John Steinbeck opens his novel by telling us that Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
By the time I first saw it in 1964, Cannery Row had retained much of Steinbeck’s attributes, if that’s what they are, and the qualities that he’d recorded two or three decades earlier when sardines still filled Monterey Bay and supplied the town with employment (for those who wanted it) and pumped economic life into the Row.
Some things had disappeared since his day, of course, and others rose to take their places. The Palace Flophouse that became almost central to his narrative had gone, but the Palace Bar, while not precisely in the same spot, gave the impression of having always been there. It stood beside the Steinbeck Theater, erected and named for the great man whose books made the Row famous, and those of us who found ourselves on the Row knew at once that we had walked through a looking glass and into a legendary land.
Time seemed to have stood still there. Decaying, rusting and abandoned canneries, some waving loose corrugated tin sheets thanks to the sea breeze, lined the bay side of the Row. True to Steinbeck’s description, rusting boilers and machinery parts lay around in empty lots. No fish smell by now, but iodine from the bay wafted over us. At least two markets claimed to be the fabled Lee Chong’s, its exact location not mattering. I can’t remember that we looked for Doc’s laboratory in particular since we weren’t on any sort of historical tour. Nope, we were headed for the Palace Bar for cold beer (50 cents a bottle), good music (folks songs, mostly), and just hanging out in the ambiance of the Row that Steinbeck created, one that yet survived, that now embraced us.
Lots of people who showed up at the Palace Bar were either interesting, or famous, or wanted to be. And we sang. Sang the songs of our day. Sang along with the juke box—Kingston Trio, Four Freshmen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez.
Joan Baez! Out of the night she arrived one time with her partner of indeterminate gender, guitar in hand. The Jukebox was stilled and she sang for an hour or so, then left as quickly and silently as she had arrived. And somehow we felt finer than ever that the world was ours and that we understood it. There’s no making sense of that feeling except to say that a contentment settled in as if we were a part of a larger and even mystical sphere of being.
The songs defined who we were, imparted an awareness and belonging to that place, as well as an indifference to the imminent passage of time and change. The great void took form and shape, showed us a world that we put off seeing as fantasy, and we were happy not to “look at clouds from both sides”. Gloomier ideas melted in the warmth of our good times and fifty-cent beers. We cared for nothing except that we were on the Cannery Row that defied time, and we lived among its rusting loveliness, never once thinking that other, more unnatural forces were already eyeing its solemn and majestic sense of place.
The slightest notice of its history would have jolted us into the reality that the Row had only been in existence since the turn of the century and was therefore fairly new even in Steinbeck’s time. We gave it a timelessness and romance that arose from the novel, both qualities the author used to paint a world, not for the place itself, but for the people who populated it.
He uses the Row as a backdrop, the only one possible for the “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”, or as he also calls them, “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men”, the denizens whom he brings to life. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is a place without much in the way of official authority—police appear only in dire situations—a place that is left to itself to keep what goes for order, decency, and regard toward others, within an odd but universally acknowledged moral order. Apart from all but occasional and brief intrusions by the church-going moral crusaders from the town, the Row governs itself with the sort of wisdom and liberality that hinges on the accepted knowledge of how people are likely to behave in any given situation. Charity in its truest sense prevails, often in unconventional ways, and intentions whether or not they may come to planned results, receive credit and currency as the coin of the realm.
You’d want to live there back then, to know and live with Steinbeck’s people. I certainly did as I read his poetic novel, and as I walked into Cannery Row, that lost world and the ethical compass needle pointed to compassion and understanding, unveiling a better Eden than anything Genesis has to offer.
Modern Cannery Row now lines up with other lost worlds, the callowness of youth, the pleasant naiveté of not acknowledging the passage of time. Many of its derelict canneries have either been transformed into tourist shops and trendy restaurants, or have been taken down altogether with only the eroding cement of their foundations showing up through the weeds on their vacant lots. Steinbeck would scarcely recognize the Row apart from its location beside the bay.
Not all change is lamentable, however. Probably the world’s best aquarium sits at the end of Cannery Row and is dedicated to the restoration of Monterey Bay while endless lines of visitors view the antics of otters, the life of starfish, and myriad other sea creatures in their natural habitat.
My time fifty years ago on Cannery Row sits among the brightest of memories, and the novel that it inspired remains one of American literature’s monuments to “a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia”. More than that, it is a testimonial to compassion and understanding, showing us the folly of judging people based on anything except how they regard each other. My more recent visit to the Row brought back those memories and those precepts, well worth a stroll through its changed, but also changeless world.