Holden’s New York

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01/29/2010

Neighborhood: Central Park, Featured, Midtown

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"THE first thing I did when I got off at Penn Station, I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz. I left my bags right outside the booth so I could watch them, but as soon as I was inside, I couldn't think of anybody to call up.''

So begins the New York adventure of Holden Caulfield in ''The Catcher in the Rye,'' the J. D. Salinger novel that was published 50 years ago this month.

Rereading the book, I was struck by what an integral role Manhattan itself plays in the narrative. It's not just that the city is the stage for much of the book's action, or that Holden drifts through a fair number of the city's famous attractions. It's that Holden's relationship to the city (love-hate, as it is for all of us) is such an integral part of who he is. He is not just in Manhattan, he is of it, a condition which, for better and for worse, I share myself.

As I read the book, three versions of Manhattan hovered in my mind: the Manhattan of the novel (late 40's, early 50's); the Manhattan of today, and, wedged ephemerally between the two, the late 70's, early 80's Manhattan in which I grew up.

Here is an attempt to make explicit these parallel worlds, to hold up Holden's city against our own, a cross-reference between then and now, as we follow Holden's path through the novel and the city.

By the time Holden gets to New York, on Page 59, he has had an eventful departure from his school, Pencey Prep. He has been thrown out. It's the fourth school he's been asked to leave. That same morning he had been in New York with the fencing team, for which he was the manager. There was supposed to be a fencing meet, but Holden got so involved reading the subway map that he left the foils on the subway. As a result, there was no meet.

Back at Pencey Prep, he has a fraught goodbye with the one teacher he liked, Mr. Spencer; gets into a fistfight with his roommate (in which he is the decided loser); and decides, on the spur of the moment, to take the train to New York and spend a few days at large there, before his parents get word of his expulsion.

Like ''On the Road'' by Jack Kerouac, ''The Catcher in the Rye'' has, at its core, the energy of a jailbreak. What is peculiar about Holden's flight is that it takes him to a world that is utterly familiar. The 16-year-old Holden, who has grown up on the Upper East Side (as did Salinger), essentially goes home to run away from home. This seems like the sort of acrobatic gesture to which New York is especially well suited.

Like many kids who have grown up in New York, Holden has a particularly intimate relationship with the city landscape; in some ways it's a giant extension of his living room. He moves through it with ease and familiarity. He knows his way around, knows the comfortable spots, and he knows where he might find some trouble, should he be looking for some. (Which, about half the time, he is. The other half, trouble just sort of finds him.)

At the same time, it's a strange, haunted landscape, as cold -- literally, since it's mid-December -- and unforgiving to Holden as it would be to a first-time visitor. One moment he is basking in a kind of love affair with his town, and the next he is disgusted with it. There are moments when the sadness and excitement of the place get mixed together: ''New York's terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night. You can hear it for miles.''

The Pennsylvania Station Holden debarked in was torn down in 1963. His phone booth respite is not one he could have today. If you are in Penn Station and dying for a phone booth, your best bet is the Peter McManus bar, about 12 blocks south on Seventh Avenue, where there are two booths of the old-school variety.

Holden catches a cab and accidentally heads straight for the place he will spend the next couple of days avoiding: home. By the time he asks the cabby to turn around, he is already in the park. ''I'll have to go all the way to Ninedieth Street now,'' the driver says. Riding through the park, Holden ruminates about where the ducks go in the winter. The cabby is no help.

Later, Holden checks into the Edmont Hotel. There is no Edmont Hotel. It's made up. In fact, only one hotel in the book still exists today, the Seton, at 144 East 40th. Through his window Holden sees, in another part of the hotel, a businessman prancing around in women's clothes and a naked couple squirting liquid through their teeth onto one another. ''I'm not kidding, the hotel was lousy with perverts,'' he says. ''I was probably the only normal bastard in the whole place, and that isn't saying much.'' There are probably plenty of places like the Edmont to be found in the city today, though whether people are any more modest about pulling down the shades now than in 1951 is anybody's guess.

He spends some time in the hotel bar, the Lavender Room. There is a band and dancing. Holden's adjective for the band is ''putrid.'' Today, I imagine, he'd have a three-for-a-dollar CD jukebox. In the Lavender Room, Holden displays a rather New York ish churlishness about the table he is given. ''I should have waved a buck in front of the headwaiter's nose,'' he says. ''In New York, boy, money really talks. I'm not kidding.'' He dances with some girls from Seattle, who ''had on the kind of hats that you knew they didn't really live in New York.''

HIS next stop is Ernie's, a Village jazz club. He takes a cab. ''The cab I had was a real old one that smelled like someone'd just tossed his cookies in it. I always get those vomity kind of cabs if I go anywhere late at night.'' In my opinion, today's taxi has other problematic odors, among them air fresheners.

On the ride down to Ernie's, Holden again brings up the ducks in Central Park and where they go in winter. Again the cabby is no help.

He arrives at Ernie's just as Ernie is playing a piano solo. The place is packed and Holden is disgusted at how reverential everyone is being. Again, he gets huffy about his table.

He ends up walking back to his hotel, ''41 gorgeous blocks.'' Gorgeous is not a compliment. He just can't face another cab ride. At the hotel Holden gets into a mess with a prostitute and her pimp, who is the elevator man. One doesn't see many elevator men these days. Otherwise, it seems safe to say that the world's oldest profession is still practiced in New York hotels.

The next morning Holden checks out of the Edmont, makes a date to see a play with his old friend Sally Hayes, and goes to Grand Central Terminal, where he leaves his bags. If you go all the way downstairs and look hard enough, you can still check your bags at Grand Central.

After picking up his theater tickets, he wanders through crowded Broadway --as claustrophobic-making then as now -- before taking a cab to the Mall in front of the bandstand in Central Park.

At the Mall he finds kids roller-skating. They probably bear little resemblance to the skaters you find there today, often looking suspiciously like people living out their secret figure-skating fantasy, or locked into an intense, Walkman-propelled booty-shaking episode, but it is still remarkable that the space in front of the bandstand has always suggested: ''Skate here!''

Holden then gets the inspiration to visit the Museum of Natural History. He walks over with the faint, irrational hope of seeing his kid sister Phoebe there on a class visit (it's a Sunday), and starts remembering his own school trips.

It was during the museum passage that I first felt the odd sensation that Holden was occupying a world identical to the one I grew up in.

''Sometimes we looked at the animals and sometimes we looked at the stuff the Indians had made in ancient times,'' he recalls. ''It always smelled like it was raining outside, even if it wasn't, and you were in the only nice, dry, cosy place in the world. I loved that damn museum.''

He remembers the long Indian war canoe, and he remembers the dioramas of Indians, ''rubbing sticks together to make a fire, and a squaw weaving a blanket.''

Our memories diverged on one point, though: the Indian bosom. I didn't recall it.

''The squaw that was weaving the blanket was sort of bending over, and you could see her bosom and all. We all used to sneak a good look at it, even the girls, because they were only little kids and they didn't have any more bosom than we did.''

I might have been content merely to revisit the Indian Room via the book, but the Indian Bosom beckoned for confirmation, so I went up to have a look.

The first thing I did was wander around the bright and modern Rose Center, with its floating planets and ingenious architecture. Eventually I made my way around to the 77th Street entrance, and there encountered the canoe full of Indians Holden describes: ''Then you'd pass by this long, long Indian war canoe, about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row, with about twenty Indians in it, some of them paddling, some of them just standing there looking tough, and they all had war paint all over their faces. There was one very spooky guy in the back of the canoe, with a mask on. He was the witch doctor. He gave me the creeps, but I liked him anyway.''»

Holden’s New York
Photo by j/k_lolz

Beyond that is the hall of the Northwest American Indians. It is, in its own odd way, much more otherworldly than all the bright shiny planets and backlit images of the Rose Center. It is a long, dimly lighted room that was built in 1896 and is a bit dowdy in a reassuring way. There are examples of Indian artifacts and art. The smell is musty and comforting, and people's whispers and shuffled footsteps echo on the marble floor. I wandered from one diorama to another, and at the end of the hall, just where Holden said it would be, I found a squaw ''sort of bending over.'' To my amazement, you could ''see her bosom and all,'' though I wouldn't classify it as erotic, exactly.

Holden's riff on that museum seems like a perfect reflection of a kind of change fatigue that is likely to hit the native Manhattanite at a young age: ''The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. . . . Nobody'd move. . . . Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.''

In the end Holden doesn't even go into the museum. He heads down to the Biltmore Theater for his date with Sally Hayes. The Biltmore is a famous old theater that became a CBS studio for a decade, starting around the time ''The Catcher in the Rye'' was published. It is now known as the theater where ''Hair'' was performed. In 1987 it suffered a mysterious fire, and only now are plans for its renovation moving forward.

The second half of the date takes place at the skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza and the bar inside. These landmarks, relatively unchanged to this day, are the scene of Holden's most anti-New York soliloquy, which starts off being about how much he hates school and proceeds to: ''But it isn't just that. It's everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels.''

The date ends badly. Holden goes to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie that he terms ''so putrid I couldn't take my eyes off it.''

THAT evening he meets Carl Luce, an old schoolmate who has gone on to Columbia, for a drink at the Wicker Bar in the Seton Hotel. ''In case you don't live in New York, the Wicker Bar is in this sort of swanky hotel, the Seton Hotel,'' Holden says. When I read that phrase to the receptionist she paused for a moment and said, ''Whatever it was then, it's definitely not what it is now.'' I described the book and the Wicker Bar; she had never heard of either, and seemed to feel that no one in the world would have any idea if there ever was a Wicker Bar. ''You made me curious about the book, now,'' she said at the end. ''I like to read.''

Beyond that, I couldn't confirm that there was ever a Wicker Bar there, let alone that it was ''very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.'' An online hotel guide's description of the place begins: ''Among the most depressing hotels in the city. The details of this property summon up a Dickensian gloom.'' It ends with the word ''avoid.''

At the end of the night, Holden wanders, quite drunk, into the park to look for the lagoon, and do some legwork on the ''where do the ducks go'' issue. ''I've lived in New York all my life, and I know Central Park like the back of my hand, because I used to roller-skate there all the time and ride my bike when I was a kid, but I had the most terrific trouble finding that lagoon that night.'' When he does find it at last, ''it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn't see any ducks around.''

His next stop is home, on the Upper East Side, presumably far enough up that a cab would take the park and get out at ''Ninedieth Street.'' After he visits Phoebe, he heads for the apartment of his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, on Sutton Place. That visit ends when Holden awakes to find Mr. Antolini patting his head. He flees into the dawn.

HIS plan is to go to Grand Central, and he sleeps for a little while in the waiting room. In today's pocket-size waiting room, sleeping is discouraged. Then, after a cheap breakfast, he heads uptown on Fifth Avenue. It's a cold Monday morning shortly before Christmas. ''All those scraggly-looking Santa Clauses were standing on corners ringing those bells, and the Salvation Army girls, the ones with no lipstick or anything, were ringing bells too . . . A million little kids were downtown with their mothers, getting on and off buses and coming in and out of stores.''

For Salinger, the city bus is a kind of muse. It keeps coming up. In a way Salinger's view of the city is the one to be had riding in a city bus: immersed and fleeting at the same time.

After Grand Central, Holden walks to Phoebe's school, hatches a plan to hitchhike across the country and leaves her a note asking that she meet him at the Metropolitan Museum at lunchtime.

While he's waiting at the museum, a couple of young boys ask him to take them to the mummies. He obliges. After a few minutes, the two kids get scared and leave Holden alone with the mummies. According to Catharine Roehrig, a curator in the department of Egyptian art, all the mummies Holden saw are still there today, but the presentation has been totally revised. It's still quite haunted, though; my main impression, visiting in the middle of a summer day with the museum packed with tourists, was how private the space was, the narrow corridor of glass cases, the quiet mausoleum feel of the room.

It was peaceful for Holden, too.

When Phoebe does show up, it is with her suitcase packed. She wants to come with him on his trip. They have a kind of lovers' quarrel over this, and make up at the carousel in Central Park. They get there by way of the zoo, where they watch the sea lions. At the carousel, ''she sat down on this big, brown, beat-up-looking old horse,'' Holden says.

According to Henry J. Stern, the parks commissioner, the carousel in Holden's Central Park was probably not the one there now. The earlier one burned in a big fire in 1950.

It starts to rain while Phoebe is on the carousel, but Holden just sits on the bench, watching her. ''I felt so damn happy.''

That is the last New York scene; there is a short epilogue, written from a mental institution of some kind, and the book ends.

Commissioner Stern said that every year his office gets several calls and letters inquiring about an enduring mystery posed by ''Catcher'': What happens to the ducks when the lagoon freezes over?

The answer, the commissioner said, is that the lagoon doesn't really freeze anymore. ''The ducks generally go to the middle of the lake, which is the least likely to freeze,'' he said. ''If that freezes over they have been seen in the Hudson and East Rivers. Ducks travel much less than they used to. It's really much easier for the ducks than it was in 1951.''

*
Originally published in the New York Times

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