IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT, IF YOU REALLY WANT to understand how and why I spent a year of my precious life as Jerome David Salinger (Jerry to his friends, J.D. to his fans), you'll need to do some goddamned work. Picture, if you will, a map of the Eastern seaboard. Halfway down the coast, you'll find Winston-Salem, North Carolina, its air eternally tinged with the sweet scent of tobacco. Somewhere within the city limits, on a narrow street in Old Salem, perhaps, sits a four-bedroom Victorian, recently renovated, surrounded by magnolias and azaleas. In this house is a boy--a boy I do not know, have never met, never will meet--and this is the person on whom you must zoom in. Tonight he sits at the dark wooden desk in his bedroom, still half-dressed in his rumpled school uniform--blue oxford, gray flannel pants--attempting to write a story for his English class. Though he looks rather like the other boys at his school, he is most emphatically not like these boys, boys who spend all their time thinking about football and lacrosse and the SATs. He has just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye for the third time. He is sixteen years old.
Now, trace your finger up the map and let it rest on New York City, a place our boy from North Carolina has never visited. Much of what he knows about the city he gleaned from Catcher and his other favorite novel, The Great Gatsby. He imagines smoky rooms, red-lipped Vassar girls drinking tumblers of whiskey in hotel bars, wisecracking taxi drivers, He cannot picture Brooklyn, particularly not a tiny apartment in a dilapidated back house--an apartment without heat, without a sink in the kitchen. The girl that lives in this apartment washes her dishes in the chipped, pink bathtub. She is not much older than the boy, six or seven years. She rouges her lips like a '40s film star, dons kilts and twinsets and loafers and imagines herself, like Franny Glass, as "a languid, sophisticated type," even as she stoops over her bathtub, scrubbing pots in a tattered kimono. Each morning, she gets on the subway in her crummy neighborhood and emerges from it under the starry ceiling of Grand Central, a few blocks from the Madison Avenue office in which she works, an office virtually unchanged since the days in which Holden Caulfield roamed the city, trolling for a date.
Finally, you need to go to New Hampshire, where a tall, dark-eyed man meditates in the back room of his simple, wood-frame house. In his eighties now and mostly deaf, he thrives on routine: Each morning, he rises, eats breakfast, kisses his wife goodbye and heads to his study, where he meditates and, allegedly, writes. He is a Buddhist, a vegetarian, the son of a man who made his living processing meat. His wife, thirty years his junior, is a nurse at the local hospital. She enjoys weaving tapestries. He enjoys watching television. A satellite dish crowns the top of their farmhouse. Every five years or so, he visits New York, the city in which he was born and raised, the city he made intimate--and eccentrically romantic--for several generations of readers. He hates the city now, but he needs to come, needs to meet with his agent, make sure she's handling the business of his books in exactly the way he likes. He visits her office and they head out to lunch. He says hello to the low-voiced girl who assists his agent, the girl who fields his questions about royalties and contracts, repeating her answers three and four times on the days when he doesn't feel like using his special, amplified phone, bought for him by his wife.
The girl has dark hair and wears a plaid wool skirt, red lipstick.
The man, you already know, is Jerome David Salinger.
The boy, we'll get to later.
The girl, of course, is me.
THAT DAY, SOME YEARS AGO, SALINGER SHOOK MY HAND WITH salty kindness, and I experienced an unparalleled surge of excitement--not because I was meeting the reclusive writer, but because I possessed a secret, a strange and goofy secret that, if disclosed to the surprisingly sweet old man who held my right hand in both of his, would perhaps lead to some kind of angry scene and, I supposed, the loss of my peculiar and beloved job. …