A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-July, 1987


Sunday, July 12, 1987

2 PM. This heat wave is expected to last the rest of the week. Surely Florida can’t be worse than this. Because only Teresa’s bedroom is air-conditioned, I feel a little confined.

Yesterday I went out for lunch and then wrote the outline for a column in which I discussed paddling in Florida schools and ended up advocated capital punishment for illiterates.

I went to Teachers College to work on the column, and an hour into the writing, just as I was making final changes, the computer somehow damaged my disk and destroyed the document I had so carefully crafted (and which I kept saving).

A lab coordinator tried to help, but he said I was sitting at a broken computer, and we couldn’t retrieve the file from the disk. This had never happened to me in all the years I’ve been using computers, and I felt very frustrated.

But I had my notes, and disgusted as I was, I knew the column better because my memory was fresh, so I reconstructed my work and eventually printed it out.

It’s a short piece, one which I’m sure the Sun-Tattler will publish.

One thing about my column: no matter how poorly I’m paid, it does give me a chance to express myself on the issues of the day and take part in public life.

The fiction in vogue today is insular and concerns only private lives. I miss the energy and vitality of the experimental stuff of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, even if its self-consciousness was its downfall.

One reason I always wanted to be a writer was to have some impact on society, but today, novelists and short story writers don’t attempt to do that.

However, writing nonfiction, from last year’s People satire and Fort Lauderdale News column on senior discounts to all my Sun-Tattler pieces and my long letter in Crain’s New York Business, allows me to comment on our culture.

So I should think twice before I give up the column because it’s an outlet I would sorely miss.

Josh and I watched a film, Isaac in America, about Isaac Bashevis Singer, and he told how he knew that his Yiddish stories in the Jewish Daily Forward would reach about 20,000 people.

I can hope for the same thing with my newspaper column.

Ronna was with her sister in New Jersey all day yesterday. At 10 PM, she, Sue and Robert picked me up and we went out for a late supper at Jackson Hole on Columbus and 85th.

Sue and Robert are doing well. Sue’s car was stolen, so yesterday they bought her a new Toyota Tercel.

She likes her job in Jamaica although she gets depressed when she has to tell people they’ve tested positive for the AIDS virus.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“I say, ‘You’ve tested positive for the AIDS virus. Do you know what that means?” Sue said. “Then I let them talk, and I tell them that they have a thirty to sixty percent chance of getting AIDS within the next ten years. Most of them are in high-risk groups and are expecting the bad news.”

Sue said she tries to get most of the people who test positive to admit to homosexual relations or IV drug use.

They’ve had very few cases of female-to-male transmission, and Sue says the cause of almost every case can be explained.

Robert didn’t enjoy coming into the city, but Sue said that once in a while it’s good for him to see a black or Hispanic person or a very stylishly-dressed person, which he can’t do in the Jersey shopping malls.

Ronna was going to a friend’s house in Hicksville early today, so unfortunately, she didn’t come back to the apartment with me. It was still good to see her.

Monday, July 13, 1987

11 PM. I’ve just come back from going to get tomorrow’s New York Times at the corner of 86th and Broadway. I do that most nights. Although we’re in the grip of a heat wave, it was comfortable out just now.

It’s obviously better here than it is in Florida. I spoke to Jonathan today, and he said they’d had the hottest June ever recorded in South Florida and that July was continuing just as bad, with temperature highs of 93°, about the same as ours.

The difference is that when Jonathan goes out early in the morning to set up in the flea market, it’s already 85°. He told me the intense heat had discouraged flea market strollers and has hurt business. Last night I dreamed about being back in Florida.

I’ve decided to stay in New York City until Wednesday or Thursday, August 26 and 27. If the MacDowell Colony hasn’t called me to say that they’ve got a space for me by then, I can still go back to Florida and register late for a couple of courses even though the school term will have already begun.

I’ll be happy to go to MacDowell, but I’ll be happy to go back to Florida, too. I feel very lucky about my life.

Teresa said it’s been hot on Fire Island, but she didn’t come home tonight, and I feel I’ve had as much privacy as I’ve wanted. This apartment has really been my home while she’s away. I know so many people on the block; every day I say hi to various neighbors and the mail carrier.

Up at 9 AM today, I went to the bank to deposit money, and I ordered a replacement pair of lenses; my current pair are so cloudy, they’re almost opaque and there’s no sense in holding out till I return to Florida to get a new pair.

Back here, I exercised to Body Electric, the same aerobic dancing routine show I worked out to on Saturday. My body is looking better although sometimes it seems that every guy in Manhattan has a perfect build.

Watching the Iran/Contra hearings, I was glad that some senators and representatives told Ollie North that those who oppose aiding the Contras can still be as patriotic as he is. I think he needed a few lectures on our system of government.

It still disturbs me greatly that so many people can revere as a hero a man who admits to lying and to falsifying and shredding documents. The American public may be getting dumber, but that tits in nicely with the prime motif of this decade.

At 4 PM, I met Susan at the Argo diner for an early dinner; she’d just come back from the shrink.

We talked about writing and literary politics and magazines and this and that. If only I had someone in Florida with whom I could talk to like that, I’d be much happier there.

We walked down to Shakespeare & Company to browse, and then Susan got some H&H bagels before getting into the subway to return to her family in Brooklyn.

Tomorrow I plan to go to Rockaway. Last week, when I talked to Justin, I mentioned that I always think I’m lazy and undisciplined yet I’ve managed to keep a daily diary for nearly eighteen years.

Justin said he’s never been able to sustain a diary, and really, no one else I know has, either.

But to me, this kind of writing isn’t really work. I don’t revise, I rarely plan ahead when I’m going to write, and besides, life wouldn’t seem as real if I didn’t record my thoughts and my activities.

No, I don’t expect – except in my more manic flights of fancy – that this diary is a literary document of interest to many people. But it’s important to me; it kind of keeps me honest. I couldn’t do anything too awful because I know I’d have to face the blank diary page and explain myself afterward. Not that I don’t lie to myself from time to time, but it’s harder to lie to a diary.

Tuesday, July 14, 1987

6:30 PM. Grandma Ethel has just gone downstairs to her card game. I got to Rockaway about three hours ago, and as soon as I got off the bus at Beach 116th Street, I felt much cooler. The wind was blowing and the sky darkening.

In the past hour, it’s begun raining heavily, and I feel cozy in this apartment, looking out over the beach and the ocean.

Yesterday’s Crain’s New York Business had a front-page story about how owners of subsidized Mitchell-Lama co-ops like Grandma could be sitting on a windfall if the co-op decides, as they can after twenty years, to go private.

This building and the others here in Dayton Towers West opened twenty years ago next month, when my grandparents first moved in.

Grandma has told me that three or four of her neighbors have gone into nursing homes but haven’t given up their apartments and continue to pay rent.

While my grandparents put in only $3000, on the open market the apartment would bring in at least $100,000 and potentially more. Grandma could sell the apartment and move to Florida, where she could afford to live in a luxurious senior-citizen residence.

If she chose to remain, her maintenance fees would drastically increase from the $235 she now pays, but then her children could inherit the apartment.

Look at me: the New York City housing crisis has made me as greedy as everyone else, at least for Grandma’s sake.

This morning I watched the Iran/Contra hearings and exercised, and in fact, I did the same thing before dinner.

At 1 PM, I met Justin by the PATH train escalators at the plaza level of the World Trade Center, and he took me to a nice Sichuan restaurant on Warren Street.

Justin showed me photos of his weekend on Long Island with Larry, Ali and other friends. Florence, his boss at Shearson Lehman, has just moved in as one of Ali’s roommates.

Giving me a copy of his script for an episode of Golden Girls, Justin said that while the William Morris agency declined to represent him, he’s got a lot of irons in the fire and doesn’t seem discouraged.

Justin told me that he’s now only in group therapy. His shrink, Wallace, just lost his wife to cancer six months after she gave birth to their second baby – what a terrible story.

After walking Justin back to the Trade Center, I took the IRT to the Junction, where I immediately caught a Rockaway bus.

Today at the hearings, Colonel North received some well-deserved lectures from the committee chairmen, Senator Inouye and Representative Hamilton, who are apparently being vilified for being a little too hard on our great new American hero.

Some hero: a liar and a fanatic. Justin said what Susan said yesterday, that Oliver North is a perfect hero for the 1980s. What an incredibly creepy time this is.

After North left, Bob McFarlane returned to the witness stand to refute some of the details of North’s testimony. Tomorrow, North’s boss, Admiral Poindexter, testifies as to his role – and the President’s – in the Iran/Contra affair.

Apparently, support for Contra aid is now at an all-time high, although it’s only 48% according to the White House’s own poll, with opposition at 46%. It seems like some Americans would be happy to support another Vietnam in Central America. We’ll see.

As for Colonel North, I think he’ll just fade away as MacArthur said old soldiers are supposed to – unless in the celebrity-mad 1980s, that’s no longer possible.

Thursday, July 16, 1987

11 PM. I’m going back to Manhattan tomorrow. I feel bad about leaving Grandma, but I’m bored here and don’t know if I can stand another day in Rockaway.

Grandma means well, and we get along, but she says the same things over and over again and sometimes makes me crazy. I never show it, however.

I’ll miss these visits when Grandma is gone, and I’ll always know that I was the only one of her children and grandchildren who spent so much time with her; I knew her best, at least in these last years.

It was ten years ago this week that the second great blackout took place and Grandpa Nat had the stroke or heart attack that left him brain-damaged.

He finally died last month, but I mourned him a decade ago, and in the intervening years Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Herb died. On my next birthday I’ll be 37 years old; technically, I could be a grandfather myself by now.

After exercising and taking a shower, I went out to Beach 116th Street to buy the Times.

Yesterday I noticed the ATM at the Savings of America branch on the corner there was a MasterTeller, so I was able to make cash advances on my Avco and C&S MasterCards.

My mistake was taking the Q22 bus to Far Rockaway because I wanted to see what the whole peninsula looked like these days. It proved such a depressing trip.

Playland is torn down, and practically all of Rockaway is a squalid slum with people who look worn or hopeless or pained or grotesque.

I’d thought I could go to the Chemical branch on Mott Avenue to deposit my cash, but the bank had a line that went literally out the door.

Downtown Far Rockaway has, if it’s possible, deteriorated even further since my last visit. The poor people there are so far removed from the Yuppies in Manhattan that they might as well be living on Neptune.

They don’t even have the ebullience or style of the poor people I see on the West Side. I felt like I was in the middle of a culture of poverty, where being poor is the norm.

There had been some teenage girls on the bus, one of them struggling with a stroller containing an infant who couldn’t have been more than a few months old.

“Nobody gives a fuck about me,” she said, “and I don’t give a fuck about nobody.” I thought of this ignorant girl, maybe 16 or 17, and the kind of life she could give her child. The whole thing makes me sick.

After standing at the wrong bus stop for twenty minutes, I decided to take the subway – only to wait for another half an hour on the A train in the station. Finally, they announced that there’d be no service because the bridge across Jamaica Bay was stuck.

I received a “block” pass and finally got on a Q22 bus back here, only I couldn’t open the door to the apartment until Grandma came up from downstairs.

It was one of those times when everything seems to be conspiring against you. Yes, that’s paranoid, and what happened was just bad luck and coincidence, but it still put me in a rotten mood.

Since I hadn’t gotten lunch, I ate an early dinner with Grandma at 3:30 PM. We then sat out on the terrace for the longest time.

Grandma reminded me that down where the kids were playing softball – the girl pitching was really good – there used to be loads of older men playing shuffleboard years ago.

“But everyone’s died or moved to Florida,” Grandma said, and where most of the people in these buildings were once senior citizens, the majority are now young working-class Irish families with lots of kids.

The other night I read aloud to Grandma Justin’s script for Golden Girls, an episode dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. It was just about perfect, Grandma and I agreed, capturing the chatter of the TV sitcom and the voices of the particular characters in the show.

It’s very formulaic, of course, but that’s something Justin can do very well; he should succeed as a TV scriptwriter. If the people at the studio don’t like Justin’s teleplay, they’re nuts.

The whooshing drone of the waves crashing onshore is making me a little sleepy.

Friday, July 17, 1987

8 PM. I feel very hyper this evening, most likely because I’ve learned I’ll be going to the MacDowell Colony after all. Teresa called late this morning with some messages I’d received and one of them was from Chris Barnes, “who had some dates for you.”

Puzzled, I soon remembered that Chris was the MacDowell director, and I called immediately, just before 5 PM. He gave me a choice of two periods, and I picked the three weeks from August 28 to September 18.

Obviously, I’m excited and elated. It’s ironic that earlier in the afternoon, I’d made a reservation on a flight home for August 26; now I’ve changed to September 23, four weeks later.

I figure that way I’ll be able to return to New York City and have a few days to see friends and Grandma Ethel before I go back to Florida. I’m nervous, of course, that somehow this won’t work out, but that’s my neurotic superstition that things shouldn’t work out too well for me. Unfortunately, I still become a trifle uncomfortable with good news.

Also, this drastically changes my plans. I hadn’t expected to hear from MacDowell until the last minute. Of course, now I’ve got weeks to adjust. Three weeks at MacDowell is enough time for me, and I’ll be seeing New England at a great time of year. It should work out.

I left Rockaway at about 10:30 AM. Grandma Ethel wasn’t feeling well last night, she told me; she had pains in her chest and side. It made me sad to leave, as I realize Grandma is not going to be around forever.

For a change, I took the Q53 bus into Queens and then the E, D and 1 trains home, where I was confronted with a lot of mail.

My Beneficial National Bank Visa card has converted into a First Chicago Visa card, with a new account number and even a new card that will come later. I’d known First Chicago had bought out BNB, but I didn’t know they’d change the bank’s name and everything.

The 21% interest rate will be changed to a new variable rate which is now about 17%. They must be pretty confused because they also sent me the bill of another cardholder, someone in the same zip code whose name also begins with G.

I got a couple of other bills, from AmEx, Bank One Visa, and Discover, and the application for Optima from AmEx; I do hope I get the Optima card, and I just wish I’d been pre-approved so I didn’t have to apply myself.

Also, I got a new credit card, Money Express, from Bank One; it’s good at tire dealers and auto supply stores and carries a $1000 credit limit.

My credit union statement arrived, and as I’ve done for the past several months, I discovered a discrepancy when I tried to reconcile my share draft balance – but since the statement shows me with $600 more than I thought I had, I won’t worry about it. I do need to get another checking account, though, to replace the Citibank (South Dakota) account.

This afternoon I picked up my new contact lenses, bought stamps and groceries, returned a book to the library, made several purchases at Shakespeare & Company, deposited $500 into my Chemical account and read the papers.

Over the phone, Teresa and I went over her mail; she got a paycheck from the agency and also, via her brother-in-law, a check from Anna for the July rent for the West 104th Street apartment now that their case has been settled.

Ronna called and we agreed to get together soon. She was on her way to Tarrytown, where her father had just had surgery for a thyroid tumor. Ronna’s mother had the same operation many years ago. It’s caused by the old-time treatment of acne and eczema with radiation.

Mr. C’s tumor was benign, but because he had arrhythmia during surgery, his heart is being monitored now. Ronna will stay with the baby till tomorrow evening so her stepmother can go to the hospital. She also told me that her sister thinks I’m “terrific”; God knows why that is.

Scott invited to go on his two-hour walking tour of Chelsea tomorrow afternoon, and I told him I’d be happy to go even though it’s supposed to be in the 90°s.

At least today was just pleasantly warm.

When I called Mom to say hello, she said that yesterday Dad was in Tampa, where he learned he’ll be losing the Robinson’s account because it’s been bought out by a big department store in New Orleans.

They still haven’t heard back regarding the return of their down payment on the house after their rejection for a mortgage.

God, I feel strange. I’ve been in New York City for eleven weeks now, and in six weeks I’ll be in MacDowell.

All in all, I’ll be away from Florida for nearly five months total. Actually, I’m happy about that.

Sunday, July 19, 1987

2 PM. I was surprisingly impressed with Scott’s historic tour of Chelsea yesterday. He had prepared thoroughly, with copious notes, and he had an incredible number of anecdotes that enlivened the tour. About 16 people attended, and I’m sure all of them gained as much as I did.

Not only did Scott take us to such former landmarks as Proctor’s Theatre and the Grand Opera House on 23rd Street, but he showed us numerous examples of Italianate, Federal and Greek Revival buildings from the 19th century.

Scott also explained the derivation of “Tin Pan Alley” and “23 skidoo” (police used to chase away men who stood at 23rd Street watching women’s skirts hiked up by the wind tunnel caused by the configuration of the Flatiron Building).

We went into the legendary Chelsea Hotel, which I’d passed hundreds of times without ever venturing inside, to see some truly spectacular artworks all over their lobby.

Then we walked onto the block-long, Oxford-like campus of the General Theological Seminary, which I never knew existed and which seemed wholly apart from 1980s Manhattan.

I learned so much I didn’t know, like how Clement Moore owned most of Chelsea at one time or how the banks of the Hudson were once on Tenth Avenue until the two blocks west were filled in.

Scott showed us the long-abandoned elevated freight train tracks that at some points go right through buildings.

Despite the 90° temperatures, I enjoyed myself.

Because I was wearing a tank top and shorts, I got slightly sunburned – and as much as I’ve been avoiding the sun, I have to admit that I look better with some color even though it’s not good for me.

I’ve got an annoying problem with ants, which have been running around the apartment all weekend. On Friday, my upstairs neighbor asked me if I had an ant problem, too, so it’s probably general all over the building.

Last night I had more nightmares than during any single night all year. Most were about MacDowell and how everyone there was hostile to me. I guess I’m working out my fears in my dreams; it’s going to be an adjustment to be back at an artists’ colony.

I told Justin about it while praising his superb Golden Girls script, and he said that more than anyone he knows, I am able to lead “a free-wheeling life” and take things as they come.

I only wish that were true. My doubts about myself are legion.

In 1980, did I have these feelings before I went to MacDowell? I can’t remember, and I don’t have my 1980 diary handy.

I think I was so grateful for the solace of MacDowell after all the problems I had that year that I didn’t give it much forethought.

I remember at Wood Studio, there was a woman who, instead of writing “Painter” or “Writer” alongside her name in the traditional wooden roster of studio residents, wrote “Fraud.”

I feel like that, too – though I suppose it’s the now well-documented “impostor phenomenon.”

I spent an hour on the phone with Harold, who’s teaching a summer night class in the pre-freshman program at John Jay.

Although it bothers him how adjuncts are exploited, he plans to continue for the foreseeable future because he likes teaching and having a schedule that gives him time to write.

I asked Harold if he’s considered going into a Ph.D. program, and he said that he attended some lectures at NYU but considered them so incomprehensible that he knew he couldn’t tolerate all that nonsensical jargon.

Nor could I. The “scholarship” involved in getting a doctorate in English is enough to make anyone hate literature and despair of crisp, clear writing.

Speaking (or, more actually, writing) of writing, it’s coming up on 18 years that I began this journal.

Eighteen years ago, it was 1969 and I was taking my first course (Poli Sci 1) at Brooklyn College, meeting Brad from his East Village Other personals ad, discovering Manhattan – and especially the Village – on my own as I began coming out of my agoraphobic shell.

That was half my lifetime ago.

This evening I’m going back downtown, to the Village, to meet Alice for dinner at her favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant.