The book is not the movie. The movie is not real life.
I live in Los Gatos, California. We've had a number of writers from here. Movie stars. Rock musicians. Famous people of all sorts. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio spent their wedding night at The Garden Court Inn. You can stay there, too, if you want. In the same room where that famous couple, in theory, spent that evening blissfully exploring each other's soft parts out of the public eye.
When my brother's mother-in-law from New Jersey came to visit my brother and his wife put her up at The Garden Court Inn. Rented the suite where Joe and Marilyn stayed. They're big movie fans. Now Pete and Helena have stayed there, too. They didn't want to leave. No doubt they've added their names to the list of folks who have copulated under that roof. It's a thing to do, if you're a movie fan and in Los Gatos. It's a thing. It goes on and on and on.
I read The Grapes of Wrath no more than two miles from where it was written. I was able to do that in my own living room, and also my own bedroom because I live pretty close to where John Steinbeck lived when he wrote that book as well as Of Mice and Men. I've no doubt that when John was tearing the soul of Tom Joad out of his own chest he was looking at the same mountain I'm seeing right now. When he invented the idea that Rose of Sharon, having had her child stillborn, would nurse a grown man who was near death from starvation, having starved himself so his son could eat, no doubt when he came up with that idea he was looking at the same mountains I see now out this window. He may have strolled along the sidewalk on Santa Cruz Avenue between chapters, resting his mind, stopping for a cup of coffee or a beer, tipping his hat to fans. And I have walked down that same street and tipped my hat to no one. I've had coffee in some of the same old places. Had beers in the same old bars. My ass may have been on the same seat in the bar that is now Carrie Nation's, where Steinbeck once sat with a mug of suds.
I have driven past his home on Greenwood because my daughter has a friend who lives on that street and I have had to bring the child home on occasion. I am acutely aware of the battle going on between the current owners of the former Steinbeck home, who are now feeling the steel fist of his curse, a force unleashed in the 1930's and sealed by the Nobel committee, that their home at once fashionable because it was listed on the national historic registry, is an albatross that cannot be modified in any way, including to make upgrades to bring it to 21st century standards of insulation and temperature control. They got their story in the local paper, probably hoping the flood of publicity would inure the general public to their position. In fact nothing happened. Nobody rightly cares that what is now a multi-million dollar home can't be retrofitted with A/C because it's a landmark, a Mecca of sorts for a piece of American culture. Anyone living within those walls will experience the environment as Steinbeck did, sweating in the blistering Los Gatos heat, shivering in the rains of winter.
On the other hand, you and a good friend can go to the Garden Court Inn and screw merrily within the same walls that shielded Joe and Marilyn in complete control of the air temperature, and you can have The Sopranos playing on the television while you do it.
We have Mexicans do our lawns here in Los Gatos. There are some Vietnamese, but for the most part, the lawn gardening business is run by a cartel that puts undocumented immigrants to work mowing lawns and clipping hedges. Ernie Reyes Family Gardeners cuts my lawn. I never have. I've met some of the Reyes Family. It's a big family. There are new ones every week and very few of them speak a word of English other than Ernie.
I was walking the dog today and I saw a Mexican banging on the window of a parked car. It was 6:30 in the morning and the first thing that went through my mind was that he was trying to break in.
In California they're trying to pass laws to give illegal immigrants the right to health care and the right to get driver's licenses. I thought about these laws and wondered why I should vote for them. Why should I vote to have the roads filled with uninsured, non-English-speaking motorists? Doesn't the word *illegal* mean illegal? If you're an illegal immigrant, isn't that not legal?
I bet many voters in California follow the same logic I just did, which is why these things don't pass.
The Grapes of Wrath is the saddest book I have ever read in my pitiful, paltry life. I read it and wondered why I should continue living. I have never felt so small, or so low, as reading the plight of the Joads. Sure, I saw the Henry Fonda movie. "I'll be everywhere. Wherever there's a guy getting beat up by a cop, I'll be there."
But the book is not the movie, and neither is real life. The book is so gut-wrenchingly sad it makes me want to scream. How could I have lived my entire life never having read that, or thinking it wasn't worth my time? What would make a guy sitting here in this beautiful place write about such terrible things?
Once my daughter was babysitting for a family down the street. She called home and she was in a panic. A strange man was pounding on the front door. He was looking in all the windows.
I pulled on my shoes and ran to the house and sure enough, there was a ratty white-panel van in front of the house and a short, dark-skinned, Mexican circling the house ominously. While phoning the police on my cell, I walked right up to the guy and asked him what he was doing. At the same time my daughter took the kids and ran past me to my house down the block.
The guy could barely speak English. All he could say was, "Ivy."
I couldn't figure out what he wanted. I looked at his van. It was dented and rusting. The windows were filthy with dust and the windshield almost clear in two half-moons where the wipers had moved to clear a swath through the muck. The tires were nearly bald retreads. The plates were from Baja California. Inside, a young woman sat quietly with two young children amid a bunch of torn up foliage. The little kids were not moving around or talking or crying like little two-year-old kids should do. They were stoic. Absolutely rock silent. They looked like they had been wearing the same clothes for weeks.
The woman looked at me with an expression beaming something between fear and anger. She tried to smile at me. It was an effort for her.
"Can I have little ivy?" the guy said, putting himself between me and his van.
"What ivy are you talking about?" I asked him, and he forced a smile, tried to keep looking pleasant while directing my attention from his family.
"Ivy--" he pointed to the house.
The cops showed up, then. He got very nervous and tried to drive away, but they stopped him. A Spanish speaking cop talked to the guy, and then they came over to me.
"The guy's collecting plants. He thinks he's going to start a gardening business. He's looking for donations."
Basically, he wanted to tear up a little of the ivy from the around the house. They had a lot. Couldn't they spare some?
I told the cops it wasn't my house, so it wasn't mine to give. They hustled the guy away, but not before I saw one of the cops hand the guy some money.
I calmed down my daughter. We never saw the guy or his family or his ratty van from Baja California again. We know he can't find health care in this state so his kids better not get sick here. We know he'd better have insurance. He'd better have a driver's license.
And today I finished The Grapes of Wrath no more than two miles from where Steinbeck wrote it. I live in a million-dollar-plus home in one of the wealthiest communities in this country.
What did I look like to that Mexican who wanted the ivy? Did I look like those fat-assed deputies that beat the Joads? Did I look like the guys who tried to start the fights so the Okies could be rightfully arrested? Did I look like the bastard who beat the strikers with the axehandle? Did I sound like the guys who told them there was work where there was none?
When I read The Grapes of Wrath it annoyed me how much people repeated themselves. They said the same thing over and over, just like they do in real life. They couldn't think past one or two small ideas. Occasionally, they'd have a big idea and they wouldn't have enough words to get it out, so they'd say the same simple thing a couple times as if it could be borne on repetition.
It never ends. I'm looking at these mountains right now, the same ones Steinbeck saw when he condemned Lennie to die at George's hand, the same ones that he saw when Noah walked away into the stream. When Tom killed the guy who murdered the preacher. When Connie left Rose of Sharon in the Government Camp. When they put the stillborn child in the crate and let the flood waters take it. They didn't even know if it was a boy or a girl.
Dear God. Why am I here and that poor man with his wife and kids are wherever they are--probably back in Mexico begging. He was trying to make something of himself. He was using his head. He wasn't a criminal. He was trying to be a father.
Why am I here writing this, and not standing on the corner by Home Depot looking for someone who'll give me a job cleaning their yard or painting their garage for three bucks an hour?
It never ends. It doesn't.