Trapped in a Novel

John Steinbeck’s first paragraph in his novel, Cannery Row is, in my mind, the best in American literature…

“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, 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. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

As you may recall, the story follows Mack’s boys, a group of homeless men who commandeer a warehouse in Cannery Row and become part of the community. Through their adventures, we see that they are in fact ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches’ as well as ‘saints and angels and martyrs and holymen’. They are victims of America’s great depression.

Mack’s boys are in Cannery Row again…victims of the great recession.

Even though I live a short walk from Cannery Row, I hadn’t read the novel in over 40 years. A reminder of the richness of that novel came from an unlikely source. I was trying to get a good portrait of Kevin and not happy with his mask. He was stern and standoffish. Finally, I put the camera down and told him I wanted to let the studio lights cool for a few minutes.

I asked him where he grew up and he described a hardscrabble childhood in a fishing village near Seattle. I asked what brought him to Monterey and he answered firmly, “Steinbeck”.

“As in ‘John Steinbeck’?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah, John Steinbeck brought me here. I always loved his novels, particularly Cannery Row, and said I would move to Monterey if I ever had the chance. I was a telephone operator in Seattle and a job opened up in Santa Cruz. So, I moved here. But soon after, the phone companies laid off operators and then the recession hit. I couldn’t find anything. I lost my apartment and then my car and then my insurance. I’ve been homeless for four years. So, I came here because I loved Cannery Row and, somehow, I got trapped in the novel. I’m now one of Mack’s boys and I can’t get out”.

“Wow!”, I said, “that’s sounds like a Woody Allen Movie”.

For the first time he laughed and I followed with a grin. Finally, I saw who he was and grabbed my camera before the mask returned to his face. I hit the shutter release but the camera had timed out and shut off. Without thinking, I pulled out my camera phone and fired it off. The flash on my phone set off the studio lights. I got the portrait by a fraction of a second…because the face disappeared and the mask was back when I looked up.

I saw, just for a moment, another Kevin through the another peephole. Here he is…a bright, thoughtful man with a taste for good literature and a great sense of humor. Steinbeck was right. We are all…everything.

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