Who Wrote Holden Caulfield

E.B White once remarked upon what he called The Three New Yorks. He was referring to the natives, the commuters, and the final-destination seekers. The latter ran hot and ragged through the city’s dark webbed alleys bringing with them a daily fix of art, poetry, and their romantic vision. White was among that last lot as a young man, as was I, many years later. Ironically, neither of us stayed.  Long gone are the days of White’s “boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart”. {from his essay ‘Here is New York’ published in 1949} Long gone too are the days of manuscripts in general and the chance meetings-of-minds in unmarked cafes serving off-menu food for thought; heads hung low by flickering flames, manifestos being penned next to tables courting adoring youths falling madly in love over their wanderlust escape plans. Veins hot with coalition blood and rooms darkened by clandestine affairs have been replaced with temperature controlled, homogenized vessels rife with fluorescent beams aimed and ready to wash your mind clean. “Clean”. What a tragically misunderstood word that is.

White also entertains the notion that New York can gift its inhabitants equal parts loneliness and privacy. He laments flatly on the constant events that the city endlessly hosts but points out that, if you’re not so inclined, you’re free to exist outside of the noise and perpetual motion. I spent years visiting the city before I actually moved there at 20, and even with an address to speak of, I still ended each day with the consequential feeling that the city didn’t want me. There were exactly three things that kept me coming back. A boy. A man. And a book.

The boy was Holden Caulfield; a teenaged, fictitious misanthrope who just wants to know where the ducks go in the winter time when the pond in Central Park freezes over. He also thinks everyone is a phony, but underneath his addiction to cigarettes and his red hunting cap is a boy who desperately wants to erase all of the “fuck you” graffiti off of every wall everywhere so that his little sister, Pheobe, never has to know how terrible the world really is. He can’t do that and it kills him inside.

Holden was introduced to me by Paul when I was 14. Paul was about 30 and he was my English teacher for two years. He handed me the book (in secret) that Holden lived inside of, The Catcher In The Rye, during what was becoming one of our regular after school talks. The book was on the banned reading list for schools at the time because of the word “Fuck” being in it. The fact that it’s contextual to the storyline (the part about the graffiti is true), and not just being used as an expletive, is a good testament to our failing academic system in this country. Holden truly Does want the world to stay innocent forever. But he acknowledges the fact that you just have to live with the knowledge that it isn’t. If you can’t, you’re liable to have a breakdown or kill yourself. I guess they didn’t want us thinking about real life in school…just the facts. Just the lies.

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Paul’s Notes Inside of The ‘Catcher Copy That Belonged to Him

 

One of the very first suicides that I’d have to learn to cope with in life was Paul’s, and I still can’t say that I fully have. I can’t help but think that him making sure I read that book, and saying to me, “This book will change everything for you”, was one of his ways of preparing me for all of the ugliness that was yet to come. Paul and I would remain close after I dropped out at 16. I moved away to Philly but I’d come visit him after school a couple times a month. I made him mix-tapes and he gave me more books. I introduced him to the Descendents and he loved them. I told him that Milo always reminded me of him and I could tell how important that made him feel. Part of our bond was due to the fact that we shared our birthday with each other, June 1st. I’d always send a letter to the school, and if he could call, he would. He was the first person who pushed me to never stop writing. He believed in me even when all I was writing was neverending gothic poetry. He made me feel like I was going to make it as a writer. No one had ever made me feel that way before. I never thought that he would give up on me.

When I was almost 20, I moved to The Lower East Side, Manhattan. I got this great idea that I was going to re-read ‘Catcher in all of the places in the book that Holden visited. When he went to The Met, I’d go to The Met. When he visited the old Zoo, I’d go there too. I knew Paul would get a kick out of it and even be proud of me in a weird way. I carried out my plan over that spring. I eventually had to leave the City because I got my ass kicked watching The Blood play one night at Coney Island High. This was not an isolated incident. I knew my attackers and it had apparently been a long time coming. I went back to Coney the next night for Joey Ramone’s birthday party, then I split town the day after that.  I wasn’t really safe anywhere. There was still a lot of violence in the east coast punk scene 20 years ago. I never fit into that part of it so well.

A couple of weeks later, I was back in Philly trying to figure out when the teachers would be going back to prep for their first semester when I got a call from a friend of mine’s father. Paul had fatally shot himself on our birthday. I do know the reasons why but it’s too much to go into here, and respectfully, just not necessary. My reaction to it is still a blur in my memory, but I soon found myself speaking at his memorial service. I didn’t want to be up there at the podium. I didn’t know what to say. I was still so hurt and confused. And I was angry. I hadn’t yet come to terms with suicide the way that I have now, twenty years and fifteen friends later. I just told my New York story. About the book. About how he had given me my first copy of it. About how he believed in me. What else could I possibly share? His impact on me is still felt today. Tears fall now as I type. I don’t think they’ll ever stop.

 

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On The Left Wrist: Milo Holding a Book That says “RIP P.O”. On The Right Wrist: Holden Caulfield

A few weeks after the memorial service, just before school was back in session, I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as my little brother’s math teacher. I began directing her to my parent’s line when she stopped me. “No. I’m calling for you. I heard you speak at Paul’s service. We were going through his room and we found his copy of The Catcher In The Rye in his desk. We all decided that there’s no one, other than you, who he would want to have it.” I can’t tell you much about how the call concluded. I know I passed the phone off to my partner to give her our address. It was a collapsing sob and I know I stayed down for a while. I felt a heaviness that I would, sadly, come to know all too well over the years.

It was 15 years before I would open his copy. When I saw the font of his hand again, my heart sank low, and I knew that I had to write the book that I always told him I would. It would be almost another 4 years until I would find the strength to heal from that and many other traumas and begin to write that book. That brings us to the current year and what is about to be the 20 year anniversary of his suicide. Recently, my dear friend, Dene, tattooed Holden on my wrist to accompany the “RIP P.O” tattoo I got a couple years back for a previous birthday of ours. I’ve started re-reading the book for the third time to honor Paul and to remember where my motivation to write all started. I think the school system in this country is total bullshit, which is why I left,  but there are some diamonds in the rough. Paul was definitely mine. My novel is for him.

{the namesake of this entry goes to Green Day’s Who Wrote Holden Caulfield that was released on 1992’s Kerplunk that I was definitely wearing out in my tape deck around the time I got the book from Paul. There have been about a million songs written about Holden, by the way. He’d probably think most of them were phony.}

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And thanks for reading.

 

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Marshall says:

    You write the hard stuff. Things that deserve telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thehatefulnotebook says:

    I don’t have a choice. Thank you for taking the time to read it, Marshall.

    Like

  3. Katie says:

    Thank you Beth for writing this. Paul was an incredible man and teacher, and I know he left an indelible mark on your life. I’m glad you had him to talk to. I’ve read through these pieces. They brought back memories of you – running through cow fields and exploring streams, and I remember the mixed tape you sent me when I moved. You will always have a place in my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. thehatefulnotebook says:

    Katie Walker? Or Francis? How did you find me? I don’t have contact with anyone from that time period anymore… I’d love to talk if you could send a private email. Also, You’re Welcome. And thank you so much for reading.

    Like

    1. thehatefulnotebook says:

      Yes 😀

      Like

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