A 24-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-May, 1976


Tuesday, May 11, 1976

9 PM. Mom and Dad and I were just watching an educational TV program on the movements of babies. The research shown seems to bear out what I’ve believed for a long while: that babies are far stronger, smarter, and more adaptable than has been generally believed.

My parents’ eyes glow when they talk about my infancy. They say they read to me constantly, even after I was asleep, and that at a very early age I would know when they were leaving out a word (or changing it) in a familiar story.

It’s so weird the way I’ve completely revised my attitude on my upbringing. While I was no doubt hampered in my emotional development by my parents’ denial of feelings they thought were not appropriate for me to express, and while I was overprotected, there must have been a lot of good things done by my parents for me to become this intelligent and fairly good in social situations (although, granted, I don’t have great success in intimate relationships).

But I know my strengths, and I think I can recite them without modesty: I’m intelligent, determined, disciplined, and personable, and I have the capacity to be charming, inoffensive, quite witty and supportive of others.

As for my faults, they are there, too: I am self-centered, intolerant, fairly unreliable; I tend to be too much of a “yes man”; I have no patience; and I have become smug.

Add these qualities up and I figure I’d make a poor husband, an erratic father, a good friend, and maybe a great success.

This morning I went to the Fiction Collective office. Peggy is greatly annoyed with Mimi for backing out of a long-standing commitment to go to a Maryland college. The Collective’s author/members – especially Mimi, Marianne and Seymour – are not the easiest people to work with.

I sent Seymour a very long manuscript, and he absolutely refuses to read it. But I did get back some responses from others, and we can send back several books now, including the Carol Berge novel. (It will be interesting to see how that affects my piece’s chances of getting into her magazine Center.)

This afternoon I brought the Melson manuscript to Baumbach and told him that if he votes yes, it will be accepted.

I told Jon that I wouldn’t be able to go on working for the Collective because I need a full-time job, explaining that I had to get my own apartment. He asked if I could manage to live on the salary of an adjunct at LIU combined with funds he hopes the State Council on the Arts will give him to pay me.

I said it was possible, but of course, an LIU job isn’t assured – although Peggy and Dick are going to tonight’s PEN dinner, and I can count on them to put in a good word for me with Martin Tucker, who’s being honored.

I told Jon that I’ve applied to places for teaching jobs, and he said that he might write a few letters for me, and of course if anything comes to his attention, he’ll let me in on it. I doubt if he can do anything for the fall, but for the long-range future, he might help me get a job.

Jon and Peggy are lunching next week with Harvey Shapiro, editor of the New York Times Book Review – they’re frantic that the new books haven’t been reviewed – so I may have to take over Jon’s undergraduate class again.

He told me my comprehensive exam was the best of a generally poor lot; some were quite bad, he intimated. In class later, I felt somewhat apart from the rest of them; even Simon seems so immature, jokingly stupidly when Jon asked him about his getting something published or getting a teaching job. Simon, Denis, Todd, Josh and the girls are on a different level from me at this point.

We did two of my stories, and to my surprise, the class generally liked “A Dream Deferred” and “Unobtrusive Methods, Inchoate Designs.” Jon said the key to my success is that though my stories are often grating, I write with compelling confidence and authority. It’s something that can’t be bluffed, he said, and comes about only with prolificacy.

Wednesday, May 12, 1976

5 PM. This was an exciting day, and I still feel pretty exuberant. I sold “Reflections on a Village Rosh Hashona 1969” to Transatlantic Review!

I was having lunch with Maud when the mail arrived. The first thing I noticed was a letter from Central YMCA Community College in Chicago; they sent me an Affirmative Action form to fill out. Of course if I was not white and not a male, I’d have a better chance of getting an instructorship.

But I read their job descriptions, both for the English/Speech job and the one in the Quest for Identity program, and it sounds like I would enjoy doing all those things: serving on committees, teaching several courses, being committed to working individually with Black and Hispanic students who are generally on a pre-college level.

And the salary, which would be around $11,000, would be enough for a single person to live quite comfortably in Chicago. I know I could handle the job, and if I get it, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second before accepting – but that’s getting light years ahead of myself.

Anyhow, I went through the rest of the mail, looking at a rejection from the Carolina Quarterly, and then I opened up the next manila envelope and noticed, not the Transatlantic Review’s usual rejection card, but a letter – and a check for $35.

I felt great. Persistence and confidence do pay off: it’s a story I wrote years ago and it had quite a few “nice” rejections, but it’s already come back to me about 25 or 30 times. And I just kept sending stories to the Transatlantic Review after each new rejection (there have been about five or six), and finally it paid off.

That $35 came just as I was about to empty my savings account, too. But it’s the prestige that’s important. This is my first breakthrough in the “big” little magazine world. It’s a well-known magazine which even Baumbach lists among his credits. I’ve seen it on newsstands in Manhattan. And it will be published and seen in Great Britain, too.

I called up Dad and told Mom when she returned home from shopping, and they were both very proud and pleased. Then I went to the college to meet Josh and Denis so we could get our theses approved, and they were really impressed.

Luckily, Prof. Kaye just signed off on the theses routinely, and Claude Cheek of the School of Humanities did the same – so now we’ve passed our comps and our language exams, gotten our theses approved, and have only to complete this term’s courses. Richard Grayson, B.A., M.A., M.F.A.: I’m almost there.

I could not resist telling people about today’s acceptance. I showed the letter to Prof. Galin, who was the first person at the college to encourage me as a writer, and he said, “You’re one of the ones.”

I asked him what he meant, and he said, “You’re one of the ones I thought could do it.”

Josh and I went to Marine Park with his German shepherd Butch to let the dog run on the field. It was good being close and friendly with Josh again.

I feel so good that I just want to shout it out in the street. My class at LIU this morning went very well, and I just feel that everything in my life is falling into place.

I’m quite scared, too. Things are happening so fast and so wonderfully that I’m afraid I’m heading for some kind of downfall soon. I know that’s probably superstition, but I can’t let modest success go to my head.

Positive reinforcement is great, but I’ve got to continue to be disciplined and moderate in all things. It’s just that I can see greatness so clearly now, and it’s an awful and wonderful sight.

I think I’ll let myself crow for the rest of the day. (Hopefully, Kaye’s class tonight will bring me down some.) And if I can’t sleep tonight, I’ll be suitably depressed tomorrow.

Last night, in the Nebraska primary, Reagan again beat Ford, and Frank Church just barely beat Carter.

Saturday, May 15, 1976

9 PM. I just got back from driving my parents to the airport. Their jet should be taking off any minute now, and by midnight they should be in Miami.

I didn’t see any point in waiting at Kennedy, so when the skycap took their luggage, I just kissed them both goodbye and wished them good luck. They’ll be staying at Grandpa Nat’s condominium. I don’t know if they will find anything there.

Ostensibly they’re going to look for a business Dad can make a living from so that they can start a new life in Florida, but Dad seems to think it unlikely that he’ll find anything in four or five days – at least that’s what he said.

Actually, I think neither Mom nor Dad really knows why they’re going to Florida, but maybe just getting away will do them some good. They’ve both been under a lot of stress lately, and they find themselves in middle age with the realization that they never will fulfill the dreams they once had. Indeed, they now have less than they ever thought they would.

I see that my grandparents have already accepted the fact that they won’t manage to live out the hopes they had when they were young. Maybe that acceptance has made them mellow; maybe they’re also a little bitter because of it; certainly, they’re disappointed people.

Most people’s lives may be lives of quiet desperation, but they are – more importantly, I feel – lives of eventual disappointment.

As I drove back from the airport, as day turned into night, I thought of my life: it’s a great adventure now, but I’m bound to be disillusioned, because I know I’ll never achieve the things I’m setting out to do.

I can never write all the stories I want to: the one about my ancestor journeying to Jerusalem in his nineties, the one about Avis and Rilke’s ghost in Bremen, the novel that explains just what it was like to be Richard Grayson.

And driving back home via Linden Boulevard (the Belt Parkway was jammed with Saturday-night city-bound traffic), I thought of New York and how I’ve never known another home but this city. Along the way were reminders of my past.

The route itself was a route I used to take often with Shelli five years ago, and I passed the parking lot of the housing project in Brownsville where I found my car stolen a year ago, and the diner where Ray and I talked last fall on the night of the final World Series game (I am not proud of how I behaved with Ray; I was totally wrong and I must have caused him hurt), and Cross Bay Boulevard, where Mason and Libby and Teresa and I went to Pizza City after seeing Avis off on her flight to Germany in 1974.

I am forever the one who takes friends and relatives to the airport and picks them up. I remain behind always, and I’m always here to welcome others home.

That may change; I may leave New York, but it will always be in my body, in my head. Yesterday on the Today show, Jimmy Breslin took people on a tour of the “outer boroughs.”

Most tourists see only Manhattan, but the soul of the city is in St. George and Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bensonhurst and Queens Boulevard and Rockaway.

Breslin began the TV essay on the beach in Belle Harbor, one of his favorite haunts, and one of mine. This morning I went out there, to visit Mikey and his mother, and Larry came over, and we sat on the terrace passing the cloudy, hot and humid day as we have passed so many others.

But soon Mikey and his mother will be out of that apartment that I’ve come to think of as another home. There’s a chance they’ll get another place on the same block.

While I read Mikey’s handsomely bound thesis – “Reforms in Correction: New York State 1964-1974” – he told me that he’s been “on the outs” with Nina for three weeks, that she doesn’t seem to care about him as much as he does her.

And after Larry, the paper expert, criticized the binding on the thesis, we drove in Larry’s car to Beach 116th Street, where an old lady asked me if we were going to my grandmother’s house and if we could give her a ride there. We said we weren’t, but Larry drove her there anyway.

Monday, May 17, 1976

11 PM. Today was another rainy, humid day. After those warm days around Easter, everyone thought we were going to have an early summer, but the truth is we haven’t had much of a spring.

Yesterday I finally completed “A Clumsy Story,” a 21-pager that I’d been working on all weekend. It’s an attempt to mix emotional events from my life – centering on one week in October 1973 and concerning my relationships with Ronna, Avis, Mrs. Ehrlich and my parents, as well as other personal problems – with that kind of out-of-story reaching toward my reader that I’ve been working on lately.

I think the story works, and it’s gratifying to have completed it – although I thought “I, Eliza Custis” worked, too, and I’ve gotten several quick rejections of that piece.

I’m still certain that the raw material of Eliza’s story is very good; my mistake may have been turning it into fiction when a nonfiction magazine article may have been a better bet.

I’ve been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf – I much prefer Mrs. Dalloway to To the Lighthouse – and she sharpens one’s senses. I tried to make a list of little thoughts or feelings or impressions I had recently that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed, and here are some of them:

When I spoke to Elspeth yesterday, I felt the slightest bit unhappy to learn that Shelli’s mother, whom Elspeth met in Waldbaum’s, said that Jerry and Shelli are doing just beautifully in Madison and said they’re “on top of the world.”

I noted that I was grateful that neither the kid across the street, Petey, whom I drove to Brooklyn Tech this morning on my way to LIU, nor John, the hairstylist this afternoon, engaged me in conservation while I was driving or getting my hair cut.

I felt extraordinarily pleased when I passed Sugar Bowl in the rain and heard Leroy say, “Hi, Rich!” because it was so nice to hear the sound of my name.

When I awoke at 1:30 AM during the night, I thought it was already time to get up, and it felt delightful to know I still had 5½ hours of sleep left.

While dining at the counter of the Floridian this evening, my mind whirred to other times at that restaurant: with my family, with Brad, with Shelli and Jerry (when Shelli and I were a couple and Jerry was our friend), with Avis on Yom Kippur, and other times.

Yesterday I bought magazines at the candy store on Avenue N and East 53rd run by that immense woman. She gave me a dollar too much in change, and I noticed it right away, but I walked out of the store; then, walking to my car, I thought of her grotesquely fat ankles, turned around and gave her back the money, feeling ridiculous when she praised me for my honesty.

All those little things are details that aren’t even part of the broad outline of the events of the day, and in the long run, those things are probably more important than just writing: “I had my last lesson at LIU, on a Saki story; I took a haircut and went to the dentist; I had a GSO meeting with Marie and Mike and the rest . . .”

Other things that may be important:

my annoyance with Jonny for flexing his biceps admiringly as I drove him home from school, knowing that in front of mirrors, I do the same thing;

my surprise that I got even three out of ten term papers from students today;

my asking Maud if she’d brought an umbrella today as a gesture so that she’d know I sort of care;

my feeling funny about leaving the GSO meeting so early after I’d arrived late, but knowing my diarrhea couldn’t wait;

my remembering how stupid it was for me to say to Jim Merritt on Thursday, “Yeah, Kenny [Klee] was a nice kid”;

my stray thoughts about future biographies about me;

how, for some reason, I had to not show any pain at the dentist;

and lastly, my compulsion for eternally making up lists.

Thursday, May 20, 1976

8 PM. For a guy who’s in limbo, I guess I’m doing all right. Tonight I arrived back at the house just as Marc was bringing Mom and Dad home from the airport. Dad, of course, did not find a business yet, but I’m certain that my parents have definitely decided to move to Florida.

They seem to be very impressed with the lifestyle on the Gold Coast, and I’m sure they, as well as Marc and Jonny, would be happier living in Florida. But I am apart from them, and I think I’d find the tinselly atmosphere of Broward County intellectually stultifying.

Mom and Dad have made it plain that they would like me to join them, but I don’t think I could be happy there. Of course, if my family is in Florida (and I assume my grandparents will follow them down), I’ll be pretty much alone here.

I’m not going to school, I have no job, I’m not in love, and I can write anywhere – so there’s really nothing holding me in New York. One thing: if I join my parents and move to Florida, I’ll be facing a great change in my life. But if I stay on in New York alone, things also will be very different. So we’ll see how I fare, facing these big changes.

Last evening Prof. Kaye went over To the Lighthouse, and at home later, I marked my LIU class’s finals, which were generally very poor. I feel quite upset that I failed my students, that I didn’t give them everything I could have to make them write better and understand literature more clearly.

Looking out my window just now, I see a beautiful sunset: low clouds and blue-red sky off in the west. It turned milder today; it felt like April, at least, rather than yesterday’s winter-jacket March weather.

This morning I wrote Avis and Helmut a long letter and cleaned up the house. Maud didn’t come in today, and Jonny was in school, and Marc was doing TV repairs someplace; it felt very good to be alone in this house. (After twenty years, I can’t imagine not living in this house.)

The mailman brought some good news: Bachy, the Los Angeles little magazine, accepted “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” for publication in their eighth issue, due out in November.

(And I think: Where will I be in November? Will I get my mail? All of my stories have “1607 East 56th Street, Brooklyn, New York 11234” on their first page.)

This acceptance was very gratifying. Published by the bookstore Papa Bach Paperbacks on Santa Monica Boulevard, Bachy is a good publication; both Dick Humphreys and Bill Henderson seemed to think so.

And the very experimental “Psychopathology” was, I thought, my most unpublishable story – yet their editor called it “remarkable.” Even I didn’t have much faith in it, not after we did it in class and Josh was the only one who liked it.

This afternoon I did a few errands: buying vitamin C, getting gas for the car, buying shoelaces and a black T-shirt, and I finished up at the dentist, getting a cleaning from Dr. Hersh.

On campus, on my way to see Baumbach, I passed Linda, Bonnie from next door, and Alan Karpoff. Brooklyn College will always be my second home. It’s going to change a lot: Jon said that due to the budget cuts, the school will be 40% smaller next year and tuition will be imposed on undergrads for the first time. But maybe things will work out for the best.

I told Jon I liked the way Babble came out; Peggy gave me one of the copies which arrived in the office yesterday. Jon talked about the MFA program, saying he regretted that administrative duties and other obligations kept him from doing everything he’d wanted to with the program.

He looked sad, as though he really felt bad, and I felt like telling him it was all right, that I, at least, got more out of the MFA program than I ever expected I would.

Baumbach was quoted in this week’s Village Voice in an article on Hawkes; they didn’t identify him or say who he was, as if it was taken for granted that “Jonathan Baumbach” was someone well-known, and that’s a nice compliment.

In class, we went over another of Anna’s delightful stories, and afterwards, we all went to Sugar Bowl, where Stacy and I avoided seeing each other although we were both aware of the other’s presence. (I didn’t want to be humiliated by having her ignore me again.)

Then I had dinner with Mark, who looked so tired and forlorn. Working, going to school at night, and having a wife and kids must be hard. I shall miss this term’s dinners with Mark.