When John Steinbeck wrote about a gritty and hardscrabble stretch of waterfront in Monterey, CA, he captured the essence of its character. He portrayed a rough-around-the-edges waterfront dominated by sardine canneries, industry, and all the characters and lifestyles that it attracted. Amidst the grit and grime, though, he portrayed a landscape that was so real and true to human character and experience that it became somewhat of a sociological snapshot. In that snapshot, he found a beauty and genuineness in its people and setting—all at the same time: on the fringes, above the fringes, bustling, rusting to its core, declining, and full of life.
Something there reminded me of Foster. At any given point, it could be a gem in need of some polishing; something so piled high with dust and dirt that polishing wasn’t possible; or something that was actually polished perfectly if you looked a little closer. Foster is and has been all of those things.
Here’s how Steinbeck summarized Cannery Row, and perhaps how I’ll leave you all with a loose description of Foster:
“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. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little croweded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”
Substitute whorehouses with strip clubs; flophouses with squats and dilapidated buildings; sardine canneries with auto shops and Rolaway. Sure, the chipped pavement will give way to a tree-lined road active with bikers and pedestrians, but the rust and weedy lots still prevail in stretches. Steinbeck’s hobos and schemers and gamblers aren’t here, but the drunk and stumbling and the new, monied neighbors are. Along with the biker gangs and SUV’s. And the hip and young and old and out-of-luck are, as of now, coexisting. Or, “Everybody,” as he said above. There’s a magic and beauty on Foster, full of snobbery and grime and up-and-coming and down-and-out. And somehow Steinbeck caught it all on Cannery Row.