Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Good Old Goners

So most of us know who John Steinbeck was. He wrote some good books. He wrote some really good books. He was in charge of putting the central valley in California on the map, like it was a job. He did such a great job; a Nobel Prize for Literature was given to the man.
But how good was Steinbeck? Did Tortilla Flats aptly describe what was going on in the dusty towns located on the coast? Did the writer really know what was going on in the backrooms and small houses that dotted the land? What, he didn’t have that vision?
Well, I certainly don’t doubt Steinbeck’s validity as a potent man of words. More eloquent than I, for sure. But that respect hasn’t gone that far with a lot of people, which I found out on a recent trip to Monterey, a town that Steinbeck practically founded in his book, Cannery Row.
The book was important to the town for establishing one of its main tourist pulls, which is the shitty, seaside run of buildings that used to be inhabited by rapscallions and now pulls in dollars with its beauty. Strange, no one would have known about the street if poor old John hadn’t have carved a life for it on his typewriter.
And now Mack and the Boys are taking turns spinning in their graves.
On the way back from a trip to Big Sur with my squeeze, a bet was forged. I would brave cold summer Pacific waters for a few seconds and the manliness; I would get a t-shirt out of the deal. I already knew what I was going to get. We were close to Monterey, which had food and a wealth of Steinbeck history. They (in my mind) had a wealth of Steinbeck tourist trinkets. I fixed my mind on a t-shirt.
Not just any shirt, but a white shirt with old John’s face stretched across the front, and maybe the years he lived and the year he died screened under it. A good profile picture would have made sense to a screen printer, and they would have sold well. That would be the shirt that I bought. A few of my illtiterati friends would have asked me where I got the shirt, and I would have told them.
“Cannery Row, man, I walked it.”
The shirt would have proven that I didn’t fib. Jealousy would have filled my friend’s hearts. They would have taken money out and tried to bribe me for the shirt.
But it wasn’t meant to be so.
The shops at Cannery Row didn’t have any Steinbeck shirts. If fact, out of the zillion souvenir shops that I visited, not one had a stupid Steinbeck shirt. Worse than not having a shirt, some of the shop keeps spoke like they had never read John Steinbeck before, like the guy didn’t exist.
“Sorry, man, we don’t carry anything with the guy who put our town on the map on it. We are just dumb philistines. Don’t forgive us”
The more hilarious part of the search was going into the places where you would think there would be a John Steinbeck article of some sort, but none were to be found. Like the Steinbeck Plaza, a retail building located square in the middle of the Row. Not one place in the whole joint had anything with Steinbeck on it.
Even funnier was the equally unforgivable John Steinbeck museum. The museum is in the basement to a bigger building that house a Chevy’s, or some other heinous chain restaurant like that. The museum entrance is obscured by a staircase that doesn’t look like it goes anywhere.
The staircase starts in the middle of a bizarre shop complex that sells crap and trinkets designed to catch the eye of simpletons from around the world. The wings, which extent like four arms, branch out to restaurants. Not much there. The museum lies in the basement of said building. A spiral staircase leads down the center of the mall. Animatronics dolls dressed like fishermen of the period work lacquered nets full of robotic crabs snared in the nets. The whole world creaks and moans in falsehood, fooling only the foolish. There are speakers that pump out sea sounds like gulls and waves and a fan that blows cold air to simulate real life outside.
Once down the freak show staircase, I found a small window with a man vacuuming the ground inside. There was a chair and a few rolls of entrance tickets for sale. The vendor, obvious, was just getting ready for the day.
I thought this man (he looked wizened with age) would know something about the author. Maybe he has been a fan for years and maybe he would point to some secret glen where John himself used to sit and tear life apart for his novels. Maybe the old men knew of a bar that John would sit in and drink himself to a calm point, after writing feverishly about the horrors of the working world.
“Do you have any John Steinbeck t shirts?”
“We are closed”
“I just want to buy a shirt,” I pleaded, pulling a wad of bills out for the man to see and believe.
“I have shirts, come in.” I was getting somewhere with the international sign of get off your ass and help me, I’ll pay you.
What the old guy had were Cannery Row shirts and a few copies of the book, which most Steinbeck fans already have. The gift shop, closet size with glass shelves lining the walls, displayed nothing of the man, only more of what he did for Monterrey, a place that had obviously forgotten about its patron saint.
On one of the selves, there was a mug with a blurred picture of John, and something printed over it. I didn’t bother to look at the blasphemy. There were also “signed” copies of some books. The signatures were laser printed and designed to snare the morons who thought John was still alive.
I didn’t bother to tell the clerk that I was going to walk out to the street and commit hari-kari because of my disgust. I just walked out of there. Good riddance to that.
I have been online for some time now and I have not found my shirt. The world and I have a problem to work out……….