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John Steinbeck's Cannery Row: More Than a Literary Pilgrimage

February 02, 1986|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

MONTEREY, CALIF. — It is a street of memories and ghosts, this place called Cannery Row--a waterfront avenue where John Steinbeck's earthy characters roamed, loved, drank and died in an era of stink, grime and wealth. --Jerry Hulse

Fact and fiction blur and overlap on the tough, resilient street John Steinbeck dubbed Cannery Row. The Nobel and Pulitzer laureate called it "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light . . . a dream," and described the purse-seiners coming into Monterey Bay laden with sardines, the cannery whistles screaming and everyone hurrying to work.

But the year that the book "Cannery Row" appeared, 1945, was the last great year of sardine catches, when 250,000 tons were harvested. In 1946 the take dropped to 25,000 tons, and soon they had disappeared.

Ed "Doc" Ricketts, Steinbeck's real-life friend and the marine biologist hero of "Cannery Row," had discouraged overfishing and preached conservation for years, but no one listened. "Where the sardines went is obvious," he finally shrugged. "They are all in cans."

Steinbeck's book, built from incidents and memories that dated back to 1930, immortalized the lovable eccentrics who gathered around Rickett's laboratory during the Depression and World War II years, and drew the curious to Cannery Row.

To walk down Cannery Row today, using the 1945 novel as a guidebook, is a new experience, because in the past year or so the row has become more than a literary pilgrimage, a tourist sideshow or an evening out on the town. Until now the dreams along the row were modest ones, a gentle gentrification of the remaining buildings into shops and restaurants.

But suddenly this raffish, snaggle-toothed street, still dotted with vacant lots where pampas grass blows in the fresh salt air, has been bracketed with $100 million worth of bookends, the wildly successful new Monterey Bay Aquarium on one end of the row and the just-opened, 290-room Monterey Plaza Hotel on the other.

The aquarium, now the nation's largest, honors the memory of Ed Ricketts with its spectacular exhibits devoted exclusively to Monterey Bay marine life. The luxurious hotel has dedicated its site to John Steinbeck, who would probably be both flattered and wryly amused to be remembered amid so much marbled elegance.

Nevertheless, taking "Cannery Row" in hand and setting off through glass doors whisked open by the Monterey Plaza's white-liveried doorman, you shift almost at once into the reality of the row. A few feet away from the corner of the building, up the hill where Drake Avenue and Wave Street intersect, Ed Ricketts' car collided with the evening Del Monte Express train on May 8, 1948, and he died three days later, just before his 50th birthday.

Ricketts had never complained about being used in Steinbeck's books, even though he was a sensitive and private man, but the three years that elapsed between the tremendous success of "Cannery Row" and his tragic accident must have been uncomfortable if not downright painful for him.

He and Steinbeck had collaborated earlier on "Sea of Cortez" (Steinbeck had studied marine biology and gone on collecting trips with Ricketts between 1930 and 1940), but a rift developed between them over a screenplay Steinbeck was writing that "Doc" criticized in his usual outspoken fashion.

Walking along Cannery Row you'll get tantalizing glimpses of the bay and hear the omnipresent barking of sea lions. On the right, at McAbee Beach, a Chinatown community stood until 1924. The large galleried Spindrift Inn at No. 652 was originally the Ocean View Hotel (Cannery Row's previous name was Ocean View Avenue), built in 1927 by Maen Chang Wu.

Bizarre Attractions

Just beyond it, also on the right, a bust of Steinbeck gazes across at the two-story white Edgewater Packing Co. building, now containing a carrousel and a sundry collection of bizarre attractions that include a live chicken that will play tick-tack-toe with you for only a quarter. (The chicken often wins.)

The heart of Steinbeck's Cannery Row begins a block or so farther. Look first for a two-story brown building on the left and The Old General Store.

"Lee Chong's grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply," Steinbeck wrote, and the old market, opened in 1918 by Won Yee and 11 Chinese investors, is still a "very remarkable store." Depression-era dishes, unused sardine can labels, dusty used books, clothing that covers five decades or more, and all the heterogeneous mishmash it held in Steinbeck's day still fill the shelves and cases.

If you walk to the back and go through the door on the left, you'll find the Remembering John Steinbeck Room, an informal museum that contains, among other exhibits, a ledger page with Steinbeck's tiny, left-leaning handwriting from the "Cannery Row " manuscript.

Doc's Place Is Private

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