Brushing Against Steinbeck

Bill Burkett
10 min readMar 26, 2023
Steinbeck. Encyclopedia Britannica

I was in the fifth grade the winter my grandmother and mother took my brother and me out of Georgia school to go live in St. Augustine, Fla, and look for a house to buy. We rented an apartment on Oneida Street, a few blocks from where the shrimp boats docked. I took one look at the St. Augustine grade school and pitched a fit: no way was I going to be enrolled! And I got away with it. So my two-month stay in the nation’s oldest city was school-free.

But not without education: The Fountain of Youth, Lightner Museum, Castillo de San Marcos, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Oldest Schoolhouse, Potter’s Wax Museum — we saw it all. My mother, a life-long long calorie counter, liked the tale of imprisoned Indians who starved themselves skinny enough to slip through firing slits in the fort’s coquina walls and escape. I inhaled a lot of history, some of it odd, in the museums, surprised armor big enough for famous knights was about my size.

There were other things to learn. Our apartment was on the second floor. The bathroom was down one flight of stairs. Another flight led to the outside door. The landlady lived below us. My grandmother complained when the oil heater wouldn’t work and she came up to unclog its burner, complaining previous kids burning stuff had clogged it. My grandmother fished in the boiler with a fire poker and produced twisted half-melted condoms — I thought they were toy balloons — and said sarcastically:“Kids didn’t do this.” She explained what they were later, another fragment of sex data. I loved watching the shrimp boats come home up the cut, and years later Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou evoked powerful nostalgia.

But this really is about John Steinbeck. I read “Of Mice and Men,” mostly sitting in the bathroom. Steinbeck’s story seared my brain with poor simple Lenny, led fatally astray by a seductive woman. My grandmother used Lenny as a teaching moment, warning darkly that could be my fate if scheming females ever got hold of me. I didn’t read a lot of Steinbeck after that — Westerns were my preferred books — but I never forgot. Eventually I read about Cannery Row and Doc, and Mack and the Boys, and liked the stories.

History says Steinbeck wrote a series of Dust Bowl fiction, set among “common people” during the Great Depression. Of Mice and Men was one. I don’t recall reading The Grapes of Wrath, saw the movie and hated it: the good guys didn’t win. Didn’t read In Dubious Battle until I was myself in California, and involved in “the union movement” as they called themselves. I’ll get to that.

Steinbeck also wrote a non-fiction series called The Harvest Gypsies for the San Francisco News about the plight of the migrant worker. Something I knew little about until a Washington press conference in which the AFL-CIO presented a large check to Cesar Chavez to help his union organizers fight Teamsters in the California lettuce fields. (My union assigned me to Florida at first, where I introduced my Washington boss to my sister-in-law, a state civil servant in Tallahassee. At lunch he grumbled at the server and sent the salad back because of the lettuce, an un-Southern breach of courtesy I found distasteful; the waitress wasn’t at fault.

Before very long after that lunch I was in California. From a book of mine:

LA before the Christmas break — The almost-mandatory Area Director’s Monday-lunch meeting was at the Irish Castle, a favorite because its workers were unionized. The AD wanted a debrief on organizers’ Beverly Hills social foray among the wealthy. Like an idiot, when it was my turn I told the group about the teenage beauty-queen.

“All the way to Riverside from Beverly Hills in the middle of the night,” the AD summarized with an evil smirk, “and didn’t get laid. Hell — laid? Didn’t even get kissed.” And cackled like the rust-belt union goon he once was, terrorizing authorities at Ohio tire-manufacturing plants before moving to the public-employee union. Before I could think I said, “I did too get kissed!” The assembled organizers roared with laughter.

Giselle had loaned me a Steinbeck novel about labor unions, “In Dubious Battle.” Steinbeck had nailed what life was like inside a union. It felt as if I had stepped into the thirties among his characters.

Ah, Giselle. She was always around. I was always aware of her. When a big happy-go-lucky Hawaiian from the Honolulu local came to town for the white-collar unit, the AD gave him the same pitch he gave me about getting lucky with her. He made a big play right in the office and she shot him down with ill-disguised contempt. He laughed it off, vanished in the city’s Pacific Island community with employees he was there to organize.

We hand-billed outside Water and Power, of Chinatown notoriety, when workers came in to punch the time clock. To gauge reaction to brochures I produced, I got up before the roosters, if LA had roosters, to visit sanitation yards where organizers tried to distract drivers from their cutthroat and blindingly swift domino games to listen to a union spiel…

Eventually the union lost most of the LA bargaining units to a competing union, SEIU. I was reassigned to Washington to write for the union’s 570,000-circulation union newspaper before I made my escape and moved to the Pacific Northwest to look for newspaper work. I expanded my search down the whole west coast — all the way to Riverside — but did not stop by to see the beauty-queen. The trip brushed up against Steinbeck again.From another story:

We had a nice lunch in San Francisco and walked a bit. I wanted to buy a pipe to commemorate the city, a habit begun in Portland at the suggestion of “Irish.” We found a tobacconist’s. Giselle liked a full-bent Tanganyika meerschaum that was out of my price range. So she bought it for me. Then we headed for the coast.

The first leg of our trip was to a Santa Cruz KOA I found in a tourist brochure. Tag end of July, tourist season in full swing, the campground was full. So we pressed on into Steinbeck country, Salinas, then Monterrey. In a Salinas diner I had the best peach cobbler in my life while we drank good coffee and listened to a couple patch up a quarrel a couple tables away.

In Monterrey we walked in the dark along what purported to be Cannery Row — fresh salt air, but none of the cannery processing stink Steinbeck wrote in his novels. His unlighted bust stood near the waterfront, ghostly in gathering fog. First Ketchum, now Cannery Row — July was my month for following dead authors’ footsteps.

Last year Giselle had loaned me Steinbeck’s book about life in a union, dead accurate. She enjoyed hearing Mack and the Boys from Cannery Row were my Army buddy I.Z.’s favorite Steinbeck characters.

It was getting late. I parked in a shoreline parking lot and we climbed in back to nap for a while. One thing led to another. We were tangled all up in the oversize sleeping bag, going at it, when a huge sound like the crack of doom blew us apart. The truck vibrated. My damn fillings vibrated. The Titan groan was as much felt as heard — and the sound was deafening. Then it quit. My heart was pounding. My ears rang — I could barely hear her asking shakily what the hell…before it thundered forth again. It seemed to take forever to identify the sound.

I had parked next to the damn foghorn.

Mood-killer? I’ll say. Mack and the Boys would have been laughing their asses off. I drove us the hell away from there through the fog. Eventually back to the Salinas diner to drink coffee and settle our nerves. The rest of the night is a blur…

We left for Morro Bay at daybreak. When we got to LA from Morro Bay, it was strangely liberating to park my truck openly in her driveway behind her LTD. Small likelihood people from the local union office would show up. And if they did, so what? The landlady seemed pleased Giselle had a boyfriend, sad to be losing her as a tenant.

While Giselle got on the phone to arrange for someone to move her stuff to storage (while she was in Wisconsin on yet another union crusade) I interviewed at the LA Times with the same luck I had all the way from Portland: none, but a promise to keep my resume on file. They said the strike-crippled LA Hearst paper was probably hiring.

I got as far as parking nearby. Walked down the sidewalk. Viewed the anti-picket barricades and armed hobby cops on patrol, one of whom said I would have to submit to search before being allowed inside. No. I wasn’t that desperate yet. The ghost of my fireman grandfather, an AFL stalwart who affixed his metal union medallion to every license plate until he died, would haunt me. I rationalized my decision with the fact my resume listed the union as my last employer, something editors in the Northwest already didn’t like. And they weren’t even strike-besieged like this Hearst rag…

She and I parted in Sacramento, for the last time we thought, her driving east, me north to my other life in the Evergreen State. Didn’t work out that way in the long run of decades, fortunately.

An ironic footnote in our tale was seeing her briefly in Arizona, driving a U-Haul truck with her sister-in-law back to the Midwest loaded with all the stuff she’d stowed in LA. I was by then working for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, amused when the KOA operator where they were staying got all twitchy when I showed up in a marked Department truck. He’d been up to something. Relax I said, I’m just here to visit. The visit seems ironic, because I had just brushed up against one of her favorite authors, Steinbeck, again. From a story of mine:

December 12,1976 — Today in Phoenix there was a subtle shift in the air and it began to feel like Christmas. It was 70 at midday but the warmth leached out swiftly as the sun made its abrupt plunge toward California. It seems colder than it is. Christmas lights twinkle across the billiard flatness of the darkened Valley of the Sun. Driving Grand Avenue into town, it feels like Christmas. Entering Phoenix, says the outskirts sign, and something about Amigos! One day of rain so far — if you can call it rain; it started at dusk and didn’t go past midnight…

December 15 — Yesterday afternoon I met Jeane Floyd at an orange grove that for nearly twenty years had been a dove roost. There wasn’t a bird to be found — nearby agricultural fields have been turned over to cotton production. He relived dozens of hunts, where hunters intercepted the roost-bound doves in the afternoon.

“Slow days — slow days, mind you — you could count on seeing at least 50 birds, getting 12 or so shots. Good days, literally thousands of birds and the question was getting a limit before you ran out of shells.”

The old clapped-out farm gear parked there must have been the site of many a happy ambuscade. It felt strange beside the orange trees, confronting rolling fields of cotton, a Florida-Georgia miscegenation. Huge mechanical dinosaurs dragged titanic dust clouds past falling-down bracero shacks along Cactus Road. The braceros come no more; the technology that powers those huge picking machines has locked them out of this area as no Border Patrol could.

“They used to come out and watch us shoot, the braceros,” Jeane said. “When we hit one, they would applaud. Sometimes they would bird-dog for us. Sometimes we’d let one of them try a shot, with the doves coming in waves, one right after the other…” All gone now; two doves today — two.

The equipment operators parked their big machines, climbed in their dusty cars and bounced out to the road, headlights gilding hanging dust banks I thought was ground fog my first night in Phoenix. It was just another failed trip for me, but for Jeane a bitter afternoon, wondering where he would ever find shooting so good again….

Did I note the irony of the braceros replaced by the giant machines, and even think of Steinbeck? Probably not. That’s an old man’s retrospective. I was immersed in my fourth — and favorite — career: outdoor journalism. First, at twenty, science-fiction writer. Then newspaper and magazine reporter and editor. Third, “the union movement.” Pushing eighty, with my writing pretty much dried up, I’m glad I kept notes and wrote stories to refresh fallible memory.

Grapes of Wrath internet ”experts” say Steinbeck“shows us how capitalism, an economic system dependent upon consumerism, fails owners and tenants alike. When tenants can’t meet the demands of the consumers, crops in this case, they are unable to pay the owners. The owners, in turn, are unable to pay the banks…For large farmers and banks, the introduction of the tractor is a boon — they are able to work the land far more efficiently, and make much more money from it. For the people who are replaced by technology, however, it represents the end of a way of life, and often an expulsion from their homes….”

My lady-love — aka “Giselle” — and I were talking about Steinbeck the other day, genesis for this walk down memory lane. The quote above recalled the abandoned bracero shacks in Arizona, so I looked up the story. It got me writing again. More or less.



Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.