I’m driving along Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles at 3 o’clock in the morning. As my rented little Versa clatters higher and higher up the winding hill, the mist thickens until I can barely see three feet in front of me. The beams of my brights reflect off the fog and cast more light into my eyes than onto the road ahead. Creeping along at 15 miles per hour, I reach the top, let off the gas, and begin to coast down the twisting road. I’m probably going too fast, but I want to harness the downhill momentum, having left my hybrid back home in Baltimore. At 50 MPH and with visibility low, I decide to tap the brakes until I’m crawling along at a safer speed of 10. It is then that I see them: two coyotes ambling across the road. They stop and look at me; they seem to be smiling. I brake so I can stare at them, but in an instant, they’re gone.
So begins my California adventure.
I took a red-eye and arrived at LAX at one in the morning, picked up my rental at 1:45, and was on the road by two. My hosts in San Diego aren’t expecting me until around six a.m. and I don’t want to be there earlier than that. What better way to kill the time than a cruise along Mulholland Drive—even the sections that say they are closed to pass-through traffic?
Half an hour’s drive and a doughnut and coffee shop stop later, I’m on the road to San Diego. The night is a cool 50 degrees, the windows are down, and the radio is on. I don’t have a reading down south—my first is in LA in a few days—but I have friends to visit and things to see in San Diego.
I’m in California for the west coast leg of my book tour. I’m spreading the word about Tracks: A Novel in Stories, published by Atticus Books—and winner of the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. I have four readings and a few related meetings over the course of two weeks. The book tour is both my reason for being here and an excuse to be here.
I left my family in the hot humidity of Baltimore the day after Father’s Day. On Father’s day, my 7-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter presented me with an appropriate gift: a beautiful, marble and silver signing pen.
“It’s to sign books,” Nicole said.
“So you’ll remember us when you’re in California,” Alex added.
I’m carrying the pen in my pocket now. It’s not just for signing books. I use it to write directions, take notes, to write in general. It has other uses too. For example, it works great for cutting the paper seal on a bottle Wild Turkey. And you can point with it.
This point is probably already obvious: to say I’m writing about a book tour is like saying Hunter S. Thompson wrote a book about an off-road desert race called the Mint 400. The results of the race and book events are one thing. The story is in the time and people and places surrounding the subject.
A friend and fellow writer moved from Baltimore to Coronado about ten years ago. In the first couple years after his move, he used to send an email every few days with a weather report, just to rub it in. “In the 70s and sunny,” was the beginning of each email. It was the kind of weather report you could cut and paste eternally.
A few days in San Diego, and I’ve come to understand the truth to these reports. The weather is perfect in San Diego. A cool ocean breeze, sunny skies, and perfect 70 degree weather with drops to the 50s in the evening. The only danger to a guy like me is that the sun can be deceiving. After a sunscreened day poking around Cabrillo and Point Loma, I have a sunburn—my usual initiation to a California visit. The air is cool, the breeze comforting, and you don’t realize how hard the sun is coming down on your fair skin. From here on out, I’m a shade hunter. Even on the beach.
Expectations have a lot to do with how we take in a thing. Be it a book, a movie, or a location, high expectations often lead to disappointment and low expectations lead to ecstasy.
Cabrillo Monument at Point Loma may be the high point of San Diego, geographically speaking, but I expected it to be a hum-drum hour or so. The monument and visitors’ center themselves turn out to be what I expected—well worth a visit, but nothing to blow you away. But I didn’t see the rest of this coming. There’s a lighthouse. And a radio museum where an old military radio base was located during World War II. And lots of trails. A whale lookout point, with the bones of whales on display. Lots of great views from on high. And, perhaps the most pleasing, the rocky, cliffy beach and the tide pools.
The edge, where land meets water, seems to contain as many different landscapes as there are species in the tide pools. Pebble beaches. Sea rocks. Cliff edges into the waves. Caves in the cliff rocks. Sandy beaches. Even an area where the water- and wind-treated dirt has formed insect-like art reminiscent of the organic architecture of Anton Gaudi. (Or more likely Gaudi was inspired by such natural occurrences as this.) What I expect to be an hour excursion ends up taking the better part of the entire first day. A day well spent.
From Coronado to Oz
Still time to squeeze in a jaunt to Coronado. On the map, it’s physically located right next to Loma Point. But I was looking at the geography, not the road map. Turns out I have to drive nearly an hour in traffic to get to the winding Coronado Bridge. I curl over the massive bridge and search for food.
A packed day of sightseeing requires a hearty meal. I found one at the simply named “Mexican Take-Out” on Coronado. A taco, burrito, beans, rice, and a Mexican soda later, and I’m roaming the streets of Coronado by foot. I take in Hotel del Coronado, stroll along the “private” beach (privately owned, but accessible by anyone), and even take a slow tour of the impressive interior of the famous hotel. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe are displayed in a little museum area below, as well as letters from and photos of famous actors and politicians who patronized the establishment.
One such patron was L. Frank Baum, who lived on the island. After the hotel, I’m off to see the wizard … the wonderful Wizard of Oz House. It was in this simple, yellow home, surrounded by lush grass, waving trees, and a white picket fence, that Baum wrote several of his Oz books. It is now privately owned, but one can see through the window of the glassed-in porch a beautiful display of Oz paraphernalia.
Another famous house of the area is the Marston House, which is open for tours and has an immaculate yard and gardens. Yes, the Marston House is more lavish than the Oz House. But L. Frank Baum wrote several Oz books in his simple Coronado home, so it kind of evens them out on the tourist playing field.
By the day’s end, I’m ready for some food, beer, and conversation. My friends Anna and Boris, treat me to fresh sea trout and a local IPA from the Stone Brewery. It’s all good. Funny thing is, my friends have been in San Diego nearly a year and in my first day I’ve seen things they—as of yet—have not. Such is the privilege of a visitor.
Remember what I said about expectations? I was blown away by Point Lomas. But Balboa Park, which I’ve read is one of the largest and most impressive city parks in the world, doesn’t quite live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful park full of many great museums and shops and sights and plantlife. But after being blown away a few years ago by Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I expect to be even more blown away today. And I’m not.
Granted, I’m spending as much time hunting for shade as I walk the park as I am actually focused on the sights around me. And I entered the park with high expectations. But it’s not quite Golden Gate Park. And the San Diego Museum of Art is closed on Wednesdays?
But the Timken museum of art is as wonderful as it is small—a nice little collection of fine paintings. There’s a huge collection of ancient icons, and a good amount of contemporary classics. But the painting that most attracts me is one that is on loan from Minneapolis Institute of Arts, perhaps due to my recent visit to Spain and my fascination with the works of Goya. The painting is Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, and it is an unusual (although perhaps not for Goya) portrait of the artist on what he had taken to be his death bed as his doctor holds him up and dark faces watch from the shadows, as though waiting for him to die. He painted it after the doctor helped him, as a show of gratitude.
Kristina Rosenberg, Timken’s Education Director gives a talk about Goya and his work. It’s part of the free series of afternoon gallery talks. The Timkin is a terrific find.
Balboa Park’s Museum of Man was another interesting escape from the sun, with exhibits on Mayan stone carvings, early man, primates, Egyptian mummies, the future of man (including an official life-sized replica of C-3PO), and a temporary exhibit on skateboard art and culture.
Other highlights of Balboa Park include the Japanese Garden, Spreckles Organ Pavilion, United Nations Village and gift shop, Alcatrez Garden, the Botanical Gardens, the science and natural history museums … and, of course, the San Diego Museum of Art, which I returned to the next day, when it was open.
I’ve seen the Gaslight Quarter by evening and also by morning. It’s more lively at night, but you can get a good coffee at Café Luna in the morning.
The thing that surprises me most about today’s Gaslight Quarter visit is that the famous Yuma Building is up for sale! The handsome building is pictured right in the guidebooks—two of them I have in my car and I check to make sure I’m recognizing the right place. Sure enough, it’s got a huge “For Sale” sign draped across it’s decorative front. A hat store remains on the ground floor, so there’s one stable, long-standing renter. Might be a good buy. Wanna go in together, anyone? If you’re gonna own property in San Diego, it may as well be a famous building from all the guidebooks.
Arts and Letters (and Trains)
Downtown, I’m on my way to the one of the three buildings of the Contemporary Museum of Art. On the way from my parking spot, I happen pass the Santa Fe Railroad. My own novel in stories, Tracks, is set on a train, and it begins and ends at train stations. I’ve got to go in. I am here, after all, for a book tour—remember?
Gimme a break! I haven’t even written Tracks 2 yet!
Of course, it’s referring to the number of train tracks crossing the way. I cross them and make my way to the two downtown locations of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.
Both are interesting. I tend to prefer more classic contemporary art: impressionism and such. But there is certainly some worthy work here. I happen onto a contest for young artists and even have the opportunity to vote.
The two exhibits that impress me the most are the Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Gold by Al Weiwei (a collection of gold-covered animal heads on unique pedestals, each one different), and Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, a dynamic, nine-screen video installation that weaves together stories in an interesting way. In fact, one extended sequence is set on a commuter train, or trolley, and each screen shows a different passenger watching another passenger on the train. That reminds me a bit about my own novel in stories, Tracks. A cool connection for my last full day in San Diego.
A short visit to Old Town tells me that this is perhaps where the tourists go—the Disnified version of San Diego. Not to knock it—it is worth a quick visit. But the old town center of San Diego has as many souvenir shops as it does authentic sights. Some sights include on old jail house and Western Union depot, an old country store, tobacco store, and candy shop still in operation, and a few little museums and theaters worth checking out. But feels more like the place to go for souvenirs and trinkets to bring back home than an authentic old town.
Old Town is where I try out some more Mexican food, this time at Café Coyote, voted the best Mexican restaurant in San Diego. The food was good, the atmosphere a little more chain-like than authentic despite the serenading mariachi band, but the food was actually better at the little hole in the wall, “Mexican Take-Out” in Coronado—and a bit cheaper.
Somehow I wish a little more of Old Town remained and a little less of New Old Town had been established. As I’m thinking this, strutting along the wooden porch of one of the newly-outfitted old-time stores, I receive a call from back home. My wife wants my agreement to get rid of our 15-year-old leather sofa so a new leather sofa and chair can be delivered. She’s sent me photographs by text and I agree. Nataliya wants us to be on the same page before executing the retirement of the worn furniture and the commission of the new.
“Are you sure?” she asks, knowing my affection for long-held things.
“Absolutely,” I say, because I know the old furniture is warn and has to go as certainly as the useless old shoes hidden in the attic. As I watch the sun sparkle off the studded sombreros and uniforms of a nearby mariachi band, I already miss the old sofa—the one we had delivered to our first apartment, delivered to us before our firstborn child or first house or first anything but ourselves as a couple. I’m going to miss the old furniture, just as I feel that I miss the Old Town that I never actually knew, the one that existed before the bejeweled singers and guitar players, before the souvenir shops and made-in-china San Diego souvenirs. The one I see in my imagination. I’m nostalgic that way. The new sofa and chair will be nice—San Diego’s Old Town is nice—but it will never be what was.
After my museums, Old Town, and new furniture, I meet Anna and Boris in the Embarcadro area. I had planned to stop in the third contemporary art location, but there is barely enough time to even make our final destination—we have to get to the top of the Hyatt (the tallest waterfront building along the west coast) before the sun sets!
We do, but only barely. As we’re served our first round of beer, the sun is prematurely setting into an LA-like smog along the coast. We do get to watch the sun set, but not into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it sets right into the smog. I picked this destination not for the ambiance or top-shelf liquor, although that was a bonus. This is supposed to be a prime location for glimpsing the legendary “green flashes” of the setting sun unique to San Diego. We don’t spot them tonight, so we plunge into our scotch flight. Macallan’s 12, 15, and 18 year scotches are all good. Funny, but the 12 tastes almost as nice as the 18.
A Prickly Morning
It’s like a needle prick, waking to the realization that my time in San Diego—my visit with Anna and Boris—has come to an end. After breakfast and coffee, we say our goodbyes and I head out. I have an engagement in LA this afternoon. But I have a little time to kill, and decide I’d rather kill it in San Diego than LA. So on my way out, I visit Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Torrey Pines are the rarest pines in North America, and great care is taken to protect them. It is a pleasure to walk along the trails and witness the fragile wilderness island, surrounded by an urban sea. I drive to the upper parking lot, stop in at the visitors’ center, and head down the road by foot, taking in the pines, sand dunes, beaches, and unique contrasts of dry and wet. Some of the pines are tall and straight as an arrow; others are cultivated by the sea wind and look like giant banzai trees sculpted by the elements without human intervention. At one point, while walking along one of the trails, a horde of bees comes buzzing out of a shady tree and surrounds me and several other hikers.
“Where did they come from?” I ask, reminded of the bats in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know,” says another hiker, confirming that I’m not just imagining this cloud of potential harm all around us. “But I hope they don’t get us!”
We walk calmly out of the buzzing cloud, up the trail. It occurs to me that to them, we humans are the potential harm all around them. But not here, so much, on this state reserve.
After a few hours of walking the paths, viewing the crashing waves from high plateaus, watching the waves crash along sandy beaches and rugged cliff rocks, I return to my car and begin my drive from fresh air to polluted, from San Diego to Los Angeles.
All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun
As I drive into Santa Monica, I think of the old song from longer ago than my old set of furniture: All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun. There’s a line in the song that talks about driving along the Santa Monica Blvd. That must be what brings it to mind for the first time in years, perhaps decades. But it puts me in the mood to have some fun. And that is what’s on the agenda for the evening.
But first, a little work. My first reading of my California Tour is at the end of Santa Monica Pier—the final point of America’s Highway, Route 66. At the end of the pier, a middle-aged man sings tunes from the past, such as “Piano Man,” which feels appropriate as it’s about writers and artists and actors who long to live their dreams. I’m living my dream as I make way to the other side of the pier’s end and read from Tracks. Hundreds of people pack Santa Monica Pier as I read from my fiction. But few of them actually listen to me. Most of them are here for other amusements and just happen by to see the crazy guy reading aloud from his book. Like a street musician, unicycle juggler, or a guy with a bucket selling water at a stop light median. I sell a book, and go to my next event.
Reunited, and it Feels So Good
My next event: the reunion of old high school mates from Sasebo, Japan. Yes, Japan. When I was a teen, my father, a Navy man, was stationed in Sasebo, Japan. In the two years plus that we were there, I went to E.J. King High School. That was part of 9th, all of 10th, and part of 11th grade. My “graduating class” (although we didn’t graduate together) consisted of 12 students. There were 50 students in grades 7 through 12. And we were all in the same boat, keeping with the naval theme. Each of us were used to moving from place to place every few years, all of us were transplants from somewhere in America to a strange new land. Needless to say, there was really only one big clique, and we became a tight-knit student body. That’s why, for most of us, our couple years together in Sasebo formed tighter connections than the classes we graduated with.
We went about 25 years with no such reunions. Then, a few years ago a new tradition began when we reunited at Navy Pier in Chicago—the location chosen in part due to its central proximity, allowing visitors from each coast and in between to make it, and in part due to the Navy connection. That first reunion even took place on a dinner cruise ship. About 20 of us attended, and it was like a family reunion with people unseen for decades.
Unfortunately, this sequel to the Sasebo Reunion, on Santa Monica Pier, like most movie sequels, has lower numbers and isn’t quite the same as the first. Perhaps it’s due to the extreme location on the west coast, keeping out many people on the east coast. Or it could simply be the economy. Maybe the lure isn’t as strong since we just met a couple years earlier. More than 20 people said they were coming; only five of us showed up.
It reminds me of some book events! Plan for 50 and you get five. Plan for five and you get 50. You just never can tell.
But to be honest, we’re having a great time despite the low turnout. It’s always fun to reacquaint yourself with old friends, especially those you’ve virtually forgotten. When I meet James at the beginning of the evening, for example, there is something familiar about him, but I’m not quite making the connection. By the end of the evening, I remember specific moments from our time in Japan, classes taken together, his smile and laugh as a child, and I discover that old yearbook headshot in his face, in his eyes and smile. It’s almost embarrassing at first, when you feel like you should remember everything and don’t. But it’s a pleasure when unexpected memories return.
Nana, our ringleader, escorts us to a surf bar for colorful cocktails, then we wade to a seafood restaurant and gorge ourselves with fish, mojitos, and conversation. The easy flow of friendly conversation follows us as we roam the well-gridded streets of Santa Monica and wander from a live rock pub to a blues joint and finally settle into a comfortably rustic brick-walled bar that plays music just loud enough to allow us to talk without yelling. The music of the night, in most of the places we’ve gone, seems to be the hits of the 80s, as though our own high school soundtrack is being piped in for us.
Appropriate to our Japanese reunion, the drink de noir is a sake margarita. “Can we get a pitcher?” James asked.
“We don’t sell pitchers of margaritas,” our waitress lamented. We told her this was our reunion, that we’d all lived together in Japan, and this seems to untie the established rules. “Let me see what I can do about a pitcher.”
A moment later, we have a gigantic pitcher of sake margaritas that lasts well into the night.
“That thing is massive,” Nana says, her eyes widening to take it in. James pours the first round.
“Kompai!” we toast. “Banzai” may be more appropriate.
Our conversation doesn’t stall; we talk about everything from exploits we got into as gaijin in Japan, about old teachers and friends, muse over missing attendees, and even talk about the movies and music that defined the times. Even in Japan, it was all about American pop music back in the 80s. Right now, over the bar speakers, the artist then known (and once again know) as Prince is partying like it’s 1999. We party like it’s 1987.
“Hard to believe,” I say, “but 80s music to high school students today is like 50s music was to us. Not even 60s or 70s stuff, but the real golden oldies.”
“Yeah,” Tina says to what both James and I have been saying about music.
“But more than that,” James expands on his thought. “There’s not a 60s or 70s genre. There are genres from those times—classic rock, folk music, oldies. And the 90s had grunge and alternative. But the 80s is the only decade that all of the music was lumped together and defined by the decade itself.”
It’s an interesting thought, I consider, as I pour another round of sake margaritas, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors rainbowing in the background. I think about toasting to the 80s. Instead, I toast to the future.
The Freaks Come Out
The next morning Nana and I hit some of the sights. On one hand, LA always seems to have a plastic feel to it. Many touristy cities have the Disney element to them. And I’m not knocking that, because theme parks and manufactured fun can be a hoot. But aside from the theme park element, there is usually another element, a history and culture to the pace. In LA, it seems as though the history and culture is the manufactured theme park. What is Hollywood if not spectacle? Walking along Hollywood Blvd or the Sunset Strip and not expecting a little schmaltz is like visiting Disneyland and not expecting to see a mouse.
We did Sunset Blvd and we did Hollywood Blvd. We walked the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is fun and good if you like walking city streets with crowds, and there’s the added interest of searching the names and stars in the sidewalk for one that you recognize. The usual suspects are all here—Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Angelina Jolie. But there were some surprises too: Dr. Seuss, Pee Wee Herman, Edward P. Murrow, Ray Bradbury, and Gene Autry. Gruhman’s Chinese Theater is a sight to see, along with all of the sidewalk handprints and footprints in cement. The Kodak theater is an interesting work of modern architecture, even if it’s namesake has gone out of business.
The song sings, “the freaks come out at night.” It seems that in Hollywood, they come out all hours of the day. We see men roaming around in sheets; a street dweller punching a begging woman apprehended by the cops; a four-foot tall lady dressed in the revealing attire of a stripper—despite her walker; men dressed as women; women dressed as men; men and women dressed as God knows what.
As we walk along the boulevard, our view of the sidewalk stars is obstructed by a passing parade—Brazilian dancers shake their bodies while a drum brigade keeps up. We watch for a bit, and then retreat to the museum area. When in Hollywood …
Plastic and Smog
Even the wax figures in the Hollywood Wax Museum appear to be plastic. All the better to be pictured with, as they’re more durable. We have some fun getting our pictures with Angelina Jolie (I swoop in for a kiss), Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr., Elvis, Lucy, and—one my son appreciates—Darth Maul. After the wax museum, we hit the other two parts of the three-ticket extravaganza: The Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum and the Guinness Book of World Records Museum. Both have just enough interesting display pieces to make them worthwhile. The most fun we have at the museums is standing behind a two-way glass and watching visitors try to make faces, curl their tongues, and pop their eyes in the mirror next to directions on how to do so. Laugh out loud funny … at the guest’s expense.
Nana’s camera batteries run low and she needs replacements. I’ve left my batteries back at the hotel. We stop in at one of the many souvenir shops along the walk, surrounded by cheap tee-shirts, magnets, key chains, caps, plastic Academy Awards for Best Son, Best Daughter, Best Lover, Best Bowler. Four AAA batteries are $8.99. Just last week I ordered almost 50 for a few dollars more thorough Groupon. Gotta love tourist traps.
It’s not fair to say that LA is all plastic and smog. There is a lot of culture here too. The Getty Museum is a wonderful way to spend a day. The five magnificent works of architecture that house the art are works of art in themselves. I remember a couple years ago, during my first visit to the Getty, one thing that impressed me was that I recognized some of the art visiting the Getty from Baltimore! Several paintings of Rembrandt were on loan from Baltimore’s own Walters Museum. And they held their weight next to the masterworks of the Getty. The Getty offers a refreshing contrast of outdoor gardens and architecture and mountaintop views and inside paintings and sculptures and photographs.
Back to the 80s
This day in LA is an extension of the reunion, and we are in tinsel town, so we continue talking about old times and old movies. The topic from our music conversation still plays in my head like an annoying song.
“Do you realize that the 1980s to our kids are like the 1950s were to us?”
“Hard to believe,” Nana admits. “The fifties were like prehistoric times when we were kids. The 80s seem so close you could touch them.”
“There was this movie that came out recently called Hot Tub Time Machine,” I say. She hasn’t heard of it. “It’s a time travel movie, and these guys get in a hot tub time machine and travel back to the 80s. It’s like a throwback to Back to the Future.”
“Back to the future was a classic.”
“In that, they go from 1985 to 1955—30 years. In Hot Tub Time Machine, they go back 30 years from now to the 1980s. It even has Crispin Glover in it! It’s like the Back to the Future of our kid’s generation. Only it’s rated R.”
We slip out of talk about hot tubs and into the local tar pits.
Tar Pit Time Machine
The La Brea Tar Pits—the oldest tourist trap in the area! In fact, it used to trap all sorts of animals as far back as 40,00 years ago—beasts like the American Mastodon, Saber-toothed cat, early camels and wolves, horses and bison, even giant sloths. Animals that so much as stepped in the tar would be slowly, helplessly sucked into the pit—a fate worse than quicksand. Slowtar.
In 1875, the first fossils were being discovered and recorded in the tar pits. Since organized excavation began in 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates. Also, 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. The on-site Page Museum holds about three million items from the tar pits. This number may soon double when the current “project 23” excavation is completed. That’s a lot of history. And it’s all well preserved, and on display. It’s like a tar pit time machine put us in touch with creatures from 40,000 years ago.
Another Japanese Find
Perhaps it’s like learning a new word you’ve never heard before and then suddenly you hear it everywhere; on this extended Japanese reunion in LA, we continue to find glints of Japan. Just next to the Tar Pits, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is an expansive collection of buildings housing an expansive collection of art. The Soap Bubbles and Goya, Monet and Renoir and Van Gough are great. But what most catches our fancies, because of our reunion frame of mind, is the Japanese pavilion of art. The calming, dimly lit structure is Zen-like, winding up one way and then down another. The ancient Japanese art (on rice paper scrolls) conjures memories of museum visits in Japan, and the stone gardens along the floor remind me of my own stone and banzai tree yard up those 71 steps to my Koten-Cho house.
“Did you paint Japanese characters, back in Sasebo,” Nana asks.
“Not much,” I admit. “I learned to brush my name in Japanese Culture class. That’s about it.”
“Me too,” she says. “I think we all had to do that. I wish I’d learned more.”
I do too. At the time, I was old enough to appreciate Japan, but to me it was a mystical land of adventure more than a mature society of culture. The scrolls on display here would not have interested my teenaged self half as much as they do now. I would have preferred to play pachinko or hit a rotating sushi bar. Now, the art and history and calm pavilion are appreciated. This is a fine end to our calm, simple reunion. And to LA.
The Worst Commute Ever
My day begins with a bit of apprehension and unpleasantness. It’s the damn rental car. When I picked it up about a week earlier in the cool, rolled-down window 2 a.m. darkness, it seemed fine. By the next day, when the windows were up and the AC was on, I noticed the stench. At first I thought it smelled like vomit, but then Anna said it smelled like someone had spilt milk in the car and it had gone sour. That’s what Nana said too. I guess mommies know their milk.
So I take the smelly old Versa back to Dollar anticipating a bit of a fight, afraid I’ll have to defend the fact that it is unreasonable for them to expect me to drive this stench-mobile up and down the pacific coast. Fortunately, to my pleasant surprise, they are in total agreement. The attendant, checking the car in, agrees at the open window. “Smells like something died in there. I’m surprised you kept it as long as you did.”
“It was cool and the windows were open on my way to San Diego,” I explain.” If I’d been in town, I would have returned it the next day.”
Not only did they get me into a new car right away, they even discounted me about $20 for the trouble.
But the real pleasure is that I’m soon cruising up America’s pacific coast. I’ve been looking forward to this drive. Lately, I’m used to driving hybrids, and I’m comfortable with them and happy to be saving on gas and doing a little to save the environment. Now I’m driving a Ford Focus, and I’m surprised that even with the advertised 30 MPG, it feels like it has weight and rev to it, almost like I remember in my old 1993 Dodge Stealth. I haven’t driven a Ford in a long time and I’m actually happy with this car—candy-apple red, nice stereo, comfortable sturdy feel, intuitive dash and panel. I’ve more than traded stinky old for new-car-smell new; I’ve upgraded from a rattling clunker to a sturdy cruiser. Maybe the U.S. auto manufacturing industry has learned a few things from recent mistakes after all.
Before much time passes, I’m still cruising up highway 101, but I’m barely moving, not able to open the car up—barely able to crack it open. The traffic is horrendous.
When people complain about traffic anywhere but New York City, I usually don’t think much of it. It can’t be much worse than rush hour traffic between Baltimore and DC. It doesn’t get much worse than that. But today, I learn that it does. No, you can’t go much slower than parking-lot stand still. But it is worse when it lasts forever. It takes me more than four hours to cover 130 miles.
Which means I need to scrap my plans just as I’ve scrapped the old Versa—this time because traffic stinks rather than the car. My final destination of the day is the San Francisco Bay area, but I’d planned on a mid-point tour of the Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle is the closest thing America has to a royal palace—like Spain’s Palicio Real, Russia’s Hermatage or Petergoff, or France’s Lourve. After reading a book and watching a documentary about media mogul Randolf Hearst’s palace and home, I’ve been looking forward to the visit. I half expected to see a sleigh in the warehouse with “Rosebud” painted across it. Alas, there is no time for the Hearst Castle today.
After that first four hours, between LA and Santa Barbara, the traffic lets up and I’m cruising again, exchanging beautiful ocean views for green and brown mountain landscapes. I stop in King City for gas and realize I must be a bit east of Eden. Before night falls, I make it to my friend Andrey’s place in San Francisco in time for Napa Valley wine, grilled sea bass, and a relaxing evening of catching up.
Barred from Prison
Full disclosure: I love San Francisco. I’ve only been here a few times, but each time I’ve fallen in love with the city over again. Since I’ve been here before, I’m not on a quest to seek out the biggest and best. I just want to enjoy myself and revisit some of the places I enjoyed before.
On second thought, there is one sight I want to hit that I haven’t before: Alcatraz.
I’m not sure why, but Alcatraz hasn’t hit me as a “must see” destination, despite the number of people who put it on their lists. Golden Gate Park, De Young, Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Bridge, Delores Mission—these seem like the priorities, not a museum in an old prison on a rock. But I’m so startled by the number of people (many of whom don’t normally go for touristy places) who said “You’ve gotta go to Alcatraz” that I’ve decided to top my list with the rock.
“Be sure to get your tickets early,” Andrey had warned before I even left the east coast. “You can buy them online.” But I knew then as I’m sure now—parking on a hill that doesn’t allow me to forget my parking brake—that there is no need to buy my tickets in advance. I’m going early on a Monday morning. There probably won’t even be a line.
But there is. And it’s long. And I don’t understand what the sign means when it says “Next ticket” because the posted date more than two weeks away. “Must be some kind of special, in-depth tour,” I say to myself. When I finally get to the ticket counter, I’m corrected.
“When’s the next boat leave,” I ask.
“In half an hour,” the girl behind the window says, “but the next available ticket is for two weeks from now.”
“You mean I can’t go today?”
“Sorry. I can sell you a standby ticket. If someone backs our or doesn’t show up, you might be able to get on tonight.”
I decline. I don’t want to be a prisoner to this prison, waiting all day for a slight chance of getting in. I guess Alcatraz will have to wait again. Should’ve gotten those online tickets a few weeks ago. And as I’m walking away for a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf, I wonder: If someone sends you a greeting saying “wish you were here” from Alcatraz, is that a well wish or an insult?
Sourdough, Sea Soups, and Salads
Pier 39 of Fisherman’s Wharf reminds me of the touristy strip that most big cities have: it’s Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, New York’s Times Square, Monterey’s Cannery Row, LA’s Santa Monica Pier, and Chicago’s Navy Pier. But like the plastic and cement of Hollywood Blvd, it is fun for what it is. So I stroll along Pier 39 and find myself a cup of Joe.
My mouth has been watering for my next destination: Boudin’s bakery. I watch the men and women making the sourdough bread in the museum-like window, then walk in for some of my own. Last time I was here, I picked up a sourdough bread teddy bear for the kids. It was four days before I got it home to share with them, and by then it was just a crust past its prime. So this time I simply shop for one, for now. I have a sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder. The chowder is good, but better down the street at the Blue Mermaid, where their corn and clam chowder is so good it’s won a number of awards. But the bread here at Boudin is the best. In fact, Boudin gets credit for creating “San Francisco sourdough bread,” dating back to 1849. Sourdough bread as a whole dates back to ancient Egypt in 1,500 BC, so Boudin family didn’t exactly invent it so much as perfect it.
Manufactured Art and High Art
After a stroll along the Wharf, littered with souvenir shops, sunglass venders, and 70 percent off manufactured high art stores, I step onto the beach and watch the sun glisten off the water and reflect off the Golden Gate Bridge near Ghirardelli Square. There are flowers among the weeds, when it comes to the shops and attractions here, and that’s what makes it worth a visit. An odd little museum of mechanical toys, for example. And some of the art galleries feature museum-quality work, like the two Franklin Bowles Galleries located here. They originated in the area more than 30 years ago.
I visit, and say hello to Dan Root, the gallery representative I spoke with last time I was in town, who still emails me from time to time with items of interest. Last time I was here, I was checking out some unique Dali signed lithographs. This time, I see some interesting pieces by Chagall and Miro, both of whom pique my interest since I just viewed them both in Spanish museums a couple months prior.
“Our main focus now,” Dan tells me, “is our exhibit memorializing LeRoy Neiman.” That much is obvious, given the number of his striking, colorful pop-art-impressionistic paintings. In fact, I remember getting an email from Dan in April about the exhibition, catalog, and event. But that was when he was still alive. “Just as our exhibition was ending, we got the bad news that Neiman passed away. He was a good friend to Franklin Bowles, and a favorite artist of ours.” So when he died, instead of taking down the exhibition, they extended it in memorial. It’s a great exhibition, should you happen to make it to San Francisco when it is still on display. Dan also let me know that there will be an important exhibit of the increasingly popular Barbizon school of work soon, which I am glad to hear, being an admirer of Barbizon paintings. Regardless of what is on display, these two galleries are worth a visit.
Don’t it Make Your Gold Bridge Red
It doesn’t exactly have the brown-eyes-blue feel to it, but driving along the Golden Gate Bridge is, in a way, a romantic experience. I remember the last time I was here, I drove across on a foggy evening and could barely see the road in front of me. Now, it is midday, it is sunny, and I can see the entire bridge stretch out in front of me. The bridge looks perfect against the surrounding environment, just as it did when I crossed it on a foggy night. That’s the idea.
The Golden Gate Bridge is neither gold nor red (although that’s the color that usually jumps to mind when I see it in books or on television). It’s “international orange.” In fact, Irving F. Morrow selected the color because it blended well with the hills and contrasted perfectly with the ocean and sky. The color also blended well with the changing seasons. “The effect of International Orange is as highly pleasing as it is unusual in the realm of engineering,” Morrow said.
So why isn’t it called the “International Orange Gate Bridge?” The name doesn’t come from the color, but from the name of the straight over which it crosses. Chrysopylae means “golden gate.” So this entrance from the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay was aptly named the “Golden Gate Bridge.”
Presumably, it would have been a bit expensive to paint it gold to make the name stick.
On the other side of the bridge, Vista Point offers more than a bathroom break—it offers a wonderful view of the city, the bridge from another side, and the ocean. Even an alternate view of Alcatraz, not limiting me to the view from the end of Pier 39 where the sea lions still bark in my head. Another familiar monument here is to sailors—in fact, the statue is an exact replica of the monument in Washington DC, sidekick seabag and all.
Hills and Valleys
I guess everyone knows about the streets of San Francisco. The up and down of the streets over the hills is something you may know about, but don’t get a feel for unless you’ve actually driven them, or taken a trolley car up, over, and down them. I’ve done both, and both are fun. Driving up and over the hills is like riding an amusement park attraction—only you’re in complete control.
And try parking on some of the streets. I’ve parallel parked on such steep hills before, but parking at a 90 degree angle against the slope of the hill, as is mandated in some areas, is a strange feeling when you’re not used to it. Just try to walk across the street on a hill. After a few steps, I had to cross diagonally just to keep my footing.
An unexpected thrill at the top of Lombard, before zig-zagging my way down, is to see a car driving along with flames coming from under the hood. The driver can certainly see the smoke, but the flames are low enough that he doesn’t seem to realize they are there. This is no steam from a radiator. It is fire, and as little as I know about what goes on beneath a hood, I know that fire and engines and gasoline tanks do not a good mix make. I roll down my window. “Get out of the car! It’s on fire!” Others—pedestrians and drivers—begin honking and yelling. The man, woman, and child all dart out and away from the car, startled to see the flames. I don’t know what happens next because the light changes, I’m in traffic, and I’ve already proceeded down the hill. I know the family got safely away. But halfway down the hill, it’s as though a forest fire has hit the wind, a gust of smoke looming over the hill and oozing down after the slowly-creeping traffic.
On the other side of the valley, atop Telegraph Hill, is Coit Tower. The Lillian Coit Memorial Tower was built using funds left my Mrs. Coit. She left one third of her estate for the beatification of her favorite city. The concrete, art deco tower is rumored to be designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle due (according to some) to Mrs. Coit’s appreciation of firemen or (according to others) because her lover was a fireman. Others say the resemblance is coincidental and not the designers intention. Inside, fresco murals by 27 different on-site artists decorate the walls. The view from this point is wonderful, overseeing the city and the shore.
I’m fortunate enough to stop in Chinatown for a visit to the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. The Sing Chow building, one of the first rebuilt after the big 1906 earthquake, is like a pagoda in the corner. Also like a big pagoda is the Bank of Canton, formerly the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Even Chinatown’s Bank of America has Asian flair with gold dragons decorating it, along with 60 dragon medallions on its façade.
I always enjoy visiting an old cathedral when in a city with history. Grace Cathedral fits the bill for San Francisco. Whether you attend a service, a concert, or simply take a tour during their hours of operation, it’s a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle bustle of the city. During the gold rush, the Nob Hill church was built here in 1849. But the great earthquake demolished it. Construction on the cathedral standing today began in 1928 and ended in 1964. It’s the third largest Episcopalian cathedral in the nation and has been an international pilgrimage site for years.
As a writer, I can’t visit San Francisco without stopping in at City Light Books—the bookstore and publisher from the beat generation. It’s still a vibrant bookstore and publisher today. Last time I was there, I was pleasantly surprised to find my own fiction on display. That was before I was a published novelist, but a story I’d written was published in the zine, Smile Hon You’re in Baltimore, and sure enough the issue was right there on the shelf, on display! Now that I’m a published novelist, I searched for my book. They must have sold out because I couldn’t find it. There were books entitled Tracks. And there were books by Eric Goodman. But the two did not meet in one book. I left some postcards with hopes that Tracks: A Novel in Stories will be on the shelves soon. It’s a holy place for fiction to be.
Fitting End to a Fine Day
I end my day in Zen Valley, near Russian Hill, where I meet my friend Andrey at Samovar, a tea house and restaurant. We came here last time I visited and even though I seldom order salad or tea when I’m eating out, it was the thing to do here. And a couple years later, the pleasant experience lingers in my mind, so we attempt to recapture it.
I had an earthy, robust tea last time I was here and I can’t remember its name. But when I see that the “Oceans of Wisdom” tea was hand made for the Dali Lama, and knowing that my brother, as we speak, is at a psychology conference on mindfulness and the correlations of eastern religion with social psychology—a conference supported by the Dali Lama—I decide this is the destined tea of the evening. Along with a salad of romaine lettuce hearts, shaved salmon, shavings of Parmesan cheese, and croutons, this is a perfect, peaceful match. It is filling, but I don’t feel full. At least, not too full to hit a few pubs in the area.
First, we go to a clean, well-lighted place with an accordion player we can barely hear over the roar of robust conversation. Original paintings hang high above the tall windows walling the establishment. We enjoy a couple of local brews—Anchor Steams—before venturing to a more pub-like place. The Rogue pub fits the bill, and we enjoy some unique micros there: oatmeal and coffee stouts, a black IPA, something named Shakespeare.
We used to drink together often, nearly twenty years ago when I was an exchange student in Russia. In Nizhniy Novgorod, we would drink dark Russian beer and clear Russian vodka. The other Americans and I knew a lot of Andreys between us, so we had nicknames for them: long-haired Andrey, smoking Andrey. My friend who now lives in San Francisco was known as Fuck Off And Die Andrey. Despite the fact that he was one of the most kind and mild-mannered people I met in Russia, he wore a pin when we met him that said “Fuck Off and Die.” That became his identity. It was a classic case of first impressions not being accurate.
Often, when I get together with old friends I only see once in a while, we talk a lot about old times as we drink ourselves some beer. But I find, in retrospect, that Andrey and I are talking a lot more about the present and the future. That’s a good sign. We’ve caught up and are moving forward.
A Day in the Park
The last time I came to San Francisco, my favorite day was the one I spent at Golden Gate Park. I remember how I went there, expecting to spend a shorter amount of time, but I was completely at peace after an evening of tea toddling, simply strolling through the gardens and forests, smelling the roses and touching the leaves and needles. I ended up spending the entire day in the park. Today, I’m fully expecting it to happen again.
Last time I began around the Japanese Tea Garden and wandered to the beach where I enjoyed some home brews at the Beach Chalet. This time, I do the opposite. I begin on the beach, taking in the sea cliffs and sea rocks, the barking sea lions and basking sun bathers. I go to the Beach Chalet for a cappuccino. Then, I head into the body of the park.
I’ve been to a lot of city parks, including Central Park in New York and Balboa Park in San Diego. None of them, to my mind, hold a candle to Golden Gate Park. It could be because the plant life here holds both familiar and unusual sights for me, having lived on the east and mid-west for most of the past 25 years. In addition to the diversity of vegetation is the diversity of sights. There are Dutch windmills and tulip gardens. There are rose gardens and a Japanese Tea Garden. The De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. The Arboretum and Shakespeare Garden. The music pavilion and science museum. And the animals: the bison padlock and the police horse stables. Vast picnic fields and polo fields, swan lakes and Chinese pavilions, remote control speed boats and sail boats and lily pads and lotus. Not to mention, the beach! Sea rocks and cliffs, sea lions and sea life. An amusement park, archery field, and baseball diamonds. It’s easy to get lost for a day in the park.
But I’m on a schedule today. I have to keep my mind on where I’m parked—to focus on my Focus—and be sure I’m where I need to be when I need to be there. I have work this evening: my reading in San Francisco’s Make Out Room.
Making Out in San Francisco
The Make Out Room is a funky little place in the Mission District. You enter into a dimly lit pub and pass a long bar before reaching the large open floor and big stage, deep inside. Along the wall opposite the bar and to the side of the stage are curved art deco leatherette booths reminiscent of a 1960s cocktail club. Metallic streamers hang from the ceiling, glistening in the glow of the big mirror ball at the center of the stage area. What presumably is usually a dance floor is filled with round little cocktail tables, two chairs a piece. On the red-lit stage are an interesting collection of props: a Baroque hutch, a bicycle, musical instruments. Front and center: a microphone waits on a stand.
This is the place for the Inside Story Time Reading Series, and tonight I am one of the featured guests. I’m reading an excerpt from Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and I’m joined by four other talented writers, poets, and musicians for a program called TRACKS.
Before the program gets started, there’s the social element: about half an hour of meet and greet. We members of the talent get drink tickets, but even without tickets, the beer and cocktails here are good and inexpensive. The prices seem to go along with the 1960s feel. I enjoy one of my favorite local micro brews, Anchor Steam. Free for me, but only priced here at $2 a pint. (It would be about $6 back in Baltimore or even at a number of places here in San Francisco).
There must be about 40 or 50 people here, and it’s a lively crowd. I even have the pleasure of meeting one of my friends and readers in the flesh for the first time—someone I’ve been communicating with for years on social networks but only now have the pleasure to meet in person. And, as always, it is fun to talk to the other authors and musicians about our work, what we’re working on, and all things literary. Not to mention a few who have already read my book and want to talk about it.
“The woman with the tattoo—was she a real person?”
“Did you really take the train from Baltimore to Chicago?”
“Is there really a mafia in Baltimore?”
There is a $5 cover for Inside Story Time: TRACKS, so these are all people who have an interest in the program—in the literary arts. A table displays our books and CDs for sale. I have author James Warner to thank for inviting me to participate in this program.
The emcee—a real pro—is Ransom Stephens. He’s handy with the dry wit, and gets a laugh out of the audience with each introduction. I’m the second reader up, and when he introduces me, he lets the audience know that I’ve come all the way from the east coast to be here tonight. (Everyone else is local—but San Francisco is as diverse as some nations, so it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.)
It’s my turn; Ransom takes the stage, holds up my book with the Gold Medal seal affixed and glistening in the red spotlight, and introduces me. “Eric’s novel in stories, Tracks, won the 2012 gold medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards for the best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region. Since no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year, some folks are calling this Gold Medal a substitute for this year’s Pulitzer in fiction.” That gets a laugh.
Since many in the audience, myself included, are enjoying good brews, I decide to read my story, “A Good Beer Needs a Good Stein.” During the intermission, after my fifteen minutes in the spotlight, a number of people tell me they can relate to the themes and ideas in the story—not only that a good beer does taste better in a good stein, but about collecting things and never using them, or loosing things by saving them.
I make out well at the Make Out Room. It is a happy ending to my stay in San Francisco. The next morning, Andrey and I enjoy a California Scrambler with avocado and hash browns at Café Tatar in Redwood, and then I am on my way to San Jose.
Do You Know the Way to San Jose?
I was born in San Jose, so as the old song goes, I know the way. It probably maintains much of the same spirit described in the song. Compared to larger cities like San Francisco and LA, it feels like there are wide, open spaces and ample room to roam.
I wish I had more time to spend here, to explore the city of my birth. But for now, I am only passing through. I drive to the hospital where I was born, Alexian Brothers. And then I stop somewhere I remember visiting as a teenager: the flea market.
The San Jose Flea Market that I used to visit as a baby and remember visiting as a teen was a virtual wonderland. At the time, it was billed as the “world’s largest flea market.” The family could spend a day there, splitting up and reuniting at rendezvous points, and never cover it all. It was wonderland of such treasures as paperbacks, comic books, toys, ceramic skull banks, bicycles, mo-peds, Member’s Only jackets and Nike high tops, records, candy, fresh produce, posters, art, and anything you could possibly want to find. It had a mysterious feel about it, and I looked forward to excursions to the vast marketplace.
Perhaps I was smaller then, or perhaps the flea market is smaller now. But it looks about the same as a New York City street market, or the markets in Madrid or Prague or the outskirts of London. Only the main commodity here appears to be junk. Not vintage comics and paperbacks and records, but the same sort of made-in-china sunglasses and umbrellas and figurines and public-domain, paper-sleeved DVDs and junk you can find at any dollar store.
I had planned on buying some souvenirs for the kids and family back home. I doubt I’ll buy much of anything, as I sit at a plastic picnic table in the sun with a burrito and soda and listen to a mariachi band play. The sun is hot and bright and I’ve already had one sun burn during this trip. The fedora I have may be fashionable, but it’s too small to block the sun from my face and neck. I make one purchase (besides the food): a safari-green, wide-brimmed hat with a cape flowing from the back to conceal my neck from the sun. The sides of the brim curl up to snap against the hat, but I keep the canopy open to protect myself from the blaze bearing down. This is my one souvenir from the place of my birth before I hit the road and venture into Steinbeck Country.
Searching for Steinbeck
The windows are down, the breeze cool, and the scenery sensational: mountains and valleys of dusty brown and crisp green. Another country altogether compared to my home in the east. I’m listening to an audiobook of John Steinbeck as I drive through Steinbeck Country. How appropriate is that?
John Steinbeck has long been my favorite author. Among my favorite books are East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, and I’ve read each multiple times. They get better with each reading. I’ve both read and listened to the books, and both experiences are worthwhile.
I knew I’d be in a “road trip” frame of mind during today’s drive along the coast, so I opted to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, feeling almost as though I’m driving along with the Joad family, although in a more comfortable vehicle and on a fuller stomach. But what rattles in my head as I approach Salinas is the book I read prior to leaving the east coast in anticipation of this pilgrimage: East of Eden. Much of the book takes place in this paradise—the Salinas Valley and surrounding area. I knew I’d be coming here to visit, and I knew re-reading the classic would be great preparation.
When working on my most recent novel, I began each day by reading out of Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and then wrote my own short journal entry about my own approach to the novel I was writing. Before each day of his work, Steinbeck wrote a letter to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on the opposite pages of the same notebooks he used to handwrite his novel in pencil. Reading these passages by the master at work was a great inspiration to me.
On a boulder outside the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas is etched this Steinbeck quote: “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” He did it with East of Eden.
It’s already afternoon and I’ve eaten a Mexican lunch in San Jose. My first stop in Salinas is to the Steinbeck House, where John Steinbeck was born, raised, and—in adulthood—returned to visit his parents. I’ve been here once before for lunch, a few years ago; the beautiful but simple Queen Ann style Victorian house opens its doors to serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Today I have a piece of pie and coffee—just like the truckers do at Mae’s diner in The Grapes of Wrath.
The Steinbeck House, constructed of redwood, was built in 1897. John Steinbeck’s paternal grandparents, Adolph and Almira Steinbeck, purchased the house in 1901, and his parents, Ernst and Olive Steinbeck, purchased it in 1908. John was born in the front downstairs room, now the reception room, in 1902. The bed on which he was born is on display in the cellar.
As I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and looking around, I’m delighted to recognize characters from East of Eden—Steinbeck’s own family—on the walls of the room.
“That’s Olive Steinbeck, John’s Mother, isn’t it?” I ask, pointing.
“I think so,” the waitress says, refilling my cup.
“And this couple here,” I thumb the twin portraits behind me. “That must be Sam Hamilton and his wife Liza. John’s grandparents?”
“I’m not certain,” the waitress says. “I’ll have to check for you.”
It wasn’t until my recent re-reading of Eden that I fully realized how close to home parts of the book are to Mr. Steinbeck. The “Cain and Able” part of the story, with the Trask family, are imagined. But the Hamiltons—including the lovable Sam Hamilton and his stern wife Liza Hamilton—were John Steinbeck’s own grandparents. All of their children—John’s mother and her siblings—were characters in the book as well. And here they are, pictured in family photographs on the walls of his boyhood home.
“Sure enough,” the waitress says, coming back with their training manual, a complete family tree inside the binder. I don’t know how I knew who they were, how I was able to match exactly which woman was his mother and which were his grandparents. Perhaps I’m close enough to the book that I feel like a member of the family myself. Perhaps John Steinbeck was so good at describing them that I immediately recognized the real-life versions of them in these old black and white portraits. Could it be that he referred to these same family photographs as he wrote about them?
Seeing the real photographs of John Steinbeck’s family after having just read about them in the book is an uncanny experience. I want to stay a spell, but the Steinbeck House will be closing soon. So I roam the home, looking at relics. And I contemplate that classics like Tortilla Flat and The Red Pony were written right here in this very house.
In the cellar of the Steinbeck House is the Best Cellar Gift Shop, which features items pertaining to the house, to Steinbeck, and the Salinas area. I purchase some note cards with the house illustrated on the front, some matted postage stamps commemorating Steinbeck in 1979 (when a letter could be mailed for 15 cents), and a beautiful, limited edition, watercolor print of the Steinbeck House, signed by the artist. (The framed work now hangs in the hallway outside the door of my own writing studio.
Also on display in this gift shop are a number of books by and about Steinbeck. Among them are a good number of first editions and rare editions of his novels.
The workers at the Best Cellar Gift Shop seem more interested in chatting about Steinbeck and the area than they are in pushing products, which is nice. They want to share with me these rare first editions, to let me hold them and look through the pages. They tell me about other sights in the area. One of them is next on my list: The National Steinbeck Center.
I’m happy to say that the folks at the National Steinbeck Center are expecting me. In fact, they agreed to host me for a reading from my book, Tracks: A Novel in Stories. But the first available slot they have for me at the center is a month away, and I just can’t stick around that long. So instead of an event, I am donating a copy my book to the Center, and we hope to schedule a reading sometime in the next couple years … giving me another excuse to come back to California.
After donating my book to the Steinbeck Center, I enjoy the exhibit. I’ve been here before, but it’s fun revisiting the displays. Dedicated to the life and works of John Steinbeck, different areas of the exhibit explore different books and themes. In fact, there are six themed galleries full of artifacts, photographs, film clips, and interactive exhibits. Rocinate, Steinbeck’s camper from Travels with Charley, is one of the highlight artifacts here. Great quotes from Steinbeck decorate the hall. For any lover of literature or fan of Steinbeck, this is a must-see museum.
After leaving the Steinbeck Center, my next stop is the John Steinbeck Public Library here in Salinas, only a few minutes away. Outside the library is a monument to John Steinbeck, and on another boulder, this Steinbeck quote: “Books are the best friends you can have: they inform you, and entertain you, and they don’t talk back.”
Unfortunately, I don’t find any special papers or documents pertaining to Steinbeck here. They do have a large selection of the author’s works and many reference books about the writer and his work. I speak with a couple of librarians and decide to donate a copy of Tracks to the library. I’m gratified that both the Steinbeck Center and Steinbeck Library have copies my novel in stories inside.
It’s getting late in the afternoon and I still have to make it to Monterey. But first, I take a walk along Main Street to take in the familiar sights from East of Eden. Little John, as a boy, used to watch candy being made at Bells Candy Store—the same place where Kate stopped to buy chocolates in Eden. Porter & Irvine’s (currently Rollick’s Internet Café) was a place Kate regularly shopped in the novel. And Fenchel’s Tailor Shop is another site of interest to readers of Eden. In the book, Steinbeck writes with shame about the treatment of the German-American tailor, who was vilified and treated badly during the first world war. There are so many sights here in Salinas that, to the ordinary eye, may look like just another building, just another storefront—but these places hold history and meaning for people interested in Steinbeck’s childhood or in his work. These are the settings for many important fictional scenes. These are the settings of many real-life scenes.
I stop in a book shop and browse the titles. I pick up a copy of a cookbook as a gift for my Mom: Feast of Eden. My parents and I used to live in this area—in Monterey—too. She’ll appreciate it.
Just down Main Street is a restaurant with a sign outside that says “Steinbeck Used to Eat Here.” Unfortunately, they have closed for the day—they must cater to the lunch crowd. I get a cup of “Monterey County’s Best Coffee” across the street. The coffee is good. But the atmosphere where I drank my last cup—in the Steinbeck House—was better.
With Steinbeck on my mind, I make a call that I probably should have made hours earlier. I call Thomas and Gail Steinbeck. Thomas is the son of John Steinbeck and a successful writer in his own right. Gail is his wife and booking agent. I plan to meet them at an event in a couple days, in Montecito. Now, in Salinas—between the Steinbeck Center, House, and Library—seems like the right place and time to place my call and verify the details of our coming engagement.
After a short phone call, I stop in at a liquor store right between the Steinbeck House and Center to pick up a few bottles of wine for another upcoming event in Santa Barbara. The name of this shop is Cal’s Liquors. The young Chinese man behind the counter doesn’t seem like a Steinbeck reader. I wonder: is the establishment named for the surviving son in East of Eden, or is the name of this establishment a pleasant coincidence?
The sun is still hovering above the horizon as I leave Salinas for Monterey. Along the way I pass through Castroville: the Artichoke Capitol of the World. And I seem to remember this in one of Steinbeck’s books as well—perhaps Eden. I’m listening to The Grapes of Wrath as I pass along the highway, vast fields of artichoke and lettuce being watered with huge irrigation systems as far as the eye can see.
After checking into my Monterey hotel, my first stop—given the theme of the day—is Cannery Row. The Row has been around since long before Steinbeck immortalized it in his book of the same title, but it has a different life now.
Here is how Steinbeck described the place in the opening lines of his novel: “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.”
Today, Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a store, a restaurant, a flashing light, San Francisco’s Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, Chicago’s Navy Pier, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It is commercialized and filled with bait for modern-day tourists. But am I suggesting to avoid a visit? Of course not. One good thing is that Cannery Row embraces Steinbeck. In the center of the Row stands a monument to the author (inscribed with the opening line from the novel sharing its name). The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best in the nation. Cannery Row Brewing Company features some pretty good micro brews, like Madame Flora’s Red Light Special and Tipsy Seagull IPA. And banners fly on streetlights throughout the area with images and quotes of Steinbeck, Ed Rickets, and other related characters.
You won’t find Mac and the boys in the area—they’d probably be kicked out as quickly as your car next to an expired meter will be ticketed. But you may find yourself thinking, as you stroll the streets, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”
Next to Cannery Row’s Steinbeck Monument, I hear live blues music flowing out of Sly McFly’s bar and restaurant. I listen for a while, the night’s cool breeze coming to me from the Monterey Bay. But before long, it’s time to get back to my car, Steinbeck’s fiction waiting for me on audiobook. I’ve come all this way in search of Steinbeck, yet the place I find him most prominently is in his writing.
I drive away from the stink, the poem, the grating noise, the quality of light, the tone, the habit, the nostalgia, the dream, and back into Steinbeck’s writing.
Monterey: A Nostalgia
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is not the only nostalgia on my agenda. I was a teenager when I lived in Monterey. My father was in the Navy, attending the Naval Postgraduate School, and we lived on base housing in the neighborhood of La Mesa, only minutes away from Cannery Row. On my way out from the area, I stop by the Postgraduate School and the beautiful boardwalk area across from it, and then head toward the Navy family community of La Mesa.
I’ve been back to Monterey before, a few years ago, but I was with a friend and did not want to bore them (as I now will you) with my childhood haunts. Today I am solo, and I want to see the places where I seem to remember becoming who I am. I start by tracking down my old home.
It is not here. The old dwellings have been demolished and new homes stand in their place. It seems the yards and plots are a bit skewed, but I am able to make out the tree my friends and I used to climb and dare each other to jump out of. I remember the combination of fear and exhilaration, jumping out of those high limbs, not sure whether one of our limbs would be broken or an injury sustained, landing safely and feeling an eruption of accomplishment with each jump. The juicy iceplant that used to cover the hill is gone, but the hill is still here, the brush where we used to hide, the road where my teenage friends and I would pull stupid stunts like laying in the middle of the road until a car came, jumping up and putting on as though we’d been startled awake, running into the woods before there was time for the driver to recognize or catch us.
My childhood friend’s house is still here. Bryan and I were the best of friends during those years in Monterey. After we both moved from the area, he visited one summer when I lived in Rhode Island. Later, when I lived in Virginia and he in DC, we visited often. We drifted apart over the decades, but are still in touch and have the sort of friendship that will have us best of friends again after a few hours of conversation. I wonder now, as I sit in the carport outside his old door: if I knock, will a 14 year old version of Bryan come out to play?
You can never really go back home. I learned that when I returned to Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia about ten years after my time there as a college student. Whether time changes people or people change the times, it’s never like it was when you return to a place that is defined by the people you know there.
The Community Center is still here. I enter the convenience store and find it’s much bigger than I remember it. In the past, I’ve found the opposite to be true: places I remember being beg as a child turn out to be small. The store clerk tells me that it was expanded not too long ago.
I’m surprised to see single malt scotch in the $20 range—the same I’d pay more than $40 for back in Baltimore—and I ask whether you need a military ID to buy from the store.
“Yes,” he answers, scratching his scruff-covered head. “You don’t have your ID?”
“I’m not military,” I explain, half expecting him to escort me out of the community. “I used to live her, almost 30 years ago.”
“Oh,” he says, at ease. “I bet it’s changed a lot.” He’s about my age, maybe a few years younger.
“Yes,” I say. “My friend’s place is still here, but my place was torn down.”
The store clerk laughs. “I know the feeling. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. There are areas I don’t even recognize anymore. The only way they still exist is because me and people I know reminisce about them. It’s like they’re gone forever. Once we’re gone, no one will ever knew the places existed.”
Like Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia in 1994. Or Spruance Road in La Mesa in 1984. At least Cannery Row will be remembered in a novel, but even it is not what it was before. I suppose no where is.
Outside the convenience store, between it and the tailor, there is one thing that seems to never have changed: the old La Mesa Community Bulletin Board. I can’t believe it’s still here, or that I remember it so clearly. When I lived here in the 1980s, I used to mow lawns and babysit, and it was on this board that I thumb-tacked my advertisements, typed on a PC and printed in dot matrix. I even remember babysitting for one of our neighbors who was good friends with my father: Mike Mullen, who would decades later become the first Navy officer to serve the President as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I used to babysit his kids, watch TV in his living room, and sit at his dining room table with spiral notebooks and a pencil where I would write my early attempts at novels.
Now, remembering my very first marketing attempts, I put a new advertisement on the bulletin board in the same thumb-tacked spot as my old “Experienced Babysitter” ad. It is a postcard for Tracks: A Novel in Stories.
I drive slowly through the neighborhood, by the Navy Lodge and tennis courts, past the youth center where I used to spend Saturday nights watching movies, listening to music, playing games, and hanging out. I drive down the hill and look for children peeking out of the woods, ready for them to pull childish stunts, hoping for it. Moments later, I’m leaving La Mesa.
Up I drive, up hills, until I arrive at my next destination: Walter Colton Middle School. I have a mind to just skip this stop—what is there to see that I can’t see at my own daughter’s high school or son’s elementary school? But when I get out of my car and begin to roam, I come to understand that there is a lot to see.
I’m shocked at the memories that flood back into me as I walk around the campus—moments and people and places I haven’t recalled in decades. The cafeteria, where we used to avoid the giant ketchup tubs because the bullies spit in them; the outside hill where we sometimes sat with our boxed lunches of hamburgers or pizza and fries; the student store where you could buy everything from pencils and book bags to trail mix and granola bars; the bus-loading area; the mural-covered cinder-block wall between the gym and classrooms, next to the cafeteria where fighters fought and readers hid their noses in comic books; the court where we used to run laps, chanting “almost there, almost there” as we approached our designated spot to spit on our target; the computer lab where two 13-year-old boys tried to convince us that they were working directly with George Lucas on the sequel to the recently released Return of the Jedi; the area in the middle of the stairs where we used to play dodge ball, now gone, an elevator in its place; the dumpster where we sometimes hung out, although can see why now because although we called the area “the dumpster,” it’s more defining characteristic is the big and beautiful willow tree shading the area; the courtyards between rows of classrooms, like zen gardens or rice paddies, filled with banzai-like trees and bushes and stones; the library, where I remember first discovering Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. I remember the green canvas backpack I slipped those library books into. And the classrooms themselves: The science lab, the foreign language classroom where I got a taste of Spanish, French, and German in one quarter; and Mr. Robinson’s classroom.
Mr. Robinson was my 6th grade English teacher. I remember clearly his compliments of my writing and encouragement to write a novel. One of the optional assignments was to write a novella of 50 pages. I turned in a 200 page novel, handwritten on notebook paper. I’d known I wanted to be a writer since I was in early grade school, but this was the first time I remember being seriously encouraged by a teacher, and the result was my first novel. A defining moment for me as a writer. And here I am now, peering into the empty classroom again.
And there is the tree, down the stairs from the dumpster area, where the bleachers used to be. It was there that I first remember thinking I was in love. I’d had girlfriends before, as early as Charlene in the first grade and as recent as Dori in my first half of 6th grade in South Carolina. But this was the first “real love.” I can picture her under this tree now, but I can’t even remember her name.
I remember the area in the outside hallways—sidewalks between courtyard gardens and classroom rows—where I met my friend, Bryan, and other friends like Wolf, Lemon, Lewis, Beagly—all with the same first name, thusly called by their last. Marching the halls, into and out of the library, talking about our futures and what we were going to make of ourselves. We were, after all, more or less adults, our 12- and 13-year-old selves agreed.
It’s summertime and school is out, but there are workers in the office. I think about going in and introducing myself. I could stay here longer, reminiscing. But I have an event tonight in Santa Barbara and not much time to spare. To be honest, I’m running late as it is. I take one last look around me—one last deep breath in and sigh out—and drive away from my past, back into the present.
Just 17 More Miles
Before leaving Monterey for Santa Barbara, there’s one more sight I must see: Monterey’s famed 17-Mile Drive. I spent half a day on this 17-mile stretch when I was in the area a few years ago. I remember it fondly from when I was a teen. No visit to Monterey is complete without taking this drive. And if you have time, you should bring a picnic basket and plan to spend some time at some of the sights.
The Pebble Beach Scenic Tour is, for me, perhaps one of the most beautiful, breathtaking coastal landscapes in the world. With stops along the way at beaches and coves, opportunities to see sea lions, seals, otters, pelicans, cormorants, even deer, and countless Monterey Pines and Cypress—including the famed (and strangely trademarked) Lone Cypress on the sea rock—there are lots of places to stop and take in a deep breath along with the sights. The best way to enjoy the 17-mile tour is to stop at each landmark for a moment and bask in the sight. Last time I was here, we enjoyed the sunset at Point Joe. You may find that, after driving around the loop once, you want to do it again.
I wish I had more time now. But I’ve got to get to Santa Barbara long before today’s sun sets. Still, as I say, no visit is complete … so this time I zip through the 17 miles faster than I should. But better to drive through than miss it all together.
A Party in Santa Barbara
It’s almost a shame to say, but when I think of Santa Barbara, I think of a nighttime soap. The old television show, Santa Barbara. It’s actually a show I have never seen and know nothing about. But it seems like “Santa Barbara” was always used by us, as kids, teens, and young adults, as a way to describe a sappy serial. That, and “Like the sands of the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.” But I’m here now, and Santa Barbara is not a soap opera. It is a paradise.
Tonight, I have a book party and reading at Coninichi’s—a Santa Barbara shop, art gallery, vintage clothing store, and hangout. It’s got a great, hippy feel to it, and it is a comfortable place to have a reading, signing, and celebration of my book. Another social networking friend was kind enough to turn me on to Gina’s establishment, and when I arrive, Gina is ready with a keg of beer and case of wine on ice. Gina and her staff are kind and seem happy to have me. I bring in some wine, chips, and cheese I picked up on my way into town at a local market, but they pale next to the local brew keg (Great White) and chilled white wine she already has out.
There’s a nice little crowd here, and when it comes time to start reading, the conversation lulls to silence. I sit at a desk and read to the crowd, seated and standing in comfortable chairs and couches, leaning on bookshelves and counters. I select two stories to read. To start us off, and in between readings, resident singer/songwriter Nate Lane performs his music.
One of his songs, 70 Miles per Hour, is about a personal experience he had not too long ago. He lost his house and everything in it due to wildfires in the Santa Barbara area. It is a moving song.
I find these sorts of connections interesting. My friend Bryan and I haven’t talked much at all in the past 15 years or so. But when I stopped in our old neighborhood and school, I shared some posts on Facebook and he replied to them. We were connecting in a way we hadn’t in many years. At the same time I was outside his old boyhood home, he was evacuated from his current home in Colorado Springs due to wildfires that came only blocks away from his home. And now, Nate Lane is singing about his own experience of loss due to a wildfire. It’s almost as if I was meant to be here.
After the reading and music, the party goes on, inside the shop and in the back courtyard. I meet a lot of interesting locals, many of them transplants from other places. One such person, Hubert, comes from Poland and talks about the loss of his American Dream—the dream of he and his wife coming to America to live a good life, which has not happened—and he talks about how meaningful an event like this one is for him.
“I find that in America, most people who want to talk want to talk about shit. Who won last night on Dancing with the Stars? Who had the most talent on America’s Got Talent. This …” He opens his arms and hovers at the waist, as though showcasing our event and the people here … “is the intelligencia.”
We—and many others—talk about America and other countries, talk about art and music and writing, talk about life and place. It is a fun evening, and a great reception.
The friend who hooked me up with Gina—Mariana—and her husband are in the audience. It’s a pleasure to meet another friend—someone who actually read a few chapters from Tracks a few versions before publication, back when it was a semi-finalist in a social media contest dubbed “American Idol for Writers.” We’ve known each other online for about six years. Now, we meet for the first time, face to face.
Some people see social media as an escape, and it can certainly be that. But it can also be an entrance, a bridge builder, a connection. And it can lead to meetings like this one—of old friends who have never met in person, of new friends who may never otherwise have met, of artists and authors and musicians sharing a mutual love, and of people still searching for the American dream.
Montecito, California, just outside Santa Barbara, is practically paradise. Today (and from what I am told, virtually every day) it is sunny and bright, not a cloud in the deep blue sky. Palm trees decorate the parking lot, and a cool breeze sweeps across the front of the bookstore where I am sitting in a high-back chair before a table of books. I’m about to begin the final book event of my west coast tour for Tracks: A Novel in Stories. Tecolote Books in Montecito was kind enough to host me.
Before the event begins, Mary introduces me to the local “entertainment and celebrity” beat reporter, Richard Mineards. He’s here to interview me for his weekly column in Montecito Journal. He once covered the Royal Family for Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. Now he’s here in paradise to cover me—believe it or not.
After our chat, it’s time for the book event to begin.
Who is the first guest to arrive? Thomas Steinbeck!
It’s no surprise, really, since it was Mr. Steinbeck and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck who helped me to set up this event and helped promote it. But as he walks up the sidewalk, it is a surprise just the same. His appearance is like a pinch on the arm, assuring me that I have not imagined or embellished what is happening here. I am meeting Thomas Steinbeck, and what’s more, he’s actually attending my book event.
“Eric Goodman,” he says as he walks toward me, extending his hand for a robust shake, “great to see you!” His energy speaks as loud as his words and he looks sincerely happy to be here.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say. And it is. Not only because his father, John Steinbeck, is my all-time favorite author. But because Thomas Steinbeck is an accomplished author in his own right, a writer who did not rest on his father’s laurels but found his own way to literary success.
“No, the honor is mine,” he says. “I love your book.”
“That means a lot, coming from you.”
Thomas Steinbeck looks a lot like his father; at 67, he has already outlived the senior Steinbeck and shows no signs of slowing down. He is full of energy now, which is good since he turns out to be an extremely entertaining conversationalist. He looks through blue-tinted glasses but seems to maintain a rose-tinted outlook with his laughter and good cheer, bringing smiles to the faces of those present. His brush mustache is parted in the middle and swooshes out to each side. “Someone gave me some mustache wax as a gift, so I’ve been trying it out.”
Anyone who has read his debut collection of fiction, Down to a Soundless Sea, or either of his subsequent novels, In the Shadow of the Cypress and The Silver Lotus, knows that Thomas Steinbeck has inherited his father’s talent as a storyteller. But Thom Steinbeck is that rare author whose talents translate orally. He tells wonderful vignettes stories about events in his life, but he politely brings the conversation back to me and my novel, talking about details from my book that I’m surprised he remembers. This event that he helped to set up is to promote my book, but there can be no question that he is the star of the show—and likely the star of any social he attends. He is “on,” and we are entertained.
“Growing up with my father, I had to become a good storyteller,” he explains. “When my brother and I came to the dinner table, my father expected us to come with stories. And we had to do our research, because if we got a detail wrong or made something up that didn’t work, he’d be sure to let us know. We wanted to please him with good stories, so we learned to become good storytellers.” Practice makes perfect.
I’ve been to a number of events with multiple authors involved, and it’s a common courtesy to plug the other guy’s book. But Mr. Steinbeck flatters me by continuing to praise Tracks as new guests arrive. His books are not on the table, since it’s not his event, but I continue to point out that his books are excellent, and available in the bookstore. But he replies with, “No, your book is the one to get. It’s nice to find someone who does what you do even better.”
That is not true, of course. But it’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is. He enjoyed my book and wants to help it succeed.
You may think that I came to know Thomas Steinbeck’s work through his father’s work. Even I was thinking so as I prepared to meet him in person. But when I thought back and tried to remember the first time I heard about Thomas Steinbeck, I realized it was quite an accident, and through his literary agent.
Years ago, out of the blue, I received an email from a literary agent seeking new talent. Elizabeth Winick had read a short story of mine that had won an award, and she wanted to know whether I had a completed book for her to consider. At the time, I had a rough draft of Tracks, but I didn’t feel it was quite up to snuff. I told her I would have a polished draft to her within six months.
I’m not superstitious, but a little bit of research led me to believe this agent and I had a relationship set in the stars. Winick’s agency, Macintosh and Otis, was the literary agency of John Steinbeck—and still represented his work. Even closer to home, Elizabeth Winick herself was the agent of Thomas Steinbeck. And he had written a collection of short stories. Out of this agent-author connection, an unexpected new reader-author relationship was born.
By the time I had a completed draft of Tracks ready to send to the agent, she was no longer interested in seeing it. I never got a reason why, and she did not read the manuscript. I assume she had a slot to fill with new talent and had already filled it. Or maybe she read something else I’d gotten published that turned her off. Whatever the reason, good things came of that exchange; I may not have gotten a book deal or an agent then and there, but I had a closer-to-complete draft of my own novel in stories, and I had become acquainted with the writings of Thomas Steinbeck. That was around 2007.
Five years later, I’m face to face with Mr. Steinbeck, telling him how much I like his work as he continues to talk about how much he likes mine.
“My father used to write novel-plays,” he explained. “Essentially, they could be read as novels, but they were more or less dialogue and tag-line ready to use as a script. The stories in your book are a lot like that. You have the same knack for dialogue. It’s great how you let people in to know your characters. It’s easy to understand them.”
Wait. Did Thomas Steinbeck just compare my work to his father’s? This comparison is not rooted in reality, of course. That’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is, making the “guest of honor” feel a little more worthy of the designation. And I appreciate it.
As our wine consumption evolves from sip to drink to gulp, he continues. “Novels don’t usually translate well into scripts. You can only take part of a novel and fit that one part into a movie. Short stories make much better movies. Some of the stories in Tracks would translate well to screen.”
The same is true of his own debut work of fiction, Down to a Soundless Sea, a collection of stories that he wrote to fulfill an obligation to his friend, hotelier Michael Freed. The stories are set against the beautiful backdrop of Big Sur, California. Published by Random House to excellent reviews, it has been translated into seven languages, a large print edition, and an audiobook. Hopefully some of his stories will see their way to screen before long.
It isn’t just me and Thom Steinbeck here. Other people come and go. A local artist, Ben. Another local author and peace activist, Paul Chappelle. An old friend of mine Manisha—and her family—who just happen to be in Santa Barbara (from Boston) for a week. The fine people of Tecolote. And others. But throughout the event, Mr. Steinbeck continues to entertain with his anecdotes as he tells people about his life experiences, and my book.
“When Tracks came, Gail read it in one day.” Gail is Thom’s wife and booking agent. “She loved it, and she told me I had to read it. For weeks she kept telling me I needed to read it, that I was going to like it. I was busy and up against deadlines, so I kept putting it off. Until finally, she left it on my bedside table. She knew that would do the trick. One night, around 9 o’clock, I picked it up. Figured I’d read a little before bed. Around six in the morning, I was still reading. It was that good.”
We talk a lot about writing, and a bit about his father. Here’s a bit of advice I’ve never heard before. “My father used to tell me that you should never sit down to create a story. You sit down to write a story, but the creation of it comes before you ever begin to write. You don’t create at the desk. You need to dream the entire story first, from beginning to end.”
“I’d be afraid to forget some of the details,” I say with some resistance.
“That’s the point,” he explains. “The details you forget is the shit you should leave out anyway. The good parts, the important parts … that, you remember.”
I think it over. “That makes sense.”
“And if you’ve dreamed your story over and over, you really know it. You know it frontwards and backwards, know the characters, could answer any questions about any detail. If you really know the story, you’ll be better at telling it. At writing it.”
Thomas Steinbeck didn’t only talk about writing. He is also an active proponent of authors’ and artists’ rights. And, a combat veteran himself, he is a supporter of the Wounded Warriors Project and encourages others to look after the interest and needs of those who have sacrificed so much on their country’s behalf. In fact, he and author Paul Chapelle are working together on a project for veterans.
When the subject of book reviews came up, Thomas Steinbeck related something his father said about book reviewers: “Unless the bastards have the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore them.”
Thomas Steinbeck writes scripts, articles, and is working on more than one new book, among other things. But in his spare time, he enjoys sailing and making miniatures for his nieces, nephews, and neighborhood kids.
His favorite pastime is reading. And his father was instrumental in this pursuit, as well.
“In his library, my father had locking bookshelves. That’s where he’d put books he wanted me and my brother to read. He’d make a show of locking them up and hiding the key where he knew we could find it. And he’d tell us that the books in that shelf were for adults only, not for boys. Naturally, that encouraged us to read them.”
That love of reading is still strong, even though it is no longer a forbidden fruit. And I’m grateful for that, because it was his love of reading that eventually put us together at Tecolote Books.
But all good things must come to an end, and so does this book event. Billed as an hour-long affair, we’ve been talking over wine and books for nearly three. And if he didn’t have another engagement scheduled, I’m sure we could talk hours more.
LA and Out
The next day, I’m back where my Californian adventure began, in Los Angeles. I only have a little time to kill—I have an evening flight out of LAX—so I look up my old friend Yuki. She, her husband Nathan, and their daughter Alice, invite me over for brunch. Nathan is cooking his Dutch Puff and Yuki is making her Japanese sticky rice balls.
Both are delicious. But even more savory is catching up with them. Yuki and I went to college together in Ohio. She is from Japan (where I once lived) and now lives with her husband, an actor, in LA.
Yuki and I talk about Steinbeck and my readings, about her work and our families. It is a short visit, but a good one.
I’m sad to return my rental. I want to stay Focused, to have more time to drive across California. But I have a family and work waiting for me in Baltimore. And as much as I’ve enjoyed my time on the west coast, I miss my home and family. Even my work writing.
And it is now that I learn something for myself that others have said before but I’d paid no heed. Avoid LAX like the plague. The ease and convenience of LAX reminds me of my experience in Moscow’s international airport circa 1994, right after perestroika: enormous lines for foreigners, guards pointing us along with machine guns, cut-up USSR letterhead in the bathroom stalls for toilet paper and tissue, angry-faced passport guards blowing smoke in our faces while pounding massive stamps violently on our passports.
So LAX may not be so bad. But it was bad enough. Last time I flew in and out of LA, I used the Bob Hope airport in Burbank. By comparison, it was almost like a country airport: easy, empty, comfortable. Bob Hope in Burbank is an experience as enjoyable as the man was funny.
Next time I travel to the area, I’d be willing to pay a little extra to avoid this place. Note to self: LAX SUX!
But maybe they were just having a bad day. Because everything else about California has been Bob Hope in Burbank.
It’s been a few days and I’m back home in Baltimore’s 100 degree humidity. There has been a huge, unexpected storm and the power is out. I long for my two weeks in California as I look for a cool spot in the basement.
Not only have I left behind the comfort of 70 and 80 degree weather with sea breezes for humidity in the hundreds, but I’ve done so with no electric or air conditioning. It’s a lot to take and has me longing to reconnect with California.
The phone rings. “Hi Eric, it’s Thom. I just wanted to make sure you made it safely back home to your family.”
“Yes,” I say. I’m surprised to get this call. Who, even of my friends, calls when they can just type an email or chimp a text message? But again, that’s just the kind of class act Thomas Steinbeck is. “I kind of wish we were all there in Montecito,” I admit.
“Any time you’re in the area, just let me know.”
For an opportunity to visit the state of my birth, east of Eden, Steinbeck Country, paradise? For the chance to revisit the sights, drive along the coast, watch the sun set over the pacific with a possibility of catching a glimpse of the green flash? To feel the salty breeze on my face and see the brown and green and blue landscapes of mountain meeting valley and beach meeting sea? For the opportunity to chat some more with Thom Steinbeck?
I certainly will.
Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer and editor who loves travel almost as much as he loves reading and writing fiction. His novel in stories, Tracks, was published by Atticus Books (Summer 2011) and won the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It follows a passenger train full of travelers who touch one another in unexpected ways. He’s also the author of, Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. Eric’s work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Pedestal Magazine, Writers Weekly, The Potomac, Barrelhouse, JMWW, Scribble, Slow Trains, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers, among others. His second novel, Womb, is currently with his agent. Visit Eric on Facebook, Twitter, at his literary blog, Writeful, or at www.EricDGoodman.com.