A 27-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early January, 1979


Monday, January 1, 1979

5 PM. Here we go again. Today is a mild but rainy New Year’s Day, and I’m very tired, having gotten to bed after 6 AM. I got home four hours before that, but I just couldn’t fall asleep.

Actually, I think I feel rather depressed. Tomorrow I have to get up very early and begin the winter session at Kingsborough. While I need the money, I’m not sure I really wanted to take this job; I would have preferred to go to Florida.

By the way, Grandma Sylvia was not upset by the cancellation of my visit; she told Dad she had been worried about my going to the nursing home and seeing Grandpa Nat in his present condition.

Last evening I went over to Ronna’s at 8 PM. Earlier, Mason had phoned, and I asked him to join us, but he decided to stay home alone. His week in the country made him feel better, except when he thought about school.

Mason has decided to quit teaching at the end of the month after he finishes out half the year at the junior high. “I’ll go crazy if I try to stay until June,” he told me.

He said the dinner at Chinatown went all right, but Mike and Mikey told him they didn’t think it would be a good idea to invite Shelli, whom they dislike, and so Kathy called Shelli and disinvited her. Mason said that Shelli was “fuming.”

When I arrived at Ronna’s house, Brad was there. He’s a very sober-looking WASPy guy who works in a bank and who is going for his M.B.A. Alison and Steve soon arrived; Steve’s been staying with her in Canarsie all week during Purdue’s winter break. Then Susan and Evan came with some vodka and wine – more on that later.

Ronna was being a real hostess and cook, whipping up chili and a salad, which everyone but me ate; I had eaten dinner earlier. I wasn’t as antisocial as Ronna usually thinks I am with her friends, but they’re not my friends, after all, and I wouldn’t choose to spend time with them.

I watched TV in the living room by myself until the others joined me; we had a reasonably nice time watching the usual idiocy of the revelers in Times Square and the Royal Canadians at the Waldorf.

Evan got disgustingly drunk. At first I thought he was putting it on because I had never seen anyone act so much like the drunks on movies and on TV. He was falling-down drunk, slobbering all over the place, making us all stand up and figure out who was taller than whom.

Lately I have been drinking a bit more, sipping wine with Avis and others, trying to get used to liquor, and last night I drank some champagne – but Evan’s performance nauseated me.

By 1 AM, he could hardly get up, and so Steve, who’s 6’7”, carried him into the kitchen. Evan and Susan had walked over from his house because he knew he’d get drunk. If I was Susan, I would have killed him. Then, in the kitchen, Evan started to look very ill, and sure enough, he started throwing up all over the place.

I fled to Billy’s bedroom, and funnily enough, just at that moment, carrying Chinese takeout, Billy and Mrs. C arrived home with her friend Joyce and her little son Jay, and they all came in and joined me.

Although I felt bad for Ronna, having to clean up all that mess, I wasn’t about to go out and help her. Nor was Susan, incidentally. Instead, I stayed in the bedroom with Ronna’s mother and her friend and the boys until all the other guests had left – Brad drove Susan and Evan home – and all was clean again.

When Ronna saw me, she said, “God bless your hygienic habits,” and said that Evan often gets drunk, and that he had been like that at her dinner party, too.

I had a great deal of trouble getting to sleep: my mind wouldn’t stop racing.

Avis must be so happy to be back in Germany now; she was worried about the plane because of her cold and because of a dream she’d had about a plane crash, after which she and her landlord Ludger and his children had to swim across the Atlantic. Presumably she’s safely home in Bremen with Helmut at this moment.

Tuesday, January 2, 1979

4 PM. It’s going to take me a while to adjust to my new schedule. My biorhythms – if there are such things – aren’t used to waking up at 6 AM. It’s odd for me to be going out in total darkness in the morning.

I haven’t worked in the morning since last May, and it’s hard for me to get up early. This first morning of the winter module, however, I was overeager and got up at 4:30 AM with no hope of getting back to sleep.

Today is a very rainy and strangely mild (65°) day – but the temperatures are expected to drop sharply by this evening.

I arrived at the English Department at 8 AM and was surprised to see John Colella there: Howard called him last night and asked him to teach an English 23 section. Other adjuncts and interns had also been called, some to teach an advanced non-remedial English 22 class I would have loved to get.

However, my English 12 class looks pretty good. So far I’ve got sixteen students, half women, half men, mostly white; I’ve got a retired fireman and a couple of older people, so that’s helpful.

I gave them my usual opening spiel about writing and then had them write on “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Even though it was a rather simple question, the responses I got back were encouraging. Most of them know what a sentence is, and hopefully I will not have to spend a great deal of time teaching grammar.

I left campus at 10 AM because Evalin was too flustered to give me the employment forms I need to fill out. I still have to prepare later for tomorrow’s class: it is a bit of work, but it’s bound to get easier as the semester goes along.

This week’s got only two more sessions, so by the weekend, I should be able to catch up. I’m probably better off working than not working – not only for the money but so I don’t feel so useless.

I want to get back into writing again, yet I don’t seem to be able to. Or is it just that I don’t want to write stories for little magazines anymore? After publishing about a hundred stories, I’d like to attempt something new – especially because the book is being publishing and I no longer need to submit so desperately.

Fifth Sun, a populist magazine on newsprint, arrived in today’s mail. It featured my “Significant Others,” a very old story – and one I could have improved greatly. I’m sensitive to the charge of endlessly repeating myself, and I don’t want to do that.

But I don’t know what else to do. Ahead of me I have a lot of soul-searching and attempts at new forms and new themes. What bothers me is that I might not have time to write.

Last night I got a call from a woman from Cummington Community for the Arts in the Berkshires. She wanted to interview me before they accepted me for the winter, but I told her about my job and the acceptance from Virginia for the summer.

I’ve begun reading John Updike’s new novel, The Coup; Alice sent me a review copy that came, for whatever reason, to Seventeen.

Before and after having dinner alone at the Floridian, I wrote Libby and George Myers and Brian Robertson, and I also wrote to thank Peter Spielberg for a fine letter of recommendation.

Thursday, January 4, 1979

7 PM. Last night I finally slept well. I’m beginning to adjust my biorhythms to my new schedule, though by the time I get full accustomed to it, it will be mid-February and the term will be over.

I do like my class a good deal more than I liked last term’s classes. They’re a quieter bunch; maybe it’s the early morning hour although I also suspect it’s because I have a good percentage of people over 30 – a few married women and even that 55-year-old retired fireman – to stabilize things.

Today I taught Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” As Mel Barron told me last week, the students really need cultural enrichment more than anything else, and I enjoy imparting that. In the middle, I gave them a ten-minute break and I’ve been keeping them to the end of the hour with no strain on my part and no blatant boredom on theirs.

I don’t like Evalin, the department secretary, who has a very imperious manner; even when she’s being nice, it seems false. I learned that John Colella gave up his course to someone else because he has to work on his dissertation.

It felt wonderful to get out of school at 10:30 AM and feel free, knowing that I don’t have to work tomorrow or the following two days. The sense of freedom is ludicrous, of course, since the “work” is really a pleasure and I’m grateful for it to get me through the worst part of the winter.

By mid-February and the term’s end, we will be close (at least in my mind) to spring. Today was clear and again very cold, with a high only in the 20°s.

Last night I had a long talk with Pete Cherches, with whom I can discuss the small press scene, the MFA-academic jungle, and the perils of being a fiction writer in a way I can’t with anyone else.

I talked to Pete about the article on the Fiction Collective in TriQuarterly. In it, Gene Lyons accuses the Collective of academicism and being a vanity press. He states that he’s never been able to read a Fiction Collective novel from beginning to end; with a few exceptions, neither have I.

And I agree with Lyons that academia and “creative writing” as a discipline foster a hermetic view of writing that tends to lead to works of literature that are difficult and so need to be explained by professors. (What would they do without Joyce?).

It also relies on the buddy system for jobs, publications and readings. And what is the point of being published in so many places if no one’s reading you?

Yet I seem to be an exception to some of Lyons’s charges in that I do read and buy the works of my contemporaries – as my checkbook and bookshelves will attest. And one reason I haven’t written lately is that I haven’t fully resolved what it is I want to say and how I want to say it.

Once I would have trumpeted Baumbach and Company’s party line, but now – is this arrogance? – I believe that good fiction and poetry will eventually get published, though probably not often by a commercial press.

Maybe what I’m doing now is reassessing my audience. Before Taplinger, it was almost as though I were writing for no one – and that made me very narcissistic and self-conscious (although it also led me to take great risks). Now that I am beginning to get a reputation and a public hearing, I don’t need or want to repeat my old successes. I’d rather go on to new failures.

Saturday, January 6, 1979

6 PM. I’m tired and cold, especially my feet, but I am glad I got out of this room today. The first snow of the season fell last night, and you know how snow depresses me. I made up my mind to get out, and I did, so now I know it can be done. I always think it’s never going to snow.

Early this morning, I awoke from a dream about seeing Mara at the Grand Army Plaza library and I looked out my window – I’m not sure why – and saw white covering the block.

I heard someone in the bathroom and said, “Who’s there?”

Mom said, “It’s me.”

“It’s snowing out.”

“You’re kidding.” Then she came into my room and looked out the window and stumbled her way back to her room to tell Dad.

I fell back into a dream about a cute, lovable baby king and getting a needle from the dentist (who was Carl Reiner) and my car getting stolen but me driving it anyway.

At 9 AM, I woke up for good, had breakfast alone, shaved and showered. While I was showering, for some reason I thought of my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Seinfeld, and a book we had to read in his class, What You Should Know About Communism – And Why.

I went out to help Dad shovel the snow. Everyone on the block was out and it felt like a community, as the block always does the morning after a snowfall. As I was cleaning off my car, I thought about this being something to remember, the block’s people out shoveling, because one day it will be as quaint as milking cows or cranking up cars to start them.

There was no mail and no work to do and I began to feel terribly empty and closed-in. I knew that I couldn’t hang around the house, so I asked Dad if he could drive me to the Junction. There, I had lunch at Jentz, and even though I thought I might have an anxiety attack on the IRT, I took the train to Union Square.

I avoided any overpowering anxiety and went to Barnes & Noble, where I spent $13 – too much – on books on writing and death. Then I trudged down Fifth Avenue, getting my feet wet at the slushy corners, and went into the Quad to see Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

It was an exquisite film with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, who are both beautiful; the photography by Haskell Wexler was magnificent. I sat in the last row of the theater and drank coke.

At 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, a man tried to sell me “tooies” (Tuinals), and at the West 4th Station, a Jamaican man came up to me and said, “Read this book: it’s beautiful,” handing me Steps to Jesus.

I got on a very lively D train that had some young people on it, and it was nice until an old man who smelled of urine sat down next to me. It was dark and 5 PM when I got to Kings Highway, feeling a story in me.

I bought a Flair and a notebook – but as I waited for the bus a long time, the story melted away. The Mill Basin bus never came, so I got on the Avenue R bus, took it to Kings Plaza and walked home in the desolate landscape.

Tonight I was supposed to go out with the family to a restaurant to celebrate Marc’s 24th birthday tomorrow, but I’m too tired. I’ve done most of my work for school and can’t manage (don’t want) to get ahead of myself.

There may be more snow tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 9, 1979

7 PM. Last evening Harvey phoned. He had been in California for a couple of weeks, visiting old friends from his Berkeley days. When he asked about my book, of course I tried to downplay it, as I didn’t want to make him feel envious.

Harvey mentioned that Joel Agee had gotten back from the artists’ colony at Sweet Briar, and Joel said he had a very good time there. I’m looking forward to talking to Joel about it, and primarily for that reason, I told Harvey I’d be glad to join him, Joel and some other people in an informal writing workshop if they can get one together.

I also spoke to Ronna, who’s feeling fine, and we made a date for Friday evening. I went to bed early and had a curiously satisfying dream I can’t remember.

The sky was clear as I drove to Kingsborough this morning; I’m getting used to the early hours. I get tea – either camomile or peppermint – at the cafeteria, go up to the English Department to check my mailbox, and then go downstairs to my classroom. (I’m grateful I don’t have to trek all the way to the temporary buildings as I did last fall.)

I went over simple, compound and complex sentences in the first hour, and some essays by Langston Hughes and Joan Didion in the second hour; today’s class stayed the entire two hours.

While I hate to give it a kinahora, this class has been more enjoyable than any class I’ve ever taught except for The Novel at LIU last summer. Coming home to put away my briefcase, I read the paper and soon left for the D train.

At the public library, I was let into the locked Berg Collection by a young man who held a buzzer that allowed me to open the door; Lola was at her desk, with Teresa sitting nearby. We decided to eat in the refined atmosphere of the CUNY Graduate Center cafeteria, where Lola and Teresa spoke about the library throughout the meal.

Apparently the bureaucrats and the budget-minded have taken over, and there is no place for the pursuit of cultural and intellectual excellence anymore: that was the theme of our afternoon’s conversation.

Teresa found that no one working in PR could care less about the traditions of the library as a great cultural institution, and apparently the higher-ups are just as bad. Teresa has discovered an ally in Lola, who, because of her quasi-independent position as curator of the Berg Collection, can criticize things more openly than most.

Lola mentioned her husband, a professor of Columbia she clearly adores, and Teresa and I both felt embarrassed, I think, to have suspected Lola’s motives for befriending me. She’s a formidable gentlewoman, and I am in awe of her learning and her experience.

God knows why Lola thinks I’m worth paying attention to, as I feel like a vulgar ignoramus in her presence. Back at the Berg Collection, Lola let Teresa and me read an essay by the former (now deceased) head of the Guggenheim Foundation on the decline of excellence in academia and the foundations.

Lola showed me the new catalog from Charles Hamilton, the autograph dealer, because she thought I would be interested in Hitler’s . . . what do you call them? The stickers you place in books, the ones that say your name and “Ex Libris”? See how uncultured I am not to know what they’re called!

Yet I was couth enough to handle the books in the collection with great respect, as Lola noticed.

I asked to see a letter from Henry James to Julia Stephen, and I held it with reverence and a little fright (lest I rip it – notice James’s influence in that “lest”): 34 De Vere Gardens W., said the stationery, and at that address Henry James, the Master, was writing the mother of Virginia Woolf in 1891. I couldn’t believe both of them had held the same piece of paper I was holding.

The letter, in James’s scrawl, contained nothing of great interest. It was mostly polite chitchat although James did write that “England is my destiny.” When I left, I kissed Lola and told her I’d come to see her again.

Wednesday, January 10, 1979

7 PM. I’ve just come home from dinner alone at the counter of The Arch: a hamburger deluxe, tea, and a sinful free macaroon on my way out. I can’t help feeling that my life is going more smoothly than I have a right to ask.

Again, the neurotic in me remembers ten years ago and can’t shake the feeling that this is all a mirage. I would like to write that I am happy, but I am afraid to. Sometimes, though, I feel as though I’m just at the beginning of a great adventure.

Yesterday Lola said that although she has “the perfect job,” she has gotten used to it. Twenty years ago she would get up every morning unable to contain her surprise at her good fortune. She would get to the library at 8 AM, waiting for her day’s adventures to begin.

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I was in Florida and riding piggyback on this very attractive fortyish woman who thought I was delightfully sexy and witty.

Today I taught a lesson on nouns – singular and plural, possessives, capitalization – and managed to throw in facts on the Battle of the Bulge, the origin of the names of months, and other trivia I think provides the cultural enrichment that Mel Barron rightly says the students so badly need. I enjoyed myself immensely; class was a real high.

Driving home, I stopped by a light by Kings Plaza, and the car next to me honked. It was Glenn Latino, my student, who lives around the corner, who was with his girlfriend.

Yesterday, when I was with Lola and Teresa, Patricia Traspal from Phillips Academy in Andover called. I returned her call when I got home today, and as I expected, they want me to come for a job interview as soon as possible.

I told her I could make it on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, but the English chairman, Kelly Rice, has another interview scheduled that day. So I made it for a week from Friday, at 11:30 AM. Ms. Traspal gave me directions by bus from Boston; it’s a 45-minute ride and I can get off right at the school.

Now I have to decide whether I want to go to Boston by plane, train or bus. The train and bus both take about five hours and cost about $30 to $40 round-trip – but then I’d have to stay over in a motel Thursday night.

The shuttle from LaGuardia leaves every hour, takes an hour, and costs $80 round-trip. That’s a lot of money, and doing it all in one day might be exhausting, but flying could be fun – or at least good practice. Either way, I can see Boston, and maybe Caaron or David. We’ll see.

When I called up Ronna and told her about the interview and the possibility of my teaching at Andover, she said slyly, “All those boys. . .”

“It’s co-ed now,” I said.

“All those boys. . .” Ronna repeated, and I had to chuckle. It made me want to hug her to pieces; she knows me so well. I can’t deny that the possibilities have crossed my mind.

(I can’t help looking at Glenn Latino, either. What’s the point of teaching if you can’t get crushes on your students and vice versa? Speaking of which, I saw Maria Martinez today at school today.)

I’m a bit afraid of going to Massachusetts by myself, but it’s high time I learn to do these things – and secretly I’m raring to go. What excites me are the possibilities open to me, the options, as if I indeed have control over my fate. For me, “control” has always been the key issue in my depressions and my highs.

I went to Burt Eschen for a checkup, and he said my eyes and contact lenses are in good shape. This afternoon I marked papers and exercised. Even though I haven’t been writing, I feel as if I’m laying the groundwork for future stories – or perhaps a novel.