Old Tennis Shoes at Doc's
"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."
I spent so much time when I was younger trying to get my brothers to think I was cool. Ah, the plight of the little sister. Probably that was the reason I burned through all 1,036 pages of Gone With the Wind when I was nine after Dave had to watch the movie for a class, and definitely it was the reason I became a bona fide Steinbeck fan at twelve, after picking up the copy of Cannery Row that one of my brothers had left lying around. I was instantly addicted. Over the years I've been to Monterey and Cannery Row many times, and Dave and Nathan and I visited the Steinbeck museum in Salinas once. Generally if either Dave or I is in Monterey without the other we call each other from Cannery Row. Dave called me one time so that I could hear the trumpeter playing in the background, swearing that it was Cacahuete. And always we go to the building that used to house Ed Ricketts' laboratory, that was Doc's lab in the books, and we take a picture standing on the stairs out front.
A few weeks ago Nathan and I and Judah were camping in Pismo Beach with the whole Cowell clan. On a whim, Nathan and I decided that Friday was a day to drive up to Monterey and look around a little. I couldn't bear to be so close without going. We got there around noon and headed to our favorite chowda place on Fisherman's Wharf, Old Fisherman's Grotto. We ate chowda in sourdough bowls while Judah tried to tear the joint down, taking breaks now and then to watch the otters and sea lions in the bay. Later on we strolled down Cannery Row, stopping to buy toe socks and browse in the charms shop.
I was going to break tradition. I wasn't going to go all the way down the Row to Doc's, because our time was limited. But tradition won out. As we got close to the building we noticed that the door to the lab, at the top of the flight of stairs, was open. And then two old men came out. We wandered into the souvenir shop next door to wait for the old men to go away. But they didn't. They went to the bottom of the stairs and then stood there smoking for a long time. Finally my mother's genes asserted themselves and I decided to go talk to the men and see if they would mind if we took our picture on the stairs. So I approached them with Nathan and Judah in tow. I asked them, "Do you live here?" Dumb question, I know, but how else was I to start the conversation? One man immediately said yes, and the other said no. The one who said no then laughed at the other. Then one of them said, "Let me tell you about Ed Ricketts." And I replied, "Oh, I know all about Ed Ricketts! That's why we're here!" They were surprised and delighted (I think), and told me that they'd just been having a barbecue in the old lab. And then one of them said, "Would you like to go up and look around?" I thought I was dreaming. Of course I said yes, and they sent us up, instructing us to say that Bill had sent us.
We walked into the lab, and I felt like I was entering a shrine. It was the place I'd read about for years, where Doc sat and thought about the octopi, where he brought women and played "church music," where the infamous parties were thrown, where Doc and Mack talked philosophy. I know it's all fictional, but since Doc was based on Ed Ricketts, I would assume that most of those things really did happen. We walked through the front room and into the back room, where a bar had been set up. A group of older men sat around drinking and talking, and they joked with us when we walked in, as if we were regulars. One of them got up and gave us a tour, taking us out back and showing us the old collecting tanks and the tidepools. Back inside, we explored the two rooms a little more. In the front room a large round table was set up, and the men were getting ready to play some games. Don't know what they were playing, but they were throwing dice and there was a pile of money in the middle of the table. They were loud and friendly and happy, and more than a little drunk. And it was still early in the afternoon. I got the feeling that it was all exactly as Ed Ricketts would have wanted it to be. I half expected him and John Steinbeck to walk in and take their places at the table, with a pint of Old Tennis Shoes, naturally.
We took our pictures on the front stairs as we left. We couldn't believe our luck that day. I still can't. And of course I called Dave to share an experience I knew he'd appreciate. And, I admit, to brag a little.