A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late April, 1991
Tuesday, April 23, 1991
5 PM. After his long workday yesterday, Grant was too tired to join us last evening, so he watched the baby while Libby, Lindsay and I went out to Lido Pizza on Victory Boulevard and had whole wheat rigatoni with meatless sauce. It was a pleasant dinner, and Libby and I talked about old friends from Brooklyn and other stuff.
Back at home, I read some books to Lindsay and played with Wyatt before I returned to the guest house and tried to exercise a bit before I fell asleep at 10:30 PM. I slept fine, waking up at 6 AM. An hour later, I went to the house to shower, and after dressing, I had breakfast with Lindsay.
When Yolanda arrived to take care of the baby, Libby and I dropped Lindsay off at school – the parents are all our age, as are the teachers – and left Libby’s old violin for the kids to look at and play with. Living with the Fletchers gives me a sense of one family’s life in Los Angeles.
Libby and I drove out west via the Ventura Freeway, seeing magnificent mountains and canyons and new developments that looked like those in Florida.
We went south on Las Virgenes to the Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu, where the Pacific meets beautiful beachfront homes and high palisades. (No wonder those mudslides keep those homes from staying put after heavy rains.)
I loved the drive to Santa Monica, where we stopped for breakfast at the Pioneer Boulangerie, a neat place where birds fly free indoors.
From Santa Monica, we went to the Venice fishing pier. There, Libby and I walked along the beach, which is tacky and honkytonk, a look that I of course love.
Then we drove around Marina del Rey, where Dad stays during his sales meetings, before coming home to Van Nuys.
Lindsay and I played in my car and we sat in the tree out front for a while before moving to the backyard, where we played various games of her devising, most of which involved dirt.
Lindsay just came in to tell me we’re going out to dinner in five minutes, so I’ll stop here and get ready.
9 PM. I smell baby smell on me, probably because I was holding and feeding Wyatt. Back to where I left off:
After I managed to get Lindsay to go to Libby and take her nap, I took off on my own and went to downtown Hollywood, where I walked around Sunset, Vine, Hollywood Boulevard and the skeevy neighborhood featuring the Walk of Stars, homeless bums, cheap stores, and various film industry businesses and banks.
But, as in Venice, I like the mélange of nerve and urban despair I found in Hollywood. At the out-of-town newsstand I bought the Times (New York, that is) and U.S. News, which featured the rankings of the 25 top law schools.
Naturally, no Florida law school made the list, but they quoted a University of Florida prof and author who’s in the forefront of reforming the curriculum; I do remember UF allowed lots of electives.
Perhaps I should go to Gainesville if I want a better legal education, but I can’t decide just now, even though I’m already thinking hard about my options.
The Times had a feature article on short stories, stressing what I said in my workshop, that the vast majority of American short fiction appears in little magazines and makes no money for writers.
We all went out for dinner at this neat little outdoor taco stand, Henry’s, on a corner in North Hollywood. With the two kids in their restraints and the stroller and bottles and diapers, it was really a project to get out, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and my rice-and-beans burrito. Libby and Grant were feeling a bit sick afterwards, but I felt fine.
They both work so hard. In three days I can see how raising two little kids can be exhausting. At home, I watched videotapes of Lindsay (at five months old, she looked exactly like her grandmother Rose Judson) and played with her and the baby.
Grant’s asbestos removal business is taking off, but he still works very long hours. He told me he and his partner just want to make a lot of money so they can take the money and do something else with it. If he’s successful over the next year, he’ll buy another house and then use this one for the business.
Although he’s a vegetarian, Grant is overweight, and I worry he’s jeopardizing his health. Nobody in this house eats very nutritiously except maybe the kids. Of course, I’m a bit of a nutrition nut these days.
I called Dad to tell him my flight number, and he said that my bankruptcy discharge notice arrived in today’s mail. It says none of my creditors can try to collect their debts now, so I’m officially out of debt except for my in-abeyance student loans.
I called Wesley and Marla but got a message about a new number, and when I tried that one, Wes said they had company at the moment but asked me to come over tomorrow to their new house in the Hollywood Hills.
I’ll call Wes in the morning. He said that a few nights ago he dreamed about me. That’s odd.
What’s also odd is that driving around this last week or so in Los Angeles, I’ve had the feeling that I always somehow knew I’d be here, that I’d actually been to L.A. before and felt comfortable here.
Pumping gas at an Arco station the other day, I thought: I feel more like me here in California. Whatever that means.
This afternoon, going out for my drive, I left my maps at home, but I had no trouble finding my way to Hollywood. Basically, I’ve got a rough idea of where everything is, and I’m sure that’s better than Alice and Peter have, despite their many trips here.
Once again, I feel inarticulate, and it’s taking me a long time to write these California diary entries because I keep pausing to muse and reflect. I know this trip turned out better than I ever could have expected, and it has taught me to keep on taking risks.
Wednesday, April 24, 1991
4 PM. I’ve just come from Wesley’s house. While I had been expecting something grand, I was unprepared for what I saw.
It’s Jack LaLanne’s old house, high up in the Hollywood Hills; it’s like a movie-star house from the 1930s. God, it must have cost a million dollars.
While I knew Wes was a successful screenwriter, I didn’t realize how big the payoffs could be. Naturally, I can’t help comparing myself to him, and I think my anxiety about it caused my vertigo and insomnia last night.
And I suspect I must look like pretty much of a super-failure from Wesley’s vantage point. Is this meeting, like an episode of a TV sitcom, going to put me in one of those “reevaluate-your-life-in-light-of-your-more-successful-friend” funks? Well, I’m not sure. But if I can use this to grow, it will be a valuable experience.
I spotted Wes from the narrow, winding La Presa Drive as I parked the car.
At first he didn’t recognize me; he remarked that I’d gotten so thin and changed so much that he would have passed me by on the street.
He introduced me to his kids, Jake, 4½, and Sam, 3, and the inevitable Hispanic maid. And Marla came out on the way to spend more of Wesley’s money (so he said); we kissed and said hi. Both of them still look very young.
There were about 25 workers all over the house, which clearly needs a lot of fixing up and which is getting it. All of the details of remodeling are lost on me, but even an ignoramus could see that all those contractors and painters and plasterers and carpenters were doing expensive work.
The house was grand but kitschy, and Wes said they were trying to do away with the nouveau riche effects. Hell, I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe this stuff.
The views from the terraces and windows and lawns and pools were breathtaking: on a clear day, Wes said, you can see the Pacific (people are always saying that, I expect, and the clear day never comes).
Anyway, for a couple of hours, we sat out by the pool, where you can actually look down at Hollywood sign.
I had absolutely no idea that Wes and the family were in Fort Lauderdale for four months this winter. He’s the screenwriter for Cape Fear, and he said if only he’d known I lived there, we could have gotten together.
They even filmed scenes, of course, at the building I work in at BCC; I’d known Marty Scorsese was filming, but not that Wes was involved.
Actually, I’m glad he didn’t know I was living with my parents; then I’d really seem pathetic.
Of course, Wes said he himself was depressed lately. The very first script he wrote was going into production in San Francisco today, and he’d been taken off the film by a snotty kid director.
I can’t remember the name of the movie, but Wes said Richard Gere and Kim Basinger were very difficult to work with (though Uma Thurman was great). I know I read something about this in the gossip columns.
Wes not only wrote True Believer and Arachnophobia but also fixed up D.O.A. and other films.
The whole problem in the film industry seems to be control, and Wes wants to avoid getting the blame for stuff the director did – the way critics skewered his screenwriter friend Steve Zaillian for stuff he fought tooth-and-nail with the director of Awakenings, Penny Marshall (Wes’s next-door neighbor) to take out of the movie.
Let me just freewrite here. Wesley was hard to read. Obviously he likes me and wanted me to hook up with him as an old friend, but I have no inkling of the kind of world he moves in, and I have a horror of anyone thinking that I’d want something from a successful friend.
I’ve never been interested in writing for Hollywood, though of course it’s very glamorous to be interrupted – as we were by the pool – by a phone call from Marty Scorsese. I couldn’t really tell if Wes was trying to impress me or to do the opposite, be down to earth.
Maybe I overdid it, telling him about my going to law school in the fall and how I’ve lived these past years, down to my bankruptcy. “Richard Disgrace-on,” he said jokingly, and “So you’re a schnorrer.”
And, to be honest, I have no idea if his final “See you soon” meant just that or “Don’t ever call me again.”
Stuff I can make use of: As we looked at the view, Wes remarked that it was a good incentive to keep him from divorcing Marla, because then he’d lose the house.
He said that Jake, the older boy, is very attached to Marla and totally Oedipal.
While I was there, Jake hurt himself and started crying and saying, “I want my mommy.”
Trying to help, Wes went over to him and asked, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
Jake screamed at him, “Go away, you stupid old man!” and Wes just stood there, stunned.
Wes explained to be how he got started in the industry: His friend Howard (the arrogant guy I met in Manhattan years ago, a classmate of Wes’s from Berkeley) got into screenwriting and sold some scripts that were never made.
Howard told Wes to forget about New York book publishing, where people are always thinking up reasons to turn you down, and to come out to Hollywood, where they need people who can tell a story even just reasonably well.
So Wes and Marla came out here to stay with Howard and they saw Jack LaLanne’s house on sale and loved it. Three houses and several years later, they bought it from the couple who got it from the LaLannes and who really couldn’t afford the upkeep (hence the disrepair).
Wes also told me that his father retired but got bored and is now touting some electronic keyboard artist I think Lou is managing.
When I mentioned to Wes that the former mayor of Gainesville told me he liked Wes’s work and that the guy wanted to be a screenwriter, he said, “Don’t give him my number.” I had hoped Wes would know me better and know I’d never think of doing something like that.
Naturally, despite what I told Tom, I never intended to show Wes Tom’s little screenplay and at this point I don’t think I’ll tell any other people that I even know Wesley Strick.
––Lindsay just came in to play with me, and I’ve got to pack and get ready for dinner.
5:30 PM. Well, it turns out we’re not going out to dinner but eating here at home, which is fine with me, as I slept only four hours last night because I was so dizzy. (I just realized I never took my Triavil.)
I’ve just been playing with Lindsay in the car and babbling on to Libby, who was peeling potatoes, about Wes and his home.
Rachel, the Israeli girl across the street who wants to be a writer and who’s read some of my stories, came over to say hello.
We talked about my writing and her writing, and when she said goodbye, she added, “Good luck with. . .” and I jokingly finished, “. . . my pathetic career.”
And so my little trip to California comes to a close. What with rush hour traffic tomorrow and the car rental return, I have to be out of the house by 5:30 AM if I’m going to make my plane.
If I can get five hours of good sleep, I’ll be happy. Bonine and Drixoral seem to have alleviated my worst vertigo.
Hey, look: I’m a success just because I have great friends and have been able to make this trip to be with them. It’s really been an interesting experience for me.
Whether it’s in Tallahassee or Gainesville, now I think I can handle going to law school on my own. I know I’ve got a unique life and a unique perspective.
Once I get on the plane, I’ll have hours and hours to think. On Friday I’ll be back at BCC, teaching composition for $20 an hour. Hey, stop it! As Peter keeps telling Alice, money is not life’s report card. I’m the last one who should need to be reminded of that.
Friday, April 26, 1991
5 PM. I really did have jet lag, and I’m still exhausted right now. I have twenty CLAST essays to grade for the Saturday class at South Campus tomorrow, and I’ll either grade them early in the morning or during the night if I have insomnia.
I did get eight hours of sleep last night, but I probably needed more than that.
Today I didn’t do much more than chat with my students at Central Campus. Having been in California, I feel even less a part of Broward Community College than I did before, and that wasn’t much.
I have made a big decision.
It may not be such a good idea, considering the jet lag, but I’m going to attend the University of Florida for law school rather than Florida State.
Gainesville is a much older, more competitive, and better law school: the best in the state. My one English 102 student who wants to be a lawyer was really impressed I got into UF because he knows how many applicants they reject.
Gainesville probably isn’t as nice as Tallahassee, but it’s closer to transportation: it’s at least an hour or two closer to South Florida by car, and it’s just a couple of hours from Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa. Compared to Tally, it’s more Florida-like, less Southern.
So I sent UF the acceptance card and the financial aid form.
And I xeroxed my final discharge from bankruptcy and applied for a deferment on my MHT student loan.
Dad and I cleaned out the warehouse, throwing out lots of cartons of With Hitler in New York and keeping a dozen cartons in the new, smaller warehouse space.
I bought a videocassette player and exercised. By the way, it turned out I didn’t gain any weight on my trip.
I’ve got nine days left in South Florida, and they will probably be the last days I ever live here, except for brief family visits.
Aunt Sydelle called Dad early today and wanted to come here because Will beat her up. He’s a louse and a compulsive gambler.
He’d said that she looked like an old hag, and Sydelle retorted, “Oh, your first wife, she was such a beauty!”
Will went bananas and started hitting her. He threw the photo of Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia out the window because, he said, he hates them for creating Aunt Sydelle.
Sydelle wanted to come here, which put Mom in a panic, but of course Sydelle later ended up forgiving Will. The members of my family are sick, sick, sick.
Saturday, April 27, 1991
9 PM. It will be nice to have the option of sleeping in tomorrow morning. Actually, I have to be up early for morning classes only on Monday and Wednesday and then next Saturday, but otherwise I can allow myself to sleep later.
These ten days in Florida between Los Angeles and New York City are an odd time and a busy time. I graded all the Saturday papers last night or this morning. Although it’s been over 90° every day since I’ve been back, we had no air conditioning at South Campus today.
I gave my students the option of taking a final (writing an essay) either this week or next, and I graded most of the research papers that came in today. That will make less work for me later on, and this way I could excuse some of my students from coming in next Saturday.
On Monday morning I’ll get the 8 AM class’s research papers, which should be abominable, and at noon I’ll give the option of an English 102 final to the students who don’t want to come in for the scheduled exam from 12:20-2:20 PM on Friday.
Tuesday night I’ll have my final American Lit class and collect their take-home exams, and on Wednesday from 8-10 AM, I’ll give the English 101 final. Tomorrow I’ve got a lot of papers to grade, but I’ll do the best I can.
I know I’m grading too leniently, but I don’t care; I won’t be back at BCC – even if I don’t quite believe that yet.
This afternoon I worked out and read newspapers and magazines and left a birthday message for Teresa. I also called Tom, who’d written that he sold an option to Head in a Box. There’s new interest in the novel now, and if the book is published, Tom will get more money for the script, but it’s all Hollywood dickering that’s beyond me.
I’ve applied to the Writers’ Film Project, but of course I don’t expect to get a fellowship. If I did, however, I’d take it – because it would mean getting $16,000 and living in L.A. without working, so I’d feel it was fate.
At this point, that’s the only thing that would keep me from going to UF law school. But 99 chances out of a hundred, I’ll be in Gainesville in mid-August.
Tom is in a bad way emotionally because he’s being forced to choose between Debra and Jessica.
Debra, unhappy in grad school at Princeton yet academically ambitious, has offered to quit her $12,000 fellowship and come home if Tom will stop seeing Jessica.
For the moment Tom has put both of them on hold and is very conflicted.
He’s dying to sell his novels, screenplays and story collections. All that desire to succeed as a writer is beyond my comprehension these days.
I’m not sure Tom believes I can go to law school – but I’m certain I can and will.
Monday, April 29, 1991
6 PM. Again, I slept heavily. At BCC this morning, I graded the few English 101 papers I hadn’t gotten to and I printed out my finals and letters to FSU (telling them I wasn’t coming), to UF’s housing office (asking for advice), and to Uncle Marty (about my staying at Grandma Ethel’s in Rockaway).
I felt sleepy, but I didn’t have much to do today except grade papers; however, that’s a tiring business. Most of my 8 AM English 101 class handed in their research papers, and I’ll try to have them done by their final on Wednesday.
All but a few of the noon English 102 class took their final today – I let them collaborate, and the essay questions got them to use creativity – so I won’t have to see some of them again, although a few will return on Friday during our scheduled exam time.
The noon class was a nice group, and I’ll miss them. I probably won’t grade anyone lower than a B, which is my parting gift to BCC students. On the other hand, I’ll be hard-pressed to hand out as many as two A’s in the 8 AM class.
I brought copies of Hitler to school and autographed books for Phyllis, Eleanor and Gordon. Later in the day, after I picked up my boarding pass for next week’s flight to New York on Delta, I went to the Sunrise and Lauderhill branch libraries and deposited copies of my books there.
I rarely go to that neighborhood anymore, but I have fond memories of living in that dark condo on NW 16th Place from October 1981 to July 1983 (except for summers).
I remember my pleasant daily routines in the first apartment I had in South Florida and how, just about nine years ago, Sean would come over nearly every day. We were so close then.
It’s odd that I’m going to live in Gainesville, where Sean moved when he left South Florida. I have the feeling I’m going to get involved with someone up there.
After all these years, it’s about time. Law school is going to keep me in one place for a while, and since I’m going to be away from friends and family, it’s likely – I hope – I’ll make a few new strong attachments.
Donahue finally aired Alice and Peter’s reappearance, along with other couples from previous shows. By now, Alice and Peter appear as comfortable on TV as they do with each other, and watching the show, I felt proud that I’m their friend.
I exercised at 3:30 PM and then read the papers: I still don’t see signs of an economic recovery, and the state budget cuts haven’t even kicked in yet.
Elihu sent a revised list of the group of our friends from LaGuardia Hall and wrote that he’s got the new Brooklyn College Alumni Directory; I’ll call Elihu when I get to New York.
It will be odd telling some friends I’m going to law school, and I expect an especially hard time from attorneys like Mikey and Scott.
A week from now I’ll be in New York, and a week ago I was in Los Angeles. I do like the idea of forcing myself to handle novelty.
Yesterday I read that some babies seem to be born with predispositions against dealing effectively with novelty. Even if my problem is genetic as well as psychological, I still know I can overcome it.
Since seeing Wesley last week, I’ve had to think a great deal about my own success or lack of success. It hurts that I’ve never made money or had my own family, but on the other hand, I feel that, considering where I started out, I’ve done very well.
Someone seeing that homebound, neurotic, paralyzed 17-year-old kid that I was back in Brooklyn in 1968 and 1969 couldn’t have predicted I’d ever have a career as a college teacher (when I then couldn’t face even sitting as a student in a classroom) or that I’d have lifelong friendships (when I had no friends back then) or that I’ be able to publish my weird takes on life. I don’t think it’s silly to give myself the benefit of all doubts.
Well, tomorrow April ends. This year, it was for me the kindest and not the cruelest month. Yes, I was lucky, but I also helped to engineer my own luck.
God, I must seem nauseatingly self-congratulatory – but then, self-castigation and self-hatred are even more nauseating.
Tuesday, April 30, 1991
9 PM. I just came home from BCC, where I kept tonight’s class for ninety minutes.
We ended our look at twentieth century American literature by comparing Hemingway (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) and Hurston (two chapters of Their Eyes Were Watching God): the white male writer who’s the 800-pound gorilla in the literary jungle, and a black female writer who did her best work when she had no audience and who died unknown and poor. At least Hemingway was a rich and famous suicide.
It strikes me that in a sense I was justifying my own literary status or lack thereof. Oh well.
I love all the people who ask me why I’m going to be a lawyer when there are so many lawyers: “Won’t the competition be too tough for you?”
Baby, you should know how few people get to even where I’ve gotten as a fiction writer, with my books published and reviewed in decent places. The odds against that are a lot worse than trying to get a partner’s slot at Dewey Ballantine or Sullivan & Cromwell.
Wes has had five screenplays become films, but he couldn’t sell any of his books of fiction. And I don’t think 600 attorneys apply for a job that pays $23,000, as I did – and was a finalist for – at Rockland Community College.
And how many lawyers, after practicing for sixteen years, have to settle for being paid $20 an hour as I am as a part-time teacher at BCC? Not many, I’ll bet. At least with the law, I’ll have a profession to fall back on; teaching college English or computer education didn’t provide that.
If only I’d known, I would have applied to law school decades ago, when I first came to Florida. Sometimes I think getting those 1981 jobs at BCC were bad luck, not good luck.
I visited South Campus today, and there was still no air conditioning. I got Adrienne out of her office and into the relative coolness of 85° outside, and we talked for a while. Although everyone wanted her for the English position, Betty was told to give it to Bill Maxwell, who wants to return from Gainesville.
And Bill should get the job, because he’s a fine teacher and BCC needs black faculty. Unfortunately, Adrienne is in the same position she was a year ago, with her yearlong temporary full-time position ending. At least she’s got summer work; I advised her to apply for unemployment the day after the summer term ends.
Today the Fed cut the discount rate to 5½%. The economy is bad.