A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late November, 1974


Friday, November 22, 1974

10 PM. I feel burned out tonight: tired, bored and lonely. Maybe it’s because I did a lot of writing tonight. I keep trying new forms for my novel about LaGuardia Hall.

Tonight I experimented with something new. I’m using the dinner at Leon’s last Friday night as a frame for the story. The dinner and the scenes between the characters based on me, Leon, Mason and Avis contain the only continuous action in the “present” of the story. Dialogue or actions will evoke memories in the narrator, and I’ll flash back to various scenes in the “past.” It’s a difficult technique.

Faulkner used it masterfully in the Quentin, and perhaps in the Benjy, episodes of The Sound and the Fury; he wasn’t trying to be deliberately obscure, Baumbach explained to us in the Fiction Workshop yesterday.

Instead, Faulkner was trying to achieve a more real reality by taking account remembrances that occur when they are triggered by some external event.

It’s like saying the past is always with us, something we carry about all the time – for people are processes more than they are anything else.

So I wrote ten pages tonight and it took a lot out of me, going back to scenes of my life with Shelli and Jerry, and Ronna, and Stacy and others. I’ll give this in to Baumbach to see whether he thinks a piece written this way can work.

I know there’s a story to be told from four years of observing LaGuardia Hall, and I know I’m the person to tell it. But writing is hard work, and I’ve got to find the form that utilizes the material to its greatest advantage.

Work at Alexander’s went slowly today, and somewhere along the line, I threw my system off balance and have been having stomach difficulties all day. They’re so infrequent now; I forget how stomachaches were once things to be endured daily.

I hope I will remember that this Thursday, on Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to have psychotherapy. Though I’m far from being an integrated, self-actualizing person, at least I’m functioning on a pretty high level.

I don’t even want to think about what I’d be like now if I hadn’t had any therapy at all. I cannot imagine a life without therapy, just as I cannot imagine a life without my writing.

I miss Ronna – I’m aware that tonight is the second anniversary of our first date: Chloe in the Afternoon at the Midwood, tea and muffins at the Foursome, talk until 2 AM in my bedroom, all on Thanksgiving Eve – but I can envision a productive and happy life without her.

It was so cold and blustery today. Late this afternoon I went over to the college and walked around, finding it as deserted as it is only on Fridays after 3 PM. Kosher King was closed, so I went to the counter at Campus Corner and had a burger special.

Lucy, the tiny refugee waitress, is still there, as are the elderly Jewish couple who own the place, but the burger special now costs $1.79 as opposed to the 95¢ it cost when I was a freshman.

While eating my meal, I read Kingsman. The best thing in the paper was the first of a series of articles by Bart Meyers, about student activism at Brooklyn College in the 1960s.

The restaurant was nearly empty, and I ate leisurely. I remembered eating dinner at the counter there over five years ago, when I used to go to Dr. Lipton for group therapy.

I’d like to go back to 1969 for a visit and look around at what my life was like then. I just remembered that I began keeping a diary on a Friday afternoon that August, making the first entries while sitting on the grass on campus.

Sunday, November 24, 1974

Last night Stefanie told Mason, who was planning to see Libby today that that was akin to “walking a tightrope backwards.” I spent this afternoon with Ronna, and I’m afraid I have to agree with Stefanie’s assessment.

Last night I met Mason and Stefanie outside Gershwin Hall and we waited for the doors to open. Todd was there, and he introduced me to his father and to his pretty wife. They are friends of the choreographer, June Lewis, whose works were being performed.

The dance recital was very good, if a bit over my head; during one dance, a woman in platform shoes kept coming onstage with an ever-lengthening roll of toilet paper and staring at the dancers.

But in spite of our not understanding a lot of it, the three of us enjoyed the performances. Afterwards we drove out to Rockaway, where we went to the Ram’s Horn, joining some friends of Mason and Stefanie at their table. They were fairly nice Rockaway people, and I enjoyed the company.

Mason saw Mr. Fried at the diner, and he told us that he hasn’t heard from Barry in months but is pretty sure he’s still living in Fairbanks, working on the pipeline and going to school. I always liked Barry despite his infatuation with the not-so-Perfect Master, Guru Maharaj Ji; I guess he’s long over that.

From the Ram’s Horn we went over to Stefanie’s house and hung out in her room, which is warm and comfortable and very well-suited to Stefanie. There’s even a fireplace.

She’s also got all these plants and gave me and Mason some cuttings for ourselves. We listened to classical music and talked quietly until after 2 AM.

Stefanie and Mason have both been hit pretty hard by the thing with Libby and Melvin. Stefanie looked sad when she spoke of visiting Melvin’s grandmother up in Fleischmanns, but she’s planning to go out with other people and be independent now.

Mason said he ran into Paula, who told him that she and Steve Katz are to be married within a month; that’s a surprise. We spoke of Stefanie’s summer in Chicago and Davey’s obsession with running (he cannot understand that running will not solve everybody’s problems) and how happy Helen is in California.

Mason started getting tired, so we said goodnight to Stefanie and went home. I think the three of us were good therapy for one another, all of us being in similar circumstances.

At 2 PM this afternoon, I picked up Ronna. Her kitchen had been painted, and Billy looked bigger somehow, and Sue only talked of Harris, whom she says she will be marrying someday. Ronna and I greeted each other with a peck on the cheek and went out for a drive.

It was a beautiful day, very mild and springlike, and things were going fine. We chatted about our work and people and stuff. There’s a Kingsman reunion party next week, and I’m invited, even though Ronna told Maddy that we weren’t going together anymore. (“That’s too bad,” Maddy said. “You looked so cute together.”)

And Ivan called her for a friendly talk on Friday and sent his regards to me. She didn’t tell him that we’d broken up, but I bet he knows from somebody in Rockaway or somewhere.

Ronna and I drove out along the North Shore of Long Island, and it was incredibly beautiful there. We stopped at this private beach in Bayville and walked along it. The water in the Sound looked so clear and wave-less, and the beach was filled with beautiful seaweed and shells and rocks.

Ronna found a periwinkle and we looked at it together and we were close and touched and held hands as we strolled on the sand. After we got into the car again, I began getting very nauseous as we drove through Glen Cove.

I stopped at a shopping center on Northern Boulevard and got out of the car. I felt like I was going to throw up, but more than that, I needed to be alone. I knew my nausea was a signal that I felt emotionally upset and out of touch with my feelings.

After thinking a while and feeling a little better, I got back into the car and talked with Ronna. I tried not to cry, but I had to. I explained to Ronna that while she hadn’t done anything untoward – that was the word I used – that psychologically, I felt abandoned and unloved and helpless.

I respect her decision not to see me, and most of the time I agree with it, but in my mind I feel betrayed again. As we drove toward Brooklyn, we talked of a lot of things, and then, on a dark and deserted Canarsie side street, we did the expected and made out furiously, almost furtively, for an hour.

Ronna said she felt happy but confused. By now, hours later, she – like I – probably just feels confused.

Monday, November 25, 1974

It’s a dark, cold afternoon. If it were a bit colder, we might even expect snow. The clouds are so ominous. Yet in a way I would like to see snow, to have a blanket of white cover everything.

I’ve just come home from work. After work, I bought some organic Deaf Smith peanut butter, filled up my gas tank (yesterday’s long drive used up about half a tank) and mailed letters out to Helen in California and to Scott in Washington, D.C.

Work went quickly today; I did some transfers for Jay and James, and I actually felt that for a change I had some responsibility in the store. But mostly I thought about my writing today.

I came up with a good title for a piece of fiction: “Scenes from a Mirage.” It’s obviously a takeoff on Bergman’s new film, Scenes from a Marriage (which I had planned on seeing with Ronna before we broke up), but it means more than that to me.

For as I look back on my experiences, my life doesn’t seem to be one continuous strand; instead, I see it as scenes, fragments from a highly subject view of reality. Perhaps it is all a mirage, a little feat of prestidigitation I’m putting over on myself. I don’t know.

This weekend seems as if it was unreal, and when I look back on it, it’s as if I were in a theater watching myself in a movie.

Yesterday at that shopping center, in Manhasset or somewhere, I felt so lousy: I wanted to throw up, and I sat by the curb. When I went into a store and bought a bottle of ginger ale, the girl behind the counter must have thought I was on drugs, for when she said it cost 40¢, I handed her a dime and two nickels and stared at her blankly when she said it wasn’t enough.

“Sorry,” I told her. “It’s not my day.” Whose day was it, then?

And crying to Ronna: that was so humiliating. It was honest emotion, but I feel it was a sign of weakness, something she can now use against me. I can see her telling Susan or her mother about it – not to be nasty, I know that, but because my crying upset her, too.

I’m embarrassed having people know I’m vulnerable. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Ronna told me she sees no future at all for us, that we have irreconcilable differences: neatness vs. sloppiness, punctuality vs. lateness, selfishness vs. sacrifice.

She is bothered by the fact that I’m going to school and am working at Alexander’s Department Store. (Before, it bothered her that I didn’t work at all.)

That really makes me angry. I feel that I can accept her faults and I don’t want to change her. But Ronna has this idea that people going together have to agree on all important things.

I don’t pretend I can overlook her faults, but in the long run they matter very little to me. She said she’s not getting any younger, and I guess that just confirms my belief that, despite all her protestations, Ronna’s eager to have that middle-class marriage dream that our society promulgates.

(I don’t like the way I sound saying that; perhaps I’m being too harsh.)

And then, making out in that street behind the Seaview Theater, clutching at each other, fogging up the car windows like some high schoolers: What was going on there?

I remember something Helen once told me: “Most people don’t break up because they stop loving the other person. They break up because they can’t get along.” The physical attraction is still there, or the habit of it.

I remember my scene with Shelli in a SUBO elevator after our breakup; Ronna had a similar experience at Ivan’s house on her twentieth birthday. We learn from history that we don’t learn, as they told us in eleventh grade Social Studies.

Last night I was looking through the shells and rocks I collected from that beach in Bayville. From now on, I’ll always love that place: Ransom Beach, it was called.

When Dad came in the kitchen and saw the shells and rocks on the table in front of me and I told him about the beach, Dad said, “I like things like that,” and suddenly I kissed him on the cheek. I don’t know which of us was more surprised.

Thursday, November 28, 1974

9 PM. It’s been a very pleasant Thanksgiving although everywhere the signs point to pretty hard times ahead.

Every day the paper is filled with news: “Simon Says It’s Going to Get Worse,” etc. President Ford now admits we’re in a recession but vehemently denies we’re in a depression. But if the President of the United States keeps having to declare that we’re not in a depression, doesn’t that indicate something?

Everyone’s pretty scared because we don’t what’s ahead: will it be as bad as or worse than 1929? Even my parents don’t remember the Great Depression well, and none of us know how to cope with the fact that our money is worth less and less every day.

I’m getting used to doing without things I took for granted years ago. In 1969 and 1970, Dad would give me $40 a week and I’d practically have to think up ways to spend it all.

Today I work twenty hours a week and the money I earn has to be carefully dispensed. I’ve learned to take the Brooklyn Bridge instead of the Battery Tunnel; I eat out less; I take out books from the library instead of buying them.

Last evening Elihu opened the door when I arrived at the apartment. He introduced me to his friend Goldie from Brown, who was visiting for the weekend; she thought my New York accent was hilariously funny.

Allan got ready and the two of us went downtown to East 60th Street, finding parking easily. At Cinema II, we saw The Odessa File, a surprisingly good movie which I enjoyed a lot. (Also, I used my student discount and got in for half-price.)

We drove back to Allan’s place through Harlem, and I came up to the apartment for a while. Elihu and Goldie had watched Godspell on TV and they were gossiping about Brown people.

It sounds just like the old LaGuardia people, I said, and Elihu recounted for Goldie some choice LaGuardia episodes, like the time Hannah Rappaport told Jerry in confidence that she was going to lose her virginity to Marc Nadel on a certain night and then everyone in LaGuardia knew and did everything but sell tickets. (That was before my time, or Allan’s.)

I left Morningside Heights at midnight, and twelve hours later, I was having breakfast in the kitchen when Alice arrived. I had invited her to Thanksgiving dinner, but she and Andreas had plans to eat at Lundy’s in the evening.

Alice brought us pastries anyway. Mom and I sat at the kitchen table listening to Alice weave her deliciously-told stories about traveling through Europe and her experiences at Weight Watchers. (Alice is down to her goal weight and in sixteen years I’d never seen her looking prettier than she did today.)

Upstairs in my room, I read her some of my stories, and we talked – as always – of our literary ambitions. She told me some news of Robert and Renee. Robert writes her long, detailed letters from London, where he’s alternately depressed and happy and is flirting with a librarian at the British Museum whom he sees while doing his research.

Renee, of course, will never change. She’s still a doormat for some guy, the latest a psychologist whose wife committed suicide in the spring because he wouldn’t stop seeing other women.

I was flattered that Alice asked my advice about whether she should see this fellow Charles, but of course I couldn’t advise her except to point out all the options and possibilities.

We had a lovely time together, and I kissed her just before she rode off on her bike to meet Andreas. I got in the car and drove to Rockaway, where I picked up Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel, bringing them back here for Thanksgiving dinner.

Although he still has some pain, Grandpa Herb looks a lot better now, and it was good to be with my family at Thanksgiving. (Grandpa Nat and Grandma Sylvia went out to a restaurant with Aunt Sydelle.)

The economic picture might be bleak, but after a wonderful dinner and a good day, I feel more secure this year than I ever did.

Saturday, November 30, 1974

4 PM. I’m feeling absolutely terrific – which is amazing considering all the hassles I put up with in the store this morning.

Aside from the throng of pre-Christmas shoppers, the buyers came in today and wanted us to rearrange everything. Jimmy came in at 1 PM and Joan was out today, so it was all up to Dorothy and me. I guess that things go easier if you take a kind of absurdist viewpoint.

At the start of the day at work, my stomach was fluttering, but then I decided to see the whole thing as a joke. A woman whose husband I had given a pair of pants to try on came over to me and said, “He tried them on and one leg is longer than the other on these pants.”

I looked at her and said, “Are you sure it isn’t your husband who has one leg longer than the other?” She didn’t think it was funny, but I’m a company man all the way: I will not breathe a word to anyone about Alexander’s inferior merchandise.

I had a few brief talks with Mara at the service desk, and I got some gossip from her. Phyllis is in for the weekend – Phyllis’ mother came into the store this morning – and so are some other friends in grad or law school out of town.

Melvin asked Mara if she wanted to go with him to Washington for the weekend; she couldn’t go due to work and she isn’t sure if Melvin went or not.

I spotted Paul shopping with his mother and went over to him to say hello. He’s also in from Atlanta for the weekend; I would have liked to have found out how Paul’s doing there, but I was too busy to chat.

After work finally ended – I was pleased that at least Uncle Jack did not come in for a third time this week and bend my ear about his money-making schemes – I escaped the Kings Plaza madness and drove to the Junction.

There, I had pizza in Leo’s, joking with Leo’s wife about her not being superstitious after she spilled a salt shaker and didn’t bother throwing some over her left shoulder. By now I’ve stopped thinking about the mirror I broke, but by habit I keep going over to the spot on the wall where it hung.

After eating, I went to the health food store, where I brought some vitamin C and Ricola Swiss herb candy; the storeowner’s father knows how fond I am of that candy and he said, “You haven’t bought any in a long time.”

From the health food store, I walked over to the xerox place and had my story, “Garibaldi in Exile,” copied. Last night, in a burst of creativity, I finished the story, and I feel very confident about its value as a piece of fiction.

The fat girl at the xerox place knows me already and thinks of me as a novelist. She even commented on a line in the story, about Elton John. (In the story, the character Aida makes up love letters from Elton John and others; I based it on what Ronna told me about her friend Judy Yarnowsky.)

My final stop was Campus Closet, to buy myself a nice shirt. I found a gorgeous one, a black print shirt from India. It was $14 but it’s been so long since I’ve splurged on myself that I thought I deserved it.

I was happily surprised to see Brendan working at the store. He was very helpful to me in picking out my size and he said to make sure I told Avis from him to have a great time in Germany.

It was brisk out and I felt exhilarated. That’s what’s so great about living in Brooklyn: all the salespeople and everyone at the Junction – Leo and his wife, the health food storeowner and his father, the xerox girl, Brendan and Merv in Campus Closet – are acquainted with me, and I’m friends with them. It’s like living in a small town.

I feel really good emotionally. I tried on the shirt at home and it looks good. While I noticed that I still have my paunch, my muscles of this summer are coming back again because of all the heavy lifting I do at the store. And I definitely see a few more hairs on my chest. (Like four or five.)