A 24-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late February, 1976


Sunday, February 22, 1976

5 PM on a wet, chilly Sunday. Tonight, after a week’s absence, winter will return and there may be snow tomorrow. But still, this past week with its warm temperatures was a wonderful respite from winter.

Yesterday was mild and breezy and bright. Driving into Greenwich Village, I went first to the Eighth Street Bookshop, where I said hello to Laurie, browsed in the little magazine section, and ended up buying Richard Elman’s new poetry chapbook, The Man Who Ate New York.

I embarrassed myself when I first met Elman at the Fiction Collective party in Soho, and I figured buying his book would make up for it. He’s quite a good poet.

Yesterday Alice showed me an article by John Leonard in the Times about the financial struggles of writers. Elman gets by through his teaching at Columbia, where he works for Peggy’s husband Dick Humphreys, and doing numerous book reviews as well as writing “novelizations” of current movie screenplays like Taxi Driver.

Another writer the article mentioned, an editor of the Paris Review, writes seamy stories for men’s magazines. It’s obvious that I’ll never be able to eke out a living by being a writer, but what can I do?

Walking across Eighth Street and up Sixth Avenue, I felt the Village bursting with the energy that only New York City has. Our town may be a dying hell of a metropolis, but no place can match it for that exciting nameless quality that pulsates through the streets: the well-dressed dowagers walking poodles; the black queen looking with wonder at an expensive jumpsuit in a store window; a Chinese mother pushing her baby’s stroller as the child squeals with delight; young matrons selecting vegetables at Balducci’s; the guy outside Nathan’s, intoning “Turn to Jesus . . . Turn to Jesus before it’s too late” and the girl next to him handing out leaflets that say “Learn the Truth About Trotsky’s Death.”

I walked up to 12th Street, to the Bun ‘n’ Burger, where a pretty waitress with hairy arms served me lunch, saying, “If the Tab is too sweet or too anything, call me.” I enjoyed it so much, being surrounded by New Yorkers.

People in this city are tough and cynical and there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can surprise them. A cute teenage boy asked me for directions to the subway, and after I gave them to him, we exchanged knowing winks as we went on our way. Basically, New Yorkers are co-conspirators.

Sitting in Washington Square, I watched the weekend photographers and the black men with their cheap wine and the many lovers of all races and sexes. I listened to a bad trumpeter playing “Alfie” and to the rapid-fire Spanish talk of some frisbee-tossing teenagers.

Despite what anyone says, there is a sense of community in New York, and being a part of it makes me high.

Yesterday I got a letter from the guy whose ad I answered in this week’s Aquarian, and I don’t know what to make of it. For one thing, it has the label “Letter #2.” He writes in a nearly illegible hand that in his first letter he “vented feelings instead of relating what I could about myself.”

He’s a senior at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, where his P.O. box is, a psychology major who writes poetry. He gave an example, entitled “Harry” – “Felt it / Fought it / Turned around / Sought it / Harry, how you’ve grown” – which he says is “simple, but like the village manchild, his complexity lies in a world we fear to enter.”

This guy – I can’t read his signature but it’s something like Yuriy Rulvarov (?) – seems to me humorless, and his writing style is very stilted, as though English is not his native language.

I don’t get good vibrations from Letter #2, but I will withhold final judgment until I get Letter #1. I’m not frightened of homosexuality anymore, and I don’t feel I need to be convinced or recruited. As Bishop Mugavero of Brooklyn said in his statement supporting gay rights, “our personhood, not our sexuality” is what’s important.

Tuesday, February 24, 1976

7 PM. Tonight I get to watch the New Hampshire primary results, which should be interesting. I’ve always loved watching the votes roll in on Election night and I’m going to have thirty more primaries to enjoy before the conventions this summer.

Last evening, searching for material I could turn into a story, I found a book Leon once gave me, a British book called The Philosophy of the Bed, filled with interesting anecdotes about bed lore and such.

I used a lot of the stories contained in the book, changing them a little to “make it strange” (my definition of the term is quite different from Tolstoy’s) in the manner I appropriated other material in “Notes on the Type,” “The Unknown,” and to some extent, “Summoning Alice Keppel.”

I came out with what I think is a nice eight-page piece of satire (I’m not sure if it qualifies as fiction) which I called, simply, “Beds.” I typed the piece this morning, postponing my work at the Fiction Collective for another day or two.

It’s been a week since the mailman has brought any kind of rejection notice, and I’m getting kind of concerned. I wonder if I’ve been putting improper postage on my submissions and/or my self-addressed envelopes. Perhaps my manuscripts are ending up in the Dead Letter Office. I’d prefer a slew of rejections to the silence; bad feedback is better than no feedback.

Today I went to visit Marc at his “head shop” booth at the flea market after xeroxing my new story at the Junction and going to the post office across Nostrand Avenue to buy stamps so I can send the story out. (I said hi to Gary’s father as he was coming back to the P.O. after making his deliveries.)

The flea market is totally devoid of customers, and most of the booths are unrented. Coming out of the place, I found Elspeth approaching me with a cart of groceries she’d just purchased in Waldbaum’s.

I kissed Elspeth and remembered that it had been her birthday yesterday, and so I congratulated her. When I told her she was looking well, Elspeth replied, “I’m getting over a nervous breakdown.”

I laughed at the way she threw the term around, but she said no, she attempted suicide two weeks ago by swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills.

Evidently she did not really want to end her life, for she called Elihu to “say goodbye.” Naturally Elihu called the police and rushed over to her place; they took Elspeth to Coney Island Hospital, where they pumped her stomach. Elspeth showed me the faint trace of an intravenous needle on the back of her hand.

I didn’t question her motives but told her she might be well-advised to see a psychiatrist. The Police Department will not let her back to work until the records come in from the hospital (they’re saying the overdose was “accidental”) so right now Elspeth is bored and there’s no money coming in. Her groceries were bought, she said, with yesterday’s birthday money.

Elspeth said she’ll call me to find out Scott’s number in Washington; she’d like to get away for a while and wants to find out if Scott would like a visitor. Poor Elspeth: I wish I could help her more, but I’m sure Elihu’s doing everything he can.

Walking to the campus, I passed Danielle Robertson, who gave me a weak smile; she looked so pale and drawn, so unlike the radiant woman I remember. I wonder if her affair with Sean has affected her greatly. Of course, she may just be suffering from the flu.

Another person I saw, while I was in Boylan cafeteria, was Dr. Stone, who served as shrink to Shelli and Scott, and before that to Avis’s sister Ellen. I avoided him because I knew he’d want me to fill him in on his former patients.

After a cup of coffee together, Anna and I went to class, where Josh got a well-deserved unanimous rave for his story “No Rain in Rio.” Josh has come further along as a writer than anyone in the class. Baumbach said the story was “first-rate” and “light years better” than anything Josh has done before.

After walking Josh home, I went back up Nostrand Avenue to pick Marc up when the flea market closed at 6 PM. He took in only four dollars today.

Thursday, February 26, 1976

3 PM. It feels odd to have 70° temperatures in late February. Last night it felt so mild out; it was as if the air was different and we were in a different climate, another hemisphere. Time and season seem out of joint.

Yesterday Marc removed a dead cat which had gotten frozen in our pool that Mom had noticed the day before. That led me to ask Mom about getting our pool ready for the summer when suddenly it struck me that it wasn’t the end of April at all, but two months earlier.

Yesterday I called Bob Grant’s radio show to give him my impression of the New Hampshire primary and the significance of next week’s Massachusetts primary. Bob Grant is such a hostile talk-show host, but I must admit he’s always been very civil to me. When Dad came home, he said he’d heard me on the car radio.

After a nice dinner, I went to school, stopping off at the Graduate Students Organization office in LaGuardia first. With Marie, Jed Dash, and Debbie Quinlan, I helped address envelopes to the other little magazines we were sending copies of Junction to.

Rushing over to Boylan, I caught up with Laurie and Harvey as they were entering Prof. Kaye’s class. This week I really enjoyed Kaye, who, in going over Dubliners, went through an elaborate series of classifications of the stories.

I’ve gotten used to Kaye’s method of asking rather simple questions as a rhetorical device; it’s like a quiz show, trying to be first on the buzzer. I answered a lot yesterday, and I was the only one in the class who knew that Edward VII’s mistress was Alice Keppel; I feel as though she’s my secret property.

Kaye is really explaining Joyce to me for the first time; he makes it out to be a fascinating literary detective game, and I think I may even manage to get through Ulysses, which I’ve long feared. I admire Joyce’s chutzpah in saying that people should devote their lives to his books.

I walked out with my friends from the class and went back to the GSO office. Donny was about to leave, but he told me that we are definitely coming out with another issue of Junction by late spring and that I should figure on accepting about 60 pages of fiction.

Marie was having a GSO Executive Board meeting with a couple of guys I barely know. Beryl has resigned as GSO president, leaving Marie, who had been named vice president (because no one ran for the office and Marie was the defeated presidential candidate) in the top job.

Shlomo, the treasurer, has been going to the University Student Senate meetings; he said Jay Hershenson finally graduated as his second term as USS chairman expired. Shlomo also told me that as treasurer of the English Association, I must soon prepare a budget request.

It was obvious that Marie, as usual, has been doing all the graduate student organizing and getting things done. Her work office, the social services agency, is closing down at the end of June due to city budget cuts, so she’ll be out of a job.

Marie told me her thesis is going very slowly, and she’s upset over the theft of her car and the break-in at her father’s place of business. When I drove Marie home, she said she’s trying to convince Mike to come in as GSO vice president to give her a hand – but Mike is so busy these days, he doesn’t want to get back into student government.

Marie ran into Slade downtown last week, and they had lunch together on Tuesday. Slade, she said, was in a “didactic life-is-beautiful mood” so she figures he must be in love. He’s very happy with his job at that publishing company, and he’s finally finishing the novel he’s been working on for the past four years. And Slade is very much into basketball, to the point of wanting to go to Europe and join a Swedish basketball team.

My car is falling apart. It’s making a horrible noise, and I lost a hubcap. I relaxed today by getting a badly-needed haircut at Telepathy. But my stomach still hurts.

Friday, February 27, 1976

5 PM. Today was a relaxing day, and I have to admit that my good spirits surprise me, for yesterday I was feeling quite down.

In the late afternoon yesterday, I went off to the Fiction Workshop in a very bad mood. Baumbach said he had “been through” my novel, and I felt terrible, knowing finally what a garrulous, immature and self-indulgent work that novel is. But it’s only my first novel, and I’ll learn from it – or try to.

Anyway, as usual, class was fun; we covered one of Anna’s inscrutable little stories, and afterwards I went to Sugar Bowl with some of the others. Denis said he and the other students were talking on Tuesday and they decided that they’d all hire me as their literary agent “since you know everything about magazines and publication.”

After returning home for dinner, I dropped Gisele off at the bus stop. When I told her that I was too old for love, Gisele giggled her usual giggle, telling me that at 35, she still felt very young.

But last evening I really did feel old: my feet seemed so heavy as I trudged up steps; my life seemed like a bland, homogenized existence; I’d forgotten what the word zest meant.

Yet after a good night’s sleep, I felt 24 again, young and virile, full of emotions and plans and not at all afraid to plunge into the future.

This morning at LIU, I had a very good class for some reason even though I think I made a fool of myself. We were discussing Carson McCullers’ “The Sojourner,” a story about a man of 38 who realizes that he’s aging after the death of his father and following an encounter with his ex-wife.

I wanted the class to get personally involved with the story, and they were very responsive, but then I mentioned running into my old girlfriend and her husband last year and my feelings at the time; the class seemed much more interested in my personal life than in any literature we’ve gone over.

I guess I’m not a very good teacher because I behaved immaturely and unprofessionally. Yet if I’m going to show them that literature has any relevance to their lives, don’t I have to open up and show that I’m a person, too?

And come to think of it, I’ve always been most interested when any of my teachers revealed something personal about themselves. I guess Carl Rogers’ theories have influenced me – or is it just that I’m too immature to teach college students?

After class, I had an office hour, during which I drank coffee, corrected papers and enjoyed the ambience of the LIU Humanities office. Usually I keep to myself, but lately I’ve been talking to colleagues (wow, I wrote “colleagues”) or reading some of the literary journals around: Martin Tucker’s Confrontation (today I read an old one with an Ashbery interview) or Herb Leibowitz’s Parnassus.

I feel comfortable in that world of academia and literary politics. I now feel, for the first time since LaGuardia Hall, that I am part of a community of writers and teachers, from Jon Baumbach and the Fiction Collective authors to Jill Hoffman (who told Jon she appreciated my attending her reading) and John Ashbery to my lit teachers at Brooklyn and Richmond to the professors at LIU to the editors of little magazines.

I even feel good I “know” the “names” that tend to publish poems and stories in many quarterlies.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to feel that I’m not growing as a writer. February is the first month since September that I haven’t received a single acceptance. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by good luck, but it’s a blow to my ego.

This afternoon it was sunny and nearly 70°, so I went to that place in Brighton Beach where young people sit on these reflector-chairs under sun-reflectors. I sat there for an hour with my shirt off, feeling the warm February (!) sun on my body. Now that’s nice.

The crowd at this place – Sun Park – is a mixture of hedonists, hitters and homosexuals, and I don’t quite feel at ease there but for the sun.

Sunday, February 29, 1976

I wrote the following in a notebook several hours ago:

Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan. 2/29/76. 2 PM. It seems to me – or rather, the words just popped into my head – that we must choose life. I don’t quite know what that means, except to say that we must go on with the business of living, no matter what. (A Camusian idea?)

Seeing Seven Beauties – the horror of that war and man’s indomitable spirit – to do what Giancarlo Giannini does, to will an erection, to fuck that enormous Nazi, even to kill one’s closest friend in order to survive – or to shout “I am a free man!” and willingly die by drowning yourself in shit, as Fernando Rey does – that is why we live, isn’t it – just to continue living, or to finish our lives whole?

Oh, I know that I’m just another neurotic New York Jewish intellectual without even one college class in philosophy to my credit, but it seems to me that life itself is the most satisfactory reason for living.

That story about his great-grandfather that Grandpa Herb told me had the most profound effect upon me. A man, aged 95 or so, having buried his wife and children, sets out on a long sea voyage from Russia to Palestine, simply because he wants to die there: I can’t conceive of anything more noble, more gallant, more courageous, and probably more foolhardy.

After hearing that story, I will keep the memory of that old man, my ancestor, alive with me forever because his one final gesture astounds me. I’ve begun to think about turning it into fiction – I like the title “May You Die in Palestine” – but I don’t think I could do it justice: that man, living five years in Jerusalem with an Arab family, dying at age 100.

What it must have been like to have been that age, in that time and place! I have never wanted to go to Israel before, but now I would like to go, if only to find my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave.

We don’t know what holocausts are awaiting us, and there’s no point in imagining the rest of our lives, but we must live.

That includes everything around me here as I sit under this ridiculous statue of some female figure guiding General Sherman on horseback: the high school kids sharing gooey sundaes and the music of WABC sitting beside me; the chanting marchers across the street, guided by policemen, protesting some world injustice or another; the taxis lined up all yellow in front of the Plaza; the cameras clicking; the peacock feathers and scented violets people are selling; tourists going around the park in a hansom cab; and even little me, scribbling this in my spiral notebook on this springlike Sunday afternoon.

I do believe in God, I suppose; at times like these, my faith is unshakable. This may be a Joycean epiphany or a Maslovian peak experience, but whatever it is, I feel whole, free and very much in love with the world. There is no better place to be than this spot in this city at this time. . .

And I felt every word of that. I took in the gorgeous afternoon, watching a mime-magician in black do tricks for the crowd, looking at gorillas and tigers at the zoo, waiting for the Delacorte Music Clock figures to start dancing at the strike of 3 PM (they never did, as the clock was broken), listening to a steel band, being in a crowd of New Yorkers, the most vital race on earth.

I guess I’ve got a dose of spring fever; seeing all those lovers around Central Park made me want to grab a woman – or a man (who cares?) – and make long and persistent love.

Walking back to my car, parked on Third and 60th, where I had gone to the movies and had eaten lunch, I felt better than I have in a long while.

The drive back to Brooklyn was a beautiful journey, and I spent it thinking of other happy times. The blue sky, the brackish smell of the East River by the bridges, the freedom of movement – I felt as if in love.