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John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Susan Shillinglaw

“I am a water fiend… Water is everything to me.” John Steinbeck, 1948

Waves slap against the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Water hisses beneath the wooden balcony behind Edward F. Ricketts’s marine biological laboratory. At the Clement hotel patio, shielded by glass barriers from wind and summer cold snaps, visitors to Cannery Row sip wine and munch on calamari rings and tentacles as waves swirl around the sardine hopper nearby—the wooden tankards where sardines once swam their last swim before being processed in one of the 16 or so canneries on the Row.

Has John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row disappeared along with 235,000 tons of schooling sardines, the record catch in 1945, the same year that Cannery Row was published?

To my mind, no. One way to see this place is to let images ooze and crawl into focus, “by themselves,” like the flat worm in Cannery Row.

The “blue platter” that was Steinbeck’s Monterey Bay still reflects the shimmering light.

Gulls soar and dip and leave guano on Bird Rock, off shore from Hopkins Marine Station where Steinbeck attended classes in 1923. And sea lions bark and peer out of the water, perhaps even a “tawny, crusty old fellow with rakish mustaches and the scars of battle on his shoulders.”

On the Bay, the “sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion” in our chests--still. Our “boat shaped minds” identify with vessels headed out to the churning Pacific.

And along Cannery Row, the flotsam and jetsam of Steinbeck’s Row has, over the years, burrowed in, like ancient crabs along the rocky shore—airholes marking ghostly spots. Brothels. Until the 1940s, prostitution was tolerated in Monterey as a “necessary evil,” as local newspapers put it, since soldiers were billeted nearby. On Steinbeck’s Cannery Row there were three (perhaps more) sporting houses, and it doesn’t take much imagination to transform today’s spruced up buildings to yesterday’s shabby ones. La Ida’s Café (now ) with its side stair and vacant upstairs windows, was first a boarding house and by 1936 a brothel owned by “Wide Ida.” At Flora Woods’s Lone Star Cafe, now the cinder-block Mackerel Jacks, “girls” once stepped out mornings on their “little errands…in worn out tweed or flannel coats, very inconspicuous,” remarked Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife and muse from 1930 to 1943. Until it was closed by the army in 1942, Flora’s (Dora Flood’s “Bear Flag” in Cannery Row) was a Monterey institution, “a decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house… a sturdy, virtuous club.” In Cannery Row, Steinbeck piles up modifiers as he must have piled up the beer glasses on Flora’s shiny bar made of Philippine mahogany, a gift from an Army officer who had been shipped overseas. Anyone could, and did, take a drink at Flora’s—the front of the establishment was open to all. Flora died the same year that Ed Ricketts was hit by a railroad train chugging through Cannery Row in 1948 (the tracks turned into the bike path).

In 1935, there were eleven Chinese residences or businesses along Ocean View Avenue. One was the Wing Chong Company, Lee Chong’s grocery in Cannery Row, a “miracle of supply.” It is still that, more or less. Inside, are the little white cases where the Chinese grocer stored the cold beer he sold to Ed Ricketts in the 1930s. “Oh yes, my father extended credit,” said Jack Yee. No more, to be sure.

Bridges across Ocean View Avenue were the rafters of the Row, all built between 1910 and 1940. One of the originals rusts silently against the sky. Once it rattled and groaned as sardine cases were sent from ocean side canneries to rail-side warehouses, the boxes then loaded on trains bound for San Francisco.

And Edward F. Ricketts’s clapboard marine laboratory, built after a 1936 fire destroyed Ed’s first Cannery Row establishment, has, for the past decade, been girded and gently protected by the City of Monterey. Ed wrote to a friend in 1940: “I’ve cut down a little on drinking myself. Why even this minute I have only one glass of wine before me, and that’s been filled only twice. And before that I had (in this order) only a can of beer, two drinks of run, and my share (split 3 ways) of a quart of beer. So you can see that everything is in order.”

Of course there was more to Ed than his love of a cold beer—although that proclivity can be replicated at any hour on today’s Cannery Row. Ed was also a lover of invertebrates, the “little beasties” that he studied along the Monterey coast (and beyond) for twenty-five years, from 1923 until 1948. He sold specimens to colleges and high schools, from microscopic organisms to rays, octopuses, hagfish, starfish, jellyfish, as well as rats, cats and frogs. John Steinbeck loved this man and his kaleidoscopic interests—in science, in philosophy, in music and in art. Ed had “more fun than nearly anyone I have known,” wrote Steinbeck about his friend, “and he had deep sorrows also.”

Surely today’s visitors to Cannery Row, reading Steinbeck’s book, thumbing through a copy of Ed’s (Between Pacific Tides) and considering the deep friendship between writer and scientist, can still find him/herself in gentle, engaging, complicated Ed and intense, wily and sensitive John. To participate in Ed’s world, one has only to enter the Aquarium, turn left, and pick up a sea star in the exhibit.

In 1957, John Steinbeck wrote about Cannery Row in an open letter to the Monterey Peninsula Herald, his fee paid in seaweed, he admitted. Steinbeck offers a few tongue-in-cheek thoughts about redevelopment along Cannery Row, the street once called Ocean View Avenue. If the old canneries were preserved, if the corregated iron were sprayed with plastic to prevent rust, then, he suggests, a wind machine might also waft smells of rotting fish and “the indescribable smell of fish meal” over the Row “on feast days.” In the 1930s, Cannery Row stank from October through March each year, when sardines were processed. Or, Steinbeck continues, perhaps Cannery Row might be rebuilt as a pseudo Cannery Row, and then Monterey would take on a patina of “Santa Barbara-old.” But his “own suggestion”--which visitors in the twenty-first century should keep in mind when entering the Monterey Bay Aquarium--is for “young and fearless and creative architects…to design something new in the world, but something that will add to the exciting beauty rather than cancel it out.” That Cannery Row would be a “speculation on the future…. The foundation is there: sea rocks and beach, deep blue water, and on some days the magic hills of Santa Cruz.”

That foundation is solid. Cannery Row in Monterey is a quality of light, a stretch of rocky coast, a cerulean platter of water, and a clutch of buildings, some new in this world, that never blocks for very long a view of the Bay, of boats, of otters and gulls.


Copyright © 2017 National Steinbeck Center, One Main Street, Salinas, CA 93901, 10am to 5pm, Google Map