A 25-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late July, 1976


Thursday, July 22, 1976

8 PM. I feel worn out. I’ve been working pretty hard even though I’m enjoying myself. Sometimes I wonder whether my obsession with achievement is counterproductive. I push myself into doing things immediately; I hate my own discipline, as hard as a Marine sergeant’s at boot camp.

But without similar obsessions, would Jimmy Carter have been nominated for President a week ago? Would the athletes be winning their gold medals at the Montreal Olympics? Would we be seeing those awesome pictures of the Martian landscape, taken by cameras on Viking? The answer is implicit in my self-serving questions.

Last evening we managed to make Dad’s 50th birthday a good one. All five of us – including a reluctant Jonathan – went out for a sumptuous dinner at O’Reilley’s Steak House on Church Avenue.

The meal was fantastic, from the delicious chopped steak with fried onions to the vegetables and salad and rosé wine and crème de menthe. We ate with real gusto. I no longer worry about indigestion and so I dug in as heartily as anyone.

Later in the evening we had a cake and balloons and presents, with party favors and a lot of laughter. The strain of the previous evening was not in evidence, and I think Dad enjoyed himself; he knows age is just a state of mind.

But he still has no idea where all the months and years went; sometimes he thinks of events in his childhood happening only last week or even the day before yesterday.

This morning I went into the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines office at 11 AM, parking my car when it became legal (the alternate side rules are 8-11 AM) on Bank Street and Greenwich Avenue and walking up to Eighth Avenue and 14th Street.

I read through over thirty magazines for the college literary magazine contest today, making my way through the remainder of the undergraduate publications. After scouring these things, my main impression as a preliminary judge is of the enormous talent, energy and wit alive among college students.

Some of their literary achievements stunned me with their brilliance, and the “poorer” magazines are generally full of competent work; there are very few dreadful entries. I feel at a loss as a writer to try to compete with creative writers and artists I read; my own work is not that much better than this stuff and in some cases, it’s obviously inferior to these undergraduates’ stories and poems.

The trouble is that I’m afraid many of these resourceful, talented kids will find no outlet in the “real” world, unless they join the ranks of the small press/little magazine people.

Coming home at 4 PM, I typed up a short story, “Triptych,” which I astounded myself by writing last night when I was unable to sleep. A completely instinctive story, I feel it succeeds on its own terms.

I got a rejection from Esquire’s quirky Gordon Lish. He said I should “slow down – relax – take it easy.” That’s what I mean by trying too hard. Perhaps a writer can write too much.

I’ve been keeping in touch with Alice, who still can’t seem to get Jim out of her mind. Obviously he affected her a great deal. Last night Alice was rereading Howie’s old love letters to cheer herself up; luckily, her job is a wonderful tonic for her.

Teresa wrote me from California. She was in New York in June, but her father and grandmother were in the hospital and she went back to Palo Alto soon after they got better. She’s on unemployment now and feels a little out of it and is thinking of going back to school.

I wrote Peggy Humphreys in New Mexico and sent her copies of my published stories.

Sunday, July 25, 1976

8 PM. “Today is always the present; it is sometimes the future; it is very often the past.” That’s the opening sentence of a story. I don’t have the story to go with it yet. I feel somewhat guilty about goofing off this weekend and not doing any writing. I have ideas; however, ideas not carried out remain only in one’s head.

Right now I’m more interested in a couple of things. One is “A Conventional Life,” my impressions of the Democratic conventions of 1968, 1972 and 1976, weaving my personal journey into the political climate of the times.

I’m afraid most of my writing is terribly self-indulgent. But if I can make my particular situation part of a larger whole, maybe this piece won’t be so narcissistic.

I have a title for another story – “The Joe Colletti Fan Club, Joe Colletti, President” – but no story. And something else I’d like to do would be a kind of family journal, taking in the events of the lives of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – but I don’t yet have a form in which to place the raw material.

I’ve also been thinking of using the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, the 36 saints who live in secret, always there to protect the Jewish people. I have a sense of myself writing in a distinctively Jewish-American tradition.

Last evening I went to have dinner at the counter of the Ram’s Horn, as I had dinner the night before at the Charcoal Chef. I love eating dinner alone at the counter of diners; it gives me a feeling of independence, a chance to think.

Then I went over to visit Grandpa Herb. Grandma Ethel was out playing cards, so the two of us sat on the terrace for hours, watching the beach and watching day turn into night, as Grandpa Herb told me tales of the past.

I never tire of his stories, and there always seem to be new ones: about his Brownsville childhood, about his Army years in Manila, about his father and mother, who have nearly become mythical figures to me.

I’d always known that Grandma Ethel became very ill after Marty was born, hemorrhaging after the Caesarean delivery. Her mind became unbalanced, Grandpa Herb said, and one day the doctor called him to Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, where she was.

To get there, Grandpa Herb went to the bus stop outside the psycho ward of Kings County Hospital on Clarkson and Troy, and while he stood waiting for the bus, he had a funny feeling, a premonition he’d be coming back there.

When he met the doctor, the man told Grandpa that Grandma Ethel had attempted to strangle him while he was examining her. She’d grabbed his necktie and the doctor was choking; Grandma’s grip was so strong that a nurse had to cut the necktie with scissors.

The doctor advised Grandpa Herb to put Grandma Ethel in the psycho ward at Kings County, saying that she was too violent to be anywhere else. They took her there in a strait jacket.

For weeks she stayed there, and whenever Grandpa came, she begged him to take her out of the “crazy house,” where terrible things occurred.

At this time Bubbe Ita was taking care of the infant Marty, and Grandpa’s father advised him to “break up” his house and move in with them, letting Grandma come to stay.

When she got out of the mental hospital, Grandpa slept alongside Grandma with a cord tied around each other’s legs, so he could tell if she moved during the night.

She never did anything violent again, “but she had a strange, wild look in her eyes” and Mom was terrified of her. (This trauma might go a long way in explaining Mom’s neuroses.)

Grandma Ethel would only look at baby Marty from a distance, but gradually she began to take an interest in things.

She started to help Bubbe – Grandpa Herb said that his mother was the person in the world whom Grandma loved the most – and finally, one day, she looked out the window and saw that the hired nurse had Marty outside under-dressed, and she went out to take care of him. From then on, she accepted him.

A very strange story. I can’t picture saintly Grandma Ethel being violently insane. Grandpa Herb claims it was from lack of blood, the hemorrhaging at the Caesarean.

Today I sat in the sun, read, and got numerous rejections in the mail. Then I sent out the rejected stories again.

Monday, July 26, 1976

7 PM. Alice came over late yesterday; Andreas is on another trip to Europe, so she had the evening free. Jim never responded to her letter, not even to acknowledge it, so Alice is gamely trying to put him behind her.

She seems totally happy with her job at Seventeen. Alice and her boss, Annette Grant, whom she says is “a living doll,” went to see Saturday Night Live together and they had a good time.

Last evening Alice and I decided to see a trashy movie and we went to Georgetowne to see Lifeguard, which was only good for looking at bodies and laughing at the stilted, predictable dialogue.

I went to bed at 10 PM so I could wake up early and get to the bank to withdraw a little money; I’m badly in need of the $150 check from CCLM that should forestall compete bankruptcy for a while.

After that, I went to Brooklyn College, to get the $6 check from Felicia Weinberg that I needed to have Junction copyrighted.

I also xeroxed copies of the Time magazine coverage of the ’68 and ’72 Democratic conventions, to refresh my memory for “A Conventional Life.” I’ve got to be careful not to load it down with news items; I want it to be my impressions (and that’s why I don’t intend to reread the journalism of Mailer or anyone like him).

This morning about fifteen phone calls arrived for Marc, from the sleaziest, rudest, stoned-sounding people. I have a feeling Marc is heavily into some kind of illegal activity, most probably selling drugs.

I just hope he sticks to dealing in the soft stuff. The characters he’s associating with are like the scum of the earth; they’re so coarse and repulsive. Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel were over today, and Grandpa Herb must know something, for he said obliquely that he hopes Marc “isn’t making a big mistake.”

Marc has always had this idea that you can get something for nothing; he believes in making a fast buck without hard work, and that can only lead to trouble. However, Mom and Dad don’t seem overly concerned.

It’s none of my business anyway.

I went to CCLM this afternoon and handed in my final report to Jane. She took me in to meet Eleanor Shakin, the executive director, and we discussed various ideas to make the college literary magazine contest more meaningful.

Eleanor left us to take a call from CCLM chairman Ron Sukenick, who later asked to speak with me. On the phone, I told Ron that the Fiction Collective office move was up in the air and we discussed the state of various circulating manuscripts and the reviews Jon’s Babble has received.

Ron seemed concerned that George Chambers may not want his novel published with us after all, because of the cost. Evidently Ron and George are friends. (I wonder if that came about before or after Ron reviewed George’s Bonnyclabber so favorably in the Times Book Review.)

Julie and Jane told me to drop by the CCLM office any time to browse around in their library with its hundreds of magazines.

I received so many form rejection notices today, it was very disheartening.

Tonight at dinner Dad told me he may need me to help him clear out the office this week; he brought home a lot of stationery for me.

Dad sarcastically said he went to see his “brother” tonight; Lennie says he thinks of Dad as his brother. When he got home Dad said that Lennie introduced him to his latest “protégé,” whom he’s taking to The Raleigh next week.

Lennie is a “mentor” to all these cute young kids; except for Mom and Dad and maybe George Gilbert and Totie Fields, he has no friends his own age. I guess he can afford to buy the love or whatever of handsome under-educated young men.

I’ve wanted to write a story about Lennie for years, but I don’t because it would upset Mom and Dad.

Friday, July 30, 1976

3 PM. I haven’t come out of this blue funk yet, but at least I’ve stabilized myself. This week I’ve been bombarded with multiple rejection slips daily, and this has made me question my ability as a writer.

I’m not working now; I’m not involved in an intimate relationship; I’m no longer a student. So, without my work as a writer, I have no real purpose for living. A sense of purpose is an important thing.

It’s a dark, humid Friday afternoon and I don’t know what’s ahead of me. Tomorrow I will complete seven full years of keeping this diary or journal or whatever it is. They say that every seven years, all the cells in a human body are completely renewed. So I assume that by tomorrow, no cells will be part of me that existed on August 1, 1969, when I started penning these scandalous notes to myself.

So . . . Am I a completely different person from the 18-year-old boy who was preparing to enter college and reenter the world in the summer of 1969? It’s not for me to say. In a sense, though, I had a more secure future then, but of course I had no idea of that at the time.

Well, I’m still writing, and that’s the important thing.

Last night I turned out a five-page story called “Affirmative Action,” incorporating some of the stories Grandpa Herb’s been telling me about the family. Despite all the rejections, I still believe in what I’m doing.

I remember two quotes. One, by Carl R. Rogers: “Evaluation by others is not a guide for me.” The other, by somebody else: “Only those who dare to fail greatly ever succeed greatly.” I don’t mind taking risks, and that’s the important thing.

The Iowa Review rejected “The Peacock Room” for being too long; before, they said my stories were too short. Today I mailed them a bunch of in-between stories, and maybe they’ll accept one of those.

I think “The Peacock Room” is a good story, but I’ve run out of markets for it; its length works against it. So I’ll let it percolate in my drawer and wait until I’m famous and I’m being asked to contribute everywhere.

Look: I can’t be doing that badly. This was a terrible week and I still managed to write one third of a memoir and two mediocre-to-good stories. I’ll make it. (Is this a pep talk or the real thing?)

This morning I ran into Elayne at the Junction, so we went into Sugar Bowl for drinks. She’s doing fine, and while I was there, one of her black beaux came up to her, so I left discreetly, saying, “My meter’s expiring and Waldbaum’s is having a sale on orange juice.”

After doing some shopping for Mom, I came home and had lunch, going out again this afternoon to run errands for Mom.

Mr. Fabrikant finally phoned me back; he’s the man in charge of this agency that services senior citizens and former mental patients. I called him the other day in hopes of landing a job I saw advertised at the Brooklyn College Placement Office.

We have an interview tomorrow. I don’t want to get my hopes up; if I don’t get the job, it will be through no fault of my own, but I’m going to do my best to get this job.

Anyway, I’ve become a fatalist about these sorts of things. It’s just the idea that things come out of the blue that can lead to new horizons. Of course, what I must remember is all this did not come out of the blue; it was my action (affirmative?) which led to Mr. Fabrikant’s call.

Saturday, July 31, 1976

8 PM. I feel somewhat more at ease now that I have a job. It’s good to know that, starting Monday, I’ll be working again. I don’t know if I’m going to like this job, but it shouldn’t be too bad; and when it is, I’ll just have to remember how much worse it is not to be working at all.

It was a good feeling to get up at 7 AM, crazy as that sounds coming from a sleepyhead like me. But sleep is so much more precious when it’s going to be interrupted for work. Today I felt like I used to when I taught early mornings at LIU.

I was at New Haven Manor in Far Rockaway before 10 AM. Mr. Fabrikant was not there yet, so I sat down and waited. The lobby was filled with refugees from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; it was obvious that everyone there was mentally disturbed.

They sat talking to themselves (one woman asked me: “What are you sitting like that for? Are you laying a goddamn egg?”) or walking around wild-eyed or crying softly in a fetal position.

It was kind of strange, and I felt a bit uncomfortable, but then I realized that mental health, like everything else, is only a matter of degrees, and these people were only just somewhat more disturbed than I.

After a while, I felt pretty relaxed.

Finally, Mr. Fabrikant came and took me into the medical office. I had to lie and tell him I was still an undergraduate to get the job, but hopefully there’ll be no reason for my college status to come up once I begin work. I handled myself pretty well, and Mr. Fabrikant, a fiftyish accountant with a very nice smile, seemed to like me.

The job is fraught with details; it’s pretty complicated to explain, but here goes: Mr. Fabrikant owned several medical centers and came up with the idea of having doctors work for him in various adult homes: either senior citizens’ residences or places where people recovering from nervous breakdowns who are supposedly cured stay.

The doctors come in, and my job is, first of all, to see that the patients get in to see the doctor; then I’ll be in charge of making sure all the paperwork is done. There are Medicaid and Medicare forms to be filled out, and if the doctor orders tests – an EKG or a chest x-ray, say – or feels a visit to a specialist is in order, it’s my job to see that the patient gets the treatment.

I’ll have to drive patients to the medical center once a week or so, and I’ll make all their appointments for them. Right now the company, Professional Services, is the only one of its kind; Mr. Fabrikant has fourteen doctors working for him and has at present eight or nine accounts.

On Monday I’ll be going to Rockaway Manor and then Far Rockaway Manor, whose residents are wealthy senior citizens. A good part of the job, Mr. Fabrikant said, is personal rapport with these people, who can get very testy at times.

But he thinks I’ll eventually be able to master all the procedural stuff with ease and then it won’t be very difficult. So I’ll come in on Monday afternoon to start learning the ropes; Mr. Fabrikant, his son Frankie and Frankie’s girlfriend Lisa will help me out.

Back in Brooklyn, I deposited my desperately-needed $150 check from CCLM in the bank and bought a spanking-new white lab coat which I can’t wait to wear; I’ll be taking people’s blood pressure.

Last evening I had dinner at the Floridian, got diarrhea, and started reading The Twenties, Edmund Wilson’s diary of notebook excerpts from that decade.

If there was one literary figure I’d always wanted to pattern myself after, it was Edmund Wilson. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I don’t want people reading these diaries after I’m dead. In the recent entries – oh, for the last two years or so – I’ve sometimes been conscious of “playing to the galleries” or “recording for posterity.” And that’s bad – very, very bad.