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Being a “literary tourist” is not exactly how I would have imagined reflecting on The Catcher in the Rye when I read it for the first time at the age of 14. It’s the kind of thing Holden Caulfield would’ve called “phony” or just goddamn pointless. But there I was, a decade after reading J. D. Salinger’s novel, wandering Central Park, looking for what Holden saw.
I went to the park on one of those gorgeous weekends in June when it almost feels like winter never happened. Visitors were riding their bikes, some were licking popsicles. It was summer. It was the other face of Central Park, the one that Holden, during his Christmas visit, could only look back on.
My first stop was the Central Park Carousel. I waited with my boyfriend Cameron for a friend of ours and his new girlfriend, whom Cameron and I were meeting for the first time. We watched a baby in a stroller teething on his father’s iPhone. We listened to the carnival calliope music repeat. When our friend and his girlfriend arrived, we introduced ourselves and bought tickets for the Carousel. His girlfriend told us she had never been on it before, and I realized, even as a Brooklyn native, I hadn’t either.
There were things that seemed very un-Catcher about the Carousel, like the counter where you could buy digital prints of yourself riding the plastic horses or the tickets on cheap receipts. It was the kind of tourism that would have deterred Salinger’s scene with Holden and his sister Phoebe:
I went over and sat down on this bench, and she went and got on the carrousel. She walked all around it. I mean she walked once all the way around it. Then she sat down on this big, brown, beat-up-looking old horse. Then the carrousel started, and I watched her go around and around. There were only about five or six other kids on the ride, and the song the carrousel was playing was "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." It was playing it very jazzy and funny. All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.
… I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there.
The Carousel seemed to be far from Salinger’s until I walked into its brick encasement, seeing all the toothy, painted horses, all the happy children with their parents. We rode around and around the old thing, studying its murals, noticing that it still had real cymbals strike during the ride.
Afterwards, we passed by another one of Holden’s landmarks: the Museum of Natural History, where he moped after being rejected by Sally Hayes. Just about every New York kid is familiar with the museum, whether through infinite class trips or weekend outings with parents. We didn’t go in this time, but instead reminisced about the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, that big blue whale, and all the eerie models of orangutans and stuffed birds that hadn’t changed since we were little — or maybe even since Salinger’s time. It was part of Holden’s ideal: a place that never feels different, something you can rely on.
The strangest thing about literary tourism (or just diving into a book you had read so long ago) is that it can send you through a time warp. As we headed towards our next stop, the Lake, I was thrown back to my sophomore year of high school, to a moment in English class when I encountered a marked-up version of Catcher and made fun of the notes in the margins, among them: “The ducks!!” The ducks, big deal. They were sad and didn’t deserve to be stressed with such enthusiastic punctuation.
In true awkward adolescent fashion, after blatantly mocking the notes, I realized that our teacher was likely the annotator. He told me to cool it, and that was that. He ended up being one of my favorites from those years, taking the time to understand his students beyond their insensitive comments and naivete. Well beyond my high school years, enthusiastic annotations like his made sense. The ducks stick with you. I went looking for the ducks.
I made the mistake of heading to the Lake, which was filled with tourists boating and where a woman in a “All the Rumours are True” T-shirt was throwing Cheetos to the geese, who devoured the floating orange snacks whole.
Realizing I was at the wrong body of water, I headed south to the Pond. It was filled with ducks. There was a man fishing, and as he reeled one in, I noticed that there were young prep school boys everywhere — all in navy blazers adorned with their school insignia, with maroon-striped ties, button-ups and slacks. I assume they had gathered there after their last day of school, but it was Sunday. For a second, I entertained the possibility that they had all run away from their boarding school.
I thought back to high school, to the days I wanted to take the F train to Coney Island instead of to class, to feeling alienated, to feeling like so many kids do: that everything is unfair. I realized that it had been a while since I had felt that way or even thought about those days. I thought of the critics who dismiss The Catcher in the Rye as immature, as a literary example of the personal fable or the cult of YA books. As an adult, it’s easier to snub to that raw, bloody, erratic heart of adolescence. It’s unlike those sweet, idealized days of childhood. It’s not something people dream of going back to.
I went back the Central Park Pond the next weekend to see if the prep school boys would be there again, like some kind of Caulfield cult, but they weren’t. It was another gorgeous day out, and I sat on the rocks by the water counting the ducks.