for an hour, I had breakfast, finished the Sunday paper, watched the interview shows, left another message for Pete Cherches and called Mikey, who had his first jury trial in years last week.

Mikey lost the case because it was in front of a jury; even the defense attorney conceded that Mikey would have won had it been before a judge. Mikey and Amy are doing the same old stuff, he said, and he’d call me in June.

It turned out to be an unexpectedly sunny and mild day, so I decided to drive out to Oyster Bay and bring Teresa’s TV here.

The Cross-Bronx Expressway, Throgs Neck Bridge and LIE were all packed, but I made it in ninety minutes, stopping down Cove Road to walk up the steep hill to Teddy Roosevelt’s grave. I remembered the plaque: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”

Dave and Bob were very helpful as I got the TV out of the house.

After leaving Teresa’s, I drove around the same back roads I used to love to get lost in when I took long drives on the North Shore in early ’70s, and I saw places like Ransom Beach that I remembered well.

Back in the city after 5 PM, I lugged the TV up here. That’s one less task I have to do.

Monday, May 28, 1990

I didn’t sleep well at Theresa’s last night because I thought a lot about Chauncey’s article.

When I called my parents today to wish them a happy anniversary, Dad said that instead of writing about what I’d done, Chauncey tried to analyze me, and it ended up being dopey.

One reason I have a fear of success (not failure, as Chauncey opines) is being the subject of more stupid articles.

Chauncey saw what he wanted to see – what he was capable of seeing – and he couldn’t really figure out what makes me tick even if he thought he could.

Still, profiles like that do get me thinking about myself.

There was surprisingly light traffic as I left Manhattan. I got to Park Slope at 2 PM, parked on President Street, and went to see Justin as we’d arranged. He’d been concerned about me because I appeared so silent on Friday evening, but of course I was simply trying to stay out of everyone’s way.

His and Larry’s little apartment was filled with tchotchkes and disarray, but Justin has been incredibly busy lately.

This past year has been difficult financially for them, as both have been unemployed for long periods.

Larry’s earning a pittance at the Met now, but at least the museum work is related to his art.

While he’s had a couple of commissions and was given a spread for his drawings in a gay men’s magazine, Larry’s struggling with his art career.

Justin and I talked a lot as we walked all over Park Slope, down to Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue and along Prospect Park West.

He looks a bit disheveled, and he’s still the worst dresser in creation (he wore green socks with shorts).

I was interested in hearing about the five-year plan for Theatre Factory and their goals for the company.

It seems an extraordinarily bad time for a startup, as long-established theater companies are going under.

Justin’s own playwriting has been neglected, but spurred by Kelly Masterson’s example, he’s sending out his work to contests and competitions now.

And Justin told me about recent disappointments in his career, like jobs he didn’t get. Still, he seems optimistic and energetic, and he has plans still being hatched.

We talked a lot about diets, and I’m afraid that’s my fault – though Theresa says that’s all people in Fire Island ever talk about.

I may be perfect for the new asceticism of the ’90s: there are plenty of people committed to non-smoking, non-drinking, nonfat food and non-sex. I left Park Slope at 5 PM, glad I had a chance to spend the afternoon with Justin.

On the way home, I stopped by the old block and said hello to Evie and Lou, sitting on their porch.

They told me I’d just missed Bonnie and her family, and they grilled me on my family, asking if there were wedding plans in my brothers’ future.

(Since they didn’t ask the same question of me, I assume they’ve figured things out, thank God.)

Naturally, they noticed my weight loss; Evie said that Doris also lost 40 pounds on Nutri/System, but she gained it all back.

As I was leaving, Evie asked Grigory next door if he knew who I was; he said sure.

It’s funny, but after 11 years, I’ve lost a lot of my emotional connection with the house I grew up in.

(Evie told me that Aleksy, like Jerry Jr. on the other side of them, dropped out of high school. Bonnie’s son goes to a magnet program 45 minutes from his house.)

Back at Grandma’s, I had dinner and paid the credit card bills from Saturday’s mail. As of today, I was able to pay all bills but two, and I need to save the money for June’s rent.

Still, the cash advances and my first unemployment check allowed me to pay Theresa’s phone bill and most credit cards.

By next week I should be able to make more cash advances, though this is about as tight as it gets.

Grandma seems slightly less depressed but she’s extremely forgetful; she told me she forgot the stitches to the crocheted squares she used to knit by the dozens. And she obsesses about all these stupid little things.

I can trace my own obsessiveness back to Grandma by way of Mom, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Since we can’t have three decent weather days in a row, it rained cold torrents today: it’s almost June and the weather is like November.

Staying in the apartment with Grandma most of the day has given me cabin fever, but at least I did a number of chores, including the laundry.

Last night I dreamed I was walking around naked in front of tons of people, yet I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all – perhaps a reflection of my coming to terms with the Sun-Sentinel story about me.