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


Thursday, May 12, 1988

3 PM. Last evening Josh came over at 6 PM. He looked okay, but he’s totally obsessed with this harassment.

Earlier, I’d read the notes he sent detailing each incident. Most of his friends think he’s imagining most of it. Joyce is very worried about his mental stability.

After spending an evening in which Josh talked of little else but the harassment, I still am not sure what to believe.

I think that Phil Straniere was harassing Josh on the phone, but there are too many people involved in watching Josh for it to be a credible conspiracy.

What do these people have to gain by tailing Josh at home and at work and in giving him the hairy eyeball (in his phrase)?

If the goal was extortion, surely it’s gone on too long without a genuine threat or offer.

And nobody’s tried to harm Josh physically; I said it would almost be better if they did, for then he’d know the threat was not just in his mind.

I agree with Josh that if he is imagining all this, he needs psychological help.

The police say there’s nothing they can do unless something concrete happens.

Meanwhile, Josh seems to be going off the deep end. He’s attributing prank calls to friends like Artie and Fat Ronnie to Phil Straniere, based on the assumption that Phil has been tapping his phone.

A retired cop, now a private investigator, said he felt there was definite harassment but he didn’t think anything would come of it.

After we left for dinner at Marvin Gardens, Josh said that he thought a black man coming out of the alley next door might be tailing us – but it was the super from across the street.

I advised Josh to get away for a few days, but he rejected that – along with any suggestions that he vary his routine – as “giving in” to the harassers.

Surely the situation can’t continue. Either Phil or his minions – if there are any – make some sort of contact with Josh or they don’t, in which case it’s likely there are no people following Josh around.

Back at the apartment, Josh and I watched Salvador on HBO.

He did tell me that the co-op board approved him after a very easy interview, and soon he’ll be living in the East Village. The board members told him he got a good deal, and Josh is pleased with the renovations on the apartment.

I had a long phone conversation with Susan, for whom living arrangements are a major issue. She and Spencer just returned from Sarasota, which seemed much cleaner and more peaceful than New York.

Susan doesn’t want to live in the suburbs, so they’ll either decide to stay in New York or there are three cities she’s considering relocating to: Philadelphia (the bargain of the Northeast), Richmond, or St. Petersburg.

Spencer is less excited about leaving New York, but Susan doesn’t want Zack to grow up in a small apartment. He’s going through the Terrible Twos now, and Susan said he’s difficult, but he’s got a good babysitter.

Recently Susan’s had difficulty with the new editor at Working Woman, for which she’s written many articles, and she’ll have to spend time and energy making new contacts at magazines.

It sounds like Susan is finding life in New York a little difficult – and her problems with her parents only make things worse.

Teresa came home from her wedding at about 11 PM last night, and we watched TV and talked for a while.

Saturday, May 14, 1988

6 PM. Josh came over again last evening, just after Teresa had left for Yankee Stadium with Perry and his kids.

Josh said he had noticed the same Irish guy following him uptown on Thursday, and there were a couple of people in his work lobby who obviously tried to spook him out as he walked to lunch with co-workers.

So yesterday Josh decided to phone the FBI.

He told an agent everything, explaining that he knew it sounded paranoid and crazy, but that he wanted to have things on record in case something happened to him.

The agent wrote down what Josh told him and seemed especially interested in Phil Straniere’s boast that he had a cache of weapons in his apartment.

I think Josh did a smart thing in involving the FBI, but Joyce expects it will be disastrous. However, given Joyce’s experiences with the CIA in Chile, it’s easy to see why she’d feel that way.

“If the FBI ends up investigating me,” Josh said, “all they’ll find is that I lead a very boring life.”

I plan to do a little detective work of my own. I’ve got the address of the Medical Hall Pharmacy where Phil’s girlfriend Andrea works, and I found the number of the Big Apple Credit Company for whom Phil claimed to do detective work.

Josh seems relieved that I believe that some of what he’s describing represents a real threat, although it’s awfully hard to understand how this kind of conspiracy could operate and what they’re really after.

We had dinner at Szechuan Broadway, where I got to enjoy cold sesame noodles for the first time since October, and then went to the Loew’s 84th Street, where I paid $7 for the first time to see a movie: Dennis Hopper’s neat film on L.A. gang warfare, Colors.

I was already in bed when Teresa arrived home from the baseball game, and we had a long discussion.

She disagrees with me that real estate moguls like Trump and Kalikow are slime; Teresa says they’ve worked hard and smart within the system, and that my “high intellectual standards” are outdated.

I had trouble falling asleep, but at least I slept late – till 10 AM. By then Teresa had left for Fire Island with a friend.

Alone for the day – Ronna called yesterday but she was busy with her mother this weekend – I exercised, read the paper, showered, and went to the main library at 42nd Street to look through the last month’s issues of American Banker.

It occurs to me that if I enjoy reading all I can get my hands on about credit cards, I’d like doing a big book project on the history of bank credit cards. There isn’t such a book yet, and I might like to devote the time and energy to research it.

Russell Hogg, the head of MasterCard, is on the board at the Rockland Center for the Arts, and maybe I could meet him, show him that I’m fairly knowledgeable, and get his ideas on the subject.

We’ll see. As usual, I tend to scatter my energies all over the place.

Back uptown, I began reading some of the essays in The Columbia Literary History of the United States published this year.

Raymond Federman wrote about self-reflexive fiction, which was in vogue from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s and now seems to have disappeared from sight.

I think I represented a third generation of self-reflexive fictioneers that came along just as the style fell from favor and died out.

On my way home, I picked up some delicious hot bagels at H&H.

I plan to go out later and get the Sunday Times. This is my first night alone in the apartment, and I can try out Teresa’s new firm bed.

I’ve decided to take just the AIDS Education class at Teachers College; it meets on two Fridays and two Saturdays from 9 AM to 5 PM. I want to get involved in AIDS work somehow.

Crad wrote that he loved “I Survived Caracas Traffic” and enjoyed “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp.”

He made $1200 in April, managing to net over $400 one week. I’m glad that his street-selling business is good. His mood seems to have brightened this year.

Sunday, May 15, 1988

6 PM. Today was a sunny, glorious day, though I find it too chilly to wear the shorts and tank tops I see on so many West Siders. To them, it’s warm, I suppose.

I’ve been alone all weekend, and while I wouldn’t have minded some companionship, I’ve been content.

Last evening I went out at 8 PM and walked up and down Broadway for an hour. By now, I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for the city – or at least the Upper West Side – again.

At first, I’d thought there seemed to be fewer homeless people, but in one hour I met a dozen people begging for money.

Perhaps this makes it worse, but they looked more normal – that is, more like everyone else – than the beggars used to. Weird.

At 11 PM, I grabbed a copy of the Sunday Times at the newsstand on 86th and read it in Teresa’s big bed.

One interesting article noted the retrenchment in the artificial intelligence industry. I was always a bit skeptical of AI, though I was entranced (and still am) by its grandiose claims.

It now appears that any breakthroughs are very far off, but little by little, software and hardware will grow smarter. As for expert systems and knowledge engineering: well, that doesn’t look ready to take off any time soon.

This morning I exercised, making it seven Body Electric videos in one week, while I watched the Sunday news shows, which focused on the economy. The general feeling is that the next recession will take place in 1989, and nobody wants to think about it now.

Pete told me to come to his NYU class at 7:30 PM on Tuesday.

Last week Susan told me that she’d given Pete a generally bad evaluation, feeling that he wasn’t in tune with his students.

She said Pete had given some sort of assignment, and when one student handed in a record review, Pete didn’t say anything about the deviation but tried to relate the banal writing to the student’s previous work.

And she said he seemed uncomfortable with a woman student’s sexual imagery in one piece and didn’t deal with it.

I’ll make sure not to bring up Susan’s observation when I see Pete. Any teacher can have an off-day, and perhaps Susan was too critical; she tends to be a know-it-all at times.

In any case, I’m looking forward to meeting Pete’s class, but I’m also a bit nervous about it.

Really, I have to figure out what I’m doing with my life. In many ways I feel directionless, that I just float along, coming back to Teresa’s, returning to Florida, reading what interests me, working when I get work, writing hardly at all.

I would’ve liked to see Ronna by now, but I’m glad she has a life without me. That will make it easier when we realize that we’ve taken each other as far as we can, and that we need to go on with other people.

I wish both of us could find fresh new loves. We’re ready for it. If we can stay friends, terrific – but we’ll always keep in touch, I’m sure.

I still feel so close to Ronna; she’s really the only person I want to tell everything to.

Teresa will be home from Fire Island soon as the new week begins.

Wednesday, May 18, 1988

1 PM. Yesterday Teresa brought home some little cakes from Norton’s store, and eating them held me over till my late dinner.

I experienced at least part of the rush hour as I went downtown: the tunnel from the IRT to the IND at Times Square was packed very densely, and it took quite a while to get through.

I took the R train to Prince Street, coming into the PEN offices just as the meeting was beginning.

Taking a seat in the last row, I sat down and read Allen Ginsberg’s letter criticizing Israeli censorship of Palestinian newspapers and magazines and the statements critical of him by a lawyer, Charles Something, and by Cynthia Ozick, one of the Israel-right-or-wrong types who felt it necessary to quote the anti-Semitic sections of the PLO charter.

I recognized a few members, such as Jane DeLynn and Seymour Krim, but didn’t say hello to anyone.

Ginsberg spoke about his recent trip to Israel and how both Palestinian and Israeli writers urged him to get PEN (which is respected in Israel) to condemn government censorship.

The lawyer’s main argument was that Israel is in a state of war, and so our First Amendment rights are not applicable as they were not in World War II.

Then Lesley Hazleton spoke. Although I dislike her, she gave a speech I could endorse totally. As an Israeli citizen, she couldn’t even believe we were debating the issue: we must do something to protest Israeli censorship policies.

I left at that point, as I had to get to NYU by 7:30 PM, but I’m certain nothing got resolved.

Myself, I feel turned off to Israel. If, as an American Jew, I have no right to criticize it, only an obligation to support it, then I want nothing to do with it.

To me, Israel is only another foreign country that begins with the letter I – like Ireland, Italy or India.

If I really decided to act on what I felt about Israel, I’d be called a “self-hating Jew.” (Do Italian-Americans who criticize Italy or Irish-Americans who criticize Ireland get called “self-hating”? Why not?)

Walking up Broadway from Prince to Waverly, I ran a gauntlet of beggars, spaced about half a block apart, each more insistent than the next. “Yo!” they shout out, like some imperial command.

Pete’s class was on the sixth floor of one of NYU’s buildings off Washington Square Park. He had only four students.

I read a bit from Eating at Arby’s and got quite a few laughs, and then I talked about this or that, about being a writer, etc.

I guess I was okay; I’m sure it helped to get another writer’s point of view.

I wish I could have had Pete come to my creative writing class in Florida, though I have to admit that I suspect his students may be less sharp than Pete thinks they are.

We had dinner at BBQ (where the old Cookery on University and 8th Street used to be).

The Art Theater across the street has been replaced by a triplex. The Village has changed so much from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Having lost 30 pounds, Pete looks well and seems relatively happy. He said he’s beginning to appreciate living in Park Slope a bit more.

Pete’s a third of the way through his book project, which is going faster than he expected.

We ran into Lynne Tillman, Pete’s friend, who’s getting a good reputation as a fiction writer, and we talked some about writing.

When I got home at 9:30 PM, Ronna called. She apologized for being so busy, but on Sunday she was helping deliver her cousin Esty’s baby.

Ronna, Sue and their mother rushed over to Borough Park when Esty went into labor.

Because Orthodox men can’t touch their wives after their water breaks, Esty’s husband couldn’t offer tactile comfort in the delivery room, so she asked Ronna to come over and assist the midwife.

Ronna held Esty’s shoulders as the baby – a healthy little girl – came out. Of course, Ronna found it a wonderful experience.

Because Ronna leaves tomorrow for Orlando for Billy’s graduation, I won’t see her till next week.

With his 4.0 index, Billy is one of five students allowed to sit on the stage during Rollins’ commencement. I really hadn’t realized Billy was so bright and hard-working.

Justin also phoned last night. He sounded very depressed after yet another disappointment.

He had some people very interested in his Resurrection play but discovered that there’s going to be a TV movie about the Steven Stayner case, the kidnapping that Justin based his play on, and of course that may totally devalue Justin’s work.

After his problem with Golden Girls, when he wrote a rejected script about Alzheimer’s disease only to find a show on the same subject pop up this season, Justin feels as if he’ll never get that one big break.

He’s coming over here this evening for dinner and maybe a movie.

Thursday, May 19, 1988

4:30 PM. It’s another very dark, rainy, cool and humid day, and it looks like it’s going to remain this way for a while, as there’s a storm system sitting on the East Coast.

Justin came over about 7 PM last evening while Teresa and I were watching an HBO movie.

He and I went out to Marvin Gardens and spent the evening catching up.

Justin said he gave my name to his friend Anson Fife, who’s the literary director of a theater company.

Anson is producing an evening of political satire and is looking for writers, so today I dropped some of my material off at Anson’s apartment on 91st and Central Park West.

If nothing comes of it, I haven’t lost anything, and if something does, it might prove interesting.

Although Justin has had disappointments in his playwriting career – it especially rankles him that he hasn’t had a production in New York– his directing career is going well.

A theater company wants him to direct the Wehrbachers twins’ play What Would Esther Williams Do in a Situation Like This? for a September production.

Ali has been working temp at Shearson with Justin, and yesterday she told him this weird story that Annette Mayberry’s phone was tapped by the CIA.

Supposedly the U.S. government is trying to stop Annette from promoting OSCAR because the Reagan administration doesn’t want to share AIDS research with other nations. Huh? Is everyone paranoid these days?

OSCAR is running a contest to see which member can get the most $20 pledges, with the winner to get a free trip to Paris. Justin and I agreed that it was a tacky way for an AIDS organization to raise funds.

Anyway, Justin and I chatted back here in the apartment until 10 PM, when he left for Park Slope and Teresa and I watched the penultimate episode of St. Elsewhere.

This morning, after dropping off my work with Anson, I went to Teachers College to register – just for the AIDS Education and Human Sexuality class.

That will give me access to TC’s computer lab.

But rather than taking courses, I’m better off taking their low-fee workshops if I want to learn such applications as WordPerfect and HyperCard for the Mac, which would give me practical, rather than theoretical, experience with computers.

For a couple of hours, I hung out at Teachers College, reading the paper and having lunch there.

Back at the apartment, I paid the seven credit card bills that Mom sent. I was turned down for credit cards by two banks on grounds of sufficient credit already available (one bank said “excessive”).

With better reporting to credit bureaus, it seems unlikely that I can get any more new cards. Of course I got plenty in the last two years, and I should be grateful for the Citibank Gold Visa (with which I paid the $730 tuition and fees).

I’ll now have to rely on increasing my current credit lines and living cheaply as I continue to earn income sporadically.

I’ve been very careful about not overspending since I returned to New York. While it can be inconvenient sharing an apartment with Teresa, I can’t beat the $230 rent.

Josh called and said that while the phone calls have stopped – which makes him suspicious that Phil Straniere knows the FBI is involved – he’s now being followed by more people than ever.

Perhaps Josh should see a psychologist. Even if he is being followed, talking to a professional might help.