A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1985


Sunday, September 1, 1985

5 PM. The first sunburn of the summer is (belatedly) upon me: my face, torso and legs are fiery red. I know that this is not a very healthy thing, but I went through July and August relatively pale and felt I needed some color now.

Although suntans put people at risk of cancer and cause premature aging, they also make me feel more confident – and I want to feel confident this week as I begin teaching and go for the micro lab interview at Baruch College.

Last night I dozed off at 8 PM only to wake up an hour later when Grandma came home. After we talked for a couple of hours, I fell asleep again, this time into a deep, deep sleep that refreshed me greatly.

At 10 AM, I was just about the only person on the beach. The sky was cloudless and the temperature was about 75°.

As I lay in the sand listening to a radio call-in show about personal finances, it astounded me how much money some people have in savings and investments and how knowledgeable they are about various money instruments.

Sometime after noon, I came upstairs to find Grandma Ethel, Uncle Morris and Aunt Tillie on the terrace. After walking over to Beach 113th Street to get the Sunday papers and a slice of pizza, I joined my relatives sitting outside.

Aunt Tillie invited me for Rosh Hashona dinner, two weeks from tonight, and I accepted. Hopefully, as 5746 dawns, I’ll be more settled than I am now.

At 2 PM I went back to the beach for another hour; probably I overdid it, but I enjoyed just lying there. In recent years the beach has bored me, but today I needed the escape from tension, and I now feel much less stressed than I did 24 hours ago.

Grandma and I had an early dinner, and I just took a shower. Although my skin feels hot and my stomach is crampy, I’m glad I came to Rockaway for Labor Day weekend.

Two-thirds of 1985 gone. I feel badly that I let myself drift and waste the last four months after I did so well in school during the first four months of the year.

Perhaps I would have done better to remain in Florida, though I would have missed all the joys of summer in Manhattan. Thinking about the fall still makes me nervous, and I want – I need – to keep Florida alive as a winter escape hatch.

A voice in me (my parents’?) tells me I’m going to fail, as I did in the fall of 1979, when I moved to my studio apartment here in Rockaway, and lived alone in New York for the first time.

I was so miserable that winter. Could I endure something like that again?

Monday, September 2, 1985

4 PM. I got back to Park Slope from Rockaway a couple of hours ago. My sunburn was worse than I thought: it bothered me last night. and it still hurts now.

After sleeping late as a dark day dawned in Rockaway, I spent most of the morning in bed.

Teresa called to give me messages about teaching jobs at Medgar Evers College and CCNY, further complicating things. I suppose that if I were smart, I’d just relax and not worry about where I’ll be working. The stress can’t help me, and it can make me ill. I’m positive I’ve got the two John Jay courses and most likely the two Baruch classes.

With those four classes and my student loan money from Teachers College, I’ll have more than enough to get by this fall, especially since my September and October rent in Park Slope are already paid.

I need to take life less seriously. Remember, kiddo, your health is the most important thing. The rest of it is, or should be, a joke. I’ve been thinking a lot about Florida, remembering how happy I was this past winter, how free of tension.

With its palm trees, lakes, canals and meandering rivers, the green-blue of the ocean, and the enormous sky there, South Florida is physically so beautiful. There’s no contest when you compare that to the ride on the IRT.

That’s why I’m scared of getting this Baruch computer center job, much as I know it would be the best professional opportunity for me. The truth is, I don’t want to stay in New York this winter.

Well, Richie, is anyone forcing you to? You can even take the job and quit at the end of the year.

This week is going to be filled with tension. I’ll probably have to go to Pratt again, have an interview at Baruch, go to my first classes at Baruch and John Jay on Wednesday, have an interview with Amy Henson at Baruch and register at Teachers College.

Shit. I feel I can’t handle it all. A tension headache is already coming on.

But while it’s not in my power to control the uncertainties, I can try to control how I feel, how it affects me. I don’t have to be a nervous wreck, do I?

But I doubt my resolve to keep calm and collected through all of this. Too many choices are just plain confusing.

The only difference from the anxiety felt three weeks ago is that at least now I know for sure where I’ll be living until November. And the relative security of having money come in regularly should help put me at ease.

Here’s an old standby: What’s the worst that can possibly happen? I’ll get sick or have a breakdown and have to go to the safety of Mommy and Daddy in Florida. Is that so horrible?

What else? That I’ll run myself ragged up here and be miserable.

But the semester will end in December and I can return to Florida. I need to realize that I am in control of all this, that nobody can make me take a job I don’t want or stay in a job I hate.

Somehow I feel I should be more relaxed – but I’m not.

Maybe a lot of it is excess baggage from the past, from 1979 and 1980. But I can’t let myself be a prisoner of bad experiences. Perhaps I’m going about this wrong, trying to minimize my feelings.

I’m scared, damn it, and I have a right to be. A new job, a new home – a temporary one, at that – and new people: this is all scary.

But trust yourself, kiddo: you’ll get through it. In two weeks, you’ll at least know what you’ll be doing every day till the end of 1985.

And give yourself some credit for trying something new. I don’t know any of my friends who’ve knocked around as many places and jobs as I have, and I’ve always survived. This too shall pass – and more quickly than I can ever imagine right now.

Tuesday, September 3, 1985

8 PM. After talking with Ronna last night, I decided not to drive myself crazy and teach more than the four classes at Baruch and John Jay – with the caveat that if Medgar Evers offers me a class at an otherwise quiet hour, I may take it.

There was no reason for me to be up at 7 AM today except perhaps to see that I could do it. I hadn’t slept well, but I find that, unlike Justin, I can always rouse myself quickly in the morning.

The IRT at rush hour wasn’t fun, but the newer model train helps a little. I went to Baruch but got there at 8:30 AM, an hour too early to see either Amy Henson or Claude Taylor.

I did see Ms. Henson first and made an appointment with her for 11 AM tomorrow, but she had lots of responses on her desk and I don’t expect I’ll get the job.

At the English Department, Claude confirmed my English 2001 sections but said my Tuesday/Thursday classes don’t start until 8:50 AM, so I can sleep nearly an hour later on those two days.

I got the details about the course – the students don’t have to pass the CUNY Writing Assessment Test, only a departmental exit test – and filled out personnel forms. I don’t know if I’ll be found out, but I used a false social security number.

If I am found to be teaching at two schools, then I’ll just never work at CUNY again; it will force me to give up the adjunct option just the way “Legislators in Love” forced me to give teaching at Broward Community College as an option.

Leaving Baruch, I saw Roberta and smiled warmly, so I hope she knows I don’t resent her getting the computer center job instead of me.

Uptown, I dropped in on John Jay, where Doris filled out my personnel form and I spoke to Bob about my courses. They’re all set, and I don’t have to return to John Jay until next Wednesday (and the next two weeks will be easier because of the Jewish holidays).

Next, I took the Amsterdam bus up to Columbia. Registration took a little over an hour. I got advised by Mr. Budin in our department – which seems like a friendly place – and registered for his Computer Graphics class on alternate Saturdays and for a section of Programming I on Wednesdays from 5:20 PM to 6:50 PM.

Mr. Budin told me we’d be learning FPL (First Programming Language) and some Pascal in addition to BASIC. I had to pay $280 in additional fees beyond the $1780 they took out of my loan check.

I only wish I could afford to take more of the Columbia classes. If FAU and FIU had as interesting offerings in computer education as Teachers College does, I’d be very happy.

Okay, with registration complete except for taking his photo ID, Our Hero gets on the Brooklyn-bound IRT and arrives just in time for his interview at Medgar Evers, which looks and feels like a friendly, if somewhat shabby, place.

I liked the faculty I met, and they were impressed with me. If they have a suitable class, they’ll let me know tomorrow and I’ll let them know if I want it; it’s only two subway stops away, on Eastern Parkway and Bedford.

Tired, I came home to messages from Pratt. When I called the school, I told them I had gotten a full-time job so I couldn’t teach there. I’ll have to do the same with Empire State College tomorrow.

It took a long time for me to wind down, but my soap operas helped, as did dinner out and a nice walk along Seventh Avenue.

Back home, I also chatted with both Ben and Jim for half an hour.

I have a marauding headache which I think only sleep can cure. I plan to be asleep as soon as I can.

Thursday, September 5, 1985

4 PM. It’s unbearably hot – around 95° – and I felt faint on the subway a couple of hours ago. I got off at the West 4th Street stop and thought I’d pass out before I reached the outside, where I managed to convince a cabdriver to take me to Brooklyn.

On the way I kept seeing homeless people begging and others lying unconscious in the street. New York doesn’t seem a very hospitable place anymore. If I wasn’t certain before, I am now: I’m moving back to Florida this winter.

New York is just too hard for me. The price of staying here is too high. Teresa suggested that I spend the weekend at her air-conditioned apartment, and maybe I will, as the temperatures are supposed to be in the 90°s till Sunday.

Teresa gave the speakers back to Fern, by the way. She called me yesterday to tell me Prof. Bakash of Medgar Evers had already called me several times. When I spoke to him, I declined his offer of the course and he said he hoped I’d teach for them in the future.

Then I phoned Empire State College to say I had to withdraw from their class because I’d gotten a full-time job, an excuse no one can argue with. Julie Willebrandt asked if I could find a replacement teacher, and I said I’d try.

I’m set now with my two classes at Baruch and two at John Jay.

Unless – it’s a remote possibility – but there may be a full-time opening at Brooklyn College. Susan Mernit turned it down because she didn’t want to leave Hunter in a bad way, especially since she’s teaching fiction writing this term, and she suggested I call Ellen Belton, the BC English chair. We left each other messages.

But I think I’ll be okay with my four classes as is.

Last night I felt better after dinner out at an air-conditioned pizzeria and talking with Susan for an hour.

She and Spencer had a wonderful vacation in Britain; London was okay, but they loved Scotland, especially Edinburgh. Now Spencer has gotten work with Chemical Bank and Susan has begun her classes; she also has to revise her American Film article.

Susan knows a lot about the adjunct business, and she said it’s no wonder I’m in demand. Unlike most adjuncts, I’m not a weirdo or a loser. At every department, I overhear calls from potential adjuncts – and most of them get offered jobs.

It’s a terrible system, but for me – or people like me who have other fish to fry (family concerns, grad work, their own writing or business), it’s not a bad way to earn spending money.

I slept from 9 PM till 7 AM, and boy, did I need the rest. Today I took the N train to 23rd Street and got there by 8 AM, so I had fifty minutes to prepare.

Today’s class is a SEEK section, and it’s too large – 28 students – but they’re all incoming freshman, so I had no problems exercising control.

This was the first time since I’ve been teaching that not one person in the class expressed surprised that I was so young, so I guess I finally look older than a 18-year-old freshman by now.

Uptown, after stopping at Teresa’s to get my mail, I took the bus on Riverside Drive to Teachers College to get my photo ID.

From there, I went down to Rockefeller Center, to get a refund for the Eastern Air Lines ticket I got in the mail. I stopped at the bank and then a diner for lunch.

But then, coming home on the subway, I felt really faint due to the heat and humidity. Or maybe I was having a panic attack.

Right now I still feel pretty weak and shaky. On some level I feel as if God has been testing me this week. What did Nietzsche say? Was it “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”?

Friday, September 6, 1985

8 PM. Today was another brutally hot and humid day in an otherwise brutal week for me.

Last evening Prof. Belton of Brooklyn College called and said she might have a few courses available and that I should come in today at 11:30 AM. I figured she meant adjunct classes and not this full-time substitute gig Susan talked about.

So I was pretty relaxed, figuring I’d go in and let her see that I was accomplished and turn down her job offer. In the back of mind, I also thought that it might please her than a BC grad and one of the first MFA’s had published so widely.

But I don’t think she gave a shit. You’d think Brooklyn College  would be prouder of its own and that they could use me as an example of a successful MFA.

The College of Staten Island has been kinder to me as an alumnus. The college president, Dr. Volpe, praised me to the skies in the Staten Island Advance.

President Hess of Brooklyn College, on the other hand, nearly fired Elaine Taibi when the BC Alumni Association Bulletin published “With Hitler in New York.”

(I’d send Hess the pages of Imagining Hitler by Prof. Rosenfeld that critically examine my story, but it would be pearls before swine.)

As you can tell, I’m getting the same grudge against BC that grad Irwin Shaw had after they refused to let him teach there; if I ever do make it, really make it, as a writer, I’d donate my papers to Staten Island, not Brooklyn.

As you can also tell, I didn’t get the job. I thought my interview with Ellen Belton and Dick Horwich, a member of the personnel and budget committee, went really well. I know I sounded knowledgeable and competent.

The job would have been four courses, on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule: ideal for me, really. I mentioned my commitments to Baruch and John Jay, and Dr. Belton said she’d phone me this afternoon to let me know.

I waited expectantly, savoring the thrilling possibility of returning in semi-triumph to my undergraduate college, a place I truly love.

But the call never came. They never do call when they have to say “get lost,” but I guess that’s understandable.

It could have been Jon Baumbach or Jack Gelber bad-mouthing me or just that the interviewers liked someone else better. In any case, I’m prepared to teach at Baruch and John Jay, where I seem to be appreciated.

As I told Mom, at least I know that I’ve gotten all my jobs and publications on my own, without my owing anyone anything. No one ran interference for me. Whatever I’ve published, whatever jobs and fellowships I’ve had, I got on merit. And a little merit has gotten me pretty far.

Aside from the ease of staying in one place and the health benefits (with which I could have fixed my messed-up teeth), the only advantage of BC was about $2000 – which is why I found it ironic when I got to Teresa’s tonight that a new MasterCard from Avco National Bank in California arrived . . . with a $2000 credit line.

What’s amazing about this one is they asked me for a paycheck stub and I sent them a copy of a doctored one I’d made up. I’m now closing in on $30,000 in unsecured credit.

This game I’m playing with the nation’s banks brings me a lot of satisfaction. I called Avco for a cash advance, and they said they’d send me out a check for $1,000 – just like that. Truly amazing.

Thank God for Teresa’s air-conditioned bedroom; it got up to 95° again today, making everything so much more difficult. God knows how I survived this week. Just think of the interviews I went on in the last month: first Baruch and then Empire State, Pratt, Medgar Evers, the Baruch computer job, and finally Brooklyn College.

If nothing else, it’s given me good practice at interviews – but I enjoy thinking of my feet, which is what I loved about all those radio interviews I did a couple of years ago.

Last night I read Emerson’s essays “Circles” and “Experience” from a new paperback I just got; the heat in Justin’s room made it hard to concentrate, but I felt like Emerson was talking to directly to me.

Mom and Dad and Jonathan had a great time in Key West, seeing the sunset ceremony, Hemingway’s house, Sloppy Joe’s, Duval Street and the treasures recently uncovered nearby in the Gulf.

Mom and Marc are having hassles with Preston Henn, the flea market owner, who’s doubled everyone’s rent and is changing the whole ambiance by making it almost like a mall.

Everything changes, nothing is permanent, Emerson says. Most people fool themselves with believing their lives are solid. I’ve lived with more change than I ever thought I could handle.

Look at me, for instance, and remember the guy who six years ago consulted Dr. Pasquale because he was afraid to leave his parents’ house, his only home for twenty years: Could that guy adjust so quickly – in two weeks – to a new home in Park Slope?

Tomorrow’s my first class at Columbia, and I need to be up early. This week has tired me out, but at least I have air conditioning right now – and I’ve got it going full blast. I’ve been spoiled and can’t take the heat of Brooklyn without the a/c.

But I managed to get through the week. What else could I do?

Saturday, September 7, 1985

6 PM. I decided to come back to Teresa’s tonight because it’s still very hot and humid. The air conditioning is wonderful, and because of the river breezes, it’s also cooler around here than it is in Brooklyn.

I have a slight eye infection, I think, but I intend to lay off the contacts tomorrow and see if it will go away.

I plan to stay here tomorrow night, too, and go into work at Baruch from here if I can. Teresa probably won’t be home, and the heat wave isn’t expected to break until Tuesday.

Up and out of the apartment here at 8 AM, I had breakfast at the 4 Brothers, then took a bus to Teachers College.

My Computer Graphics class has about eight students, most of whom are foreigners: Indians, Japanese, Iranians, South Americans.

The instructor, Howard Budin, the man who approved my program, reminds me of Ray Cafolla at Florida Atlantic; he’s pudgy, amiable and laid-back. What’s disappointing is that the course wasn’t very “hands-on” — or at least not it wasn’t today.

I hope we’ll get more practice, but we meet in a lecture room next to the departmental office, and in the office there are only about seven or eight Apple IIe’s and even a few II+’s, the antiques I know from BCC’s lab.

I’m the only experienced BASIC programmer in the class, so all the requisite systems commands – SAVE, LOAD, CATALOG, etc. – are very familiar to me.

Still, I didn’t realize how much I missed programming and being in front of a micro: it was a delight to watch the screen as Mr. Budin demonstrated. I only wished I could get my fingers on a keyboard.

We did see a demonstration of the Koala pad, which I’d always wanted to learn, and there’s one Macintosh in the office and we got to look at MacPaint – which I can’t wait to pay with.

Other graphics we’ll see are made with SuperPILOT and LOGO, old friends of mine. Mr. Budin showed some final projects which looked good but wouldn’t take much time for me, as I’ve done more complicated work in Florida already.

We meet every other Saturday from 8 AM till 1 PM, with a lunch break at 11 AM.

There are only six classes left. There’s a four-week break because of Thanksgiving and then our last session is just a demonstration of our projects.

I’ve just spoken to Pete, and he said he wasn’t surprised when I told him Columbia seemed no harder than the Florida universities. Pete’s one semester in the Columbia MFA program convinced him it’s “buying a degree,” and I suspect Teachers College is no different. But I’m excited about learning more about computers.

Monday, September 9, 1985

10:30 AM and already I feel the week is too long. There’s no doubt about it; as a teacher of remedial writing, I’m burned out. And I haven’t yet even begun teaching at John Jay.

When I got to class at Baruch before 8 AM, I discovered that I hadn’t looked at and commented on all of their diagnostic papers. Today I have to look at 28 papers for tomorrow. Nausea is the reaction I have when I think about grading papers.

I had thought that after a break of nine months without teaching, I’d feel refreshed. I can’t imagine doing anything but going through the motions this semester.

Still, I’ve got to try, not only for my students’ sake but for my own, to regain some enthusiasm. Today I tried, but the class seemed as bored as I was.

Maybe it’s just an off-day, but I can’t help comparing the intellectual excitement I felt while reading yesterday with today’s lethargy.

I wonder if I’d feel this bored if I’d taken that job offered to me at Western High School in Davie. I’d love to teach literature, social studies, stuff with real ideas.

I feel I’m wasted going over the difference between its and it’s half a dozen times. What good does it do anyway?

I let the class out 25 minutes early and on the way to the subway, I ran into Claude Taylor – but I don’t care if he noticed I didn’t keep them the whole time. That’s the sad part. What might be sadder is that Claude might not care, either, just as long as the class is covered.

How can I humanize this situation? I care enough to want to do that, at least. The secret may be that I should try to enjoy myself and give the students writing topics that will make for interesting reading.

It’s very humid, and it’s raining, and I’m tired and cranky on this Blue Monday.

Tuesday, September 10, 1985

4 PM. I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this semester, but I will survive it. In fifteen weeks, it will be Christmas Eve and I’ll be back in Florida. In seven weeks, Justin will be home, and I’ll be living somewhere else for November and December.

I’m resigned to the fact that little will get done and that my social life won’t be very good; already, I haven’t had time to see any of my friends in the past week.

Today was cooler but very humid and muggy. My SEEK class at Baruch went okay; mostly they were bored, but at moments I could see their minds working.

After class, a Haitian girl asked me to look at her poetry, and then a black girl came in and started crying and explained that her uncle, whom she lives with, had locked her in the house for days because he flew into a rage when she asked him for money for books.

“It’ll be all right,” I said, as I gingerly touched her shoulder.

These are the kids of New York’s underclass; sometimes I’ve felt like telling them not to worry about grammar and paragraph organization and to take care of their lives.

Tomorrow John Jay begins. At Baruch I’m deliberately using a phony social security number and not telling them I’m teaching another eight credits at John Jay in violation of the union contract, but I’m not particularly worried if they find out.

They won’t fire me in mid-semester. So the worst that will happen is that I can never work at CUNY again. But maybe it would be good to have that option closed to me. I don’t intend to adjunct again.

I expect I’ll be in Florida through all of 1986, except possibly for a summer vacation. This term, while I’m here in the city, I should work as hard as I feel is right but not turn myself into a drudge.

After class, in speaking with Claude Taylor — who’s a very kind person — I learned that the English 2001 final will be given before Christmas. So I’ll have to return to New York only for a few days in January to wrap up the term at John Jay.

Free at 11 AM today, I did some money juggling, taking out a $600 cash advance from my new MasterCard and depositing it in my First Nationwide Savings account at their Bowling Green branch.

Then I took the JFK Express train out to the airport, taking the bus to the American Airlines terminal, where they have the only Citicorp Cash ATM in the city. I wanted to break in my Choice card now that I’ve got a PIN for it.

After taking out $400 from Choice and another $20 from Citibank Visa, I noticed an American Express machine nearby.

Using my card in it, I was able to get $300 in AmEx travelers’ cheques. That’s the closest to a cash advance I can get with AmEx. Hopefully, it will not show up on today’s statement but on next month’s.

Either way, the advantage is that I’ll be running up a big American Express bill – thereby making me more creditworthy and maybe eligible for a Gold card – without using the money to buy stuff.

Flush with over $700 in cash and travelers’ cheques to deposit in the bank, I got into a cab at the terminal and had it take me back to Brooklyn, to Kings Plaza. From there, the Avenue R and Ocean Avenue buses got me to the First Nationwide branch on Avenue J and East 13th Street.

It felt good to once again be in a car on the Belt Parkway, a highway I used to on several times a week back in the old days. And I enjoyed being at Kings Plaza and Kings Highway, the old neighborhoods also so familiar to me.

I’m tired and not looking forward to my super-long day tomorrow, when I leave here at 7 AM and don’t get back from Columbia till 8 PM.

But I’ll have a break for Rosh Hashona, so I shouldn’t complain – although I probably will.