When I reached California in 1977, I was a refugee from communist-ruled Poland. “Go to a place where the oranges grow,” my mother had said and I listened. I struggled hard to reach it. In fact, my mother meant Israel, but I came across “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, picturing the struggle of another refugee, Tom Joad, hoping to reach the Paradise where the oranges grew, California. John Steinbeck had become my god, and “The Grapes of Wrath” my Book of Exodus.
I assumed Steinbeck lived in a great metropolis like Los Angeles or San Francisco. My ignorance deepened as no one I met ever dropped Steinbeck’s name. No one I met ever talked “Of Mice and Men” or “Cannery Row.” I saw none of Steinbeck’s photos displayed anywhere. I wondered, why? He was a prophet, as far as I was concerned.
Crazy thing, I stumbled upon Steinbeck blindly. I applied for a teaching job at the Defense Language Institute – Foreign Language Center in Monterey, and I drove down the coast into a rural area. I had no idea I was actually entering “Steinbeck Country.” I rented a “tortilla flat” at 100 Hawthorne Street, and walked along the waterfront towards the Fisherman’s Wharf, and then the other way, towards Pacific Grove, a notebook in hand, looking for a café to sit down and write.
Suddenly, I saw a street sign reading, “Cannery Row.” What a shock! The Cannery Row, the famous Cannery Row, was right here. I saw old sardine canneries, their roofs caved in, trees growing inside – nothing like what you’d see in the movies. The “Steinbeck Revival” was still ahead, and Oprah Winfrey had not waved her copy of the “East of Eden” at her cheering audience yet.
I glanced inside a grocery shop that looked just like the one Steinbeck described as “a miracle of supply,” half expecting to see the shopkeeper, Lee Chong; and then, I came across a gnarled cypress, likely the very same cypress Steinbeck and Mack met under. Finally, I saw a wooden structure marked “Pacific Biological.” It was “Doc” Ricketts’ Lab, another real place from Steinbeck’s fiction. As I looked, a burly man staggered down the stairs. I was alarmed. His receding hairline? Very Steinbeck. His mustache? Totally Steinbeck. His pronounced belly? Well, was he John Steinbeck?
I ran to a bookstore and hit the biographies shelf to find out where John Steinbeck really lived. A shock, again! Steinbeck was dead. He died in New York, banned from his Steinbeck Country. You’d think the sweet-smelling country of grapes and oranges would adore her native son. No way. Steinbeck joined the striking field labor. He prophesied, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage,” envisioning the unions. As a result, “The Grapes of Wrath” was called a “libel,” a “lie,” and “obscene in the extreme.” The haves hated Steinbeck’s guts. They drove him out of town. Now, I knew for sure. It wasn’t John Steinbeck that I saw. It was a ghost.
The next day, I drove to Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown, and visited his family home, well-preserved and open to visitors at 132 Central Avenue. Then, I visited his grave. I was tipped that Steinbeck’s ashes were brought into the cemetery in secret. I sat down at the Cherry Bean Coffeehouse and looked at the Bank of America across the street, the former location of the Salinas Public Library. That’s where a group of men had grabbed an armful of Steinbeck books, dropped them on the sidewalk in a pile and burned them.