A 25-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late January, 1977


Thursday, January 20, 1977

6 PM. Today Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the U.S. Watching the Inauguration on TV, I was moved; I’m becoming such a traditionalist in my old age, liking ceremonies and becoming a patriot. Carter promised us a New Spirit; we shall see. . .

I remember seeing my first Inauguration twenty years ago: I had come home from kindergarten at noon and saw Eisenhower being sworn in for his second term.

I spent this afternoon at Jack Gelber’s house in Prospect Park South, meeting with Jon Baumbach and John Ashbery to discuss just whom to invite to participate in the conference.

Yesterday I handed in my budget to Dr. Gittell and she said to “go with it.” I just hope I can keep us under the budget. She said, “You’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you,” and I said, “I know.”

Today’s meeting lasted much too long: three and a half hours. Jack’s wife Carol made tea, toast, marmalade and Devonshire cream for us. Their house is very nice, but they’re going crazy trying to fix it up.

It was like a narcotic, hearing Jack, Jon and John toss all these famous names around: all people whom I’ve read or heard about but never really thought of as individuals.

In passing – or en passant, as Ashbery says – I heard a lot of literary gossip and anecdotes, like Ashbery having Mailer’s room after him at Harvard and all the Radcliffe girls coming around to see where “Norman” lived.

I’m definitely going to meet a number of the mucky-mucks in the world of literature and publishing; the theme of the conference is whether those two worlds can, or should, or do, coexist.

Anyway, I tried to be the one to raise the questions of budgeting and to make sure that they, in their enthusiasm – which at times struck me as childish – don’t spend too much. They’re going to make all the phone calls to the writers and editors; the only person I have to call to invite is Leonard Randolph, head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yesterday, after going to see Dr. Gittell, I went to the Alumni Office to pick up a new batch of Class Notes to be typed. After dinner, I typed them all, and then, in a burst of energy, I finished my story “The Man Who Gave Away Millions.”

It’s pretty good, I think; of course, it’s still too soon to tell. This week I’ve gotten several rejections, but now that I think about it, they were pretty stupid magazines in the first place and I probably don’t need to be so desperate for publication credits at this point.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a new story come out. I wrote letters to five magazines which said they’d be out long before now to see if they’re ever going to come out. I’m afraid some of my acceptances will never actually appear in print.

But what I want to do now is concentrate on the more prestigious and hard-to-crack literary magazines, like Chicago Review, Epoch, Carolina Quarterly, Antaeus, Paris Review and TriQuarterly. I’m going to write as much as I can over the next few months, but from now on, the emphasis will be on quality rather than quantity.

At The Floridian the other night, Davey talked to me about “the theory of positive addiction.” He claims that if you do something, like run or write, for at least half an hour for six months, then you will become addicted to this activity.

Yesterday Alice called me from work: Judsen’s leaving Seventeen, and that means Alice may be named co-editor of Mini-Mag with Hilary. Alice is scared of the responsibility, but as Andreas told her, “You can’t go back to Vanderveer now.”

I ran into Marie briefly while we were stopped at a red light together; she said she still hasn’t found a job yet, and it’s been a long time.

Today my check arrived from LIU, just in time to avoid my having to borrow money from Dad to tide me over.

Looking at the films of Carter’s inauguration, “the people’s inauguration” (with no protests), I felt very hopeful. Ford went out like a gentleman; everyone, including Carter, agrees that Ford restored trust to a presidency tarnished by Nixon and Watergate.

Carter’s walking in the parade was a nice touch, and last night’s gala was very entertaining. After eight years, we finally have a Democratic administration; we’ll see if it makes a difference.

It warmed up to 35° today.

Sunday, January 23, 1977

4 PM. I’ve just come from a poetry and fiction reading in Soho.

I couldn’t find parking in the Village, where I wanted to eat, so I had to settle for lunch at the 125 Prince Street Bar and Restaurant. At first I felt uncomfortable in such a Soho-y, brunchy, trendy place, but then I realized I didn’t have to bestir myself.

A good man is comfortable within himself and takes that level of comfort with him wherever he goes. So, I figured, let the 125 Prince Street Bar and Restaurant adjust themselves to me.

I can’t stand so much of what I see in the Soho/Atlantic Avenue/loft/Frye boots/hanging plants in wicker baskets/posh art gallery/homemade bread/
three earrings in each ear/caftan scene. The other day at Jack Gelber’s house, John Ashbery said, “Well, doesn’t everybody read the Soho Weekly News?” I don’t, sir.

In a way, these people are more despicable than hardhats/ethnics/bourgeoisie because they claim to be the rebels, the counterculture, the trailblazers – yet they end up looking as alike as the roller-headed housewives at Key Food here on Avenue N.

Look past the outer wrappings and you’ll find that most people are sheep. They read what the New York Review of Books tells them to read; they buy what New York magazine tells them to buy; they eat where the Village Voice tells them to eat; they watched the cable TV station pumped into their tastefully-decorated apartments.

And the people – my God, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I could carve better people out of bananas. Yet these are our tastemakers, the intelligent and aware portion of our population, the part the arts depend on to survive.

You can forgive Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow in Canarsie because they don’t know any better, but from Soho people, one should expect a lot more. As I looked around the Anthology Film Archives, I looked at these people: they look exactly like one another to me: limp, casual, bland, disdainful, asexual . . .

Perhaps I am not the right person to point this out. But it seems to me that McDonald’s is preferable to all these Soho joints because at least McDonald’s doesn’t pretend to be anything but plastic. And curiously, there’s more energy in a fast-food franchise than in any of these intimate and expensive sidewalk cafés and bars.

I suppose I’m being cranky, but my goodness – now there’s an expression for you! – if someone ever did something spontaneous, these people would drop dead. And these are the very people who say they worship spontaneity.

I’m glad I don’t fit in, and heaven help me if I ever get sucked into it. Take the poet who was reading today: Bruce Andrews. His poetry was nothing more than word following unrelated word. Occasionally, the juxtaposition was amusing, but mostly it was a big bore.

Now Walter Abish, the fiction writer who read next: him I spotted in the crowd right away. I had no idea what he looked like, but he was the one guy who didn’t look like everybody else. His face, his body, his manner: it was lived-in rather than inhabited.

And of course his work reflected his originality: he’s very, very good. (He’s mostly with New Directions but is going to be in Statements 2, too.)

Anyway, I’m behaving like a curmudgeon, I suppose: a prickly, raving lunatic. But maybe, I think, that’s why my work isn’t accepted so easily. I’m more original than most fiction writers; most editors don’t know what to make of what I’m doing.

Sure, sometimes – like last night – I begin to wonder if I’m not merely mediocre. But most of the time I have the temerity to think I can be very good.

I don’t want to be a person who reads gossip columns and People magazine, someone who imitates the famous and who talks about the famous. I want to be in the gossip columns and People magazine; I want people talking about me and imitating me.

Last night I had a very flattering dream in which Shelli (now a blonde) wanted to come back to me.

While I was out today, Marc told me, Davey phoned to say that he passed his Comp Lit course and will graduate from Brooklyn College. So at least I’m useful for something.

Perhaps it’s a rationalization, but one reason that I haven’t had a homosexual affair yet is that I don’t seem to meet any gay men who are like Davey.

Tuesday, January 25, 1977

4 PM. Tonight I’m going to go into the city to see Mikey. He has a week off before his term begins at law school, and after next week I’ll be pretty busy, too.

When I called Mikey last night, he said he hadn’t spoken to Mike since Thanksgiving. Mike, too, must be busy with schoolwork, but you’d think he’d have more time for Mikey. Mikey said he’s trying to get Mason to come downtown tonight as well.

I have a bad sinus headache and I feel a little down. Living in this house gets more depressing by the day. Dad knows I’ve lost respect for him, but after he’s totally mismanaged the situation, how could I feel otherwise? I have no confidence in his ability to make it in any business.

Mom says it’s all because he was in business with his father for so many years. I think that if Grandpa Nat were here, Dad would have found a business long ago. If someone could have thought up the worst way to handle the situation last September, Dad’s way of doing things would have been absolute perfection.

Nobody in this house talks to one another, as Dad makes sure that total confusion results. Only yesterday did Marc say he’s not going to Florida because of his new true love, Deanna, who’s become instantly inseparable from Marc – as were Rita, Fern and Bunny in their turn.

Just like Gary, Marc clings to the first girl (I can’t say woman) who comes along; it’s as though he’s afraid to be without a girlfriend.

Now, of course, Dad is put in another frenzy by this bombshell of Marc’s. And Dad can’t let Marc bear the consequences of his decision: no, he’ll take full responsibility for Marc – or try to, at least.

Mom is about go berserk with frustration, and I can’t say I blame her. If you prod Dad, he just runs away, as he did with me on Saturday night when I questioned him about his plans.

If Mom or Jonny or I – and we seem to be the most assertive people in the family – don’t take action separately or jointly, Dad’s waffling is just going to continue. It’s been a month since Dad sat down at the kitchen table and cried that a decision must be reached immediately.

I can see Dad going on this way until spring, if not later. Nothing in the past several months gives me any reason to believe otherwise. And as the days drag on, living in this house becomes worse and worse.

This morning Jon Baumbach called and gave me a list of 25 people who’ve already accepted invitations to appear at the Conference. I’m to compose a letter of confirmation and a request for a bio to be sent to these men and women. Jon and I will meet tomorrow to thrash things out.

In a way, I see Jon sort of like Dad: both of them are dreamers and have trouble functioning with nitty-gritty reality. I don’t know how I ever got to be a pragmatist, but I’m grateful I developed that way.

Sometimes I feel exhausted after I keep trying to show reality to people. Perhaps it’s partly cruelty, my inability to let people live with their illusions. I often think of myself as the messenger bringing the bad tidings; in the end, I get the blame for unpleasant realities. Still, for some reason I have chosen that role for myself.

Today I went to the Fiction Collective office and did my work with the queries and the manuscripts. Over a pleasant lunch at Jentz, Gloria told me that she inadvertently left Seymour Simckes’ name from the roster of members she mailed to everyone, and Seymour wrote her back: “You must be a prophet because I’m resigning from the Fiction Collective.”

There’s no provision for anyone resigning. We’ll still have to handle Seymour’s books and bills and statements, and he’ll be free of any responsibilities. He’s a peculiar, nasty duck. Gloria wrote him back an “Aw, come on” letter.

I think by now Gloria’s pretty much fed up with all the Collective authors and the whole job, but she goes on so valiantly that you’d never suspect it.

Wednesday, January 26, 1977

5 PM. Last night was very pleasant. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, we spent so much time with our friends, talking and going places together and just hanging out.

Now that we’re all out of college and busy – me with my work, Mason with his real estate sales, Libby with her YWCA job, Mikey with law school – hanging out with a bunch of people is a relative rarity.

I picked up Libby at the Y after she called me; she had just come out of the gymnastics class she had taken over because their teacher was absent.

Libby told me her mother loved the card I’d sent her for her birthday, addressed to a “very special person.” Libby says that Mrs. Judson kept showing people what “my Richie sent me.”

After Libby and I drove to Manhattan, we found a space on 24th Street, around the corner from Mikey’s place. Mikey told us Mason would be delayed because he was showing an apartment to a client. So we sat at Mikey’s – a cozy space, one I wouldn’t mind living in – and relaxed for a while.

When Mikey showed me his Contracts exam, he said I probably could have passed it just by using ordinary logic, but it all seemed totally beyond me.

Libby told us that Mason tells his clients the faults of the apartments he shows because he treats each of them like a good friend and can’t bear to think of them getting rooked. So Mason says, “You don’t really need a place this big, do you?” or “You know, this is a pretty small kitchen; I don’t know if you could manage here.”

Mason came in at 7:30 PM, and after realizing that vegetarian Libby couldn’t find anything to eat in the Blarney Stone, we decided to go down to The Bagel, which is a haunt of Mason and Libby’s as well as mine.

It was a bit of a job getting four seats together, but we did it and we had a pleasant meal; Al made sure we were all stuffed with cakes after the main course.

That day Mason had sold an apartment to a CCNY history professor, and the day before he had sold another one. If he can sell an apartment every day, he’ll be doing all right; he told us that he’s getting better at it and it’s pretty interesting although the hours are very long (and they must seem even longer when you don’t get a commission).

Although it was about 35° out, we walked around the Village a bit. Mason said he couldn’t believe how stupid the Karpoffs were in getting favorably excited by the way I depicted them in “Peninsular People”; he was also amazed that Davey managed to pass Comp Lit, even with my help.

I was parked next to the bookstore on Sheridan Square, and I showed them my story in Transatlantic Review, buying Mikey a copy as a belated birthday present; I got a kick out of doing that. Then we drove uptown to Mason’s place on West 85th between Columbus and Amsterdam, gossiping on the way.

Mikey said that tonight he’ll be seeing Larry: “I’m trying to fit in all my friends” before beginning the rigors of another term at law school. He’s got a good lead on a summer job at a firm downtown.

Mikey said that Mike spoke to Debbie in the fall; both Mikey and I would like to see her. I guess each of us was pretty fond of Debbie.

Mason lives with four people, and we met all of them – John, Joe, Katie and some very weird lady. He has a room in the basement of the triplex brownstone; it’s pretty small, as well as messy, but Mason seems happy there. I had trouble making my way down the spiral staircase.

After watching Roots, by 11 PM we were all tired. “Listen to us,” I told Libby and Mikey as we drove downtown, “we sound like old people already.”

We dropped Mikey off and then went into Brooklyn. Because Libby and I were both tired, I decided to come in for only a little while. Libby’s mother was asleep, but Wayne was still up. (Mason told us that earlier today, he’d seen Wayne on the train with a girl who wasn’t Angelina.)

Yesterday, Dad, Mom, Marc and I had a long talk, but I can’t write about it now except to say that it was decided that Florida is definitely out – although the way Dad goes back and forth, who knows what he’ll do next.

Saturday, January 29, 1977

9 PM. I’ve stayed indoors almost all of today, trying to avoid the frigid weather. They say this is a winter we’ll be talking to our grandchildren about, the worst winter of this century in North America.

Buffalo has had over 150 inches of snow; people have frozen to death in the Midwest; supplies can’t get through frozen waterways and some people are in desperate need of food; in Ohio today, the Governor asked people to pray for warmer weather. It was 4° this morning and it hasn’t gotten above 12°. Luckily, New York missed the blizzard that struck a lot of the East.

But the natural gas shortage (not a heating oil shortage, as I had mistakenly written yesterday) is the most immediate problem. We’re trying to conserve energy by keeping the thermostat down to 65°.

In New Jersey, Gov. Byrne has reenacted an old World War II law forbidding thermostats to be set higher than 55°. In New York, all schools and some businesses heated by gas have been shut down, as they have been for days in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Even the Southern states have been hit hard; it was only 10° today in Georgia, and Tennessee has been declared a disaster area. President Carter is considering mandating a shorter work week because of the natural gas shortage.

As for myself, I am astounded that nature can still cause such suffering, even in our super-modern technological world. The cold is depressing because it confines us; still, as long as it doesn’t snow, we’re not too bad off.

But I begin to wonder: Will spring ever come? Will normal winter weather return? After a cold autumn and a horrible winter, what can we expect next? I read about one year, 1816, in which there was no summer at all: it snowed all through June and July. Is such a thing possible today?

The weather has been very peculiar in the last year; there was that very bad heat wave in Europe last summer, and there seem to be more earthquakes than ever before. It all makes our little lives seem so insignificant, these events we call “acts of God.”

I guess I’m feeling pretty low. The comedian, Freddie Prinze, shot himself in the head and died at age 22. My parents say they are shocked: why would a successful young man kill himself? I am not surprised. None of us knows what goes on in anyone else’s head, what torments that other person suffers.

I can’t rule out suicide as a future option, but right now I’m a little too stoic-minded to consider it a “viable alternative.” I suppose the lesson I take out of episodes like the Prinze suicide is the stupidity of owning a gun.

Guns make things too easy when you get out of control; if there had been a gun in this house the last twenty years, I guarantee that one of us would have used it, against another or himself, in one of those terrible “scenes” that occur from time to time.

I accomplished nothing today except making my face look worse. Why can’t I keep my hands from poking and squeezing and picking my face? Maybe I’m afraid to be good-looking because then I’d have to worry about people being attracted to me.

Now I’m pretty good-looking if I let myself be: Les, Brad’s roommate, looked at me as if I were a piece of china and said, “Oh, no doubt about it, he’s a good-looking boy.”

But now I’m too fat, my complexion is awful, I have a double chin, my glasses keep slipping down my nose, and I look vaguely ridiculous. (I just reminded myself to push my glasses up my nose; Ronna used to do that for me all the time when I had my wire-rims.)

I’ve abdicated my responsibility as a physical being, and that’s really a shame, because I could be a very a physical person if I let myself be. But no, I live like an old maid or a fussy bachelor.

I mean, look at me: there’s absolutely nothing sexy about me. I’ve turned myself into a sexless creature, unable to function, unable to be attractive to others. I feel sorry for myself. But that’s not enough.

Can I try to change? Even in a winter like this, there has to be some warmth.

Monday, January 31, 1977

8 PM. I’m bone-tired, but I have to say it’s a not entirely unpleasant feeling. I was up early this morning and at LIU by 9 AM. The full-time faculty were all at Junior’s, voting on the contract.

Beverly and Devra were going around like chickens without their heads because no one had told them how to teach English 12. Abe went in and taught grammar to his English 12 class.

For some reason, my English 10 class was scheduled for the main building on DeKalb Avenue in a dilapidated classroom on the fifth floor. I had to walk outside in the 10° cold and then found that the classroom door was locked.

It was half an hour before someone from Security came to open the door, and then the room was freezing. All I could do was tell the students to pick up the textbook and give them the diagnostic as I collected their class cards.

They’re all new students, all black or Puerto Rican or Indian, and most – according to their diagnostics – are intent on becoming doctors or lawyers despite not knowing how to write a coherent English sentence.

I’m no longer surprised by the poor quality of my students’ writing. The 10 class is a bit too large for my comfort. Of course, my English 12 class at noon was very small: only five students, including my friend Mr. O’Hara, the blind man who was in my English 11 class last term.

I gave them the book list and outlined the course; an administrator came in, taking attendance and making sure that I had showed up. After half an hour, I dismissed them and then found out that the contract had been ratified at Junior’s and the full-time faculty were returning to work.

Margaret was going crazy with all the people who were bothering her with various requests. I went down to the Registrar, who said she’d try to change my English 10 room to the Humanities Building, where all English classes should be held.

One nice thing about today was the warm hellos I got from last term’s students, like Peter Michelson and Juliette Baker. The day was hectic, but I managed to come home without a headache. The real work has not begun yet and already I feel harried. But I suppose things will settle down in a week or two.

English 10 is a lot of busywork, but this will be the third time I’ve taught it and I’ve got the course down pat. English 12 will require the teaching of short stories and teaching the term paper, but I’ve taught it already as well.

When I arrived home, I just knew there was an acceptance in the mailbox, and I was right. Why? Because somehow I felt that I’d be rewarded for keeping busy today, just as I got my second Panache acceptance the day I returned from Christmas vacation.

Richard Burns, the editor of the Nantucket Review, said he’s going to use my “Early Warnings” in his eighth issue, due out fairly soon (most of it is already at the printer’s). He said if he has room, he may use another story. Also, Alex Scandalios of Willmore City said he was holding a story for further consideration.

But I’m very pleased about “Early Warnings”: I wrote it two years ago and it’s been rejected so many times, I almost (underline almost) gave up. It was very personal, all about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and I’m going to be thrilled to see it in print.

Jon called and gave me the final schedule of the Conference, so I can xerox that and put it in the mailing; hopefully, I can get it out by the end of the week. I spent some time working on the mailing; I still need to get some addresses from Jack Gelber.

Alice called; she’s been sick at home with a stomach virus. I told her I was RSVP-ing to her snazzy invitation to her soirée in three weeks, which sounds like it should be fun.

Alice said she hasn’t seen or spoken to Andreas in over a week and is more concerned with Jim now anyway. She wonders why Jim hasn’t phoned, and I said she could call him (yes, she seemed to be asking for my permission).

My limbs ache with weariness and I look forward to getting into bed.