In the sixth grade, the Boys' Vice-Principal threatened to suspend me from school unless I stopped carrying around The Catcher in the RyeI think because it had the word "f*ck" in it. Since the Boys' Vice-Principal hadn't read the book - and I don't think he'd ever read any book - he couldn't tell me why.
But Mrs. Gordon was cool. She let me keep the book at my desk and read it at recess as long as I kept a brown wrapper over the cover.
I think J.D. Salinger would have liked Mrs. Gordon. She wanted to save me from the world's vice-principals, the guys who wanted to train you in obedience to idiots and introduce you the adult world of fear and punishment. Mrs. Gordon wanted to protect the need of a child to run free.
That's, of course, how the word fuckgot into Salinger's book. For the 5% of you who haven't read it, the main character of the book, Holden Caulfield, tries to erase the f-word off the wall of a New York City school. He doesn't want little kids like his sister Phoebe to see it, that somehow it would trigger an irreversible loss of her childhood innocence:
Any other job would just turn you into a "phony," that is, an adult. Alladults were phonies, even the nice ones, who took jobs they hated, taught textbooks and catechisms they didn't believe and lived lives of self-inflicted disappointments, while pretending it was all OK. Then with phony grins, they'd demand that you join their painful parade of delusion and decay.
Nearly half a century after I covered up Salinger's book in a carefully folded brown wrapper, I thought I'd read it to my twins. They were now eleven, in the 6th grade.
We knew then that the world could only get better: we would go to the moon and eventually, vacation there. JFK announced the Alliance for Progress and poverty would end in Appalachia; and Paul McCartney wanted to hold our hand. Every nasty meanie, like the police in Selma, was met by a legion of victorious innocents led by Martin Luther King. So we all held hands in a circle while Pete Seeger strummed "We shall overcome." Everyone would get a scholarship; and we really, truly believed we would overcome.
Even the social critics - Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac - were just big, mischievous kids.
Yes, there were a bunch of old phonies like Joe McCarthy and the Boys' Vice-Principal, but their days were numbered.
Then we fell over the cliff.
A bullet through the skull replaced Kennedy with Nixon. We shall overcomewas replaced with the vicious "Southern Strategy;" the Cold War exploded in hot jungles; then came the idiot wasteland of the regimes of Ford and Carter and Reagan and Clinton and Bushes, a degenerative march as the machine of America rusted and died.
There's no way to wipe the fuckoff this smeared planet. I'm supposed to try. I'm an investigative reporter, meaning I have a professional commitment to the childish belief that if I shout loud enough, I can warn people away from the cliff's edge.
Well, it's better than a real job, but no less "phony," no less of a petty illusion.