A 28-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-February, 1980


Monday, February 11, 1980

2 PM. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so depressed. It’s beginning to seem that there’s nothing to live for anymore. I’m not interested in eating, sleeping (I can’t do those things anyway), work, sex.

I don’t even make my bed anymore. I’m so incredibly depressed and dizzy. The whole world has been floating by for days. Last night the vertigo got very bad. I couldn’t even lie in bed. I felt very alone and I tried to cry, but not much came out.

In the early morning, about 5 AM, I managed to get a few hours’ sleep, and I had lovely dreams about being with my family in Florida. When I got up, I was so dizzy I was scared. I called my grandparents, who told me I was panicking.

But I wanted to see a specialist. I made an appointment with Marc’s doctor, Dr. Brownstein, and Grandpa Herb brought the car over. I was very dizzy and sick driving out to Bay Ridge.

In the doctor’s office, he did some tests and said it’s just labyrinthitis caused by a bad sinus condition. He gave me a penicillin prescription and one for Actifed, which I already had.

I filled the prescriptions and put $300 in my checking account so that I could cover the $50 check I wrote the doctor as well as this month’s rent. Now I’m here.

In the mail: My loan application was rejected, I got a note from a magazine saying they had no money to publish poems that they’d accepted, and Miami-Dade Community College said they do have part-time openings that pay $750 a course but they need to interview me to see if I’m qualified. Also, a 13-year-old girl in Wisconsin wants to know what I’d do about inflation as Vice President.

I feel empty, and it’s scary because I don’t feel scared. I feel isolated, without hope, unable to work or eat or do much of anything. It’s as if there’s no way out, so what’s the sense of hanging on? I wish I had the courage or the cowardice to stuff all the Triavils, Actifeds, Antiverts and penicillin pills down my throat.

I’m tired of all this coping. Sure, I eventually bob up a little, but that’s only because I can’t stay that depressed for long. I do feel that I’ve got nothing to live for.

Eleven years ago tomorrow was the nadir of my 1968-69 depression, and I don’t want to face that kind of hell again. Life seems more and more a simple cycle in which false expectations, hard education, and darkest despair go round and round – until it is simply too painful for me to make the swing from despair back to expectations again.

Great expectations? No more. I’m too tired, too sick, too cynical and too smart for that stuff. A pity I haven’t got something a little more terminal than labyrinthitis. All in good time.

This diary isn’t going to be finished. Part of me has known that since Christmas, or maybe before that. Yep, I’m checking out of the hotel, leaving the station, ending the lecture, finishing the last bottle, walking out of the theater during intermission.

I have little desire to see the 1980s turn into whatever they turn into. I had one second chance, and I made it through the 1970s. Why spoil a good thing?

Contemplating suicide tends to relax me. I’m sure a genuine attempt, if failed, would give me enough spirit for another go-round, but what would I do for an encore? “Goodbye, cruel world”? Ah, Grayson, always the sardonic wit. But the pain, my friend, is very real.

Wednesday, February 13, 1980

2 PM. I’ve taken a few steps which have relieved me a bit. I’ve canceled all my classes for the rest of the week at SVA and Touro College, and I’ve quit NYCCC; I called and left a message for Lou Rivers.

I don’t think I’m going to tell him I’m sick, though. Let him think I’m going on to a big job in PR or something: an adjunct’s paltry revenge. I never should have taken that job anyway.

Now I’ll wait for Kingsborough to call me with a couple of courses in three weeks. I’m pretty sure they will, and I’d much rather be there than in downtown Brooklyn.

So now I have the next five days to recover – and I do intend to recover. Yesterday when I went to the health food store, the woman suggested I take niacin three times a day. It gives me a rush, but it can’t hurt.

I loaded up on vitamins, too. Teresa’s doctor friends suggested I stop taking the Actifed, as it may be increasing my dizziness, and Dr. Boggiano suggested that, too. But it’s important I keep taking the penicillin.

I am feeling a touch better today. I had another good night and this morning’s 6 AM interview on the Steve Powers show on WMCA went very well. I played up how Ethel and Herbert are reacting to being celebrities (no, Grandpa wasn’t dating Farrah Fawcett; yes, Ethel and Herbert may market their own line of underwear) and it was hysterically funny.

The Voice “Scenes” column decided not to use it, so it didn’t see print anywhere, but I did get some radio mileage out of my grandparents’ fan club idea.

For the third day out of the last four, there was no mail today: weird.

Last night I watched The Exorcist, which wasn’t as scary as I feared.

After the movie, Josh called to say that he was not enjoying the NYU computer class. He transferred into Simon’s section, and the teacher asked them all why they were there.

Most of them were English or social science majors who couldn’t make a living. The teacher told them that after the 14-week course is over, they’ll be able to find good jobs easily. Maybe I should take the course myself.

It’s become a little milder – about 40° highs during the day – and I have hopes for an early spring. February is almost half over, and I want to see this month end soon. I’ve always had lousy Februarys.

Mom called, and I’m grateful for that; I feel alone here without my family. Even if I don’t have a job there, I shall probably move to Florida in the fall. I’m tired of New York, and I’d rather have an uncertain future in clean, warm Florida than in dirty, cold New York. I’ve got to talk with Dr. Pasquale about it.

If I had to, I’d take adjunct jobs – but I’m sure I could find a decent job in publishing or PR or journalism or something. My credits are more likely to look impressive to Floridians than to jaded New Yorkers.

I haven’t really been happy alone here in Rockaway. I’ve learned I can live on my own, but it’s been a depressing, stingy time. I need a change of scenery badly. On my trip, I was delighted with Florida and I think there’s more a future for me there.

Saturday, February 16, 1980

7 PM. I continue to improve my emotional outlook, but I still feel quite dizzy at times; however, I do think the vertigo is lessening.

Today I took my grandparents to Manhattan to be guests on the Barry Farber radio show. I went over to their house for lunch and told them we were scheduled for 3:30 PM; surprisingly, they agreed to go.

It was snowing as we drove up and I got very dizzy and nauseated, but we made it to Times Square. My grandparents hadn’t been in Manhattan in years. We went up to the studio, in a rather sleazy building on 42nd Street, and were greeted warmly by Deirdre, the producer, and by Barry Farber himself.

Ushered to a studio, we did voice readings into our mikes – I’m an old hand at that after my experience at WBAI – and Barry began the program by saying that my press release was the best one he’d read in twenty years.

After he read the release, Barry began interviewing us, although mostly it was Grandpa Herb who talked. Barry wanted to do the show as the experience of a couple of Jewish immigrants.

My grandparents were so natural, they were perfect as they spoke of the pogroms in Russia, their arrival in America, living through the Depression, etc. I was so proud of them – and proud of myself, too.

Before my grandparents die, they are getting the recognition they deserve. Why shouldn’t everybody be famous for fifteen minutes? Barry said I was “the grandson of the year,” but really, I wanted it to be their show, and it was.

It seemed like something out of a dream, but I had made it reality. We were interviewed for an hour, with breaks for commercials and the time flew by. (Notice, I wasn’t at all dizzy while we were in the studio.)

It was a golden moment for me, and I’m sure it’s a thrill my grandparents won’t ever forget. You know, I’m always so hard on myself, so let me tell myself here what a great job I did.

My grandparents couldn’t stop talking about it the whole way home.

Deidre and Barry said they’d let us know when it will be aired. Meanwhile, Grandma Ethel got a call from her cousin Sylvia, who’d already heard my interview about them on the Steve Powers show.

Barry Farber said he’s going to join my grandparents’ fan club, and he announced the group’s address – my P.O. box – at least five times during the show. Who knows, maybe all this will snowball into something big?

Teaching college seems more and more a dead end. Last night Denis phoned and said he’s had it: he’s doing two courses at NYCCC and one English 12 section at LIU (for a big $750).

Like me, Josh, Simon and so many others, Denis is tired of living life like a pauper with no job security, no respect and no future. But he doesn’t know how to get out.

This evening Pete called and told me that he went to a meeting with the other tutors at Baruch. “You know that fifteen years ago, the twenty tutors sitting around that table would have been respected teachers, professors at good schools,” Pete said. They all have master’s degrees and some have doctorates; most have been adjuncts.

It’s pathetic. Pete says he’s got a friend taking the NYU computer course with Simon and Josh, and that he thinks they might have the right idea.

I asked about the other Brooklyn College MFA students. Some of them, Pete reported, are planning to go to law school, some think they can get the one full-time teaching job – they can’t – and some are just depressed.

A whole generation of scholars and professors will be lost, and no one seems to care. Certainly the entrenched faculty don’t care; Pete said he thinks Baumbach doesn’t give a damn what happens to the MFA graduates.

Obviously I’ve got to give up teaching. But – cliché time, folks – what do I do next?

Monday, February 18, 1980

5 PM. If only I were not sick, life would be so good right now. Last night I called my parents. I know I worried them, but I need someone to lean on. Marc will be back on Wednesday, and maybe having him up here will make me feel easier.

I have an appointment tonight with Dr. Robbins. I don’t know what a chiropractor can for me, but Mom suggested I go to him. She had Ménière’s syndrome when she first got married and said she went to many doctors over a period of months and didn’t get help till she saw Dr. Robbins.

I doubt if I can make my class tomorrow at SVA; if anything, I’m feeling worse today. Teresa tells me I should just forget about it, but I’m too sick to function. I had diarrhea when I woke up, and I’ve been very woozy and sick to my stomach all day.

Ronna and Jordan came over for a visit this afternoon. Jordan is striking-looking: thin, bearded, with glasses. He looks like a Jewish overachiever, which is what I think he is.

He’s a good man – earnest, sincere, gentle – and I see that he and Ronna are very much in love. I’m glad. We had a pleasant afternoon: I made them tea and we chatted.

I, for one, was not uncomfortable although I think Jordan was sizing me up a little. But that’s natural – and anyway, I’m no threat to him.

I like Ronna; we never did have a very passionate relationship, and for seven of the nine years that we know each other, we’ve been friends and not lovers.

We did talk a little about the past: about Shelli, about Ivan, about the old days. Odd that we now relate to each other as we originally did, when she was seeing Ivan and I was seeing Shelli.

Jordan and I talked about Brooklyn College, where he was a bio major – of course, he started college after I graduated – and about law school and other safe topics.

Ronna looked tired – but who am I to talk, for I must look like shit. It’s funny: I know they’re talking about me, the way Avis and Josh and the others must have discussed me after they left here, visiting sick me over the past week.

I wonder if everyone feels sorry for me. It’s been so long that I can’t even remember what being part of a couple was like. Will I ever feel that again?

Of course, at this moment I most wonder if I’ll ever be well again. It almost doesn’t seem possible. While I don’t really believe I’ve got a serious illness, I do think this is going to be a long-term nuisance that will change my life. And that scares me.

Day after day goes by, and I feel no better: it’s frustrating and scary. Avis and Simon on Saturday night, Josh and Harry yesterday, Ronna and Jordan today: I haven’t had visitors like this in many months. Are they all coming to pay their last respects?

Gary gave me the name of an ear doctor, but the guy was out of town. Gary also suggested that this might have something to do with flying. Remember, I had dizziness after my cold in Florida. And maybe that stomach virus was really a reaction to flying. Oh, I’m so tired of being ill.

Judy Licht of WNEW/Channel 5’s 10 PM News called to say she’d like to do a story on the Herbert and Ethel fan club. She told me to get fan magazines and photos of my grandparents, and she told me to send her material on my book.

Judy suggested we might even get Andy Warhol to comment on my grandparents in the segment. She said she’d like to come to my grandparents’ apartment on Thursday or Friday.

If only I were well, I could fully enjoy this: it might be my big break. Maybe by the end of the week I’ll feel better, but deep down I doubt it. Oh God.

Wednesday, February 20, 1980

3 PM. I’m still dizzy, but I’m trying to function. The penicillin ran out, and I’m not taking Actifed because it makes me sleepy. It’s a beautiful day – sunny and 50°– and I’m writing this by my open window. There just may be a spring this year after all.

This last month, since I’ve returned from Florida, has been one of the most difficult of my life. I’ve had to cope with health problems, money problems, career decisions and pressures, and basically I’ve been on my own.

I can’t wait for February to end; it’s been a horrible month. Tonight I’ll do my best to teach for Touro at Beach Channel High School, and I’ll try to manage teaching tomorrow morning at SVA. I just hope I’ll be up for Alice’s party and the WNET taping this weekend.

Last night Scott called to see if Avis and I wanted to have dinner with him. He was his usual charming, self-centered self (although he did say his father heard me on Barry Farber). I phoned Avis at work and she said to make it another time, as she, along with Simon, is coming down with a cold.

Teresa also said she wasn’t feeling well when I spoke to her at work today. Teresa told me that Avis had said my apartment is “too neat, it’s like somebody’s mother’s place.” But Avis herself is such a slob; Teresa said she could tell that the way Avis left everything after spending the night at Teresa’s.

I enjoy keeping a clean and orderly apartment. I hate clutter and dirt. Let Avis and Josh and Simon and Ronna live like slobs; I refuse to apologize for being neat. I’m annoyed with Avis, who’s always judging.

This morning I went to the Dime and took out another savings book loan for $200; I want to keep most of my money in Citibank now. I have no money at the moment, except for $40 in checking and $10 in savings.

I went across Flatbush Avenue to Herzfeld & Stern, where I sold seven shares of CBS and one share each of Martin-Marietta and Viacom. Next week I should get a check for that for about $400 – and I’m going to need it.

Marc came over last night and said he’d give me money if I needed it. Marc said I should ask him rather than upsetting Mom and Dad. I guess I’ll have to manage somehow. Right now I’m not in debt at all, and so I don’t feel too bad about borrowing money.

It’s always going to be a struggle. Maybe I should take on odd jobs instead of teaching – you know, drive a cab, be a waiter, clean up apartments. If I have to write, I’ll write.

Felix Stefanile wrote an essay in Sunday’s Times Book Review in which he said that the best advice he could give a writer is: Get a job. I don’t want to rely on grants or cushy jobs on the literary circuit, and it seems almost impossible to make a living from my writing.

But I would rather be broke than prostituting myself for Hollywood; I don’t want to produce junk for some dumb public to swallow whole.

Most writers, throughout history, have had to work to support themselves, and maybe getting out of academia into something with more of a future will be good for me – not only financially but for my writing as well.

Harry Smith asked in Small Press Review: “Can you name a great poet with a Ph.D. in English? Or a great novelist with an MFA from a writing program?” I aspire to be more than a Baumbach or a Sukenick, authors who write books no one but themselves and each other read. I believe I’m better than that.

So I can’t count on NEA, Guggenheims, Yaddo, MacDowell, readings at the 92nd Street YMHA, or any other gift. At least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done it all on my own. And right now I do have that satisfaction.