No offense to John Steinbeck

by CountryFriedMama on July 13, 2011

The first paragraph of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” reads like this:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, 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. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

I read the above for book club a few months ago. I don’t mean that I read “Cannery Row.”  I got sidetracked with something else and skipped the meeting that month, but I read this paragraph. I read it a few times, getting stuck on how perfectly it captured the essence of a place and made me feel I knew it, even though I’ve never been to Cannery Row. (Although I have been to Monterey, and I didn’t notice any whores or holy men around. There were a fair number of golfers, though.)

Anyway, the power of place interests me. I never would have thought it mattered much, where you landed or where you were from or how different those two locations might be. I sure have thought about it a lot recently, though. We’re leaving this place in a couple of weeks, and I’m not sure I ever figured out its essence. Did the deep, deep, DEEP South not fit me, or did I refuse to fit it, or did every discomfort of the last four years have nothing to do with place? Did it have instead to do with the complete change of existence that came with motherhood and a mostly stay-at-home status? And will I figure it out in time to return next summer?

In any case, Birmingham’s sights and sounds and smells are now mine, too, and I will carry them with me when I go. Country-Fried Daddy, Miss D., The Belle and I talked about this at dinner tonight, and the following is partly theirs:

Birmingham in Alabama in the deep, deep, DEEP South is a surprise, a cuisine, a closed club, a heat stroke, a memory. Birmingham is violent thunder, iron and steel and coal, barbecue smoke curling above the tin roofs of aging restaurants, pearls on suntanned necks, trains going somewhere, the debutante news rolled up at the end of the driveway, smocked dresses on children and seersucker suits on their daddies, empty streets on football Saturdays and shuttered stores on Sunday mornings. Its inhabitants are politicians in prison, housewives getting their toes done, suburbanites and city dwellers carrying the past into the present, meteorologists sporting suspenders and premonitions of doom, farmers peddling peaches while the bluegrass band plays. The Yankee looked through the peephole and she saw lightning bugs in the summer sky, religion on bumper stickers and T-shirts and e-mail signatures, Lexus SUVs crowding the streets of a near-bankrupt county, heavy air that turns immediately to sweat on exposed skin. She saw the Southern Living recipe everyone is serving this month, she saw fire ants building small cities in the yard, she saw — out of the corner of her eye — furtive lizards crawling up the side of the house, leaping into the vines that creep around the windows and doors and hurrying up over the roof, out of sight.





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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie @ Just Like The Number
Twitter: katydid6
July 14, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I have always loved the way you write, but this piece just hit me in a wonderful way. Maybe it’s because you captured so perfectly how I felt about leaving Nashville to come back to the Midwest. Neither Nashville nor the South were ever really mine, but for a long time I had my face pressed up to the peephole, too. And for a time it almost felt like I was inside. Best wishes on the upcoming move.

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Rachel @ Grasping for Objectivity in my Subjective Life
Twitter: objectivityrach
July 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Wonderful rendition. I hope that when you return next summer, it’s a better experience!

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bubbe July 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Goose bumps and a bit of sadness is what I feel when I read this. May the coming year be filled with wonderment for the Belle and Miss D, and excitement and at the same time comfort (like an old shoe) for the parents. It’s all part of the journey.

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Auntie M July 21, 2011 at 9:10 pm

This has to be your most eloquent posting….ever. Loved it! It should be packaged and sold.

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Stacia July 27, 2011 at 5:41 am

Barbecue smoke, seersucker suits, football Saturdays, and hot, heavy, sweaty air? Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. So perfect.

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