Thursday, March 5, 2009
Looking down the touristy thoroughfare of Monterey’s Cannery Row, beneath a snowstorm of seagulls, it takes a mighty imagination to picture the area that inspired John Steinbeck to write his classic Cannery Row. Using vast reservoirs of creativity, one would have to demolish the shiny new InterContinental Hotel and the smattering of gift shops selling items like Hairy Otter T-shirts (that’s right, clothing adorned with our local marine mammal dressed up to look like a certain adolescent wizard).
But the work would not be done until one replaced that scene with another, one populated by ramshackle buildings, a collection of canneries belching rotting fish stench, a vacant lot filled with jovial drunks sharing swigs from the bottle under the midday sun and a wise marine biologist with a fondness for Burgermeister Beer. Thankfully, A.L. “Scrap” Lundy’s slight but informative new book, Real Life on Cannery Row (Angel City Press, $19.95), is a tool that gets you to that place.
Lundy’s book is broken into three main sections: The first examines the real lives of four individuals Steinbeck based his primary Cannery Row characters on; the second takes a quick glance at the novel’s minor characters and briefly mentions their real life counterparts; the third imparts the true stories behind events in the book. All strongly encourage longtime local residents to reexamine and reconsider spots they pass by on a daily basis.
There’s some great stuff in the section about Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist Steinbeck based his character “Doc” on. Did you know that Ricketts and Steinbeck frequently hung out with heavyweights including mythologist Joseph Campbell, twice-Oscar-nominated actor Burgess Meredith and author Henry Miller in Ricketts’ lab? And there’s a great little anecdote from Real Life about Steinbeck and his pal George Robinson going into Ricketts’ safe after his death and finding a bottle of whiskey and a note that read: “What the hell did you expect to find in here? Here’s a drink for your troubles.”
In the Ricketts’ section, there’s also a sidebar featuring locals’ recollections of him. Unfortunately, general statements like “he had room in his heart for everyone,” often do little to shine new light.
Still, Real Life on Cannery Row has many nuggets of gold. One that made me want to head to Cannery Row with a headlamp suggested that secret passageways connected the Wing Chong Co. building to the adjacent La Ida’s so that opium users could elude police in the ’20s and ’30s. Another sidebar gives away a recipe for “Half-Way House Salsa,” which was a condiment that topped burgers Steinbeck used to enjoy at a bar that was formerly located at 598 Lighthouse.
Another treasure is a photo of the roller skater who skated around Pacific Grove’s Holman’s Department Store flagpole for 51 hours, an event described in Cannery Row. It evokes comparisons to the death defying feats of Philippe Petit, whose tightrope walk between the World Trade center towers was shown in the Oscar-winning film Man on Wire, though it doesn’t look nearly as terrifying.
Lundy, a Santa Barbara-based historian, says he was lucky to interview a handful of sources including Jimmy Rodriguez, Irene Longueira and Bonnie Gartshore about Cannery Row in Steinbeck’s time before they passed away.
“I hope people realize that most of the story is true,” Lundy says. “Steinbeck took these facts and turned them into a highly successful novel.”
A.L. “SCRAP” LUNDY will sign copies of Real Life on Cannery Row 2pm Friday, March 6, at Borders, 2080 California Ave., Sand City. 899-6643.