There really is just something beautifully strange here about the row. That may be a generalized statement, but nonetheless it’s true. It’s nearing an hour in the late afternoon proclaimed to be a magical one as observed by the founder of this place in the fictional mind– and it is him who keeps drawing me back to this sleepy and much overlooked peninsula of Monterey Bay.
Even before I knew anything about John Steinbeck or classic literature, the mystical adventures of the sea had lured me in with promises of seashells scattered like gold and perhaps the glimpse of a mermaid. Why the ocean? As a kid I couldn’t tell you, in the way that I still can’t. You can’t give a rational explanation for a feeling that creeps up on you like the tides of these Pacific shores. But traveling to this place isn’t like the coasts down south in California; there’s a certain ruggedness to your soul that finds itself here unwillingly for a redeeming quality you’ve yet to find here yourself. Swap the glamour for honesty, the max of promises in the lights of Hollywood and Silicon Valley for the miniscule pleasures of the little that surrounds your senses. And in those pleasures, you get things like the rickety brown little Marine Biological Center that still stands in the majestic gray shadow of the Intercontinental Hotel, the back pathway where rented surreys cruise by permanent train cars and the movie theater that once housed a grand carousel. It’s the absurd rush of making enough of a salary where you don’t feel guilty on buying Dippin’ Dots in the ice cream shop. Sometimes it creeps from behind and from the past itself in still seeing in the windows blue-haired plastic dolls with their legs tightly tucked into iridescent pouches made to look like a fish tail– there was nothing I wanted more so badly from this place at age seven.
For anyone else that’s here, it’s none of these things that excite them and with so many visitors in one spot you must fall victim to the generic splendor of the al fresco dining and eclectic wares you won’t find anywhere else in the world besides these converted Canneries and the fairy-tale cottages in the south– you blend in in order to get along. But people come to the Peninsula for a reason– to feel the finer things in life for so little. And the man that made this possible, well, I don’t think anyone comes here for him. But I love how Steinbeck truly is everywhere. Signs, plaques, statues, plazas– and even though I could not validate this claim and am sure it was just my dad’s humor, “Wow, they really are cashing in on that guy; he’s everywhere, even in the men’s bathroom!”
I like to think he’s made his presence well known for opening the locals — the people that mattered most and served as muses for his early works– up in the humble delight that sometimes home can be enough. The man didn’t have to travel far. He knew what he wanted out of the human experience and he looked no further than the truths of his own land. Not everyone has to travel halfway around the globe for the holy spirit to hit– it’s what you can make of the existing wasteland around you to turn into Paradise, and that’s the simplest answer to your doubts of writing anything.
And on the last, late night here drinking in the sour wine that tastes so sweetly now in the memory, it was a glorious little hour atop a corner balcony overlooking the mist and streetlamps that lit the way for wary sightseers trudging in from the calls of the sea lions out on the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, imagining that here in the glow of this little hacienda-like facade where everyone slept except me, maybe that’s why I come back, in my own sense of this trip. John Steinbeck, the man forever I’m in service to for taking on this path of scribbling notes about a little-known coast of California and beyond its waters, for discovering his works of brutal love and honesty on the most unlikely tales for modern American literature– was the best man I ever knew and never met. He knew what he wanted out of this place– so what about for me?