I Lived As Steinbeck for 45 Minutes
By Kat O’Neill
In one serendipitous moment as I am writing a piece about a Steinbeck impersonator my husband comes home and asks, “How would you like to finish your piece where Steinbeck finished his?” Turns out my husband had met Steinbeck’s sister in law, Jean, and when she heard I was a writer she offered me a chance to write like Steinbeck for a day. Well, those were not her exact words. She said I could use his writing studio for a while. So two days later there I am sitting in Steinbeck’s writing studio looking out at the water, trying to channel him for the last paragraph of my story. If he had any ideas he wasn’t sharing. Steinbeck built the studio himself and called it Joyous Garde. There was a director’s chair in front of the built in desk. I pretended it was Steinbeck’s even though the label of “Siege Perilous” was nowhere to be found.
The studio is about the size of a modest bathroom. A modest bathroom with a million dollar view. I wondered if Einstein ever showed up to chat. And if so was a second director’s chair brought in. Supposedly the two were friends, friends who did not have to compete. At the entrance to the studio is a stone welcome mat with the letters A R O V N T chiseled into it. I tried but it was hard to pin down the definition. I think it has something do with entering the gates of hell. Some twenty feet away, on a lush, slightly rolling, hugely inviting lawn hung several hammocks. I lay in one and tried to imagine what Steinbeck thought as he stared up. Did he face east or west? It would be funny if he secured a pricey water view only to face away from it as often as he could. An indifference to what others deemed important. But I decided that he would not spit in the face of beauty so I turned myself around to face west, the cove, the bay, the sunset. I imagined Einstein in the adjacent hammock, his trademark hair blowing in the wind.
There are a lot of things I like about Steinbeck. I like that he went to Stanford for six years and never graduated. I like that he helped buildMadisonSquareGarden. I could see him sitting on a girder eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I like that he liked pirates, made his own mobiles and that he could switch from the hardship of humanity and the moral disintegration of ideals to pithy poodle travels. I like that a man that macho would even give a poodle the time of day. I would be even more impressed if he dressed Charley up in little themed poodle outfits or at least had him don the occasional top hat. I like that Steinbeck dreamed of dogs, that he thought Charley was smarter than him except for the fact that Charley could not drive or do math. Well not in his head anyway. I like that he wanted to be cremated. A very green move I think. I’m saddened that he thought he would not survive his physical death. I’d like to think of him in heaven watching me thinking about him and wishing I’d get the hell out of his hammock.
I like that he liked Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and that his wife, Elaine, came up with the title, Grapes of Wrath. And that he gave her all the credit. I kind of wish he went back to his birth name, Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck. The initials JAG fit him. But I can see how he would prefer an easier handle through life. You would think after WWII the name Adolf would pretty much leave the lexicon but in 1998 there were still 75,000 Adolfs in the German phone book.
I like that Steinbeck’s quotes were so unique, the perfect combination of insight and humor. So many people say so much without saying anything. I wonder if he carried a little notebook with him just in case another pearl spilled out.