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I stood around looking at J.D. Salinger stuff last Friday, his old black Royal typewriter, family snapshots, and typewritten letters, at the New York Public Library, and it was a wonder to see. I’m one of the many millions for whom The Catcher in the Rye was an important book back in my teens and back then, Salinger was famous for guarding his privacy. He didn’t do interviews, was never on TV, and so was portrayed in the press as a crank, an anti-social weirdo. It’s clear from the exhibit that he was not.

Thoughts on Solitude

He seems quite content, raising his vegetables, writing beautiful letters to his son, Matthew, studying in France, writing to an Army buddy with whom he shared a jeep during the Battle of the Bulge, writing at length to a 14-year-old reader named Laura in Huntington, WV. She had not included a return address and Salinger called Information in Huntington and got it. I speak for all his readers when I say I’m glad we were wrong about him. He was a sweet and happy man.

It did occur to me that Cornish, NH, was not a good place to live if you wanted anonymity. Reporters went to the town, talked to Salinger’s neighbors, his mailman, tried to dredge up tales about him, but if he’d stayed in New York, he’d have been better off. Anonymity is New York’s gift to us all.

I was in the library to sit in the magnificent Rose Reading Room, one of my favorite rooms in America, where a writer can sit and work at a long table under a magnificent high ceiling

I was in the library to sit in the magnificent Rose Reading Room, one of my favorite rooms in America, where a writer can sit and work at a long table under a magnificent high ceiling, in the company of a couple hundred others, most of them younger, working on Lord knows what. I’m working on a memoir, Lord knows why. Nobody bothers you there. I work until the library closes at 5:45 and make my way east on 42nd Street to Grand Central Station and down the ramp to the Oyster Bar and get a little red-checked table in the corner and order five bluepoints and coleslaw and broiled sea bass. Solitary supper, reading the paper, a great luxury.

I walk through the throng and remember when I came here with my dad in 1953. I was 11, a Minnesota kid on my first trip to the big city. I wandered away from him and it scared him, the thought that I might get lost, and he ran and grabbed my hand, and I still remember the feeling I got — that my dad loved me. He’d never say it, of course, but he did. I remember him as I walk through the station and head downstairs to the Times Square shuttle to take me to the uptown C train.

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Dad was a train man and New York is a city of trains. Without the vast network of underground lines, the city would die. I like the company of New Yorkers on trains, their keen awareness of surroundings, their remarkable politeness. Once on the uptown One, I met a young guy from Texas who’d been at the same piano recital I’d been at and heard a Philip Glass sonata that sounded unGlass-like, melodic, more like Richard Strauss. We discussed that for a mile and he got off. The subway, the Rose Reading Room, the Oyster Bar — citadels of solitude. Salinger could’ve been quite happy here. I once saw Philip Roth walking in Central Park and nobody bothered him. He looked at me, I nodded, he nodded back. Who needs more?

I went to the ER once, about a year ago. My right knee hurt so that I could hardly put weight on it. I took a cab to Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s on 114th. I took a number and waited. The ER was crowded with anonymous people, most of them in worse shape than I. Three hours later, I was X-rayed and after a short wait, a doctor told me nothing was broken, I was okay to go. She was kind, thoughtful, friendly, and I looked at her name tag and decided to invade her privacy. I asked her to pronounce her name, she did, and I wrote:

The ER doc Elise Levine
Is dealing with chaos just fine;
Your calm expertise
And kindness, Elise,
Bring the Upper West Side some sunshine
In the shadow of St. John Divine.

Nobody had written a poem for her before, she said. She was touched. I thanked her and walked home. The beauty of solitude is that it makes each encounter so memorable. Dr. Levine, the music student from Texas, my dad taking my hand.


Garrison Keillor

Reposted from Garrison Home Productions with permission.