The names came tumbling out of childhood, all those low-slung roadside oases of dipping pools and balconies and rainbow doors: The Vagabond, the Lone Oak, the Sand Dollar and Sea Drift.
When I was a child and my family vacationed in Monterey, our family car would slide down the boulevard of motels and motor inns, creeping past the signs and the flashing lights — the red neon screaming about vacancies and waterbeds and free continental breakfasts. In the backseat, our faces pressed to the glass, my brothers and I would lobby for our favorites.
“That one has a pool!”
“But no HBO.”
“Mom won’t let us watch it anyway!”
“Yeah, but it’s about the principle.”
“What does school have to do with it?”
We’d see a deep, wide pool, and my dad would pull into the turn-around driveway or the cantilevered porte-cochere and half jog to the office while we sat in the car with the motor running, as if we needed to make a fast get-away should his negotiations fail. It was the Internet search of the early ’80s: driving around until you found a place with two kings or queens or a manager who agreed to throw in a cot for free, the smell of gasoline and exhaust and summer heat circling in a haze of anticipation.
On some stops, my dad would return to the car silent and empty-handed, and we’d watch the pool disappear out of the rear window, a beckoning plunge of turquoise lost to a hunt for more neon vacancy signs along the boulevard. On other stops, his stride was slower and we’d take note of the new key in his hand, the bronze instrument tethered to some green triangle with a room number stamped on it, and we’d look around, content in the knowledge that we’d finally arrived.
I remember the tidbits of conversation that drifted over the front seat, curling like a confused fog into the backseat. In those days, it was illegal to eat ice cream while walking around the seaside town of Carmel. The town had actually voted against it. Ice Cream. Something about drips and spills and fat, poky tourists bringing their sticky loitering fingers into the high end shops and spoiling the je ne sais quoi.
The words tumbling over the seat made little sense. Clint Eastwood, the star of my favorite movie — “Where Eagles Dare” — had campaigned for mayor on the basis of repealing the ban. When he won and ice cream was again consumed with abandon, we strolled around in a state of glee and victory, proudly sporting bubble gum-flavored sugar cones and yellow chest pins that said, “Clint for mayor!” Imagine, I remember thinking, just the other day Clint had raided the Castle of the Eagle in the heart of Nazi territory, and here I am with sticky fingers and a face painted in a layer of pink grime. Vacations were magical. (Oddly, the town still outlaws shoes with 2-inch heels unless a permit is obtained from city hall.)
We used to hit golf balls at Spyglass Hill. It was the one thing my dad always wanted to do every vacation: line up his three boys on the driving range, give them a bucket of white balls painted with red stripes and imagine, I suppose, that each shot winging down the range meant we somehow belonged. He never, or rarely, played the real courses, because the greens fees were even then astronomical. So instead we spent a few hours hitting cheap buckets into trees or across paved roads and then had hot dogs at the outdoor grill.
In the times between activity, my dad would look around, as if breathing in a new, imagined life, and say that in just a few years we’d have a house down here, a big one with a pool. In just a few years, he said every summer. New schools, a pool, a life of real golf, not this driving range business, and so many hot dogs you’d get sick. I hated to tell him that I never really liked golf and just sat there in silence, wondering what it would be like to have our own pool. In just a few more years.
Many years later, when it was just my mom and me at home, she indulged my love of Steinbeck and took me down to Cannery Row. We got Cokes on the way and stopped at every Denny’s we could find, telling the waitresses it was my birthday, which it was, or was at least close enough. After a few hours and five Grand Slams later, we arrived at Cannery Row and my head swam while I pointed out where Mack and the boys must have sat, where Doc Rickett’s lab must have been. I was too embarrassed to show her where I thought Dora Flood’s Bear Flag Restaurant and house of ill repute must have once stood, and so instead I kept that one to myself, my hormones quietly raging at the thought of being so close to it.
Later in the day, we went to Carmel for ice cream and high on our real life literary adventure tour, I told her what Steinbeck had said about the place — something about how if the starving writers and painters who founded the place ever returned, they’d probably be picked up for loitering. We laughed and sat watching the sea, just the two of us, and I remember thinking that no matter where I was with her, we somehow always belonged.
We drove into town and I heard the whining from the backseat.
“Is this it? Are we there?”
I tapped the wheel and smiled, thinking, “Just be grateful we don’t have to find a motel, kid.” Instead I pulled into the parking garage and opened the door to stretch my aching back.
“This is it,” I told her, “We’re here.”
Emmeline grabbed her grammy’s hand, and I watched as they walked under one of the old wharf walkways, the kind that used to connect the water and the catch of the day to the processing plants and the stinking sea rot of sardines. The walkway was red and said “Cannery Row” in white letters, and I remembered so many years ago when it was just my mom and me, walking under it together.
We went to the aquarium and marveled at the jelly fish and the sharks, the sea horses and green turtles. Sea dragon dads carry their young in special pouches until the tiny creatures are ready to be on their own.
After lunch, on the way to Carmel, we cruised down the same boulevard with all the motels and motor-inns, the signs tumbling out of childhood. My mom and I pointed out to Emmeline all the places we once stayed. Some signs looked the same, while others appeared newer, the familiar ticky tacky coastal signs now also sporting the logos of distant corporate overlords. I stopped at one point to take a picture and told Emme I remembered swimming in the pool as a young boy.
“Where!?” she asked excitedly.
I pointed again and looked closer, realizing the pool was empty.
“You swam in that?”
In Carmel, Emme and I ran on the beach while my mom sat on a rock bench. We dug our toes into the soft white sand, as smooth and glistening as confectioner’s sugar. We picked among the seaweed bulbs and sprinted down the dunes with our hands stretched out to our sides, pretending to fly along the strand. I caught my breath and watched her frolic and scream and put her hands on her hips and wiggle her body, tossing her head back and laughing, her hair sticky with salt air and sweat. Sunlight framed her for a moment and froze a new memory almost instantaneously, and I hoped in that moment that before she’s ever ready to be on her own, I might yet gift to her a sense of contentedness and belonging no matter where she is.