A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-August, 1988


Friday, August 12, 1988

8 PM. The Times reports that the city was as humid as a tropical rain forest yesterday, the fortieth day in a row when the temperature reached 88° or higher.

I felt quite hot when I went out to meet Justin yesterday afternoon even though I took the coolest possible route, walking through Riverside Park by the river and then across 72nd Street to Broadway.

Justin looked different without his mustache – better, actually, though he still dresses like a doofus.

We had dinner at one of the Empire Szechuan places where it was cool and the food was decent. Cold sesame noodles are probably the best single dish you can eat in this weather.

Justin said his rehearsals are going well, though of course it’s just the first week. The play is set after World War II and is about a wacky Staten Island family that sounds like something out of You Can’t Take It With You.

The Werbacher twins still live at home and install swimming pools on Staten Island for a living; they sound like a curious pair, as eccentric as their characters.

Justin went to see the Westchester dinner theater production of La Cage Aux Folles. He said it was very good and that Ben was hysterically funny as the gay couple’s black “maid.”

After I told Justin that I never returned Anson’s calls, he said it was probably just as well, considering Anson’s problems in dealing with people.

Although he enjoys directing, Justin feels quite discouraged as a playwright.

The option that Mary Lou in L.A. took on his child-kidnapping play expired, but someone else out there may do it eventually. And the Florida Shakespeare Festival rejected Boundaries as “too dark”; when he heard that, Justin told Larry he was quitting playwriting.

I’ve gotten three rejections of my own this week: one was encouraging, the other two were form notices.

In his final letter from Zurich on August 1 – Herman Melville’s birthday – Tom said that the writing career of the author of Moby Dick “is a real example: he lasted ten years, then gave it up, defeated, at 37.” (My age.)

Tom’s been reading Moby Dick and plans to teach it this year. He should be coming back to New Orleans this week, just in time for the Republican convention.

Justin told me how rumors are going around that John Travolta is in a very bad way, depressed and overweight and feeling his career is going nowhere.

Ten years ago, Travolta was the number-one movie star, but he never got audience acceptance outside of teen roles. It’s too bad because he seemed like a good guy and not a bad actor.

Well, nobody can predict career trajectories, be they Herman Melville’s, John Travolta’s, or mine.

Saturday, August 13, 1988

8 PM. The direction of my life for the rest of 1988 became a bit clearer today. I woke up at 11 AM, and while I was still in bed, I received a call from Julianne Ramos from the Rockland Center for the Arts.

She told me she had just finished writing me a letter congratulating me on getting the New York State Council on the Arts grant to be their Writer-in-Residence.

I was the only one of their two candidates to get the grant, so I could have the choice of my four months’ period over the next year.

Naturally, I told her I’d prefer to start in the fall and have my residency over by January, so I could spend most of the really cold months in Florida.

I’m to call her on Monday at her office, and we’ll start planning the residency at a meeting later in the week. Julianne gave me directions to the center; she assumes I have a car because I told her so in January.

She said I should be very pleased about getting the grant because NYSCA approved only 18 of 44 applicants.

The grant amount is $3750, to be distributed at the middle and end of the residency period.

Well, it’s still sinking in, this news. Actually, I’m not surprised because I thought I had a good chance to get the grant; obviously, I didn’t realized the competition would be that tough.

Naturally, I’m very pleased to be recognized as a writer, and I’m looking forward to the experience in Rockland.

It’s a great opportunity for me to work with people (no, I’m not giving a speech here) and also to feel that I’m a writer. Perhaps this psychological boost will help me get some actual writing done.

Just when I was once again telling myself to give up on my writing career, I get word I shouldn’t.

Julianne needs some publicity photos of me and some P.R. material. We’ll have to talk about where I’ll teach or read or lecture, but she said they wouldn’t work me too hard: two-thirds of the grant is to provide me with writing time.

Well, in the fall of 1979, I could have been Writer-in-Residence at Texas Woman’s University, and I stupidly turned it down because I was afraid of leaving New York.

It took nine years to get another writer-in-residence position and there were lots of disappointments along the way.

I called my parents and left a message on their machine, but when Mom called me back, she was less celebratory than “Well, if this is what you think will make you happy, go ahead. . .”

While I knew Grandma Ethel would have no conception of what I was talking about, I’d expected Mom would understand. She asked me if it was “some kind of administrative job.”

Mom’s attitude really brought me down, but now I see it was that she just didn’t know what this was all about.

If I do a good a job and can put this on my résumé with pride, it might lead to other residencies and maybe a teaching job one day.

It’s funny, because Rockland was the only creative writing-related position I applied for this year.

After getting the call, it was hard to concentrate on my Body Electric workout.

Alice phoned about an hour later, to invite me to her mother’s annual barbecue two weeks from today. Hearing my news, she said, “It’s good to see somebody get something he deserves.”

When I called Teresa, she also sounded happy for me. She may be coming in this week, to get her mortgage for the East Side co-op she’s buying.

The only other person I told was Pete, who called to make a movie date for Sunday afternoon.

Today passed by quickly because it started so late.

I finished The Rules of Attraction by staying up till 2:30 AM.

Bret Ellis definitely can write, and the book was decently put together; it will be interesting to see his career develop as he becomes an adult and stops writing about college-age kids. I only hope the guy doesn’t do as many drugs as his characters.

Last night Josh came over at 6 PM. The harassment continues on a daily basis, he said, and he was so convincing that I found myself believing that something is going on.

The private investigator can’t find anything on Straniere without his birthdate or social security number, but he’s pretty sure the landlord isn’t involved.

I tried my hardest to get Josh to see a shrink, saying there’s nothing further he can do about the external situation, that at this point he’s got to see to his mental health.

To demolish his argument that going to a shrink would be an expression of weakness – “letting them win” – I had terrific counter-arguments, and I think I eventually had him convinced.

I told him it’s very hard for me to listen to this week after week, and that if I had a serious problem, I’d see a shrink and not rely on friends.

After we went out for a bite to eat and watched a little TV back here, I waited with Josh on Riverside Drive till the M5 bus came.

It was hot and sultry all night and today. The ozone alert continues, and I can feel my chest constrict when I walk outside and breathe the foul air.

People are starting to go a bit bonkers because of the weather: so many unbearable days without the slightest relief.

I’ve got a lot to think about, like where I’ll live in October, etc. But things will work themselves out.

Sunday, August 14, 1988

8 PM. My head is pounding, and I plan to lie down and I hope to fall asleep as fast as possible.

Today it hit 97°, one degree higher than yesterday, the 43rd day of this unbearable heat, with no relief in sight until possibly next weekend. It’s maddening, this tropical summer.

Last night I called Justin and Ronna and told them about the news from Rockland.

Ronna’s mother answered the phone and told me she was sorry she left her air-conditioned world in Orlando to come up to New York, where so many places don’t have A/C.

When Mom called to say she’d found my publicity photo and would send it to me, she said today’s high in South Florida was only 87°.

At 2 PM, I met Pete at the Paramount to see A Fish Named Wanda, a fairly amusing film.

Tuesday, August 16, 1988

6 PM. Last night, at the Republican convention in New Orleans, Bush selected as his running mate Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana.

It seems like an inspired choice: as a true conservative, he’ll go down well with the evangelicals and right-wingers, and as the first baby boomer on a national ticket – Quayle is 41 and fairly handsome – he could appeal to younger voters and women.

While he’s got the most important qualification, which is that he won’t offend any Republicans, I suspect he’s a lightweight.

This morning I got a call from the West Side Spirit, a local weekly or biweekly given away free.

I’d entered “Things Are Closer Than They Appear” in their “The Word is Manhattan” short story contest. My story is one of four they’re considering for the three final winners, but they asked me to remove what they felt was gratuitous violence.

So I worked on revising the story this afternoon at the Teachers College computer lab. I think I’ve fixed the problem, but even if they don’t pick it as a winner, I’ll feel more confident about sending it out to other places.

Actually, so far the story’s gotten mostly “good” rejections from little magazines, so I shouldn’t give up on it.

All of a sudden, things seem to be happening for me as a writer, but I’m not going to get excited until things really happen.

Thursday, August 18, 1988

7 PM. I rented my car this morning at 9 AM at ABC Car Rental on 87th Street. The radio was already set to classical station WNCN and the air conditioner was on. It felt terrific to be driving again after so many months.

The trip was a snap: In ten minutes, I was in New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge, and it took another thirty minutes up the Palisades Parkway and across Route 59 to find the Rockland Center.

With an hour to kill before my appointment, I drove around and found what I was looking for: the Nanuet Mall, where I bought a pair of new sneakers at Kinney Shoes. Dad had a Pants Set store in that mall when it first opened up.

Julie Ramos took me into her office when I arrived, and we spent a couple of hours together.

I like her a lot. She’s about 42, with a husband who’s a Puerto Rican surgeon, two adult kids: a 23-year-old yuppie son and a daughter who works in the film industry while attending Emerson.

Her widowed mother, a retired Greenwich Village restaurant owner, lives in Delray Beach (Julie’s stepfather was Jewish) and comes up to stay with her in the summer.

Julie was one of the first women to attend NYU’s Bronx campus and told me stories that shocked me with the blatant sexism she faced there. For example, one English professor told her that he believed that women should be on campus only to serve tea at faculty parties.

Julie’s a writer and painter who’s lived in San Juan and Barcelona (her husband’s medical school). She got her M.B.A. in Arts Administration from Columbia only six years ago.

I made her laugh, and I also tried to amuse the other women in the office.

The Center is on several wooded acres, and it’s bursting with activity. Apparently Julie helped revive it when she took over as Executive Director four years ago, and they have a large number of programs. I was very impressed.

Julie read me some letters from local school districts who are interested in having a writer come work with them, and we talked about what I’m to do.

Since 70% of the NYSCA grant is for my own writing, she told me that I need not work too hard, and that from ten to twelve days in Rockland County should be sufficient. I won’t have any duties at the Center itself, since their fall calendar is already set.

Julie said that the poet who got turned down for the grant may have done himself in: He sent thin supporting materials because he was involved in some tragic love affair which took up all of his time. (I’ll never understand people like that.)

And his love affair ended last week, just as Julie had to tell him about the NYSCA rejection.

He and I were selected as the Center’s candidates for the grant, she said, “over a very large field of applicants” by a panel which included a former editor of the New York Times Book Review.

After a couple of hours in her office, Julie took me out to lunch at the Old Fashion Chop House on Broadway in Nyack.

I was glad I recently went there by bus and felt familiar with the town. (The bus trip also helped me learn the route there from Manhattan).

Julie confided that she’s thinking of leaving the Center because her 60-hour weeks on the job are “a burn-out.” She’s mulling over a job offer to teach arts administration of the college level.

She told me about last year’s Writers-in-Residence, George Chesbro (a Rockland resident) and Terri McMillan, who flew in from her full-time teaching job at the University of Wyoming and did a concentrated residency for two weeks last spring.

I am interested in learning more about the history of Rockland County.

Julie said it was considered rural until the Tappan Zee Bridge opened it up to middle class people from New York City; after that, it went from a small farming community with a few artists to a typical post-World War II suburb.

It’s a small, triangular-shaped county, 40% Jewish, with a very sophisticated and mostly wealthy population, though there are pockets of poverty where minorities live.

I drove home via the Tappan Zee and down through Westchester and the Bronx – definitely the long way.

In the mailbox, I found a yellow slip for a flat package that contains the publicity photo that Mom sent; Julie needs the photo for their press release, which is otherwise ready.

I may have to stay up here through the end of January, but I can go to Florida in mid-December and come back after Christmas and New Year’s.

Also in the mail was my official acceptance letter from Julie.

Saturday, August 20, 1988

4:30 PM. If all goes well, Ronna and I are going to do something later this evening.

Yesterday at about 6 PM, a messenger brought over the personalized letters for me from PEN about the AIDS benefit reading.

They’ve given me envelopes that are stamped, so I can send them out and try to get my friends to become sponsors, but not too many people I know can afford the $100 donation.

Hell, I couldn’t afford it myself, but I thought it would be good karma. My financial contributions somewhat assuage my guilt about not being more of an AIDS activist.

Last evening I had dinner by myself at Szechuan Broadway, seated at a table next to a fat woman, also alone, who kept sniffling and burping.

A cockroach I found in my napkin before dinner was served definitely did not improve my appetite.

After my mediocre meal, I stopped in at the new Software Etc. and Barnes & Noble stores by the movie theater.

Walking up Broadway, I saw that they’ve finished the sidewalk in front of The Boulevard between 86th and 87th, so another giant high-rise is almost finished.

There are so many incredible-looking young guys (and women, too, though I don’t look at them so carefully) in this neighborhood; I don’t know how they get such great bodies.

(Although I worked out again this morning, my collarbone is hurting again, and I think I’ll lay off tomorrow.)

Just before I got in last night, I spotted John Lithgow (currently appearing on Broadway in M. Butterfly) walking out of one of the town houses down the block, so I guess he lives there. The other day I saw Estelle Parsons on West End Avenue.

Looking at the Teachers College fall class schedule, I’d like to take Lucy McCormick Calkins’s The Teaching of Writing, as she’s the acknowledged leader in that field.

Because my Rockland activities will take place during the day, I can schedule evening classes at Teachers College.

Late this morning I called Teresa, who said that she’d seen Susan and Spencer at dinner at the restaurant on Fair Harbor last evening. I haven’t heard from them in months and didn’t know they were going to Fire Island.

Although Norton went to Massachusetts yesterday to register his new car, Teresa couldn’t go with him to register her new car, and she was pissed off about it.

Today she had two parties to cater, and when I spoke to her, a 10-year-old boy helping her had just sat on one of her freshly-baked cakes, ruining it. (To keep him from feeling guilty, Teresa told him it was no good anyway.)

Josh phoned and said that maybe we could get together tomorrow night. He asked me if I really wanted the Rockland grant and seemed surprised by what a big deal I made of it.

Sunday, August 21, 1988

9 PM. Last evening at 6 PM, I was on the phone with my parents when Ronna buzzed, and I came right down.

Last week Ronna colored her hair again and also cut it, making her look younger and also thinner.

After buying tickets for the 7:30 PM show of Married to the Mob, we had dinner at Marvin Gardens.

Over pasta primavera, we talked about politics (a Newsweek poll now has Bush ahead by 9%) and plays and religion and restaurants and books and gossip. It’s always a pleasure to talk to Ronna.

We enjoyed the movie – Jonathan Demme’s sensibilities match my tastes – and then we came back here and watched The Lost Boys, which she hadn’t seen.

Although I’d hoped she might stay over, Ronna had to be up very early to catch the bus to New Jersey to visit Cara and Sid and their daughter. So at 11 PM, I walked her home.

It was a cool, gorgeous night. After kissing her at her front door, I came home with the Sunday paper, but too tired to read it, I went straight to bed.

At about 4 PM today, Josh came over and stayed three hours.

For the first hour or so, he didn’t talk about his problems, not till I brought up the subject. He says the harassment is still there every day, but he’s trying to ignore it.

Some of his friends have seen the lanky black man who hangs out at his building, and Josh is beginning to wonder why the guy sometimes ducks into the personnel office on the first floor.

Josh still believes the man is part of the conspiracy, but if he actually does work in Personnel, the people in his office – not his three close friends, but others – will be totally convinced he’s crazy.

Already there’s been a lot of gossip in the office, and most people already treat him as if he’s insane, which Josh feels is humiliating. Joyce told him he would have been fired if he weren’t her friend.

She still believes that the harassment is all in his imagination and said that if her own job is jeopardized because of him, she may have to let him go – even though Josh said his work is good and the users like him.

Some of Josh’s friends – Harry, Artie, and Rand – believe in the conspiracy, but Josh thinks the private investigator no longer does.

I still don’t know what to think.

I role-played with him, trying to see if I could get Josh past the main thing that now keeping him from getting psychological help: his fear that a doctor just won’t believe him and will try to “brainwash” him into believing nothing is happening.