Thursday, December 02, 2004


On Account Of Jerry (Being a Recurring Series of Random Anecdotes)

There are some stories I don't tell often. Some are a little painful to relate (such as the day I came home from school to find my dad with a bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other); some still make me twinge with embarrassment to think of them (as when the college football star opened his car door one night and found me fiddling with his radio); and some I don't tell because they're just too incredible to be believed. My experience with the paranormal in a certain 220-year-old farmhouse, for example.

This story falls in the latter category, but it's a unique one for me, because on the few occasions I have told it, I pretend that it was my mom or a friend who experienced what I did. I'm not sure why. Partly because I can scarcely believe it happened to me, and partly because somehow it sounds truer when I tell it as happening to someone else (ladies and gentlemen, the birth of the Urban Legend). But it DID happen. And here's how:

Several years ago, after I graduated college but before I finally broke into my chosen profession, I worked for a certain bank in New Hampshire.

How I got the job was still a mystery. As a writer, I'm almost completely math impaired, but the bank was desperate for tellers, and I soon found out why: it seemed that particular branch was the favorite one of every local curmudgeon in the area. Old folks coming in to harass us about where their money was (as they waved a passbook which was stamped CANCELLED in 1964). Young folks wanting to cash checks from other banks, then screeching at us when we refused them (the staff break room was papered with notices of bounced checks from such folks).

I had more than my share of the crazies, but I knew what I had gotten myself into: this was a service job and if I didn't like it, I could go back home and haul trash for my uncle, the town rubbish collector. So I sucked it up, smiled til my face hurt, and tried to be pleasant to everyone, even the jerks. Especially the jerks.

In the year or so that I worked there, my boss determined that I had a particular flair when it came to helping the crazies and the curmudgeons open accounts, so I was often as not at the customer service desk, helping people buy CDs (no, not the musical kind), or get new passbooks (yes, we still handed out passbooks when you opened a savings account. Oh those were the days).

To be honest, it was an easy job. This was New Hampshire, after all, a state that seemed to be in perpetual financial straits. We would maybe get one person a day who required me to open an account.

One grey, wet Thursday, I was at the service desk when I saw an older man shuffle in. He was shorter than me and looked like every other old guy I'd ever waited on, had kind of a fishing hat on, a dark cardigan sweater and an even darker scowl on his face. He was with a very much younger woman, I remember that. I took her to be his daughter. She turned out to be his wife.

He walked towards me and I smiled and said, "May I help you?" The old man ignored me and brushed right past the desk. "Where's Marilyn?" he bellowed. Marilyn was the branch manager. This happened a lot. People who knew the executives at our bank would insist on speaking to them first before allowing themselves to be led right back to my desk to open their account, as if going through this ritual would get them a better interest rate or finer grade of lollypop for their children.

Marilyn took these requests for her presence in stride, but this morning I couldn't help but notice that she came out of her office REALLY fast. As though her chair had been spring-loaded.

"Well, hi Jerry," she beamed. And she spoke to the woman, whose name I didn't hear.

Jerry growled on for a bit and Marilyn was hanging on his every word, nodding intently, placing a hand on his arm every now and then and in general treating this guy like he was the president. Maybe he was on the bank's board of directors, I thought.

And then they came to me.

"Jerry would like to open a new account and close an old one. Please take care of this, right away," she said, emphasizing the last two words.

If you've ever worked at a job where you file very specific paperwork over and over for months on end, you know how it is: the routine of it blurs for you and a mechanism engages, so that when you ask for someone's vital information--name, address, social security number, etc.--it goes in one ear and out the other. I filled out Jerry's account application for him, closed out his old one, gave him the paperwork to sign. The guy seemed very intense and I decided not to engage in the usual small talk, just went about my business.

We wrapped things up in about 20 minutes (you didn't think I was going to tell you anything about his bank accounts, did you?), and as we stood up, I offered my hand, as usual. He hesitated, then shook it. "That's the way I like it," he said. "No small talk, no nonsense, right down to business." And then he gave me the briefest of smiles, bellowed to Marilyn (who, I then realized, had been hovering nearby) and left.

As soon as he was gone, she scuttled over to my desk. "Well?" she said. "I thought you'd get a kick out of that."

I gave her what I'm sure was a blank look. "Kick out of what?"

She gave me a sad look. "You don't know who that was?"

I looked down at the paperwork, at the form, listing last name first. "Sure," I said, "Salinger, Jerome..." and I froze as the light finally went on. "Oh my God!" I shrieked, realizing I had just met the state's--arguably the nation's--most celebrated literary recluse.

Marilyn nodded. "He usually wants me to do help him, but I thought you might want to, given what you were reading last week."

And I felt a hot lump of regret fall from my throat to my stomach. Last week at lunch, one of the books I'd been reading was Nine Stories. If only I had brought it with me this week, I thought, maybe he would have seen it on my desk and signed it for me. Maybe we'd have become best friends and he would have taken me under his wing, introduced me around to his pals at the New Yorker...

Marilyn burst my bubble. "Good thing you didn't have that book with you today. He'd have been furious if you asked him to sign it."

I don't know whether that's true or not, but I do know I got to shake the man's hand.

I stayed at the bank for another few months, and never saw Jerry again, but I must confess that he still had an impact on my life. Within a few months, I was interviewing for an important writing job, that crucial foot-in-the-door job that would lead to the career I wanted to pursue. It had been a tough interview and the manager who had been drilling me was a former chief editor of a big New York magazine. I had tried to give this guy every right answer, but it was clear he wasn't warming to me.

Out of nowhere, he says, "Give me one good reason why I should hire you!"

His general demeanor and bellowing voice reminded me of that brief encounter at the bank all those months ago. And before I knew it, I blurted, "Well, I have J.D. Salinger's address and phone number." (It's true. I had memorized it that day when we met and copied it down when I got home, a personal little trophy in honor of my brush with the man.)

The manager froze. Looked hard at me, then smiled. "I gotta know how you got that," he said. I told him the story I just told you and that finally broke the ice. A week later, he phoned me to offer me the job. The guy turned out to be a Salinger nut, and spent the next two years trying to weasel the information out of me. I'd like to think it wasn't the reason he hired me (at least, not the only reason). And in the end, I never gave it to him.

I still have Salinger's address in my Rolodex. And though I've never used it, out of respect for the man and the privacy he's worked so hard to build around his life, having it makes me feel that I still have some connection to the great writer. That if things got too bad, maybe I could call him up, ask for his help or advice.

But he'd probably just hang up.

From Somewhere On the Masthead

Thanks for a very interesting story. Although I'm not a Salinger fan myself, the anecdote was very well written and I was drawn in. Good job!
I love this story! I had no idea that he was a New Hampshire recluse. NH is the perfect state to not be noticed in, that's for sure.
Great story!
Reminds me of the addage "everything happens for a reason".
I, too, have his home address. (Although, I got it via a friend and not from meeting the man himself.) I have always wanted to write him a letter.

'Teddy' and 'Franny & Zooey' are two of my favorite stories.

J.D.S. is one of only two authors on my favorites list who also happen to still be alive.

Maybe I should write him a little something. You know, just to let him know that he’s awesome.

I’m sure that if I put it on pretty stationary, he will actually open the envelope and read through. (Secret Ninja technique # 456,678.)

Maybe I should also read more of your site. Where have I been?
Your story is amazing! I'm a huge fan of Salinger, but have you really is adress? Coz i wanted to write him a letter...
I know this comment is SO FOUR YEARS OLD, but omigosh, this story makes me die inside. If I mail you a postcard with an autistic child on the front of it, will you forward it to him?
Great story man. Funny how people probably still stumble upon this from time to time. Like me.

I just read Salinger: a biography, so I've been on a Salinger hunt lately.
on a salinger hunt myself, i stumbled across your story. it's incredible. i only wish i had met someone as awe-inspiring in my year as a teller. i'll admit, that as he's my greatest writing influence, i had every intention of asking for his address when i started reading. and now, though it may kill a small part of me deep down, i think it is best to let the man be.

thank you for this.
Right when your manager said taht she thought you wowuld get a kick out of that, i was like oh god, he didn't know the whole time.

Salinger is a great man, and deserves his peace and quiet. Its been my dream to write and/or meet all my favorite writers, I would write him, if I had the address, but I think I'll wait until he "moves on" he might prefer it that way.
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