On Sunday, I was lost in the underground. Lost, specifically, in New York City’s subway system, tossed to and fro by the winds of railed mechanical basilisks, on the brink, it seemed, of a nervous breakdown or an existential crisis or a spree at Dunkin’ Donuts. I was Holden Caulfield, a solitary worm squirming through the labyrinthine recesses of the Big Apple.
Preferring people to maps, I asked something like forty-three savvy-seeming fellow straphangers how to get to Grand Central. The forty-three answers I received ranged from helpful to confusing to sinisterly mistaken.
On the train into New York, I had tried to sleep while grudgingly sharing legroom with a woman sitting across from me. She had short hair, dyed blond to conceal the gray. Her knees were a nuisance to mine; I couldn’t sleep. She asked me a question, and I found myself, reluctantly, in a conversation.
She was reading a book called The Four Agreements, one of those New Age self-help affairs purported to deliver ancient wisdom but really offering platitudes like “Do your best” and “Don’t judge yourself.” Recommended by Oprah. When I asked about the book, the woman proceeded to tell a story.
She had recently celebrated her fifty-third birthday. She had eaten lunch with her mother, and it was a good day — until the laundry errand. The laundress, a foreigner, chuckled, “You gain weight? You gain weight?” and made a gesture indicating rotundity.
“She ruined my birthday,” said the woman with dyed hair. As a child, she told me, she had been overweight, and somehow the incidental jest of a laundress hit her like a devastating blow. She was single, had been single for some time now, and was inordinately self-conscious about her looks. She wanted to be satisfied with who she was, overweight or not; she wanted, finally, at fifty-three, to be secure in her identity. A friend had recommended The Four Agreements.
When the train came to a stop and the passengers dispersed, I stood still on the platform and watched the woman walk, alone, to the stairs, watched as she and her dyed hair were absorbed into a crowd of anonymous thousands, and, thinking of her anxiety and her loneliness and her striving for hope in the platitudes of a self-help paperback, I was grieved. A thing with which I had lately been competing for legroom became, to me, a human being.
Soon afterward, I was lost in the cruel maze of the underground, and the bipeds walking around me were, at best, a means of navigational direction. Most were merely in the way.
I remember my first real glimpse into New York City — the first time I picked up The Catcher in the Rye. I was standing — if you really want to hear about it — in a bookstore, a sophomore in high school, and from the first sentence I was drawn in as with no book I had read before.
It’s a novel that forces you to ask distressing questions. How do you overcome cynicism in an age of manipulation, when social networking eclipses friendship, when what matters is to seem rather than to be? How do you get past the phoniness in everyone around you, the masks they wear, the sense that no one can be known as he really is? How, among the lonely masses of the city, can you remember that these commuters, these beggars, these cabdrivers and subway operators — are people?
After reading Catcher, I turned to other works by Salinger, and it was in these — notably in the stories of the Glass family — that I found his most compelling answer to Holden’s plight. Seymour Glass, the eldest of seven insanely precocious children, seems in many ways to represent triumph over cynicism.
Seymour sees the flaws in people, their shabby motives, their vanity, but, rather than spurn them, he has compassion. He sees their shortcomings, sees how their shortcomings deprive them of happiness, and he takes pity. He loves them. He looks for the virtues hiding behind their vices. He is attentive to “the main current of poetry that flows through things,” and bears in mind constantly — impossibly, it seems — the fact that every encounter with another human being is sacred. In short, Seymour sees more.
When Zooey, the youngest male of the Glass family, complains about having to appear on a children’s quiz show, Seymour responds by telling him to shine his shoes beforehand. “I was furious,” Zooey recounts. “The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them.”
Seymour’s answer: Shine your shoes for the Fat Lady. No details, no further explanation. The Fat Lady. Zooey imagines her sitting on a porch in the heat, swatting flies, listening to the quiz show on the radio, and he comes to understand the injunction to shine his shoes. Out of love for that woman. Out of respect for her lonely, downtrodden existence.
Ultimately, Zooey arrives at an even more radical epiphany: Everyone is the Fat Lady. Everyone, from the janitor in your college to the pretentious know-it-all in your section to the president of the United States — everyone is swatting flies on a lonely porch. Everyone has hidden fears, shameful struggles, a loneliness that can never be quite drowned out by the noise of parties or the solace of alcohol. Realizing this, Zooey has gotten beyond cynicism, beyond misanthropy. He can love.
It was good to meet a Fat Lady on the train, to be reminded that everyone — even this woman making it difficult for me to sleep — is a dreaming, willing, stumbling human being out of reverence for whom it would be an honor to shine my shoes. But soon, amid the crowds and the roaring basilisks of the underground, I forgot.
And this is the struggle that confronts all of us, every day. To bear in mind, incessantly, that we are surrounded by Fat Ladies. Seymour Glass, sad to say, lost sight of this truth, and in an act of surrender to cynicism or world-weariness or downright despondency, he took his own life.
Salinger, himself, it seems, had enough with human society. At ninety-years-old, he remains a recluse in New Hampshire.
It is no easy struggle. One must stand in the squalid underground, look at the faces walking by, grit one’s teeth and mutter, “These are people, these are people, these are people …”
Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.