‘Tis the season … for my perennial pilgrimage to Manhattan in New York City, the warren of Holden Caulfield, the disgruntled protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 opus “The Catcher in the Rye.” The book turns 65 this year and has been endlessly quoted, celebrated, banned, copied, lionized and burned.
Caulfield, the quintessential anti-hero, has become a cultural icon of teenage rebellion for generations of readers.
I’m frequently asked my favorite novel and I always name “The Catcher in the Rye.” Fourteen printings and over 65 million copies sold prove that it’s more than just hip English teachers and disturbing assassins who dig the novel.
It’s the main reason I became an English teacher. I was a late bloomer and didn’t fall under the novel’s charm until the summer of my freshman year of college.
I’ve been smitten with the book since that hot July afternoon and instinctively took a train to New York the next day just to feel closer to my new favorite book. I’ve taught it a dozen times and still read it in its entirety at least once a year. It’s become a part of me.
Through his colloquial language and roguish attitude, we glean that the depressed, confused, ireful, thoughtful and horny boy is, above all else, perceptive. He speaks frankly from a sanitarium in California, and in the form of a long flashback, tells us about a two-day odyssey through the streets of Manhattan in December.
His fire is felt in his heated rants about “phonies.” His passionate quest to protect the innocent shines particularly bright in the book’s second half.
Being six-feet, two-and-a-half inches tall at age 16 wasn’t the only attribute I realized I had in common with Holden. I too had penned half-assed essays in high school, winced at profanity found scribbled on walls and stumbled while standing on the threshold of adulthood.
I knew how isolated he feels under his red hunting hat, and I sensed his angst thundering through his veins as he sulks down the icy city sidewalks.
Manhattan acts more like a supporting character than a backdrop. The borough’s cantankerous cabbies, elusive subway, shady hotels, cozy bars and sheltering park make it impossible for the book to be set elsewhere.
There is a paradox of familiarity and curiosity in his hometown that draws me in to want to experience what Holden feels on those two days in December. I annually pay homage to Salinger’s work by walking in some of the footsteps his fictional Homer took sixty-five years ago.
My vicarious Holden sojourns begin by boarding a westbound train and following a strict blueprint of spontaneity. I try my best to embody my anti-hero; my vernacular is sprinkled with some “goddams” and “phony bastards,” but I opt to skip the red hunting hat in fear of embarrassing myself.
In lieu of Holden’s cumbersome Gladstones, I carry a light knapsack with a journal, a tattered copy of Catcher and a pen. I emerge from a newer and much less ornate Penn Station than Holden arrived in. His train pulled into the old structure, made of pink granite, and marked by an imposing, sober colonnade of Corinthian columns.
I nevertheless am engulfed with the excitement as I head up out of the tunnel and on to the sidewalks of Holden’s town.
I’ll walk the streets of Manhattan and allow whims to direct me to an array of “Holden” places. I’ve moped around the shiny and echo-filled halls of the Museum of Natural History, leering at the buxom squaw mannequins in the dioramas and marveling at how everything stays the same.
I’ve stood on the frosty banks of Central Park’s lagoon skimming pocket change across the ice and contemplating the plight of the ducks, though in truth, I usually wonder about when the last Port Jeff train left Penn instead.
I’ve engaged cabbies in quirky conversations while they maneuver through snow kissed streets. I’ve downed milkshakes at Grand Central Station while looking up at the teal canopy of speckled heavens from the bustling floor. I’ve sat at smoky Greenwich Village jazz bars and felt compelled to ring up old female acquaintances.
One night about twenty years ago, after a couple of drinks, I felt like giving “old” Jen, a girl I knew from my college days, a buzz. I wanted to do it the same way Holden called Sally, but I couldn’t find a phone booth and settled on the pay phone out on the sidewalk.
Matt Kindelmann has taught high school English and Creative Writing for the past twenty years in Brooklyn and on Long Island. He has freelanced many articles and wrote a column called The Road Less Traveled” for the Smithtown News, for which he placed first in the Best Column category for the New York Press Association Better Newspaper Contest in 2014. He is currently writing a book called “There’s a Place,” which is about a second generation Beatles’ fan’s journey around the world to place associated with the Fab Four.
“Matt who?” Jen said when I called.
“Matt Kindelmann. Tall. Teacher. I went to Oneonta with you.” I felt my stomach tighten when it seemed like she didn’t remember me.”
“Oh! Matt Kindelmann! How are you?” The bulb went off and she invited me over to her parents’ penthouse apartment on 3rd Avenue for a visit.
Her folks, just like Holden’s, were at a cocktail party and Jen and I sipped martinis and puffed on cigarettes on the balcony.
With traffic humming below and clouds and garish Christmas lights around us, I cheerfully pretended I was 17 again and it was 1949. The night would have been a perfect companion to Catcher if she had whipped out a checkerboard and moved her kings from the back row.
When a journey is over and I’m blurry-eyed on the eastbound early morning train, I reflect upon my night with my literary alter ego and an ensemble cast of cabbies, bartenders, and college acquaintances.
Each journey is personal and draws me nearer to the novel’s spirit, while allowing me a closer look at Holden, adolescence, and myself.
I occasionally jot down some notes about my evening, but I usually don’t tell anyone exactly what I experienced in the museums and bars and on the streets.
As Holden says: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”