I’m having a book discussion this month on Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Both books have been described as John Steinbeck’s love letter to Monterey, which is obvious from the first paragraph of Cannery Row:
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 inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers 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 holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.
I like a book with a strong sense of place: places mean things to people, and they mean different things to different people. Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday document a culture that was gone within half a generation. There’s no doubt that here in the Rust Belt, our culture is also changing, and I’d like to see more writers capture the 1970s, the 1980s, now. So on the bus the other day I wrote a silly trifle about Cleveland in the style of the opening paragraph of Cannery Row:
Cleveland is a bug smear on your windshield, an itch, a newsprint smudge on your thumb. Cleveland is the furtive look of a shy fat girl over her shoulder when she hears a snicker: is my skirt bunched up? Can they see my panties? It is the sweat stain of the steelworker, the prisoner, the young woman in tweed jodhpurs as she pedals harder, harder to get to her destination before the bike lane ends. It is the dust in the construction worker’s lungs and the dust on the toddler’s fingers as he pulls his breakfast from a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It is the look in the eyes of the grandmother as she feeds a dollar into the slot machine. It is driving while black, going into a bank while black, eating at food trucks while black, reading poetry while black. It is the empty pale imprint where the copper pipes used to be, the caw of the pigeon as she wrestles a hambone from the seagull’s mighty beak. It is the word “could,” the word “might,” the word “should,” all dangling together as of from a Christmas tree, or a pair of shoes from a telephone pole. It is a quality of viscousness, the urge to pick up that pill found on the bus floor and swallow it just to see what happens. Cleveland is a chaplet of queen anne’s lace and chicory: Cleveland spreads his gnarled ashy hands and offers you a plate of raccoon meat: take, eat of my body. And a goblet of mulberry wine: come, drink of my blood. Ashes to ashes, rust to rust…. Through the confessional window one man sees the king of quitters, and another sees the savior of us all. Both are looking at the same man.