If you don’t know Cannery Row, you don’t know Steinbeck.

November 29, 2014

“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.”

So says John Steinbeck, the twentieth century novelist teachers forced you to read  high school and professors mocked in college.   Steinbeck who preaches in The Grapes of Wrath and makes you weep in Of Mice and Men, did you know he could be funny?   That man, so serious and biblical in  East of Eden (except for the scenes with the car), also knew how to relax.   You wouldn’t guess it but Steinbeck was a versatile writer who loved life.  Of all things, Steinbeck cared about people and that shows up in Cannery Row.

Cannery Row was and is a waterfront street in the town of Monterey and for a while was the hangout of Steinbeck.  Then, it was a rundown place full of abandoned buildings and homeless  people who sheltered there.  Other impoverished people such as artists, prostitutes and rejects from society lived on the row but, most remarkably, Steinbeck’s best friend, a self-taught naturalist named Ed Ricketts lived and worked there finding sea animals for university labs and zoos. All of these people made it into the novel Cannery Row.

In the novel, Ed Ricketts becomes Doc, the owner and operator of Pacific Biologicals, a marine lab and one of the few profitable businesses in Cannery Row.  The other primary businesses are Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery (where any marketable item can usually be found because Lee Chong does not give up on merchandise just because it isn’t selling) and the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel whose madam funds or performs most of the civic projects in the area.  Wandering in between these establishments are a group of fellows known collectively as “Mack and the boys”.   These are men who Steinbeck says have “in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.”  This group of well-intentioned hobos get the idea they would like to thank Doc for all of his kindness by throwing a party for him.  A surprise party.   The ensuing adventure surprises a farmer, Lee Chong,  Doc, everyone on the Row, the police and more than a thousand frogs.  One of the funniest sections of this very funny book concerns the acquisition of those frogs and since I don’t have the rights to republish this and I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement, I’ll add a link here to someone who has published the prose (A Frog’s tale)  If that page doesn’t make you smile, forget it.

But I can’t forget it, anymore than I can forget Lee Chong, Doc’s beer milk-shake or the woman who wants to hang curtains inside a boiler.  It’s a sweet place, Cannery Row, and I expect to find it one day in some place far away from ambition and close to the sea.  If you find it first, call me and get a six-pack of beer from Lee Chong’s.   It will be time to kick back and breathe..

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