Posts Tagged ‘Monterey’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

East of Eden

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

for East of Eden

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that sixty years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.

Uncle David

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2013)

My uncle David Walton died in China on March 8 at the ripe old age of eighty-seven, just a week ago as I write this, yet I have already received an email with photographs from the lovely memorial service that was held for him in Xichang where David lived and taught English for the last several years, his Xichang friends and students in attendance. And that memorial service email was just one of many I have received so far along with several phone calls from a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people who knew and loved David.

David was the youngest of three brothers, my father Charles the eldest, Robert in the middle. They grew up in Beverly Hills, their father a bookkeeper for movie stars and people who needed a bookkeeper, his most famous client Hedy Lamarr. The child movie star Jackie Cooper lived down the street and the Walton boys attended one of Jackie’s birthday parties when David was very young. The brothers graduated from Beverly Hills High, where my father met my mother, and David went to MIT, as did Robert, the alma mater of their father, while my dad broke with family tradition and went to UCLA after which he attended medical school in San Francisco.

Upon graduating from MIT, David returned to Los Angeles and went to work for his father as a bookkeeper for some years, and when his father semi-retired in the early 1950’s, David relocated with his parents and brother Robert, who was by then severely disabled, to Carmel and Monterey, which is when my firsthand memories of Uncle David begin.

David was a handsome man, graceful and charming. In middle and old age he resembled the actor Alec Guinness to such a remarkable degree that after the first Star Wars movie came out, people frequently approached him thinking he was Obi-Wan Kenobi. I know this to be true because I was with David on two occasions when he was waylaid by star-struck people wanting Obi-Wan’s autograph.

David wore the same outfit every day of his life starting when he was in his early twenties. Unless he was backpacking in his beloved Sierras, he wore black shoes, black socks, black slacks, white dress shirt, bow tie, and black dinner jacket. In the privacy of his home he liked to wear a silk bathrobe. His bow tie was most often black, but occasionally plaid, the plaid of the Ross clan, which Uncle Bob discovered was a big part of our Scottish lineage. David told me that wearing the same clothes every day—his uniform as he called it—saved him time and trouble and money, made his suitcase light, and fulfilled his vision of himself as a kind of butler-at-large.

A butler? Yes. David told me that when he was eleven, circa 1937, he saw the movie My Man Godfrey, and thereafter knew who and what he wanted to be. The movie is a zany comedy starring the charismatic William Powell as a derelict who becomes a butler in the home of a wealthy and highly dysfunctional family, the female lead played by Carole Lombard. David told me that William Powell’s character Godfrey, the confidante and indispensable aide to everyone in the family, became David’s ideal for the kind of person he wanted to be; and to a remarkable degree David’s life reflected his adherence to the role of an indispensable servant, in butler’s dress no less.

In Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, the young hero is known to his admirers as Little Friend of All the World, and that, too, describes Uncle David, for he had legions of friends around the world, many of them falling under his spell while being served by him in one or another of the famous eateries he opened in Monterey, first in the 1950’s and then again in the 1980’s.

The first place David opened (circa 1955) was a coffee house, the Sancho Panza, in downtown Monterey when Monterey was a still a sleepy little town and Cannery Row was boarded up and abandoned. Sancho Panza, you will recall, was the loyal servant to Don Quixote, and David was the loyal servant to the public that came to hang out in that now mythic café for the decade when it was a cultural epicenter for artists and renegades and sophisticates and regular folk of Monterey and Carmel and Pacific Grove, as well as a wonderful surprise for tourists and travelers from far and wide.

The Sancho Panza, according to David, was home to the second genuine Italian espresso coffee machine on the entire west coast of North America when he first opened his doors, the first such machine being in Caffé Trieste in North Beach, the founders of that famous coffee joint being David’s friends and through whom David got his machine. Henry Miller, Joan Baez, Alan Watts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Bob Dylan were among the many writers and artists and musicians who frequented the Sancho Panza, the coffee drinks legendary, as were the fruit frappes David concocted to go with yummy comestibles.

David would eventually open a little bookstore upstairs over the café, and in the early 1960’s David opened his second establishment The Palace on Cannery Row, which was one of the earliest sparks leading to the revival of that now aquarium-centric hot spot. The Palace was a beer and sandwich joint with a stage for live performers, and I regret I never got to experience The Palace in full swing. The Sancho Panza, on the other hand, was the highlight of our trips to visit my grandparents, and I would always have a peach or banana frappe and a cookie while hanging on Uncle David’s every word.

And while he was running the Sancho Panza and The Palace and performing in local theatre productions, David continued to be his brother Bob’s main caretaker, Bob having been paralyzed on the entire right side of his body as the result of a terrible car accident when he was in his mid-twenties. David was also a daily visitor to his parents’ house just up the hill from his café, his mother and father staunch Republicans and proud members of the John Birch Society, while the lefties and lesbians and Buddhists and artists gathered at the Sancho Panza to drink cappuccinos and revel in the Bohemian joint that David built.

Then in 1966, much to the shock and dismay of his many friends and followers, David announced he was selling both the Sancho Panza and The Palace and going to Vietnam to open USO clubs for the troops. David’s father, my grandfather, had recently died, and David had settled his mother into a nice apartment he shared with her on the beach in Monterey, and he arranged for people to do for Bob what he had been doing for Bob, and off he went to Vietnam.

“When I got off the jet in Saigon,” David told me, “and I was being driven to the site of the first club I opened, I felt deep in my bones I’m home. I’m finally home.” He came to realize that this feeling of being home was not so much about Vietnam as it was about Asia, for after a few years in Vietnam, David moved to Thailand and lived in and around Bangkok for many years. He came back to America fairly often to check on Bob and visit his many friends, but he was committed to living in Thailand where he was planning to build a retirement community and open a restaurant on an island owned by wealthy Thai friends.

I am, believe me, skating over the surface of David’s life, much of it unknown to me. When in 1978, I published my first novel Inside Moves, I let David know that Doubleday was throwing a publication party for me in Manhattan, and David sent me a roster of a dozen of his New York City friends he wanted me to invite. I did invite them and they all came out of loyalty to David, among them corporate executives, college professors, and penniless poets. One of the wealthy executives bought a dozen copies of my book and said as I signed them, “It is a great honor to meet the nephew of David Walton.”

“How do you know David?” I asked him.

“We go way back,” he said, winking mysteriously. “He’s a great man. One of the greatest.”

Then in 1984, just as David was about to open a Thai-American restaurant in Thailand, a friend called and offered him a restaurant location across the street from the brand new Monterey Bay Aquarium, and as David told me, “I couldn’t pass up the chance, so I brought my crew from Thailand and we opened the Beau Thai.” And that restaurant, known as David Walton’s Beau Thai, was soon famous and adored by locals as well as tourists, and David settled back into life in Monterey in his little beachside apartment, which he shared with two and sometimes three folks from Thailand.

No matter the season, David would take a daily plunge in frigid Monterey Bay before donning his uniform and heading off to the Beau Thai. Sadly, at the zenith of the Beau Thai’s popularity, tax trouble forced David to close the place, after which he returned to Thailand where he became entranced with the idea of moving to China, which he eventually did. David’s first home in China was an apartment in the enormous city of Chengdu where he lived for some years before moving to Xichang in the foothills of the Himalayas where he swam in Lake Qionghai, taught English to eager students (though he spoke no Chinese) and lived quite happily until he died. His sole income was from a pittance, less than eight hundred dollars a month, from Social Security, “Which is more than enough,” David told me, “to live quite well in Xichang.”

“I will cross over on my ninetieth birthday,” he said to me on several occasions, and though he died three years shy of ninety, knowing David as I do, I would not be surprised if he waits to cross over entirely until another three years have gone by, which would be fine with me because he was a wonderful spirit, a vibrant fun-loving soul who always encouraged me on my less traveled path, which was a great boon to me.

I have barely scratched the surface of David’s life in this telling, and I have at least a hundred good stories to tell about David, but that is nothing to the thousands, nay, tens of thousands of stories his many friends could tell about him, which supports my lifelong suspicion that there must have been more than one of this astounding fellow.

Here is one very telling story about David. When he was a young man, he drove up from Monterey in his famous yellow convertible Volkswagen bug to visit relatives in Oakland, and stopped at a florist’s shop to get flowers to bring to his cousins. He entered the shop to find the owners, a middle-aged couple, in crisis because their delivery person had suddenly walked off the job. Without a moment’s hesitation, David said, “I will be happy to deliver flowers for you,” which he did for the rest of that day and the next. He became fast friends with the couple, visited them many times over the ensuing years, they came to the Sancho Panza when in Monterey, and when the woman’s husband died, David helped the woman move to a commodious trailer on a lot in Vallejo, a lot and trailer, along with all the woman’s earthly possessions, that David inherited when she died.

David told me that story when I visited him in a tree house he’d built in a gigantic old pine tree in Pacific Grove on the property of a good friend. The tree house was full of books and things he’d inherited from his parents and various folks who loved him along his way.

“Take anything you want,” he said to me. “I’m not attached to any of it. But do let me have a look at what you take before you go and I’ll tell you the story behind it.”