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Jack Smith

It happened in Monterey, not so long ago, where he opted for the wrong dream

July 17, 1986|JACK SMITH

From Mendocino we took California 128 through the mountains and down through Napa Valley to Vallejo. We had meant to stop for lunch and some wine- tasting in Napa Valley, but it was Saturday and there were hundreds of cars at every winery.

We drove into downtown Vallejo, looking for a place to eat. It looked closed. I was reminded of Gertrude Stein's remark about Oakland: "There is no there there."

We found a deli that said "Try Our Lunch" and went in. It was a deep narrow place with dozens of tables, but only two people were eating. A cheerful girl was working the counter.

"Is this downtown Vallejo?" I asked her.

"Well, this is old downtown Vallejo," she said. "Most everybody's moved out to the malls."

The fate of every California city.

In Oakland the freeway clogged up like the Santa Ana on Friday night. We passed the Oakland Coliseum--the one the Raiders had abandoned for Los Angeles. It looked as anachronistic as the one in Rome.

At a place called Prunedale we left the freeway and took California 156 toward Monterey. I remembered a motel with a warm pool; we had stayed there years before.

We found the motel but it was full. So was every other motel in town, it appeared. Finally we saw one that hadn't turned on the "No" in its "No Vacancy" sign. I made a U-turn and my wife went in and got the last unit they had. It might have been the last unit left in town.

The motel ran clear through the block, and our unit was the last one, up against the opposite street. Loud amplified music was booming across the street and bouncing off our walls. We remembered one night we had spent in a room in Tijuana just below the penthouse nightclub, where an amplified rock band had played until 2 a.m. We had finally got dressed and joined the party.

The motel was jumping. Everyone seemed to be meeting in the court between the two rows of units and walking across the street to the source of the sound. On our city map I saw that we were just across the street from the fairgrounds.

"It will go on until 2 o'clock," I predicted.

"I kind of like it," my wife said. "It isn't rock. Listen. It's different."

We called a cab and asked the driver to take us to Cannery Row.

"You gonna miss the festival?" he said.

"What festival?" I asked.

"The blues festival, man," he said.

So that was it. The music we had heard was blues, not rock. I had mistaken it for rock because it was so loud. I was tempted to go back, but we were already off to Cannery Row.

To anyone who has read John Steinbeck's two books on it, the Cannery Row is an abomination now.

Steinbeck described it as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream . . . 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. . . ."

Today it is a tourist trap; a congestion of meretricious souvenir shops and pretentious restaurants that retain such authentic names as The Cannery and the Monterey Canning Co. and strive vainly for Steinbeck's "dream."

We ate in a restaurant that overlooked the bay and the city at a table only one row away from the window (not bad) and paid $56 for a mediocre snapper and a bottle of the cheapest wine, plus an $11 tip for the theatrical but adequate service. Of course you can pay much more than that for a mediocre dinner in Los Angeles, but somehow I felt we were paying for a dream that wasn't there.

After dinner we walked down the row to find a taxi and happened upon a monument. It was a bust of Steinbeck. Unlighted. It glistened in the mist under the street lights. If Steinbeck knew that his likeness was being exploited to lend a note of credence to this travesty, I thought, he would wish he had never written "Cannery Row."

When we got back to the motel the music was still booming across the street from the fairgrounds. We decided to have a look. We crossed the street and were met at the fairgrounds gate by a security officer. He said it was closed, but he would let us in.

"You still might be able to get a rib," he said amiably. "You missed a great party."

Inside all the booths were closing down. The aroma was tantalizing. Ribs, $2. Fried chicken, $2. Sweet potato pie, $1. The air was heavy with the succulence of soul food. One booth was a bar. I ordered two paper cups of white wine, and tried to pay with cash.

"Can't take no cash, man," the bartender said. "You got to have tickets."

I asked him where to get tickets.

"That closed. Hey, you be my guest. OK?"

We went over to the amphitheater where the festival was taking place. A woman was singing blues. Security wouldn't let us in. The place was closing up. We were greatly disappointed.

We sipped our wine and walked toward the gate. We realized that we had spent our evening in the wrong dream.

In the morning we picked up California 1 and headed down the coast toward Morro Bay.

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