A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late October, 1990

Tuesday, October 23, 1990

9 PM. I’ve got a sore throat and am probably coming down with a cold, but that seems natural, considering the changes in my life.

This morning I took a call from Optima and told them calmly I couldn’t pay but would try to work out a plan at my appointment with credit counseling today.

They said it still would cost me $167 a month, and as I learned at the credit counseling service, it’s not worth it for the creditor to accept less than 3% of the balance monthly.

I was advised either to sit tight because I’m “judgment proof” or declare bankruptcy to get rid of my debts and wipe the slate clean.

They advised me to take the latter course – and the sooner, the better. So I’ve got to delve into the Nolo Press book and begin the tedious, painstaking process of filing.

The first thing I need to do is go to the bankruptcy court downtown and see exactly what their local requirements are.

The forms in the Nolo Press book look daunting, but I’m certain I can do it. Let it be a small step in my legal education.

When I got home, there was a message to call Dr. Grasso.

A part-timer who has three English 101 classes is quitting to take a full-time job, and Dr. Grasso felt sure, she said, I would do the best job in the position.

Naturally, I agreed even though I’ll be getting paid peanuts for what will be, essentially, a full-time job at Broward Community College.

On Monday I’ll come in and go to the 8 AM, 9 AM and noon classes of the instructor on her last day and I’ll start on my own on Wednesday.

For six weeks I can make some badly-needed money, and given this economy, I can’t really complain.

I got started in college teaching over fifteen years ago by taking over a class at Long Island University in a bad recession, and nearly ten years ago Dr. Grasso hired me to take over her own class at BCC.

Yet despite talk of a professor shortage, I see little future in higher education as enrollment declines cause huge cutbacks, especially in hard hit budgets of state colleges. (Time says CUNY just laid off 670 adjuncts.)

So I’ve decided not to take the GRE Literature Advanced Test in December. My January 1973 score in that test was around the 88th percentile, and the score is still valid for another two years.

Unless I were offered an excellent fellowship in a Ph.D. program that wasn’t that traditional garbage, I’m better off forgetting about getting a doctorate in English.

Law school, I know, is also archaic in its educational methods and curriculum, but for me, it’s a change that offers greater opportunities in the long run.

At the BCC-Central computer lab, I printed out (and later xeroxed) a letter to my creditors, informing them I can’t pay and citing the federal statute that forbids them from all but necessary contact by phone.

Each time I deal with a creditor, I’ll send them that letter. I do know my rights under the Fair Credit Collection Practices Act, and most people don’t.

I drove over to BCC-South this afternoon. Patrick, Greg and Betty all immediately commented on my having shaved. It was odd to shave this morning, and I suspect being beardless is related to my incipient cold.

However, I can rest up the next couple of days, and on Friday all I’m doing is subbing for Greg and Vicki for a couple of hours. I told Patrick and Betty about my experience with the student and her reaction to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and they both agreed this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in these days of both intolerance and hypersensitivity.

In the library at BCC-South, I found the names of a couple of agents I can query about the 2 Live Crew book.

In today’s Times, Jon Pareles said the cases have already affected the music industry in a chilling way, and that’s just another reason I believe they’re a landmark.

When I phoned Grandma this evening, she sounded even worse and said she was in agony from neck pain.

I don’t know if these neck and back pains are psychosomatic, but Grandma’s in such a state that she probably wishes for death. For her own sake, I hope she dies sooner rather than later.

Friday, October 26, 1990

8 PM. My parents didn’t mention the credit card issue again, nor did they behave as if they were still angry at me.

The only way I can rationalize my behavior is to view it as part of an addiction: like an alcoholic or drug-dependent person, I did anything to get more credit.

But maybe heading toward “sobriety” is cleansing me. Perhaps that’s a rationalization, but I did still manage to sleep soundly. Of course, my cold is still with me, and that probably has helped me log in extra sleep time.

I got to BCC-South before 9 AM and people – Cynthia, Adrienne, Barbara, Scott – seemed amazed at how I looked beardless. After five days, I still haven’t gotten used to my visage.

People say I look younger, but because of my fat neck and no chin, I feel I looked sharper and sexier with a beard. But I’m willing to give it more time before I start growing a beard again.

I read the newspapers as I presided over Vicki’s 9 AM English 102 and Greg’s 10 AM mystery fiction class. The students just sat there writing their assigned essays.

Patrick told me that Dr. Grasso might ask me to teach more classes because Pat Menhart had an angioplasty on Wednesday; earlier this semester, Pat Swift had to take a leave because of her surgery.

I wanted to see what was happening with Ken Geringer’s case, so I drove to the courthouse, arriving there just as Ken and his lawyer got out of court and were talking with radio reporters.

“Here we go again,” Susan Grey of WINZ said to me.

Leslie Robson refused to drop her case against Ken even though the jury in the 2 Live Crew case found the performance at Club Futura wasn’t obscene.

Next Friday, Ken’s lawyer is going to ask the judge for a change of venue to Dade County and to serve Navarro with a gag order.

The sheriff is persecuting Ken and Club Futura. Ken contends that his livelihood is threatened and he may sell the club before they make it impossible for him to get any money for it.

This morning 2 Live Crew, Charles Freeman, and the juror Mrs. Resnick were all on Donahue, and Mom said she taped the last half-hour for me.

I stopped at BCC-Central to see Dr. Grasso, who was interviewing for a part-time teacher.

She told me I definitely have Ms. Pitt’s three English 101 classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and she wanted me to be a full-time temporary and teach two of Pat Menhart’s English 101 classes on Tuesday and Thursday at 8 AM and 9:30 AM.

That would give me six classes and be a lot of work, but the pay would be very good; I could make $5000 for the rest of the term.

For now Dr. Grasso didn’t want to do anything until she got word from Pat Menhart’s family; she’ll decide next week.

Phyllis, Luke, Dave, Mercy and even staid Jim Ledford all were friendly to me, and I liked being treated so nicely.

Because of the problems in the department, some of the full-timers are teaching seven and eight classes, and they can’t cope.

In the afternoon, I went to the Unemployment office. Sure enough, they’d mistakenly put a hold on my check. I was assured a check would be cut and sent out on Monday from Tallahassee.

Justin called from work, and we talked for a long time. He began rehearsal on the trio of Noel Coward one-acters he’s directing.

While he’s working with a solid group of performers, he’s not used to directing a show for a penny-pinching producer.

Larry and Justin saw me on the news in the courtroom, and Justin said I should call publishers immediately with my idea for a book on the trials of 2 Live Crew.

Justin is still thinking about the MFA program in Theater at Brooklyn College, but until after the play’s run ends in December, he won’t have time to apply.

If I do work at BCC full-time, I may need to get a bankruptcy lawyer because I won’t have time to file by myself. (Also, I’ll have money to pay an attorney.)

Saturday, October 27, 1990

8 PM. Last night on Wall Street Week, Marty Zweig predicted a severe recession – “if we’re lucky” – and he actually mentioned the D-word.

Just glancing at the business page headlines convinces me the bad times I expected are already here.

Whatever the outcome in the Persian Gulf, it seems clear that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2 set in motion the sea-change in the national mood.

I’ve been reading material about Ph.D. programs in English from more schools – UVA, Berkeley, Stony Brook, Duke – but the programs still seem antiquated to me.

I don’t want to be a scholar, especially when I see the ridiculous titles of publications by these departments’ younger members.

Besides, with orals, language requirements and a dissertation, getting a Ph.D. could take anywhere from four to seven years at most places.

Law school takes only three years, and it seems easier because if you pass all your classes, you get your degree.

I did enjoy my English 102 class at South Campus today as we discussed stories I like: Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Walker’s “1955,” Updike’s “A&P,” Apple’s “The Oranging of America,” and Carver’s “Cathedral.”

The class is a good group, especially since that woman who went ballistic last week hasn’t returned. I love talking about fiction, even if I don’t read or write it regularly anymore, and I have a sharper eye than I ever did.

On a broader scale, I like teaching writing because, obviously, it’s something I can get enthusiastic about.

While I can get frustrated with BCC students, it’s been six months since I’ve taught, and I find I still enjoy being in front of a classroom.

Feeling good after my class – and with fall’s arrival on a cloudy, cool day – I treated myself to the movies this afternoon, going to see Barry Levinson’s Avalon, the autobiographical saga of his Jewish-American family.

The characters of the first-generation Americans matched those of my own grandparents and their siblings – down  to the heated arguments over what year some relative died.

Why are old Jewish people, those Eastern European immigrants, so argumentative, lively, proud and annoying?

Again and again, I saw in the dispersal and disintegration of the film’s extended family that of my own. Levinson seems to blame TV and the suburbs, and that’s probably correct.

I’m just old enough to remember how my great-aunts and great-uncles – and my great-great-aunts and -uncles – were all so close.

Naturally, I cried at the end. But a girl about 12 or 13 who saw the movie with her parents (about my age) really broke up, collapsing in tears in her father’s arms.

“Why is she so upset?” her 8- or 9-year-old brother asked.

“She’s sensitive,” the mother explained.

The boy replied, “I’m sensitive, but I’m not that sensitive.”

That made me cry even more, and when I regained my composure, I went out of the Fountains Theater, only to be called by a man with a leg cast and crutches at the bottom of the steps.

“Sir,” he said, “would you carry my son down the steps?”

Apparently the kid, around 6, didn’t want to leave the theater.

I was game, but I hesitated, wondering how the boy would feel being held by a stranger.

Ultimately, the boy’s mother caught him, the father thanked me anyway, and I went to my car and couldn’t stop crying.

It was like the ending to a short story and it related to the movie: the father was unable to be a father because of the crutches, and he was asking me to be a substitute, to be a father, which is a role I’ll never have.

God, it felt good to cry like that.

When I got home, I phoned Aunt Tillie, who sounded as bad as Grandma; she was in agony with arthritis pain and had been sick all week.

She said she phoned Arlyne, who said Grandma won’t have a phone connected for five days, so I’ll call Tillie back to get the number of whatever nursing or convalescent home Grandma is in. No telling how long she’ll be there.

Tuesday, October 30, 1990

6 PM. Dad just came in, very upset because J. Byron’s canceled a $100,000 order. The completion date for delivery of these Christmas goods was today.

Ordinarily, stores are eager for more holiday merchandise and thus want extended deadlines, but this year they’re thrilled to have an opportunity to cancel.

In the last few days, Dad’s business for the spring line has dried up as people are panicking about the economy. And as war fears rise again, he knows his income is going to tumble dramatically.

Well, at least I’m working, if only temporarily.

I got up at 5:30 AM and worked out before I prepared to get over to BCC. Although I already have numerous papers to grade, I couldn’t deal with them today.

It was hard enough to meet with the two classes. Although both classes went well, they were very upset, particularly the 8 AM class, where Pat Swift was replaced by Pat Menhart and then by me.

The only thing I could do was be empathetic and understanding, and to let them see how my concerns are different than those of their former teachers.

Both Swift and Menhart are very much traditional English teacher sticklers, taking off points for missing page numbers, giving quizzes on grammar trivia (like verbals), insisting on strait-jacket Harvard outlines.

My approach is pragmatic and eclectic and process-based. The class could see I was more relaxed than their other teachers, and I felt good in the end.

Probably they think I’ll be more lenient, and of course they’re right: since they’ve had three teachers in one semester, I’d have to do a tap dance to justify a failing grade.

The 9:30 AM class was more boisterous, a bit obnoxious in a high-school way. There, Menhart was working differently because this was a class she’d taught from the start of the term.

We decided to go to the library on Thursday so they could do their comparison/contrast papers. (Menhart has them write only three big essays, all involving a research component.)

She’d given them a list of topics to choose from, and I said they could change it to something they were more interested in.

A lot of my philosophy of teaching writing I learned from Lucy Calkins and the other process people I’ve read or met, but much of it is commonsensical.

As I told the classes, I’m going to try to read and respond to their papers like a human being rather than an English teacher.

Interesting, though, to discover that do-it-by-the-book Pat Menhart lets her classes out twenty minutes early “to have breakfast.”

I left the campus at noon to come home for lunch, but I went back later, mostly to schmooze with the other teachers.

I’ve got a roll book that’s a composite of entries by Swift, Menhart, Pitt and the original loony incompetent who was fired from Pitt’s MWF 8 AM class.

If anything, Pitt’s grades are even lower than the others’; I’ve never seen such a preponderance of D’s and F’s.

Maybe, since it was her first time teaching English on the college level, she didn’t know what to expect.

Anyway, Pitt’s 8 AM class papers on process – the ones I read – were okay, but she said she didn’t think many would pass.

I still haven’t called a bankruptcy attorney, but I’ll do that before the week ends.

I got a nice note from Mark McGurl of the New York Review of Books about my chapbooks, and Alice sent a postcard from Sweden, where she took a last-minute trip, a tour of Scandinavian business conference facilities.

Like Justin and Larry, Alice also said she saw me on TV coverage of the 2 Live Crew trial.

Wednesday, October 31, 1990

4 PM. I’m tired, but I have a sack full of English 101 papers to look at, even if I don’t grade any by tomorrow. I promised one class I’d get their papers back to them by Friday, and I guess I’ll be able to do that.

It was hard to meet each of Ms. Pitt’s classes and try to establish myself as their new teacher, but all things considered, I feel okay about it.

Remember my first time teaching, when I took over that LIU night class where their professor had died? After that first class, I was so depressed, I couldn’t stand it.

But here we are, fifteen and a half years and lots and lots of college English classes later: I am both more confident and more tolerant of myself.

I’m sure some will prefer Ms. Pitt’s style, and I felt bad after the two morning classes because in getting the students to talk about their experiences this term, they engaged in a lot of teacher bashing – particularly the 8 AM class, which first had that old lady who proved incompetent.

However, I wanted them to ventilate their feelings so I could start fresh.

In all of the classes, I have to take charge; even though the semester ends in seven weeks, they’re in my classes now.

Besides, by this point in my teaching career, I couldn’t try to be someone else: I’ve got definite opinions about teaching writing.

What I probably forgot was how immature kids out of high school are – everyone at Central says their students’ skills and knowledge are much worse than when I last taught there – and how the ones who want to get out of work find it easy to blame the teacher.

Anyway, the classes seem okay if kind of dopey-kid-ish; as Suzy Pitt had warned, the 9 AM one is particularly obnoxious. Luckily, there’s an adult or two in every class.

I’m going to try to do as much process writing with writing workshops as I can. At the very worst, it can’t ruin the semester; I’ve just got to salvage the term.

Because of Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and finals, I really only have about 18 hours with each class.

Anyway, I still have to read for my Saturday English 102 class at South Campus and grade those papers by Friday night.

While I may not be happy teaching at BCC, if I’m as flexible and adaptable as I like to pretend I am, I’ll survive in good shape. It’s only seven weeks, after all.

Meanwhile, I have an appointment with a lawyer from the firm that advertises itself as the Florida Bankruptcy Center.

When I called them last week, I got cut off and wasn’t very impressed, and today I was taken aback by the lawyer’s questions as to how I could owe so much money.

I told him I worked in a company that went under and had medical expenses. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll learn whether I’ve done anything illegal.

I know I committed fraud by lying on applications about my income, but could I be prosecuted and if convicted, sent to prison?

I’m willing to face the consequences if I have to, but I’m not going to volunteer any information to the attorney tomorrow afternoon.

I called back Southeast Bank and said I couldn’t pay my Gold MasterCard because of unemployment, telling them, “Things are bad. They’re bad at Southeast Bank, too: I know you’re selling your credit cards to another bank.”

What could the woman say to that? It’s possible she’ll be laid off herself.

Today’s Wall Street Journal lead article was about mental depression among New England’s residents as the economy sinks further into recession.