John Steinbeck is widely considered one of our greatest American writers. I would hope his classic works like “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” for which he won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, are still taught in our high schools. English teachers out there, feel free to e-mail and let me know.
Over the years (with the help of my unofficial Santa Monica historian, Ron Accosta), I’ve researched our fair city’s rich and often notorious history. In so doing, I’ve occasionally thought that if Steinbeck had been born here instead of in California’s Salinas Valley, perhaps “Cannery Row,” and “Tortilla Flat” would have been about the eccentric characters of Santa Monica’s past.
In addition to our beaches and picturesque landscape, Santa Monica of the 1930s and ‘40s was known for gambling ships, brothels and corrupt politicians. (Ah, the good old days.) Also noteworthy, in Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels, many of which became movies, references to “Bay City” were based on Santa Monica.
I moved here in 1975, but by then the gritty side of our town was seemingly replaced by trendy and fashionable. (Neither of which applies to me.) Rents were skyrocketing in Ocean Park, which forced many surfers, artists and other colorful characters to move and be replaced by more affluent renters. Put it this way, suddenly there were more BMWs than VW vans.
Fortunately, some managed to hang on like Matt, “Malibu” Mike, “Name-Drop” Ken, Curtis, “Big” Ron and Gary “the Comedian.” This group frequently hangs out at Starbucks on Main and Hill streets. (Accosta reminds me that in the ‘40s it used to be Silverrnail Drug Store complete with a soda fountain that served Green Lateran Ice Cream.)
These days the group holds court in the chairs outside like a poor man’s Algonquin Round Table. (A very poor man’s.) Drinking coffee and girl watching they can be seen hotly debating the subject de jour that generally encompasses politics, sports and which is better, dark roast or light.
But before I go further, a word or three about the Algonquin. During the “roaring” ‘20s in New York City a group of writers, critics, actors and wits would lunch together daily at the Algonquin Hotel. Their brilliant wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms were often so stinging, however, that they agreed to only leave together lest someone exit early and get ripped to shreds by the rest.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or in this case, Starbucks, I remember when there wasn’t a Starbucks on every corner. In 1991 or thereabouts, when they first opened up here, I recall thinking, “Who in their right mind would pay $2 for a cup of coffee?” (The most expensive latte is $4.45!)
It turns out I was slightly wrong about Starbucks’ fortunes. They have a mere 20,891 stores in 62 countries around the world, including 13,279 in the U.S. (Though some days it seems like they’re all in Santa Monica!) In 2012, Starbucks grossed $13.29 billion, which is a little gross to think we spend that much on coffee. In any event, my prediction of “Who would pay $2 for a cup of coffee,” ranks up there with “Facebook will never catch on.”
Inside Starbucks the smell of fresh-roasted beans is intoxicating and seemingly the place is always buzzing. (All that caffeine.) And at this particular Starbucks there’s always the possibility of a celebrity sighting. Among famous patrons the list includes: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Francis Ford Coppola, Uma Thurman, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Richards (“Kramer”) and my neighbor, veteran actor Seymour Cassel.
Outside, the Algonquin West frequently holds court. This week, artist Curtis Nishiyama excitedly informed the group that he was having an art opening, which, as it happens, is tonight (July 12) down the block at Panini Garden.
Influenced by the Modernist painters, Curtis described his art as “striving to express the deep life force of the human spirit in paintings of verdant primeval landscapes.” Unfortunately, at that very moment, a shapely starlet sauntered by. In response to Curtis’ impassioned plea, the group’s collective yawn was deafening.
So, just as in Steinbeck’s immortal “Cannery Row,” life in Ocean Park goes on. The sun comes up (Starbucks opens at 5 a.m.) and slowly sets over the Pacific. In between, hopes are born, romances flourish and flounder and at Starbucks on Main Street the world’s problems are solved. Unless, of course, a cute girl walks by.
Free to the public, Curtis Nishiyama’s art show is at 7 p.m., Friday, July 12 at Panini Garden café at 2715 Main St., (310) 399-9939. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.