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


Monday, October 3, 1977

9 PM. I’ve just written a note to Hubert Humphrey, wishing him well in his fight against inoperable cancer and letting him know that I think he’s a great man – and something more, a lovable man.

Recently he said, “It’s not important what God takes away from you; what is important is what you do with the rest.” Old HHH was wrong on the Vietnam War, of course, but he was never a war criminal, as Pete Hamill – Jackie Onassis’s present escort – once suggested.

Last year I found an old notebook from ’68 with “Dump the Hump” written all over it. Now, nearly a decade later, I believe Gene McCarthy isn’t fit to shine Hubert Humphrey’s shoes. Ah well, that’s life. If only Humphrey were elected that year instead of Nixon, I think things would have been a lot better in this country all this time.

John Brickman phoned me at LIU this morning. He’s in a quandary: he switched his major from poli sci to business so he can get a job after graduation, but John says he hates his business courses, that they’re all boring.

I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. I said maybe he could go back to majoring in poli sci and just take enough accounting credits so that he’ll be employable. John’s so bright and he desperately wants to escape the ghetto deaths of his childhood friends in Harlem from OD’ing or guns.

I admire John so much. He should be a lawyer or a political scientist – but when you come from the ghetto, making money has to come first. Life was so much easier for this former poli sci major, who has a middle-class existence courtesy of my family.

I just wish I could have made John feel better, let him know I care. I had to rush the end of our call because I was preoccupied with getting to my first class on time.

Today my classes went smoother than silk. I like my students: they want to learn, and I don’t have to pull teeth to get lively discussions on the stories we go over. We’re getting to know each other well. I just feel I’m not giving enough of myself to them because I’m saving my main energy for my own writing.

Naturally, LIU can’t expect total devotion for $225 a credit, but my pathetic pay is not the students’ fault.

After my last class, I drove into the Village and bought a couple of literary magazines at the Eighth Street Bookshop. A whole rack fell on me – I don’t know what caused it – and I found myself in the middle of one of those embarrassing scenes people have nightmares about.

Of course everyone was very nice, and I’m not a fanatic about preserving my dignity. The last several times I’ve walked into the store, Laurie hasn’t been there. Perhaps she’s not working at the bookstore anymore; maybe she’s teaching full-time at Brooklyn College.

Prof. Tucker asked me if I’d been at the PEN party for Peter Spielberg and Elaine Kraf last week, and when I said I couldn’t make it, he said he couldn’t make it, either.

I guess I’ve been crossed off the Fiction Collective’s invite list. If I didn’t know human nature better, I’d say, “You’d think, after all I did for them. . .” But I know how Baumbach is. If I’m going to make it in the literary world, it looks like I’ll have to do it without a mentor and sponsor.

I’ve written a couple of things lately. They’re trifles, really: “True Things I Have Done,” more Richard Grayson bullshit, and “The Diary of Ginny Wolfsheim,” a one-joke trick in which I took my sophomore 1971 diary and changed the banalities only slightly, transforming my college friends’ names into those of the Bloomsbury crowd: Vanessa, Lytton, Clive, Saxon, Leonard, etc. It’s not overwhelmingly funny.

Yesterday I caught up with two old friends by phone. Josh is still playing the Classic Loser. He failed his road test and now may not be able to sign up to drive an oil truck this winter because his new test is only two days before the deadline for applications. Josh couldn’t plan his failures better if he tried.

Gary is still the Young Married Man. We talked for a while, but mostly about how positively ecstatic he is over his new dining room furniture. You can imagine the herculean effort I had to put in to sound interested.

Tuesday, October 4, 1977

8 PM. It’s definitely fall. Last night I awoke chilled, and today was the first leather-jacket day since April. It feels different in the streets. And with daylight ending at 7 PM, there’s a greater sense of urgency to life.

I feel myself thinking about autumns in the past. Somehow it’s the one season that you should never have to go through alone. I associate autumn with love. Shelli and I broke up in the fall, and Ronna and I started dating and stopped dating in the fall.

Autumn seems to insist, like Rilke’s poem, that we change our lives. I suppose I did something today that may qualify: I went to the optometrist and tried on soft contact lenses. And then I ordered a pair.

Marc went with me to Dr. Eschen – the younger one, Burt, about my age, just out of school, and with a great background in the new technology of soft lenses. He’s a jovial fellow and very thorough in his work.

After a complete examination, I managed to let him stick the lenses in my eyes. They felt strange. I teared up and felt something was there, but it was much more comfortable than I ever believed it would be.

I sat with them on for a while as Dr. Eschen told Marc about the latest breakthroughs in cleaning the lenses. I won’t have to boil them every night or use a saline solution as Marc’s been doing.

I do worry about hygiene. By nature, I’m a picker and poker, and you can’t fool around with your eyes. (Right now I have an acne sore I gave myself by – you guessed it – squeezing my flesh until it turned red.)

It’s going to be strange not having my glasses as security. I touch them very often, and for over fifteen years they’ve served as a mediator between me and the world. To see clearly without glasses is frightening – yet it’s exciting, too.

I glanced at my face in the reflection of one of Dr. Eschen’s instruments, and it was very odd: the first time I could see myself clearly from a distance without wearing glasses. I am handsomer than I realized.

I’m a bit apprehensive, though, about whether I can handle this psychologically. Obviously there’s something in me that doesn’t want me to look too good; that’s what causes my acne and that’s what causes all my dieting to fail.

How would I feel about being attractive? It scares me. We shall see next week, when the lenses come in. Anyway, it will provide me with a new experience and just possibly help me grow.

Ugh! “Help me grow.” I hate those Me Generation phrases. Unfortunately, some of them are on target. (“On target”? Has a gremlin from the Cuisinart crowd taken over my helm at this diary?)

I’ve done little writing today on my story about me and Ivan. The title I had was too precious and quaint. Since I call Ivan’s family the Sharks in the story, I could title the story “The Shark Obsession,” but that makes it sound like a Jaws-like best seller. And maybe the Sharks are too reminiscent of West Side Story and therefore funny. I need to go to slow on this story.

Yesterday I entered the Arthur Rimbaud Live-Alike Contest of a California little magazine, Little Caesar. I guess I’m trying to create a persona which is slightly ludicrous.

But today in America, you can’t make it on talent alone. Take my Great-Great-Grandson of Sam gimmick and my fake recommendations from Congressmen. Yes, all right, I admit it: I want to be a celebrity even though I know it will be destructive for me.

But maybe I can keep myself sane by not allowing myself to become my public persona. Can’t I simply make my “life” a work of fiction? Fiction is the most revolutionary activity there is, because in it, one attempts to create an entirely different order.

Thursday, October 6, 1977

7 PM. Last evening I took Alice to the airport and waited with her until 9 PM at the Icelandic Airlines gate. She didn’t seem particularly excited about her trip, but Alice has traveled so much she’s pretty blasé about it now.

She was afraid she’d be bored silly in Iceland with nothing to do but look at glaciers. I explained all the great things I heard about Iceland from Brad, but they failed to impress her. Reykjavik has only five movie theaters, “so it must be a dinky place.”

Alice is the ultimate hyperactive, aggressive New Yorker. She loves going to Rockport, say, for the weekend, but she couldn’t live there long. Unlike myself, Alice can’t relax: she has terrible shpilkes.

But of course, Alice gets more accomplished than anyone else, and I’ve tried to emulate her energy.

When I got home at 10 PM, I wrote for a while and then I couldn’t sleep. I watched a Tomorrow interview with the always-engaging Christopher Isherwood, probably the most respectable, well-adjusted homosexual in America today; I must get around to his books.

This morning, arising late, I knocked out an eight-page story entitled “Fourteen Ways of Looking at My Brother.” Of course I stole the title from Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but there the similarity ends.

I tried to write about Marc and deal with my conflicting emotions: while I love him and he’s my brother, I am often angry with him and envious of him, and I’ve never been able to get really close to him.

As always (or most always), I tried to create interesting sentences, and I was pleased with the story after I finished it. (Do writers ever really tear out a freshly-written page from the typewriter, crumble it into a ball, and then throw it in the wastebasket, or is that just a convention of the cinema?)

Writing the story helped me withstand the four – count ‘em, four – rejections I got in today’s mail.

I was also disappointed to see that my LIU contract did not include a raise in salary. Between now and next month, when my paycheck arrives, I’m going to be very strapped for cash. Tomorrow there will be no $42 unemployment check, and I’ll miss that.

The only good news in the mail was a card from Pat Griffith, who said my story will be in the fall issue of Washington Review of the Arts, which should be out in a few weeks.

She said she hoped to see me at the New York Book Fair in two weeks. I’m really looking forward to going to Bryant Park then and hanging out, meeting people from the small press world.

God, isn’t my writing stiff and awful here today? It’s got no energy in it. That’s what the Iowa Review rejection said: “The writing is good but no energy in it.” How do I jazz this diary entry up?

Let’s see, I went on the subway today and here are some people I saw:
(1) A fat crew-cut guy in a sleeveless Army shirt who grinned to himself and looked like a potential Son of Sam.
(2) Martin Roberts, who was in my English 12 class last spring. I felt funny because he was well-dressed and I was in flannel shirt, sneakers and faded jeans. When he called me Mr. Grayson, people around us looked like they thought it was curious to be addressing a kid so formally.
(3) A Puerto Rican man who was bragging about being a witness in a homicide trial. “Do you know homicide means murder?” he asked me. He’d seen a fight start and one man knife the other. “I enjoyed watching it,” he said.
(4) A woman who came into our car wearing a button that said “I am [sic] Cerebral Palsy.”
(5) She shouted, “Attention, ladies and gentlemen! I am cerebral palsy! Please give generously.” And when people dropped a coin in her box, she said heartily, “A zie gezunt!
(6) A little old lady to whom I surrendered my seat. She had a fixed smile on her face and said, “I think the world is just wonderful.”

Sunday, October 9, 1977

5:30 PM. After hours of hard, steady rain, the sun has just come out. Of course it will go back in soon because darkness is coming.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble controlling my acne. Every day a new pimple seems to erupt, and I haven’t had a clear complexion in two weeks. Right now I’ve got golden seal cream from Kiehl’s on my face, but I’ve tried everything. Naturally, if I could control my desire to squeeze the little buggers, my problems would be fewer.

This week I get my contact lenses, so I’ve been caring more and more about my appearance. I’ve been watching what I eat, trying not to stuff myself too much. This morning I hit the scales at 137, which is pretty good.

And I keep up with my exercises, firming up my body. The hair on my chest is finally beginning to come in, and I’ve shaved off my sideburns. Now, who am I trying to look good for? I’ve returned to being an all-work-and-no-play recluse, not calling Teresa or Libby or Jacob or Mason or any of the other people I’ve spent time with this summer.

Yet I am not writing night and day; my output is still about the same, about one decent story a week. I do think about writing quite a bit, but I can’t foresee nor bring on those creative moments when everything seems to jell.

I got a letter yesterday from David Gross in Maine. He told me I missed the best of Bread Loaf; he and John Gardner got really chummy.

David will be in New York in a couple of weeks, and I’ll see him, although unfortunately he’s coming in the weekend of the Book Fair, where I had planned to spend most of my time. Oh well: perhaps David will be interested in going there, too.

Great-Uncle Harry was down in Florida this week and reported that Grandpa Nat looks much the same as he always did. Although Grandpa Nat didn’t recognize him, they talked about business and Harry said Grandpa could multiply 8 by 4 and get 32.

Grandma Sylvia’s been having trouble with her stomach, but at least her sister Annie will be staying with her soon. Dad reported that Robin, her boyfriend, and Michael have moved into a two-family house in Dongan Hills, Staten Island, which is pretty nice.

I typed up some letters of credit for Dad’s business and I also wrote a letter to Steve Chen in Hong Kong, telling him that some of the goods have been coming in damaged and Dad wants them to exercise stricter quality control.

Tomorrow is Columbus Day, but LIU doesn’t observe it. I’ve pretty much prepared my lessons for the week. Friday will be easy, as I’m having them write essays in class. Of course, that means I’ll have to read them all next weekend.

My sinuses have been acting up. (Notice how random this diary entry is.)

I’ve been having strange dreams peopled by many old faces: Richard and June attending a radio concert; Stacy as the owner of a shoe store; Alan and Carl Karpoff and Steve Katz as roommates in a commune. I suppose all this dream-socializing is to make up for the lack of friends I have (or at least see) during the day.

This afternoon I went to the Brooklyn Museum, which was very crowded. There was a magnificent exhibit of women’s painting from the 1500s on. I found myself jostled along too much and I will have to go back later when I can view the paintings at leisure. I liked a very ugly portrait by Vanessa Bell of a pear-shaped woman with no nose.

At the Community Gallery, they had a collection of paintings by Brooklyn Chasidic artists, not all of them on strictly Jewish themes. I usually don’t associate the dull-looking Chasids with any form of art, but I’m sure some of them are quite literary, too.

This morning I watched Marc put in his lenses, and it doesn’t look too difficult. At first, Marc says, I’ll only be allowed (or able) to wear them about four hours a day or so. I just hope I can do it and make it work.