Saturday, January 30, 2010

In Memoriam: J.D. Salinger

I wrote the piece below more than 15 years ago, when it appeared on the Leisure and Arts page of the Wall Street Journal. Though it was clearly a bit of a parody, most readers detected my deep affection for JD Salinger in it. Now I offer it below as my own personal memorial for that great American writer who died three days ago.


Dear Holden Caulfield,

I know it’s probably too late and you don't give a damn about such things any more -- you're probably in some crummy retirement community in Florida or Arizona or somewhere, for crying out loud. Here's how I figure it: in 1945, when your author, J.D. Salinger, published the first story about you in Collier's Magazine, you were a Junior in High School. So you're probably getting Social Security by now.

But all through Catcher in the Rye you kept asking a question, a really good question, and nobody ever gave you an answer. It was pathetic. I mean, you really wanted some information, and in Chapter 12 all Horwitz the taxi driver would say was "How the hell should I know?" No wonder you ended up in a loony bin in the last chapter. I hope I'm not giving away any secrets or anything, but Catcher's been out for a long time and I guess most people know how it ends by now.

You remember your question --the one about the ducks in Central Park. You kept asking what happens to those ducks when all the lakes freeze over. You were real worried about them. You wondered whether some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. It showed that you were a sensitive kid, Holden, it really did, you caring about the ducks and everything. I mean, most people just don't give a damn about the animals in the park and all.

Well, all these years I've kind of wondered about your question myself. But not very hard. Because things have changed since the 1940's or 50's when you were getting kicked out of that phony prep school and meeting old Sally Hayes under the clock at the Biltmore. Would you believe it, Holden, that clock isn't there any more. They've taken down the whole damn hotel, for chrissake!

But that's not what I mean when I say that things have changed . I mean that it hasn't been so cold these winters.

I remember Central Park in the 40's and 50's. In those days it got really cold in January or February. Kids used to actually ice skate on the old rowboat lake. Like me and my sister old Janet used to skate there all the time, and so did a lot of other people. Of course we didn't have much choice if we wanted to skate because they didn't have any skating rinks in the park in those days. There was only the rink at Rockefeller Center, and that one was too expensive. Besides, all the girls there had these little skating dresses with white fur at the hem and sleeves. I didn't have one.

In those days, I'm sorry to tell you, Holden, I didn't worry about the ducks like you did -- I honestly never gave the ducks a single thought. I don't know what was wrong with me. Something, I guess, because I never got kicked out of school, either.

By the time I grew up and began to care about ducks and stuff like you did, the winters stopped being so cold. I don't know why, exactly, maybe the greenhouse effect or whatever. But it's the truth. The lakes in Central Park hardly ever froze over during the last few decades, not solidly so you could skate on them, and not all over so anybody had to worry about the ducks.

But recently I've been thinking about you a lot, Holden. Really I have. Because this has been one unbelievably cold winter. I mean it's been really cold. All the lakes and even the Reservoir in Central Park have frozen solid. People are skating on the rowboat lake, for chrissake, and I haven't seen anybody do that for about 500 years, not since I was a little girl. So your question began to really bother me.

And guess what, Holden, I actually found out what happens to the ducks in Central Park when everything freezes over. And I can tell you that nobody comes with a truck and takes them away to the zoo or anything. No, there's another answer.

My friend Bill DeGraphenreid figured it out. He's this nice dark-skinned guy with a big shock of white hair who feeds the ducks all year. I mean he really cares about the ducks and he brings them huge amounts of food all the time. And imagine this: he actually knows those ducks. I'm not kidding, it's absolutely amazing. There's this one female mallard he calls Missy, and there's all Missy's children -- she had eight ducklings last spring – and there's Missy's sister who was slightly crippled from getting tangled in fishing line. Her name is also Missy. When he calls "Missy, Missy!" one of the two Missys always comes.

Anyhow, when all the lakes froze this year Bill got real worried about the ducks. So he looked all over the park for them. Finally he found them. All of them. Hundreds of ducks, including Missy and Missy's sister, Missy. They were all in a secret place, just about the only place in all of Central Park that hadn't frozen over, because there's an actual natural spring that runs into it, while all the other streams in the park turn on and off with a faucet, for chrissake.

So Bill's been going there just about every day with heaps of food for Missy I and Missy II and all the other ducks even though the roads in the park have been horribly icy and besides, he has this painful foot condition called spurs that makes it hard to walk.

So Holden, I'm going to tell you how to find the secret place where the Central Park ducks go when all the lakes are frozen over. Do you know where Balcony Bridge is? It's this structure that’s actually a part of the West Drive, somewhere around 77th Street. If you stand on its east side you get a fantastic view of the rowboat lake and the Central Park South and Fifth Avenue skylines. From its west side you're facing the Museum of Natural History.

Well, all the ducks are down there under old Balcony Bridge. Nobody hardly notices them but if you stand there facing Fifth Avenue and throw down a lot of bread you'll see them all right. They'll all come out and push and shove and gobble up every crumb. You should come and do it, Holden. It'll make you so damn happy it'll just about kill you. It really will.

[Published in the Wall St. Journal on 14 March 1994