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December 7, 2008

Salinas Stories

Well, that was easy.

It was only a matter of hours before the statue in yesterday’s post was correctly identified as John Steinbeck; what will take substantially longer is for me to describe its significance – about both the man, and to the city that shaped him.


To say that the relationship between Steinbeck and the city of Salinas is troubled is an understatement of the highest order. He has been equal parts reviled and praised, hated and adored. Although the pendulum has swung in recent years towards positive regard, a large percentage of locals still feel disdain for the town’s most famous native son.

In fact, it’s no coincidence that people’s comments after the last post suggested that the statue looks like either 1) a notorious dictator, or 2) a grouchy old guy; local legend has it that the sculptors purposely made him look wrinkled and ornery, to reflect the animosity between the writer and the town. (In the sculptors’ defense – have you ever seen a picture of Steinbeck with a carefree smile? By nearly all accounts, the man was definitely a brooder.)

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the city of Salinas has struggled with its own legacy ever since the days of Steinbeck. There’s no better example of the troubles the town has faced, or the difficulty it has encountered in the shadow of its literary giant, than the building that frames his statue: the John Steinbeck Public Library. That’s just part of the tale I hope to tell someday – but honestly, it’s a bigger story than I’m currently equipped to take on.


The saga of Steinbeck and Salinas is one that should be told in books, not blog posts. The author was far and away the city’s most outspoken critic – but he always saw the possibilities amidst the problems; the beauty obscured by the grime. Many of those issues – as well as plenty of new ones - persist today, just as they did when the author walked its streets.

Salinas remains a city that inspires mixed emotions. It’s also the city where I’ve spent the majority of my adult years. It’s where I work, and where I train, and where I ponder the larger meaning of my life in relation to the world around me.

This town has inspired me and infuriated me; it attracts me and it breaks my heart. It has provided for me and left me longing. I’ve spent many years wishing I didn’t have to be a part of Salinas - but when I look back now after more than a decade, I realize that it has shaped me much in the same way it influenced one of my favorite authors.

That’s the story I hope to write someday - that is, if I ever summon up the courage to take the whole thing on.

7 comments:

robtherunner 12/7/08, 4:47 PM  

Another story we'll have to wait for. So many stories to tell, So little time.

Dave 12/7/08, 6:46 PM  

Ok Donald, that is not right! You can't just come in...jot down a few lines to whet the appetite then flee upon the last comment of attempting to conjure the courage "to take on the whole thing." I have always been intrigued by Steinbeck...and now I know somebody that be a teller of tells about this subject. You write well, so let's get this little story started. ;-)

21stCenturyMom 12/7/08, 7:01 PM  

I went to Salinas in the summer of 1976 to see the rodeo. I learned important things that day. I learned that the best Mexican restaurant in the world is in Salinas (Rosy's) if by 'best' we mean diviest and most authentic (you could pretty much smell lard in the air).

I also learned that when a man and his little woman go to the rodeo they wear matching shirts, bolo ties, hats and cowboy boots with their jeans and they walk with their arms around each other's backs and their hand in the other person's pocket.

That is my Salinas. I think yours is a bit richer.

Backofpack 12/8/08, 7:31 AM  

Okay. So. It appears to me that we have a budding novelist on hand! You've got the topic, you have the thoughts, now, now you just start writing. Let's go! I've always wanted to know a famous author - you could be it! In fact, I've always imagined an author asking me to read their proofs - I'll do it for you! You'll fulfill my dream and become famous at the same time.

AKA Alice 12/8/08, 9:22 PM  

Hi Don...I've been stalking your blog for a couple of weeks. I'm not sure how I found it. I think it might have been a link from the Best Endurance Blog.

I spent countless summers in Salinas visiting my grandparents and cousins when I was a kid (I know, summers in Salinas, what a treat! right?) You, like Steinbeck, have captured the dichotomy of the city just perfectly in this post.

Anyway, just had to comment. It's not everyday something reminds me of Salinas and the cold summers I spent there. Small world...

Kim 12/8/08, 9:55 PM  

My grandfather is a native of Salinas and has some fun tales about good ol' John Steinbeck...his red Caddy and many other bits. They're always fun to hear. I never appreciated them when I was younger but now love hearing them. Anyway, my son is currently reading a book "Steinbeck's Ghost" by Lewis Buzbee. It's about a young boy who is trying to save the library and Steinbeck's Ghost is helping him. Or something along those lines. I was going to read it with him but he's moved on instead of waiting for me. I bought it on a whim because the boy used to live on Riker Street and visits places I know well. When we go home for a weekend we've been checking out places from the book...last weekend he was down and saw Steinbeck house (it's next door to my dad's office). He's excited to read it because he can connect...your son may get a kick out of it too.
Her's a quick review...http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/09/NS8113D66A.DTL&feed=rss.books
Anyway, just thought you might find it interesting. Hope you're well!
Kim

angie's pink fuzzy 12/9/08, 7:24 PM  

that was my library; i walked there once a week, every week, and lugged back anywhere from 10-20 books. my dad recently informed me that the library is closed. i cannot fathom this.

i tried to read 'of mice and men' when i was 13, because he was our hometown hero. i hated it. i guess i'm one of the anti-steinbeck people :) although i love to say that he's from my hometown.

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