A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-June, 1993

Monday, June 14, 1993

8 PM. I’m settling down in my motel room in the La Quinta Inn in Tallahassee.

I got into town about three hours ago, but not knowing my way around, I got off I-10 at the exit for Thomasville Road (going to nearby Thomasville, Georgia) and came down from the north, passing the Capitol.

I didn’t realize that this stretch of Apalachee Parkway, which begins at the Capitol, would be this far from the downtown Civic Center, but the Cultural Affairs Division is on the second floor of a strip shopping center on a road (U.S. 27) filled with fast food joints, strip centers with familiar chain stores, and motels and restaurants. It reminds me a little of a less glamourous version of International Drive in Orlando.

After I checked in, I put my stuff down and soon went to explore. Tallahassee strikes me as an exceptionally pretty city. Unlike Gainesville, it’s a real city, not just a small college town.

Although I’ve seen the Capitol grounds in lots of photos, the old Capitol with its candy-striped awnings, the new Capitol monolith towering over it, with the Senate and House buildings on either side, is an impressive sight, particularly when you approach it from Apalachee Parkway.

FSU’s architecture is warmer and statelier than the architecture at UF, and FAMU is also a nice campus.

I rode around looking at some of the government buildings, like the Caldwell Building (where I mail my unemployment claims) and the public spaces downtown.

The city is even more verdant than Gainesville, with gorgeous azaleas and camellias, and it’s nice and hilly.

I had a salad bar and baked potato at Wendy’s before I set off sightseeing and I got a McLean Deluxe just before coming back here.

Thinking I could use a haircut, I stopped off at the Governor’s Square mall, a new-ish huge regional center nearby – but in the end I didn’t want to spend $15.

I don’t know if I’ll sleep much tonight, but I’ll get whatever rest I can manage. The meeting begins at 9:30 AM, so I don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn.

Last night I slept spottily, dreaming that my bankruptcy was being challenged in court by a man with the same name as me because he thought his credit record might get mixed up with mine and he wanted to apply for a mortgage.

It was a cool, dark morning, and I did the usual stuff before going off to school. I enjoyed Weyrauch’s class; when it ended, I went up to tell him I’d be absent the next couple of days, but he obviously didn’t care.

After I had lunch at home, I drove to the University Centre Hotel, leaving my car in their indoor parking lot – there were no signs saying anything about towing, so hopefully I’ll be safe – and getting my rental car, a candy-red Corolla.

Unfortunately, by then it was raining hard, so I waited till 2 PM to leave, taking my little TV so I could listen to soaps in the car.

I heard Clinton’s announcement appointing, not Babbitt or Breyer, but D.C. Circuit Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (from Brooklyn, she’s about Mom’s age) to the Supreme Court

Road construction on I-75 made the early going kind of a pain. I hadn’t realized Alachua County was so big, with cities like High Springs quite far from Gainesville. It took me 40 minutes of driving to get to Lake City, where I turned onto I-10.

I-10 was a pretty good road, and I kept up a steady pace of about 70, five miles over the speed limit. I stopped at a couple of rest areas to use the bathroom and adjust my right contact lens, which felt irritated.

The trip between Gainesville and Tallahassee is about 150 miles, which is a long drive for me. At one point I felt tired and headachy, but then I got a second wind and felt energetic.

There aren’t really any big towns on I-10, but I was diverted by picking up WFSU-FM, the NPR station from here, and listening to people talking about the Ginsburg appointment and then their interview show, Fresh Air, that comes on before All Things Considered.

After visiting here last year, Alice said Tallahassee was “a dump.” That just shows how shallow Alice is; to me, it’s so pretty – especially compared to the ugliness outside Alice’s apartment on Waverly and Sixth.

I almost went to law school at FSU, and I think that in some respects I might have been happier here – although Gainesville has its own advantages over Tallahassee.

Tuesday, June 15, 1993

8 PM. Although we worked extremely hard today, I’ve been enjoying myself in Tallahassee.

I just came in. It’s as light out as if it’s daytime, but I guess that’s because we’re at the western edge of the Eastern Time zone.

Surprisingly, I slept well last night. At 6:15 AM, I decided that rather than force myself to exercise to Body Electric (with originates here), I’d skip exercise today and sleep a bit more. I’m glad I did because I needed the rest.

After I met Jeffrey in the lobby at 9 AM, we chatted about our work and stuff as he drank the free coffee and I had the orange juice.

His stepdaughter Astra, who lives in Park Slope and goes to FIT, had been visiting Miami, so he didn’t fly in till 10 PM last night.

I drove Jeffrey over to the Cultural Affairs Division and introduced both of us to Mildred Hill-Lubin (mispronouncing her last name: it’s Haitian, not Jewish) because I recognized her photo from Saturday’s paper. Mildred is a pleasant woman about 60.

Barbara Hamby is a nice person, too, and we exchanged compliments on our work.

The last member of the panel was Randy Polk, a guy with a long beard who wore a guayabera. (I was the only guy who had on a tie.)

We met the staff of the Cultural Affairs Division, all females. The room was set up carefully, with tables for us on three sides so we could face each other and the audience in front of us.

It surprised me how many grant applicants showed up to plead their cases and answer our questions

The West Florida Literary Foundation had two people there, and everyone else except Florida Review, Anhinga Press and FIU showed up.

Taking my place in back of my nameplate and microphone, I quickly got over the feeling I was playing at being an elected official as we took up the applicants for organization grants one by one and recorded our votes.

As expected, the conflict between high-quality art and large public participation arose early. For example, the grassroots Panhandle groups were mostly geared to amateur writers – while the Key West Literary Seminar, although reaching only a fraction of the people, had top-notch, high-quality writers involved.

Our discussions lasted till 12:45 PM, and I did kill the one applicant I intended to: FIU’s Seaside Conference, which I think is elitist. So Florida taxpayers will not be supporting Nat Sobel’s winter vacation this year. (Okay, that was a little personal revenge.)

Jeffrey had to abstain from voting on FIU’s grant, and Barbara (who’s married to the FSU poet-professor David Kirby) abstained from voting on Apalachee Press. I’m glad all the other applicants got funded.

When we got back from lunch, we took preliminary votes on how much each of the ten groups should receive. The first round of voting went fairly quickly.

Only after we came to a total of $115,000 in grants were we told we had only $45,000 to distribute.

It was a messy process negotiating before a second round of voting – similar to the sausage-making that go on goes on when Congress tries to pass a budget.

Finally, after hours of discussion, we allocated the limited funds to our satisfaction.

The West Florida Literary Foundation people thanked me for supporting them. But Randy alienated the Panhandle “poet laureate” (who seemed pretty pompous) by disparaging the quality of his work.

After taking some public comments, we had another break. Then, around 3 PM – once we got the sole Artists-in-Education roster applicant moved to the Arts in Education panel – the Literature Fellowship selection process began.

At that point, different Cultural Affairs Division staff members replaced the ones who’d been there for the organizations.

One by one, we panelists gave our preliminary scores for each fellowship applicant on a 1 to 10 scale. Then the average scores were added up.

Often we had gross disparities – someone would give a 10 to something I rated a 4 – but usually there was some kind of consensus.

Very few applicants reached the 7.9 average needed to get in the running for a fellowship, although tomorrow we’ll undoubtedly bump up some of those scoring 7 or above.

The process was extremely tedious and seemed to me less than efficient, but because of Florida Sunshine’s Laws, all our scoring and discussions had to take place in public, on tape.

I’m afraid that at times my impatience made me somewhat obnoxious, but everyone got a bit testy as the scoring went on for hours.

I tended to score organizations high but fellowship applicants low. I feel pretty confident about my scores although I’ll undoubtedly change some of them tomorrow. (Jeffrey changed his many times as we were scoring.)

It was after 5:30 PM when we finished, and I felt exhausted and drained. I just hope I don’t obsess about numbers when I close my eyes tonight.

I told the others I was going out with my (fictional) friend for dinner because I needed to be alone. I’m an introvert, after all.

After changing clothes, I went to Wendy’s and then drove around downtown and called Marsha from a phone booth at a strip center.

She’s enjoying her internship with the Supreme Court and has been writing briefs with little interference (or guidance) from anyone else.

Most of the cases are criminal, and Marsha said the briefs by public defenders are shoddy, probably because of their large caseload.

Marsha is not crazy about Tallahassee because she doesn’t know anyone here, but interning has been incredibly valuable experience for her.

She said if I called tomorrow, she could show me around the Supreme Court and even use her key to let me in to see the justices’ private conference chamber.

I told her I’d probably be going home tomorrow but I did appreciate her offer and would like to visit her if I’ll be staying here longer.

I don’t know what time we’ll finish or whether I should check out of here tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, June 16, 1993

8 PM. I got home a couple of hours ago.

Serving on the Literature Panel and going to Tallahassee proved to be a worthwhile experience. It gave me a break from routine, let me visit a new city, and allowed me to get close to some nice people.

I also started putting into practice some of my resolutions to give more of myself, although I did want to be alone last night.

I didn’t sleep well because of a pounding headache and a racing brain. Up too early at 5:30 AM, at least I got a chance to exercise to Body Electric on WFSU-TV.

Once again I went out to get some fat-free cappuccino yogurt and hot water for my oatmeal and grits, and I got juice and a banana from the lobby.

After I packed up and checked out at 8:30 AM, I waited for Jeffrey so we could go over to the Cultural Affairs Division office.

Our meeting began after 9 AM, but before that, Randy Polk privately told us that Leonard Temme, the poet laureate of West Florida, who threatened him yesterday, was pounding on his motel room door this morning. That’s scary.

Randy didn’t answer it and later called security to escort him to his van. God knows what Randy said that antagonized the man so.

We went through the 35 manuscripts we’d rated an average of 7 or higher and discussed each one, leading some of us to change our votes.

We decided to either fund with $5,000 fellowships or give “honorable mention” to the manuscripts that ended up with an average score above 8. (Three were already there.)

In this finalist round, we argued with and cajoled each other. Randy in particular had favorites that the rest of us rated low.

Obviously people value different things, and I raised some of my scores, especially when Jeffrey or Barbara would be doing the persuading because I trusted their judgment more.

(Mildred isn’t really literary. She complained about mixing up two of the characters in a story, but she didn’t know the “Ravel” a narrator referred to was the composer, not a character; she also graded low.)

The process took several hours, but although we occasionally argued, we were always civil.

Later, the staff told us what an improvement we were over last year’s panel, who were both nasty and capricious.

We ended up with nine manuscripts, two in poetry and the rest in fiction.

After we came back from our break, they told us we had funds for only seven fellowships.

So we had to go through each of the nine manuscripts again, voting on whether it should receive a fellowship or an honorable mention. At this point, we were given the writers’ names, publications and résumés to identify them.

Barbara knew the five finalists who lived in Tallahassee, as well as some others, but the only person I knew was a guy whose name I’d seen on the grant application for Anhinga Press.

I ended up the champion of one manuscript, a quirky story I’d originally scored lower than anyone else. (It’s by a woman here in Gainesville.)

For the sake of geographical diversity, I also wanted us to award at least one fellowship each to someone from South Florida and Tampa Bay, and Barbara and I thought it was important we fund both poetry finalists.

In the end, none of us were totally satisfied with the final decision, but that probably meant the process worked.

We then discussed the procedures with the staff and gave suggestions as to how things might be better done in the future.

Randy said goodbye to the rest of us, who had lunch together, discussing everything from Jeffrey’s work with Haitian poet laureate in exile Felix Morisseau-Leroy to why Tallahassee has such a literary scene compared to other parts of the state.

I offered to drive Mildred back to Gainesville, but she said she preferred flying. Barbara then said she’d drive her to the airport to catch an earlier flight than the one she’d originally planned to get on.

Instead, I took Jeffrey with me after the friend he planned to visit in Jacksonville said he could pick him up in Lake City.

With company and good conversation – Jeffrey reminds me a lot of Pete Cherches – the trip of 90 minutes along I-10 felt like it took no time at all. I couldn’t believe it when Jeffrey pointed out the I-75 sign.

We stopped at the first exit west of Lake City, where Jeffrey called his friend ,the assistant state’s attorney in Jacksonville, while I filled up the car with gas.

After he got off the phone, Jeffrey said he’d be meeting the guy in an hour.

Although I was anxious to get home, I didn’t want to leave him alone in Lake City and said we could use the time to explore the town.

What a trip “downtown” Lake City was! It’s like it’s in some weird time warp; I can’t imagine anyone I know living in a place like that. (Okay, I’m jaded.)

We stopped at a tacky little mall and took photos in one of those four-shots-for-$2 booths. Jeffrey uses them in his art. He had me switch with him so that I got in the third photo and he was in the first, second and fourth ones; the result looked hilarious.

After we hung around the nearly deserted mall, I dropped him off at a motel bar right by the Interstate.

By then it was 5 PM, so I listened to All Things Considered on WUFT-FM as I drove home in a good mood. It was a fine trip.

Thursday, June 17, 1993

3 PM. The pace of life has speeded up since I left for Tallahassee.

Last evening I spoke to Josh, who left a message on my machine. He seems fine, though still a little paranoid.

Josh read me a rejection letter he got from CUNY Law School in which the dean said he “suffered with every rejected applicant.”

Then he read me his response, a withering reply to what he thought was the dean’s patronizing tone: Josh apologized to the dean for “causing you such emotional pain.”

(As I expected, he sent copies of both letters to Harper’s.)

Josh was also upset about a New Yorker article by Harold Brodkey about his having AIDS. There is a piece in it in today’s Times, but I still haven’t gotten to the papers for yesterday and Tuesday.

I read Josh the long letter I got from Crad, who must be terribly lonely.

My response to Crad’s postcard elicited not only his pouring out his heart but two dozen photos he took in Vancouver (“a mind-expanding experience”).

Crad’s “long romantic drought” is over, but naturally he’s fallen for someone any normal person would run away from: an 18-year-old high school student who lives a 3½-hour bus ride from Toronto.

The girl has strict parents who nevertheless have taken in her ex-boyfriend, who of course is extremely jealous and violent and has threatened to kill any guy she sees.

Well, I can certainly see the attraction!

Crad is pathetic. Doesn’t he see how he appears to others?

Last night I wondered if my diary entries would sound as sick to Phillip Lopate as Crad’s letters sound to me.

Was my relationship with Sean pathetic? Was my living off credit cards the same as Crad’s intention to go on welfare and hide the inheritance that will come at the deaths of his mother and paternal grandmother from the Canadian authorities?

I’d like to think I’m more grounded in reality than Crad. But am I, really?

Alice sent the xerox of the TV Guide article with the byline of her mother “as told to” Alice. It’s a great piece, with a fabulous photo of Alice’s mother hugging her captioned TV screen.

This morning, a dream about an opera based on the TV series Bewitched gave me an idea for a Mondo Barbie-type anthology of stories by younger writers about TV characters – like Pete’s Flintstones and Lucy stories. I’ll investigate and see if it’s feasible.

I took cash out of the bank so I wouldn’t have to use my credit card to pay for the car rental, which cost $103. At home, I mailed off the travel voucher and receipts to Tallahassee.

I’ll have to ask Mom if she can advance me money to pay July’s rent; the check from the state will come to our house and it should total about $400.

After I went to the hotel, returned the Corolla, and got in my old Bonneville, I got a much-needed haircut and went to school.

Dawn gave me excellent notes from the past two days, and Weyrauch had another interesting class. Chatting with Min, Rod, Bob and Laura V, I felt glad to be back at school.

I know I really should go to this evening’s gay rights march.