Saturday, May 15, 1999
I’d seen Salinas, not that there’s very much to see: The Steinbeck Center. Steinbeck House. Nearby Cannery Row gift shoppe ‘n’ mall.
The Steinbeck Center’s a combination museum and bookstore, built at the bad end of a town that never really had a good one. Old banks now sell antiques. Former office buildings are antique malls. You wanna buy something new, you gotta drive twenty miles.
The museum’s only recently opened, delayed for years ’cause Steinbeck kind of hated his hometown. So in order to fundraise, the city had to wait till everyone he’d pissed off was dead. Also, in a Clean-Up Salinas effort that would have made Steinbeck howl, the museum was built on the former red-light district.
Steinbeck House is where John was born, and grew up, and wrote his first—disgustingly-overeager—novel at fourteen. It was never published, though has probably served as mother-lode for hundreds of dissertations. Now, the house is a restaurant, and—no surprise—a gift shop. They sell little bars of purple soap called The Grapes of Bath.
Cannery Row, in nearby Monterey, once smelled fiercely of fish. Till the day the sardines died. Now there’s an aquarium, and, okay, fish ‘r’ fun for a while. But after you’ve watched the tanked sardines circle and circle, and once you’ve munched some of their kin for lunch, you get bored.
There’s also lettuce. Miles of lettuce. Miles and miles. And miles. Of lettuce. Another reason Steinbeck opted out.
Fortunately, my friend Nina had other plans. As fortunately, not The Castroville Artichoke Festival. Celebrating—along with the obvious—Marilyn Monroe’s being The First Artichoke Queen.
And not The Campbell Prune Festival. Heralding the fruit now being seductively marketed as Dried Plums.
And not ‘Doc’ Ricketts’ Hundredth Anniversary Fund Raiser and Swing Dance. ‘Doc,’ of course, couldn’t preside. Having long-since been trashed by a booze-sotted train.
Nearby San Jose offered the twisted Winchester House, an architectural horror constantly rebuilt by a doomed old loon, warned by her possibly psychic/contractor that, “When the house was finished, so was she.” But Nina and her husband had already seen Frankenhaus, Jeff many times, with many visitors. Which left Santa Cruz.
That was A Town Time Forgot. Full of second- and third-generation hippies pushing their legal wares (less licit attractions could be found, I’m sure, by appointment). But Jeff mentioned a boardwalk.
I pictured something old, and comfortably ruined. Instead, we got a huge, sticky arcade, with sun-baked carnival rides crammed with pierced, and piercing, kids. There were buildings, too, which might have been interesting once—in the prohibition 20’s, Santa Cruz had been summer home to wealthy San Francisco and some of that Gatsby cash remained. But with all the cheap neon, who could tell?
Still, just across the surfer-infested inlet was a quiet pier. “That looks good,” I mentioned.
Nina was staring through coin-fed binoculars, though not at some burnished dude. Over the dunes, rose smoke.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Let ’em burn. Lately, anything I’ve seen even vaguely labeled “antique”should have been compacted years ago.
But I wanted to see the pier. And though Jeff and Nina had been to the boardwalk any number of times, neither knew how to cross the inlet. Eventually, we found the—clearly marked—way.
Everything was quiet there. There was only a scattering of people, and few kids. And, yeah, there were too many shops peddling local crafts clearly made by Asian children. And the white-flocked deck instantly ceded right-of-way to thousands of hovering gulls. But at the wharf’s end was a restaurant with 360 degree views.
I got some pretty good fish ‘n’ chips, Jeff had crab, and Nina and Tom picked oysters—which do even less for me, I’m afraid, than I do for them.
“Canned,” Nina soon hazarded. Tom chewed more firmly.
“What’s downtown like?” I asked shortly. “Are there really hippies?”
There were, though the housebroken variety: Peddling love-beads. Painting faces. Sporting weekend tattoos. There was also some unexpectedly good art, which—more surprisingly—I began to buy.
This wasn’t like me. Since moving to quake-prone L.A., I’d stopped buying anything that could be flattened by a roof. And buying there made no sense: We’d just started the trip. Santa Cruz was a long afternoon’s drive. Other places we’d never see again. Still, I bought: A dozen small prints by an amazing artist. Three larger photos. A couple of vases for overdue wedding gifts.
“Get me outta here,” I finally begged. “Before we can’t afford dinner.”
“You still want to go?” Nina asked.
“Oh, yeah. We owe you birthday food.”
That was supposed to happen the night before. But squeezing in Hearst Castle got us to Salinas so late, Nina and Jeff had already sent out for pizza.
For supper, we were back in Steinbeck-central, in a restaurant Nina and Jeff claimed had “the best Italian food in Salinas.” And maybe it did.
Afterwards, while the dog, and this time Jeff, slept, Nina showed Tom and me pictures from Japan. Salinas is sister city to Wakuya.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“Just outside Tokyo.”
Isn’t everything in tiny Japan “just outside Tokyo?”
Nina’s a teacher, and the two cities exchange cultural programs. After twelve days, she’d come home with a huge album full of photos of kids and kimonos. And kids in kimonos. And large groups of people smiling.
“They like to line up,” she laughed.
They also liked slippers: For the house. For company. For special sanitary reasons (it seems some of their toilets—Nina had snapshots—were still holes in the floor).
She also had pictures of Portugal. Not sister-anything to Salinas, just a place she’d visited with her aunt. Lots of tile in Lisbon: On buildings. Sidewalks. In murals. “Red clay’s really cheap there,” she explained. “So they use it for everything.”
The pictures just made me want to travel more—I’d never really been out of the U.S. At least, not without getting mugged.
But that’s another story.