A 30-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-June 1981


Monday, June 8, 1981

It’s after midnight now, and I’m at Teresa’s. She’s fast asleep already. I got here an hour ago after spending the evening with Ronna.

Last night in Brooklyn, I slept decently and woke up early. Today was a gorgeous day: warm but not hot and not humid at all.

I decided that I’ve got to try to win the Tropic Magazine short story contest. The way to go about it is to psych out the judge, Evelyn Mayerson, by learning everything I can about what she likes.

So I decided to go to Brooklyn College to do research on her. Access to the campus was limited because they were setting up for commencement, but I got in with my faculty ID.

I was in the library for a couple of hours reading, and I ran into Prof. Murphy, who complained about having to teach remedial writing to “people who are incapable of ever learning how to write.”

In Campus Corner for lunch, I found myself sitting next to Davey and a guy he was doing a renovation job with. Ain’t it always like that: you don’t see someone for years, and then you run into them two days in a row.

I was in a sunny mood all day and read Mayerson’s Sanjo all afternoon: she loves outcasts, old people, Jews, wisecracks and clinical details.

At 6 PM, I took the subway uptown and met Ronna at her apartment on West End Avenue, which was a real mess. She looked better than she had in January and we had a great time together. I know I looked great, with a fresh tan, a blond beard, a nice shirt (Sasson) and jeans (Sasson).

We walked down to 72nd Street and had dinner at the Swiss Chalet: that place is a real find. Ronna is fed up with her job and plans to ask for a change to editorial work but fears she might get fired.

We talked about her family, my family, and our friends from college. She told me she’s had it with Susan and Evan and is seeing a lot more of Cara and Sid.

Ronna obviously loves Jordan a lot and may marry him; she definitely plans on getting married and having kids.

And we talked about Henry James and Flaubert, about Boston and Florida, about my literary ambitions and her desire to play chamber music.

Back at her apartment, we drank a liter of Tab and became nostalgic. At one point Ronna said to me something like, “But you don’t have any scars,” and I said, “Only –” and I stopped and then we both laughed because she knew what I was going to say and I knew that she knew and she knew that I knew that she knew.

Her roommate Lori joined us and seemed impressed with my publishing record; she works at Merrill Lynch and wants to write fiction.

I left their apartment at 11 PM after a great evening for both me and Ronna, who said, “You’re a breath of fresh air.”

As I walked down West End Avenue, I realized that I’ll always be a kind of romantic figure in Ronna’s life and that we will never forget each other. All I ever really wanted was her respect.

When I got to Teresa’s, I could see that she was exhausted from settling all the stuff into the house in the Berkshires and she didn’t feel like talking about it.

Barbara came down and told us about her glamorous evening with Stewart at the Tonys last night. She sat next to the Lindsays, hobnobbed with the theater people, and danced romantically with Stewart.

(Jack Klugman, dancing next to them, whispered to Stewart, “You devil,” or something better.)

Mom and Dad did get back to Davie, but they got a speeding ticket, got caught in a thunderstorm, and got delayed by an accident.

Saturday, June 13, 1981

3 PM. My low point yesterday came at about 5 PM. I felt very queasy and I began crying because I was so sick and frightened and alone.

Going to the bathroom, I stuck my finger down my throat so I would vomit. I didn’t have anything to throw up, but retching made me feel better.

Soon Teresa’s friend Sam came over to wait for her; they were going to a Gato Barbieri concert at the Bottom Line. I was just grateful for someone pleasant to talk with.

Sam said he had felt achy and had diarrhea and nausea for a couple of days, too, as did a lot of his friends; some of them saw doctors who said it was only a virus which would go away in three days.

After Teresa and Sam left, I ventured out to get something to eat, and I met Karen and her mother. Karen said her fight with Teresa was silly but she felt she needed to assert herself.

Back home, I managed to eat some of the carrot cake and drink some of the Coke I bought at the Korean store: not a great dinner, but it was something. After watching some TV, I started to feel pretty good.

Although I slept well, I felt extremely tired this morning. My arms and legs still ache terribly, but my stomach is less rocky.

So now I’ve been sick for days in a strange apartment all by myself. Have I learned anything from this? Well, maybe that I can cope better than I thought I could.

The coming week isn’t going to be easy, and I do dread it; perhaps when it’s over and I’m back in Florida and more relaxed, I’ll be able to sort out my New York experiences in perspective.

I’m not sorry for any of it, though I do wish I would have gone back to Florida last Sunday. Emerson says that when a man is defeated, tormented, in turmoil, then he really gains experience, moderation and skill.

Next weekend I’ll be in Florida and I’ll be with Dad on Father’s Day. (That was the weekend last year when I was so sick with diarrhea at MacDowell, remember?)

There was a front-page article on Broward County in today’s Times; it dealt with the conflicts between the young and the old. I think Florida will now replace New York as my sentimental home; it’s the place where I can feel most comfortable and nurtured.

New York still doesn’t intimidate me, and I doubt if it ever will: I can curse out cabdrivers with the best of them and I feel pretty blasé when I pass bizarre people on the street.

But I do feel alienated from my friends here. Pete Cherches says that’s because my old friends are rich professionals and not struggling artists like his friends. I suppose. . .

Maybe it’s time, finally, for me to give up my old friendships. (Can you believe that Alice never called?) I still feel close to Josh, Teresa, Mikey and the others, but I really need to make new friends who are more like Crad Kilodney and George Myers.

Today I called Grandma Ethel while she and Grandpa Herb were relaxing on the terrace. Marc said he’ll come by here Monday morning, so I can do various chores and leave the city from Brooklyn that night.

Teresa is out campaigning with Andrew today, and I’m lying around the apartment. I feel so tired I can hardly move, but I hope this will end soon.

It’s definitely a virus; the only good thing about it is that I should be okay in New Orleans, Florida and Virginia.

Tuesday, June 16, 1981

Noon. I’m still in New York.

My flight to New Orleans last night was cancelled, and I’ve been booked on a flight that leaves today at 5 PM and gets into New Orleans at 7 PM. This was actually the more expensive flight that I originally had wanted, so I think what happened was for the best.

Yesterday Alice called just before Marc came to pick me up. She had phoned Teresa to get in touch with me, and I guess Teresa had told her I was going away for good. Alice said she’d call me in Florida.

Marc came at 2 PM and we drove back to Brooklyn together. He said he had to go out and let me in the apartment. What Marc didn’t know as that I immediately went out the back door to go to the cleaners.

A young woman said, “Hello, Richard,” to me, and I, not recognizing her, said “Hi” and walked on. Then I realized it was Rikki. Marc must have told her to wait in the back so I wouldn’t run into her.

I questioned Penina about it, and she said Rikki had been “visiting” for the weekend. Rikki’s things weren’t in the apartment, but I did see bags full of grass and coke.

As the afternoon progressed, I became increasingly panicky. When Marc came home, I took the car to a diner and had dinner. Almost immediately afterwards, I felt nauseated.

I came home and felt awful. I’ve still got this virus, I thought, and I took my temperature and found it was over 100° F.

Seeing that, I sunk into a panic familiar to me from adolescence: I was scheduled to do something important – attend a bar mitzvah, wedding, or graduation; take a trip or a test – and I was ill and panicky about being sick.

I envisioned a three-hour flight during which I was throwing up uncontrollably. Why did this have to happen now?, I thought, and I felt it was the crisis point of my life. But if I decided to avoid the trip to New Orleans – and hence the job there – I was (I thought) abandoning myself to a new breakdown.

I pictured myself as an agoraphobic in Florida. When I tried to reach my parents, they were out to dinner. I cried and felt miserable and I hit my head with my fists.

Finally I decided that I had to go to New Orleans despite my fear – which seemed worse than any fear I’d experienced in years.

For the first time in a long time, I understood why I didn’t go to college on that first day of the fall 1968 semester: I had been through too much: those daily attacks of nausea and anxiety in high school had made me too exhausted to endure them any further.

But last night, in contrast, I was determined to outlast my dread. Dread is the perfect word to describe how I felt. I couldn’t see surviving the night.

Gradually, though, I convinced myself that even if I was about to experience the worst three hours of my life, I had to do it. On the ride to Kennedy, Marc and I shared a joint which helped to calm me down and settle my stomach.

And when I got to the Delta terminal, the notice on the screen (FLT 199 CANCELLED) wiped away all my anxiety with a single stroke. Suddenly I realized that my nausea and fever had not been caused by a virus but by my fear.

I decided not to take the flight to Atlanta and change planes that night because that would have given me an arrival time of 2 AM (3 AM Eastern time). So I went back to Marc’s and got into bed.

I didn’t sleep all that much, but I was relaxed. Undoubtedly I’m going to be very nervous in a few hours, but now I feel better about the trip. Tom will be at the airport to pick me up and I’ll be arriving in daylight.

Mom told me I got $138 worth of unemployment checks: that’s a welcome surprise.

Wednesday, June 17, 1981

1 AM Thursday. In the past day and a half I’ve done things I couldn’t have pictured myself doing even a year ago. Yes, I am a stronger person now, and no, I’m not in any danger of reverting to the agoraphobic I once was.­

Marc took me to Kennedy Airport on Tuesday afternoon and I boarded the plane to New Orleans. Although I was nervous, I definitely did not panic, and I was able to enjoy a conversation with my seatmate, a writer who lives in New York and Miami Beach; her name was Something Keith who’s got self-help books out.

We landed on time, at 7:15 PM Central Daylight Time, and Tom and David Vancil were on hand to meet me and drive me back to town. New Orleans was very hot and humid, but it hadn’t been much better in New York.

After getting my stuff stowed away at Tom’s place, we went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant on the corner of St. Charles and Fern.

Tom was very pissed because David probably won’t get the librarian/ administrative job. After a long day of interviews, it looked as though the black school board members were insisting on a candidate from the system.

David, a tall, soft-spoken fellow, didn’t seem too disappointed, as he’s a leading candidate for a job in Houston.

I didn’t sleep very much, but I was grateful for Tom’s air conditioner. In the morning, David drove back to Lake Charles on his way to Austin, and Tom left early for NOCCA.

My interview was at 9:30 AM, but I was there early, all dressed up and feeling confident. The interview went well, as I answered questions from Tom, Dr. Tews, Eustace, a black man from Touro Street, and Tonya Foster (who posed real toughies).

I left feeling even more confident and energized; despite the heat, I walked eight blocks out of my way. The Uptown neighborhood is really beautiful. It reminds me a little of Prospect Park South in Brooklyn, but New Orleans has a flavor I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Is it the magnolias which make it smell that way?

I watched TV till Tom and Eustace came in, telling me I’d received a score of 10 all around and was ahead of all the other candidates.

I was relieved, and so was Eustace, who said he’s glad he didn’t have to lie because I really was the best. The official word will go out next week, but the job is mine.

Tom took Eustace and me out to the Audubon Tavern II to celebrate and hold a terrific conversation about movies, politics and books. (Eustace’s first question at the interview was: “Who is Walter Abish?”) I can see I’m not going to lack intellectual company in New Orleans; we talked all afternoon.

Tom was done in by two days of interviews, and he has to go to California tomorrow, so I called a cab to take me to the airport. Outside, as we waited, I told Tom I hope I don’t disappoint him and said I was a little scared.

He said not to worry and that if I got a better offer, I should take it. But I think I’ll stay in New Orleans this year, just for one year.

The cabdriver was real good ol’ boy who was so proud of his son-in-law the gun collector and his son the N.B.A. referee; he told me he won $2400 in ’48 by betting on Truman, and with some of the money he took a trip to New York, where he dined on ham and eggs for $5 at Delmonico’s.

The flight back to Florida was uneventful and short, and I felt very calm and relaxed, even during a thunderstorm. My seatmate was a lawyer who knew Tom’s brother from the DA’s office.

It was great to arrive in Fort Lauderdale – home – and to see Mom and Dad and State Road 84 and University Village and Jonny and my old room and my mail.

God, I love it here – but it’s a home I need as a refuge; if I stayed here too long, it would turn sour.

Thursday, June 18, 1981

Midnight. I’ve been running around so much, I still don’t really know where I am. It’s hard to adjust to being in Florida and I’m not going to stay here for very long.

Exciting things seem to be happening in my life right now. In Virginia I hope to have the time necessary to catch up on all my writing projects, including the diary book.

Miriam Sagan writes that the Virginia Center is wonderful, though not as magical as MacDowell: the food is good, the cows are friendly, and the mountains are gorgeous.

Last night I didn’t sleep much, but it hardly seems to matter anymore, for I’m operating on kind of remote control. Mom and Dad and Jonny appear to be a bit more neurotic than I remembered, and I’m glad I won’t be here long.

Dad is nervous about every little problem in his business – granted, there are some big ones – and he looks very drawn. Jonny is a bit more outgoing, but he clams up a lot; still, he likes his psychology teacher and is going to ask him to recommend a therapist. Mom overeats and over-cleans, but she seems saner than the others: just a little anyway.

The big excitement this morning was that a salamander was loose in the house, but I half-slept through it.

I went out in my old car and deposited some checks into the bank, then went to the warehouse to drop off some things and pay the rent. It’s very hot here – about 94° every day – but it’s definitely bearable.

Alice called, and she sounded excited about my getting the job. The incident with Peter being upset about Alice telling me about their romantic life is best forgotten, and Alice said she’ll visit me in New Orleans in the fall.

I looked over my mail. Besides the letter from Miriam, there was a note from Crad, saying that his new book Human Secrets should be out soon.

Sasha Newborn seemed interested in my diary book and would definitely like to see the manuscript. Fat Tuesday wants to see some short prose, as does Corona.

Kevin sent the list of stories he’s selected for the book. It’s a good selection and in good order, and I liked Kevin’s suggestion for the title: Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Neat, huh?

Roger Greenwald sent the new issue of Writ with “My Grandfather’s Other Son,” a favorite story of mine.

I called George, who said Kevin is typesetting the new Disjointed Fictions now; George is using Kostelanetz’s review as an introduction and is putting newspaper quotes on the back as well as “ephemera” (my bibliography and bio) on the inside.

George enjoyed his trip to Dallas, where he stayed at the same hotel as the Dallas cast and talked to Larry Hagman, who said that during sex, he prefers using vibrators rather than his penis to stimulate a woman.

In his new job at the Patriot-News, George is getting ready to redesign the paper and make some real changes, including a Sports Monday section. A future Printed Matter column (June 28) is about me, George says, and he’ll send it along. He’s done recent work on Pete Cherches and Richard Kostelanetz.

Speaking of Kosti, I was invited to submit to the new Assembling, called Proposals, which asks what you would do if you got a grant for half a million dollars. And I got some “screw academia” replies to my AWP Newsletter query from MFAs who are happily out of teaching.

My career seems to be flourishing even as I do nothing to push it forward; this year I have a lot of new things to add to my résumé.

This evening we all ate out at Hurdy Gurdy and then watched movies on cable TV. I love Florida and I feel I would like to return here after my year in New Orleans, though I don’t want to live with my parents.

I fear I’ll never write that story for the Tropic contest. Or do anything but stare into space for the next ten days. I’ve got to see the eye doctor and to visit the Littmans, Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Nat while I’m here in Florida.

Friday, June 19, 1981

Midnight. I’m keeping strange hours here in Florida. I stay up until 4 or 5 AM and then sleep until noon. I’m trying to get off the Triavils and I seem to be managing well. Somehow insomnia doesn’t bother me that much here.

Despite all the craziness of my family, I do feel more secure here than anywhere else. But I’m ready to go to Virginia. I don’t know whether the car is fit for me to drive up there, and there’s an air traffic controllers’ strike scheduled.

It would have been easier if I’d gone back to New York – I could have taken Amtrak to Virginia – but I’m glad I’ve touched base here in Florida again.

I haven’t gotten to the point where I miss my friends yet, and I still feel I have so much to do – like that story for the Tropic contest which is always on my mind. If I won that $1,000 prize and scored a Florida Fine Arts Council Fellowship, I would not have to worry about money for a while.

But even if neither of those things happen – and they’re both longshots – I’ve still got a lot to look forward to: the new job in New Orleans, the VCCA residency coming up, the reprint of Disjointed Fictions, next year’s publication of Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, the coming of the new People’s Almanac with my Edward Stratemeyer bio, the Aspect Anthology reprinting my story and Susan Lloyd McGarry’s essay on my work.

And of course, my immediate writing goal is finishing the diary book and then finding a publisher for it.

When I hear whether or not Zephyr Press is going to do a book of mine, I can – whatever the news – begin looking for someone else to publish another story collection. Some of my favorite stories – “Alice Keppel,” “Roman Buildings,” “The Bridge Beyond” and others – are still uncollected.

This evening I went over all of the stories that Kevin has selected for the White Ewe Press book and made notes on typos and other changes that need to made. And I finally got around to making a bibliography of all my reviews and the publicity I’ve received.

When I went out this afternoon, I xeroxed some newly-published stories, did some research in the Plantation library – they have my book in the card catalog although I couldn’t find it on the shelves – and had lunch at the Broward Mall.

All day I’ve been very attracted to boys, all of whom seem so beautiful in Florida. I thought about shaving off my beard, but it’s probably better for my appearance if I keep it: otherwise, my face seems so fat.

Jonny says they like me at Broward Community College and he lent the English Department secretary, Marilyn, my book. I got rejections from several college jobs today, but of course now I don’t feel so bad because I have the New Orleans job.

One of my AWP respondents said he sent out 250 résumés and spent a year trying to land a job in academia; he ended up with two interviews for composition jobs that paid $9,000; he also got a duodenal ulcer for his pains.

Well, I’m happy that I’m out of college teaching now. I’m afraid I will never want to go back, and I’m sure academia will never miss me.

It’s been two years since Hitler came out and I feel I’ve done pretty well since then, considering everything. The downs as well as the ups have helped me out. Rereading my bad reviews, I realize that I’ve learned how to take a punch. That will stand me in good stead for the future.

What I’ve always wanted is wisdom, and although I’m still quite ignorant, I’m a lot wiser than I was in the summer of 1979, when my book was published.

I still would love to fall in love again. Maybe it will happen in New Orleans. Maybe, if I’m incredibly lucky, it will happen in Virginia. Who knows?