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Peeping at People’s Thoughts

My first diary was a Strawberry Shortcake one that I got for Christmas when I was about eight. Kristi received a matching one, and then we began writing our “secrets,” which we orchestrated to be as crazy as possible because we knew the other was spying. The locks on the Strawberry Shortcake diaries were cheap and could easily be popped open. A good thing, too, because we promptly lost our keys.

Besides my sister’s diary, I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about ten, and I think that influenced me, showing me that I could be as catty and mean as I wanted to be in the pages of my diary. A lot of people think of Anne Frank as sunny and so good, but she had a lot of cruel moments in her diary as she analyzed the other residents of the Secret Annex and found almost all of them wanting.

Of course, I think I would have been cranky, too, if I had to live in rooms the size of cupboards for years on end. When I was twelve, I saw the house where Anne Frank lived in Amsterdam, and nothing could have prepared me for the smallness, being an American and used to wide expanses. Now, I’m becoming used to small spaces living in New York where space is at a premium, and a one-room apartment with a largish closet might be described as a junior one bedroom. So I don’t find it surprising at all that many New Yorkers escape within, writing in diaries.

Teresa Carpenter, editor of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009, had the unique idea of compiling New Yorkers’ diaries from five different centuries and telling the story of the city day by day for one year, with each day being composed of two to five different entries from various diaries. Some of these diaries I have already read, like Andy Warhol’s, which started out as a record for his expenses but ended up being years’ worth of dishy gossip, or Toni Bentley’s Winter Season, her personal diary during a season as a corps member for the New York City Ballet.

Those diaries hold a special place in my heart, but the entries that stuck out for me most in New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 were those by and about past presidents. There is an entry concerning George Washington, telling about what an appallingly bad public speaker he was. I love hearing this considering the slick speeches by presidents that I’ve grown up with—being a good public speaker hasn’t always been synonymous with being the president. Apparently, former president Thomas Jefferson was also lacking; he had poor decorum, slouched, and would hardly let a person get a word in edgewise, he loved to talk so much.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes quite a few entries about impeached president Richard Nixon’s odd habits. He could see the man’s balcony from his apartment and noted that Nixon seemed obsessed with fires. It was said Nixon loved a fire so much that he would turn up the air-conditioning in his apartment until it was freezing and he could then sit comfortably in front of his fireplace. Teddy Roosevelt was the softy of the bunch and also seems to censor himself when writing his diary. Everybody is a “dear” to him and a “joy” to be with, and maybe he really did feel this way. I just don’t understand that kind of journaling, but then I refer to my diary as my bitch book.

The diaries that most fascinate me in this book are short, terse entries by a military man named Augustus Van Horne Ellis. During two months in 1842, this is what he had to say:

April 3, 1842 Sally [canary] laid her first egg.

April 5, 1842 Sally laid another egg.

May 15, 1842 Sally hatched another bird.

May 18, 1842 Both [Sally’s hatchlings] dead. Dick [her mate] killed them.

May 20, 1842 Shot a cat dead, dead, dead.

 

I wonder what was going on in his head.

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