John Steinbeck's name is sacred in my sister's sleepy town, that of a favored son. Though I knew the streets he had raised to American canon instinctually, had even once sat at his desk, I had never reached for his name on a shelf. Finally opening the pages of Tortilla Flat, it was with an eery clarity that Steinbeck's world of bawdy knight-errants, long lost to the trendy shops of Alvarado St, superimposed upon the fog-blurred edges of the Monterey Bay.
When it was light he stirred Big Joe Portagee with his foot. "It is time to go to Danny's house. The day has come." Pilon threw the cross away, for it was no longer needed, and he erased the circle. "Now," he said, "we must make no mark, but we must remember this by trees and rocks." (Steinbeck, 135)
Just off the Cabrillo Highway in Central California, at the mouth of the Old Salinas River, is an abandoned house. It is an uncanny mirror of the house at the center of Tortilla Flat. Set far back from the fishing town's main road – an old craftsmen tucked neatly behind the hulking concrete of the local Chop Shop Salon, which itself has been indefinitely closed for three years running – the residential house was at some point converted to a storefront. Any signage has long since fallen away, its wooden sideboards as dusty as the pockmarked asphalt that barely maps out the shape of a driveway, a front garden grown wild among the weeds. For all the years I have driven down this road (its been almost a decade now), I have never seen movement within the house. Instead, its uncurtained windows stare balefully out at the Pacific, silently watching the watery constellations of squid boats that light the Bay on summer nights.
The lawyer left them at the gate of the second house and climbed into his Ford and stuttered down the hill into Monterey.
In 1935, John Steinbeck's third novel, Tortilla Flat, was published by the New York City publisher Covici-Friede, though its story takes place in the wake of WWI. If there ever was an exact neighborhood the town of Tortilla Flat was based upon (and my money would be on Seaside's flatlands, located just shy of Monterey's tangle of forested ravines), it has long since been consumed by urban sprawl. But, travel north along the coast on State Route One and the highway becomes a rural, two-lane road. For a moment, at the mouth of the Old Salinas River, fisherman's shacks and cracked wood peaks through the heavy fog that perpetually hangs over the bay – the salt-caked remnants of Steinbeck's literary geography. Roughshod trailers huddle between overgrown fields and derelict boats loom out of tall grass. At twilight, the dirt roads are lit by the electric glow of Monterey's distant boulevards. Here, the shadow of Steinbeck's paisanos flicker at the street corners; Danny and his friends breathe almost as easily as the men whose laughs trail fog from the rusted cabs of pick-up trucks that run up and down the highway without end.
This is the story of Danny and of Danny's friends and of Danny's house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny's house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny's house you are understood to mean a unit of which parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny's house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny's friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. (Steinbeck, 9)
Written by J. Castro Viera