The scene in front of our car’s windshield seemed a living tableau straight out of a 1930’s Dorothea Lange photograph from the Great Depression.
On that day in late December 2015, I desperately wanted to be a reporter, the kind of brave journalist who goes to the scene of the action and digs deep into the facts of what had happened.
When the day started I had a miserable cold that colored everything I saw in grey, when we first encountered a situation that seemed straight out of the Twilight Zone.
We’d visited the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Driving down the one-way street in front of of the building to park we found only another one-way street coming from our left, thus forcing cars from both streets to enter a parking garage and take a ticket to pay for parking.
Ironically all of the downtown streets in Salinas as we entered it were empty of both cars and people that day.
Against the bitter wind of the coldest day ever in this Northern California winter we made a dash for the giant glass architectural monument devoted to one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. We expected to spend hours inside.
But the cavernous building appeared to be nearly vacant. Only a few people were in sight. The exhibits were straight out the the 1950s, replete with tiny screen black and white TVs playing clips of old movies based on Steinbeck’s books.
On closer inspection of exhibits like the display of wax fruits that my mother and others in my hometown used to put in a bowl on their kitchen tables, it became clear that the main purpose of the museum was to promote Salinas Valley produce growers—the ones who now live in stylish mansions dotted all across this unbelievably lush valley.
There was an unremarkable old film about John Steinbeck. The bookstore was anemic, having only a few major paperback novels by Steinbeck and some tchotchkes to sell. The clerk looked bored out of her mind.
Our biggest find was a pile of old dog-earned 1950’s Steinbeck paperbacks, some of which we’d never heard of before, on a battered wooden table at the far end of the cavernous hall.
We left after only a short stay and went to see Steinbeck’s childhood home a few blocks away. It was now a restaurant, not open to the public that afternoon.
However, Steinbeck’s birthplace occupied a corner lot in a neighborhood of pleasant Victorian-style homes currently owned or rented out to people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. We liked strolling through it.
As we headed back towards the museum to get out of this run-down bleakly depressing town as soon as possible, it was getting late. We’d promptly gotten lost trying to find a shortcut to the highway.
We had just driven around a blind corner onto another one-way street when I felt the car come to a sudden crawl.
We were both stunned. As far as the eye could see this street was covered with homeless men – men of all races and ethnicities, sizes, and ages.
There may have been women too. I don’t know. The street people all wore bulky jackets, blankets or serapes.
If there were children, they must have been inside the tents, or makeshift houses made of blankets, cardboard or scrap metal and wood set up all along the sidewalks.
There was no grass, dirt, shrubs or trees. The sidewalks and street were one paved entity, closely bounded from the two sides by abandoned oddly-tall buildings of the kind built by Chinese immigrants in the past two centuries.
The red and gold paint was long gone, eroded by a century of neglect of those poor bleached wooden structures.
This place, I suddenly realized, was the Soledad Street neighborhood I’d read about at the museum that John Steinbeck had sneaked out and bicycled to as a boy to spend time in.
It was where young John first learned about gambling and about the Chinese men’s lives he depicted so clearly in his books.
I thought, “Why on earth hadn’t the City of Salinas restored this fascinating neighborhood and made it more attractive to tourists and used the proceeds for helping these homeless men?”
In vain I looked for any trace of a soup kitchen that might be feeding all these men who were now clearly living there on the frozen street and sidewalks as we threaded our way through the crowd looking for a way out.
As a young white man in his thirties with the bearing of an ex-military officer, strode across the street in front of our car, I wanted to get out and ask if he was a leader of this community. I wanted to ask him where all these different kinds of men had come from.
And ask each one of the men we passed by why they were on this street on this miserably cold day.
I wanted to express my own outrage on their behalf. I wanted to interview them and to know their stories, and ask if I could take their picture for an article to be published.
But I didn’t. My own fears stopped me. We’d told no one where we were going. We were two older women alone at dusk inching along on the pavement among a crowd of well over 1,000 men we didn’t know. And I didn’t have a smart phone—or the courage of a journalist like Steinbeck.
At home, even among friends, I couldn’t begin to express my feelings about seeing all these men, stiff with cold and hunger, and homeless, abandoned just blocks away from where The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Winter of Our Discontent author was born.
The irony of so many thousands of homeless persons living at Christmastime in such a bleak condition on this narrow street just blocks away from the huge monument constructed in honor of John Steinbeck, the author of The Grapes of Wrath, the classic book on American migrants camps in California was too much to take in.
I feel shame at my silence, but more than that I’m angry at the things I see happening now in my country, long after being promised and believing in a better future when I grew up. Remembering that day in Salinas now in this winter still makes me cry.
But here is what I really want to say. With today’s inauguration, it’s clear that those of us in the majority in this country will need to start doing more things for ourselves and others on our local level.
After protestors prevented city crews from cleaning up the encampment the day before, the Salinas Chinatown homeless encampment we saw last winter was cleared out by police on March 24th, 2016. This was an operation that cost the city almost $200,000 and has been repeated many years in this century.
The mayor of Salinas can be seen in a video complaining that the town has spent over a million and a half dollars to help “these people” off the streets. He blasts critics for focusing on what the city hasn’t done, whines that the resource center and warming center the the city has offered have not been used by homeless people, and insists they are a hazard threatening the city.
This is not the attitude we are going to need for the next four years. It’s not the attitude Albuquerque has taken towards its homeless people—with some success.
Believe me, there is a reason Steinbeck called the Salinas Valley East of Eden. Even in winter this deep valley is the most gorgeous agricultural area I have ever seen in my life, here in California or anywhere else in the United States.
Moreover, Salinas is less than an hour’s drive through scenic countryside from Carmel and Monterey, two gorgeous coastal towns with an aquarium, historical attractions, and scads of expensive shops that bring in hordes of tourists from all over the world each day of the year all year round.
Salinas could become a charming respite from all the frenzied activity on the coast with just a little work on the part of those who live there.
That work has begun. The town is now creating a Revitalization Plan that includes the restoration of its old Chinatown with a Chinatown Cultural Center & Museum, and creation of a new Health Services Centerr for the homeless.
If Salinas really wants to put itself on the map, I suggest it canvass the homes of those wealthy Salinas Valley growers to raise money to modernize the interior of the huge and impressive Steinbeck/grower’s Center.
This Center could offer archival resources of Steinbeck’s life for study; updated films; more about those Steinbeck influenced with his work; along with more books, music, and DVDs for sale; a lot more history about the Valley this author loved, and special exhibits and activities to bring this huge place back to life.
Salinas would need to spend more money advertising the Center and the town’s other attractions too, including not only the Steinbeck’s childhood home but also the old Chinatown nearby.
And for those of us who have read and loved Steinbeck’s books, the town really ought to showcase the lives and the new services the Valley is offering to the homeless migrant farmworkers that Steinbeck loved so dearly and wrote about so poignantly.
These were the people who made Steinbeck’s career as a migrant worker, a reporter, and a writer the valuable contribution to America and inspiration to the world that it was and still is. “These people” should be honored as much as he was.