Letters About Literature National Winners 2006
National Winner, Level 3: Martha Park
To J. D. Salinger,
This city needs a soft place to fall as much as I need a soft place to lay my head. These wide streets glitter sadly, beer bottles casting out lonesome rays under the soft glow of streetlights. Down the road a man stumbles out of a bar, howling with laughter as lonely and meaningless as these streets.
I think of you as I walk, cold and clutching a sketchbook and a marker. I think of Holden Caulfield, too, as the lost innocence of this city that bears down on me and that he would understand. Holden to me is a sort of unlikely saint. He is a saint of roller-skate skinny little girls and ducks in winter and corny piano players.
I know he would be sad, too, if he could turn the corner with me and if he could feel this long, cold street shudder as an eight-year-old street kid flips himself around and around, slow motion, his hands and feet meeting the cobblestone ground with a dull thud on each round. His older brother passes a yellow plastic bucket through the crowd of shivering onlookers.
The small boy twists and turns through the air, his eyes shut tight. As he passes by me, I think I can almost hear him singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye."
When the bucket gets around to me, I stuff a few meaningless bills in among the others. They're all I have to show for my stumbling empathy and I turn my back and continue walking, the concrete pounding with my head as behind me the boy continues to fly through the air. A child who here can never stay a child skips ahead of me down the curb past the dirty graffiti covered walls that are his hateful education.
This city is dead weight waiting for a transformation. It is heavy, like Allie's left-handed baseball glove covered in poems, and Sunny's green dress in the closet. This city is a sad collection of lights and empty laughter in opaque glass bottles on the side of the road. This city is running fast towards the edge of a cliff. This is a city in need of a Holden Caulfield.
If there's one thing I've learned from your words through Holden it's to be true to whom I am. I don't want to be counted in Holden's long list of 'phonies,' of Ossenburger's and Sally Haye's and Robert Ackley's. Holden awakened me in me a sense of responsibility for these awkwardly crumbling souls and streetlights and sidewalks.
Tonight, turning to look at the walls covered in scrawled angry messages to those retaining a bit of hope, I think of you and your Holden. Uncapping my marker, I look carefully for a space on the wall, and when I find it, I leave my own message: Holden Caulfield was here. And he is. He's in me and he's in this city and he's in the healing that must take place here. Thank you for him.