A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early November, 1977


Tuesday, November 1, 1977

7 PM. November already. The weather is mild, but even so, one must wear a leather jacket.

Last night Shelli called, and I was really touched by the gesture. I had sent her a copy of the published version of “Understanding Human Sexual Inadequacy,” about our silly, idyllic summer of 1971, when it seemed we did nothing but make love and fight.

She said the story cheered her up, and I’m glad. “Wasn’t innocence wonderful?” was her comment on the story, and I suppose, on our relationship. With the passage of time, it now seems like were just childhood sweethearts.

There was no grand adult passion there, nor a mature, healthy relationship – but it was very intense first-time adolescent love. Despite – or maybe because of – the sex, it was very innocent.

Shelli told me she’s very involved in running a cable TV show with two other people and a cast of dozens; sort of a Madison version of Saturday Night Live, it will air after the new year.

She said she bombed out on the English part of the GREs: “You were right. I couldn’t cram ten years of reading into one week.” She won’t graduate until next June and says she’s in no hurry to join “the real world.”

Shelli said if she comes in, she’ll give me a call. After all these years, it’s finally happened: we are friends.

George Myers sent me a letter and on the outside envelope, he wrote, “Announcing: The Complete Works of Ronna Kaplan [sic].” I had told George about Ronna and that she lives in Middletown near him in Harrisburg.

George and I are getting to be friends. His wife just moved out on him, and that must be rough. He spent a lot of time in Nairobi and is a darn good writer. George wrote that he’s sorry he missed me at the Book Fair and called me one of his “favorite living fiction writers,” which I’m sure is an exaggeration – but a flattering one, nonetheless.

This afternoon Teresa phoned from the Wall Street Journal office. It seems she got a transatlantic phone call from Avis at 5 AM (it must have been midday in Bremen). Avis told her that her friend Monika was coming to New York for a week – and staying at Teresa’s apartment!

Needless to say, Teresa was not thrilled. Don, who’s been more in than out lately now that his son’s illness is over, didn’t relish the thought of sharing the apartment with a stranger from Germany. Saying he had “great faith in Richie’s capabilities,” Don told Teresa to call me, apparently thinking I could do something.

Teresa and I agreed that Avis thinks it’s still 1967, not 1977. (Libby, going to her Oregon commune, is the same way.) We – Teresa and I, as well as most others – no longer share the “hippie hospitality” philosophy.

I suggested Monika stay at the Judsons’ house, but when I called, Libby’s mother said she was working very late tonight. Finally, late this afternoon, Teresa said that an upstairs neighbor who has lived in Europe and speaks German would take Monika in.

Meanwhile, Teresa and I made a dinner date for Friday night, when Don visits his family, and maybe then I’ll get to meet Avis’s friend.

It seems Avis’s grandmother died in the Florida nursing home, so her parents didn’t get to go to London this past weekend.

Teresa told me that Avis is having an affair with Mick, that British punk rock fan Avis wrote me about.

I knew they were spending a lot of time with each other, and I’m not surprised that they ended up sleeping together.

Since the summer, Avis has been getting tired of being with Helmut, who, for his part, seems to be amenable to her new relationship; at least Teresa says that Mick is living with them now. (I don’t think they’re in the same apartment, but I know Heinz already shares their kitchen facilities.)

I must write Avis right away; I’ve owed her a letter for a long time.

Marc is restless on his crutches now and really wants to go to work. I see Marc in a better light now, maybe because Grandma Ethel told me that Marc always tells her and Grandpa Herb how brilliant I am.

Jonny and I are getting along much better, too. I was wrong about him: he’s not as neurotic as I thought he was, and he’s a lot smarter, too.

Great-Uncle Harry had a slight stroke. I guess you never know.

Wednesday, November 2, 1977

It’s almost midnight and it’s been a long day. But I have nothing to do tomorrow and I can sleep late.

At 7 PM, I received a call: “This is Monika, Avis’s friend from Germany. I try to call Teresa but she is not home. I am at Kennedy International Airport.”

I yelled at her to stay where she was and I’d pick her up. The reason I yelled was that silly instinct you have that if you speak loudly enough, even a foreign language speaker will understand every word you say.

I rode out to Kennedy and found her immediately; she had told me she was “large,” and I guess she meant “tall,” for she certainly wasn’t fat. She has fiery red hair and kind of spinsterish glasses.

After we shook hands, I told her I’d try to call Teresa, who, luckily for me, had just that minute walked in the door; otherwise, I would have had to bring Monika here.

Teresa went up to her friend from upstairs and promised to do her laundry for a week if she’d put Monika up. Meanwhile, Don walked in – this was all while I was hanging on the phone – and was not thrilled with the news.

But Teresa said I should bring Monika uptown. It was a long ride, and we conversed a bit on the way. Monika had two years of English in school and had a British boyfriend for another two years, so she wasn’t too bad to talk with, although I had to think before speaking.

I took her to Manhattan with the LIE and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel so she could get that magnificent view of the city skyline. I tried to explain the best I could about New York, and I pointed out the Empire State Building, Times Square and Lincoln Center as we passed them.

Monika is a barmaid in Bremen. She was born in Cologne and as a teenager moved to Bremen, which she likes very much. She’s an old friend of Helmut’s, and through him, she met Avis. When they came back from America in September, they were filled with such interesting stories that Monika decided she would like to go and see it for herself.

She’s going to stay here a few days and then take a Greyhound bus to California and eventually wind up in Mexico, where her boyfriend is staying. For me, it was a nice excuse to see Teresa and Don again, anyway.

Teresa talked a little too fast for Monika, and I’m afraid she couldn’t quite hide the fact that Monika’s arrival was a bit of a nuisance. We had soft drinks and chatted.

Teresa’s friend Jan, a saint of a young woman who has lived in Germany and is fluent in the language, came down and helped out. Without her, I don’t know what we would have done.

Certainly Teresa is very annoyed with Avis, as I think she has a right to be. Of course, as Teresa said, you can’t blame poor Monika for Avis’s thoughtlessness.

Avis is a European hippie, and Teresa said the letter she’s going to write to Avis will “convince her that I’ve gone establishment all the way.”

But Teresa and I live in 1977 New York, and we’ve changed with the times.

I do like Don a lot, but I can see he’s under a terrible strain. He looks torn – or maybe that’s just because I know that he keeps going back and forth between his family and Teresa.

Teresa showed me an engagement announcement she received: Spring is marrying her longtime Columbia boyfriend, a Polish Catholic guy she met on the rebound from Sean.

At 10 PM, we decided to call it a night; it was like 4 AM for Monika. As I left the apartment, I told Teresa I’d see her on Friday.

This morning at LIU, I gave Margaret her birthday card and a tin of French candy. She was so pleased, telling people, “Richard always remembers my birthday.” Dr. Farber and George Economou didn’t.

In both classes, I got up to chapter 9 of Candide, but now I see that the book is beyond my students. They’re so poorly versed in history, philosophy and geography: they didn’t have a clue as to what the Spanish Inquisition was.

God save the younger generation – or at least the younger generation of LIU students.

Saturday, November 5, 1977

5 PM. It continues dark and unnaturally warm.

Today I cried twice at television: isn’t that strange? The first time I was watching, quite by accident, a children’s program about a young painter and his first exhibit. The paintings were about his grandfather, who had encouraged his talent when he was young.

I think that is what is so wonderful about grandfathers – at least about the two who were mine – is that they love you unconditionally. Nothing I could do could stop Grandpa Nat and Grandpa Herb from loving me. Now I miss Grandpa Nat fiercely and I cry at the knowledge that I will never see him again.

The other thing I cried at on TV was Julie Harris’s stunning portrayal of Emily Dickinson in the one-woman The Belle of Amherst: I identified with her like mad. I, too, have led a kind of sheltered life, not leaving my family’s home, the house I grew up in.

Like Emily, I’ve seen almost nothing of the world. I’ve had very limited relationships of a sexual nature. I don’t get out much. The most important thing has always been my writing – but my style, like Emily’s, is too personal and idiosyncratic to achieve the fame and fortune that I both want and am afraid of.

Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’m more dynamic than Dickinson ever could be, and more sophisticated and tough-minded as well. I’m an eccentric. Yet last night I couldn’t sleep because of euphoria: the euphoria of everyday life.

I take such pleasure in my life that it’s awful. Despite my real-life limitations, I can feel as though I have done everything and been everywhere and seen more of life than most people will ever see.

Isn’t it awful that I take so much pleasure in my own stories? Most of them I’ve written just for me, and while I know I have skill and talent, I am surprised that other people print my stories, read them, enjoy them. I love doing just what I’m doing.

Last evening I even learned to control my upset at a tremendous traffic jam I was in. It took me two hours to get to Teresa’s house and there were times when I was stuck and missed the same traffic light three or four times. But instead of panicking or raging, I thought to myself:

“Will getting aggravated [I know, I know: the wrong word but it’s an ethnic expression I like] help? Teresa will understand if I’m late. And getting a headache or a nervous stomach will only make matters worse. If I burst into her apartment full of complaints, what good will that do? It’s not the traffic but my reaction to it which is causing me grief.”

I have to admit that I was not always successful in curtailing my temper tantrum: I honked the horn unnecessarily a few times and exhibited a couple of examples of Type A (bad for the heart) behavior – but after all, I’ve been doing that since babyhood and I can’t expect myself to redirect it all overnight.

Teresa had prepared a very nice meal with Jan and the two cute guys from next door, Lance and Ari.

They were so sweet that they offered to do the dishes after we ate as Teresa, Jan and I raced out to Broadway to catch a movie at the 83rd Street Triplex.

Oh, God! was a fairly cute film in which John Denver is summoned by God, who turns out to be a delightfully gentle, wise and non-vengeful George Burns. I agree with the film’s premise: that God cares very little for religion and ritual, and that faith is the most important thing.

It was a wonderful night for a walk on Broadway, and Teresa let me take a spoonful of her Häagen-Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream.

Jan seems very sweet. Like most of the young people in Teresa’s building, she’s from somewhere else: Ohio. Lance is from Missouri, and last week I met Judy from Michigan. I like to think all the good people come to New York.

Speaking of out-of-town visitors, Monika certainly has been a nuisance; she uses Teresa’s and Jan’s homes like a hotel while she spends most of her time on St. Marks Place with her lesbian friends. Jan said she has eaten ten eggs and has drunk two quarts of milk, and Teresa reported that Monika leaves the bathroom “a disaster area.” (So much for all Germans being as neat as Helmut.)

Back at the house, we got Lance’s typewriter and wrote Avis a letter expressing our anger and annoyance over her presumption in sending Monika to us. We started watching a movie on TV and then we all began to get sleepy.

Monday, November 7, 1977

11 PM. Today it poured buckets. Reading Your Erroneous Zones, as bland and mass-market as it is, has made me realize how disgusted I am with some of the choices I’ve made in my life.

I hate living in this house, I really do. It took writing a story about a 30-year-old man who lives with his parents to make me see how this arrangement is stifling me.

I cannot stay here much longer. I can’t take Dad’s morning hacking cough or Mom’s fastidious rules or Marc’s drifting in and out stoned or Jonny’s mania for TV, weightlifting and Judaism.

On Friday night I got a peek at Ari and Lance’s apartment. It was tiny, barely bigger than Teresa’s bedroom, and they have to sleep in bunk beds, but it was theirs, all theirs. Of course I don’t think I could take having a roommate in such small quarters; I’m too used to having a room to myself.

What I want is my own place, an apartment where I can come home and know that no one else can tell me when to do this or that, how to arrange my plants, or where to leave my dirty laundry. Right now that freedom is beginning to mean more to me than being a great writer.

I must admit it: on Friday night I did not want to go home; I wanted to stay with Teresa, with Jan, with Lance and Ari; I wanted to pretend I was living with them in that building on West 85th Street.

To be 26 and never to have experienced living in my own home is neurotic – but it’s neurotic only because I don’t really like the familiar safe route I’ve chosen.

Okay, but now moving out is contingent on something else: having enough money to do it. And that means ending my part-time work at LIU and finding a full-time job outside academia.

It’s a difficult decision, but I can’t live in a dream world: I’ll never be hired as a full-time professor at LIU and the prospects are very dim elsewhere. Let’s face it: I’m qualified to do a job that doesn’t really exist. There are no writer-in-residence positions in sight, and five thousand Ph.D.s are competing for every faculty vacancy.

Last night I calculated that my $2700 adjunct pay for four courses a year adds up to $52 a week. Shit: that’s just $10 more than I made on unemployment.

Today I walked out of the house with only three dollars in my pocket, and I spent one of them in tolls when I went to have dinner with Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel this evening.

When I hear Alice complain about her “low” $200-a-week salary at Seventeen, I have to wonder: What kind of crazy man have I been?

I have taught at Long Island University for three years now. It was all right when I was in graduate school at Brooklyn College, and last year having two classes a term was new and challenging, but this term I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to.

For the most part, the students don’t seem to care, and how can I care when I’m getting so little in return? Lately – today, for example – I feel that I’ve just been going through the motions of teaching.

I started this term all eagerness and dedication, and by now, mid-semester, I’m already very discontented. I’ve made a definite decision: I’m not going back to LIU next fall no matter what. Maybe I’ll teach in the spring, but I’m not certain I even want to do that.

So . . . what all this means is that I’ve got to take the risk of finding a job that I will be happy in and that will give me enough money to move out and do the things that I want to do.

I’m not blaming society; I have to be realistic and find an alternative way of making a living. (Heh – maybe I should learn a trade.) The problem is that I am not trained to be anything but a fiction writer and an academic.

I’ve got to give it a lot of thought, but really, my mind is made up; I can’t stand keeping things the way they are. It’s only hurting my self-image, and it can’t be doing my writing any good.

I know I don’t want a suit-and-tie-commute-to-Manhattan job, but I’m not sure what I do want. It’s scary to change so late in the game, but in a way, it’s thrilling, too.

This evening Grandpa Herb didn’t recognize me when he opened his door. I had picked up a campaign leaflet lying on the hallway floor and when he saw it, he assumed I was a campaign worker.

“Yes?” he said, not letting the door open too wide.

“It’s me, Richard,” I told him.

We had a pleasant dinner, although Grandma Ethel was nagging him a bit, especially about Michael and Eddie, who still owe him $700 for Uncle Abe’s funeral. They sound very irresponsible and it looks as though they’re going to run through the insurance money in no time.

When I got home, I found my parents in the kitchen and talked with them about my finding a new career.

Mom thinks I should go on for a Ph.D., saying that even though the degree would be worthless, with my credentials I could get a graduate fellowship and enough money to live on for a couple of years so I’d have time to write fiction.

Dad said I could always help him out in the jeans importing business, that I already do a good job handling the paperwork for the bills of lading and letters of credit and correspondence with Hong Kong. But I don’t really want to do that.

I never realized it before, but demographics is at the root of everything. That’s why Dad could no longer make a living selling expensive dress slacks, and that’s why he’s had to make jeans his business now. My generation doesn’t wear the kind of expensive clothes that Art Pants manufactured.

Demographics explains the collapse of the colleges: with the end of the baby boom, the elementary and secondary schools are becoming ghost towns now.

By 2000, we’ll have a large over-50 population, and our society will no longer worship youth. The best bet for a career in the future is probably gerontology, though I’d still put money on doctors, contact lens specialists, anyone who knows anything about computers, and everybody in statistics.

Oh well. . .

Today I got an acceptance from Jerry Klinkowitz of Seems. His book, The Life of Fiction, essays (some of which I’ve read) on what he calls “superfictionists” – including Vonnegut, Abish, Sorrentino, Katz, Major, Sukenick and Baumbach –was just reviewed favorably by Doris Grumbach in Sunday’s Times Book Review.

Klinkowitz is the major critical voice pushing the kind of work I’m doing – he recommended Andree Connors’ book to the Fiction Collective First Novel Contest – and I’ve been trying to get him to notice me for years.

He took my story called “Innovations,” about a rather imbecilic innovative fiction writer named J.B., written in the spring when I was furious with Baumbach. Klinkowitz was obviously aware of whom I was writing. He wrote, “The Life of Fiction also has a character named J.B. in a critical chapter.”

I have to smirk at this. I wonder if Jon will be offended – at me and at Klinkowitz – but of course I don’t really care. Indeed, any controversy that occurs can only make the story more widely read.

I sent Klinkowitz a special delivery letter with a biographical note, as he’s sending the stuff to the printer on Friday. Again I’ve exploited anger to good use: to art, maybe?

Also coming in today’s mail were three rejections, two of them quite positive. I really do enjoy the game of sending out, gambling on acceptances, getting rejections, and trying again.