Steinbeck in Salinas

Not often do I get my picture taken as an author. I have a respectable resume, but usually I am at the working end of the camera. I was in Salinas, California, visiting the Steinbeck Center where executive director Colleen Bailey was overseeing celebrations in honor of author John Steinbeck’s 108th birthday. The center is located on a side street, once a back alley off Main.

The date was February 27. Part of the preparation for this day had been a story writing contest – the winning entry would be read today.

So at 2:00 pm, Colleen stood at the mike reading a piece called “Where is Peace?” written by high school senior Jessica Valdez, who attends Everett Alvarez High School. John Wood is her English teacher.

The story ended.

Jessica stood to receive her certificate. She smiled in response to applause from an audience made up of her family members, friends and schoolmates, including a number of fine-looking young men.

She chatted, a sophisticated debutante, surrounded by admirers, her parents proud, her boyfriends admiring.

After the reading, Jessica entered the exhibition hall where Steinbeck’s books are featured. In one room is a map of the USA showing the route of Travels With Charley. In another is an early tintype of Tortilla Flats in which Steinbeck describes the seedy side of life.

With Jessica were three handsome young escorts. They chatted, as teenagers do, while moving room to room through the hall. I got a shot of Jessica standing in front of a Model T Ford, built circa 1912, a decade after Steinbeck was born.

Back in the lobby I asked her for another picture.
She said yes.

After I took it, she turned the tables and asked to take my picture.
“Why?” I asked.

“Because my teacher is giving us extra credit in English class if we meet an author today,” she explained.

“That’s a change!” I said. We lined up in front of a mural of Steinbeck as the backdrop, she and I and her three good-looking friends.

Steinbeck’s most famous book, Grapes of Wrath published in 1939, is a tale of injustices endured by migrant agricultural workers. Perhaps the ancestors of this young girl were beneficiaries of changes brought about by Steinbeck’s criticism of harsh life endured by Mexicans in the fields of Salinas.

She’s pretty as a picture, but there’s a side of her that’s tough, Teacher Wood said later in an off-to-the-side conversation. Jessica’s story is about street life where gang killings are commonplace. Like Steinbeck, she writes about social disease. “If Steinbeck were alive today,” he said, “he would be writing about young people like Jessica and her friends and the challenges they face.”

Steinbeck’s birthday this day brought to light a young girl emulating author John Steinbeck. She experiences life on the other side of the field and writes about it. My life in the last lane brings unexpected twists. This time it led me to a pretty young girl down a surprising side street.

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