One of John Steinbeck's shorter novels, Cannery Row is a continuation of Tortilla Flat. Both of these stories are set in small-town Monterey, California.

This novel contains many sub-plots. You have the characters of Mack and the boys, who are good people who like to make others happy. Then you have quiet Lee Chong, a Chinese man who owns the local grocery store. There's also Doc, who's a marine biologist. Dora has a whorehouse/restaurant called the Bear Flag.

Though this book doesn't have an exciting or gripping plot, it's interesting to see how all of these characters compliment eachother and live together in such a close community.

Cannery Row was made into a movie in 1982, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. Of course, some events had to be added to such a small novel to make it a full-length film.

"I ain't put together with spit," said Suzy.
"Can you drive a car?"
"Sure," said Suzy.
"You can't do it," he said. And then, from way down in the deep part of him, there came a bubbling shout, "Sure you can! I need you, Suzy. I need you to go with me. It will be terribly hard work and I'm pretty near helpless."
"You can tell me what to do and what to look for."
"Sure I can. And I'm not entirely helpless. I can use my left hand."
"It's a cinch," said Suzy. "When do we start?" . . .
"I don't know whether I can even write the paper. What shall I do, Suzy?"
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't know."
"What's wrong with that? Say, Doc, I got to do a couple of things. Take me maybe two hours. That too long?"
"Just as long as we start by evening."
"I'll come back soon's I finish."
Doc said, "Suzy, I love you."
She was headed for the door. She whirled and faced him. Her brows were straight and her mouth taut. Then she took a slow breath and her lips became full and turned up at the corners and her eyes shone with incredible excitement.
"Brother," said Suzy, "you got yourself a girl!"

-Sweet Thursday
John Steinbeck


There is an essential part of love that demands vulnerability. People destined to become entwined emotionally may see each other daily without remark. They may not even feel attracted until one requires the other. Above all, love means we need to be needed.


"Chance is the miracle that happens every day."

my guardian angel

Because I am a blessed individual I tend to overlook divine intervention as commonplace. I've grown tired of subtle messages that turn out to be real estate advertisements and ghostly visions from the corner of my eye that turn out to be age-induced irregularities in my ever hardening vitreous humor. I'm not one of those people who can sleep anywhere, and so am not particularly suited to travel even though the events of my life require it regularly. Rare is the evening in a strange bed when I can sleep more than three hours at a clip. And because I sleep lightly, I have a lot of dreams when I travel.

The first night in our beach house I dreamed I was in the office of a famous Hollywood literary agent who had invited me to his office for a meeting, then proceeded to berate me for every defect in everything I'd ever written. When I asked him if he'd paid for me to come down from northern California just to have the pleasure of verbally abusing me in person, he told me to "Shut up and listen," and went on about how poor my writing was.

When he was done I was completely depressed and upon leaving the office accidentally ran into his brother, who also worked in the office. In a classic "good cop/bad cop" move, the brother extolled my virtues. After a while though, I realized that although continuous praise went down like a smooth single malt Scotch, it was about as useless as the unabashed beating I'd just gone through in his brother's office. So I decided I'd wasted my time and headed for the door.

Though, because it was a dream it took me a really long time to get to the door during which a lot of non-sequitur things happened that reminded me of having to sit through the ride It's a small world at Disney World forty-six times in a row. And when I was finally released from that mind numbing experience I met the brother agents who asked me what I'd learned and I told them they must be kidding--there was ZERO to learn from any of it.

At which point they said into my brain in a way I wouldn't forget: "You can forget all of this crap except this." And then they said it to me and I woke up.


I had just finished dreaming about chance that night, and no sooner had I put down the book Sweet Thursday when the beach housers bounded onto the patio where I was sitting and announced a road trip had been proposed and accepted, and I was welcome to come if I was done reading. Of course, the trip was to Monterey where we would ride kayaks off Cannery Row.

Now time marches on and leaves strip malls in its wake. The wheels of commerce grind everything man-made to greasy piles and leave it to sit and mellow under the sun that strobes thousands of days, geologically speaking. With the exception of the Giza pyramids or the animistic drawings on the fields at Nazca, there's not much people have done that hasn't been corroded by vehicle exhaust, sold at great discounts in going-out-of-business sales, or redecorated under new management. This is called progress. Progress is what young people do to the world before they get old and weepy for Joe DiMaggio or Gimbal's, their high-school sweetheart, or the three-cent stamp.

These days just about nothing is the same at cannery row, compared to the version people remember when they remember what it used to be like. What they remember is it was cold and wet and smelled of fish guts. Everyone wore galoshes that were perpetually slick with fetid fish liver oil. Everyone wore rubberized full-body aprons and thick rubber gloves. Everybody had to be hosed down at the five-o'clock whistle, and they still smelled like murdered mackerel when they got home.

The row was beachfront property in a place where the seashore was sandless and the land beyond was occupied by transients and people the depression had made genuinely impoverished. The weather was called "the closest thing to Edinburgh, Scotland in the continental U.S." which with no offense intended to the good Scotts, meant it was cold and the sky was steel gray most of the time. The fog was thick and congealed to rain in one's hair and eyelashes. Dry was a season people heard they had in Santa Clara valley, or in a few days in November most people thought were winter.

The weather and the ocean are features of the peninsula of Monterey that have changed little since Steinbeck's time.

The rest of Monterey, the one John Steinbeck wrote about, has been up for grabs by developers. I'm not sure how long it took for the gentrification to begin after the canneries shut down, but it's in full swing today. Most of the migrants and laborers have been shuffled off to nearby Seaside, Castroville or Watsonville where bar fights and Hell's Angels rallies are still held. Meanwhile, the Monterey peninsula has become the full-time province of rich people. Pacific Grove is no longer an alcohol-free octogenarian retirement location. Now it's home to movie stars like Clint Eastwood and old rock stars like Alice Cooper. The links at Pebble Beach host many internationally televised U.S. Golf Association matches. If you don't live there, you have to pay a toll to drive on the road that leads to the homes there. The tourists so crowd Carmel by the Sea it's impossible to find a parking spot in that town after 9AM on a Saturday.

And then there's Cannery Row itself. Standing at the parking lot on the north side one can look down the street and imagine what Ed "don't call me Doc" Ricketts must have seen driving home from La Jolla after an octopussing excursion. That is, if you pretend the Monterey Seaside Hotel on the left is a cannery, and the Dive shop on the right is some other canning-related building, you can sort of get the feel of it. Of course, once you get down to the Monterey Plaza Hotel with its perpetually blooming geraniums and the Adventures by the Sea bike/kayak rental place, abandon all hope of capturing the feel of the old row.

Notice the people. Old and young. Some pushing strollers. Some wheel chairs. Accents: Texan, New Yorker, Okie. Languages: German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese. Notice all the rental cars and out of state license plates. Notice everybody is carrying a camera. Notice people rub the John Steinbeck bust for luck, especially the people who have no idea why Steinbeck has his bust on the street, or why there's a "John Steinbeck wax museum," or that Nick Nolte played Doc Ricketts in the David Ward movie.

Walk further south and you'll come across the new Chart House restaurant on the seaside. This building is flanked by the Plaza hotel on the right, and the remains of some wooden Steinbeckian-era structures on the left. The wood has been given a patina of burned-umber-over-gray by fifty years the by the sea. Because the Monterey hospital has enough of a budget shortfall caring for the uninsured, a 12' high chain link fence protects the curious tourist from falling off the sharp cliff and busting his skull open on the rocky shore below.

A little further, amid a river of moving tourism, you come to the bronze bust of John Steinbeck right in front of the El Torito Mexican restaurant. Just beyond is Bubba Gump's, a chain seafood joint that monopolized on the popularity of the movie Forrest Gump. The verdict is out on whether or not Doc or Steinbeck would have approved. Developers aren't noted for asking the dead their opinions.

And walk a few steps more with me. Jutting into the sea at our right is the pier with a variety of tourist-trap t-shirt shops and a couple of gin-mills that sport the live-music likes of the Ramirez family (father and sons) smooth jazz trio and a guy who pretends to be Gordon Lightfoot on Mondays and Wednesdays, Paul Simon on Tuesday, and Josh Grobin when nobody is looking.

Across the street on the left you'll pass the candy places. The one with the taffy-pulling machine in the window. The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company where my kids always beg we stop for fudge. There's a Ghirardelli ice cream parlor on the right, then some tall plywood painted with murals, behind which sits the remains of 800 Cannery Row, Pacific Biological Laboratories, the fabled lab of Doc Ricketts.

Across the street they're selling t-shirts in a popular book/movie motif that say, HAIRY OTTER. The building housing that store used to be the Wing Chong general store where Doc went for beer. It's still got a sign that says, "WING CHONG BUILDING". Behind that are some private residences and buildings, one of which sits on the site of the Bear Flag brothel, all traces of which have been eradicated.

At the end of the row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, built with an endowment from the Packard family of Hewlett Packard fame. I'm a member of the aquarium. Since they built it they've added a lot of things. There's a whole exhibit on tropical fishes, which come from nowhere near Monterey. They had a mola for a while, but it was getting sick so they let it go. There's a touch pool where kids can pet a skate or hold a living chiton or starfish.

This is just a guess, but I'm betting Doc would have liked the whole idea of the Aquarium, and maybe even the idea of being able to get a margarita or a coconut daiquiri close to the office.

I'm going to bet, though, the whole idea of kicking out Mac and Hazel and the girls at the Bear Flag wouldn't have sat well with anyone until the euros and yen and yuan started flowing.


We can try to connect ourselves with the past. We can try to connect to characters in books we've read, to feel their vulnerabilities. Real people have weaknesses. I, for one, love to see pictures of people for whom previously I'd only read a verbal description in a book. Then I can see if the person resembles the mental image I've developed, to imagine having a beer with the person. To imagine them happy or in pain.

There are pictures of Doc on the net.

Thanks to the magic of digital restoration, Doc looks like someone you might have gone to college with yourself, rather than a guy born in 1897 and who served in WWI. You know Doc was something of a lush from reading the stories about him. He drank when he could. Women found him attractive and if the Steinbeck character is a true model, he had many one-nighters amid the jars of frogs and starfish, as would have your old college buddy with the Warren Beatty haircut.


There used to be a train that ran between Cannery Row and Wave Street. It's gone now, and in its place is a pedestrian walk way. The tracks have all been pulled up and the way paved over with asphalt.

It's a nice, tree-lined walk. Many of the old lamps that lit the tracks are still there.

There's a section of track they've left. At the intersection of Drake and Wave there's about 100 feet of it, and the old RR crossing signal that has been there for 70 years is refurbished and looks, apparently, as it did in 1948 when a Del Monte train plowed into Ed Ricketts's car and killed him.


The thing about stories that make people seem real is their vulnerability. Real people are hurtable and with the exception of comic book superheroes, we're not too interested in characters who emit invincibility.

I'd just finished reading Cannery Row and the sequel, Sweet Thursday and then there I was, in that place where all the models for those Steinbeck characters lived. But the thing about a place is that it's never the same from moment to moment. The thing about love stories that makes them so appealing to us is they're always different. There's only one time this person and that person can generate the chemicals of love. The next time is different and the time after that, different still.

So the chemistry between Doc and Suzy do not exist in 2004. We can read about those people and imagine what they must have been like behind the veil of Steinbeck's fiction-generating pen, but as hard as we try, we're not going to know. The them of then evaporated with the advent of television and the Truman administration.

No doubt the stories stick in my head. As I have mentioned before Steinbeck lived in my town. He wrote Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath here. My kids got curious one day and rode their bikes to his old house and got a tour from the current owners. There's a whole Steinbeckian-thing about being here that makes his books real to me, and makes me glad I haven't read them till now.

But that's pretty much the crux of it. Experiencing these places is my history, not Steinbeck's. Not Doc's or Suzy's or Fauna's or Wing Chong's. They had their lives and their history. The history of me going to Cannery Row, which I do with some frequency, is simply the history of me at Cannery Row. How I feel about it is what's important. The whole thing belongs to other people now, and I'm one of millions.


I stood on the section of track where the train hit Doc. Undoubtedly, Doc was trying to not be hit by a train, so old lady Chance played some part in his death. I've mentioned in other missives I thought the most asinine way for a human to die is to be hit by a train. Mathematically speaking, a train is a one-dimensional object. It can only move along the track, so in the near infinity of space, you have to be in the space between roughly five feet of rail exactly when the train decides to be there. Given the near infinity of places to be and the human knowledge of rail timetables, it should be very easy to avoid being killed by a train.

I tried to imagine what he would have seen in those last moments, but so little of the area was the same. The ocean was still there, and as long as I ignored the fact the buildings that faced it were all new (except for his lab) I got some of the effect.

Eventually I realized the only thing I could do to recreate Doc's last view of the planet. The only possible element of the life of that man I could share by standing in the spot of his death was to look in the only direction I was certain nothing had changed in the 56 years since his death.

Straight up.


Chance is a miracle. Chance is a gift from the past, the way things were set in motion by people and falling rocks long ago so that if you were lucky, your finger would catch the ring as the pantomime horse flew past, and you would have it, smooth and shiny yellow-brown in your hand. And if you were lucky, it would be yours. And only if your finger was held out.

And only if you were smart enough to ride.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.