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


Thursday, September 1, 1977

9 PM. It’s September already.

Coming up is Labor Day weekend, then Jonny goes back to school (I think he’ll be grateful for it). The next week is Rosh Hashona, and I should find out if I’ll be teaching this term. And then it will be autumn.

This summer has been a remarkable one. Not everything that happened was good, but I feel I’ve grown. Grandpa Nat’s illness has taken a terrible toll on all of us, and the crisis is far from over, but I could accept it – indeed, at this point I’d almost welcome it – if he died.

Grandpa Herb told me something that Dad has been unwilling to: Grandpa Nat’s nursing home is costing Dad a great deal of money.

Grandma Sylvia is still unwilling to leave Florida. Grandpa Herb says she’s wrong if she thinks that when her brothers Daniel and Bernard come down in a few months, they’ll be at her beck and call.

“They have their own lives,” said Grandpa Herb, and he knows all the brothers pretty well from when they were kids and lived next door to each other.

Grandpa Nat doesn’t really know what’s going on anymore, and I can’t help thinking how simpler things would have been had he died. But back in July, I prayed for him not to die.

I think I’d like to see him again, although I know it would scare me and though he probably wouldn’t know me. It might be best just to remember him as he was when I saw him last spring.

Grandpa Herb says he’s got a lot of problems left from Uncle Abe’s death. He’s been running around to the Transit Authority, to Social Security, to the Veterans Administration and other places, trying to see what money there is. Michael and Eddie, Grandpa says, are so negligent.

Michael is breaking down emotionally, and Grandma Ethel wants him to see a psychiatrist. His girlfriend wants to leave him (if you ask me, that’s probably a blessing, as she’s a stupid, shallow girl; Abe never liked her, and neither do my grandparents).

Michael is not going to school anymore, and he and Eddie don’t get along at all. Grandpa Herb feels they need some guidance, but he doesn’t know from where they can get it. The boys are on welfare now.

Last night Marc took Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel to Oceanside for dinner, and Marty gave Grandpa Herb Arlyne’s old car, the ’73 Mercury Montego, which has only 12,000 miles on it. (As the owner of a ’73 Mercury Comet, I say good luck to him.)

Today, after she got back from shopping, Grandma Ethel made me lunch, and I tried to repay her by washing the dishes. She said Wendy had a fantastic time on her cross-country trip but didn’t grow even a quarter of an inch. Last night Wendy’s boyfriend, 16, called; I think he’s a little person, too.

After I got back from the beach, I had my first moped ride. Marc rented a moped from the place on the corner and let Deanna, her brother and me ride it around the block. It was noisy and I was unsure of myself at first, but gradually I speeded up and could control it.

Vito called again last night, and I’m glad we’re getting close again. I liked his remark when I told him Avis and Helmut left for Europe on separate flights: “Yeah, well, they probably don’t want to leave the kids in the lurch.”

Vito decided that he won’t take me to a gay bar. He says he doesn’t want me to have a gay experience, even though I told him I would like to have a relationship with a guy. I really had this crush on Vincent, the waiter at Bread Loaf, and now that I know Libby’s friend Thomas is bisexual, I’d like to get closer to him because he’s sweet and very cute.

I’m convinced it will happen, too, sooner or later. I’m not going to fight my feelings – any feelings, for that matter – any longer. That’s one of the things I learned this summer.

I coped so well with Grandpa Nat’s illness and Uncle Abe’s death and the blackout while Mom and Dad were away. I learned a lot from Avis and Helmut’s visit and from my stay at Bread Loaf.

I’m closer to being a mensch than I ever have been. I’m beginning to like myself again, to trust my feelings and my strength. If I haven’t been as productive this week as I might have liked, well, that will come eventually, too.

Friday, September 2, 1977

4 PM. Angry with myself for not being able to write anything, I went to the movies this afternoon. The film, One on One, with Robbie Benson as a college basketball player (Benson also wrote the script), was trivial, yet it – to use the old grade-school book-report cliché – held my interest.

Why? Because the characters and the situations were at least somewhat compelling and I believed in them. I think I’m groping towards my problem with writing.

After Bread Loaf, after listening to John Irving and Stanley Elkin and especially John Gardner, I’ve come to the conclusion that much of my previous work is boring to everyone except me.

I spend a lot of time trying to prove how smart I am, or how clever I can be, but that can’t sustain itself very long. I need more interesting characters – people who are not merely extensions of myself (though naturally every fictional character is to some extent the writer’s alter ego) and people who are not merely bizarre.

There’s more to life than non sequitur, even non sequitur that is amusing and rings true. I want to go back to telling stories again: rich stories of ordinary people. Tim O’Brien assured me that I was capable of doing so, but I am still uncertain of that. Real fiction is so much harder to write than my pastiches, sketches and fragments. I do want to tell the stories of my friends and family: stories about Libby, say, or Grandma Sylvia or Mikey.

I know this roadblock to writing is just a sign that I’m at a new stage in my work, that I want to attempt something more difficult, more challenging, and more rewarding.

It will take time for me to grapple with these new writing problems, but eventually, if I keep at it and allow for false starts, I’ll come up with something as good as, and hopefully better than, anything I’ve done in the past.

After waiting on line at the bank today, I took out $50, leaving my account with a pitiful $85 balance. My unemployment check should come tomorrow.

It’s the start of Labor Day weekend, the psychological end of summer. I feel as though it was just Memorial Day weekend. “Something feels slightly askew,” I wrote then, but I guess with me, that’s a permanent condition.

I have no plans for the weekend except to pick up Libby early on Monday morning, and I’m almost grateful for that. For a fellow who felt super-loved a few days ago, I find myself a little lonely now.

I’m really anxious to teach again. Now I consider what I’ve been doing at LIU as something very important: teaching people basic writing skills is urgent. In a couple of weeks, I should know whether there are any classes for me.

Today I sat in the sun for an hour and plunged briefly into the pool, but I don’t have the patience for that anymore. I miss the intellectual stimulation of Bread Loaf’s readings and workshops and lectures.

If I could afford it, I’d love to take classes again – in anything but literature and writing: philosophy, psychology, music, history, art. I’ve begun rereading Lolita; I never really did it justice before.

After being home a week, I already feel restless.

Monday, September 5, 1977

It’s a cloudy Labor Day. I woke up today at 4:30 AM, and as I had gone to bed at 9 PM, it wasn’t so difficult to rouse myself.

I had another dream about the house in Vermont. Obviously I have yet to finish that story. In the dream, I had to leave Vermont for some reason, but I was preparing to go back.

Three weeks ago I was nervous about going to Bread Loaf, and now it’s hard to understand why I felt that way. I’ll always love Bread Loaf and Vermont and the people I met there because the trip represented freedom to me.

I’ll tell you a little secret: in my travel bag, I put a copy of Dr. Zane’s contextual therapy guidelines so I could help myself during an anxiety attack. But there never was one. Now I’m certain I can survive anything: defeat, failure, changes, loss, even the deaths of those closest to me.

I’m not afraid anymore. No one thing can make my world collapse: my eggs are in too many baskets. If I never teach again, never get published again, if my parents die, if my friends go away, if I have to leave New York City, if I have no money – if all those things happen to me, I’ll still be alive and kicking.

Health and freedom are the only things that really matter now. For a while I have suspected that I’m going to go through life alone, and I can live with that now.

Oh, I’d love to love and to be loved, and it’s probably the best way to live, but if it never comes, I can handle it. Hey, I can even handle if love does come in with all its wonderful force and dizzying unawareness.

It was good to go out in the early morning darkness, to wipe the dew off my car, to drive on the nearly-deserted parkway to Kennedy.

The American Airlines terminal was quiet, but there were a few people about: a middle-aged couple drinking Tabs and talking softly; a fat girl stretched out over two seats; an earnest young man in a Brigham Young sweatshirt writing an entry into an oversized journal. There was also a man vacuuming with a hushed machine, and taxis outside, and the papers in bundles waiting to be opened outside the newsstand.

It was 6 AM when Libby’s flight from San Francisco arrived. I liked the moment when our eyes met and she came towards me, wearing an Indian dress with earth colors and little mirrors, carrying Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth.

I kissed her, half-pretending that she was my sister, my lover, my daughter, my wife – but knowing that she was my friend and therefore sort of all those things.

She waited downstairs for her luggage – just a big backpack – while I got the car and picked her up at the curb. She’d been flying from Portland since 5 AM Pacific time, with a three-hour layover in San Francisco.

Libby had a wonderful time at the Center Family commune. Made up of fifteen adults, seven kids, led by an older guru-type named Harvey Friedman (bearded, fiftyish, with a daughter and a new wife, both roughly the same age), the commune has a beautiful 40 acres in La Center, Washington, and they run a macrobiotic restaurant and a pizzeria in Portland.

During her time at the commune, Libby worked in the restaurant, where everyone (except young mothers) works four very long days a week.

Steven and Joyce loved living there, but they were grateful for the chance to get away, traveling with Libby in one of the commune’s three cars. After two years there, Steven and Joyce will be leaving the place so that they can go visit Joyce’s grandmother in Dominica.

Libby told me all about the commune and showed me photos from their cookbook over breakfast at Bernie’s, the Coney Island Avenue diner where I had a snack with Jacob last week.

It was the first junk food Libby had had in weeks; she’s been living on smoothies (shakes made of ice, bananas, and juice), tofu, and sprouts. The commune is so vegetarian that Libby couldn’t even get milk there.

Libby said that although it rained a lot, the country is so beautiful that she’s considering moving there. Naturally they begged her to stay, and of course a guy, Grant, fell in love with her and said he’d support her.

“But I’m practical,” Libby said. She wants a career like nursing to fall back on before she’d go out to Oregon. When we got to her house at 8 AM, everyone was asleep, and I left Libby to try to get some sleep herself.

Alice called today, and we caught up on things. She hasn’t seen Andreas for a month, as she’s disgusted with him. These things have happened periodically for years, and Andreas says she’s just being “silly.”

Janice threw Jay out of the house; he’s been sleeping with other people and going to orgies, and Janice couldn’t handle that. But she still loves Jay, and it’s very difficult for her.

Alice said that before, she could never understand why a together person like Janice needed therapy, but now she sees that Janice is pretty un-together. The other night at The Improvisation, Janice broke down in tears in front of a stranger, Alice’s friend Kiki from Seventeen. Both Alice and Kiki were embarrassed, as people kept staring at them, but Janice was so upset that she was oblivious.

Janice is also coming around to realizing what her mastectomy means. Alice said it’s depressing to be around Janice.

Alice did have a good time on Friday evening, going to Robert and Judy’s for dinner, and she was proud to tell me that Judy called her “the most ambitious person I know.”

Later in the evening, when they were alone, Judy told Alice that she can’t wait for Robert to finish his dissertation, on which he still has three chapters to go. Judy feels it’s demeaning for Robert to still be financially dependent upon his parents. Robert’s father is still working as a waiter in that kosher deli, Zip’s on Remsen Avenue, that we used to go to in junior high, so his parents can’t be that rich.

Alice also read me a social note she saw in Flatbush Life: Rachel graduated from SUNY-Fredonia with a B.S. in music. Against my better judgment, I wrote Rachel a short note of congratulations.

God knows why, but I’ve been fantasizing about my having a terminal illness. I wonder if people would react to me differently if they knew I was dying of leukemia or cancer.

Todd keeps trying to get me, but I always seem to be out when he calls. Marc and Deanna left for Pennsylvania Dutch Country today; Jonny went to school and got his program for the semester; and I wrote a short, dumb, satiric piece called “Dear Ann Landers, Please Help Me, My Son Is Making an Ashbery of Himself.”

Thursday, September 8, 1977

11 PM. I’ve just been watching the mayoral primary returns. So far it looks like it will be Cuomo vs. Koch in the runoff. Yesterday Eric Wollman phoned to ask me to poll-watch today, but I declined the honor.

I kept changing my mind in the past few weeks and ultimately I followed a dream I had last night and today voted for Herman Badillo. Although I knew he had no chance (he’s running sixth), he seemed the most intelligent and issue-oriented of the candidates. Also, the fact that he had no TV commercials – he couldn’t afford them – influenced me.

Dad stuck with Mayor Beame while Mom voted for Bella Abzug, candidates who are currently running third and fourth, respectively.

Tonight, while Dad was out, Grandma Sylvia called, all upset because Grandpa Nat was acting up today, and she told the doctor to have them give him a sedative.

Now she was afraid that the doctor would give Grandpa Nat a drug that would kill him because the doctor said that he could do it when he was near death a month ago.

Mom and I tried to convince Grandma Sylvia that the doctor and the nursing home couldn’t risk criminal prosecution in order to do something like that. You have to keep telling her, though, and by now she’s so senile she won’t listen.

She keeps repeating her same old phrases: “If only he watched himself . . . He brought this on himself . . . If he’d just show a little improvement, I could take him home . . . That stinker [Aunt Sydelle] isn’t coming till next week. Why? So she can save a little money? . . .”

Grandma Sylvia was always bitter and kind of envious, but now that senility is setting in, she’s getting impossible. She plays on the guilt of her children, Dad and Sydelle.

Tonight Mom tried to be firm and told her that she’s going to have to come North, but Grandma Sylvia stubbornly refuses to listen.

“Why isn’t he like the other people in the nursing home?” she wants to know, even though it’s been explained to her a thousand times that he didn’t have a stroke, that has brain damage from lack of oxygen while he was technically dead after his heart stopped.

He’s not going to improve, and he’s not going to deteriorate that quickly; indeed, he could even outlive her.

I myself would welcome Grandpa Nat’s death. I mourned for him in July and August; the man I knew died when his brain died.

Dad is getting to be a nervous wreck over this, and his business problems with Max just aggravate him further. And I don’t envy Aunt Sydelle spending a week in Florida being abused by Grandma Sylvia.

In fact, I think Grandma Sylvia drove Grandpa Nat crazy, and that was why he couldn’t stay home and relax, why he kept running around.

Yesterday she locked herself out of the condo; tonight she told Dad she hadn’t been to the nursing home all week when she’d been there on Tuesday; she can’t remember if bills were paid or not. I told Dad he has to treat her as if she were a child: Grandma Sylvia just isn’t competent anymore.

While I was alone in the house this morning, Great-Aunt Mildred called, wanting to know about Grandpa Nat. Also she said, “I keep waiting for news of you . . . I want to go to your wedding. . .” As I recall, at Scott’s wedding or engagement party, when she said that, I replied, “I don’t think you’ll live that long,” but I didn’t repeat that today.

When I told the Aunt Mildred story to Mom, she was amused, but I was surprised to discover that Mom, too, still hopes that someday I’ll get married.

Obviously I am not going to: because I don’t want to, because I’ve never seen a marriage that I’d have liked to be part of it, and of course because I have gay tendencies.

I returned Todd’s call tonight, and we had a nice conversation during which I gave him advice and suggestions on little magazines where he could send his work.