Saturday, September 7, 2013

A visit to John Steinbeck country

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 6.)
A FEW DAYS ago I visited the John Steinbeck museum in the town of Salinas, California. The Grapes of Wrath was the first “serious” novel I read. I would have been 12 or 13 at the time, and Steinbeck’s heartbreaking tale of the hardship and injustice endured by refugees from the Oklahoma Dustbowl during the Great Depression had a powerful impact on me.
The National Steinbeck Center, to give it its proper name, is a fittingly low-key tribute to a writer who would have recoiled in disgust from today’s celebrity culture. A shy man, Steinbeck was horrified at being recognised in the streets of San Francisco after the success of his 1935 novel Tortilla Flat. It probably wouldn’t haven’t have bothered him in the slightest that he has escaped the cult-like attention lavished on his contemporaries F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

A sense of place is central to much of Steinbeck’s writing. What was previously Ocean View Avenue in the charming old fishing port of Monterey is still recogniseable as the setting for Cannery Row, while the Mexican labourers toiling in the fields of the Salinas Valley in the late summer heat probably look much as they did when Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men.
Walking around Salinas, you get the sense that not much has changed since Steinbeck grew up there. It’s still unmistakeably an agricultural town – a Californian Masterton, if you like – but the main street has a decidedly moribund look. You get the feeling that, like many once-busy rural towns in America, its fate was sealed when it was bypassed by the freeways that began springing up in the 1950s.

One of the places Steinbeck would still recognise is Sang’s Cafe, just a couple of doors from the National Steinbeck Center. It looks pretty much as it would have when Steinbeck ate there.
Even the menu has a nostalgic look. Anyone for chicken sausage scramble ($7.95)?

* * *

IF AMERICA has a single defining characteristic, it’s noise. Americans find an infinite variety of ways to create noise and seem to have developed a remarkable tolerance toward it.
Much of the aural pollution is of automotive origins, due to their inexplicable attachment to rowdy V8s and Harley-Davidsons.

In New Zealand I wake to the sound of birds. But in the Californian town where my wife and I have been staying with our son and daughter-in-law, dawn is announced by the rumble of V8s as the neighbours fire up their pickup trucks and head off to work.
The Ford F150 pickup, in particular, is ubiquitous. It has been produced continuously since 1948, was the best-selling vehicle in the US for several decades and is rivalled only by the Toyota Corolla for total sales worldwide.

America has long since grown out of its love affair with the grotesquely large and ostentatious cars that Detroit used to build. Generally speaking, the cars you see on US roads now are not so different in size and appearance from those in New Zealand.
But the fondness for pickup trucks persists, especially away from the big cities. Every major car company produces its own equivalent of the F150 – even Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan, which have cashed in by making their own V8-powered F150 lookalikes, just for the US market.

Then there’s that other uniquely American creation, the Harley: the only motorbike in the world that assaults the aural senses even when it’s merely idling. (Incidentally, someone has analysed the lazy throb of an idling Harley and decided it most sounds like the words “potato potato potato.”)
I suspect that exhibitionism is the key to the Harley’s popularity. It’s a “look at me” bike – or perhaps I should say a “listen to me” bike, since it insists on being noticed simply by virtue of the appalling din it creates.

* * *

OBSERVE any group of Americans over the age of, say, 50 and you can’t help but notice that a significant number appear to have difficulty walking. The degree of lameness and infirmity among older Americans is striking.
Doubtless this is partly due to the fact that many carry excess weight. Their hips, knees and ankles have failed under the strain.

But there’s another factor. You don’t have to be Marcus Welby MD to deduce that their limbs have seized up through lack of use.
America is such a car-focused society that it has almost forgotten how to walk. You can do virtually anything from the seat of your car, from banking to picking up your prescriptions from the pharmacy.

Try pushing a stroller to the local supermarket and you quickly realise that pedestrians are an afterthought. This is not something New Zealand wants to emulate.


Jigsaw said...

Thanks for reminding me just how wonderful Monterey is. Cannery Row is one of my favourite books and the movie was wonderful as well. I was there in 1991 and just loved the place. I often thought of the seer who had to be at the beach at sunset to make sure the sun actually went down.Steinbeck was a of course a jazz fan so a totally wonderful guy in every way!

Marty Silva said...

You'll find the "potato potato potato" assessment of the Harley-Davidson makes a lot more sense if you say "potato" American-style, ie pa-tater.