In my teens and twenties, flowery works of Middle English and Romantic Literature were my mainstays. Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” was foisted upon me in the one American literature class that we Brit-Lit majors were required to take. I hated everything about it: the spare prose, the macho realism and the phrase our professor used when referring to Hemingway’s writing: the mot juste – “the right word.”
Despite its French translation, the mot juste felt brutish. Why use five dirty words when you could use 35 mellifluous ones? During my American Lit class, I avoided “The Grapes of Wrath,” priding myself on earning an A by reading Cliff’s Notes.
I wish that I could have appreciated Steinbeck then, but I wasn’t ready to absorb the lesson at hand, which is to say that it wasn’t the right lesson.
Years later, my ex-husband urged me to read “Cannery Row” as we discussed his residency at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. His advice forever altered my path as a writer. It began simply by reading Steinbeck’s opening lines at the right time:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood and chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.
His words rebooted my brain. I set the book down for a moment, then re-read them several times. My eyes magnetically returned to the start of the paragraph with the sure swing of a typewriter carriage.
At 30, not much made sense, including 24 years of failed attempts at writing fiction. A beginning like this made the General Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales” seem impossible. It made most of what I had enjoyed reading impossible. Apart from my journals, it made everything I had tried to write impossible. The simplicity of Steinbeck’s structure and vivid imagery laid bare the world in a way that I needed to see it.
That momentary trade opened up the possibility of writing from life — not journalism, but essays. That was the day I outgrew both Middle English literature and my desire to write fiction.
Those lines, and the many that follow, made me want to see and write about the world as it was. It made me want to explore the tarnished side of shiny things and find bits of glitter in the dirt. Steinbeck made me feel vulnerable, as if it wasn’t just Mack and the boys, but my home, my livelihood and my naive suburban identity that were tenuous. As much as their chicanery was nerve-wracking, I found myself daydreaming of bagging sea creatures for a scant income and waking up hung over in the Flop House.
The grating, glaring stink of Cannery Row was my gateway into American realism. It heralded the beginning of my love affair with city life and writing from experience. Steinbeck’s lean observations, his elevation of the imperfect and impure, intrigued me. Once I shrugged off the heavy velvet robes of courtly love, I never looked back.
Over the years, as life has become more deliciously, tragically imperfect, I’ve grown to appreciate Steinbeck’s succinct yet rich honeycombs of reality. The mot juste became my religion; Steinbeck, my evangelist.
Cannery Row is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…
There’s an undertone of desperation in “Cannery Row.” Its cast attempts to elude that which cannot be escaped: loneliness, debt, degeneration, demise. Within the first few chapters, men blow their brains out, wives beat husbands and evict them from home, scamps incur debts and leverage swindles of every kind. Even amongst the comparably honorable, there is no trust. Doc, the noblest of them all, has his own slippery moral code that we forgive him because he’s a gentle chap.
After parting ways with Michael B. at the Cabrillo College farmers market, I turn south from Santa Cruz on Highway 1 in search of these characters and the poetry of my own adventure in this lonely dream of a town.
Cannery Row is a tone, a nostalgia, a habit… a quality of light.
The closer my red Mustang gallops to Monterey, the puffier the clouds become. The planted fields of Salinas are miles behind. Now, I’m surrounded by sandy dunes topped with male-pattern-baldness tufts of sea grass. The ocean is glassy and gray. It appears cold even though the car’s display says that it’s 75 degrees.
As the clouds begin to touch, Monterey feels like a city made for solitude. It’s the fog and the blowing sand. As the transient dunes suggest, there’s nothing to hang onto. A white blindness rolls in each morning and afternoon, obscuring everything even when it’s broadly daylit a few miles away. The sun weakens and Monterey drifts into a place of forgetting and being forgotten.
Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust…
The streets are rife with tourist congestion near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Thankfully, my rented apartment is in the heart of Pacific Grove, a 40-minute walk away. The only benefit of the bumper-to-bumper is that I can creep along the shore, eyeing the row of old cannery buildings and smelling the history of brine and rusty metal.
Herds of pudgy families ride gayly painted Surrey bikes, bringing traffic to a halt as they cross at the blinking stop light.
Cannery Row is the splintered wood and chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps…
After Ana tours me through her cottage apartment, I change into a skort and hoodie with the classic red disc and yellow Santa Cruz logo. As with every place I’ve stayed during these journeys, I close someone else’s front door behind me, marveling that people trust strangers to sublet their homes.
The walk from Laurel to Ocean View Boulevard takes me past undulating parking lots, cracked and vacant of cars, and a menagerie of storefront shops, more than half of which are papered and permanently closed. Past the sputtering commercial/retail strip, the streets are a tossed salad of painted bungalows, guest houses and cottages sprinkled with shady corners, sunny patios, lush gardens and planting strips. Some burst with day lilies and snapdragons; others are seedy with dandelions and scraggly weeds. From this promenade, a sprawl of multi-million-dollar manses lines the oceanfront. Some are well-maintained, others a bit seedier.
My eyes pick out dozens of alcoves for Mack and the boys to lurk at night, drinking malt beverages as they sour the air with belches, telling the same stories until they pass out.
Cannery Row is sardine canneries of corrugated iron…
The walk becomes therapeutic as the sun emerges, leading me to the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, a sandy path near the cliff’s edge. Twisty, knotted trees spiral out into the wind. Whitecaps break on the rocks below. Gulls cry and the wind whips tendrils of hair into my eyes. Warmed by a speedy pace, I remove my hoodie and pull the cap sleeves of my shirt above my white shoulders.
These are the last rays of sun that I will see in Monterey for the rest of my stay, though I don’t know it yet.
As I near the aquarium, my heart sinks upon finding the old cannery buildings turned into an outlet shopping mall with a kitschy breakfast joint. The once-great dignity of the stink and the noise seems to have vanished, leaving racks of cheap, reduced-price clothing in its wake.
I skirt the undulating crowds of families at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and make a bee-line for the giant kelp tank where schools of sardines race, turn, race, flip and race from one side of the tank to the other. Gaggles of children cry, yelp, shove and tussle near –and eventually on– me as I sit on the stadium steps. The rest of my time consists of getting stepped on and shoved by scores of youngsters whose distracted parents scrape my ankles with their strollers as we press through the exhibits.
As I attempt to examine the exquisite collections of sea horses and jellyfish, I am jabbed in the ribs, bumped aside by diaper bags and physically accosted by one family after another until I begin to believe there is no discipline or courtesy left in the world. They ignore signs prohibiting flash photography and allow their offspring to bang at the sea creatures through the glass.
The animals stare out with exasperated glances, sighing under the pressure of what I imagine are colossal headaches.
I feel a brief sense of karmic justice when I accidentally step on a rug-rat buzzing across my path, but feel short-changed when I notice that he’s wearing sneakers rather than sandals.
When I emerge, the sun is completely hidden behind a blanket of clouds as thick as buttercream frosting. I stroll down Cannery Row and Doc Ricketts Boulevard, attempting to unearth the past in the litter of the present. All that remains are tourist shops and migrant worker rowhouses eerily preserved amidst trendy modern condos and poorly refurbished ones from the 60s and 70s.
Cannery Row is honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.
There are no dirty hippies here, or crazy surfers. There are no Bettys selling bikinis and Sex Wax. There are no vegan burritos or chai stands or zen centers full of praying monks. This is not Santa Cruz. There is no flashy boardwalk, and from what I can tell, not even honky tonks or whore houses.
In Monterey, there are bedraggled homeless people who cannot afford bikes. They are lean and hungry-looking, hardly a spectacle of buffoonery. The breeze grows icy and I zip up my hoodie for the walk home. I pass wealthy couples out for a stroll from their ocean-view homes. They don’t smile.
In between the poles, there is silence. Rich and poor. Ocean and shore. In between the slats, there is the wind, hollow and thin. It feels like no one’s home even though there are people on the street.
At dinner, the table next to me gossips non-stop about who is getting into the best grammar schools and who didn’t make the cut. In and out. Member and reject. In two hours, they never discuss travel, magazine articles, politics or current events, just trade bitchy comments about fellow townsfolk. Their cheer is as dank as the weather.
It’s nearly ten when I start walking home from The Red House Cafe. The fog is thick enough to glow when boosted with lamplight. The air is alive, spying on me with a thousand eyes. I hear the hollow clink of a beer bottle on concrete and wonder if Mack and the boys are holed up somewhere nearby, watching me cross the open, weedy parking lot, speculating on my identity. I keep walking, hoping that their curiosity won’t rouse them into bisecting my path.
A few blocks from Ana’s cottage, I meld into the shadows on Laurel.
It’s a dampened quiet, like inside a recording booth. There are no croaking frogs or skittering crabs; no grating noises of machinery or whoosh of passing cars. The streets are heavy with pause. A couple emerges from the fog on the other side of the street, their voices hushed; when I turn to look at them, they’ve disappeared.
Even the cottages are dark on this ghost-town Saturday. I think I see a flickering blue halo of a television in someone’s back bedroom, but it’s just the trick of tree branch.
The sense of desolation I felt the first time I read “Cannery Row” percolates in my mind, and I realize that, while the cast and scenery has changed, Steinbeck’s Monterey is still present underneath. It is a place of forgetting and being forgotten. It is a town of thin breezes blowing in large, damp drain pipes. Its undulating streets and weedy lots are ever the bowers of homeless fantasies. Somewhere that I can’t see and will never know, Mack and the boys are throwing back bottles of moonshine and laughing raucously into the night.
I inhale one last shot of brine before coaxing Ana’s stubborn key into place, turning the tumbler with a dull clunk. Monterey is a pregnant thought and a lean reality. A lonely sigh and a clutching embrace against the rusted maintenance house. A rotting whale belly, bloated, that feeds nipping fishes and squawking birds.
It is, for me, everything that I dreamed it would be.