A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early January, 1978


Monday, January 2, 1978

9 PM. May I say a good word for reading? I tried to make these points in my story “Inside Barbara Walters,” but as usual, I’m afraid, I only created a muddle.

Here I will say it clearly: Reading is the greatest gift we have in gaining knowledge – and perhaps pleasure, too. But it is becoming a lost art. A Census Bureau survey shows that 20% of Americans are functionally illiterate. No doubt this will get worse.

Seven New York City high school principals have been fired for functional illiteracy. The Post has samples of their writing; they made all the common mistakes of my LIU students: putting apostrophes in plurals, leaving off the “d” in the passive voice or past tense when “to” follows (“he’s suppose to”), making errors in agreement, comma splices, run-ons. I can’t understand why so few people seem outraged by this.

I’ve just finished Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, a novel that was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. (Of course, I have to admit that I was brought to it by the BBC television serial.)

Reading the book was a joy and an obsession that spilled over into my dreams. After putting it down, I went to my one-volume encyclopedia and read the entries for all the early Roman emperors and for the Empire itself.

I’m ashamed to admit that I knew almost nothing about either the Roman Republic or the Empire. Even now, Cicero, Pompey, Livy and Cato are just vaguely familiar names to me. And yet I’m supposed to be an educated person!

Oh, sure, I can tell you who Gregg Allman and John Travolta and Lily Tomlin and Billy Carter and Rod Stewart are – in great detail. But of what value is that? In a decade or two, they’ll all be footnotes to social history.

But (why is it I tend to overdo the but’s when I get exercised?) I cannot tell you when St. Thomas Aquinas lived or what Rousseau wrote or who St. Peter was. That makes me angry – so angry that I just interrupted writing this diary entry to dash off an outraged letter to the editor of the Times, much like a doddering old Londoner in a Victorian novel.

As I wrote in that letter, what scares me is that I, in my abject ignorance, am taken for an educated person. But perhaps if I studied the matter, I’d find that the terms educated and ignorant are not necessarily contradictory.

Boy, he do carry on, don’t he, though?

I have an infection on my chin; it is green and magenta and unsightly, and I can thank myself for it. Yes, folks, it’s another self-induced blemish brought to myself by Richard Grayson, the guy who can’t bear to leave even the smallest pimple unsqueezed, untortured, and un-played with?

This morning I shoveled the couple of inches of snow that fell during the night. Then, knowing I could not endure a third day in a full house, I skidded off to Manhattan, making great progress up Third Avenue and finding a parking space right on 57th Street across from the Sutton Theater, where Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety had just opened.

I waited in line in the cold for thirty minutes, people-watching; then, armed with buttered popcorn, I giggled my way through the funny film. It had been a long time since I’d treated myself to a noon showing in Manhattan, and it was good to do it again.

I even had lunch at Junior’s as I used to (the gods were with me: I found a meter on Flatbush Avenue right by the restaurant’s entrance). Then I came home, watched one soap opera (a pleasure in moderation), exercised and read.

Today I did not write, and that’s fine. I think I can avoid the January blahs this year if I work at it. The key is keeping busy and keeping away Voltaire’s “three great evils”: boredom, worry and vice. And it wouldn’t hurt if I stopped mutilating my face.

Oh, to be exiled in some huge library!

Wednesday, January 4, 1978

7 PM and I’m in fine fettle: no anxiety attacks or signs that I’m imminently going bananas. Yesterday was the storm before the calm. Last night I had a very pleasant evening with old friends; today I taught my classes and wrote a story and behaved very decently to those around me. So there.

It was odd today, going back to LIU – Margaret said the weather in Britain over the holidays was balmy – but I managed. Friday is the final, and it’s all made up, and hopefully by early next week I can get the marks in. Then I think I’ll pay a visit to the unemployment office and try not to go insane.

Yesterday at 4 PM, I went over to Shelli’s. She’s quite heavy again, but her face is still very beautiful and she dresses well.

Her father remembered me (and wondered how my hair got so dark); he’s very subdued, of course, but he’s off medication now, and Shelli says this is the best she’s seen him in years.

Shelli drove us into Chinatown – although I kid her, she drives quite nicely – where we met Mark and Consuelo at their favorite restaurant, Ko Shing, on Division Street.

Mark and Consuelo look the same, and it was good to see them again. Last August they moved to their new house, but Consuelo isn’t happy with it; Mark’s been doing a lot of work, but much remains to be done, and they had trouble with their tenants (which is what happens when you rent to hippies).

During dinner, we talked about many things. Shelli and Mark are both into TV, so there was a big debate about that; Consuelo and I, as teachers, scorned its influence on the young but admitted we were addicts, too.

After we stuffed ourselves on Chinese food – all of us can pack it away – we drove separately to the Village.

On the way there, Shelli and I talked about our relationship and how childish and lovely it was: a necessary step in our development. She’s glad that we can be friends now.

After asking me about news of Ivan, she confirmed my suspicion that she had an affair with him. “It was short and so very nice,” she said, “but it was a mistake.”

It practically destroyed their friendship because Ivan treated her differently afterward – out of guilt and “his usual callousness with women.” Shelli told me something funny (although not very): Ivan told her she makes growling noises in bed. I think she was surprised when I said I didn’t recall her doing that.

After being obsessed with Ivan as some kind of paragon for years, I now have to wonder why I thought he was special.

Shelli says he was special, but that having money and good looks hindered him because he never had to cultivate his personality or intellect to attract women and friends, so he ended up “a fairly dull person, staying in his house, getting stoned and getting laid.”

It makes me a little sad to think of Shelli and Ivan together. I wonder if they were unconsciously acting out a fantasy: you know, the opposite ends of Ronna and me, so to speak.

Shelli said Ivan still cares for Ronna, though that’s one thing I’ve never doubted. But after all, it was me, not Ivan, who Ronna saw when she came back to the city.

As for Jerry, he and Shelli are still friends, though not very close anymore. “He always acts the screaming queen with my lovers,” she said, “making passes at them.”

Shelli married Jerry, she admits, to get out of her parents’ house: “It was never a great a love story anyway.”

“But you were crazy about each other!” I said, remembering how much they hurt me in the fall of 1971.

“Were we?” she asked. “I don’t remember.”

It’s funny: at least I used to think my suffering was part of their grand passion; now my own experience getting dumped somehow seems trivialized.

Shelli said that Leon no longer commands an army of followers but will never accomplish anything because “he won’t take shit from anyone.” Like Josh, Leon is so principled that he’s self-destructive, which is why a brilliant person like him works just as a secretary.

At David’s Potbelly Stove Café on Christopher Street, Mark, Consuelo, Shelli and I gorged ourselves on ice cream and lingered until very late.

Back in Brooklyn, Shelli invited me for tea, and her mother was glad to see me, and after all these years, I was glad to see her, too. We had a nice chat and I wished her good times in Madison and kissed her goodnight: I went for her chin and she put her lips in there instead.

Thursday, January 5, 1978

4 PM. Up and down like a yo-yo go my moods. Yesterday I was flying high after having written whet I thought was a clever story based on this Ronna/Ivan/Shelli business. I worked like a demon and felt very satisfied with myself. But several things have taken the wind out of my sales.

One thing was a telephone conversation I had with Alice. She’s really hot to move to Manhattan now, and I think that move symbolizes the beginning of the end of our twenty-year friendship. Alice is moving totally into the glamorous world of slick publishing.

On Monday I asked Alice if she wanted to go with me to the movies, but she had work to do. She wrote two freelance articles that night, both of which she sold – to the Trib, which is coming out next week, and to US – for $200 and $350 respectively.

Three hundred and fifty dollars for an hour’s work writing 750 words about the interior décor of Helen Gurley Brown’s office! And the other story was an easy-to-write interview with a woman who helps people get organized.

All Alice’s topics are so trivial. I don’t mean to sound jealous, but it’s hard not to be. My writing comes out of my gut, and I make up what I write about, and I’m lucky if I get three contributors’ copies.

Alice says she loves going to lunch with various people, and to parties: “It sounds pretentious, but I think it really gets you ‘up’ to do quality work.”

And she isn’t at all impressed with herself: “Some people I know won’t take less than $1,000 an article.”

Denis Hamill and Michael Daly are award-winning writers whose work appears every week in the Village Voice and other places; both came out of Courier-Life and both are around my age. Of course, Denis is Pete Hamill’s brother and Michael is Jimmy Breslin’s godson, but they’re good writers; they have to be good.

Last night I bought Bookviews, and I see two photos accompanying reviews of books by writers younger than myself: Rafael Yglesias, who at 23 has published three novels, and Maria Katzenbach, who wrote her first novel after graduating college in 1976.

Again, Yglesias’s father and mother are both respected novelists, and Katzenbach is the daughter of the former Attorney General, but again, they’ve got to be good writers to cash in on their connections.

Today, reading the AWP Newsletter, I saw that Suzanne Hudson, a University of South Alabama student whom I once wrote to, complimenting her on her first story in New Writers, won the $5,000 (!) first prize in the Penthouse New Writers Contest. And she had no connections at all!

This begins to make me think I just don’t “have it.” How do I avoid becoming bitter when it is so obvious that society does not value what I do?

Another article in Bookviews on first novelists (including Andree Connors) said that most of them – aside from the awful pop bestseller guy – are living marginally.

And a Time article on last week’s MLA Convention stated that the abysmal job prospects for Ph.D.’s are getting worse and will just get even more terrible in the next decade. Of course, while this is going on, fat-cat tenured professors, weary of teaching undergraduate courses, push more Ph.D. programs every year, training people for positions that don’t exist.

The only solution is to bomb next year’s MLA convention and kill off a whole immovable tenured generation to make room for some fresh blood. (That might be a great idea for a story, and it would also get out my hostilities constructively.)

It’s all wrong: American values. I find myself agreeing with my European friends Avis and Helmut that America is a “sick” society. Perhaps I can even sympathize with the West German radicals who attack their country’s carbon-copy America-style self-satisfied materialism.

Bring back the 1960s! I have to laugh – because otherwise I will become very, very bitter.

Sunday, January 8, 1978

4 PM. So far it’s been a very relaxed kind of Sunday. It’s been raining, but the temperatures are very mild for January. The next month or so is usually the worst part of the winter – last year, it was pure hell – but perhaps 1978 will be more lamblike than leonine.

Yesterday Josh called and talked about his job driving an oil truck. I almost envy him. The work is backbreaking, and Josh says he will not do it next year, but it has its compensations.

This week, when Josh joins the Teamsters, he’ll be making $325 a week and getting every conceivable benefit. Josh is getting used to the hours – 6:30 AM to 4:30 PM – and he’s really getting in shape because of all the exercise.

And in another ten weeks or so, he’ll be laid off and will be able to collect $115 a week in unemployment benefits. In the spring, he can devote his time to finding a job in advertising or elsewhere and know he won’t be on the edge of poverty.

Last night, after Marc, Deanna and our parents came home, we had our usual birthday cake. I gave Marc $10; when Jonny gave him $25, I said, “That’s overdoing it, I think.” Mom and Dad gave him $50.

As we ate our ice cream cake, Marc, Mom and Dad cracked up as they recounted an incident earlier in the evening:

When they pulled up to Peter Luger’s, the parking lot attendant, an old man in a parka, offered his hand to help Deanna out of the back seat of the car. She promptly shook it, saying, “How do you do?” and got out by herself, leaving him bewildered.

“I thought he was the restaurant owner,” Deanna told me, causing Dad and Marc to double up with laughter.

Sometimes I think Deanna is putting one over on all of us. She can’t be that naïve and simple-minded. Probably she’s chosen to present herself to the world as a scatterbrain to get people to like her more. It’s a useful defense strategy because it causes others to speak freely in front of Deanna, treating her as if she’s a child or a fool, and she takes it all in.

I managed to grade all of the 10 AM class’s finals, and I gave them final marks. I’m much too generous; most of them got B’s and quite a few B+’s. They don’t deserve those marks, and it’s not really fair to them to make them think they’re that bright when they’re not.

Most of them will never take another English course and consequently will graduate LIU without ever learning to write effectively. Next term, I’d rather teach a remedial course; at least there I feel I’m doing some good.

Tomorrow is the last day of classes and my make-up finals; I just hope everyone who needs to take the exams will show up. It’s a drag to have to give Incompletes and then give make-up tests later in the next term. I know I’ll have to, though.

I had bad dreams about LIU last night: in one, a student came up to me during the final and said I’d taught him nothing all semester.

Putting on my contact lenses this morning, I was careless and got some soap on one lens. All day my eye has been irritated, and I just hope that I didn’t cause the lens any permanent damage.

Today I drove to Rockaway, and after lunch at the Ram’s Horn Diner, I went to visit Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb, who were a bit peeved at Marc for not thanking them for their birthday gift: a U.S. savings bond, as usual.

This afternoon Mom and Dad went away to see some Yiddish show that will end up boring them because they won’t be able to understand the dialogue.

You know, I really do feel hurt about Caaron. During the night I woke up and vowed not to write her back. However, I probably will, though without much enthusiasm.

What is it about me that turns people off sexually? (Hint: I don’t really want to know the answer.)

Wednesday, January 11, 1978

It’s 5 PM and the sun hasn’t quite set yet. Even today, when the temperature is in the 20°s, I think I can see spring coming – maybe because I long for it so. I don’t really mind the cold as long as it is bright and sunny like today.

Yes, I’m bored, and I knew I’d be bored. Last night I had a lot of good ideas, but they all evaporated in the daylight.

Last evening I watched an Edwin Newman NBC News special on hype: the bombastic overselling of music, books, celebrities, movies, etc. I have terrible conflicts relating to success.

In one way, I want it all, the pop success: celebrity, People magazine covers, millions, TV talk shows, mentions in Liz Smith’s column, the parties, the whole household-word bit.

Yet I also know how stupid and meaningless this is, and I long for the succès d’estime, to be known by the intelligent few, to be comfortable, moderately successful and secure in the knowledge that my work will last after the trash disappears.

And all the while I know that neither kind of success will make me happy. As I envision a story of mine in The New Yorker, I become not thrilled but dissatisfied. Isn’t it always going to be that way? Probably. Then why do I strive? I don’t know. It’s better than just hanging around. Sometimes it’s fun.

Going over my diary entries for the past couple of years, I was surprised how much space I devote to writing. Even two years ago, it seemed as if I was always writing, thinking up ideas, sending out stories, reading.

It makes me feel strange to read about stories in their earliest planning stages: stories that have since been published.

I read of my despair in March 1976, when an editor told me “Rosh Hashona” and “Bridge Beyond” were far too diffuse, personal and solipsistic to ever appeal to anyone; he suggested I try to write third-person “straight” narrative.

I’m glad I didn’t stay depressed very long and that I didn’t listen to him. When Carl R. Rogers said, “Evaluation by others is not a guide of me,” he has to be taken on faith. But it’s so hard.

Today I did some vague writing and a lot of reading. I feel I have nothing to write about. I hate being empty. I am tired of hearing my mother’s voice, and my father’s, and my brothers’.

I am tired of New York City and cottage cheese and soap operas and the Village Voice and my contact lenses and my room and all books and all people and just about everything.

I wrote to the University of Miami about their Doctor of Arts program in English. I figure if I can get a teaching fellowship, it might be worth it. At this point I can’t rule out anything.

Sun & Moon #4 arrived today. My “Clumsy Story” is scheduled for their next issue, but it was accepted two years ago and I’m really impatient to see it in print.

In the afternoon I drove out to Old Montefiore Cemetery and tramped around the Chashwater Young plots in the cold, looking for new clues among the Shapiros, Rosenbergs, Katzes and other families from the same town who may be related: the Sirotas, Shermans, Friedmans, Uhrmans (they were guests at my parents’ wedding but no one remembers who they are).

I took down some names and dates for my notebook. Anyway, my cemetery jaunt got me out of the house for a while.

Dad hired a salesman to cover Queens and Nassau, while Marc is going to take over Dad’s customers in Brooklyn. Jimmy is such a nervous guy, he makes Dad seem like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi by comparison. I hope their business is successful.

Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if Dad had gone on being as successful as he was with Art Pants and The Pants Set, when the family seemed to have all the money we ever needed. But that speculation is a waste of time.