The package for J.D. Salinger rolled off the conveyor wrapped in L.L. Bean’s signature brown paper. It could have been a sweater, maybe a bathrobe. Definitely not slippers. Those came in a box.
I knew this because in 1995 I worked as a courier for FedEx in Lebanon, N.H. I was fresh out of college, the new owner of an English degree, which as it turns out, was not awarded with a compass or ambition.
And so I found myself delivering packages to people living in the Upper Valley, a region of Vermont and New Hampshire noted for its rolling hills and profound isolation. I was well acquainted with the area, having grown up in Cornish, N.H., the place Salinger called home for nearly 57 years.
Cornish, population 1,700, is a place where the roads, even the paved ones, are more like trails, so crowded are they by encroaching trees and bushes. As a kid, I’d sometimes reach out the passenger side window of my parents’ car to see if I could grab leaves or branches. I often could.
Nothing happened in Cornish. It’s been known as an artist sanctuary, but like Salinger, most of them retreated to the hills and woods, emerging briefly for provisions at the Grand Union in Windsor, Vt.
The only celebrity visit I remember came during the 1980 New Hampshire primary. Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan stopped at Powers Country Store to eat a hot dog or something.
Reagan won the Republican primary and eventually the presidency. The Powers, whose daughter Melissa was among 18 of my classmates in eighth grade, were always proud of that visit.
Despite the isolation, the landscape was humbling and comforting. A short walk in the woods, a field or atop a hill was all it took to disappear.
Those qualities apparently drew Salinger to Cornish in 1953, a move that a recent story in The New York Times said appeared to mirror the wishes of Salinger’s most famous character, Holden Caulfield. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” Caulfield proclaimed he would move to a little cabin somewhere, “away from any goddamn stupid conversation with anybody.”
Salinger sure picked the right place.
I met Salinger once, in 1995, the day the L.L.Bean package rolled off the conveyor. Until that day, I never knew Salinger lived in Cornish.
So complete was Salinger’s reclusiveness – and Cornish residents’ willingness to guard it – that my first reaction upon seeing the address label was one of disbelief. Not star-struck disbelief. I didn’t believe the recipient was actually Salinger.
It happened from time to time, people using phony names on address labels.
“Who does this clown think he is?” I muttered, tossing the package into the van.
The two drivers next to me laughed. They knew the recipient was legitimate, but neither bothered to tell me. Nor did they mention the rules for delivering Salinger’s packages.
Rule No. 1: You didn’t drive up to his house.
Later, I steered the FedEx van up Salinger’s long, winding driveway. I noticed the six-foot privacy fence, the first clue that I was entering forbidden territory.
I parked in the driveway atop the hill. After retrieving the package from the back of the van, an old man wearing a bathrobe emerged from the house.
He was 76 at the time. He didn’t look well.
“Good morning, I have a package for you,” I said, striding obliviously toward the impostor. “Can you sign?”
As we approached one another, I glanced through the windows of what appeared to be a study. Stacks of The New York Times, books and papers were everywhere. The place was a mess.
That’s when it hit me.
Dumbstruck, I handed him the clipboard and package. He took both and signed his name.
“You must be new,” he said. “The other drivers leave packages in the box at the bottom of the driveway.”
“I-I-didn’t …,” I stammered.
“It’s OK,” he said. “You didn’t know.”
Salinger shuffled back to the house. A woman emerged and began yelling at me in a British accent.
“You’re not supposed to drive up here!” she said.
Salinger stopped her with a wave of his hand.
“It’s OK, he didn’t know,” he said before disappearing into the house.
I didn’t know.
Shaken and embarrassed, I began the descent down Salinger’s driveway, which afforded spectacular views of the valley, the Connecticut River and the surrounding hills and mountains. I couldn’t quite see my house, but it was there, just a few miles away.
Here, in remote Cornish, we were practically neighbors.
I’ve told the story about a dozen times, often with the desire to attach to it some additional meaning.
Instead, my encounter remains a humorous, serendipitous event that says more about me and Cornish than Salinger.
Fifteen years later, and just days after the reclusive writer’s death, that seems appropriate.