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


Friday, November 11, 1977

8 PM. For the past 24 hours everything has gone as well as can be expected, and that’s better than one should expect. The weather has turned sharply colder, and from here on it, it looks like winter-jacket weather.

Yesterday I called Gary’s house and Betty answered the phone. She said Gary, who was out for a drive, has been depressed lately: “I don’t know if it’s anything I’m doing.”

I was a bit taken aback that Betty would talk to me like that, but I felt flattered she would be so frank. However, I don’t think Gary’s marriage is the problem; it’s his struggles with a career.

Betty acknowledged that Gary had been in a bad mood when they had gone to see his cousin Jerold and his wife. Jerold has a lucrative job and a house in the suburbs, new cars, vacations, beautiful furniture: all the things Gary wants for himself and Betty.

(Just because I don’t want these things doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Gary’s need for them. Maybe this is a great truth: “All needs are the same.”)

Gary is frustrated by not being able to earn a better salary, by not having a more responsible and challenging position. I can’t help but feel a kinship with him in this.

Betty says they get up at 6 AM, rush off to work, come home separately at 6 PM, when she makes dinner and they clean up and they have only a few hours together before it’s time to go to sleep.

“You begin to wonder,” Betty said, “if this is how it’s supposed to be.”

After I hung up with Betty, Alice called. She hasn’t found a new job, but June has: June is going to be the assistant women’s page editor on The Trib, the new Leonard Saffir morning paper that’s supposed to come out in January. June will be making – get this – $15,000 a year.

But she’s not sure she’s going to like the people at the paper and she’s worried about her ability to write a daily article. I’m certain, though, that June can do it, and so is Alice although she says June is more the slow-and-steady type than a creative whiz.

Still, who knows if The Trib will ever get off the ground? So many papers have tried to take off and failed.

The money June will be making, though, is the big reason for her change. She went back to Richard only because she couldn’t afford her place anymore. Now she’ll be able to leave him, something Alice said June wants to do desperately.

Yesterday at lunch, Alice asked June: “Are you going to end up married to Cliff?” In response, June smiled and said, “You’ve exercised admirable restraint in not asking that all these months.”

As Alice told me, it’s obvious that June and Cliff are in love with each other. No wonder Richard hates Cliff. When June gets a call from Richard in the office, she turns her back and whispers so Alice and Laurel can’t hear her.

(Laurel, incidentally, will now be promoted, and Alice is searching for a new low woman on the Mini-Mag totem pole.)

After an hour on the phone with Alice, I hung up and almost immediately, Libby called. It was good to hear from her at last; our schedules are such that we’re never in at the same times.

Libby is leaving her job at the Y before Christmas – she reiterated my invitation for Christmas – and will go back to the commune in Oregon after the holidays, with her widower cousin Michael driving her as far as Ohio and a Greyhound bus dragging her the rest of the way to the West Coast.

Joyce and Steven visited New York recently, on their way to Dominica, to visit Joyce’s grandmother. Joyce is pregnant, as are two other women back at the commune.

Libby told me that Brendan is taking a pottery class with her and that Thomas is busy being a lay minister at the Catholic Center at Stony Brook. I was glad to hear that both of them are doing fine, but I was even happier when Libby put Mason on the phone.

He was visiting the city for the day. Mason said he’s very happy with his job teaching retarded kids at the Crystal Run School (formerly the Flagler Hotel) in Fallsburg. It was great to hear Mason’s voice, especially when he sounded so upbeat.

My classes went smoothly today.

Saturday, November 12, 1977

7 PM. I’ve just brought the humidifier up from its six months’ storage in the garage, but after filling it with water and turning it on, I notice that my companion of many winters doesn’t seem to be itself.

It makes a whirring noise that would keep Rip Van Winkle awake, and the fan isn’t working very well. Perhaps it’s time for a new humidifier.

A funny thing happened to me tonight: I had an anxiety attack – or at least the start of one. Since the cold darkness comes on so early these days, I thought I would go to Kings Plaza, where everything is bright and for all one knows (or can pretend), it is a midsummer day outside the mall.

I was having my usual at Bun ‘n’ Burger when suddenly that tight panicky feeling took over. I felt I was coming out of my body, everything seemed fuzzy, and my heart and adrenalin started doing pushups.

I told myself I was going to finish the burger and I fought off the panic. Even then I could tell that it was almost welcome, that weird feeling when you just know you’re going to die.

A decade ago, I used to feel that way every day, and now – as then – the panic attacks often lead to strange revelations. At Bun ‘n’ Burger, the two women on either side of me lit cigarettes at precisely the same instant.

I looked around and half the people there seemed to have these white things sticking out of their mouths. It was as if I were a field anthropologist or a baby or a Martian: never had cigarette smoking looked so ludicrous to me. Like Pound, I was “seeing it new.”

Later, downstairs in Waldenbooks, I was staring at the hardcover fiction titles – I remember seeing Hilma Wolitzer’s In the Flesh and Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to an Unborn Child – when I panicked again. I felt there was something sticking in my throat, and sure I was going to vomit, I hastened out of the store.

But I stopped myself and said I could not let that happen. Instead of fighting the anxiety, I stood and let it overflow. I let myself go awash with panic, and it subsided.

I marched right back into the store and placed myself in front of the same books again, and I did not come home until I was certain that the anxiety was gone.

On Thursday I saw a report on a 79-year-old agoraphobic right here in Brooklyn, a man who hasn’t left his apartment in many years. He’s a prisoner of his terror of the outside world. His phobias started with a fear of subways in the 1920s, and gradually his symptoms progressively worsened.

“What would it be like for you to go out?” the TV reporter asked him.

“Oh, God,” he said, “I wouldn’t even want to think about it! I’d rather die a hundred times first!” (Is agoraphobia what Shakespeare had in mind when he said that cowards die a thousand times before their deaths?)

I didn’t get my paycheck today, but I did get a sweet note from Mary Stuart, whose character, Joanne Vincente, I’d written about for The People’s Almanac, and a pre-Monika letter from Avis, who wrote, “It was fun to wake Teresa up this morning.”

Helmut scrawled a few lines in German, thanking me for his birthday card. Avis writes that I shouldn’t mention Mick in my letters because she shares them with Helmut.

Mick has gone back to England – temporarily, Avis hopes. (Helmut’s probably wishing he doesn’t come back).

Last night Grandma Sylvia called to say that she’d taken Aunt Mildred and Uncle Bernard to visit Grandpa Nat at the nursing home. He recognized them and asked after other members of the family.

Grandpa Nat cried because he doesn’t know anyone where he is living, and he walked a little, with Mildred and Bernard on either side, holding him. He also sat in a regular chair without slumping.

Monday, November 14, 1977

10 PM. I’m feeling quite a bit better. I slept wonderfully last night – from 9 PM to 8 AM – and I got out some of my frustrations in angry dreams about living here with my parents. I realize it’s not them causing the problem: it’s my own inertia.

Now that I’ve decided I’m not going back to LIU next fall, I feel better knowing the situation will change. If I’m lucky, I’ll be in Provincetown or Mount Holyoke, and if I’m not, I’ll get a full-time job doing anything that’s fairly interesting so I can move to my own apartment.

This morning was cold but bright, and I had a great deal of energy. I enjoyed teaching my classes; if I didn’t quite sparkle, then at least I shimmered a little. Teaching can still give me a lift.

I was standing around the department with Dr. Edelman, who told Dr. Farber what a good job I’d done in taking over the class for him. Dr. Farber said, “When he first showed up here, I said, ‘They’re going to tear this young man to pieces.’” (That’s pretty much exactly what he told me during our interview in March 1975.)

“But,” Dr. Farber continued, “they haven’t done it yet.”

Praise from Elihu’s father is praise indeed, and somewhat compensates for my poor salary. But, as with my fiction and the praise I get for it, I can’t put it in my bank account. My paycheck didn’t come in today’s mail, either, and by now I owe my parents $130.

Dale Conway, a literary agent, looked at some of my stories and came up with this evaluation: they’re good (“you know you’re a good writer”) but no commercial publisher would touch them.

Conway said after I start having stories in Antaeus and TriQuarterly and get selected for the two yearly anthologies – The Best American Short Stories of 19— and The O. Henry Prize Stories – I can “make the transcendental leap to The New Yorker and Harper’s,” and then a publisher might be interested.

“Or maybe you’ll write a novel,” she wrote.

Conway is on target with her evaluation of my career, I think. While we all like to think we’re unique (and of course I am), there are a lot of people out there with just as much talent, ambition and drive. I can’t expect to get anywhere without a fight.

But I’m pretty tough: yesterday I bounced back fairly well. So now in my stories I’ve imagined myself as the star of a TV soap opera and as the idol of teenyboppers. What’s next?

Seriously, though, I think these pieces have great strength despite their blatant self-centeredness. (The self-adulation is so blatant, in fact, it’s almost innocent and ingenuous.)

This afternoon Teresa called, saying that she and Jan finally got rid of Monika the Sunday after we got out of the movies and I left for home. Monika really was a pain, coming in at all hours, leaving the bathroom a total mess.

Anyway, they had her go to Port Authority, but not before she called Scott – Avis had given Monika his number, too – to see if she could crash there before leaving New York. (The answer was no.)

Like me, Teresa got a letter from Avis that predated Monika’s visit, so it was friendly. Avis sounds like she’s very mixed up, though. She participated in a spontaneous orgy last week, and Helmut was very upset about it. He doesn’t know the full story of Mick, but he’s been hurt and jealous.

Mick split for England with $200 that Avis lent him. Now Avis is afraid that – get this, from what Teresa read aloud to me – “he’ll try to score some dope to pay me back . . . He’s already got a prison record longer than your arm.”

She writes that she and Helmut had two “all-nighters,” talking, crying, trying to work things out. When she came in at 5 AM one day, she found Helmut frantically calling different bars and pubs to try to find her.

Helmut’s action doesn’t sound unreasonable to me, but Avis wrote to Teresa: “So Helmut’s pulling in the reins.” But then she adds: “I don’t know if I hate or like it.”

I see now that the letters I get from Avis are more censored, PG versions of the X-rated ones Teresa gets. Is it because Helmut and I are so close? I have to admit that my sympathies do gravitate toward him rather than to Avis.

Tuesday, November 15, 1977

5 PM. I felt pretty much in limbo today: my check from LIU still hasn’t come, I wasn’t able to write, the mail brought only rejections. And time seemed heavy on my hands.

But Josh called at 1 PM, and he came over and we took a long drive (in my car) out to Garvies Point. It sort of refreshed me, and I did enjoy being with Josh.

Last Saturday I had run into Mario, who told me he had a mild case of infectious hepatitis. Josh says he’s really disgusted with Mario for not being careful with his foot and his towels, but Josh has taken the gamma globulin shot and it’s unlikely he’ll catch the disease.

Josh passed his truck driver test, but it’s early in the heating season and he’s on a list; it will be a while before he’s called up to deliver oil.

But now he’s aiming for a career in advertising and has been writing ads and commercials – imaginary ones, some for real companies like Dannon Yogurt, and others for fantasies like Henry Miller’s Cosmodemonic Messenger Service.

Josh realizes that truck driving is not going to be very stimulating intellectually. He said Simon is still working at the hospital and Allan’s a waiter in a Brew & Burger. Josh also mentioned that he ran into a “very affectionate” Libby at the Atlantic Antic.

We talked about Baumbach. After I read Josh “Innovations,” he said I had balls to write something so nasty. When Alice read it, she suggested I leave town when it’s published. I guess I didn’t realize how cruel it was – but I wrote it out of deep pain and in great anger.

I’ll never be able to use Baumbach as a reference again, but I’ve burned that bridge already. It could be mere Oepidal childishness, but it’s also good to break with your mentor someday.

Anyway, today was not very cold, and it was beautiful at Garvies Point. I was glad I allowed myself the treat of seeing the trails and the cliffs and the gurgling waters of Hempstead Harbor before winter truly arrives.

Last night I called Vito at the hotel newsstand and we chatted for half an hour. He still can make me laugh. I remember writing once that Vito was the only person who could make me laugh in a certain way. I’m not sure what I meant by that, but instinctively I’d say it still sounds right.

We talked about people from college and about books and movies – all nonsensical, but very soothing nonsense.

I am in the midst of Christopher Isherwood’s fabulous memoir Christopher and His Kind, dealing with his years in Berlin; his homosexual life; his friendships with Auden, Forster and Spender; and of course his own career as a novelist.

Isherwood is the kind of man I’d like to grow into one day: discriminating, witty, hard-working, and very gentle with his earlier arrogant, bitchy self. (I wrote him a letter of sincere praise and was arrogant enough to send him some stories.)

Isherwood writes that only a truly intelligent person can allow himself to look silly. This is very true. I don’t mind being silly, Vito doesn’t, and neither does Alice, who called me last night with these words: “I’m about to make a fool of myself.”

She then read me a letter she wrote to the bestselling novelist Dr. Robin Cook (Coma). She saw an interview with him in the Sunday paper and fell in love with his photo.

Alice invited him, very wittily – I can’t do her letter any justice – to meet her and engage in some hanky-panky. She included a stamped, self-addressed envelope, no less.

June got another job offer, with Scholastic, but she’s sticking with The Trib. Cliff advised her to keep a journal on the job, so she can have an exposé of the paper when it folds, as it probably will, early in the game.

Alice asked June if it was true what Teresa told me, that June was a flirt in the old Kingsman days, and June admitted she liked to charm all the guys.

I’m certain there are more interesting things I should be recording in my journal, but why not be silly?

Here’s another: Frank, our wacky neighbor, is taking a photography course in hopes, he said, of being a Playboy/Hustler-type photographer. He told Marc that a girl he had in a hotel room last night passed out on him. “I just ran out,” Frank said. “I hope she’s okay.”

Friday, November 18, 1977

Last night at the National Arts Club was quite bizarre, but it was an interesting experience. Their mansion on Gramercy Park, once built for Governor Tilden by Vaux, is magnificent. (Next door is the Players Club, the Stanford White-designed house of Edwin Booth.)

I had never seen anything like it: Romanesque revival, I believe, in the style of Ruskin: high ceilings, magnificent paneling, paintings by famous artists (including the three presidents that were National Arts Club members: TR, Wilson and Ike), and a multicolored skylight that is indescribable.

I was greeted by a smiling young man who took me upstairs to meet the Literary Committee’s co-chairmen, Tony Zwicker, a big-boned blonde German woman, and Carl Heller, a retired professor and dean from Queens College.

The other Bread Loaf people there were Vincent, whom I last saw when Cousin Wendy and I went to Doubleday’s Fifth Avenue bookstore, where he works; Raymond Sokolov; and Gary Glover.

I was exceedingly polite and tried to be as genteel as possible. I had never been exposed to so many old-line Protestant people from “good families” before: the men in their woolly grey suits and the elderly women in their print dresses with the inevitable pin and string of pearls.

Vincent and I sat by the Club’s first woman president, Mrs. Sann (or Zann) and kept grinning like idiots as she told us innumerable details of the Club’s history, including the time someone was blackballed because his name appeared in the Congressional Record in connection with the Teapot Dome scandal.

She took us to see their gallery with its fine current exhibit of watercolors (she couldn’t understand how “an abstract mess” could have been awarded a prize).

The club promotes painting, sculpture, music, drama and writing – and now I am part of the Club.

The four of us from Bread Loaf have been given fellowships, which entitles us to use the Club facilities and to apply for membership after a year. So I can now “dine at my club” just like characters in Galsworthy or Trollope!

After interminable cocktails – I drank nothing, of course – we had dinner: very good, too, if a bit unimaginative. I sat across from Vincent, who told me about his job at Doubleday’s and the Cezanne show at MoMA, and we got into a conversation with a Viennese publisher.

Vincent wants to get married to his girlfriend. He’s very sweet and cute and so decent I could fall I love with him, but I’m not going to attempt to. I would like to keep him as an acquaintance or a friend; I have this strong feeling that he’s going to be an important writer someday.

Ray Sokolov is not at all snooty despite his fame (which seemed to escape the National Arts Club members, who appeared not to realize who he was). He told us he’s still writing his A.J. Liebling biography.

After dinner, Dr. Lola Szladits, curator of the public library’s Berg collection, spoke on her current exhibit, “Literature in Exile: English and American Writers.” She was charming and interesting.

When the evening ended, some of us were then invited up to Mrs. Zwicker’s apartment – a magnificent duplex in back of the club – where we were served wine and elegant little pastries.

I chatted with Sandy Martin, who’d just flown down from Middlebury for the evening, and with Marianne Frisch, the wife of the Swiss author Max Frisch, who’s in New York to meet with Mark Mirsky because she’s editing a special issue of Fiction devoted to German authors.

Mrs. Zwicker and Dr. Szladits were very impressed with the number of stories I’d published and both asked me to send them some. When Dr. Szladits exclaimed, “You’re a miracle!” a thrill ran through me.

I told Lola – she told me to call her that – how I’d always remember this poignant letter of Elinor Wylie’s she exhibited some years ago, and after that, she and I were completely simpatico.

Before I left, the last thing Tony Zwicker said to me was, “We’ll do a lot more for you.”

After that heady evening, I took off from work today, calling in sick. Coincidentally, my LIU paycheck finally arrived today – and they didn’t pay me anything for taking over Edelman’s class.

And despite Baumbach’s assurances, I still haven’t gotten the $200 from Brooklyn College for the Conference. I feel that since people and institutions can take such advantage of me, I’m entitled to take all I can get honestly and morally from others.